Monday, August 27, 2012

50s Kay Kraftsman Jumbo.... The poor man's J-200

I saw an old amp on Craigslist in Tuscaloosa the other day.  It was a Silvertone 1472 sporting about 10 watts or so and a 12" speaker.  I was heading to Tuscaloosa on business that day so I figured I would inquire about it.  Unfortunately I was about 10 minutes too late.

The seller was very nice and asked what else I was interested in.  I told him I like anything old and made in America.  He said he had an old Kay flat top that had a body made by Gibson.  I thought to myself, "I've heard that before."

The body was not made by Gibson but that didn't matter to me.  This is a mid 1950s Kay (Harmony) Jumbo (actual model? I dunno.  Maybe just Kraftsman).  It was made in Chicago and features a solid Spruce top, solid one piece flame Maple back and veneer sides.  It has 17" wide hips (a regular dreadnought is 16") and has ladder bracing.  It is original save for the Guild bridge added sometime long ago.  It even came with the original Kluson tuners!

I was drawn to this guitar for three reasons: the size, appointments and the FLAME MAPLE BACK!  This is an absolutely beautiful slab of maple.  They didn't even cut it in half and book match it.  It is just one solid piece of sexy Maple.

She came to me in pretty good shape except that the neck was falling out and there was no nut or saddle.  I was very excited to have another neck reset project.  My last one didn't go so well but I learned a lot from it.  You can read all you want about it but there is not substitute for just doing it.  I highly suggest it if you are so inclined and have a suitable subject (ie not Gibson).

This is a dovetail joint.  It requires skilled craftsmanship to make and fit the neck to the guitar at just the right angle.  It takes a lot more time and human attention than a bolt on neck.  Dovetail joints are not easily made by machines.  They are a sign of old world craftsmanship.  Do you own a Taylor?  Your guitar probably does not have one of these.

I was really excited to see no gaps when I was done!  These are crappy cell phone shots.  I forgot to take real pictures.  I didn't want any good evidence in case it went bad.

The wife was kind enough to let me turn the apartment into a repair shop.  It was a mess and still kind of is.  This is a shot of me cutting the me bone nut.  It was my first full nut made from scratch.  I was happy with the result since it was my first try.  I will definitely do some things differently next time.

This is an interesting guitar because it has a 26" scale length.  That is the distance from the saddle (the white piece on the bridge) to the nut (the white piece at the top of the neck).  The standard scale length for a Gibson is 24 3/4" and the standard Martin scale is 25 1/2".  This is significant in both the way it plays and sounds.  A longer scale means that the strings must be tighter in order to sound the note.  This  usually makes for a louder and more difficult to play instrument (on average).  The tighter the string is the more difficult it is to push the string down to the fret.  Needless to say, this thing is a hoss to play and sounds great!

Another interesting feature (or lack thereof) is the absence of a truss rod.  Maybe it was just an attempt to save money.  They accounted for this by making the neck a monster.  It is by far the biggest neck I have ever seen.  It really gives it that 40s and 50s feel.  The neck is straight as an arrow so I guess they called Time's bluff.
I really like the peghead overlay on this one.  They used a celluloid overlay and carved and painted the detail and logo with white and gold paint.  I was talking with a friend about this guitar and he made a good point about how the peghead is very underused and plain on most guitars.  I agreed and thought that this was one of the most beautiful headstocks I have ever seen.  

Enough talk.  Let's pick.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Field Trip: 1957 Fender Vibrolux

A friend of mine called me the other day and said that he had just traded his old drum set for this 1957 Fender Vibrolux:

Needless to say, I was very excited.  Back in school I bought a small collection of vintage Fenders including a 1960 Champ, 1959 Princeton, 1960 Deluxe and a 1964 Vibro Champ.  Pete would come over and we would blues out with me on his Strat (and the Deluxe!) and him on the harmonica with the Champ.  TONE gentlemen, tone.

Until one time I was holding the strat and he had the harp mic in his hand and he tried to show me where on the fretboard I should play.  As he touched the strings and froze I instantly remembered how both of these awesome old tweed amps had the original 2 prong power chord.  "Dude, are you alright?' I said not sure if he was confused or shocked (literally). One second later he jumped back out of his frozen state and reminded himself never to do that again.  Please change the 2 prongs to 3.  Vintage isn't cool if you are dead.
But I did remember how wonderful that deluxe sounded after the tubes warmed up.  Here is a shot of my old tweed Deluxe (gone now along with the others):

That is candle wax from an old recording gig it played

Full shot of Pete's Vibrolux:

 Tweed doesn't always wear very well after this long.  I actually really dig the distressed look of an old amp.  The speaker has been replaced but it still sounded so sweet with my '64 Fender Duo-sonic.  We played a little jam of Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary" with him playing lead on the DS and me playing rhythm on his 1951 Gibson J-50.  Loads of tone.

The Vibrolux's were rated at 10 watts and had a 12" Jensen speaker.  They had 3 instrument inputs and a Depth, Speed, Tone and Volume knob.  They have a variable bias tremolo that really sounds sweet.  This particular unit had a GE 5y3 rectifier tube, a Sylvania 6v6 and an Emerson 6v6 power tubes and unknown 12Ax7 preamp tubes.

Luckily, the original 2 prong chord had been traded for a 3 prong recently.  You can see from this picture that the tweed Fender cabinets were finger jointed pine boxes.  This is a really cool way to join two pieces of wood and allowed for great transfer of tonal energy throughout the entire box.  Plus, it looks awesome.  Fortunately this one shows off it's finger joints!

Here is a video of Chris playing through a brand new Echoplex to the Vibrolux and a new Victoria (tweed bassman).

Saturday, August 11, 2012

1953 Gibson J-45 nicknamed the "Workhorse"

Introducing my favorite guitar ever made- the Gibson J-45.

This guitar came out of the Appalachian foothills of north Georgia.  It had been posted for months along with a 1936 Gibson L-00 and had not sold.  I snatched them both up as soon as I could get in contact with him.  Here is a shot of the L-00 (dorm room photo).

The first J-45s came out in 1942 when Gibson was producing only six models because of the war shortages.  It was a bare bones blues powerhouse that continues to be in production today with no end in sight.  The J-45 is one of Gibson's flagship models that is commonly referred to as "The Workhorse".  They were all made the Jumbo body size with X-bracing using hide glue to keep it all together.  During WWII, many substitutions were made including Maple backs and sides, Mahogany tops and the absence or presence of a truss rod.

This one features a Sitka Spruce top and Honduran Mahogany back, sides and neck.  Both the back and top are two piece, book matched quarter-sawn solid spruce an mahogany.  It has the pre-'55 style 19 fret neck, belly-up drop in saddle and finely scalloped tone bars.

But how does it sound??  With light strings, this one sings with rich, balanced lows and acutely defined highs.  The woody, Americana tone is undeniable when flatpicking chords or playing fingerstyle blues.  The action is medium to low with a little room on the saddle to come down.  The bridge pin holes have been lightly ramped to allow for good break angle over the saddle.

This example has all of the original parts (except for strings!).  The only repairs that done were a couple of reglued loose braces done by Jason Burns of Burns Instrument Repair at Homewood Musical Instrument Co. (Burns Banjos and Repair  Homewood Music).  Jason is an extremely talented open back banjo maker as well as a true-to-the-original repairman.  He used hide glue when regluing the braces.  Other than that, only simple set up work was required.  You can see that the plastic on the original Kluson tuners has gassed and shrunk over the years.  I should put new tuners on there but I really like the way the old ones look.  I am very very careful when tuning and luckily, it never needs much!

These are two pictures of the underside of the top of this guitar.  They show the two braces called "Tone Bars."  These braces have a huge influence on the tone and structural integrity of the guitar.  You may notice the tones bars are "scalloped."  This means they were shaped for strength in one way and tone in the other.  The beginning and end of the bars are tall while the middle is short.  This is where some would say we get in to the "religion" aspect of vintage instruments.  Many boutique luthiers and hand builders shave braces and tap tune their tops to focus the tone towards bass or treble response.  I'll let you be the judge on whether this has a big impact on tone.

One reason I like these old Gibson guitars is because they are very "lightly built."  This one is no exception.  What do I mean by lightly built?  Well, I guess it is a bit hard for me to explain.  It refers to the thinness of the braces and the overall weight of the materials used.  It would be better explained by holding an inspecting two guitars: one pre-1955 Gibson and one recent Epiphone Masterbilt.  Have you ever played a Masterbilt?  I love these guitars but they are heavy as lead!  They have big thick tops, backs and braces.  They are both built with all solid woods however they had two separate goals.  The former, to be the best sounding guitar possible with the materials, techniques and budgets that were available.  The latter, to avoid warrantee costs but also make a guitar out of all solid woods because that term sells guitars.  A lightly built guitar booms with vibrating resonance that you can feel in your gut when you strike an E chord.  A "tank" simply reflects the sound of the barely vibrating top off of the back and out the sound hole.  Maybe it would be better explained if we were sitting down with these two guitars and a glass of cool, straight Tennessee whisky.

Dating a vintage Gibson guitar can often be quite a process.  Someone that looks at these guitars a lot could notice a few indicators of what time period this one came from.  All years are model specific and should be taken with a grain of salt:

1.  Block "Gibson" Logo (1947-current).

2.  19 Fret neck, small "teardrop" pickguard and tall thin and scalloped tone bars (1942-1954)

3.  Upward belly, drop in saddle (1953-1955)

4.  Here's the kicker: the Factory Order Number and letter designation.  From 1952 to 1961 Gibson used the alphabet (backwards) to indicate what year the guitar was produced (only flattops, sometimes).  Why did they go backwards and randomly decide to quit in 1961?  Not sure.  Here is a breakdown of what it looks like through the years: (from the website Vintage Guitars Info)

1952= Z
1953= Y
1954= X
Etc. until 1961

Here are a couple more shots that highlight some cool aspects of this J-45:

Original Kluson keys have shrunk

Beautiful dark grain line in the Brazilian Rosewood fingerboard

This was before they stamped anything on the back of the headstock

There is some glare on the back.  Couldn't get a clear shot without some glare.

I have two more J-45s to blog about.  The '46 will be coming soon but the '43 is in Jason's shop and it may take a while.  Feel free to leave me some feedback or follow this blog for more cool guitars.

Follow my Instagram photos for up to date shots on the guitars I am currently looking at (you don't have to have a smarty pants phone to do it!):

Thursday, August 9, 2012

1963 Harmony Rocket H59 with 3 Rowe Industries DeArmond "Gold Foil" Pickups

This one has been a favorite since day one, the Harmony Rocket:

I just about jumped out of my chair when this one popped up in PoDunk, AL (not a real place).  It was covered in half a century's dirt and dust from being in a garage for so long.  After a quick wipe down with a barely damp cloth the finish was sparkling.  I was amazed at how well this one cleaned up.  

Seems like the first thing anyone notices about these are the knobs.  SO MANY KNOBS:

Individual Bakelite volume and tone knobs for each pickup.  The rotary pickup selector allows you to select pickup 1, 2, 3 or All.  So if you want just pickups 2 and 3 you must select All and turn the volume all the way down on pickup 1.  I really like the tone possibilities as well as the way all those knobs just call to you when you see it.

Tuners are cheap Kluson knock offs that tune very well after you lube them and adjust the screw on the poll.  I have had no problems with them and do not wish to change them out.  No, they are not as smooth as "Grovers", or as lame.  Sorry.

These had very thin Nitrocellulose finishes that wore off very easily in certain places:

This one shows very little (to no) fret wear.  It does have this tasteful looking wear mark on the neck.  Almost looks like it had some kind of red primer or undercoat.  Do any of you guys have any definitive info on this?  Comment and let me know.  I'm curious to hear what you think.

The Rowe Industries Gold Foil Pickup:

I really like these pickups.  Loads of output but still has a jangly, single coil "Harmony" thinness to them.  Kind of hard to describe I guess.  If you want a '57 Classic sound then do not buy this guitar.  Go buy a Gibson.  

These pickups usually read about 12k ohms which is pretty hot!  I haven't measured mine but they sound great.  Check these pickups out on eBay- people are really digging them as of late.  You could buy one of these guitars and make money just parting out the pickups on eBay. Don't do that please!

October 30, 1963

Still has the original case which is pretty dirty and wouldn't do a very good job protecting it on the road:

The only downside to this example is that it doesn't have an adjustable truss rod.

The later ones ('65 or '66 and later not sure) did have an adjustable truss rod.  The neck is actually pretty straight and plays well.  It has just a little more relief in it than I would like.  Probably would benefit from a fret leveling and crowning but I haven't gotten around to it.  I do most of my play between 0 and 9.  I'm no lead shredder.  It sounds really good with just a little tube compression and nice smooth bluesin'.  

See those little wooden spacers?  These guitars don't have adjustable poles or pickup heights unless you can make more spacers out of Walnut!  I really like the aesthetics of the spacers.  They just look really classy and neat.  

A note on my pictures:  I am not a photographer.  I don't know anything about it.  My wife has a cool camera that I borrow.  Do you have any feedback on how I could get better pictures?  Let me know.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

My Vintage Guitar and Gear Wishlist.... and why I think these things are cool

There are always weird guitars and gear that I see and hope to run into one day.  Recently it has been a Harmony made Silvertone and a brand new amp from Fender.  More on that one later.

The Silvertone 1446l has been popping up on my radar just about everywhere.  These things are American made by Harmony in Chicago from 1962 until 1967.  They featured a Bigsby Vibrato, a hollow body of laminated maple (even though the ads said Spruce top and back!) and the very illusive Seth Lover designed, stagger-poled mini-humbuckers.  I have never held one of these in my hands but supposedly these pickups screamed with higher output and thick silky humbucker tone.  This one is often refferred to as the Chris Isaak model but I believe that Dan Aurbach of the Black Keys is a fan as well.  Do you have one for sale?? Contact me!

And now, for something completely different: The Fender Pawn Shop Series' Greta.  These things are a bit "gimicky" but they are just so damn cute.  It is a two watt (tube), table top radio style guitar (and iPod) amplifier.  It features one 12ax7 preamp tube and one 12 at7 power tube and breaks up faster than your "high school sweetheart" friends.  The 4"speaker has a bit of a hard time keeping up with the output but plugged in to a cabinet this thing is an apartment ready blues machine.

Notice the "VU" meter?  It is a total gimmick and I love it.  VU stands for "Volume Unit" with the green section indicating clean tones and the red indicating distorted.  The meter is backlit with a small blue LED that is really just fun to look at.  The knob on the left is gain and the one on the right is tone.  

The coolest part about this little amp is what is on the back:

From left to right: Guitar, Aux In, Line Out, 8 ohm Ext. out, Switch, Power Input
Fender made this amp very versatile with all the ins and outs.  With the 4" speaker there isn't much headroom before the speaker farts out.  Which is why they added the 8 ohm extension out.  This thing sounds really good through a 4 12" cabinet.  It has a little more headroom but still has a nice, thick tube crunch.   If you are looking for a sparkly clean tone then you should probably look somewhere else.

But what if you have a larger amplifier that you like but can't play at the volume you want at home?  Enter the Greta, once again.  It has a Line Out that you could run a 1/4" cable directly into that amp's input.  Just use it like a distortion pedal.

But what if you are a trendy hipster with a turntable and feel like your warm, analog signal path is being ruined by your solid state stereo?  Enter the Fender Greta's Auxiliary 1/8" input.  Plug your turntable into this little guy for analog tone that lets your recent Grizzly Bear or Bon Iver vinyl sound like it should, I guess.  Or just plug in your iPod (digital music through an analog amplifier?).  I actually have not experimented with this feature of the Greta although I would love to.  My wife and I listen to a wifi radio (Logitec Squeezebox) every morning and I would be very interested to hear how it sounds through the Greta.  Do you play your iPod through your Greta?  Comment and let me know what you think about it.