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Monthly ArchiveJune 2005

Guitar Rescue: A True Story

OK, so we’d played the night before at the Bluegrass Barn Jam in Rosine and we were on our way to check in at the “Big E” (that’s the Executive Inn in Owensboro, KY). The Pests were squawking about being hungry, per usual, so I dropped them of at the Dairy Queen. While the Pests downed a quick lunch, I grabbed a few instrumental odds & ends from the van and walked across the parking lot to the building with the huge sign, “Consumers Mall”. It’s one of those former discount stores, now indoor flea market which are popping up across the land in abandoned K-Marts, grocery stores and so on. One of the missions of our little band was the rescue of abused and/or neglected guitars, which we found on our journeys and there was a candidate for rescue inside.

The Pizza Guitar Rescue Mission

The Pizza Guitar Rescue Mission

I guess I should explain who we are first. We are Buddha and the Pests, a group of itinerant musicians who play together whenever the mood or money moves us. Lately we hadn’t seen a lot of movement so the gig at the “Big E” was a blessing. I’m Buddha, the lead singer, songwriter, rhythm guitar and quasi-leader of the clan. You’ll meet the other guys later as they join the stories, but yes, one of our hobbies or “missions”, as Reverend Right calls it, is the rescue of abused instruments. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ’59 semi-acoustic, electric Kay that someone spray painted flat black and decorated with skull and bullet hole decals. Or the ’66 Fender Mustang that someone covered with Elmer’s glue and then sprinkled with a generous dose of silver and gold glitter. Yeah we like to save these orphans and try to rehabilitate them when ever possible.

I’d seen an old beater in the mall the week before, but hadn’t had the time to check it out. Hopefully it would still be there. I worked my way back past the piles of odds & ends, old lamps, tube radios, junk, store fixtures, etc back to Frank’s booth in the very rear of the building. And there it was, lying on top of a stack of old speakers. I’d noticed it there before, but had never really looked at it closely. It appeared to be an old American or Japanese electric guitar from the early 60’s, one of the thousands cranked out in some factory and sold at Sears or Western Auto stores back then. It may have been a mail-order birthday present from “the World’s Largest Store” that made a young West Kentucky boy jump for joy when he ripped open the package for which his parents had scrimped and saved for so long.

It had been a shiny brown sunburst, the color guitar folks call ‘tobacco brown’, but now it was a little worse for wear. It was covered in a layer of dust, but that was the least of its problems. The white pick guard had been broken to pieces and part of it was missing. The electronics-(the pick-up, jack, tone and volume control)-were lying in the hollowed out cavity of the body. They were faded and slightly rusty, but they might still work. One major problem was the piece of bright yellow adhesive tape with the scrawl of $25. There was no way that was gonna happen, at least not from me. If it was all in one piece and not too banged up I might give the ‘list’ price, but not in its sorry state. I’d determined that I would work out a deal for the guitar provided I didn’t have to fork out any actual, physical cash. I could then clean her up and bring her back to the land of the living or at least hang her on the wall.

Frank, the proprietor of this particular stall, preferred cash money but as this piece had been sitting for over a year he might just deal. Amazingly he agreed to swap even for a ¾ size children’s guitar which I’d picked up at a yard sale for $4. What a deal-and no actual cash changed hands! I was quite pleased with my trading prowess. However, on reflection this may have been Frank’s version of what they call in the retail industry a loss leader. You know the 24 rolls of Wal-Mart toilet paper for $3, which is a great deal, but then you wind up spending $37 on junk you never planned on buying in the first place. I left Frank’s booth with the beater and with an early 60’s Teisco bass, but that’s another story. Oh, I also left a trombone and a small chunk of change. Grrrrrrr.

The Pests were standing around in the parking lot at the Dairy Queen:  smoking, farting and discussing the set list for tonight’s show. They looked at my finds, shook their heads in dismay and piled back into the van. I dropped the Pests off at the Executive Inn and then headed for home planning out how to rehabilitate my new patient. I had a couple of hours before I had to get ready to play so I thought I’d jump in to the rehab. The first step was to try to clean off some of the accumulated years of grit and grime. I found an old pizza box to sit the guitar on, (so as not to scratch it), though at this point no one would probably notice any new blemishes. Then I tracked down my special spray bottle of guitar cleaner which was on top of the armoire next to the little xylophone-playing girl wind-up toy. I’d learned early on to use an actual guitar cleaner after accidentally dissolving the decals off of another pawnshop treasure. Who was to know that what I thought was a high school shop project which I’d picked up for $12 in a Galveston pawn shop, was actually a short lived American creation from St. Louis. It looked like a double necked, 6-string/12-string Frankenstein guitar. The “Stratosphere Twin” logo had disappeared in seconds along with about $300 in collector’s value. It still brought $200 from Guitar Emporium so it wasn’t a total bust. But anyway, I started cleaning up the guitar peeling away the layers like an archaeologist on a dig. Most of the major gunk was coming off, but I noticed that the top layer of veneer or more likely plywood was bubbling up in a few places. Elmer’s Carpenters glue and a few clamps would straighten that out. After taking care of the glue job, I set the body aside to dry and took the electronics inside for testing. I plugged the cord into the jack only to be greeted by a loud buzzing roar. Note to self: One should always turn off the volume before plugging in any electronic equipment, especially if you’ve been playing Hendrix the night before. I turned the volume down and tapped on the pickup. It worked. Further tapping and knob turning determined that the volume and tone controls also worked. Wow, this one might not end up as “just a wall hanger” after all.

Let’s see. The electrics work, the body’s somewhat clean; the next task was the pick guard. Pick guards are designed to protect the surface finish of a guitar, but they also often serve as the support for the pick-up and controls. As this guitar’s finish was pretty much finished already, I needed a pick-guard to mount the gear on. The original pick-guard was definitely smashed into pieces. It was missing several good sized chunks so it would have to be replaced. You can buy pre-made pick-guards for some popular models of guitars like Strats or Les Pauls, but this guy was not of the popular school.

Also, as I was trying to prevent having any $ outlay on this project, I began searching for alternative options. Looking up I noticed the fluorescent light above me. The fixture was covered with a sort of crystallized sheet of plastic which served to diffuse the light. Hmmm. My wife probably wouldn’t notice that it was missing, so I stood on a chair and worked the sheet out of the light frame. I placed the sheet on the pizza box, (so as not to scratch it) and traced the shape of the original pick guard with a black magic marker. The guitar was going to look so cool with this sort of shiny crystal like pick guard! However, my exuberance waned when I tried to cut the sheet. Scissors, tin snips even a razor blade-box cutter led to jagged fractures that spread like cracking lake ice during a spring thaw. I then noticed one of my daughter’s old “In Sync” posters hanging on the wall. The glass was actually a thick mylar sheet. Eureka! I put the mylar on the pizza box, (so as not to scratch it) and proceeded to trace the pick-guard again. This would look so cool. You’d be able to see the controls and wires through the clear cover sort of like those Ampex Dan Armstrong guitars from the 60’s. However, once again the material would not cooperate. It would not cut smoothly. I laid the “new” clear pick-guard, with its jagged little edges down on the pizza box. It looked like I was going to have to fork out some boot and buy some real pick-guard material after all, and probably even have to pay someone to cut it out. I stared down at the failed experiment in frustration.

But then, wonderment of all, that little light bulb went off again. The rough, clear, cut-out was sitting on top of the pizza box. The Box was from Homerun Pizza and had the image of a baseball player batting in the center. The way the cut out was laying, the words “Home Run” and the batting figure fit perfectly into the pick-guard shape. With trepidation I traced the shape and then used the razor blade to cut out the guard. It fit.

I screwed the new pick-guard into place and plugged her up. A flip of the switch, a few plunks and the sound of the 60’s beamed out into the ether. Aaah, another successful guitar rescue.

Help BUDDHA and the PESTS! We’re broke! We’ve got CD’s, songs, film treatments, amps and guitars for sale. Contact us today!!! [BUDDHAnthePESTS[-at-]aol.com]

Post by: Buddha and the Pests

Mando Mania (1975 Morris Custom Electric Guitar)

Some guitars are just too strange for most people to take, so they don’t. They sit there at the back of the rack forever, daring you have the cahones. That’s what this Morris Custom did to me for about a year. It sat up in the most wonderful guitar shop ever called Torresdale Music, a tiny corner storefront in the working-class Philly neighborhood that shared the name. Torresdale was like something out of Dickens, with amps crammed around the perimeter and high in the center and guitars hanging or stacked everywhere else. Owner Marvin Povernik scoured flea markets and thrift shops to find his stock and it was impressive. I’d walk in and say, “Marvin, I need a Kustom amp,” and he’d reply “Pull those out under there, I think there’s one in back.” There was.

1975 Morris Custom Electric Guitar (Copy Era)

1975 Morris Custom Electric Guitar (Copy Era)

Marvin found this guitar at a flea market and he refused to part with it cheap. But I had Marvin’s number. On one guitar, he knew his cost and he knew what he wanted firm. But if you bought three guitars and presented a lump sum, his math skills went to hell, and you could walk out with a real deal. Instead of $300 he saw $600 and forgot that it was for three guitars! That’s how I transferred ownership on this beauty.

1975 Morris Custom Electric Guitar (Copy Era)

1975 Morris Custom Electric Guitar (Copy Era)

And what a beauty. Morris is the brand name used by a large Japanese manufacturer called Moridira. Little is known about their history, but by the mid-’70s they were a minor part of the Copy Era, though their forté seems to have been in acoustics. Many guitar fans think of the Copy Era as a time when Japanese companies made cheap knock-offs of American guitars and sold them to kids who couldn’t afford the real thing. Some truth, but many of the Japanese makers built excellent guitars and already by 1974 they were innovating. None more so than Ibanez, whose guitars by then were made by Fuji Gen Gakki. Maple fingerboards on Les Pauls, tree-of-life fingerboard inlays, varitone switches, all Japanese innovations. Perhaps the most famous was the Ibanez Custom Agent, which took a swell set-neck Les Paul, gave it fancy inlays and a cool pickguard and topped it with a head shaped like a Gibson F-5 mandolin.

This 1975 Morris Custom attempted to do the Custom Agent one better by using an F-5 body shape as well! Featuring a killer flametop and a mahogany body, the Custom is semi-hollow. The neck is mahogany and set in, with a bound ebony fingerboard and big, real pearl inlays. The humbuckers aren’t Gibson quality, but they’re fine. This guitar plays like a dream, and it’s less than half the weight of a solidbody, which my back likes a lot.

1975 Morris Custom Electric Guitar (Copy Era)

1975 Morris Custom Electric Guitar (Copy Era)

Alas, like so many things, Torresdale music is no more. Marvin had diabetes, but refused to give up a steady diet of cheesesteak sandwiches from Chink’s up the street. Chink’s – periodically the object of controversy because of its politically incorrect name – is a little malted milk parlor whose booths make you feel like you just stepped back into 1940 and that serves up renowned steaks. Bruce Willis always orders them when he’s shooting a movie in town. Marvin’s health deteriorated and the shop was sold, its many wonders dispersed into suburban music stores. The store is now a hairdresser. But at least I have the memories, and the Morris Custom now calls to me from the back of my rack!

Music is Mathematics

Math looks tough

Math looks tough

Awful as it sounds, it’s the truth. But don’t let it scare you off. The highest number I’ve ever heard in the context of music is 13, so you don’t have to be a genius to figure it out.

There are two basic numbering systems in music. One has to do with the scale, the other with the key.

Let’s look at the numbers relating to the scale first.

There are seven notes in the scale. Simple enough. The order of intervals, or spaces, between these 7 notes is what makes it unique. The formula, as we should all know by now is Tone, Tone, semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, semitone.

So our first little bit of math is to understand that from the TWELVE notes of the chromatic scale — all the notes — the scale uses SEVEN, spaced out as described. If there were six notes in the scale, you could imagine them evenly spaced a tone away from each other. But there are seven, so there have to be a couple of semitones thrown in.

(These seven notes by the way, weren’t simply chosen by someone long ago to be the ones we’d all use. They also come from mathematics, from fractions. For example, a vibrating string tuned to A440, when halved will produce another A note, but vibrating at 880 cycles / second, an octave up. That same string doubled in length will vibrate at 220 cycle / second, yet another A an octave down. That same string cut in 3 will produce E notes, and if you cut it into quarters and make 3/4 of it ring, you’ll be listening to a D note. Try it out on your guitar, you’ll hear for yourself. By the way, the halfway mark of guitar strings is the twelfth fret, the one third mark is the seventh fret, the one quarter mark is at the fifth fret.)

Back to the seven scale notes. Chords are made by combining alternate notes from the scale. The simplest chord of all is the triad. It uses three alternate scale notes. The old one-three-five.

You can add other scale notes to those to make an extended chord. The next alternate note is the seven. So a One-Three-Five-Seven combination is called a major seventh.

Mathematics Quote from Oswald Veblen (1924)

Mathematics Quote from Oswald Veblen (1924)

You can add a ‘Two’ note to the chord, but it has be added on the treble side of the grouping, so you’re actually using the ‘Two’ from the next octave up. Since the root (One) note of that octave can be seen as the eighth note of the scale, a ‘Two’ note is the next one up, the ‘Nine’.

You can use the ‘Four’ note if you want, but since it’s only one semitone away from the ‘Three’, it actually replaces the ‘Three’. This chord is called ‘Sus Four’. It begs to be brought back to the Three.

If you add not the Seven note that is in the scale but the next note down, the ‘minor Seven’ it’s sometimes called, you wind up with a Seventh chord, as distinct from the major seventh. They’re also referred to as ‘dominant’.

‘Elevens’ are ‘Fours’, ‘Thirteens’ are ‘Sixes’. (Simply subtract seven from those big numbers to find out which note is being called for). And so on and so. It’s pretty straight forward really: the numbers refer to the the seven notes by their order. Just remember that the One-Three-Five are taken for granted as being present.

The next set of numbers refers to the chords within the key. Each of the seven scale notes qualifies as a starting note to build a chord using the alternate note rule. These chords are often written as Roman numerals.

I — II — III — IV — V — VI — VII

Sometimes, you’ll see them written like this:

I — ii — iii — IV — V — vi — vii

This is a good way of doing it because it shows the major / minor quality of the chords. As I’ve been trying to impress upon you, it’s really important to instantly know what all those chords are for any key. Remember The Music Building I wrote about recently.

Let’s say you see a chord written as V7. What does that mean? It means it’s the Five chord from whatever key you’re in, and it’s the Dominant Seventh version. So if you’re in C, you’re looking at a G7. Or a vi7? That would be Am7.

Record producers often write tunes out simply using the numbers. If they’re unsure of the singer’s range, they will choose a suitable the key in the studio. Only then will the numbers become actual chords, mentally converted by the players. Nashville is famous for this kind of notation.

Of course, time signatures and tempo are also related to mathematics. In fact the method we use to crank up a song is for someone to yell out ONE – TWO, A ONE – TWO – THREE – FOUR. The whole of music is one seething mass of numbers when it comes down to it. Lucky for us it sounds and feels so good to make listen back to, otherwise who would bother trying to figure it out?

I hope this article hasn’t put anyone off. The fact is, all these numbers simply become music when you do put a bit of effort into practising it. The layers of music become distinct and workable. Then the fun begins…

Kirk Lorange is one of Australia’s best know slide guitarists. He is also the author of PlaneTalk guitar method. Check out his sites: www.KirkLorange.com and www.ThatllTeachYou.com