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Vegematic Guitars

Vegematic Guitars

By Michael Wright

The Different Strummer

 

1965 Hagstrom Impala

As with our old friend Nigel Tufnel, that more is better goes without saying.  Why play an amp at 10 when you could play at 11?  I’ve bought guitars just because they had 4 pickups.  And I’d for sure be interested in a guitar like this Hagstrom Impala with 8 push-button controls!  Count ‘em, 8! And color-coded!

I find it curious that Hagstrom isn’t better known or regarded by Stateside guitar enthusiasts.  I guess you can say that about most European guitar-makers.  But Hagstrom actually got pretty good distribution here.  Maybe even better than EKO, which somehow ends up being better known (although that’s probably more due to Dan Forte’s—aka Teisco Del Rey—writings than actual familiarity during the 1960s)  But Hagstroms were pretty well made and they actually were among the earliest European guitars to be imported after the War.  In the late ‘50s, with the rising popularity of Folk music, acoustic guitars from Scandinavia were the first imports, guitars made by Landola (Finland) and Bjarton (Sweden) came in as Goyas and Espanas.  In around 1959 those acoustic were followed by the first, short-lived electrics, those wonderful sparkle-plastic covered hollowbody electrics sold under the Goya brand name, made by Hagstrom in Sweden.

Finding a vegematic array of push-buttons on a Hagstrom shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Indeed, those early sparkles had push-buttons.  But when you consider that Hagstrom actually began in the 1930s as an accordion manufacturer.  Accordions have nothing if they don’t have buttons!  American manufacturers hit on the toggle switch early on, but European makers seem to have preferred push-button switching.  Then again, come to think of it, most European guitar-makers started out making accordions!  Except for many of the German makers.  Except for Hohner.

Anyhow, Hagstrom produced some pretty innovative and high quality instruments, although I think their reputation gets a bit tarred by those pretty flimsy vinyl-covered guitars that were their bread and butter through most of the 1960s.  But those early sparkles were pretty interesting.  They had modular pickup assemblies.  You just lifted one configuration out and plugged in a different one, although practically speaking that really only made sense if you were upgrading.  I can’t think of why you’d change out a 4-pickup unit for a 1-pickup unit, since all you had to do was just play one pickup on the 4-pickup configuration, but, hey, it makes for good marketing copy.

mrwright

            There were guitars like this Impala.  This was a very early neck-through-body guitar made long before that technique became fashionable.  The push-buttons were basically for a variety of tone controls.  The “0” was one of my favorite settings: “off.”  I never really understood why you want to turn your guitar off, but OK.  The 1 button activated the neck pickup, while 2 turned on the bridge unit.  Then there were 3 buttons  for Hi, Mid, and Low, sort of a quasi-EQ presumably with different capacitors.  The Solo button was full out, and Accompaniment was a muted setting for chording.  The sliding lever was a master volume for all the buttons except for knob which was a volume control for when you were in Accompaniment mode.  I love all those buttons but I may be loving a toggle switch more.  Even though the switching is a bit arcane, this is a high quality guitar with a pretty good amount of tonal versatility.

Guitars like the Impala weren’t Hagstrom’s only quality builds or technical innovations.  Later in the 1970s the company commissioned Jimmy D’Aquisto to design a jazz box (dubbed the Jimmy) and they also produced the very nice Swede, a sort of Les Paul-style axe, some of which came outfitted with a Patch 2000 interface pedal made by Ampeg, a pre-MIDI form of synth guitar that combined guitar switches with a foot pedal and was even harder to figure out than the Impala’s push-buttons.  But the Swede/Patch 2000 certainly earned them an A for effort.

Hagstrom, like most other European manufacturers couldn’t survive the Japanese juggernaut of the 1970s and they bit the dust in the early 1980s.  Their labor costs kept going up and up as Europe gradually recovered from the 20th Century’s hot wars and the political and economic turmoil of the Cold War.  But they did manage to make some significant—or at least some really interesting—contributions to guitar history.  Including guitars with lots of buttons.  Now, if this only had 9 buttons, Nigel would be a happy chappy…

 

Michael Wright

Hell On Wheels

by Michael Wright

The Different Strummer

1978 Travis Bean TB500

There are any number of things I associate with pickup trucks (from Handicaps to gun racks), and guitars aren’t one of them.  Yet—as anyone who’s followed the recent advertising battle between the Ford F-150 and its competitors—the two sometimes flirt with the use of aluminum to optimize performance.  Certainly there more than a passing relationship between this Travis Bean TB500 and motor vehicles.

Now, Travis Bean may have owned a pickup truck, I don’t know.  But he for sure was interested in motorcycles, which he apparently raced and presumably worked on.  And it’s almost impossible not to conclude there was some crossover influence between working on motorcycles, being a machinist, and putting aluminum necks on guitars.

However, Travis Bean wasn’t the first to put vehicles and guitars together.  Back in around 1959-1960 Wandré Pioli—another motorcycle fanatic—began making aluminum-necked guitars in Milan, Italy.  Those were way cool, with weird body shapes and exotic one-off paint jobs and great names like “BB” (for Brigit Bardot!).  Some other Italians—well, depends on what you consider Sicilians who emigrated to Paris—the Jaccobacci brothers also used aluminum necks.  As far as I know, they had no interest in either motorcycles or pickup trucks, though I may be wrong about that.  It doesn’t show up in the biographies.  A little later in the 1960s—and I believe totally independently—John Veleno in Florida also used aluminum to build guitars.  He built the whole shebang out of aluminum.  I don’t think John was into motorcycles or trucks either.  He was actually a music teacher who built a guitar-shaped aluminum sign as advertisement.  A friend suggested he make a real guitar out of aluminum, so he did.  In 1967 the Messenger company of San Francisco briefly made guitars with aluminum necks.  (Eastwood offers wood-necked versions of the Wandré and Messenger guitars.)

1978 Travis Bean TB500 Rr

            Anyhow, in 1974 the Travis Bean guitar concept was born.  The story is somewhat confused, obfuscated by the passing of time and varying accounts.  Bean apparently teamed up with a guitar repairman named Marc McElwee and Gary Kramer.  Kramer’s telling, given long after, has himself as the main money man and sales department.  The chronology is a bit muddled.  According to Kramer, Bean kind of lost interest before things got off the ground.  Kramer left in 1975 to start his own aluminum-necked guitar company and according to other accounts actual guitar production didn’t begin until 1976.  When the company closed down in 1979, a little over 3600 guitars and basses had been produced.

There were basically four Travis Bean models: the TB500 seen here, the slab-bodied TB1000 Standard (the most common), the carved-top TB1000 Artist, and The Wedge, whose shape you can readily imagine.   These got heavy coverage in the guitar press of the time and a lot of big stars toyed with them, including Keith Richards, Jerry Garcia, Stanley Jordan, Ace Frehley, and Slash, to mention just a few.

The TB1000s had teak bodies.  They are exceptionally cool, but also very heavy.  You’d best be in good shape to sling one around an arena rock show.  The TB1000s had humbucking pickups.

1978 Travis Bean TB500 CU

The Wedge and the TB500 models are pretty rare birds.  This TB500 was meant to be a less expensive guitar.  This one (#234, 1978) was made of magnolia wood and is considerably lighter weight.   These have single-coil pickups.  I’ve played this guitar and several Standards.  While both models are pretty nifty, I found the TB500 to be a little white bread compared to the Standard (and presumably the Artist, which was just a bit fancier version), but there’s no accounting for tastes, as they say.  Both certainly did give you plenty of sustain.  Then again, the older you get, the less interested you are in a heavy guitar!

The skinny on Beans at the time was that the aluminum  was sensitive to temperature changes, although I’m not sure if that wasn’t more about conservative guitarists trying to find a reason not to like them.  I do know that John Veleno found resistance to the feel of an aluminum neck.  That was part of Gary Kramer’s “improvement” of putting in wooden inserts on the back.  In any case, Travis Beans were a pretty interesting episode in guitar history.

In 1999 Bean announced a big comeback and a revival of the legendary Travis Bean guitars.  There were pictures of revamped, very fancy guitars that I presume were of prototypes.  I’m pretty sure the line ever made it into production, and the aluminum-necked Travis Bean guitars sank back into legend.  (Clifford) Travis Bean passed away in 2011 at age 63.  Both the Ford F-150 and Travis Bean guitars used aluminum to improve performance, albeit for completely different reason.  Even after all this time, the jury’s still out on that!

Michael Wright

Roll Out the Barrel, And We’ll Have a Barrel of Fun!

By Michael Wright

The Different Strummer

 

It’s curious how wildly tastes can swing in a relatively short period of time.  When, in the 1967 classic movie The Graduate, Murray Hamilton (Mr. Robinson) leans in to advise Dustin Hoffman (Benjamin Braddock) to consider a predictably successful future in “Plastics,” the very concept of “plastic” was loaded with highly negative cultural connotations.  Plastic people were disingenuous, fake, mindless pursuers of a corrupted American Dream that created the Viet Nam War.  Yet only a couple years earlier plastic was viewed as an ideal way to add beauty and attraction to a guitar such as this 1965 Avanti solid-body!1965 Avanti

The term “plastic” comes from Greek and more or less means “moldable.”  Moldable natural materials have been used for millennia, but synthetic or man-made plastics date from mid-19th Century America.  At that time, the economy was shifting from agrarian to industrial.  A part of this shift was increasing demand for consumer goods by larger numbers of people.  Many of these products had traditionally been fashioned from natural materials.  For example, hair combs were carved out of bone.  Tortoise shell used to be, well, tortoise shell!  The problem was that, as demand rose, raw materials became scarcer.  Just one example of how cultural changes affected things: cattle ranchers stopped de-horning their steers, thus decreasing the supply of horn material.

The catalyst for modern plastics was the popularity of billiards in the 19th Century.  The growing upper middle-class found it necessary to have a billiards room (for the guys to light up cigars after dinner, you know).  Billiard balls were carved out of elephant ivory.  Enormous numbers of pachyderms were slaughtered.  Obviously, this was unsustainable.  In 1863, a contest was promoted offering $10,000 in gold to anyone who could come up with a man-made alternative.  The result was the first celluloid invented by a New York printer named John Wesley Hyatt.  Alas, early celluloid was highly flammable and prone to exploding.  Nevertheless, they eventually got the formula worked out and modern plastics were on their way.

Just when instruments began to be covered in celluloid remains to be elucidated.  However, a good candidate for the first instrument is probably the accordion, which makes sense for this guitar.  Accordion history is far less well documented than that of guitars, but in the 1850s and ‘60s accordion-making developed in and around Castelfidardo, Italy, in the northeast in the Po River delta.  The region also had a guitar-making heritage.  Castelfidardo remains the center of accordion-making to this day.  Accordions came to the U.S. in the early 20th Century and became popular by the ‘teens primarily through the Italian immigrants Pietro and Guido Deiro, who recorded extensively for Victor.  Sears sold Castelfidardo-brand accordions around this time with glued-on celluloid, including sparkle.  By the 1940s accordion technology had evolved to include covering curved surfaces in celluloid.

avantidual

In the early 1950s there was an accordion craze among young Baby Boomers—my sister was captivated—but it fizzled out mid-decade.  This left the accordion makers—and importers—sitting with lots of capability and a greatly reduced market.  Fortunately for the accordion makers, the region of Italy where they existed was also home to a guitar-making tradition.  When Baby Boomers started turning to guitars later in the decade and into the 1960s, many accordion makers—EKO most famously (or actually Oliviero Pigini, EKO’s maker)—threw their hats into the guitar ring.  It was only natural that they should hit on covering guitar bodies in celluloid, just like their accordions!

As far as I know, EKO was the first to start making plastic covered guitars in around 1962 or ’63.  This Avanti was imported by European Crafts of Los Angeles I’m guessing around 1965.  European Crafts was importing Italian made solid-bodies at least by December of 1964, most made in Castelfidardo by the Polverini Brothers.  Presumably, this is one of those.  This is actually a pretty serviceable guitar once you’ve set it up right.  There are some amusing features, like the fake truss rod cover (the rod adjusts at the body).  What can I say?  They made accordions, didn’t they?  The pickups are controlled by a 4-way rotary switch that gives you neck, middle, bridge, all.  But really, the story here is plastic meant to look like root beer barrel candy!  Yummy!

Now, there’s nothing I love more than highly figured woods on my guitars, but root beer barrel candy plastic?  What’s not to love?  For better or worse, guitars like this Avanti were kind of yesterday’s news.  They were fine for combos in matching collarless suits with matching guitars.  But Dylan had “gone electric” and folk rock was hot.  And someone was, no doubt, working on the script of The Graduate.  Of course, there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since this Avanti appeared and today we recycle plastic.  So, show me a root beer barrel candy-coated guitar and I’m all in!  Plastics!

 

 

Michael Wright

Heeding the Siren Call

by Michael Wright

The Different Strummer

 

It’s odd that I never thought of things this way before but it was encountering Japanese guitars that started me on the road to writing guitar history.  It was probably more about1982 Yamaha SC-600 coincidence—and me being cheap—than any sort of far-sighted strategy, maybe salted with a generous dash of aesthetic appreciation.  In fact, it was this very Japanese Yamaha SC-600 that provided the “Aha” moment!

I began shopping for electric guitars in the mid-1980s after I finally started holding on to decent paying jobs.  I’d been an acoustic player for several decades and thought I ought to have a solidbody electric.  I had a radio show at the time and spent a lot of time combing through record bins looking for interesting guitar records.  This brought me in contact with lots of 2nd-hand stores of various types, where you’d occasionally encounter a guitar.  I was on a record mission at this sort of pawn shop in New Jersey when I found my first, a Japanese-made, 4-pickup 1967 Kent with birdseye maple top and back laminates and this really groovy wide, almost Baroque black and white plastic strips on the side.  It spoke to me and at around $80 was quickly mine.

A few more guitars followed until the day I walked into Lou’s Pawn Shop in Upper Darby, PA.  It’s still there, actually.  That’s when this red beauty reached out to me.  It cost more than $80, but not a fortune.  Back then, Japanese guitars were considered “used guitars,” not in any way collectible.  That denomination was reserved for Pre-War Martins and old Les Pauls and Strats…American guitars.  There were whole books about those.  Nothing about Kents or Yamahas.  Nada.

Every time I would find one of these mysterious beauties, I’d ask the seller, “What’s the story about this guitar?”  And the seller would invariably shrug his shoulders and utter, “I dunno.”  It would kind of annoy me.  But by the time I got to this Yamaha, I’d heard the same ignorant response numerous times.  That’s when, like the Blues Brothers watching James Brown, the light turned on.  I was on a mission from God.  I would figure out the stories of these unloved guitars and tell them.  I called the editor of the then fairly new Vintage Guitar Magazine and asked if he’d be interested in publishing these stories and I’ve never looked back since.  Fortunately, the world has come a long way, baby, since those days in the desert!

1982 Yamaha SC-600 CU

So, what was it that caught my eye that day?  Obviously being a nice cherry red helped.  And that distinctive shape, which turned out to have more significance that I knew at the time.  Then I saw that it was a neck-through-body guitar, a feature that was highly prized back then.  Then I cast my gaze over that arm contour, realizing that Yamaha had built a “sandwich” with an alder core between a thin layer of mahogany topped with nicely figured ash.  Slice through that sandwich at an angle and you get a really gorgeous guitar!  I’m usually more of a humbucker than single-coil kind of guy, but these are beefy units and the five-way switch gives you those coveted glassy out-of-phase sounds.

It was only years later that I realized that the Yamaha SC-600 was actually a take—sort of a revival of—on a classic Yamaha design from the 1960s, the “Blue Jeans” models that were unique models, sold only domestically (or at least in Asia), inspired by the Mosrite Ventures guitars so beloved in Japan.  Yamaha kind of got sidetracked in the mid-1970s when its SG series of double-cutaway solids found considerable popularity—and great press coverage—thanks largely due to the endorsement by Carlos Santana.

backnfront

As much as I liked the SC-600, I think I was pretty much in a minority.  The model was not especially well-received, at least in the U.S., and these were only offered in 1981 and ’82.  The SC-600 had a companion SC-400 that was also a pretty guitar, differing in that it had a set-in neck and the body was flat with no arm contour.  I have no idea it these are especially rare, but with such a short production timeline, they’re probably not plentiful.  Contrary to popular opinion, no Japanese guitar companies were selling boat-loads of guitars yet in 1982.  Certainly I had no one competing against me for that SC-600 the day I walked into Lou’s and the salesman shrugged his shoulders in yet another “I dunno.”

One never knows what path his or her life will take, of course.  I may have been destined to write guitar history even if I hadn’t heard the siren call of those Japanese guitars back in the 1980s.  But finding all those great Japanese guitar designs, pretty much unwanted, unloved, and unknown—and not expensive—certainly turned into a mission from God!

 

 

 

Michael Wright

Fretless Wonder

By Michael Wright

The Different Strummer

Back in the early 1990s I did a few “guitar shows” for my son’s primary school classes, basically a show-n-tell with half a dozen guitars in various shapes and colors.  I’d conclude with “Swamp Thing,” the then-popular TV show theme adaptation of the Troggs’ classic.

carbonccAt the end, I’d ask the kids which was their favorite guitar.  The verdict would vary except one of the finalists always included the Bond Electraglide.  Dead cool black carbon graphite and LEDs.

Yeah, man, LEDs!  I confess I was probably drawn to the Bond for much the same reasons as those kids!  I mean, what’s not to like about a unibody molded carbon graphite guitar with pressure switches read on LED displays and without frets.

Rewind that.  “Without frets?”  Curiouser and curiouser.

The Bond Electraglide was one of those weird bursts of genius in guitar history that turned into a weird bust.  The Bond in question was a Scotsman named Andrew Bond.  Bond’s original idea was for the fretless fingerboard, which he dubbed a “pitchboard.”  In a Guitar Player product review at the time we learn that Bond originally put one on an acoustic guitar way back in 1972.  For me the pitchboard is the most troublesome feature of the Bond.  Instead of inlaid metal frets, the pitchboard consists of a succession of triangular structures where the angle point serves as the tonal point of contact with the string.  Or the “fret.”  The theory is that this greatly reduces friction and thereby increases your playing speed, I think.  The feel of this design is sort of like a scalloped fingerboard.  My problem when I try to play one of these is that for some reason I have trouble navigating.  I keep overshooting the note I’m aiming for because I don’t feel the metal fret.  Maybe it’s just me.

Well it probably wasn’t just me, because, as you probably know, the Bond Electraglide didn’t take the guitar world by storm.  But then there are those LEDs.  The electronic controls on the Electraglide were designed by one Dave Siddeley.  Basically, those three rocker switches are on-offs for the three pickups, color coded red, yellow and green.  The bridge and neck pickups are humbuckers, with the middle unit being a single-coil.  The top three push-buttons on that five-button assembly are for volume, bass, and treble.  To set the level you hold them down to set from 0 to 10.  The two lower buttons switch the humbuckers in and out of phase.  Now, let’s review.  There will be a test.carbonc

  1. We may have uncovered another problem with the Bond. While the controls are not difficult, there’s a lot of button pushing to do.  While staring at an LED screen.  Sort of like driving and texting.  You end up kind of figuring out a sound you like and sticking to it.  But the LEDs sure do look cool.

One other person involved with the Bond was Dave Stewart, guitarist with the Scottish duo The Eurythmics.  The guitar does have a look that went with that band’s sort of disco-y, high-tech, New Wavey style.  The Bonds were made in Scotland and distributed in the U.S. by Unicord, the company that did the Univox brand back in the day.  The Bond Electraglide was introduced in 1984 and dropped by the wayside in 1986.  They were pretty pricey, with a list price of $1,195 for a stoptail, $1,295 for a vibrato version.  They came with a transformer box, locking strap, and hardshell case.

guita

The Bond Electraglide provides a great example of how you can overthink things when it comes to guitars.  Guitar players are notoriously conservative blokes.  Give us a threeway switch and a couple knobs.  For the more adventuresome, make it a fiveway!

Then again, those primary school kids who rocked out to “Swamp Thing” are part of the generation that today walks around with its nose in a cell phone, texting and driving.  There was a reason they always picked it as one of their favorites.  Maybe the Bond Electraglide was just way ahead of its time.  Maybe if we added a detachable cell phone to work the controls the Bond Electraglide the next big thing, complete with a dead cool black carbon graphite unibody and brightly colored LEDs.  It’d make your heart sing, it’d make everything…groovy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michael Wright

Bad Moon Rising

By Michael Wright

The Different Strummer

 

I’ve always been a sucker for oddball guitars.  A LaBaye 2×4?  You bet!  A Bunker Astral Series Sunstar?  Yup!  A Jay Turser Shark?  O’Hagan Shark?  Of course.  So, when a chance to get a moon-shaped guitars beckoned, the call was irresistible.  Now, despite its hallowed place in the annals of electric guitar history, the LaBaye 2×4 is, in reality, pretty much a novelty.  The Kawai MS-700 MoonSault, on the other hand, is one serious guitar.1982 Kawai MS-700 MoonSault

Ironically, while Japanese guitar-makers made their reputations by making copies (more or less) of popular guitar models since the early 1960s, at least, there has always been an opposing stream of Japanese guitar design.  To the yin of guitars that look like European and American models has been juxtaposed a yang of uniquely Japanese designs.  For every Burns Bison of EKO Violin guitar inspiration there were a a few Kawai Concerts or Teisco May Queens.  For every Les Paul and Strat there were a few Ibanez Icemen or Kawai MoonSaults.

I think in some ways, these original guitar shapes can be seen as a manifestation of Japanese pride.  As in, all right, I’ll make copies of your Les Pauls in order to sell guitars and gain market share and keep people working.  But I’m going to build this totally unique guitar, too.  Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah.

The Teisco May Queens and Kawai Concerts of the 1960s were a bit too radical to find much acceptance in Western markets.  I don’t even think Japanese companies ever really pushed them for exports and very few American importers were interested in try to sell them.  Plus, those guitars appeared in around 1967 and ’68.  By that time popular music was well on its way to worshipping the guitar god, like Jimi or Eric.  No way either of them would show up to a stadium playing a May Queen.

As near as I can tell, guitars like the Iceman and MoonSault—and a few others—showed up right around 1975 or thereabouts, ironically just as the ‘70s “copy era” was kicking into high gear.  Like I said, it’s hard not to see this 2nd wave of Japanese designs  as a reaction.  The difference this time was that they appeared just as glam rock was becoming popular.  Axemen in platform shoes, full costumes and Kabuki make-up didn’t have any problem at all showing up with a Kramer Axe or Ibanez Iceman.  It made the act all that much more outrageous.  In your eye, mom and dad!

The Iceman, made by FujiGen Gakki, and Kawai’s MoonSault, seem to be the only of these exotic Japanese designs to make it to North America.  Thanks to KISS, the Iceman was the more successful of the two.  I don’t think that tons were ever made, but it became a mainstay of the Ibanez catalog for some time.  Fuji also made some Greco versions for domestic consumption.  Kawai did promote the MoonSault, but Kawai didn’t have an American subsidiary (Ibanez had Elger Guitars), nor did it ever have a Gene Simmons.  If I’m not mistaken, Devo briefly played a MoonSault, but by Devo’s time serious rifts in the music industry were already becoming apparent, and guitar players didn’t rush out to buy what Mark Mothersbaugh played.  So, Kawai MoonSaults are pretty rare birds.kmn

Of the rare MoonSaults, this MS-700 is an even rarer example.  These were only built from December of 1982 to April of 1983, maybe 5 months.  This guitar has a serial number of D-150, which I presume to mean December, guitar number 150.  The blue-silverburst finish was very popular for a brief period during the early 1980s.  I never cared much for it, even though it qualifies as oddball, I think! 1982 Kawai MS-700 MoonSault HS

I don’t know what the body on this is, but the neck is glued-in mahogany and I suspect so is the body.  Note the abalone phases of the moon for position markers!  Many pickups from this era were Gotohs, but I don’t know what these are.  They scream.  There’s a master volume control and a tone control for each humbucker.  Those are push-pull pots that give you a coil tap and phase reversal.  I love this kind of tonal versatility.

The MoonSault offers great visual imagery, but if, like me, you haven’t played in a band for more time than some readers have been alive, you might, like me, enjoy playing sitting down.  A Vee actually sits nicely on your right leg.  The waist of a Les Paul on your left.  A MoonSault, not so much on either!  It kind of slips and slides.  Better for the young.

But that’s no reason not to heed the call if a MoonSault ever beckons you.  This guitar was loaned to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for their ground-breaking Dangerous Curves exhibition of 1999-2000.  You can see it in the exhibition catalog.  It’s now part of the MFA’s permanent collection, a reminder of Japanese pride in their ability to design great guitars!

Michael Wright

Seat-backs straight. Prepare for Take-off.

By Michael Wright

The Different Strummer

I never really warmed up to headless guitars.  Oh, they were really cool looking and there’s no denying Andy Summers had real style playing a Steinberger for The Police.  But I guess I’m old fashioned.  I need a head to keep me oriented.  Still, present me with something made out of airplane material like this Modulus Graphite Flight 6 Monocoque, and I’m interested, even with no head.

1983 Modulus Graphite Flight 6 Monocoque

Turns out this guitar is a study in contradictions.  I actually interviewed the man responsible for designing and producing this guitar—I’m pretty sure it was Modulus Graphite founder Geoff Gould, but it was so long ago, I forget.  Modulus Graphite was, as I’m sure you know, basically known for making hollow carbon fiber necks for basses and, occasionally, guitars.  Gould, who worked as an engineer in California’s aerospace industry, got the brainstorm that he could build a stronger, more uniform and more stable by using the tough and strong carbon graphite, which was employed in making lightweight but highly stress resistant components for aircraft.  This was around 1977-78.

Of course, Kaman/Ovation had already had that idea a decade earlier, but for guitar bodies (and tops), not for necks.  And, about the same time Gould was working out his neck ideas, Ned Steinberger was developing his headless, graphite basses and guitars in New York.

Gould’s idea was pretty good and well-received by bassists.  The company had a good long run, only closing down in 2013.  Modulus Graphite’s heart was primarily set on basses, but they did make a number of guitar lines, including the Genesis series and some interesting Blackknife models.  These guitars all had heads.  As near as I can tell, Modulus Graphite’s guitars were never as popular as their basses.  But then, bassists have historically been much more receptive to innovative technology than guitarists, who tend to be stuck in the wooden mud, as it were.

mo

Probably partially inspired by Steinberger’s creations, Modulus Graphite decided to try its hand at a graphite headless guitar.  This effort resulted in 1983 in the experimental Flight 6 Monocoque guitars.  The Flight 6 name is obvious because the carbon graphite that makes up the entire guitar is aircraft material (“flight”) and it’s a 6-string guitar!  Duh.  Monocoque is a term used primarily in the aerospace industry basically meaning surface bearing structure.  In other words, the object’s “skin” provides the structural strength, like an egg.  There is no “frame” or internal structural support.

Basically this is a self-enclosed “tube” of molded carbon graphite.  I don’t really know how they made this thing, but the neck and body are all one and hollow.  There’s a brass plate at the end of the neck, to hold the strings and no doubt to provide access for wiring this puppy.  According to Gould, since this was a “high-tech” guitar, and so as to not take away from the novelty of the guitar design itself, Modulus Graphite equipped the Flight 6 Monocoque with basic guitar electronics.  The pickups are standard Seymour Duncans, a Custom at the bridge and a Jazz at the neck, with a threeway select and simple volume and tone controls.  The tuners are Gotohs.

1983 Modulus Graphite Flight 6 Monocoque Back1983 Modulus Graphite Flight 6 Monocoque TunersIf it was me I’d have tricked this out like a B.C. Rich, with as much tricky electronics and I could squeeze into this melted Steinberger.  How about a phase switch and coil taps?  And a preamp circuit?  I’m fine with the simple volume and tone, though.  I never could get into fiddling with micro-adjusting each individual pickup’s tone, but that’s just me.  Oh well.  Everything is, after all, a matter of taste.  But this doesn’t mean that any of this makes this guitar inadequate in any way.

This guitar really is a work of art, questions about electronics preferences aside.  It is really comfortable and, assuming you’re going to pump it through some effects, gets the job done.  Gould told me approximately how many of these were made, and it wasn’t many.  I forget the figure after all these years, but it was in the neighborhood of 20 or so.  Enough to qualify as pretty rare.

As I said, most guitar players would rather play a Les Paul or a Strat than a headless carbon graphite monocoque thingy.  Tastes for headless guitars and other oddities come and go.  One thing to consider, though. It’s been more than 30 years since the Modulus Graphite Flight 6 Monocoque guitar appeared.  It’s ultra-light.  Don’t know about you but 30 years on from my prime, I appreciate anything that’s lighter rather than heavier to schlepp around these days.  Prepare for take-off!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michael Wright

1987 Casio DG-20 Digital Guitar

By Michael Wright

The Different Strummer

Blame it on disco.  I remember it well…as an observer, of course!  The excesses of early ‘70s hard rock inspired a vapid dance craze reaction toward the end of the decade with mirror balls and platform shoes and, well, you know, Studio 54, glitter spandex, and Donna Summer and all that.  The music was mostly played with keyboard synths and drum machines, fairly new technology at the time.  The guitar press predicted: It’s The End of guitars as we know it.  But was it really?  (Obviously, we all know the answer to that rhetorical question!)

I didn’t really pay much personal attention to disco.  I didn’t dance and I didn’t hear too many guitar solos to make me interested in listening.  I was working at a commercial classical radio station at the time and my greatest exposure was a somewhat satirical—and as it turned out quite successful, I might add—disco party for key advertisers, for which I had to obtain the music.  I was mildly alarmed by the press predictions regarding the demise of guitars, but I needn’t have worried.

Anyhow, the response of the guitar industry was to try to turn guitars into synth controllers.  Keyboards are ideal synth controllers.  They are immediate and precise.  You hit a key and you get a clear electronic connection that is instantly, easily, and unequivocally recognized by the machine and its software.  They’re perfectly polyphonic.  And once you eliminate the need for anything but the keyboard—no strings, no soundboard, no pipes—they can become quite compact and portable.

Guitars…well, not so much.  A good clean note is obtained with good clean contact between the string and the fret, but you know how often that doesn’t happen!  We bend notes, even when we don’t intend to.  We move our fingers around to put “English” on the tones.  In short, despite the best efforts of brilliant engineers at Roland, Korg, Yamaha and elsewhere, guitars make lousy synth controllers at best.  To play guitar synth you’d best possess pretty darned good technique.

Don’t get me wrong.  I really admire the synth guitars that were created during the period from roughly 1977 to 1987 or so.  But if you want to play some disco, get a keyboard.1987 Casio DG-20

That said, there were some interesting attempts to create a hybrid solution, notably by Casio, like this nifty little 1987 DG-10 Digital Guitar. Okay, I hear you sniggering about this toy guitar.  You might say it doesn’t even look much like a guitar, although, if you recall guitars from the 1980s, you remember there was some weird stuff that was popular, from minimalist headless Steinbergers and Kramer Dukes to Prince’s elaborate guitar sculptures.  All right, I’ll give you that it looks more like a toy than a guitar.

But let’s not focus on what it isn’t, let’s concentrate on what it actually is.  This juicy little “toy” is actually a full-blown amp-in-guitar and MIDI controller.  The fingerboard is a rubber touch pad with, presumably, articulated “frets” with 6 contact points each.  The nylon strings are all like 3rd strings.  Yamaha did this same thing on its synth controller, by the way.  I suspect that’s to equalize the contact using identical string mass.  There’s a built-in battery-powered amp with 4” speaker.

You can play this like a guitar, or guitars.  On top you can choose from 20 preset sounds.  You can add automatic percussion rhythms.  Pick the tempo.  Punch in sustain and reverb, and change the key.  On the front you have an on/off switch, master volume and rhythm volume.  You can mute your guitar, activate or turn off the rhythm sounds, add in some fill.  Oh yes, and there’s a manual drum machine pad if you’re dexterous, with a choice of cymbals, low tom, hi tom, and snare drum sounds.

comboc

And if that’s not enough, you can send the signal out to an external amp.  You can plug in headphones.  Pick two MIDI modes, omni or poly, to coordinate with whatever gear you use.  Plug in a MIDI DIN cable.  And use an AC plug, should you be so inclined.

Yeah, any kid can figure this toy out.  Well, maybe a kid could.  I never got past the amp in guitar with automated drum machine and I hope my life never depends on knowing the difference between omni and poly synths.  Not that I mastered even just playing guitar.  I think I played at a couple of my son’s baseball games, sitting in the bleachers doing “charge” sounds.  But the Casio DG-20, in the right hands, might just be the guitar you need to do disco!

For the record, as it were, I did continue to peruse disco record bins for a few years—disco was LP music, before CDs—and found, to my great surprise and delight, that there actually were some disco disks that featured hot guitar licks!  Metal guitar disco.  Numerous disco-flamenco fusions.  Rasgueado goes great with the turn-around pump of “unh-uhh, unh-uhh, unh-uhh.”  They were never too popular, though.  Blame it on disco.
comboa

Michael Wright

Vintage Surf n’ Turf

In the good old days, guitar cognoscenti used to snicker at ‘60s Japanese guitar styles because they looked as if they just co1964 Montclair Model No 3904uldn’t get it right.  As in make a guitar as clean and cool as a Fender Strat or Jazzmaster.  The joke was on the experts.  If the Japanese guitar designers did anything, they got the essence of ‘60s style just right!  Like with this classic 1960s Montclair.

I never really thought much about Japanese guitars back in the day.  By the time they started showing up, I fancied myself a “folksinger” and was plunking on Harmony and Guild acoustics.  I didn’t pick up an electric again until late in the decade and Japanese guitars still weren’t on the menu.  But I kind of shared the standard opinion.

The truth is, of course, that Japanese guitar designers probably could have made copies of Fender Jazzmasters—and, indeed, except for a smaller size and certain details, they did with some early guitars—but they weren’t really trying to.  The Japanese weren’t really thinking about “copies” yet, like they would a decade later.  But they did have their eyes on guitars being made in England by Jim Burns!  As is obvious the moment you ogle those big pointy horns and the nifty multi-part pickguard on this Montclair.

Later, when I became interested in these strange beasts, my opinion began to change quickly.  While these guitars looked a little goofy at times, I began to learn that they weren’t so poorly made, after all.   As Jack Westheimer use to tell his associates about their role, they were there to sell guitars, not set them up.  Make sure the neck angle’s right, set the saddle intonation, adjust the action, optimize pickup height, and these guitars often turn into mean playing machines.  And they don’t sound like a Strat.  That’s the whole point!

Anyhow, I’d se1964 Montclair Model No 3904 CUen other Montclairs and really didn’t have a clue about them.  Who made them?  And for whom?  That is, until I started to look into it recently.  I still don’t know who imported/sold Montclairs.   They’re actually fairly plentiful, relatively speaking, so it must have been someone kind of significant.  But now we know a bit more about who actually built this guitar.

This Montclair is basically identical to an Ibanez Model 3904.  Montclair was just one of the labels produced by Hoshino at its Tama factory beginning in 1962.  In addition to Ibanez, other brands made by Tama included Continental, Goldentone, Tulio, Jason, and others.

According to internet sources—notoriously unreliable—Hoshino/Tama began producing guitars inspired by Burns London—especially the Burns Bison—almost from the beginning.  For sure by 1963, they produced the Models 994, 1802, 1803, 3902, and 3903, the final digit signifying the number of pickup units.  These same sources suggest that these Burns-style guitars were produced at least into 1966.  The Tama factory was closed down in 1967, so that would be the outside limit in any case.  There’s really no way to tell when this guitar was made.  I’ve assigned 1964 to it because I’m pretty certain the 3904 was in production by then.

bison

The Burns Bison was famous for introducing the “Wild Dog” effect. I actually bought a Burns just to experience that sound.  Which was a bit underwhelming.  Actually, it was just two pickups out of phase.  I guess “wild” was a little milder in the early 1960s than today!  Oh well.  The Tama-made Montclair didn’t feature the Wild Dog effect.  But it was relatively sophisticated.  Four sliders activated each pickup, though, as was often the case in the ‘60s, the differences were more subtle than distinctive.  The two other switches let each pair of pickups alternate between solo and rhythm modes, basically toning things down with a capacitor for chording behind your lead singer.  The rollers are tone controls, the knobs volumes.  The 2-piece maple neck is reinforced with a generous piece of mahogany, an idea borrowed from classical guitars.  Plus there’s an adequate truss rod.  The body’s a big chunk of premium mahogany.

In retrospect these Montclairs were pretty decent guitars, available amazingly early, given the old prejudice against Japanese guitars.  No, it’s not a Strat or a Jazzmaster.  But if you have a yen to light up a rave on Apache or Little Deuce Coup, you could do a heckuva lot worse than plugging in a well set-up Montclair Burns Bison copy.  And you’d sure look clean and cool, Fender guitars notwithstanding.

Michael Wright

Don’t Ask Me, I Don’t Know!

Rhetorical question: What do getting fit through exercise and liking solidbody electric
guitars have in common? And, no, I don’t mean Sweatin’ to the Oldies with Richard
Simmons or any workout program designed to dance your way to 6-pack abs. I mean1983 Aria Pro II XX Series XX Deluxe
discovering Heavy Metal and the guitars that were made for it, like this Aria Pro II XX
Deluxe!

     Forgive me if I’ve told this autobiographical story before (age isn’t kind to short-term memory), but it’s pertinent to this guitar. I didn’t really become interested in electric guitars until the mid-1980s, even though I’d been playing for 30 years by then.
My first electric was a used Gibson ES-225T in the late 1950s that I used to learn Chet
Atkins licks. I switched over to acoustics when folk music was big, playing electrics
again in the late ‘60s in a blues/r’n’b band. Our best number was a spirited version of
the Box Top’s “The Letter.” Still like that song. Then I became a classical guitarist.
And a writer. These are not, fyi, aerobic activities. And I don’t descend from a line of
skinny people.

By the early 1980s I felt I needed some physical activity. I went to Sears and
bought a primitive exercycle. I got a good set of Koss headphones to hook up to my
KLH. But I needed some juice. Despite playing Bach, Sor and Giuliani for nearly a
decade, I’d kept up with my Guitar Player magazine subscription. In its pages I’d been
reading about Ozzie Osbourne (whoever the hell he was) and his rave new guitarist
Randy Rhoads. So I went out and bought a copy of his record (when a record was a
record, an actual vinyl artifact with 12” cover artwork), Blizzard of Oz.

Indelibly imprinted on my brain is that first bike ride. I set the needle at the very
outside of the lead-in groove and hopped on the bike.
DuddleyDuddelyDAHdadaDuddleyDuddelyDAHdada. To quote a current Hyundai
commercial, “Holy [bleep].” As a guitarist, I hate song lyrics on principle, but when the
singer croons “What’s the future of mankind, don’t ask me ‘cause I got left behind; Don’t
ask me, I don’t know,” well, I’m hooked. Better than “The Letter.” Randy Rhoads? I’d
never heard guitar playing like that. Bach for rock n’ roll.

What followed was a descent into Heavy Metal. I’d missed all popular music
after 1972 or ‘73. Three Dog Night and Jethro Tull were the last things I’d listened to
before switching to Julian Bream and John Williams. By total coincidence I found
myself at the beginning of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, affectionately dubbed
by critics at the time NWOBHM. Hmm…

I bought magazines. I devoured records. I began to notice the guitars. The
tastes of the NWOBHM and the nascent American correlatives, which would eventually
become known as neo-classical metal, liked Flying Vees and Explorers and other
non-Spanish-shaped guitars, often with custom graphic finishes.

It would be a few years before I started collecting electric guitars, by which time
the guitars of the NWOBHM were becoming passé. But my interest had been piqued
and I began picking up some of the more noble examples. Like this 1983 Aria Pro II XX
Deluxe, part of their XX Series.

ara2

Basically, it’s a mini-Vee with graphics. I’m not sure
what the body is, but it’s lightweight, maybe poplar or alder. I don’t know who made it.
Aria was/is a trading company. Trading companies did the marketing and distribution,
working with a family of factories to provide whatever product they needed. Many of
Aria’s better models were produced by the legendary Matsumoku in Japan, but these
XXs do not have that vibe. Instead, these remind me more of the Ibanez Axstars of
1986 which were made not at FujiGen but at Chushin, also in Japan. To quote Randy
Newman’s theme for Monk, I could be wrong now, but I don’t think so.

If you’re going to hop around on-stage in Spandex—which I, needing an
exercycle, sure as hell would never do—you could do a lot worse than this Aria. The
neck is lacquered black, which increases speed. The two Protomatic V humbuckers
(probably Gotohs) are decently hot. In 1983, when this was made, locking vibratos had
yet to conquer the world, so we still have a traditional style. This particular guitar was
found as new old stock, never having been previously sold or played. Pretty neat.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since these heavy metal guitars were
popular. Not least of which is being able to buy inexpensive Japanese guitars for sale
in the U.S. Nevermind whatever is the latest iteration of Heavy Metal, which is eons
away from NWOBHM. And my exercycle rides hooked up to my KLH. (Not to mention
even KLH.) For the record (history, not vinyl), I try to walk 3 miles every day, plugged
into an iPod with SkullCandy earbuds listening to…sorry, the latest Solomon Silber or
Ana Vidovic classical guitar CD. But, I confess, every once in a while on my walks I dial
down to Ozzie and Randy wailing on “Don’t ask me, I don’t know (know, know, know).”

Michael Wright