If the Guitar World Were Like the Computer World October 15, 2009
What It Would Be Like If The Guitar World Were Like The Digital Music World –
[It occurs to me that every time I come back from the music store with a piece of guitar equipment, I’ve got this really – “Oh boy! I can’t wait to try this out!” type of attitude. And every time I come back from the music store with a piece of computer music equipment, I’ve got this really – “I wonder how much craziness this is going to take before I finally actually get this thing to work?” type of attitude. So I put some wood on the fire and I came up with this little piece:]
So you go into this music store and you try out this Telecaster through this Twin reverb, and it sounds great and it plays great, so you buy it. And you take it home and plug it into your Marshall Plexi and you can’t get any sound out of it. So you call up the guy at the music store who sold it to you and he says, “Well, when you were here in the store you were trying it out through a Fender amp. You need to log on the Web and get Fender’s Marshall driver for the Telecaster.” So you log on and you can’t find the right web page. They’ve got Tele-Mesa.bin and a zillion other drivers, but not one that interfaces that particular model Tele with the Marshall.
However, as you’re looking around, you realize that there’s a link to a third party that has written a driver for the Stratocaster and the Marshall. It’s from some website in Holland, but that doesn’t make any difference. You think, “Well, that should work.” So you download that one, decompress it and install it. Now, not only will your Telecaster not work on your Marshall, but your old Les Paul won’t work through your Marshall anymore, either. You go over to your friend’s house and you try your Tele out on his Twin, and you realize it won’t even play through the Fender anymore.
So you e-mail tech support at Fender and you get an automatically generated return message that tells you they’re aware of your problem and they’re working on it. They send you the address for their question and answer website and you surf over there, and you learn a whole lot of stuff, but nothing that has to do with your problem. Then Fender gets back to you four days later and they tell you to hold down on the pick-up selector switch while pressing the tone control and it will restore the default settings on both the Telecaster and the Les Paul. Then you get this advertisement in your e-mail about a new distortion pedal that Boss just came out with, and you can run a Tele through a Marshall with it. You try it out at the music store with a Tele and a JCM-800 and it smokes. So you buy it, and you take it home, but it only works with your neck pick-up.
So you e-mail tech support at Boss and they tell you it’s a hardware problem and you have to call Marshall. So you call Marshall (you can’t find any e-mail address on Marshall’s Web site) and after keeping you waiting on the line for thirty five minutes, they tell you that you were trying it out in the store with a much newer Marshall. The Plexi’s operating system is too old for that driver and it needs a work-around that can be downloaded at http://www.severedhead.com/marshall.vintagedrivers.html/, or they’ll send it to you on a Zip disk for sixty bucks.
The Web site is no longer up, and you don’t have a Zip drive anymore, but your friend does, so you send in the sixty bucks and a week later you get the driver, only your friend has a Macintosh and you have a PC. He’s assured you, “No problem, my Mac can read PC files as easily as it reads Mac files. C’mon over, we’ll experiment.” You don’t like the way he says “experiment” but you’re out of options and so you give it a shot. Everything seems to go fine and you transfer everything from his Zip to your CD, but when you get home your computer says, “This disk is unreadable.” Then you realize that you left your guitar in your car when you got home from your friend’s house. You run outside, but somebody’s already stolen it!
(I know it’s a bullshit ending, but I ran out of ideas – I need to re-poke my EPROM and crank it up to eleven).
Fender Guitar Characteristics October 7, 2009
An Outline of Changes to Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters.
The origin of the Telecaster has some dispute, because several models came out similar or more or less identical to the Telecaster in the earliest days of Fender. The Esquire, put on the production line in 1949, was virtually identical to the later-designed Telecaster with the important omission of the neck pickup (?!). The Broadcaster was really the first model to imitate the Telecaster entirely, but as most stories have it, the first ones had no truss rod in the neck. (!) It also had a different wiring system than the Tele eventually sprouted. Instead of a tone control it was built with a “blend” knob. This blend knob met with mixed reviews; inevitably there are some still today who complain that no newer Tele has ever really sounded as good because of the conversion of this blend knob to a more standard tone control.
There was also at this point the birth of the so-called. “No-Caster,” dubbed because it had no title at all on the headstock except the “Fender” label. These were mostly turned out in the winter of late 50′, early 51′. By the spring of 51, Fender’s flagship solidbody guitar was pretty much set: two pick-ups and a trussrod and the name “Telecaster” on the headstock.
Shortly after the Telecaster began to interest musicians, Fender introduced the Precision Bass. This instrument’s contribution to modern music cannot be exaggerated. Leo Fender is in the elite circle among the many people who contributed to the invention and development of the electric guitar. But only one man invented the electric bass guitar: Leo Fender. To many players, the terms, “Fender bass” and “bass guitar” are literally synonymous. This instrument was amazingly portable compared to a string bass, allowing bass players to be much more mobile. It put out a loud, aggressive chunky but expressive sound unlike anything ever heard before. It provided the kind of high-energy foundation to a band’s sound that inspired rock ‘n roll to develop. And it was lots of fun to play, being much easier to learn than the string bass.
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on this instrument in this article because I’m devoting it to six string guitars. Generally speaking, all of Fender’s developments that I mention regarding the Stratocaster and Telecaster apply equally to their line of bass guitars.
In 1954, Fender came out with an entirely new design, dubbed the “Stratocaster”, it sported three single coil pickups, a three position switch that sent the signal from each pickup out in each position, one master volume and two tone controls, one for the neck pickup and one for the middle pick-up. Leo Fender had completely redesigned the guitar’s bridge, adding a “Whammy bar” balanced in the back of the guitar with three springs that allowed the player to imitate pedal steel, bottleneck and lap guitar performers (remember Leo was thinking primarily of Country players at this time: Gibson Epiphone and Guild had pretty much cornered the market on Jazz. Rock n’ Roll had not been invented yet (!)).
Anyway, by the summer of 1954, the central core of Fender’s instrument catalogue (and indeed, much of the electric guitar playing world) was fixed till the present day. It is remarkable how that catalogue of guitars literally changed how the world hears and plays music.
Here are some important dates that may help identify the year of a fender guitar. Remember that everything is somewhat approximate. Until the eighties, Fender guitar company never dreamed so much importance would ever be placed on the age of their instruments:
1951 saw the Telecaster appear fully formed.
1952 saw the debut of the Precision base.
1954 saw the debut of the Stratocaster.
1959 was the last year of the original run of one piece maple necks, and the first year of the three tone sunburst finish (red added to yellow and brown). After this point necks came standard with rosewood fingerboards glued to maple. There are a few exceptions that were replacements or special orders (there was no Fender Custom Shop until the eighties).
1965 Leo Fender’s sale of his company to Columbia Broadcasting Corporation becomes final. Leo retires. He was having serious health problems which cleared up a few years later, allowing him to create first Music Man and later G&L guitar companies. These companies made some excellent guitars, basses and amps available, but somehow never quite captured the magic of Leo’s design capabilities in the forties, fifties and early sixties.
Thus began a twenty year period in which Fender was owned by CBS. Not without merit, but the value of instruments in this period has been much disputed.
1967 Fender resorted to larger headstocks.
1968 Fenders started appearing with the larger lettering on the headstocks. This decision was made because they wanted people to identify their guitars on television (more rockers were appearing on T.V. shows).
1971 was the first year of the infamous “Bullet Head” truss rod and three bolt neck. The neck plate in back at the base of the neck became somewhat triangular, supporting three bolts instead of four on a rectangular plate, as had previously been the case. These necks were said to shift at times, throwing the guitar out of tune. Some were very solid, though, and Fender even re-issued this design in the nineties (?).
1974 was the last year of the staggered pole piece pickups. Fender pickups now had even pole heights for their pickups until the reissues began in the early eighties.
1976 Fender begins a more or less logical numbering system for instrument identification that has continued, with variations, till this day. The serial number begins with a letter that denotes the decade the guitar was made: “S” for “seventies”, “E” for “eighties”, etc. After this letter, the first number of the serial number indicates the year the guitar was made. “S6” therefore, would be seventy six, etc.
1980 saw a return to the four bolt neck and rectangular neck plate, while retaining the larger headstock and lettering.
1981 was the year Fender employees found a cache of guitar parts lost since the fifties. In response to the increasing value of older guitars, the company decided to build some guitars exactly the way they had been built in previous decades and use these vintage parts. This was the beginning of an enormous trend in re-issues that continues to this day.
1983 Fender Japan opens for business, taking all of the re-issue work off the hands of American employees until the early nineties. The Japanese Fenders are good quality instruments at a somewhat lower price (usually about 3/4 the cost of their American cousins), but so far have not become real collector’s items.
1985 With earnings at an all-time low, CBS sells Fender to a group of independent investors. Because the guitar parts took so long to sell, any Fender with a serial number E 4etc, could be considered an ’84, ’85, ’86 or ’87.
By 87, with the innovation of Fender Lace Sensor pickups, the acquisition of the Spirtzel Locking Machine Head company (tuning pegs that, allegedly, stay in tune much better than the old ones). And some other modern innovation in guitar design, Fender is once again at the forefront of electric guitar technology. The “Strat Plus,” “Strat Ultra” and signature models by such guitar heroes as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughn sparks a new interest in Fenders.
Strats begin to sprout Humbucking bridge pickups Floyd Rose tremolo bridges with locking nuts and other design features that put them squarely in the Heavy Metal era. It should be remembered that Floyd Rose and all of the others who pioneered these advancements in guitar design were originally inspired by Leo Fender in the first place. He will always remain at the very pinnacle of those who seek to pioneer guitars, and inventions in general.
Guitar fashion in the 90’s saw a renewed love of older music styles and older guitar sounds. Kurt Cobain used Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars, guitars considered to be somewhat off-models. He eliminated a lot of effects and inspired a generation to use guitars in a more straightforward way.
Fender found itself in the middle of a blues revival in the nineties.
Essay: Peculiar Perspectives in Guitar Making
So much has been said about the major and obscure guitar companies that I don’t think I’ll attempt to outline their histories entirely. I will try to limit my comments to my own personal experience in a way that may be helpful beyond mere opinion.
It would be easy for me to rave on about the wonders of the legendary Vintage Guitar. Many people treat vintage guitars as if they were gods. It is not difficult to find information on vintage guitars on the web and elsewhere, and it’s a snap to find the home pages for each of these companies. I’ve got them in my own “Guitar Links” page, if you go to my home page at randychance.com and then the main guitar page, you’ll find it (work a little).
Anyway, I am a guitar player. For me that always takes precedence above being a guitar collector. Therefore, I believe the most valuable information I can give some people is this:
IT’S OKAY NOT TO OWN A VINTAGE GUITAR !!!
Maybe I’m stepping on some people’s toes with that attitude. So be it.
I personally have gone through a lot of anguish NOT owning vintage guitars, and perhaps even more anguish when I DID own vintage guitars and they just weren’t all that great from a player’s viewpoint. Is a 1957 Stratocaster with a $10,000 price tag really 20 times better than a 1991 Stratocaster with a $500 price tag? [This is a rhetorical question: I would never pay $10,000 for a guitar.]
Maybe to some people the older guitar really is that much better. But I think it’s very important to distinguish between the PRIORITIES of playing as opposed to collecting. Although whole books can be written on the subject [and have been], in my experience it can be summed up in the following sentence:
Collectors are attracted to virgins,
Players are attracted to whores.
[No chauvinism is intended here – it’s a metaphorical statement which is meant to comment on the mentalities of musicians, not women. Any woman musician can easily find a variation on the above statement which would appropriately apply to her. In fact, I’d like to hear from you if you do]
So, in that spirit, I propose a web page perhaps somewhat opposite from most web pages in this genre:
The OPPOSITE of a vintage guitar web page.
I would like to discuss some of the advantages of NOT having vintage guitars, in the hopes that it may be helpful, on a spiritual level as well as a practical level.
First of all, on a spiritual level, here’s the main thing I have to say –
Don’t shoot yourself if you don’t have a vintage guitar collection!!!!
The person who plays well is far more valuable that the guitar he/she plays.
Now, on a practical level, the following observances: –
Fender – Telecasters and Stratocasters are the greatest guitars NOT to own a vintage model of, because you can exchange parts endlessly with no guilt pangs. Bolt-on necks are interchangable, and pickup assemblies are easy to swap. Leo Fender himself, I’m sure, would have been the last person on Earth to imagine that the guitar models his factory cranked out in such unending, assemblyline machination would someday be held in so much awe as vintage items.
There’s nothing more satisfying than pulling an entire pickguard assembly out of a Stratocaster, lock stock and potentiometers, and replacing it with something completely different and unpredictable. There’s only two wires to re-solder: those that lead to the output jack. Who’s gonna worry about getting their axe stolen when the body started out in Japan and the electronics say “Seymore Duncan”? . Strats are my work guitars – I’ve got four that are all mongrels, not one has a pedigree.
Gibson – Although most Gibson models have glue-on necks and are therefore harder to exchange, other hardware, including bridges, tailpieces, tuning pegs, end jacks, nuts and pickups are surprisingly easy to swap from one guitar to another, as has been aptly demonstrated by the Gibson guitar company itself, since they have designed so many different model Gibsons through the decades and often embellish one with parts left over from an earlier discontinued model. Who can possibly keep track of all those models, anyway? If George Grun can’t remember every ES and L, who am I to attempt the project? So why not just experiment all you want? Most people won’t know the difference anyway, and will be too wimpy to say anything if they think they notice a discrepancy here or there. I mean, what is it with this Flame-Top-Maple-Three-Color-Wine-Honey-Sunburst finish, anyway? Does it help the sound better one single soltiary note? Torch the thing! Everybody is scared to play a guitar that looks too good! When a guitar looks aweful, it’s fun to play!!
Gretsch – What can I say about the guitar company whose employees swap and pirate their own parts with such unending and relentless abandon as the Gretsch Guitar Company? Are there any four Gretschs bearing the same model name that really are identical? If anyone invented the “each one is different” concept of guitar making, it was Gretsch. I can just see them in their factory in Brooklyn [Brooklyn? Talk about Urban Cowboys!] saying, “Let’s see, why don’t we stick an extra tone control over here on these three.” The harder to describe a model specifically, the more it’s worth in the vintage market, right? It’s almost as if they could have seen into the future. “This one’ll be worth twice as much if we just sort of arbitrarily decide to stick another pickup over here. Don’t put it any place logical, sort of left-of-right-center- that’s it!” I wouldn’t be surprised if, upon close enough scrutiny, one discovers that they even occasionally swapped hardware parts from the Gretsch Drum Company! “Hey Rufus! These lug nuts sure make good tuning pegs!” Nothing if not eclectic, right?
And a minor yet stress-reducing added advantage to not owning vintage guitars is that you don’t have to surf websites where pages take three and a half hours to come up on your screen because the webmaster is so damned obsessed with shoving his 1200-by-1600-pixel image of his stupid 1954-Hickory-sunburst-whatever in your face!!
So my advice to you, Everyman Guitar Player, is this: “Swap all you want!” Think of Pete Townsend back in the sixties, smashing those Strats and Rickenbacker twelve string guitars to splinters! Think of what they’d be worth today: Who Cares! Did he think of what they’d be worth today? Hell, no, he was too busy taking chances, being irreverent, entertaining western civilization in decline and making a legend of himself!
At that time a kid could buy a decent Fender, Gretsch or Gibson in a pawnshop for next to nothing and put some mattresses up in his parents’ garage [or better yet, someone else’s garage] and go at it and learn to play like Jimi Hendrick (or at least convince himself that’s what he was doing). Now all those guitars are sitting in glass cases in Hermetically sealed environments so some Japanese yuppie can sip brandy and brag about them to his friends, as if he bagged a tiger in Africa, or something. Meanwhile, the kid has got to put up with some Korean hack job with a neck like a banana that won’t be worth firewood in two years!
IS that JUSTICE?
I say, “Buzz saw them all, and let God choose his own”.
Randy Chance, L.A. 2009