Friday, November 23, 2012

The $200k Les Paul's little brother: 1960 Gibson Melody Maker

According to Gibson's website, the Melody Maker was the best selling guitar at the time.  It was cheap and looked cool too.  They produced them on the same line that made Les Pauls, ES-335s and J-200s.

The Melody Maker was a full scale guitar with trimmed down features. The body is solid Mahogany but is much thinner than a standard guitar at 1 3/8ths" thick.  It has only one single coil pickup made specifically for this model.  The neck is a full size standard neck except the headstock doesn't have the "wings" glued on the side like a standard Gibson.  

This guitar was owned by a blues player and you can tell!  He played and played it.  It has a nice aged patina but still fully playable and has all the original parts.  I bought this guitar and two others from the brother-in-law of the blues player.  The other guitars I bought from him were a 1964 Fender Duo-Sonic and a 1946 Gibson J-45.  They all have a distinctive wear mark where he put his arm and shoulder over the guitar.  This wear doesn't photograph well but this picture shows it the best.  

The guitar is all original but the case is clearly not.  It is from the late 60s/early 70s.  It fit the guitar well and protected it much better than the chipboard case that it probably came in.  That case is long gone.

 This guy must have been a hell of a player!  He played these things all the way through the finish on the neck.  It feels good- very good.  I guess he figured they needed to be broken in before they played well.  He may have been right!  Many people would pay big money to have their guitar "relic"ed like this.  Now I know why.

The neck retains the 50s style big full neck.  It has the standard width with just enough depth to feel full.  The is the same neck shape that would be on a Les Paul from the same year.  The fretboard is Rosewood but is flat-sawn instead of quarter (like would be on a Les Paul).  I've seen this one some J-45s from the late 50s as well (email guitar).

This simple layout includes a jack, tone, volume and pickup.  You could take all of the electronics out by removing the pickguard if the ground didn't go to the bridge post.  

Some have described the Melody Maker single coil as a cross between a P-90 and a Tele neck pickup.  I would say that it is closer to the Tele pickup but a bit darker.  

 Do you have one of these?  Send me a picture!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pre-war Epiphone Flat-top: 1940 Epiphone FT-50

I say 1940 but I don't really know.  A friend on the Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum concluded that this was built by Epiphone in 1940 or '41.  There were very few of these ever made.

This one popped up on the local Craigslist.  I don't think that many people on there knew what it was.  Of course, this is no asian made Epiphone.  This was made before Gibson purchased the Epiphone brand in 1957.  They moved the production of Epiphone branded instruments overseas in the 70s tarnishing the name.  The American made Epiphones were very fine instruments.

This Epiphone lived a sordid life.  It came to me covered in soot with two stickers and a name carved right in the top.  The seller was the nephew of the schizophrenic aunt that owned it (last).  The soot and stickers came up fairly easily with some Naptha and elbow grease.  The name, "Kelsi" is there to stay.  It features an Adirondack Spruce top, Walnut back and sides, and what looks like a very dark Rosewood fingerboard.  It has feaux tortoise shell binding and a very nice pearl inlay on the headstock. The tuners have been changed.  It still has 4 of the original Bakelite bridge pins.

 The FT-50 started showing up in the 1941 but it says that they had Mahogany backs and sides.  It also shows a model FT-45 that had Walnut but also white binding.  This may have been pre-catalogue before they really nailed down what was what.  The label with the model number and serial number is badly torn so we may never know if this was a 45 or 50.

The Epiphone researcher that I spoke with on the forum said that since this was X braced and lacked the metal cover for Epiphone's "thrust rod"then this was probably pre-war.  His research indicates that the model line was reduced during the war and this was one that was cut.  They start reappearing a couple years later with serial numbers indicating 1945.  After that, the FT-50 was cut for good.  

He is currently compiling serial numbers, pictures and catalogues into a database so he can offer a better understanding of Epiphone's past.  Do you have a guitar like this?  Please email me and I will pass the information along to him.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Pre-war Gibson Flat-top: 1933 Gibson L-00

When I was back in school I was lucky enough to find a guy with an early 50s J-45 and a mid to late 30s L-00.  I knew the J-45 was for me so I quickly sold off the L-00.  Mistake.  The thing had been played and played and needed a neck reset but it felt so good.  Sounded even better.  When I got word of this one for sale I was ecstatic.

The L-00's first catalogue appearance was in 1932 but supposedly they had been making them since 1929.  They were Gibson's budget model flat-top guitar.  They were lightly built cheapies that were made out of whatever they had around at the time.  Consequently, the features tend to be a bit sporadic.  They all feature Adirondack Spruce tops and Mahogany back and sides.  The L-00 began as a 12 fret guitar but changed to 14 in '33.

This advertisement is kind of interesting.  The 00 is on the lower left and just beside the body of the guitar is a short paragraph about how they are using 14 fret necks for more comfort and fret board access.  You may have noticed that none of the guitars picture have 14 fret necks.  This is typical of Gibson I guess, sigh.

This particular L-00 has a bit of a story attached to it.  Before I had seen it in person I saw a few pictures from the owner.  One showed the back of the headstock.  I could see a little impression in the lacquer that I recognized as a "Made In USA" stamp.  This was the marker that Gibson used on all export instruments that went outside of the US.  But I found this guitar in Tennessee??  I was a bit perplexed because almost all of the instruments that come my way are "finds" as in not from a dealer so how did this guy get this thing anyway?

After talking with the owner for a bit I got the story on how he came to own the guitar.  His uncle was housing a drifter for a while but the drifter had no way to pay him.  All he had was this guitar so he used it as payment.  The uncle had no use for the instrument so when his nephew showed an interest in music he gave it away.  That was a long time ago.  The owner had made his way to the states by way of Canada- the missing link in the story.

This guitar was easy to date as far as vintage Gibsons go.  I saw from the pictures that it had a small burst so I knew it was early to mid 30s.  The Factory Order Number was easy to read: 876 which appeared in the ledgers in 1933.

The neck on this old guitar has a wide 1 3/4" nut width with a fairly defined "V" shape that I find very comfortable.  I'm not sure why this shape has fallen out of vogue.  Fingerstyle blues just feels "right."  The neck is straight, frets properly dressed and the action is very comfortable.  I was looking for signs of a neck reset but I couldn't find them.  I believe that this is the original neck angle.  The saddle is kind of low but not as low as I would expect.  There is still a bit of room to come down if needed.

Some of the guitars from this era have some kind of ugly wood.  They have been seen with three piece tops and backs and off center seams.  Supposedly this was the reason for the small burst: most of the wood was not very aesthetically pleasing so the burst served to cover it up.  For some reason this guitar was spared of ugly wood.  The top is a nice 2 piece book matched Spruce and the back is a solid piece of close-to-quarter sawn Mahogany.  The sides are both quarter sawn.  I say close to quarter because it looks like this piece was very close to the center of the tree.  Here is what I mean by quarter sawn vs. flat sawn:

Quarter sawn wood has a higher strength to weight ratio but wastes more wood.  It is considered higher quality because of its features and scarcity.

The Tone Report:  Open, woody, Americana.  If you closed your eyes and just listened to it you might mistake it for a much larger guitar.  However, it is much different than a dreadnought.  It is more nuanced and sweet.  They are fantastic for fingerpicking.  The notes are clearly defined as well as balanced.  If you plan on strumming away your Nickleback chords then you may want to stay away from a 00.  The boom and sparkle probably won't be enough for you (as well as other obvious problems with that situation).

Dating this Gibson L-00 was relatively easy with the features and Factory Order Number.  The number is 867 which according to Spann's Guide to Gibson means 1933.  The other features were the small burst which was done in the early 30s and the solid kerfing on the interior of the guitar.  This is the lining that provides a solid glueing surface for the rims to the top and back.  This was mostly used in the late 20s and very early 30s.  There are some exceptions such as my friend's '32 L-00 that has standard cut pieces of Mahogany.  Here is a shot of the solid kerfing:

And the FON:

I'm really excited to have another L-00.  I really love fingerstyle blues and this is the guitar to have for that (except for maybe an L-1?).  I thought I liked the larger burst of my last one better but I've changed my mind.  The small burst is unique and the reasons behind it are representative of the times in which it was built.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The One(s) That Got Away

Half the fun of vintage guitars are their history and the path they took to get to me.  Some of the guitars I have bought came with pictures of the original owners and stories about how all those scratches came to be (most have to do with the owner drinking a lot).  Sadly, the sellers are rarely the ones that owned the guitar for so long.

I'm not always successful in my pursuit of vintage flat-tops.  Sometimes it will get snagged by someone else or the owner decides not to sell.  Here are a few of the ones that got away.

I was really upset about this one.  This is a mid forties Gibson Southern Jumbo.  The seller didn't really know what he wanted for it but invited me to come take a look.  It was in Knoxville, TN which is quite a drive from the school I was attending in Tuscaloosa (Roll Tide).  Long drives have rarely gotten in the way of a me and a guitar so I was planning to leave after my last class that day.  I called the seller back after class let out and it was sold.

This was the only picture I had of it but it was all I needed to know this was a real banner Southern Jumbo.  The split parallelogram inlays on the neck told me it was a SJ and not a J-45.  The belly down bridge combined with the lack of binding on the neck told me that this was most likely wartime (meaning is has the desirable banner on the headstock).  I should have skipped class!!

 Yes.  You are seeing this correctly.  This is a 1958 Gibson Les Paul with the original case.  This one was in northern Florida and I couldn't believe my eyes.  Most of the pictures you see of these floating around without a price tag of 200k+ are fakes.  This one was not.  I spoke with the owner and she said that she had already sold it by the time I even saw the ad.  She was working on taking the ad down and was having trouble.  Figures.

There was a musician who passed away in Cullman, AL in 2008.  His family was ready to sell off his collection of 10 instruments but they didn't know anything about any of them.  I had found a picture of this guy online that showed him holding a late 30s Gibson J-35:

I was a bit disappointed when I showed up to take a look at the collection.  It was pretty much all junk.  There was no J-35 or anything close.  There was a jacked up parts telecaster, a squire strat, a plywood parlor guitar.  That was the best of the lot and I was not really interested.  I thanked old lady that survived the man and on my way out the door she handed me this picture:

I turned to her and asked politely, "Where is this guitar?  We need to find it."  She didn't know anything about it.  Supposedly there was a blackface deluxe too but it wasn't there.  I figured that all this stuff had been picked over long ago and I was too late.  WRONG.  I was too ill-informed!  A year or two later I found this picture that I had taken:

With the help of my buddy Keith we came to the conclusion that this is that blackguard tele!!!  But how, you ask?  The neck is changed, the pickguard, hardware, all changed.   Take a look at the screws.  There are 5 old screws and one new one.  The holes are in the right place for a black guard Telecaster.  The body has been poorly refinished but I would be willing to bet that this was that telecaster- right before my eyes and I missed it!  Who knows what parts of the electronics were original.  Maybe none, maybe all.  I called the lady back and she said she had sold it a while back.  Still kicking myself.  The moment that you think you know what you are doing is when you find out that you really don't!

I would be impressed if you knew what this was just from the picture.  I sure didn't.  All I knew was that this was not your typical Asian made Epiphone.  This was a pre-Gibson buyout Epiphone flat top which have been aptly described as "rare as hen's teeth."  After a bit of research I found that this was the presursor to the Gibson-made Epiphone Texan.  This was a 1943 Epiphone F.T.-79.  Good luck finding another one of these at any price.

Having little knowledge of Epiphone flat-tops, I posted this picture on the Gibson guitar forum that I am a part of.   There was a guy on there that is a fellow vintage guitar guy that told me what it was and how uncommon they really are.  They are especially uncommon in this good of shape!

A buddy of mine agreed to come with me on the road trip but I decided to call the seller one more time before we left.  He had just sold it to a buyer in California.  I posted on the forum on how it had sold and the guys were giving their condolences when all of the sudden there was a new member on the forum.  It was the buyer in California!  He was a very cool guy and certainly deserved this fine, rare bird. 

Of course, there were a few scores that I didn't expect.  One of them was this little number:

This Epiphone is from roughly the same time period (WWII).  It sort of fell into my lap.  It had been through a house fire and ownership by a someone who decided to carve her name into the top.  She apparently like stickers and glue as well.  Strangely enough her name was "Kelsey".  This happens to be my wife's first name.  Strange how that works out.