Monday, November 16, 2015

Ry Cooder

Had a chance last night to see Ry Cooder playing with Ricky Scaggs and The Whites.  If there is any player who I think could relate to the instruments on this blog, it would probably be Ry.  Though known and constantly connected to his famed Coodercasters, there are countless photos and recordings of Ry making use of some off the beaten path instruments.

I believe in an earlier part of the tour, Ry was carrying a 1950's Kay Barney Kessel electric archtop with the kelvinator headstock.  Unfortunately, he didn't have that with him last night as it seems he might have traded up for a big 'ol Gretsch Hollowbody.  He was carrying his Guyatone LG-200t with him and showcased some slide on this guitar.  I had previously read his description regarding the tone of this guitar - rich and muscular.  He wasn't lying - It was a super thick tone that you couldn't pin to any guitar.  It certainly wasn't any tele or strat.

Though I have seen Ricky Scaggs before and have been blown away by his versatility and exceptional musicianship, this was the first time I had seen Ry.  Like many of the people there, I was hoping to get to see him cut loose  on that slide.  But this was a different type of show where old time country and gospel music was on display.  Obviously that doesn't leave a whole lot of room for wailing slide work.

What I did get to see though was something more impressive.  What I saw was a musician who remains completely capable of being an evolving artist.  Ry only broke the slide out once on the aforementioned Guyatone.  The rest of the evening was spent playing swelling hollow bodies, funky 8 string instruments and 5 string banjo - not just background banjo, but up front, take a solo, bluegrass banjo.  One of his main jobs throughout the evening was to hold down the bass part in a 4 part gospel harmony.

There was a little chit chat on stage about him gaining confidence in this role as bass singer.  I thought it was a gutsy performance.  He completely took himself out of his comfort zone and held his own in the company of some pretty fine old time singers.  He showed an audience what its like to be a real artist, one who instead of falling back on his applause getter, walked into a new realm with the possibility of falling flat(which he didn't).  You won't see Bruce Springsteen do this, or Adele or Prince or any of the "Stars" in todays horrendous country music market.  In all these cases, image supercedes artistry, disallowing for any real chances to be taken.  Instead of worrying about being the leader of a band, we all got to watch Ry really seem to enjoy simply being part of a band.

Would have loved to interview Ry for this blog and i suspect that I got as close as I ever will when he signed a concert poster for me at the end of the night.  He looked tired as i was the last of at least 150 people in line at the after show signing.  I'm just not the kind of guy who could start bombing him with questions about Chicago made guitars after he had just dealt with every Tom, Dick and Harry who wanted to tell him their story(I'm sure he had to deal with a few cuckoo birds in the course of that signing)

He had given enough that night, instructing all those Tom, Dick, Harry's, Marie's and Debbie's to do it for the art and to keep on evolving.  One can only wonder what will be next for Ry.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

1930's Slingerland Songster Acoustic Guitar

Time to take a little trip back to the 1930's when Hoover was ousted by Roosevelt and Ludwig was ousted by Slingerland as the country's top drum producer.  What a time in our history.  So much despair and yet so much art being created.  At some point we will have to study whether the two are connected.  Do we create more art in the midst of despair and turmoil?  It was certainly a tough time to be a farmer, but what seemed like a fairly good time to be an artist.  The WPA was propping up artists and their work all through this period leading to some of the finest photographs, paintings, sculptures, books and music in our history.

At this time the maker of this guitar was called the "Slingerland Musical Instrument Mfg Co.", prior to that it was "The Slingerland Banjo and Drum Company" and prior to that is was "The Slingerland Banjo Company".

The story goes that Slingerland was initially a banjo company.  Apparently the Ludwig drum company started getting into the banjo business.  Slingerland contacts Ludwig and says if you don't make banjos, we won't make drums.  Ludwig basically says F-You, Slingerland says have it your way and proceeds to take over the lead in American drum manufacturing.  This is a nice little business lesson for all you future captains of industry out there.  Play nice - or you may get your ass kicked. 

The making of drums was a fairly easy transition for a banjo company(Ludwig should have known this).  The calfskin production is already in place, you already have a factory, you basically just have to start building shells and hardware.  But what about guitars?  It is still slightly up in the air as to who did Slingerlands' guitar manufacturing. Some believe they produced guitars themselves but most seem to think they were being built either by Regal or Harmony.  Unfortunately, we are going to need a time machine to definitively get to the bottom of this.  This is the first Slingerland I have owned, but I have had a number of Maybells over the years and both these instruments have had Regal and/or Harmony characteristics.  Maybell was a name owned by Slingerland and what seems to be a more prevalent offshoot product of theirs.  One thing we can be sure of is that it was Chicago made.  The mystique of guitar manufacturing in that town in the 30's is almost too much for me to handle.

Anywho - This is a damn cool guitar with a colossally funky vibe.  Part of the reason I acquired it was because I thought it looked like a piece of folk art.  The bonus was that the instrument played pretty well too.  The only issue that needs to be addressed is the string spacing at the bridge.  As the high E string comes down the neck it starts to fade a bit off the fretboard.  This shouldn't be too hard of a fix.  Nonetheless, the tone is cool.  Just like all these catalog guitars, it has its own thing going on.  It's tough to compare it with anything.  I can say that this will make a great recording instrument as it knows how to get out of its own way.  Not too loud, not too bassy, not too bright or midrangy.  Just right.

I have a thing for these 12 fret to the body guitars.  All those shredders out there get frustrated because they can't have a jerk off session up past the 12th fret.  But that's not my scene.  These guitars are normally great fingerpickers.  Great thing about this instrument is that it holds up to a pretty heavy strum or chunking rhythm as well.  It can do it all.  Not bad for something that looks like it should just hang on the wall!!

Ladder braced, 15.5" lower bout, 1.75" nut.  Spruce top that was sanded down and re-lacquered.  Normally, i run for the exits when I see that any type of refinishing has been done and might have done the same with this instrument if I had known it was refinished - believe it or not, it didn't show up in the pictures or was done after the photos were taken.  Either way it thankfully doesn't bother me too much in this case as the argument can be made that the new finish was to preserve the block lettering on the top.  Would still loved to have received it unfinished as i have a feeling the guitar top would have been even more responsive, loud and toneful.  I can't help but feel all that lacquer knocks the sound down a bit.  Maple back, sides and neck with a rosewood fretboard.  These Chicago companies were using real deal materials.

That's some crack repair - That big 'ol splice was pretty well done and gives the guitar a facial feature - kind of like a scar on the face of the bad guy in a western

It's amazing that they would possibly "job" these guitars out to Regal and Harmony and still come up with a one of a kind headstock like this.   

these are replacement tuners with a couple of filled holes in the center of the headstock 

She is curvaceous isn't she.  All that ink is of course a mystery.  I would venture a guess that this was a guitar that may have been overseas during the war and a bunch of wartime buddies signed their names.  Sounds like a good tale at least.  This is why I love these guitars - the stories they could tell!!

It should be noted that Slingerland has a pretty important place in guitar history.  Many believe(including myself) that they built the first solid body electric guitar.  Not only that, but they initiated the neck through design.  They have a songster model that looks like a lap steel, but was built with a spanish style neck and string height that would allow for fretting. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

1950's Kay K161 Thin Twin Electric Guitar - AKA - Jimmy Reed

At long last, my very own Thin Twin.  I have been on a search for this guitar for a number of years now and have never been able to nail one down mostly because of price considerations.  The price of this guitar and its Silvertone companions has skyrocketed.  I have seen them listed for as much as $2500!!  I think you would have to have your head examined to pay that much, but hey, if you got the big bucks and feel like tossing it to the wind, go right ahead.

I generally try to hold off on advice and opinion unless I am being asked, but this is cyberspace we are dealing with here so the rules of engagement change a little bit.  So here it is.  Of course there is something to be said for "striking while the irons hot", but just as much should be said for patience.  Patience has been and will always be the right method for me with regards to buying guitars.  In most cases you can be assured that if you don't feel completely right about an instrument, you will have other chances.  I am a cook by trade, I have a family and a mortgage and fears of how I am going to be able to afford college for the kids.  I don't make a lot of dough so I have to be extremely careful about where the money is going.  I can't make "passion" purchases.  I have to be smart, somewhat cagey and above all else, patient.  I have been looking for one of these Thin Twins for over 5 years now.  I wanted to pull the string a few times, but as I said the prices are crazy and sellers are for the most part standing by their prices.

Then came this deal.  I received this guitar from a sweet woman in Indiana.  She had it on ebay and according to her was forced to take it down because she was being blacklisted by one of her selling competitors.  I found this out after she had taken the guitar off ebay.  Thankfully I had it saved in my watch list and was able to contact her.  She provided me with a number to call her at and after hearing her story, we were able to make a deal.  It was touch and go.  The story was a little sketchy and after we made the deal, communication wasn't great nor was the speed of delivery.  I actually had to call her back to consider/threaten cancellation of the transaction because I was sure I was being screwed.  We were able to deal through Paypal so there was some protection there.  I hung in there and eventually received the guitar being very pleased about the shape it was in.  In the end patience is important, but sometimes you have to take a chance and know when the deal and the time is right.

I hesitate to go to deep into the specs on this one as these guitars are fairly well documented.  They have a funky ass tone.  Neck pickup is really sweet sounding and the bridge pickup is nasty blues.  Rarely will you find such a divide in your selector switch for pickup position.  I was actually taken aback a bit by the bridge position pickup tone.  I wasn't sure what to do with it.  Wasn't long before I made it my friend realizing what a cool asset it is.  You just have to dig some fairly piercing trebles.  It's not an all the time tone, but when you throw a little reverb on it to soften it up, it can be pretty magical.

The guitar was in pretty darn good shape when I got it.  James Ralston did a neck reset on it as well as reworked the electronics.  The electronics were the biggest burden as they were all mixed up and had to be rewired.  Good luck finding a wiring schematic for one of these old dogs or any Kay guitar for that matter.

This guitar plays great now.  I can't put it down.  I get up early to play it - I go to bed late to play it.  It has the fattest neck of any guitar I have ever played and I love it.  It is a fairly big guitar and fairly heavy as well even with the chambered body.  The whole thing just feels substantial.  It feels like something that was made in the USA in the 1950's(as it was) - big, tough, funky, artistic, and something that will last forever if you take care of it.  Lord - please take us back to the 1950's with regards to manufacturing - what a cool time!!

We need to talk about this headstock for a little bit.  This particular model guitar with the maple body and tiger stripe guard is generally referred to as the "Jimmy Reed" model because of this picture of Jimmy holding this model Kay.

Jimmy Reed

The headstock on the guitar Jimmy is holding is the style headstock Kay used for its Kay branded models.
 Here is a closer look

1952 Kay Thin Twin (Jimmy Reed)

The headstock on my guitar was reserved for Silvertone branded models like this one


Never before have I seen the Silvertone type headstock on a Kay branded instrument.  The one I have is the only one I have ever seen.  I would love to know why and how this instrument came to exist.  Is it a one off, are there others that I haven't seen?  Was it because this model was at the end of a production run and they  were just using up parts any way they could?   Another wonderful guitar mystery brought to you by the Kay Guitar Manufacturing Company.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Stella/Harmony H1105 Grand Concert Acoustic Guitar

Here's a quick little post about a 1949 Stella flat top acoustic guitar.  This guitar was actually made by Harmony as they had bought Stella in 1940.  They retained the Stella name on many of their instruments, but the builds were clearly Harmony.

This is an all birch barker that shows its age with a bunch of nicks, scratches and dings.  Surprisingly, it plays pretty well.  I just changed out the tuners as the last ones were not particularly cooperative.  This was apparently the first model that Harmony made after they bought Stella.  With the 1949 date on this one we can see that this guitar had a pretty good run of production.  Harmony did a pretty good job dating their products.  It is a bit easier nailing down more exact dates than it is with Kay.

Real fun guitar to play.

during World War II, the tailpieces on these were made out of wood as all metal production went towards the war effort.  Kind of makes you wonder who was making the guitars in the Chicago factories during wartime.

Well there's something you don't see very much of any more - a Made in USA stamp.  One of the great things about guitars and guitar production is that guitars are one of the few things that are actually still made in this country. 

The name -Valentrina- is written in pencil.  A "V" is also etched into the top of the guitar.  Makes you think if Mr or Mrs Valentrina remember owning this instrument or if he or she ever wonders where it might be.  As I have stated before, the journey these instruments can take really fascinates me.  I can't help but wonder where this guitar started its life.

1954 Kay K10 Auditorium Size(OOO) Acoustic Guitar

Here we have a 1950's Kay 000 size acoustic guitar.  This guitar is in about as good a shape as you will find for something its age.  You will see from the pictures how clean it is.  She required a little work to get her into fine playing shape, but hey, they all do.  All we really had to do on this one was a neck reset.  Now she plays perfect.

This guitar came to me as a package deal with the Maybell from the previous post which has caused it to suffer a bit of an unfortunate fate.  If it had come on its own without competition from the Maybell, I would probably be spending a lot of time with it right now.  It is a fine player and really comfortable to hold and perform on.  The problem is the Maybell of the previous post is crushing everything in its path.  Tonally, this Kay has a vibe but can't compete with the Maybell.  The difference is most likely in the wood composition as it seems the Maybell is all solid woods.  Kays were known for there use of laminates and I believe this guitar probably showcases some of that laminate.  The slightly smaller body size and use of laminates leaves you with a slightly less refined tone.  Nonetheless, it is a spunky player and a joy to practice on.

This model was made in the 1950's.  There is a cool website out there called the King Of Kays( that has a nice listing of Kay catalogs that has this exact model in a 1954 catalog.  Kay made a number of these 000 size bodies with different wood combinations throughout the 50's and 60's.  I'm not sure how many years this model was in production.  The catalog claims that this guitar has "genuine" mahogany top, back and sides.  I'm not sure what the word "genuine" does for us in terms of describing if the guitar is made of hardwoods or laminates.  Catalog claims use of a rosewood fretboard and bridge.  I have a thing for these Kay bridges and try to save them whenever we can.  Many times the string slots have to be repaired after years of wire cutting into them, but I feel it is worth it.  These bridge types are synonymous with Kay products and a great way to help you identify the brand.

This guitar has a 15" wide lower bout - 10.5" wide upper bout and a 25.5 " scale.  The nut width is 1.5", but feels bigger due to the depth and shape of the neck.  This has that classic Kay baseball bat feel to it which I love.  This guitar is a great fingerpicker, but if you are looking to hit it a bit harder you might want to opt for a Kay dread(one of my favorites) or a Kay jumbo as they can both handle a hefty strum a lot better.  This is a fun guitar, nice playing instrument.  We all know it can't compete with your 000 1950's Martin, but then again you should be able to pick one of these up without having to clean out the bank account which has always been one of the greatest draws to these instruments for me.

cool, slightly retro style headstock logo that comes in a plate form.  You don't see many of these

classic Kay headstock shape.  another great way to identify the brand

Kay loved using Kluson tuners

an unfortunately meaningless serial number.  wish that Kay had given us a better way to date their instruments.  Harmony was often able to do it and they were producing just as much as Kay was. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

1930's Maybell Style No. 25 Acoustic Guitar

Whooo Weee!!  If Miss Maybell was walking by a construction site she would get whistled at.

There have been occasions when a guitar just stops me dead in my tracks.  Upon receiving this guitar I had the good fortune of experiencing just one of those occasions.  Here we have a 1930's Maybell guitar.  A little bit of research would indicate that this is a style #25.  Here is an ad from the 1930's for this guitar.  You can find these catalog listings at

I knew this instrument was a rare bird when I bought it.  Upon researching it I was to discover just how rare it was.  The above ad is about the only information you can find on this guitar.  There are no corresponding pictures, literature or owners that could provide some details.  I would never be so presumptuous to say that this is a one of a kind, but what I will say is good luck finding another.

As I alluded to earlier, this is a life changing instrument.  It is the kind of guitar that just may leave the rest of your instruments feeling a little left out as they sit in their cases wondering where you've gone.  It is a hard instrument to put down.  Yesterday, I was dead tired after being up at 5 am for work, came home, put together dinner, put our children to bed and at 10pm with my eyes on the verge of closing, I just had to go out to the studio and play this guitar a bit before hitting the sack.  Any instrument that calls on you to forego sleep is a special player.

I'll resume the gushing a bit later.  Here are some specs.  By Martin standards, or any standards for that matter, this guitar would be considered an orchestra model(OM).  It is all mahogany with a really deep dark finish.  The lower bout is just under 15.5" wide, the nut is 1.75" wide, there are 14 frets to the body and this guitar has a 25" scale.  This guitar is ladder braced, but you would have a hard time knowing it.  It has much more complex tonal capabilities than your average ladder braced blues barker and can cover a lot of ground.  One of the great characteristics of this instrument is that it handles fingerpicking and strumming equally well and you don't have to baby it when playing it in either style.  If this instrument were to be X-braced it would be a Martin killer.  As it stands I couldn't be happier with the bracing as the tone is sweet, complex but somewhat slightly unrefined.  I've always enjoyed that slightly unrefined quality about these old catalog guitars as it sets them apart and gives you some different choices in the studio or in performance.   This is a really special instrument.  I will be thrashed for this statement somewhere, but I wouldn't trade it for a Martin from the same era. 

The guitar is in amazing cosmetic shape for its age.  It has its share of little dings, but overall the finish is in exceptional shape and the guitar is all original.  As usual, James Ralston did the restoration on this one and I was a little unsure I was going to get it back from him as he was smitten with this instrument as well.  The neck was reset as well as the bridge.  This is where you can see some past monkey business as it looks like the bridge had been off in the past.  There are some markings around the perimeter of the bridge that would indicate this. 

I have always loved the Maybell brand and have owned a few over the years.  None of them have even come close to the quality of this one.  This is the type of guitar that you may spend a lifetime trying to find.  Its a blessing to find it in middle age, hopefully I still have many years to enjoy it.

Here are some links that James Ralston set up to give you a few more photos as well as to hear the guitar.

Friday, March 6, 2015

1930's/1940's Chicago Made Mystery Guitar

Thought I would put up a quick post of this guitar as it was a bit of a mystery.  She just went off on the auction block and there were a lot of questions and comments about it.  It has a bit of a Regal look to it, but the binding looks like an Oahu trait which would suggest it might be Kay made, then you look at the headstock and it says Harmony.  No one has been able to pin it down, but one thing we can probably be sure of is it was Chicago made.  The guitar is in amazing shape for its age and needed some setup work to get it into top shape.
this guitar is surrounded in a really cool checkerboard binding - even has a strip running down the center back seam which is something you don't see very often

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

1930's Supertone Terz Style Acoustic Guitar

The temps have finally risen well above zero here in upstate NY for what seems like the first time this winter.  This allowed for a very hasty photo shoot and a suitable follow up to the Orpheum Terz Guitar we saw in the last post. 

This little Supertone is tuned Terz style or G to G.  These little guitars really shine when they get that little bit of extra tension on them.  Of course you want to use an extra light gauge string on a little guitar like this, unless you have a thing for bowing the necks on your instruments.  I really enjoy playing these guitars with the extra tension on the strings.  I hate the feeling of floppy strings under your fingers, and that is kind of what you get if you don't tune these guitars up a few steps.

Playing this Supertone alongside the Orpheum in the previous post is a good study in tone.  The Supertone has that bright Birch body sound associated with many ladder braced instruments.  Because of its size it almost gets a mandolin like tone, especially if you start messing around with a capo.  The Orpheum has a different tonal quality because of the mahogany body which knocks down the brightness and warms up the tone just a bit.  The fact that this Supertone has a floating bridge and the Orpheum has a fixed bridge is also a tone factor.  I love both of these guitars for different reasons.  As I said in the last post, you might be hard pressed to make either one of these instruments your number one guitar, but they are great additions to any studio and can provide inspiration for songwriters and pickers due to the fact that they put you into a different tonal range.

I actually own three of these small bodied, half size guitars.  The third is another Supertone that is a flat top with F-holes instead of a round hole.  It looks like a mini archtop without the arch and was the subject of a previous post.  All three of these guitars project differently and have different tonal qualities.  These guitars are pretty rare.  I have never seen another like this Supertone or another like the Orpheum.  In terms of value, who knows.  With guitars like these, value is measured in the heart and in the hands not in the wallet.  I can't tell you how many of these catalog guitars i've picked up for $100 and wouldn't sell for a $1000.
fretboard was painted on and crumbling off because of its age.  James Ralston did a great job recreating the color and repainting the board.  He sealed it all with a shot of lacquer.
headstock says harmony made
super old school style floating bridge with fret wire saddle