Monday, August 11, 2008

Silvertone Artist, 1958

This guitar was made by the Valco company of Chicago, for the Sears Roebuck department store house brand Silvertone. Valco also made the National line of guitars and amps, the ‘budget’ Supro line, and a range of brands incuding Oahu and other department store house brands like Airline for Montgomery Ward. It has some similarities to the Supro Rhythm Tone and Belmont models of the late 1950s, with a different headstock, scratchplate/pickguard and tailpiece. The serial number X86897 puts it in early 1958. Valco also made a two-pickup solid body guitar for Sears /Silvertone in 1958, much like the first version of the Supro Dual Tone. For some reason the two Valco guitars were given the same model name by Sears - The Artist, with the same distinctive ‘electric cowboy’ headstock logo. On the two pickup version it’s silver, on the single pickup one I have it’s gold. There aren’t many Valco-made Silvertones around, and they don’t seem to have lasted long enough to get into one of their famous mail order catalogues. The Artist is a basic guitar, but it feels really great to play. You hear a lot about ‘baseball bat’ necks online, but this is the real thing. I find it very comfortable to play, though my hands aren’t large - the neck is thick. but with a narrower than usual fretboard. Called the ‘Kord King’ neck in Supro catalogues, it has a ‘feather-light modern aircraft metal’ rod running down it but no tension adjustment. It has an ebony (rather than the usual rosewood) fretboard. It is worn in places and has a crack running down it, but the 19 narrow frets are in good shape. Valco moved to a 20 fret neck on most of their guitars in 1958/9. It has white block inlays rather than the dots used on the Belmont most of the lower end Supros, and It’s only really held on with one screw (with a second for neck tilt adjustment) but it feels very solid, with no wiggles. The scale is full Gibson length – 24.75”, though it looks shorter because of where the neck joins the body.. It’s been played enough to wear away most of the screenprinted Sivertone logo on the cracked and glued ‘deco’ scratchplate, but it’s original owner had the foresight to invest a few extra dollars on a hard case, which I also have, so it’s in good shape overall. The embossed cowboy motif leather strap is a nice touch – it’s an idea borrowed from Gretsch, who Valco built amps and at least one guitar for in this period. The finish is a thick black plastic coating that Valco called ‘Glossy Jet No-Mar’. It hasn't bubbled up flaked off anywhere. It matches the 1958 Supro line’s ‘Dashing new color theme of Black, White and Inca Gold’. The tuners are original, but with replaced buttons. I do have a spare rosewood Valco bridge I could use, but I like the brighter sound of the Tune-a-matic, plus it’s the right colour. The pickup is a single coil, but looks like a humbucker. Some people have assumed this is a deliberate deception, but Valco had their own patent, thanks very much, cited on Seth Lover’s later Humbucker patent documents. For a short time in the late 50s, Valco even took to printing their patent number (2683388) on the outer cover, I think to avoid confusion with the Gibson product. Most people seem to like these big single coil pickups, although there are some dissenters. A lot of people say they're 'great for slide', which is the main cliche used in describing Supro, National and Airline guitars. They are not super-loud, but they distort a little even at low volume through a clean amp, and I like that. They are often compared to P90s, but my limited experience says they have a weaker but more complex sound than a modern (GFS) P90 at least. It’s a little bassy for me in the normal channel, but sounds just right in the bright channel of my Davoli Studio 60 valve amp. Because the neck pocket is deeper than on later Valco solid-bodies, the pickup is set into the top rather than surface mounted. It’s my favourite guitar to play when I'm just sitting around - smooth low(ish) action and the perfect weight – only 6.5 pounds (just under 3 Kg). The range of amplified sounds from the neck pickup is not huge – but it’s great for fuzz, or with a treble booster! I would love a bridge pickup Belmont or a Rhythm Tone from the same period, but they are getting expensive now. I usually avoid stickers and things on my guitars, but this a special one – the blue dot is from Tyree Guyton of the Heidelgerg Project in Detroit, and it also reminds me of the National Enquirer’s old Lucky Blue Dot. On the back, Taking Care Of Business - speaks for itself. Charlotte got this for me at Graceland. I love the Enhanced Elvis Concept of not just TCB, but TCB In A Flash!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Terminology (digression no.1)

There comes a time in every fuzz fan’s life when someone says “so, what is it with all these fuzz boxes then? Aren’t they all the same?”. One day over the xmas break a year or two ago, I decided that would do a an impromptu demonstration-cum-lecture on the history of fuzz for Charlotte and Kay, partly to pre-empt this slightly awkward question, and partly to account for all the time I was spending in the den fiddling with transistors and soldering irons [and yes - I know I’m mad; but we make our own fun]. I choose an early fuzz (Maestro FZ1-A, 1965), a “classic” Germanium fuzz (Marshall Supa Fuzz), and a 70s big rock fuzz (op-amp Big Muff), introducing and playing each one in turn in the front room. Could they tell the difference? Not really. I mean they could hear they sounded different, but not very different. Fuzz is elusive - the apocryphal story about Inuit people having 100 words for snow comes to mind. My current vocabulary for describing fuzz is inadequate. With this in mind I tried to compile a list of terms used to describe fuzzy sounds, on diy sites and forums and Harmony Central. Some of them are sizzling, abrasive, smooth, muddy, sweet, warm, squishy, thick, fat, thin, gated, tubey, fizzy, saturated, crunchy, mangled, sharp, buzzy, dynamic, grinding, raspy, fartty, creamy, mushy, woolly, dirty, psychedelic... plus many qualifying references to compression, sustain, halo, bloom and Jimi Hendrix/Jimmy Page/Ron Asheton/Billy Corgan/whoever. I don’t think these are always hugely helpful in putting across the sound of a fuzz circuit, but they are part of the cloud of associations that are part of the mystique (real or imagined/manufactured) of old (oh, I mean Vintage) pedals, that in the commercial world falls under the heading ‘marketing’. It’s also part of the mythology of ‘getting great tone’, which I won’t go into. Although it’s rarely used without a certain irony, the term ‘mojo’ does come up more frequently than I’d like. The fact that comparisons with other known circuits are more useful than most of the above terms also says a lot. They are at best a shorthand for a certain language spoken mostly only by guitarists that is mildly alienating. It masks the undeniable truth that many fuzz pedals do sound similar (there! I’ve said it!) but also that they sound different with different guitars and amps. I'll try to include short sound clips instead of getting bogged down in this. They are not recorded under laboratory conditions. On three separate occasions Inow I've tried to record a clip of the Pep Box, and been unsatisfied with it - this is nuts - from now on it's rough + ready, and probably me playing badly - clips are just to give you an idea of what each thing sounds like, but I will try to use the same guitar and amp for them - a 1960 Burns Sonic through a Selmer Little Giant with a 12" extension speaker (an early 60s Celestion G12).

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Marshall Supa Fuzz, 1967-ish

I've mentioned this on various forums etc in the past few years, because it's the rarest pedal, I own, but here's the story again. I bought this for £6 in 1986 or so, from the short lived used musical instrument store that was part of the Music and Goods Exchange chain (originally Record and Tape Exchange, I won't go into the details of my love/hate relationship with these shops just yet, but it might come out later). It was a ramshackle shop, with a load of scruffy amps and 20 or so guitars, and a small cabinet of pickups and tuners and pedals. The Supa caught my eye, mostly because it was the cheapest thing in the place, and it looked old. I regularly grazed the Record and Tape shops, which are still mostly grouped together in Notting Hill, just to pass the time when I was unemployed and had no money, concentrating on the bargain bins and deletions department, where you could get all sorts of 60s records in Fair or even Poor condition for CHEAP (grading was very strict back then, so Fair usually meant 'Pretty Good' , and Poor 'Playable' to someone on my budget). There wasn't a lot of interest in '60s gear in the dread 80s, it was all about being Modern. Horrible bands like U2 and The Cure and The House Of Love held sway with a collection of horrible flangers and choruses and abominations like the Electric Mistress. Yuck! I mean, some of you reading this might be into that stuff, but I was not interested at all. Bands I was in at that time were mostly of the stubbornly inept post-punk vein, that barely (or never) made it to first gig level, or played every 3 months. I had a half-broken WEM Joker amp, that I traded in for a Laney Linebacker (not cool, sorry). I could have got an AC30, but they were too heavy, and too expensive (though cheap by today's standards). The Supa Fuzz was the only pedal I ever used, throughout the 80s90s.

supa fuzz side

When I got it was unpainted, rough aluminium. I painted the word FUZZ on it - seemed reasonable at the time. The glitter was was probably not such a good idea, but it's only nail polish; removable. I used to laugh at the size of the components - they seemed huge. I had no idea it was anything special for about the first 10 years I had it, other than that it sounded great. Then Rob from The King Cheetah (then based in London, now in LA) told me it looked like a Marshall Supa Fuzz. I wasn't really convinced, nor did I realise the significance of this info straight away. Eventually I put a photo of it on my first website (that I never updated), and got into contact with fuzz expert Stu Castledine. I sent him some photos of the board, and noticed something odd:

supa fuzz guts

That gold thing (an elecrolytic capacitor) at the end, was on top of a smaller one (in parallel with it, even). Both are rated at 25uF (micofarads, units of capacitance, like), so that makes 50uF altogether. I considered de-soldering it, but it looked original, and Stu said he'd seen a few different values in early Supas. But if it was added at the time, wouldn't they have use two identical caps, if they just ran out of 50uF and wanted that value? Anyway, it sounds amazing, so I think I'm leaving it. I did consider some kind of switch but I don't want to touch it really. Anyone seen this before? The transistors are Mullard OC75s. Here's a clip - neck pickup of 1960 Burns Sonic. I hear a lot of clips on the internet that are just sqiddly lead runs, I don't think these give much of an idea of the sound of any given pedal and they can be painful and embarrassing to listen to - my clips are more basic, but illustrate the fuzz sound and how I'm likely to use it. This one has a bit of Black Keys in there.

Marshall Supa Fuzz

The Supa Fuzz is a close relation to the Mk2 Tone Bender, designed by Gary Hurst. For a great history of these pedals and their variants and to see where the Supa fits in, see David Main's excellent page A Little History. Dave reckons my one is around 1967, about the time of this advert:

supa fuzz advert

[minor edits + pics restored, Dec 2011]