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Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Off With Her Head (Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar)

As a rule, I’ve never been too enamored of “pop” music, if you define pop as largely vocal-oriented music with catchy melodies and easy-to-remember lyrics, almost always love-themed. So, ordinarily, a pop band like The Police would be off my radar. Still, Andy Summers was able to weave some pretty interesting guitar textures—without traditional flash solos—behind Sting’s singing, so I paid attention. Besides, it was Andy Summers who almost single-handedly created a market for minimalist guitars like this c. 1985 Austin Hatchet.

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Summers famously played a headless Steinberger guitar, which is probably the best known minimalist guitar among guitar fanatics. But it certainly wasn’t the first. I suppose the earliest in the category were the first successful electric guitars, the first Hawaiian lap steels. The legendary Ro-Pat-In Electro “frying pan” had a body, neck, and head, but it sure was minimalist! Most electric laps had these elements, but by the 1940s these were pretty perfunctory. How many lap steels are basically a slab of wood with some pickups, a “fingerboard,” and some tuners, reducing a guitar to its bare minimum?

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

I’m not sure who gets credit for building the first minimalist “Spanish” guitar. It pretty much had to be an electric guitar, since acoustics depend on having an acoustic chamber to produce their sound. In 1967 Dave Helland, then a music teacher in Green Bay, Wisconsin, got the idea that an electric guitar needed to be nothing more than a 2×4 with a neck. He had a couple dozen of the legendary La Baye guitars built.

Around the same time Dave Bunker, a guitar player and luthier came up with his Astral guitar designs. These looked like a cross between a Star Trek starship and a guitar. However, many of the parts were screwed onto a minimalist core, so you could customize the way it looked when you performed.

Neither the La Baye nor the Astral guitars were particularly successful, so you’ll be lucky to ever play one. The ultimate in minimalist guitars were probably the so-called “fishbone” jobs built by Alan Gittler in New York during the mid-1970s. These reduced the guitar to a tubular spine and tubular “frets.” Indeed, Andy Summers played one of these for one of his Synchronicity videos. Only 60 of these were ever made before Gittler moved to Israel, where he became Avraham Bar Rashi and contracted out another 240 or so of a slightly more substantial version, still remarkably minimalist.

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Around the same time that Gittler was building his fishbones, Ned Steinberger was coming up with his small-bodied, headless design, which was produced by Stuart Spector. These went on to become the most famous of minimalists, thanks, in large part to The Police. Steinbergers were, however, expensive. To help fill the void, Cort licensed the design and began producing cheaper versions, bearing the Cort name as well as others, including models for Hohner and Washburn. I have one called Blake that used to be my “shore guitar.” In 1981 Kramer threw its hat in the ring with its aluminum-necked, headless Duke guitar.

None of the guitars mentioned so far were “travel guitars,” strictly speaking, though it was nice that you could pop your little minimalist guitar into the overhead compartment or on top of all your vacation luggage. There were travel guitars in the game at the time, including the little yellow Hondo Chiquita Banana. They were only minimalist in the same sense as the early lap steels in that they were small.

In any case, this was the environment in 1984 when Jack Westheimer of Cort got the idea to come up with his own cross between a minimalist and a travel guitar and designed this guitar. Actually, Westheimer’s inspiration was less the Steinberger or Duke or Chiquita and more the Colt 45 handgun. Yung Park tweaked Jack’s design and in 1985 the Cort 45 debuted. Jack used to laugh that he was the only one who ever connected either the name or the shape of the guitar to a pistol! Obviously the big distributor Targ & Dinner didn’t because they called their version the Austin Hatchet, seen here.

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

If you like playing minimalist guitars, this actually isn’t too bad. The neck-through construction gives it a solid feel. It’s powered by a pair of Korean Powersound humbuckers that are actually pretty darned hot. One of the mini-toggles is a threeway while the other reverses phasing. The headstock and tuners do make it a little top-heavy since there’s not much body to act as a counterweight.

I’ve never seen a Cort 45 and only a couple Austin Hatchets. That’s no evidence, but I don’t think these were too popular! They seem to have been gone by 1986. While other minimalist guitars like the Steinberger soldiered on (even they started getting bigger bodies), the craze for minimalist guitars had pretty much run its course. Which, come to think of it, pretty much also describes The Police, who broke up that same year. I can’t recall listening to any other “pop” bands since then either.

Michael Wright
Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Hot For Rare Birds (Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar)

It has always amused me that one of the great tempests in the teapot of guitardom has been the legendary “lawsuit” of the 1970s. You know, when Norlin (aka Gibson) sued Elger (aka Hoshino, aka Ibanez) in 1977 over trademark infringement based upon “copying” Gibson’s headstock design. There are tons of ironies in this story, but one of the most amusing aspects is that companies such as Gibson have been one of the most egregious copyists of its own guitars over the years. Witness the Korean-made Epiphone Firebird 500 seen here:

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

In a general way, the guitar business has always been about copying. It was just usually a bit more subtle. Kay’s and Harmony’s first solidbody electrics in the ‘50s were loose copies of Gibson’s Les Paul. Many of the guitars made in Japan during the 1960s deliberately emulated European guitars. They were the competition, after all. When Gibson started sourcing guitars from Japan in around 1970, the guitars included some Epiphone copies of classic Epis, such as the Coronet.

The apocryphal story about ‘70s copies related to me by the folks at Aria when I was doing that history was that company president Shiro Arai was visiting the NAMM show in 1968 when Gibson re-introduced its Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty.” Mr. Arai thought, “Hmm, so that’s a copy of the original Les Paul Custom, eh?” He went back to Japan and the first bolt-neck Les Paul copies appeared shortly thereafter. That may or may not be true, but it is a good yarn.

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Most copy guitars from the ‘70s through the early ‘80s were associated with Japanese manufacturers. But by the mid-‘80s the dollar-yen conversion was increasingly unfavorable for Japanese guitars (meaning they cost more than Americans would pop for). Simultaneously, the Korean guitar business had been slowly evolving, with companies such as Samick (Hondo) and Cort producing better and better guitars. The Japanese were markedly superior, but Korean product was coming on strong.

In 1986 Gibson began to shift sourcing of its Epiphone guitars to Korea. Some of these early Korean Epis were nothing to write home about, but others, like this Firebird 500, weren’t too bad.

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

To be honest, I didn’t pay too much attention to contemporary electric guitars during the 1980s. I found this about a decade later in a “cheap guitar stall” at one of those antique malls that seem to come and go like raves. (Does anyone throw raves anymore?! To quote the great Oz, “Don’t ask me, I don’t know.”) I’d never seen this model and it obviously had neck-through construction, which I was into at the time. Also, it was silver. I never got the ‘80s taste for greybursts and silver, which I think is ugly, and which, of course, made it all the more attractive to me. I recall buying this on my lunch break and schlepping it about a mile back to the office in summer heat.

This is actually a pretty cool guitar. It’s made of mahogany. The fingerboard is synthetic ebanol, a kind of interesting alternative to disappearing ebony. Of course, you’d rather have wood, but you don’t build budget guitars with premium materials. At least the inlays are real pearl! The Steinberger KB-X vibrato was new at the time, and a pretty good unit. It took ball-end strings without clipping and you could also adjust spring tension with a lever. You could also lock this down to have a stop-tail with the flip of a switch. I’m not sure why you would want to do that, but it’s still a neat idea. The pickups are stock EMG Selects. I never really warmed to Selects. They had a good frequency response and were exceptionally clean, which made them good for pumping through effects, but they lacked essential character, in my opinion. They came in red, black, sunburst, and this silver.

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

The Firebird 500 and a downscale 300 were offered from late 1986 into 1988. There are no serial numbers, so this could be from anywhere in that timeframe. No production numbers are available for these models, but scuttlebutt suggests that these are relatively rare guitars. They listed for $825.25, which was pretty pricey for a Korean guitar in the 1980s.

Today, of course, it’s routine for guitar companies to offer all sorts of “copies” of their own lines sourced from any number of factories, usually Asian, sold at various price points. (And sue the pants off anyone else who comes close to copying anything they consider theirs.) There have been numerous subsequent Epiphone Firebirds, but these were the first. And always give me a chuckle when I recall the original brew-ha-ha over the “lawsuit” guitars that started it all.

Michael Wright
vintage-1985-aria-pro-ii-knight-warrior-electric-guitar-featured

Getting the Guitar…But Not The Girl! (Vintage 1985 Aria Pro II Knight Warrior Electric Guitar)

Sex always sells…or so they say. And certainly when you’re marketing an electric solidbody guitar to testosterone-heavy adolescent and young adult males, showing a bit of female flesh is sure to get attention, whether or not it will move product. Few guitar ad campaigns have pursued this strategy with more verve than the one for Aria Pro II’s RS Series Knight Warriors in the mid-1980s!

Vintage 1985 Aria Pro II Knight Warrior Electric Guitar Ad

Vintage 1985 Aria Pro II Knight Warrior Electric Guitar Ad

The association between guitars and “getting the girl” is almost as old as mankind. Or at least it seems so. In studies of “primitive men” (who are, of course, not really the same as “early man,” despite their low-tech and seemingly non-evolved conditions), musicians frequently have a special place in the culture. It’s not uncommon for musicians to travel around among different villages, and there is plenty of testimony about these wags being a threat to the virtues of local village maidens. It would take some work, but I’m sure one could fairly easily assemble a list of musicians from the historical period who got into the drawers—and subsequent trouble—of the fairer sex. It would probably be a long list.

Indeed, I recently read Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha, one of the first novels written in 1605 and 1615. Guitars are mentioned four times, three in the context of serenading/wooing lovers. Two instances were in the context of guitarists coming to town and seducing the local beauty, before absconding with her virtue and fortune.

Vintage 1985 Aria Pro II Knight Warrior Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Aria Pro II Knight Warrior Electric Guitar

Of course, we all play guitars here and if I asked for a show of hands of those of you who first got into music motivated by trying to impress chicks, I imagine the majority of readers would be waving the flag right now! (I’ve never understood why there are so many fewer female guitarists, but the few I’ve known have had to work more at fending off guys than attracting them.)

As I said, there’s a whole sub-class of music advertising that features babes in various states of dress (or not) mugging to get you to look at this or that guitar or amp. Aria’s Knight Warrior ads went one further, fusing heroic fantasy with male libido. A sort of Ivanhoe in skivvies (with his guitar strapped on his back) holds the hot gal he’s either just rescued or is carrying off, to the boudoir, no doubt. (Or maybe those striped silk shorts were supposed to be knight’s pants, not BVDs…) Laughably unsubtle, but it never failed to get my attention, and implant a desire to find out what the fuss over the Knight Warrior was all about. In due time I found this one, suitably after it had gone out of fashion.

Vintage 1985 Aria Pro II Knight Warrior Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Aria Pro II Knight Warrior Electric Guitar

Aria Pro II introduced its Rev Sound (RS) Series of guitars in the late 1970s, initially neck-through competitors to Ibanez’s Musician series. Pretty nice guitars. In the early ‘80s, these became svelt bolt-neck, slightly dinky Strat-style guitars with cool switching options. Most Aria guitars for the rest of the decade were based on these Rev Sounds. Next came the Cats and the Knight Warriors, which got pretty good coverage in the guitar press.

Vintage 1985 Aria Pro II Knight Warrior Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Aria Pro II Knight Warrior Electric Guitar

I had low expectations when I found this guitar, but Aria’s guitars were consistently better than you’d expect back in the day. Many were built by the legendary Matsumoku factory. This guitar might have been built there, but by the mid-1980s the Japanese had gotten so good at making guitars, this could have been made by any number of superb manufacturers.

There’s nothing not to like about a dark-to-bright red sunburst, in my opinion! The tuners are Gotoh and the vibrato a genuine Kahler, all top-notch. The electronics configuration is a little less ambitious than previous Rev Sounds, but it still has enough horsepower for any Superstrat need. These blade pickups are strong and clear. The simple volume and tone control is really about all you need in a performance context. The tone pot is push-pull, tapping the humbucker to give you single-coil sounds. If you’re not hung up on brand envy, this axe would be perfectly satisfactory, even for a pro.

Now, I admit a redburst guitar doesn’t make me feel like Sir Lancelot and I never used this guitar to try to pick up any chicks (in any sense of the term), so I don’t know if it really would work. At my age, I don’t really see myself trying it out. But I do love the Kitschy way it was marketed with sex and, if you can get past the names and image, Knight Warriors are pretty darned good examples of mid-‘80s extravagance.

Michael Wright
vintage-1985-robin-wedge-electric-guitar-featured

Robin Wedge, Exclamation Point on a Storied Brand (Vintage 1985 Robin Wedge Electric Guitar)

One of the privileges of writing about guitars for as long as I have is that guitar people will talk with you. I’ve had many memorable conversations with people who’ve helped shape—often literally—the guitars we all know and love. Perhaps no conversation was more memorable than a long, detailed talk I had with Dave Wintz, the man behind Robin guitars, and from whom I got this rare 1985 Robin Wedge.

Vintage 1985 Robin Wedge Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Robin Wedge Electric Guitar

Robin guitars had not really been on my radar until I picked up an odd Robin Rival somewhere or another. Then I got a swell Robin Machete and I was hooked. I contacted founder Wintz and we set a time to talk. It turned out to be about a two-hour interview conducted while Dave was on his cellphone driving a load of exotic lumber he’d just harvested himself from a Louisiana bayou back to Robin HQ in Houston. And this was back before you got unlimited minutes plans! That call probably cost Dave a fortune! Dave gave me the blow-by-blow history of Robin guitars.

Wintz and Bart Wittrock opened Rockin’ Robin Guitars and Music in Houston in around 1972, selling vintage guitars. In around 1982 Wintz and Wittroc began selling Tokai “copy” guitars. They ordered another batch and the guitars arrived with no logos on the headstocks. Wintz and Wittrock were thrilled and had some Robin logo decals made up, and Robin guitars were born! It was about this time that Tokai got into trouble over copying Fender’s headstock shape—the oft-told story—so Wintz came up with his own, a down-sized reverse Explorer style, perhaps the first reverse head of the 1980s. In ’82 Wintz came up with his own guitar designs and contracted with Tokai to produce them.

Vintage 1985 Robin Wedge Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Robin Wedge Electric Guitar

Robin continued to source guitars from Tokai until 1984, when a trip to Japan discovered all sorts of problems with a container about to ship to them. They rejected the lot and switched production of bolt-neck guitars to ESP and set-neck guitars to Chushin. They continued to get guitars from Japan until around 1986 or possibly early 1987. At that time there were big problems in the Japanese guitar industry, including some major realignments combined with a really unfavorable dollar-yen exchange rate. Bart Wittrock decided to bail out and return to concentrating on Rockin’ Robin, and Dave Wintz decided to learn how to make guitars. In 1987 Wintz opened the first Robin guitar factory in Houston and from that point on Robin guitars were all American-made.

Among the most distinctive designs of the Japanese-era Robins was the guitar shown here, the Robin Wedge, which appeared in 1985. These were built for Robin by Chushin. What can you say about this but “Wow?” There were a number of variations on the Wedge. The one seen here is a set-neck Custom with an ebony ‘board; there was also a bolt-neck Standard with rosewood. All came with a pair of Gotoh humbuckers. Customs featured a stop-tail, as here, but you could special-order a Kahler vibrato, which Robin would install in Houston. Standards came with a traditional-style vibrato. The first few Wedges had the Robin reverse Explorer-style heads, but Wintz quickly re-designed it to this “reverse blade” styling.

Vintage 1985 Robin Wedge Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Robin Wedge Electric Guitar

As awkward as this guitar may look, it actually plays very nicely. It’s comfortable to hold, well balanced, and the neck is very fast. Let your hair grow long (if you’re lucky enough to still be able to do that!), pull on the spandex (if it wouldn’t embarrass you) and get ready to jump of your amp (if your knees are still in good enough shape).

All Japanese Robins were imported in very small lots and are pretty rare. (Indeed, even American Robins were never produced in large quantities.) The Wedges were actually fairly plentiful, with about 200 produced. This is SN 0044, presumably numbered sequentially. The model wasn’t all that successful, however. Some were still being offered as late as 1988 and at the time I spoke to him, Dave still had a little pile of Wedges lying in a dusty corner of the factory.

Vintage 1985 Robin Wedge Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Robin Wedge Electric Guitar

In fact, that’s how this particular guitar came into my possession. After my history of Robin appeared in Vintage Guitar Magazine, someone suggested that Dave dust off one of those leftover Wedges and give it to me as a “thank you.” Dave had a nice case made and sure enough this arrived at my doorstep! You are very Welcome, Dave!

Indeed, I’m really glad I got to have that phone call with Dave Wintz and write up the story of Robin guitars. They were always fine instruments. But, alas, all things must end. Robin was going gangbusters into 2008 and then the financial and housing bubbles burst and dealer orders evaporated. In the Fall of 2010 Robin was forced to close its doors. As of this writing, a few remaining Robin guitars could still be obtained through Rockin’ Robin. Dave doesn’t rule out reviving the brand in the future, but for now he’s contemplating the direction his next chapter will take.

Michael Wright
Vintage 1994 Alvarez Dana Scoop AE650TRW Electric Guitar (White)

A (Mostly) Happy Accident (Vintage 1994 Alvarez Dana Scoop Electric Guitar)

I don’t recall how I got his number, but when I called Dana Sutcliffe to talk about what is probably his most famous—at least known famous—guitar, he said we should do lunch. Dana lives just down the road from me in Delaware, so it was an easy meeting. I asked if he’d ever had Vietnamese pho (beef noodle soup, one of the world’s most perfect foods), and since he hadn’t and since he loves to eat, we met one day in one of South Philadelphia’s numerous pho parlors to discuss the genesis of the Alvarez Dana Scoop. It was, as it turns out, all the result of an accident.

Vintage 1994 Alvarez Dana Scoop AE650TRW Electric Guitar (White)

Vintage 1994 Alvarez Dana Scoop AE650TRW Electric Guitar (White)

Sutcliffe grew up in the Philadelphia area and Delaware. At 13 years of age, he got one of those 4-pickup Kent solidbodies with the horrible pickups. He promptly rewound them and was on his way. Armed with guitar experience, in 1978-79 Sutcliffe cut his teeth on guitarmaking at the short-lived flop—but ultimately fascinating—Renaissance (plexiglass) guitars out in Newtown Square, PA.

Most of you have probably seen his next work. Sutcliffe began working with another Delawarean, George Thorogood, converting Gibson hollowbodies to his taste and repainting them white. Sutcliffe began adjusting amps for a local Crate amp rep using a guitar with his own pickups, and that eventually led to a gig outfitting electrics in Westone solidbody guitars for St. Louis Music (Crate’s owner) in around 1987. The following year he had a line of Dana Westones.

Vintage 1994 Alvarez Dana Scoop AE650TRW Electric Guitar (White)

Vintage 1994 Alvarez Dana Scoop AE650TRW Electric Guitar (White)

In 1988 one of Sutcliffe’s employees was working on a Matsumoku-made Westone body when the router hit a knot near the treble cutaway and accidentally cut a big gash in the body. The body was discarded, but another employee finished assembling the guitar. The next day it was the joke of the shop, but when Sutcliffe played it, it sounded really, really good. He fiddled around with the gash and invented the Dana Scoop prototype.
Sutcliffe took the guitar to the 1989 NAMM show and showed it around as a novelty. However, SLM pulled him aside and told him to stop showing it. They were looking for a new model and this would be it! The new Alvarez Dana Scoop (made by Cort; the Westone brand died when Matsumoku stopped making guitars perhaps as late as 1990) debuted at the 1992 NAMM show, where it was named the “Guitar of the Year.” It was extremely successful and a number of variations appeared over the next couple years, including a Strat-style “L.A.” model and a Tele-inspired “Nashville.”

However, the relationship between Sutcliffe and SLM quickly began to sour. By 1994 versions of the Scoop that Sutcliffe had not approved began to appear, including the one with a Modulus Graphite neck and the guitar shown here with the 3-coil Tri-Force (probably a descendent of the Mighty Mite Motherbucker; Cort owned the Mighty Mite franchise by this time).

Vintage 1994 Alvarez Dana Scoop AE650TRW Electric Guitar (White)

Vintage 1994 Alvarez Dana Scoop AE650TRW Electric Guitar (White)

Seen here is an Alvarez Dan Scoop AE650TRW from around 1994. It has a see-through butterscotch finish over a figured maple body with the unauthorized Tri-Force pickup. The fiveway offers five different one- and two-coil combinations. Controls include a master volume and two tones. These were basically made for about one year, possibly less. By 1995 Sutcliffe and SLM had parted ways. Since Sutcliffe had a patent on the Scoop design, the model also departed the guitar universe. Production numbers are impossible to determine with any accuracy, but Sutcliffe estimates that approximately 2-3,000 of the original design were made, plus a 500-700 more L.A. and Nashville Scoop variants, and a fair number of custom-shop examples. How many of these Tri-Forces were produced is a total mystery.

Vintage 1994 Alvarez Dana Scoop AE650TRW Electric Guitar (White)

Vintage 1994 Alvarez Dana Scoop AE650TRW Electric Guitar (White)

The Alvarez Dana Scoop is pretty cool for a pin-router accident! And a lot of fun to play. It only had a brief roughly three year run, though it seems to loom larger than that. These days Sutcliffe keeps extra busy doing custom restorations and set-ups of high-end collectable guitars and banjos for well-heeled, mostly pro clients. We both keep trying to schedule another lunch, but so far it hasn’t worked out.

Michael Wright, The Different Strummer, is a collector and historian whose work is featured in Vintage Guitar Magazine.

Michael Wright
Vintage 1983 Kramer Focus K4000 Electric Guitar

Beware of Substitutions (Vintage 1983 Kramer Focus K4000 Electric Guitar)

I love ironies, those unexpected little twists and turns that make you smile. And, if there’s a guitar story that’s full of more irony than that of Kramers guitars, I don’t know about it. That’s why I love guitars like this 1983 Kramer Focus K4000. It’s a knock-off of a Kramer guitar, but a copy of a Kramer made by Kramer itself. Or, actually, a copy of Kramer’s “copy” of a Gibson Flying V! You almost need a scorecard! You see the potential for ironies here…

For guitar enthusiasts with a short memory, Kramer’s Focus and Striker series guitars are a cause of some confusion and, to be sure, there have been some unscrupulous people who’ve taken advantage of this fact. Kramer, as you recall, began back in 1976 with the novel idea of building guitars with aluminum necks, sort of “improved” Travis Beans. Their guitars were kind of a niche item, well made and generally well-received by players, but certainly no threat to Gibson or Fender. Stanley Jordan, the jazz tapper, was probably their most famous player. Kramer had a little more success when it introduced the small-bodied, headless Duke guitars in the early 1980s. Andy Summers of The Police was big with his headless Steinberger guitar so the Duke had a following.

Vintage 1983 Kramer Focus K4000 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1983 Kramer Focus K4000 Electric Guitar

Kramer began to move away from the aluminum neck concept in around 1981 with the introduction of wood neck options. Actually, it’s around the subject of necks that one of the ironies swarm. Kramer designed but did not make its aluminum necks. They were sourced out to an aluminum fabricator, which makes perfect sense and is in no way unusual, especially when a novel material is involved. So, when Kramer began to use wooden necks, they logically turned to other vendors to obtain them. There were a variety of neck providers for Kramer over the years, but two of note where ESP, a Japanese company, and La-Si-Do, a Canadian company. The irony is that these were put on guitars that today are known as the “American” Kramers! By the way, I don’t know if Kramer made the bodies for its aluminum-necked guitars, but almost all—if not all—bodies on the wooden-neck American Kramers were made by a company called Sports.

Ironically, once Kramer began moving away from its unique original premise and capitulated to the common wooden neck, it began to take off phenomenally. Of course, having an endorsement of Edward Van Halen didn’t hurt. Nor did the early ‘80s infatuation with what would become known as the “Superstrat.” The Kramer Pacer (1983), along with Dean’s Bel Aire, both vie for the status as the first production Superstrats, available in versions with humbucker/single/single pickups and the soon-to-be-ubiquitous locking vibrato system.

Vintage 1983 Kramer Focus K4000 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1983 Kramer Focus K4000 Electric Guitar

By 1983 Kramer was doing well enough to consider expanding with some budget lines made in Asia. It had already sourced necks from ESP in Japan, as well as offered ESP’s Flicker vibrato system as an option. Thus debuted the Kramer Focus line, made in Japan, in 1983. This was followed in 1984 by the Kramer Striker line, made in Korea.

The initial Kramer Focus line consisted of copies of the Baretta, Pacer, and early Vanguard models, plus Kramer’s early Fender-style bass and their thinner Stagemaster bass. At some point early on a copy of the Kramer Voyager joined the line.

Seen here is what’s probably a fairly rare early Focus by Kramer K4000 made in Japan. (As of yet I don’t believe the Japanese manufacturer has yet been identified, but these feel a lot like Chu-Shin.) Early Kramer Vanguards were modeled after the Flying V (1981-84). In 1985 the design changed to be more like the Randy Rhoads V made by Jackson, with a shortened lower wing.

Vintage 1983 Kramer Focus K4000 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1983 Kramer Focus K4000 Electric Guitar

This is a really nice guitar, made nicer by the fact that it was found as unsold “New Old Stock” in the basement of the old 8th Street Music in Philadelphia. We know this is early because it has the “classic” headstock, later changed to droopy “bananas.” These are early unlabeled pickups, possibly Gotoh, but who knows? The double-locking Floyd Rose is likewise early, without fine tuners.

I think this is a very early 1983 Focus. While the exact sequence is a bit confusing, the original American Vanguard “Flying V” model was discontinued in 1984. It appears that in 1984 the Focus 4000 became a Pacer copy. In 1985, the Focus 4000 changed to the new Randy Rhoads shape.

In yet another irony, a lot of Kramer Focus guitars have been parted out. Early Focuses had a Focus by Kramer logo, but later models moved the Focus ID to the neck plate. Apparently quite a number of these, as well as Focus bodies, have been sold as “genuine American” Kramer parts. However, as we’ve seen, all but a few (made by Sports) Kramer wooden necks weren’t American-made in the first place!

In one more irony, the Kramer brand name is now owned by Gibson, the company that Kramer copied for this guitar! The name was owned by Henry Vaccaro, one of the original Kramer principals. He wanted to relaunch the Kramer brand in the late 1990s. He needed money so he sold the Kramer brand and model names to Gibson. Gibson subsequently released a line of very inexpensive Asian-made Kramers. Ironically, Gibson recently announced some upscale “copies” of Kramer’s legendary Pacer guitars! One last irony (I promise): I’m writing this essay about the irony of Kramers for Eastwood guitars, which specializes in producing “copies” of cool designs from the past. But I guess since Gibson has just reissued the Pacer, there won’t be an Eastwood Pacer any time soon!

Michael Wright, The Different Strummer, is a collector and historian whose work is featured in Vintage Guitar Magazine.

Michael Wright
Vintage 1967 TeleStar Professional Sparkle 5002 Electric Guitar

Coincidences & Satellites (Vintage 1967 TeleStar Professional Sparkle 5002 Electric Guitar)

Over many years of writing about and photographing guitars, I’ve had numerous occasion to take pictures of guitars “on location.” That means packing up rather bulky photographic gear—cameras, tripods, lights, backdrops—and voyaging near and far. Sometimes this took place at a vintage guitar shop, sometimes at a collector’s place. When it came to the subject of TeleStar guitars, I got to combine both.

Actually, the coincidence of dealer and enthusiast coincided with working two rather disparate brands at the same time, TeleStar and Kramer. At the time I was working on the Kramer history with Terry Boling, who lived in South Carolina at the time and had a nice Kramer collection. I was also working on TeleStar and was in touch with Chip Coleman, who has a music store in North Carolina and a nice TeleStar collection. Into this mix was the fact that I lived in Pennsylvania and had more vacation days than my wife and I used some of it to take road trips during the summer. So, I combined all these and my son and I headed for Coleman Music, while Terry packed up his truck and drove north for the rendezvous. We set up a makeshift studio and I took pictures of both collections. We can talk Kramer later.

Vintage 1967 TeleStar Professional Sparkle 5002 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 TeleStar Professional Sparkle 5002 Electric Guitar

TeleStar guitars, basses and amps were sold by the Tele-Star Trading Corporation (Importers and Exporters), 1129 Broadway, New York, headed by Maurice Laboz, about whom we know very little. There’s a possibility that Tele-Star had some sort of direct relationship with the Japanese manufacturer Kawai, since many features on TeleStars smack of Kawai and many were definitely built by Kawai, but any formal connection other than as a supplier is only speculative. The first TeleStar guitars appeared in 1965 and were pretty primitive short-scale beginner models, except for an amp-in-guitar made by Teisco, a version of the Teisco TRG-1.

Vintage 1967 TeleStar Professional Sparkle 5002 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 TeleStar Professional Sparkle 5002 Electric Guitar

Early TeleStars tended to stay among the offerings, sometimes with slight modifications, with new, better models added. However, the cool thing was the addition of a new Professional Solid Body Speckled Electrics line in 1966. Speckled by any other name means “sparkle” finishes. I’ve not seen any ’66 catalogs, but these were probably similar to what we have here, possibly with narrow oval pickups.

In 1967 the name of the line changed to Sparkle Solid Body Electric Guitars, and included the 5002 (two pickups with vibrato), 5003 (three pickups with vibrato) and 5004 (four pickups with vibrato). Sparkles came in gold, silver, blue and green flecked finishes. These are what are mentioned in the catalogs, however, I own this black 5002 with silver flecks plus a cream-finished one with multi-color flecks, so obviously those were offered as well. (It’s possible that these finishes signify that these are later than 1967.) You can see why Chip was into them. Who wouldn’t be?

Seen here is a c. 1967 TeleStar Professional Solid Body Sparkle Electric Guitar 5002 built by Kawai. As you can see, it’s kind of modeled after a Burns Bison. The sliders are on/off switches, with a volume and tone control. Basic but good enough to do Pipeline.

Look, you’d never confuse this with a Fender (or probably even a Burns Bison), but it sure has style, and, like most Japanese guitars of this period, actually plays very nicely once it gets the benefit of a good set-up, which most didn’t. Pickups from this era are hit or miss. If you’re lucky, they have a crisp, clean single-coil sound, with a tendency toward being microphonic, which is good or bad, depending on your point of view. Usually the weakest links are use of teeny wires for the harness and crummy tone caps, which this guitar shares.

Vintage 1967 TeleStar Professional Sparkle 5002 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 TeleStar Professional Sparkle 5002 Electric Guitar

In 1967 the company changed names to become the Tele-Star Musical Instrument Company, now a subsidiary of the Music-Craft Electronic Corporation now at 651 Broadway. That probably indicates that they were purchased by Music-Craft, or whomever owned/set up the company. At the same time violin- and teardrop-shaped guitars joined the line.

The sparkle solidbodies continued into 1969 pretty much unchanged, but by then kids were high listening to Hendrix, Clapton and the Doors. It’s hard to imagine Hendrix playing a sparkle TeleStar! TeleStar begins to fade after this. At some point their New York City warehouse burned down and they relocated to Secaucus, NJ. With the move guitars were gone for good, and Tele-Star distributed accessories. In around 1982 Laboz, who was still in charge, sold the company to Fred Gretsch, Jr., and it effectively disappeared.
Fortunately, Chip Coleman had more than just the sparkle TeleStars for me to photograph, but it’s really the Sparkle TeleStars we remember with fondness.

Michael Wright, The Different Strummer, is a collector and historian whose work is featured in Vintage Guitar Magazine.

Michael Wright
Vintage 1967 Gretsch Corvette 6135 Electric Guitar

I Get Around (Vintage 1967 Gretsch Corvette 6135 Electric Guitar)

Get around round round I get around/I’m a real cool head/Get around round round I get around/I’m makin’ real good bread. Back in the day, The Beach Boys were often pictured with what was sort of their “band car,” a Chevy Corvette Stingray. There was some spiritual force that inextricably linked hot rods and guitars back in the early to mid-1960s. Rock and roll and Big Daddy Roth kind of went together. Just ask Billy Gibbons. Or just consider this 1967 Gretsch Corvette 6135.

Vintage 1967 Gretsch Corvette 6135 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 Gretsch Corvette 6135 Electric Guitar

While it’s blasphemy to many hardcore vintage guitar guys, I never really found myself attracted to Gretsch guitars. I grew up (a long time ago) in northern Indiana, northern Ohio, and northern Michigan. No one played Gretsches. No one played Fenders. A cheap guitar was a Harmony or Kay (or some no-name abomination) either from a teaching studio or, more likely, out of the Sears or Ward’s catalog. A good guitar was a Gibson from Kalamazoo. That’s what you aspired to.

It was, no doubt a function of geography and distribution (and not living in a big city). Plus, of course, Kalamazoo was “local” to all those places I lived. It was only later that I became aware that there was a much wider world of guitar options, well after this guitar was made!

Gibson, of course, was competitive in the lower end of the solidbody electric market, with its Les Paul Jr. And, of course, it had wreaked its wrath on its long-time competitor Epiphone when, after purchasing the company in 1957, it turned the brand into its budget alternative. Then also there were those semi-dreadful Kalamazoo models.

Vintage 1967 Gretsch Corvette 6135 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 Gretsch Corvette 6135 Electric Guitar

Another Gibson competitor, Gretsch stuck with electric hollowbodies until Gibson’s plunge into solids with the Les Paul in 1952. Gretsch responded with its similarly styled Duo Jet models the following year. Then the Baby Boom market (me) hit the radar. To offer a more affordable entry-level alternative for young players about to start jamming to the Beach Boys or the Ventures, Gretsch introduced its downscale Corvette in 1961, a slab-bodied version of this guitar, outfitted with a trapeze tail and one Hi-Lo Tron single-coil pickup. This beveled body style debuted in 1963, outfitted with a Burns vibrato, with one or two Hi-Lo Trons (6132 and 6135). This reverse head appeared in 1964. The guitar seen here (#97363—September 1967) was built right around the time of the Baldwin takeover of Gretsch, though it’s still a Gretsch Gretsch, not really a Baldwin Gretsch.

I picked this up years ago at a vintage guitar show in Philly at a bargain because it wasn’t Kosher. While Corvettes did come with Super-Tron pickups beginning in 1970, this had its pickups changed for Super-Trons (OK but amateur job) probably early on in its existence. Of course, the irony is that it was actually an “upgrade!” Still, this has a great vintage Gretsch sound with glued-in neck and a real Bixby. Knobs are volume and two tones, the threeways a select and a treble boost. If you’re getting on like me, one thing you appreciate in a light-weight guitar like this is you can play it as long as you like with no implications for your back!

The Gretsch Corvette had a pretty good run actually. Debuting in 1961, it remained in the Gretsch line until it was discontinued in favor of those somewhat goofy models like the TK-300 and the Beasts in 1978, nice enough in their own way, but pale reflections of the classic Gretsch era.

Unless you’re really, really old (and probably not reading this), it’s pretty likely that seeing either a chopped and channeled ’32 Ford Roadster or a cool if modified Gretsch Corvette like this will bring a similar kind of ear-to-ear grin to your face! You could get around with this Corvette. Play in the right band and you might even make real good bread!

Vintage 1967 Gretsch Corvette 6135 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 Gretsch Corvette 6135 Electric Guitar

Michael Wright
Vintage 1964 Alamo Titan Mark II Electric Guitar

Everybody knows there’s no basement at the Alamo! (Vintage 1964 Alamo Titan Mark II Electric Guitar)

As I’ve said many times, one of the privileges of writing about off-beat guitars is that I get to do detective work and, when I’m lucky (and in time!), talk to someone who had a direct hand in bringing us the guitars in question. I had to dig hard to uncover something about Alamo guitars and I was both lucky and luckily in time with this story!

Alamo may be a little better known for its amplifiers than its guitars, but these days neither are especially common, probably because they were not high end instruments, but rather targeted mostly at the beginner market. Ergo, not much incentive to keep them around once the kid has moved on to tennis, or a Fender.

I’m sure I first became aware of Alamo guitars through copies of their brochures that I obtained from paper-purveyor Michael Lee Allen. I eventually scored this guitar at a Philadelphia-area guitar show, and, of course, that required opening up a new case, as it were. From the catalogs I knew that Alamo guitars came out of San Antonio, Texas (where else?). I called Chris Smart, whose Krazy Kat Music is a vintage shop in San Antonio, and asked if he knew anyone who knew anything about Alamo. He promised to ask around. Not long thereafter he called back and gave me the phone number of Charles Eilenberg, the man who had actually started and run Alamo! I was thrilled and gave Mr. Eilenberg a call.

Vintage 1964 Alamo Titan Mark II Electric Guitar

Vintage 1964 Alamo Titan Mark II Electric Guitar

We talked for several hours and I got a pretty detailed play-by-play of the Alamo tale. A native of Newark, New Jersey, Eilenberg worked in radio before World War II began, during which he served as a communications engineer in the Navy. Following the War, Eilenberg was recruited by Milton Fink of Southern Music, a music publisher and distributor in San Antonio, to start an electronics business and in 1947 Alamo Electronics was born. They began with record players and battery-powered radios and by around 1950 had graduated to electric lap steel guitars and amplifiers.

Alamo began making electric Spanish guitars in either 1959 or 1960. Alamo guitars were pretty much made in San Antonio, including the pickups, though some mysterious ads for Mexican Alamos appeared in the early 1960s. At some point between 1960 and 1962 Alamo hooked up with the big New York distributor C. Bruno & Son.

Vintage 1964 Alamo Titan Mark II Electric Guitar

Vintage 1964 Alamo Titan Mark II Electric Guitar

Until the advent of the Titan Series in 1963, Alamo guitars were set-neck solidbodies. With the Titans, Alamos switched to a hollow core construction with bolted on necks. The Titans included the one-pickup Mark I, the two-pickup Mark II, and a Titan Bass. Early Alamos were made of Swedish plywood. The sides would be bent to shape and then tops and backs glued on.

Seen here is an Alamo Titan Mark II. I estimate this guitar to be from 1964, when it was included in the Alamo Stars Semi-Pro line. The earliest Titans had a French curve on the top of the headstock, but by 1964 this kind of “center-humped” shape shows up. Alamo numbered its models according to finish color. The catalog lists a Model 2591 (sunburst), Model 2592 (blonde), and a Model 2596 (cherry). This looks “plum” to me, but it could be interpreted as “cherry,” so it’s probably a 2596.

Vintage 1964 Alamo Titan Mark II Electric Guitar

Vintage 1964 Alamo Titan Mark II Electric Guitar

Basically the Alamo Titans like this were only around for about 2 years. While the name continued into 1965, the design was radically altered. Alamo, it appears, wasn’t too worried about consistency, and examples show up with what appear to be the “wrong” model name all the time. Alamo continued to make electric guitars until around 1970, though the majority seen are from around 1965-67. Amps actually marched on into the later 1970s.

Look, no one would confuse an Alamo with a Fender! Like their many Japanese counterparts, you can set them up to play pretty well, but you would really probably want one for its unusual styling…and as a pretty cool piece of American guitar history that won’t break your bank.

Vintage 1964 Alamo Titan Mark II Electric Guitar

Vintage 1964 Alamo Titan Mark II Electric Guitar

I wrote up the Alamo story and the good news is that it ran in Vintage Guitar Magazine and was featured later in my book Guitar Stories Volume 2. The bad news is that Chris Smart called me just before the article saw ink to tell me that Charles Eilenberg had passed away, never seeing his story in print. Like I said, in getting the Alamo information I was both lucky and luckily just in time.

Michael Wright
Vintage 1974 Carvin CM95 Electric Guitar

From the Temple of Doom (II): Carson & Gavin [Vintage 1974 Carvin CM95 Electric Guitar]

“Suppose,” enticed the email message (back when email messages were still something of a novelty), “I could get you into a strip mall that has one music store and the rest of the spaces are FILLED WITH GUITARS?” Thus began a remarkable once-in-a-lifetime adventure that involved packing up my photographic gear into jerry-rigged thrift shop suitcases, hopping onto an airplane to head west, joining Tom, a knife salesman I’d never met except on the internet and at the other end of a telephone line, and driving up to Bob’s House of Music in Wheat Ridge, CO, just north of Denver. Where I would encounter more vintage guitars—including this 1974 Carvin CM95—than anyone could ever conceive! The second Temple of Doom of my life (so far).

Vintage 1974 Carvin CM95 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1974 Carvin CM95 Electric Guitar

Bob’s House of Music was the creation of Bob Goodman, a former music teacher from New Jersey, who’d made his way out to the Denver area. He did, indeed, own a little strip mall in Wheat Ridge, a single-story L-shaped cinderblock affair with four or five storefronts facing the main street and another three or four along the left side. The space in back made by the two legs of the L constituted a large service and storage area. Parked in the spaces in front were various “vintage” cars and trucks that Bob had taken in on trade, none of which ran, and all of which got him periodic citations from the city. Along the front row was Bob’s House of Music, very crowded with guitars, basses, amps, and accessories, close quarters but for all intents and purposes a normal music store. However, all was far from normal!

That’s because there were no other tenants. Every—and I mean EVERY—square inch of the rest of the building—from the former beauty shop to the service area—was crammed floor to ceiling with vintage instruments. Hanging on racks, stacked in piles, lying in cases. Thousands of guitars everywhere and barely enough room to walk!

Vintage 1974 Carvin CM95 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1974 Carvin CM95 Electric Guitar

Mainly this was the case because Bob followed a unique business model. You’d walk in and see, say, a Rickenbacker on the wall marked $600. You’d say, “You take $500 for that?” Bob would scowl, draw himself up straight, square his shoulders, glare at you and spit out, “$700.” The Guitar Nazi. Bob didn’t sell a lot of guitars. Indeed, Bob lived on thrift shop clothes and expired canned food. For himself and the feral cats. Did I mention the cats? Hundreds had the run of the place. Use your imagination…

Vintage 1974 Carvin CM95 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1974 Carvin CM95 Electric Guitar

Bob and I got along fine. I was a “celebrity” and he let me photograph hundreds of prime guitars. Plus the chaos around us. I even bought quite a few guitars. As long as none were obviously valuable and I priced things fairly, he didn’t jack up the price. I even checked them into baggage for the flight home; this was way before you got a per-bag charge! They all arrived safely, with no “United Breaks Guitars!”

This 1974 Carvin CM95 was one of my prizes from Bob’s. Carvin was begun in Lowell Kiesel’s kitchen back in 1946. Kiesel, from Kansas via Los Angeles, began producing Bakelite lap steels carrying the Kiesel brand. After some early distribution through Continental, Carvin became one of the earliest direct-to-consumer mailorder guitar companies, a model it follows to this day. In around 1949 Kiesel’s brand name changed to a contraction of his two sons’ names: Carson and Gavin. Carvin.

Carvin began making solidbody electric guitars in 1955, the first a kind of cross between a Tele and a Les Paul. This was supplanted by more Fender-inspired solids in the early 1960s. In around 1965 Carvin began importing necks from Höfner in Germany. Carvin guitars sported imported necks until 1978 when it returned to making its own handles again.

The Carvin CM95 seen here was a short-lived model made in 1973-74. Carvin made the Eastern hard rock maple single-cut body, the APH-6 humbuckers, and the hardware; Höfner made the neck (it’s signed by the German makers on the back of the heel). The serial number is 1745, putting this at around 1974. This was at the height of the so-called “copy era,” and would have provided guitarslingers with an American-made (well almost) alternative to an Ibanez or Electra or Bradley from Japan.

I think there’s something in our DNA that looks down on a bolt-neck Les Paul-style guitar, but, honestly, there’s really nothing not to like about this CM95. I’ve always felt that Carvin’s pickups from this period lacked personality, but since all of us color our sound even if we just use an amp, nevermind effects, about all you really need is pickups that work and a guitar that plays well and this fits the bill!

In around 1979 Carvin’s brief fling with Gibson-style solidbodies began shifting toward pointy Strat-style guitars that would subsequently characterize the brand, several years before that style became popular, it should be pointed out.

Curiously enough, Bob’s father also had a music store in Wilmington, DE, and when I returned to Philly I drove down to see it. In stark contrast to Bob’s overflowing Temple of Doom, his father’s shop was a temple of gloom. It had an ancient pump organ in one corner and a couple new Johnson guitars on the otherwise totally bare walls. A few months later the story I wrote on the whole adventure ran in Vintage Guitar Magazine, and several weeks later Bob suddenly died. The next day—that’s the NEXT DAY—Bob’s father passed away. My friend Tom, who’d initiated the whole tale ended up buying Bob’s stash, liquidating it on eBay. I’d think I dreamed the whole story if I didn’t have this Carvin and a few other tokens to remind me of that fateful email once upon a time!

Bob's House of Music (Wheat Ridge, Colorado)

Bob's House of Music (Wheat Ridge, Colorado)

Bob's House of Music (Wheat Ridge, Colorado)

Bob's House of Music (Wheat Ridge, Colorado)

Michael Wright