• info@eastwoodguitars.com

Tag Archive kay guitars

Vintage 1960's Airline Barney Kessel Model Swingmaster Electric Guitar (Deluxe)

Back Catalog Memories: 1960’s Airline Barney Kessel Swingmaster Guitar

Here are a pair of Airline Barney Kessel models from the 1960’s. It was also known as the Swingmaster, and could be found under the Kay brand and the Old Kraftsmen brand.

Vintage 1960's Airline Barney Kessel Model Swingmaster Electric Guitar (Deluxe)

Vintage 1960’s Airline Barney Kessel Model Swingmaster Electric Guitar (Deluxe)

The natural color was unique to the Airline brand. All were outfitted with the “Kleenex Box” pickups. It was available in 2 or 3 pickups models, with or without the Bigsby style tremolo and a wooden, floating bridge. Bolt-on neck with a flamed maple bound body on top and bottom. Each pickup had its own volume and tone controls and there was a flipper switch for pickup selection.

Will Eastwood make a replica of this for its Airline line of guitars in the future? Pretty sure the answer is yes!

Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe Electric Guitar

Nectar of the Gods (Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe 2235 Electric Guitar)

One cool thing about liking oddball old guitars is they always contain hope…and a challenge. By which I mean, no matter how obscure or exotic, you always live with hope that you’ll someday figure out what the heck they are and thrive on the challenge of trying to do so. At least that’s been my repeated experience over the last quarter century or so of playing guitar detective.

Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe Electric Guitar

That being said, this Apollo Deluxe was kind of the exception that proved the rule, in that it followed a reverse pattern, sort of backing into discovery. While I didn’t really know what it was when I found it, I did have some idea of what it might be, or at least ought to be! I knew that the Grecian-god-themed Apollo brand was a part of the St. Louis Music (SLM) family of instruments, so all I had to do was locate it within the pantheon (SLM’s better-known brand was Electra, another Greek god).

St. Louis Music reflects one of those hazy back-stories in American (and actually international) guitar history that involve the murky world of distributors, which few people really understand. Distributors—or “jobbers”—were part of the middleman structure in the music business that bought instruments from the manufacturers (usually what we call “mass manufacturers,” like Kay or Harmony), marked them up, and got them to the music stores,department stores, and studios where they would be retailed to you and me. They’re the wringers because the guitars they bought might say Kay, but they might just as well say Cromwell or Custom Kraft. This latter was the brand used by SLM on guitars produced for them by Kay during the 1950s and ‘60s.

Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe Electric Guitar

A roughly equivalent—though somewhat more Byzantine—business model developed in Japan following World War II. How much that was a result of American governorship would be an interesting subject to study. Guitar manufacturers—some of whom had been active before the War—sprang up, similar to a Kay or Harmony. They sold their products to “trading companies,” whose job was to distribute domestically and to interface with foreign importers, who would then either be a distributor in its own country, or sell to other distributors, or both. (To make things worse, the trading companies may or may not have owned an interest in the manufacturing companies; can you say CMI and Gibson?) You can see why sorting this all out is not always easy!

Japanese guitars made significant inroads into the American market as the 1960s progressed. And not coincidentally, American mass manufacturing declined accordingly, although I think this was more a combination of management stagnation and cultural chauvinism than anything else. The global economy was still emerging and Depression-era-trained managers didn’t get it. There’s very little difference (read “improvement”) between a 1962 and a 1967 Kay, Harmony, or Valco guitar.

Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe Electric Guitar

SLM had sourced guitars from Kay for a long time but it, too, was drawn to the Japanese makers. SLM was big enough to be important players in the music industry, big enough to see the writing on the wall. They may even have had inside information that all was not rosy at Kay, which was purchased by Seeburg in 1965 and then Valco in 1967. By 1968 both Valco and Kay had gone belly-up.

Anyhow, this model shows up in an undated SLM catalog probably from around 1967. Or at least a two-pickup version does, called the Deluxe 2235. Clearly this was inspired by—or actually meant to compete with—a Burns Bison. At that time the Japanese were copying the European guitars that had been the “budget” alternatives earlier in the ‘60s. Thus, this is an early “copy” guitar. If you’ve overcome the usual prejudices of many older guitar enthusiasts, you know that this is a pretty decent guitar, once it’s properly set up. Poor set-up was the common problem of the time for these guitars. Look, these pickups ain’t DiMarzios, the switching is kind of sucky, and Japanese wiring was really small gauge, so it may not survive well, but these have their own sound and are great fun.

Even though Kay went out of business in ’68, SLM continued to offer Custom Krafts until 1970. Whether or not those were left-over stock or assembled by SLM from parts is unknown. By 1968 they were already pretty dated designs in any case, so probably not selling well. The SLM Apollos were probably not imported in large quantities, based upon how many you see: not many!

SLM, of course, would go on to introduce The Electra guitar, a copy of the Ampeg Dan Armstrong Plexiglas guitar in 1970, and Electra would be their primary brand for electrics (Alvarez for acoustics) until 1984, and they would be a major force in the importation and distribution of guitars from Asia. This Apollo represents a fascinating clue in deciphering that process!

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.

Scott Baxendale

Scott Baxendale Guitar & Harmony Conversions

Scott Baxendale has been building custom hand made guitars since 1974. Recently he settled in Athens Georgia where he is currently building custom guitars, restoring vintage guitars and teaching the art of lutherie to aspiring craftsman.

Baxendale Guitar

Baxendale Guitar

Harmony Conversions

Harmony Conversions

Scott Baxendale’s legacy of building custom instruments began in 1974, when he arrived in Winfield, Kansas to work for Stuart Mossman, owner and founder of Mossman Guitars. Scott joined Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, Tennessee, In l978, where he specialized in the restoration of classic vintage instruments. During this time he repaired or restored guitars for such professionals as Billy Gibbons, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Jr., Steve Howe, Elvis Costello, John Hartford, Marty Stuart, Norman Blake, Roy Acuff and many others. Here is the Mick Jones Custom.

Scott Baxendale Acoustic Guitar

Scott Baxendale Acoustic Guitar

Scott Baxendale Acoustic Guitar

Scott Baxendale Acoustic Guitar

Scott purchased Mossman Guitars, in l985, moving the company to Garland, Texas. He manufactured over 250 acoustic guitars, averaging five instruments per month, some of which are owned and played by Carl Perkins, Joe Walsh, Willie Nelson, Donovan, Greg Lake, Jorma Kaukonen, John Mellencamp, Chris Hillman, James Burton, Travis Tritt, Dave Alvin, B.J. Thomas and Ray Wylie Hubbard.

Scott’s work on Harmony conversions was brought to my attention by long time friend and customer of Eastwood, Dewitt Burton, guitar tech for R.E.M. If you have ever owned an old Harmony guitar, you’ll know how cool they are, but Scott can take a mediocre instrument and turn it into a world class guitar.

Vintage Harmony Guitars Catalog

Vintage Harmony Guitars Catalog

The Harmony conversion is a process by which they take old USA-made Harmony and Kay guitars and remanufacture them using our proprietary bracing and internal design, giving the guitars a new life and a world class tone that compares to vintage guitars of the highest order. This re-manufacturing process allows them to create a guitar that is also green, recycling and repurposing by starting with an existing guitar that was originally made with quality woods, and requiring no finish work. These are great guitars that retain their vintage patina and mojo at a price that the average musician can afford.

Vintage Harmony Guitars Catalog

Vintage Harmony Guitars Catalog

Many musicians have an old Harmony or Kay laying around that was their first instrument. Some have sent them to Scott to be rebuilt, and these guitars subsequently became their favorite instrument! Many of his customers are professional recording artists and musicians. If you would like to purchase a remade Harmony or Kay, have one rebuilt, or have one to sell, contact Scott baxendaleguitar@att.net

Scott Baxendale

Mick Jones - The Clash

1966 Kapa Continental 12-String

From the Temple of Doom (I): Koob, Albert, Patricia, and Adeline

A View From the Back of the Rack

From the Temple of Doom (I): Koob, Albert, Patricia, and Adeline

By Michael Wright
The Different Strummer

Imagine someone telling you about an old-time music store that had a huge stash of unsold guitars from the 1960s, plus some guitar effects from the ‘70s lying around in its upper floors in Newark, NJ. Well, you can bet it didn’t take long for me to beat a path to the door of Newark Music City (calm down; this was a long time ago and, while the company still exists, it’s long gone from Newark). Even though I was late in the game, there were still unmined treasures to be had. A real Temple of Doom!
I pulled a lot of good stuff out of Music City and owner John Ciarfella was great to work with. The store was full of New-Old-Stock gear, not to mention a bunch of vintage pieces taken in on trade over the years and just never sold. Maestro pedal effects, replacement Victrola parts, Japanese guitar hardware. Plus this NOS c. 1966 Kapa Continental No. CO-XII-V 12-String, culled from a huge pile in their old cardboard boxes stacked in a corner on the 3rd Floor. All leftover from when John’s father ran Newark Musical Merchandise and distributed Kapas, but was never able to sell. More about the Kapa later.

But the trip to the trip was the upper floors.  Music City was actually two joined 4-story buildings on a corner near the “new” Newark performance center.  The stairs were rickety and the floors unfinished, everything dusty.  The 2nd floor was full of old shelving and drawers filled with the NOS stuff.  The stairs between the floors and buildings were a maze.

After I’d bought a number of things on several trips, John took me up to the 4th floor of the corner building.  That had originally been a speakeasy and on the 4th floor was a Burlesque theater.  It was still there.  The proscenium stage, all the seats, tattered curtains.  Water damage and some graffiti by locals who’d broken in through the skylight.  It was awesome, almost dwarfing the Kapa find.

But, unlike the KAPA, I couldn’t take the theater home with me. Kapa was a brand started by another music distributorship begun in 1960 and owned by a Dutch immigrant named Koob Veneman in Rockville, BD.  Veneman’s father had operated a music store in Holland and distributed guitars carrying the AMKA brand, an acronym made up of the first letters of his childrens’ names (K was Koob).  In 1962 Veneman decided to plunge into the Guitar Boom and manufacture his own line of solid- and hollowbody electric guitars and basses in nearby Hyattsville, MD.  He named the guitars KAPA after his family, himself, son Albert, daughter Patricia, and wife Adeline.

KAPA began in 1963 or ‘64 (sources differ) with three solidbodies, the Challenger (sort of a two-pickup mini-Strat), the Wildcat (three-pickup version), and an occasional single-pickup Cobra, made from scraps.  KAPAs were famous for their ultra-thin necks, made by KAPA, not Höfner as some online sources claim.  Until 1966 the pickups, which looked like Höfners, were made by KAPA.

In 1966 KAPA’s lumber stock got thinner and they began using Pix pickups made in Germany, the same as used by Höfner (but not made by Höfner).  They also switched from threeway toggles to sliding on/off switches about this time.  KAPA also introduced the Jazzmaster-style Continental in ‘66, including the 12-string example seen here.

KAPA guitars were actually quite well made, very easy to play, and give off a nice vintage ‘60s vibe.  They made upwards of 120,000 of them, so they’re not especially rare, but then, not too many people ever thought they’d be of interest to anyone in the future!

1966 Kapa Continental 12-String HS

 

Unfortunately, KAPA doesn’t seem to have been very concerned about consistency, and you’ll find Continentals with Challenger decals and vice versa, and dating is primarily a matter of guesswork.  In 1968 KAPA added a Minstrel teardrop-shaped solid to the line and in 1969 some thinline hollowbodies with bodies made in Japan.  However, by then sales were in decline and in 1970 Veneman shut KAPA down, selling leftover supplies and machinery to Micro-Frets and Mosrite.  Veneman sold Bradley copy guitars during the 1970s.  In the 1980s the shop got into the mailorder music biz.  The shop still exists, but as a premier Guitar Center location.

In any case, besides being a relatively rare ‘60s soldibody 12-string, this KAPA Continental carries the cachet of having been found unsold in a musty old corner of a musical Temple of Doom in Newark, NJ, next door and an obscure staircase away from a mothballed attic burlesque theater!

 

 

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

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

One of the very cool (for gear heads) fallouts of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan was the great amount of small, oddball guitar makers trying to strike it rich in the 65-68 era. Plenty of small makers from all over the world got the idea that they would go into the guitar business. 1965 was, by far, the biggest year in guitar production up to that point. But then a strange thing happened. Even though garage bands were cropping up all over the place, guitar sales started to shrink (slowly at first). Then, by the late 60’s, you started to see cheap imports from the Asian market competing with the lower end US made guitars (Kays, Danos and Harmonys and so on), putting a serious hit on the US budget brands. And these new makers (budget and high end) who started in the wake of ’65? Most went belly-up within a few years, but left for collectors some very neat-o guitars for our collections.

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

Check out, for instance, this rare bird. A 1966 Wurlitzer Gemini, made at the Hollman-Woodell guitar factory in Neodesha, Kansas. Part of Wurlitzer’s THE WILD ONES series (which included the more pedestrian-looking, but still pretty rad Cougar and Wildcat models), these were made to compete with the best of the domestic market. High end tuners (Klutsons), a wonderful chunky bound neck (like a Fender V shape, but a bit thicker), and a great look highlight the Gemini.

Other cool features include stereo pickups. That’s right – the guitar is wired in stereo, so that the neck pickup is one channel and the bridge pickup the other. With a stereo cord that has a “Y” splitter, that means you can send your bridge pickup to one amp and your neck pickup to another. There’s a traditional 3 position toggle to select the pickups, or set it for both and use the blender knob on the treble side horn. It’s a trippy sound to stand in between two amps with the split signal. Put the tremolo and reverb on one of them, and it’s a great sound. You can also run both pickups, of course, into one amp with the proper cord.

Each pickup has a rocker switch labeled “Jazz” and “Rock”. Predictably, the JAZZ setting cuts the output and trebles, offering a m ore rounded mellow tone. The ROCK setting opens the tone up a bit, boosting the treble and volume. It’s a very versatile guitar, with a high end feel.

The vibrato, with its very stylish W cutaway feels like a cross between a Bigsby and a Mosrite. It has the position under the hand and sound of a Bigsby, but with a hint of the feathery lighter touch of the Mosrite. The bridge has separate plastic posts that intonate very well and allow for the vibrato to return to pitch consistently. The balance is wonderful as well. It’s an odd shaped guitar, but it’s very comfortable to play standing or sitting.

And, obviously, it’s one of the best looking guitars to come out of that king of all great-looking-guitar decades, the 1960’s (sorry all you pointy 80’s fans). If the Airline Reso-glass futuristic model most associated with Jack White earns the nickname of the Jetson model, well what is the Gemini? It out Jetsons the Jetson model itself. Maybe it’s the Spacely model. Or the Cogswell’s Cogs model.

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

So why didn’t they catch on, if they’re so great? Well, a lot of great companies couldn’t withstand the relative slump of the late 60’s and the birth of quality imports. Think of Danelectro, Valco and Kay all going south within a year of each other. Also, maybe they didn’t have enough capital to make enough noise outside of their Kansas factory. Maybe they just weren’t lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

But if you’re looking for any areas where the guitar itself hurt its own chances in the hyper-competitive guitar market of the late 60’s, there are a couple. Wurlitzer could have done better in the finish and the pickups. The finish on all three Wild Ones models had a habit of peeling and cracking. This white Gemini (all three models came in Red, White and Blue) is in surprisingly good shape. It does, however, have the same pickups as the other models, and this isn’t a great thing. While the pickups (the same as one the famed LeBay 2X4 – they were made at the same factory) look to be between the size of a DeArmond Silverfoil and a P-90, sadly they don’t share tone with either of those great pickups. They are clean and solid, tone-wise, but their output is very low and they can’t overdrive the dirtiest of amps. They can get a pretty good snarl going with a nice preamp or a good overdrive pedal, but they aren’t going to sound too tough going straight into most amps. Power and tone-wise, the popular guitar they sound most like (output-wise) is the Fender Mustang.

These are incredibly rare. Most estimates put the entire Wild One line at under one thousand guitars. Of those, the Cougar was the most popular, followed by the Wildcat, leaving the Gemini as the rarest of the rare.

Cool shape. Awesome retro vibe. Stylish. Super rare and hard to come by. And they could use a pickup upgrade. Maybe the more standard MONO wiring. Sounds like a guitar that might be just right for a cool company that re-issues rad guitars from the 60’s (hint, hint, Mike). If enough of you make enough noise, maybe this one could come back from the past.

Fiddling While Rome Burns (1967 Cameo 1402T Electric Guitar)

Now, here’s a piece of guitar history that proves there’s more than meets the eye, a circa 1967 Cameo 1402T! It wasn’t that long ago that violins were considered the superior cousin to its distant relative, the guitar. You know: violins equal classical music equals high class. Guitars equal popular music equals you dancing fool you! I actually was a guitar teacher back in the ’60s and ’70s and that was the attitude back then. All this isn’t so clear nowadays, when fiddlers amplify their axes to play rock! In any case, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that, with all that cultural tension going on, back in the daysome wag should take a swipe back by casting a guitar in the form of a fiddle!

Vintage 1967 Cameo 1402T Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 Cameo 1402T Electric Guitar

Actually, the history of this back and forth between violins and guitars goes back at least to the 1880s and involves another cousin, the mandolin. Back in around 1880 a group of performers named the Spanish Students were all the rage in America. They were a mandolin orchestra and before long there were local copies everywhere, soon followed by banjo orchestras, all usually including guitars. Mandolins have bent or arched tops. What followed was some pretty interesting competition as instrument makers started coming up with variations to woo players of different instruments. This is how the tenor banjo came about. Anyhow, into this mix plunged Orville Gibson in the 1890s with his carved top mandolins, emulating the violin. Later came his harp guitars and then Spanish guitars. Then finally his archtops in the 1920s. Similarly, there were other guitarmakers like the Larson Brothers who stressed or bent their tops somewhat like a mandolin. By the 1930s it was commonly accepted that arching the top of a guitar – either by carving or bending – added to the output volume and most makers were producing violin-like guitars, including Kay which made some model with the top and back extending out with a lip like a violin.

Vintage 1967 Cameo 1402T Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 Cameo 1402T Electric Guitar

The notion of shaping a guitar to look like a fiddle comes from the bass side of guitardom. In the late 1940s Everett Hull started amplifying his double bass with an amplified peg – Ampeg. By 1953 Gibson was producing its violin-shaped Electric bass. By ’56 Hofner in Germany was producing its version, what would become known as the Beatle Bass thanks to Paul McCartney. It was the Europeans who ran with the idea, and by the early ’60s a number of companies were producing both basses and guitars shaped like fiddles. In around ’64 or ’65 Italian-made EKO violin guitars and basses started coming into the US.

These violin guitars became EKO’s most popular models, so it was only a matter of time before the Europeans’ chief competitors, the Japanese, should come out with their own violin basses and guitars. They embraced the concept with gusto and soon an avalanche of fiddle guitars started emanating from most Japanese shops!

Vintage 1967 Cameo 1402T Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 Cameo 1402T Electric Guitar

Who sold the Cameo seen here is unknown, but it’s identical to the Aria 1402T made by or for Arai in Japan. Japan had a virtually indecipherable system of production and exportation back then, with any number of large (or small) shops that built the instruments and another trading company that sold them to distributors in the market country. By the late ’60s one of Arai’s main suppliers was the legendary Matsumoku factory in MatsumotoCity, so it’s possible this came from there, but who knows? All the appointments are the same as on the Aria version, down to the trapezoid-topped pickups.

What we can say for sure is that this guitar is a bit below a Hofner in grade and certainly as good as an EKO. Violin guitars like this Cameo are light-weight and really comfortable to play. Back in the ’60s when this guitar was made Japanese guitars, and especially their pickups, were pretty much a joke to serious guitar players, but looking back these are really not that bad as long as you can deal with the chance for feedback!

So, next time you pick up a violin-shaped guitar, you’ll know it’s about a lot more than Sir Paul. Take that violin players!

Electric Ladyland (1983 Electra Lady XV1RD Electric Guitar)

I love the classic guitar shapes. They’re what attracted me to the guitar oh those many years ago. But as you can probably tell from these little essays, I’m also a sucker for a pretty face. Pretty weird, that is. Like this 1983 Electra Lady XV1RD with a Little Dutch Girl shape!

1983 Electra Lady XV1RD Electric Guitar

1983 Electra Lady XV1RD Electric Guitar

We’ve already talked about that great period in the early to mid-1980s when the New Wave of Heavy Metal, combined with the emergence of L.A. as an important music center, Eddie Van Halen, and hair bands. For just a couple years before Superstrats hijacked everyone, weird-shaped pointy guitars were hip. Well, this is an example of a guitar that takes that to the extreme!

Electra guitars were made by Matsumoku in Japan for St. Louis Music (SLM). SLM started in the 1920s and grew to be a large regional music distributor. They were thick with Kay and from the late 1950s or so through to Kay’s collapse in 1968 offered Kay-made Custom Kraft guitars. Some of these, especially the later ones, are really pretty good guitars. We’ll profile one in time.

1983 Electra Lady XV1RD Electric Guitar

1983 Electra Lady XV1RD Electric Guitar

Like everyone else, SLM couldn’t resist the allure of Japan. Sometime in the late-’60s, SLM started to bring in guitars with the Electra brand. It was probably pretty tentative at first. But when Valco/Kay went under, options were running out. In around 1970 they introduced a “copy” of the Ampeg Dan Armstrong “See-Through” guitar called The Electra. This coincided with the rise of the copy era, and it wasn’t long before Electra was competing with Ibanez for the “beginner” market and beyond. One advantage they had was that they hired a guitar designer named Tom Presley who started designing guitars and supervising the manufacture of the electronics in St. Louis. From a certain point on, guitars came made by Matsumoku but without pickups, which were installed in the US. Those open-coil zebra pickups on Japanese Electras were American. Paul Yandell, who backed Chet Atkins, endorsed them.

Other stuff happened, but this brings us up to the early 1980s and the craze for pointy guitars. Two things happened in around 1983. One: SLM started playing with new pointy guitar designs. Two: SLM entered into a joint venture with Matsumoku and began a year-long process of taking over Matsumoku’s own brand name Westone.

1983 Electra Lady XV1RD Electric Guitar

1983 Electra Lady XV1RD Electric Guitar

There were a bunch of different radical designs introduced by SLM, including this Lady (obvious name!). All had the same hardware and electronics, but different shapes. The shapes speak for themselves. The cool thing was the electronics. These had two humbuckers on either side of a reverse-wound single-coil. This was Presley’s idea from back in 1971. This was controlled by a 3-way with a master volume, two tone controls for the humbuckers, and three pull-up pots. The front pot tapped the humbuckers to single coil. The middle pot activated the middle reverse-wound single-coil, and the rear pot has an out-of-phase function. There are 11 possible pickup combinations, making this one of the most versatile tonal layouts ever invented. These are great, hot, swell-playing guitars! Comfortable too! If you like to sit down, as I do in my old age, this fits very nicely with a classical position. And relatively rare. According to Presley, fewer than 200 of these were ever made. This was not cheap either. Cost was $439.50 in 1984.

From 1983-84 SLM changed its brand from Electra to Electra-Westone to Westone. You see examples of these strange shapes under a variety of names. By 1985 this novel switching system was gone and the Superstrat form was adopted. Too bad. By 1987 or ’88 Singer Sewing Machines had bought Matsumoku and killed guitar production. SLM changed the brand to Alvarez (it’s acoustic brand) and switched production to other plants, including Korea.

It’s kind of funny in a way. Rock and roll has this image and reputation for being on the edge. You know, sex, drugs, throwing TV sets out of your hotel window. Yet if you look at it from a guitar point of view, things look way more conservative. The vast majority of guitar players like the classic old shapes. Not everyone, but most. Except every once in awhile things get turned on their heads. Like when this Electra Lady was made.

Bushwhacked by the Past (1965 Kay K350 Titan I Electric Guitar)

The wonderful thing about the world of design is that every once in awhile you get to feel smug and sit back and say, “WHAT were they smoking?!” In the case of this 1965 Kay K350 Titan I, I’m not sure but what it wasn’t more a confluence of circumstances that created this Frankenstein, because parts of it are actually not that bad, and, to be honest, the quality is surprisingly good. But other parts are downright u-ugly.

Back in the day Kay was actually called Stromberg-Voisinet and actually produced the first documented electric guitar, the Stromberg Electro, in 1928. Good idea but it had some problems and promptly disappeared. Kay didn’t exactly rush back into electrics with any alacrity, but after the War, when it became clear that the electric Spanish guitar was going to be viable, Kay took the plunge like everyone else. Some of its guitars from the 1950s, like the Thin Twin, are classics of the era, though a little stodgy.

1965 Kay K350 Titan I Electric Guitar

1965 Kay K350 Titan I Electric Guitar

By the ’60s guitar boom, of course, Kay was pumping out trainloads of guitars. The market for these mainly beginner-level electric guitars was, of course, young Baby Boomers. By around 1960 Kay was making attempts at upgrading its image to a hipper one, with truly ugly guitars like the Solo King or “State of Ohio” guitar that we’ve talked about before. One of Kay’s improvements was the adoption of chrome plastic pickup covers with etched lines often called “Kleenex boxes” by collectors. They look cheesy to me, but cool cheesy, in a tacky sort of way, if you know what I mean.

But it’s really all about that headstock. Someone at Kay thought they needed to hippify the heads on their solidbodies and came up with what many collectors call the “bushwhacker” design. No chance of being sued by Fender on this puppy! What’s particularly amazing about it is that it must have been a bear to produce. The lower edge or throat is beveled away from the face, while the tip on the upper side is also beveled out, but just beyond the tuner buttons. There’s a ton of carving here in the days before numerical carving machines.

1965 Kay K350 Titan I Electric Guitar

1965 Kay K350 Titan I Electric Guitar

The head, as goofy as it is, isn’t the only impressive feature of the Titan. Those angled double parallelogram inlays are real pearl. Routing for those much have been fun. Then dig the body. Again with the bevels. Everywhere! On a two-piece solid mahogany body. With a good, tight, snug fit for the neck.

And, I guess while I’m complaining, who could love that awful plastic Kay logo? I guess someone did.

1965 Kay K350 Titan I Electric Guitar

1965 Kay K350 Titan I Electric Guitar

In any case, this all came together in 1965 to form the Kay Titan I, a remarkably nice little guitar despite it’s looks. Technically, the Kay Titan I lasted only one year, although it was still around as the Kay Titan II beginning in 1966, when the juke box company Seeburg purchased the company. Little other than names changed with the Seeburg possession, so they obviously didn’t have any objection to bushwhacking or plastic parts. But then again, have you ever seen a juke box? Also cool, but hardly models of high art or great aesthetic taste. More like, “Hey, look at me!”

Come to think of it, maybe it’s NOT the goofy headstock or plastic parts that make this guitar odd. Maybe it’s the really nice mahogany that’s the problem. Maybe the Titan I just needed some pink and green lights and a mirror-ball finish to complete the “Hey, look at me”… Oh well, let’s face it, if guitar designers didn’t come up with some klinkers once in awhile we wouldn’t have the fun of coming up with such goovy descriptions as Kleenex box and bushwhacker.

Losing It in TV? (1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar)

How would you feel if you got a gig playing on your local television station and your gear didn’t work? Well, in a way, that’s what happened to me and this 1965 Teisco TRG-2L guitar! Sort of.

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Like in most major TV markets, the stations where I live have a roving reporter who gets to go around and do stories on the strange and unusual. You know, pieces about people obsessed with carving pumpkins at Halloween and guys with like 8,000 Lionel trains their basements. I guess I fell into the latter category. Somehow one of these reporters found me out and called to do a story on the weirder parts of my guitar collection. Some might argue that’s the whole thing, but he meant the old Kays and Harmonies and Teiscos he remembered from his youth. I reluctantly agreed and he said “Ok, bring a couple hundred of them into your living room.” Right. You gonna carry them? Expletive deleted. But I picked about 30 or so and spread them around.

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Anyhow, on the appointed day the reporter showed up, interviewed me, and started making fun of my guitars. As he worked the room he got to this Teisco with the built-in amp. He threw the switch and hit a chord. Vroo-crackle, crackle. It crapped out. On TV. Ho, ho, ho. More mirth. Oh, great. Doh!

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Then again, maybe having an amp built in to your guitar is something to laugh at. The idea isn’t new. Back in the 1930s both National and Harmony, at least, built cases with amps for their lap steels. But it was left to modern transistorized electronics, and the Japanese application of them to the earliest consumer products, to put the amp into the guitar itself. The result was this TRG-2L, one of several models introduced in 1965 that had a small amp and 3″ speaker built in, operated by two 9-volt batteries. These came in a kind of Stratish shape and a sort of Tele-ish shape. One or two pickups. These were the first of their kind.

Ok, the TV performance aside, these actually do work and are kind of fun to play. You can walk around the house and strum without the tether of a cord. Wanna go to the beach? No need for a plug to entertain that campfire circle. Louie Louie, Oh yeah, we gotta go now. (Or were there other words?) And, like most Japanese guitars from this period, they’re really quite well made – and play well – once you set them up properly. The body is solid mahogany (maple neck), and, in case you’re not at a pig roast, there’s even a headphone jack if you want to use this as a practice guitar.

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Of course, practice and Pignose amps came much later. But guitars like this Teisco were revolutionary in their time and are still fun to play. You can even run them through a regular amp if you want to make a different kind of impression.

Although you might not want to do it on TV. If these early Japanese guitars have a flaw, it’s in the use of extremely thin wire and economical use of solder. Easy to get that crackle, crackle when you least want it. I’m told the video of me trying to salvage some respect for my goofy guitars still circulates occasionally on late-night Philly airwaves (and cable whatever they are). At least it wasn’t me who lost it on TV! Blame it on time and the Teisco. And that darned cynical reporter.