Friday, September 25, 2009

Thinking back to my equipment in the "early days"

As I was driving to work today, I heard a song on the radio that made me reminisce about what it was like to be playing guitar in the early 1960’s when I started learning guitar. My first guitar was from a record store that also sold musical instruments. It was a small, used Stella (made by Harmony) folk guitar. I think my father paid $15 for it. Harmony, Kay and Danelctro guitars were very popular, as were the “private brand” instruments the three companies manufactured for large catalog retailers such as Sears and Montgomery Ward. Sears brand was called “Silvertone,” and Wards was “Airline.” There were also a few Japanese guitars around, such as Teisco, Greco and Norma, as well as Italian guitars such as Eko and Swedish Guitars such as Goya and later, Hagstrom. USA made guitars were very desirable, but higher priced. The big names at the time were Fender, Gibson and Gretsch.

The performers on TV all seemed to have fancier guitars than mine, so I cut a fancy shaped pickguard out of white cardboard, removed my plastic pickguard which was attached with screws, and installed the fancy cardboard pickguard under it, then reinstalled the plastic pickguard to hold it on. I sold this guitar to a friend, and when I saw it many years later, it still had the cardboard pickguard on it!

My second guitar was a standard sized Harmony folk guitar. There were not too many dreadnaught guitars around at that time; I suppose it was because of the folk music boom of the late `50’s and early `60’s whose performers used the Grand Concert and Auditorium sized guitars instead. At the time, Harmony made a beautiful folk guitar called the “Sovereign.” I always wanted one of these, but it was the most expensive of the Harmony acoustics. Maybe it's just me, but I think the action setups of the new inexpensive guitars are much better than those in the 1960's which resulted in many sore fingers!

When I started my first band in late 1964, I used to stick a microphone in the sound hold and plug it into a rented PA or jukebox amp to make it into an electric guitar.

My third guitar was my first electric guitar, and it was a Danelectro-made Silvertone from Sears, Roebuck and Company, a single pickup model with a 5 watt amplifier built into the guitar case! Today, this model, as well as the two pickup version, is still popular with collectors. As my playing improved, in 1965 my father thought that I was worthy of a new two pickup Harmony made Silvertone Model 1478 “Silhouette” guitar from Sears, Roebuck and Company. It was sort of a copy of the Fender Jaguar and Jazzmaster guitars, which were very popular at the time with recording groups and local groups who could afford them. This was a nice guitar, very flashy looking with its red sunburst finish, clear plastic knobs and its vibrato tailpiece (whammy bar).

Along with the new guitar came a larger amp, a Silvertone Model 1482 12 watt combo amp with a 12 inch speaker and tremolo. It had both an instrument input as well as a microphone input, so I bought a cheap microphone and started singing. At the time, the popular amplifier that I wanted but could not afford was the piggy-back Fender “Showman.” I must have whined about the ordinary appearance of my “combo” amp because my father built me a two piece piggy-back amp cabinet set and then moved the speaker and amp into the new cabinets. We hadn’t thought about tolex covering at the time, so the new cabinet was covered with black and gold “contact” paper! As I started playing more for dances in local clubs and taverns, my father realized that I needed a more powerful amplifier, so he took me to the music store and we picked out a new Fender Pro Reverb amp. It was 40 watts with reverb and tremolo and two 12 inch speakers. It had two channels, so I continued using a microphone in the second channel. This was in May, 1966. An interesting side note about this amp was that I sold it in 1968 to my friend who was the sax player in our band. He kept it until he retired and then stored it in his attic. In 2005, I asked him about the amp and he gave it back to me. It didn’t work, so I had it restored and used it until I lost it in the big fire in 2007. About that same time, I was also able to purchase the same model Silvertone 1478 guitar and 1482 amplifier that I used in 1965 from an ad on Craig’s List!

Also in 1966, I received my first professional model guitar, a Gretsch Model 6119 Chet Atkins Tennessean. This would be the last instrument purchased for me by my father. By now, I was working steady every week in a band and was earning enough to start buying my own equipment.

I remember that the Gretsch guitar came with heavy gauge flatwound strings, and not knowing any better, I kept using these same model strings for years, wondering why my playing is not a “bluesy” as what I was hearing on the radio! Before the Gretsch, it seems like the only strings available for guitar were made by Black Diamond. Somebody told me that some of the professional guitarists were throwing away their 6th string, moving each string “down” one (the 5th string is used in place of the 6th string, etc.) and then using a thin banjo string for the first string. This was the beginnings of what cane to be known as “slinky” guitar strings. By the time I got around to trying this, Ernie Ball had already begun to manufacture “Slinky” and “Super Slinky” guitar string sets.

I also remember that most guitar picks at that time were thick and made from genuine tortoise shell or else made from gaudy sparkle plastic. Later on, thin guitar picks became popular, and I used those for a long time. I now prefer an extra-heavy pick, and I sure wish I still had some of those old tortoise shell picks!

My microphone during this time was a big Shure Unidyne II, the kind used by Elvis and the big band singers. It wasn’t until later that I graduated to the Shure ball mics. I sure felt “cool” with that microphone! I remember that the Electro-Voice Model 664 was one of the most popular microphones of the early 1960’s.

Thinking back to what other local musicians were using at that time brings to mind guitars such as Vox, Fender, Gretsch, Harmony, Old Kraftsman, and Epiphone; amps such as Supro, Gibson, Fender, Vox and Baldwin; and the ever popular Farfisa and Vox combo organs. Today it is possible to buy a fairly good quality guitar and amplifier for a reasonable price. In the early and mid-`60’s, it was more of a choice between cheap on one end and good on the other end.

We all listened to the radio to hear the latest top 40 songs, then we were off to the record store to buy the “45” and take it home to our monophonic turntable (record player) and play it over and over until the record was worn out, but we had the “licks” learned from the record! For me, as a young music student, learned about rhythm and dance music from Elvis, I learned about quality rock arrangements from the Beatles, I learned harmony vocals from the Lettermen and the Beach Boys, I learned country music from Chet Atkins, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, and I learned about jazz and improvisation from guitarist Johnny Smith. These were my early influences, and today, I can draw influence from all the greats from the past to the present as well as learning new tricks from all the great emerging new artists. What a great time to be in the music business! I hope you also have fond memories of your early days of learning music! Take a moment and reminicse!