Sunday, December 9, 2012

1950s Spanish Electric Guitars - early solidbody electrics

Well... maybe I set my sights a bit high for this blog - I wanted to do really detailed posts including everything I knew about each guitar or pedal or whatever, but that needs time and good photos, and I don't have the motivation for that anymore, so I will not be geeking out quite so much from now on, but I will be doing more blogging more often. You can find more pics of most of what I talk about here on my Flickr page

Ok - here we go with:

Older, more basic guitars

I got interested in old guitars because of their individuality. In the 90s, I basically got anything interesting that came my way that was cheap, mostly '60s guitars - some I've kept, some not. I was very influenced by a book called Bizarre Guitars that a friend loaned me  - it's a Japanese book of photos of weird MIJ guitars from the 60s mostly - Teisco, Kawai, Hummingbird, Guyatone etc. I wanted a Japanese 4-pickup guitar! But as time has gone by I've found myself moving towards older more basic one-pickup guitars.

The oldest guitars (and the most recently acquired ones) I have are also the most basic design, from the early to mid 1950s. Various companies added pickups to archtop guitars from the 1930s onwards, but solid body electric guitars were just being established in the 1950s. Flat top solids are often referred to as Spanish Electric Guitars.The ones I have are made up of three pieces of wood - a long middle piece that forms the neck, and two pieces attached on either side that make up the body. The necks are not adjustable, but they probably have some kind of metal reinforcement.

The Harmony Stratotone(s) 

The single pickup version (H44) was introduced in 1952, and was available until 1957 or '58. It predates the Stratocaster, a totally different instrument with a similar name. The Harmony company already had a long history of making stringed instruments up to this point, but this is their first solid body guitar. The earliest ones don't have the model name on the headstock, just the company name with a kind of 'wave' graphic underneath. In 1953 they switched to a stencilled design, incorporating the 'atomic musical note'. I think mine is a 1953 because soon after the edge of the body became a bit less rounded. I bought this a body only, and collected the rest of the of the parts on ebay. The scratchplate/pickguard and knobs repros. I had a repro bridge too, but decided I liked the sound of a solid metal bridge - the one on there is a modified Hagstrom micro-matic bridge without the saddles. This is what it looks like now:

In 1954 Harmony came up with a 2-pickup solid Stratotone, and called it the H88 'Doublet'. It was only made for 3 or 4 years. It has the same body as H44, but but different pickups, and an 'ebonized' fretboard with block inlays instead of dots. It was promoted as a top-of-the-line professional model, and has a smoother feel and sound to the single pickup mode. l prefer the feel of the H88 over the H44, but like the sound of the pickup on the H44 better. Too bad! The guitar is mostly original. It cane with the original bridge, but again I prefer a solid metal bridge - this one is brass - another modified Hagstrom part, shown here:

Kay K-125, 1952

The other guitar of this early solid 'through neck' design is made by one of Harmony's main competitors, Kay. Both companies were based in Chicago (as was Valco, another company whose guitars I like) and they are generally assumed to be cheap crap by most guitarists, who only remember their entry-level guitars and later import models. Harmony probably had the edge in terms of quality, but Kay guitars can be good too (though my direct experience of them is limited). This is the K-125, Kay's first solid, from 1952. Construction-wise it's pretty similar to the H44, but it has a longer scale length. It's not clear who came first.
1952 catalogue image showing original finish
The Kay also has a slimmer neck (more prone to bowing), and a different pickup. Unlike Harmony, who bought pickups from Gibson and DeArmond-Rowe, Kay made their own pickups - the one on the K-125 is usually referred to as a blade pickup, or as 'Thin Twin' pickup, after the hollow-body model played by Jimmy Reed. The tiger striped plastic pickup mount a control panel are the coolest things about this guitar is purely aesthetic terms, and they are in great condition, along with the original knobs and switch.

Mine has been through the wars a bit, and was the victim of a hippy refinish and headstock repair, probably in the 70s. I stripped it and tried to stain it a chestnut/rust red, with limited success. I think it looks better than it did before at least. I have the original wooden bridge, but put on a modified Bigsby bridge for a brighter sound with more 'attack'. The neck has a bow, which is not too bad, but may have to be addressed in the future.

It originally had a short lead hard-wired to a hole in the edge of the guitar by the tailpiece. If it had been the original lead I would have left it, but it wasn't. I found it irritating so I filled that hole and made a bigger one for a standard jack plug and plate in the side between the knobs. I got some oval-head wood screws and 'aged' them so they wouldn't look too shiny and a repro 1950s Gibson-style jack plate:

Why do I like these guitars? I like idea that they were built before rock'n'roll, that they are the first generation of solid body electric guitars and 60 or so years later they are still going and sounding great. The Harmonys feel very solid, they have huge necks by modern standards, but I learned to play on a big neck, even though my hands are on the small side. It feels comfortable and right. The Kay is lighter, and has a few problems, but it still sounds and feels good. If there were affordable new guitars on the market with something like this vibe, I would be interested, It's fun to tinker and experiment with old guitars, but a new guitar with no issues would also be welcome. I've been keeping tabs on a new UK company called Raw Guitars - they have some interesting ideas, but I suspect they will be pricey when they launch properly next year. In the meantime, check out the designs on their website.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Good Fuzzy Sounds!

Good Fuzzy Sounds

All right - I've done a zine about fuzz - it's called Good Fuzzy Sounds, it's written and illustrated by me, is 28 pages long and costs £2 or €3 or $4 post paid.

It covers my own first experiences of fuzz and diy pedal-building, a detailed two-part history of early fuzzy sounds on records  up to 1961, leading to the Maestro Fuzztone in the US and the Tone Bender in the UK, the growth of internet fuzz geek networks, the mythology of the mojo transistor, and interviews with Pepe Rush, an early fuzz innovator on the London scene, and Devi Ever, graduate of the internet DIY pedal scene and modern fuzz goodess. Plus 'my favourite fuzz', a true life story comic strip, drawings of all 33 of my fuzz pedals, and fuzz luminaries such as Gary Hurst, Vic Flick, Big Joe Sullivan, Lee Hazlewood, Glenn Snoddy, Craig Anderton and many more. It's all fuzz, all the time, printed in red on beautiful pale blue paper. It even explains what fuzz is if you don't happen to know. It's a winner!

Pay by Paypal in the currency of your choice, and don't forget your address. It will probably be in a few shops and distros sometime, but for now it's available direct from me only. Email address for Paypal - - £2 or €3 or $4 postage paid.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Reginald Johnson - Godfather Of Turntablism!

In the summer of 1927 the manager of the Theatre De Luxe cinema in Leeds replaced his orchestra with one man and a Brunswick Panatrope - a dual turntable record player. Rather than just playing records over the films like other Panatrope operators, Reginald Johnson, a skilled musician, recognised the full potential of the machine to develop an entirely new technique of musical presentation.

By October Johnson had a library of 250 records, and was combining sections of 25-40 discs per film, marking the segments with chalk, working from a complex cue sheet, and changing the needle on each deck for every record played. I don’t think he did any intentional scratching, but I think there’s reasonable grounds to name him the Godfather of Turntablism.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In Defence of Trash

Bubblegum music evolved from the more commercial singles-driven teen side of rock, and the more cynical side of the music business. Bands like Tommy James and the Shondells, Paul Revere and The Raiders, and the Strangeloves - an imaginary band dreamed up by the Feldman, Goldstein + Gottehrer production team, and obviously the Monkees. These pioneers rubbed shoulders with novelty acts like The Royal Guardsmen and in 1967-8 bubblegum was born, through capitalist osmosis. It's key elements were crass commerciality, dumbness and superficiality, with a strong element of producer-manager-record company control, quickly reaching the point where the 'bands' didn't exist at all, and it didn't matter. Arguably it's the beginning of pop as we know it.

At the end of his influential rock'n'roll history book The Sound of the City, Charlie Gillett spares a few moments to sanctimoniously castigate the producers of this new low in rock music as he saw it, describing it as "the blight of the late sixties… music planned entirely as product, not as anybody's art." If he could see and hear what was on the manufactured pop horizon in the '70s and beyond, maybe he wouldn't have been so dismissive.

Sure - bubblegum records were not performed by 'proper' bands or written by serious social commentators or sensitive artists, but they knew what they were doing and they did it right - they had tunes , killer choruses and a good beat - what's the problem? There's good and bad in any genre, but the best bubblegum came out of the Kazenatz-Katz circle - Super K Productions, on Buddha and many other labels, big and small. You might object to the nasal vocal stylings of the ubiquitous Joey Levine, lead singer on hits like Yummy Yummy, Quick Joey Small and many others, but that's a minor issue you just have to come to terms with. If you really can't take it, there's always the super-smooth Archies lead singer Ron Dante to groove to. The Archies were already a successful comic book franchise when Don Kirshner (the man who brought us the Monkees) made them into an animated tv series and pop hit machine, with the help of Brill building king Jeff Barry. They are more bland than the Kasenatz-Katz outfits, but still had some excellent tunes. Plus they aren't even pretending to be real, they are fictional, two dimensional! The Banana Splits had some good songs too - the fact that you had to collect coupons from cereal boxes to get them doesn't detract from this.

Bubblegum was churned out on rockin' poppin' production lines - inane but catchy songs by manufactured groups with silly names. Nobody condemned Berry Gordy for this kind of approach in Detroit 10 years before, so why doesn't bubblegum get any respect? Because rock had apparently 'grown up' during the '60s. Singles were out and albums were in, "real music" was either going down the blind alley of blues rock in the search for authenticity, or disappearing up it's own arse looking for the lost chord, thanks to Sergeant Pepper. The best bubblegum records, on the other hand, were 3 minute pop blasts following to the golden rules of Mark E Smith's three Rs - rock and roll and repetition - dig it! Who would you rather listen to - Eric Clapton or the 1910 Fruitgum Company?

I dream of forming a bubblegum covers band that everyone will love - we would have a wide repertoire of little known gems like Pinch Me and Sweeter Than Sugar and it would be super fun to play! Will my dream ever come true?

While writing this I discovered that Don Kirshner died a few weeks ago in Florida. He prettty much started it all, for better or worse. And after I'd finished it I also found another piece on bubblegum by my old pal Bob Stanley (him again - mentioned in the last post too) from a couple of months ago - never mind, eh?

Sunday, October 3, 2010


A diversion from my usual stuff... 1989 was the year I did my last music fanzine - I did 8 or 9 issues between 1984 and 1989 - most were called Adventure In Bereznik, but the last few had other names, but always with Bereznik in the title. But this isn't really about that so much as it is about a band I haven't thought much about in the last 20 years, but millions of other people have - Manic Street Preachers.

The main source of info on the band's early years seems to be an article in Record Collector, the end of which focuses on the roles of Kevin Pearce and Bob Stanley in getting them their first London gig, and then reviewing it. I was friends with Kevin and Bob, and Kevin had told me about this amazing band who would blow me away, so when they played with the Claim (an excellent but obscure band, one of Kevin's faves) I was there. As the '80s drew to a close, good bands were thin on the ground. 'Independent' music was going corporate and embracing pre-punk 70s rock, which we seriously disapproved of at the time, and of course Kevin always had great taste. Of course there was never a 'fanzine mafia' at all, but this kind of lazy journalistic hindsight would probably have included us.

I was introduced to the band, and probably gave them fanzines. The setting was inauspicious, but typical of the kinds of gigs I had been going to several times a month for years. The lack of a stage wasn't unusual, nor was the damp patch in the corner. I don't remember much else, except that they looked really young and were very nervous; but like a small controlled explosion, they lit up the drab upstairs room of a central London pub for an instant. The set flew by. I remember we laughed (as Bob mentions in the RC article), but it was more like a nervous laugh - they didn't make sense - how could they be so serious, look so silly, but be so amazing?! I didn't talk to them much but they had a friend, like a sort of older brother figure, who wasn't quite their manager, but had something like that role, which included talking to people and being friendly. I think he probably drove the van too, and he gave me a copy of Suicide Alley from it after the next gig in Shepherds Bush soon after. I really don't remember, but for some reason the name Martin came to me as I was writing this.

Anyway, the Record Collector piece also mentions Richey's campaign of writing to fanzine editors to promote the band. So Richey wrote to me too, enclosing a photo. I don't think I have the letter anymore, and I I didn't write back, but I was looking for photos of a band I was in in the '90s when I found the photo. All this time had passed without realising I was in it.

I'm not 100% sure the photo is at the Horse and Groom, it might be from the Shepherd's Bush gig, but it's London, 1989, they are wearing the right stencilled shirts, and they are the support band. I'm there (at the front, in the white t-shirt in front of Richey), as is Kevin. I'm not sure if can recognise Bob from the back of his head, but I think I can see him too. I kind of wish I could say I've been a fan ever since, but I haven't - in my world this was their peak, and I lost interest pretty quickly, but it was a good night.

Monday, September 13, 2010

atypical outstruments

This was published in a zine about the A-Band over the summer, and shows some of the diy instruments that I play. People ask me what I play in the A-Band quite a lot - and this is why my answers are a bit vague. I used to draw comics quite a lot, but slowly gave it up.... There are photos of most things illustrated in this set.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Den Outing: DJ-ing at Kira’s 40th

When Kira asked me to play at her birthday party on Friday night I was flattered and jumped at the chance!

I love DJ-ing, but rarely get a chance these days…

My first regular outing was at the amazing before-it’s-time rock’n’roll cicrus that was Kitsch Bitch in the late 90s, first at what is now the Buffalo Bar, and later at Madame Jo-Jo’s. I varied my sets a lot but would try to get in something like Slow Down by Larry Williams or Sonic Reducer by the Dead Boys, or the National Anthem of Rock’n’Roll – Louie Louie. Rocket No 9 by NRBQ didn’t go down so well, but I’m glad I played it once at least.

After that I was invoved in a much smaller bar thing called the Imperial Pop Museum, with Matthew and Bob, in a place on the edge of Shoreditch, before it exploded into the hipster hell-hole it is today. We would play mostly 60s soul and pop and bubblegum between us, with some psych and garage punk, but not enough to spoil the generally calm vibe. I can’t even remember the name of the place. It had a sort of mod/James Bond theme; I expect it’s closed or has been made over by now.

The next request for my services came from Transfabulous, a trans arts festival run by some pals. I played at a couple of nights for them at the Pleasure Unit in Bethnal Green around 2006/7 I think, playing more uptempo 60s and 70s soul /disco and some 70s punk sort of stuff – Mighty Real by Sylvester was the best received of the night – it was great to see people dancing and loving it!

The next call came from Kira's pal Iris at the Moth Club at the St Aloysius Social Club near Euston. I had free reign here to play whatever I wanted, pretty much a mixture of all of the above, plus stuff like Totally Wired by The Fall, Memphis Soul Stew by King Curtis and the mighty Shack Up! by Banbarra, which I’d only recently bought, after knowing the weedy version by A Certain Ratio for many Years. I enjoyed the DJ-ing, but got busy working on my MA so had to drop it.

And after the 45 party this January, Kira asked me to play at her 40th party underneath the Westway in another social club type place, the Maxilla. It was a great night, with a band playing Ramones and AC/DC covers and Wreckless Eric’s Whole Wide World and a big friendly crowd.

These are the records I played, mostly in order if I can remember. I play all 45s as they are easy to cue up and are cut loud. I only had 40 mins as the band played later than planned, but I didn’t mind…

The Name Game by Shirley Ellis – a good fun record to start! Nobody cares that it sounds exactly like her other UK hit the Clapping Song.

Rip Her To Shreds by Blondie is just one of their best songs! Kira lived in New York for a while and I knew she loves this stuff as much as I do.

Ride Your Pony by Lee Dorsey – no particular reason to play this other than it’s great – it’s got more of a funky New Orleans sound than the also-great Betty Harris version.

Jumpin’ Jack Flash – Rolling Stones – just another brilliant record, by a band at their absolute peak I think. In the back of my mind I also connected this to Kira through a friend of hers, but I really only played because of the line “I was rayyyzed by a tooth-less bearded hag!”

All I Want by Snatch – Kira is the best connected person I know, which is evident in every issue of her ‘dotty anti-fashion magazine’ Cheap Date and the excellent Cheap Date Guide To Style. Amongst her pals is one half of Snatch. She was invited to the party, but I don’t know whether she made it - I don’t think I would recognise her now anyway. This was the most obscure record in my set – I’m glad I played but not many people were dancing – time for the secret weapon:

Rapper’s Delight – Sugarhill Gang – INCREDIBLE record, and luckliy Kira loves it too! Once a bit over-exposed, I hadn’t listened to it for years, though I’ve heard lots of it in samples! I auditioned it last week and it blew me away. My only dilemma was whether to play the radio edit or the full 6 mins – with time short I went with the edit, but I think this was my favourite of the night along with the next one –

Shack Up! – Banbarra – for so long I just assumed A Certain Ratio wrote this, but glad I found out the truth, because this is one of the best dance records ever, and the anti-marriage message is cool too!

So – you’ve got the dancefloor full for 2 records – what do you play next? Something you love and hope they’ll like, risking the momentum, or something similar to keep it going? Well, floor-fillers don’t come any better that the last 2, and I had to choose between The Night by Frankie Valli which I totally LOVE but not sure how well-known it is, or Shame Shame Shame by Shirley & Co. I cued up The Night, but changed my mind at the last second. As a DJ your duty is to make people dance, not play your favourite records and hope. SSS is a groovy enough tune; I don’t love it – but people danced!

I kept the funky feeling going with Polk Salad Annie by Tony Joe White – I heard this a while back on someone’s CD player as I walked past the maket stalls setting up in the morning on my way work. It sounded good so put it in the box this week. It went well, but sometimes records drag a little on the dancefloor if they are too long, and this one did I think.

Next up another NYC record – New York Groove by Ace Frehley – this is one of the oldest records I have that I still play and love – sort of genre-defying glam-rock disco bubblegum. Kira is a fan of Frehley’s incredibly mean but funny ghost-written biog Kiss And Tell.

And back to some hard 60s soul – Let’s Wade In The Water by Marlena Shaw – excellent in every way, the original Chess version with the trumpet fanfare at the beginning beats the more piano-y rendition, because it’s longer and has better ad-libs at the end. I love the ever-expanding water-fish-boats metaphors in this this song, which are many miles from its origins in the slavery era – at one point Shaw refers to herself as a “fish-flappin’ mama”!

Feeling the minutes slipping away now, it’s got to be time for I Love Rock’n’Roll by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. A Kitsch Bitch staple, this song was subsequently lost to hipster irony for several years. We want our record BACK! It is not a joke, you wankers! Possibly the best guitar sound on any record ever, and yeah – I do love Rock’n’Roll.

I was going to follow this with Get It On by T Rex, but decided just in time that the only thing rock’n’roll enough to match it would be Born To Lose by Johnny Thunders and the fucking Heartbreakers. “I can’t HIT IT!”

And getting towards the end I allowed myself one indulgence – Head Held High by the Velvet Underground. The floor thinned out a bit, but then who has the energy to dance to 5 records in a row? Not me.

Last record - a request by Charlotte – Nut Rocker by B Bumble & the Stingers, which perfectly epitomises one facet of the great rock’n’roll dumb/brilliant dialectic. Of course the crowd love it and one and the preceding DJs, Poppy, comes over to congratulate me for playing it – she calls it ‘a real stormer’ and she’s right.

While the next DJ set was setting up I got one more, so naturally I went for Lucille by Little Richard. I love the way the backing track sounds a bit muffled at the start and his voice just slices it all open!

So, yeah - I had a blast DJ-ing - thanks to Kira one more time, and to everyone for dancing. Playing records is the easiest thing in the world, but keeping people dancing can be hard, so I did pretty well!

Email me through the address on my profile page if you want me to play records for you too.