The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Guitar Review: 1933 Gibson L-50 Archtop (a video in progress)

I had decided to start a video review of one of my my guitars, a vintage 1933 Gibson L-50. 

I taped it in three parts, but decided to keep only part one, which was the musical intro. I started it off in a sort of grungy black-and-white, and the next two parts were in color, which seemed jar me out of the mood, and I figured it would do the same to somebody watching.

Also it occurred to me that maybe I would rather not review the guitar model, and make it more of a story about that guitar. You have to figure that any guitar that started that's life in 1933 must have a lot of stories attached to it, and seen a lot of places.

My feeling was that it was a lot more than what some experts would consider it's collectible value, the fact that it uses parallel and cross bracing rather than the more modern X type, or any of the modern considerations about whether it's design or success as a product have any real bearing on it's value as an instrument.

After all, it only has to be valuable to one person, the one playing it.

In any case, here's part one of the video review. Basically the musical intro that was going to lead to the slideshow about it specs.

It won't exactly tell you everything you need to know about the instrument, obviously, but maybe it's voice will. I'll put out part two and three after I've revisited the concept a bit, and redo it.

1933 Gibson L-50 review intro:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Guitar Review: Fender Classic Player Jaguar (and how a guitar goes from failure to a best seller)

The Fender Classic Player Jaguar is a Mexican made, midline priced (600-800) version that updates the original design, and in particular addresses the most common complaints that users have had over the decades.

Which of course drew complaints from owners of the vintage versions, that the Classic Player was no longer a real Jaguar, and so on...and the usual wide range of totally subjective comments and opinions, often by people who hadn't actually played that model or tried it out for a few minutes.

I chose to review this jaguar because it's actually a good example of how a guitar can initially be regarded as a failure, or cult item, and due to a change in fashion become a premium model.

In fact, the Jaguar and it's close cousin, the Jazzmaster, are now one the most popular models for the current generation of players.

The story goes back to when Fender tried to come up with a premium replacement, or at least a step up, to the then current telecaster and stratocaster lines. 

The jazz master was first, and it was an attempt to create a versatile guitar that could play anything from rock to jazz.

One problem was the guitar introduced a series of switches and dials that made the guitar look complicated. 

The Jaguar was a similar guitar, but a newer design based on input from users, to create a guitar that basically had a jazz master body but with a shorter neck and different pick ups.

Neither guitar was ever seen by the mainstream consumers as a replacement for the telecaster and strat, but it became a favorite in the surf guitar scene.

Some of the image of the jazz master and Jaguar being the ultimate surf guitar is somewhat mythical. Some of the most famous surf sounds were actually done by session men who used telecasters and strats also (and Mosrites, etc).

But make no mistake, these two were and are quintessential surf guitars.

That didn't make them a huge commercial success though, and a fairly large number of these languished in pawnshops or were priced at steep discounts in guitar stores.

What changed all that was the punk rock boom in the late 70s and early 80s. A lot of the young rockers who couldn't afford a top line Fender found that these two guitars were a way to get a good quality guitar on the cheap.

Artists like Elvis Costello, Tom Verlaine of Television, and later, the group Sonic Youth used Jazzmasters, and that started the steady climb of both guitars to first-rate status again.

Coming to the present, with this Classic Player model, we do have a slightly different guitar.

The string bridge has been updated, so the old complaint that the strings slip off the bridge pieces when the guitar was played hard is no longer a problem. 

Also, the angle from where the strings originate to the bridge has been moved up so the angle is sharper, which puts more string pressure on the bridge, which also changes the tone a bit by increasing sustain.

The tremelo bar, is still the old original design which was different than the strat, and with its special lock does a better job of staying in tune, even if a string breaks.

I should note that it's called a tremelo bar, but it's really a vibrato bar, and not designed to do the wide and wild tonal gyrations that a metal guitar would be able to do.

The switching system was kept, which actually, if you take the time to learn it will give you an extremely wide range of tones. 

To go into the details would take a manual in itself, but suffice to say that the switches can give you a thick rythmn guitar sound, a sharp lead tone, and a quick way to switch pick ups on and off and control the volume from a more convenient place than the knobs.

There's Jazzmaster and Jaguar models that don't have those switches, but most people who like those guitars prefer to have those switches left on. It just looks cooler.

The key change is the pick ups. These pick ups are noticeably hotter than the ones on the original vintage Jaguars. 

One reason is that the younger players of today prefer it that way, as the Jaguar is a popular guitar in grunge and alternative music (particularly the type Curt Cobain used, one with humbuckers instead of the single coils here),

In my case I prefer the hotter single coil pick ups. In the past, I've owned and played some Jazzmasters and jaguars of various types, including the US and Japanese models, and more recently the Squire Vintage Modified version at 300.00 (which I got used for 200).

I've read the detailed and occasionally cork sniffing toned complaints about the modern models on the Internet by vintage owners, who as a rule come from an older age group or or surf guitar players.

It's all valid stuff if your intent is to get a vintage Jaguar or jazz master, or play surf music with the kind of tone that it's aficionados approve of. 

Though at times, it feels that all it proves is a large segment of the guitar population is more conservative than the most right wing Republican when it comes to guitars.

The fact is this guitar can play surf just fine. When it comes to surf music, it's probably just as, or more important to have the correct amp. 

The most common amp for surf music is the Fender Reverb Amp with s good reverb unit. Just about any guitar, with the right amp settings, will sound like a surf guitar through that thing.

In my case, I didn't buy it to play surf, but to play music on clean with perhaps some surf overtones for some Cubano stuff I'm planning to do. 

With the correct settings, it also does as good a job at being a trash guitar as any overpriced vintage Silvertone or Harmony, or to play blues for that matter.

The thing about a lot of American players is that they think that this or that model is used to get this or that sound. The reality is most guitarist can sound like anything with a good amp, and if it can't quite do that, you can add a pedal or two.

There was a 20 year period in my life when the only electric guitar I had was a telecaster. During that time. I played blues, rock, and also was in a punk band. It frankly did the job fine for all three. 

That isn't to say guitars are all the same. Some guitars are simply set up better to help you get a particular sound.

Now don't get me wrong, as I don't want to come off as self-righteous. I admit that I've gone through periods where I probably owned more electric guitars than any normal human could use because I felt that each one was a different color on an imaginary artistic palette (it was just GAS though).

Also it's fun to have different guitars, particularly if you're collector. Plus each guitar model, because of it's design and shape, and the way it produces sound can bring the music out of you easier than other guitars.

The experts can make it sound very technical, but the truth is what makes you respond to a particular guitar is emotional. Even the technical details tend to enhance that emotional response.

The most intelligent comments on any Internet discussion board always come from those who listen to what everyone says, and simply add, it's best to just play the guitar for yourself and decide.

One comment that I do see about this classic player guitar, and it's a valid point to discuss, is that the Squier vintage modified version is probably a better choice and a better deal.

The Squier vintage modified jaguar is a good deal at 300.00. It's also more period-correct in all of the details. The cost cutting is in the cheaper switches, electronics and the basswood body, but all in all it's a solid guitar that looks as close to a vintage jaguar as you're going to get short of buying an American or Japanese reissue.

My problem with that model was that the switches did feel cheap, and didn't engage smoothly. Always felt like they were about to break. The sound if you wanted to play alternative was excellent, but the clean tone wasn't very good for my purposes. 

Also, I'm not sure why, the balance felt off. It didn't play easily for me. It may have been the use of Basswood that changed the balance but I'm not sure.

The particular classic player I got felt fine in both the standing up or sitting position, and the tone range was was exactly what I was looking for. The hardware and electronics have a nice solid feel, the switches flick on and off smoothly, and I like the extra sustain.

At it's price range, which is around 800 steet price, you have another one of those medium priced Fenders that are excellent values. Most of the parts were made in United States, and sent to Mexico to be assembled with the body, and to be painted, etc.

I tried the full range of Jaguars, and as I've said, I've owned some, but the Jaguar isn't my primary guitar. Having an expensive US or vintage model is overkill for what I consider an occasional use guitar (or one I don't mind traveling around with) or one I can use away from home (in cases where I don't feel like exposing one of my top line guitars to damage).

If I was a collector, my thinking would be different.

Since I use a telecaster most of the time, it's the best I can afford. For instruments that I don't use as often, I look for the best value. Which in this case was the Classic Player Jaguar.

To answer the question of whether it's a real Jaguar though, the answer is simple.

It's made by Fender, and they call it a Jaguar. That makes it a Jaguar.

That doesn't REALLY settle the question, of course, in the various discussion boards on the Internet. But it's like sports teams, arguing about what's good or bad, or if it's real or not, is all part of the fun of owning a guitar.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

International's Gear Report Nov '14: Guitar Review of Gibson Rudolf Schenker Flying V, 2000 Les Paul Deluxe, and Santos Custom Telecaster

I thought I'd combine the latest gear report with three guitar reviews. My role in the Handa-McGraw and the Internationals band is actually more being the Swiss Army knife guy who plays various acoustic and ethnic instruments, but still I still mainly identify myself as a guitar player.

Like many guitar players, The collection tends to change over time. Though a lot of guitars still pass through my hands, The overall goal has been to reduce the amount of solid body electric guitars.

As of November I've ended up with these three for a variety of good reasons (though GAS manifests in many ways, for all I know, this might simply be yet another passing phase).

This set of three fit's what I plan to do for next couple of years very well.

To keep the structure of this essay simple, I'm simply going to divide it into three guitar opinion-based, non-technical reviews. Each will have my reason for getting it.

2000 30th Anniversary Goldtop Les Paul Deluxe:

My first really good electric guitar was a Gibson Goldtop Les Paul from the late 50s. In the early 70s you could get one for about $400, which was considered pretty high for a used guitar.

I ended up trading it to a guitar store for an old Gibson ES-330 and 150.00...a deal that would seem almost unreal in this modern era. I traded it in because I hated the neck, it felt like a baseball bat, though I liked the now classic soapbar P-90 pickups.

The urge to get a Goldtop Les Paul revived when I saw Alan Wilson playing one on YouTube at the 60s Woodstock Festival, and to make a long story short this is the model I ended up with.

My intent was to replace the mini buckers with P-90 soap bars since it was also routed for those, but I've always liked mini HBs and I liked the sound so I kept those in.

This particular Les Paul is simply a re-creation of the version that was very common in the 70s. One of the most famous users was Pete Townsend of the Who.

Like most modern Gibson reissues, especially at what they consider their normal price range, it's not entirely period  correct.

For one thing the body's been "weight relieved," that is to say spaces cut into the body to make it less heavy. Which is fine with me, I got this model because I got a good deal on it, and was what I was looking for. It may change the tone for some ears, but it pretty much sounds like a deluxe to me.

The main difference between this one and the standard really is the mini humbuckers, with a slightly brighter tone. A difference that pretty much disappears once you start adjusting the tone knobs on your amplifier.

Amplifier and tone pedal technology has become so advanced in this day and age that you can really make most guitars sound like whatever you want, and it's really about which guitar feels best in your hands and brings out the music in you.

In the case of this particular model, what I like about it is that one can get most of the standard Les Paul sounds, but because of the sound characteristics of the minis, you can get a lot of Gretsch type tones. That's something that'll come in handy in the future.

In the present though, it's primarily played in a D tuning on the "fender reverb" setting on my amp, and used for blues and other types of music suitable for that setup.

I'm not sure that this 30th Anniversary is better than Norlin-era Gibson LP Deluxe, but prior to the revisionism about vintage guitars, it's interesting that the Gibsons made in that era, which were so bad mouthed back then, have become so classic in the view of many now.

If you had to choose between Gibson's modern update and a vintage 80s Deluxe, in my opinion, go for the best price. Any difference in tone between the two lies in your fingers anyway.

2013 Gibson Rudolf Schenker Flying V:

Rudolf Schenker is the one who turned his brother, Michael, into a Flying V enthusiast. It was hardly a case of an unknown sibling turning a star on to what became his trademark guitar, Rudolf earned his fame with the Scorpions.

Michael Shanker is probably the more well-known Flying V player, and though his early models were Gibsons, his most famous version was made by Dean with the infamous huge V headstock.

I wanted a Flying V but not bad enough to get the Dean version.

The Rudolph Schenker is what you would call a lighter 70s version, as opposed to earlier types like the Korina wood or the models made famous by Albert King, Jimi Hendrix (yes, he played one also), or Dave Davies of the Kinks.

In most respects it is a standard V. It's a one piece mahogany body guitar with a stock Gibson '57 in the neck position, but with a '57 plus at the bridge.

It does differ in two important ways. The fretboard is made of granadillo wood instead of Rosewood or Ebony, and the neck is voluted to minimize the traditional fragility of the Gibson headstock joint.

Granadillo is known as the "singing wood," and commonly used for xylophones. It's pretty similar to Rosewood in terms of feel. I definitely like it better than the baked maple Gibson has been using on some of the other models.

The most distinctive feature is the now famous half white half black coloring that goes all the way up to the headstock, and there is a matching colored pick guard on both sides.

From what I've read on the Internet, and it seems like the truth, this was a limited edition that only around 200 were sold in the United States, and 400 worldwide. What makes it really unique is that it wasn't anywhere near as expensive as many of the limited edition Gibsons have been in the past.

You can get the full specs for the guitar on the Internet and plenty of demonstrations of it's sound on YouTube so I won't get too heavily into the technical details here.

Being named after the guitarist of the Scorpions, I'm sure that the perception will be that it's an ultimate metal guitar. Given what I've heard so far from it, I have to say that that's true.

The fretboard feels a little wider than some Vs that I've played, but I like the string spacing, which is very suitable for someone like me who mainly fingerpicks.

The main reason I got a V was because I gave up on Strats. I've owned over half a dozen of various types including the Eric Clapton model, and never could warm up to strats. One reason could be that I'm used to Tele's, but the Flying V gives me the sound that I wanted to get out of strats. It's a totally subjective thing.

I personally got the Rudolph Shenker V because I was able to make a good trade for it, and I've always really liked that black-and-white color scheme. It's a beautifully crafted guitar, light and a great player, and I think the voluted neck should be standard on all Gibsons.

Santos Custom Telecaster:

Santos is a small luthier and guitar maker based in Santa Cruz, Ca. The basic model telecaster produced here was a one piece mahogany body custom with two humbuckers and a maple neck.

The original buyer made several modifications to it. He replaced the neck with a Seymour Duncan alnico for the neck, and put a vintage 70s era Dimarzio distortion in the bridge position. The two are wired to also split into single coils individually and can be put out of phase when both PUs are engaged.

An original Bigsby tremelo was installed, and the knobs changed out from metal  to custom made mohogany. The tuners were changed out to Schaller locking types, and additional fretwork and setup was done by Dan Armstrong, a well known Luthier in the area.

The big surprise was how the Dimarzio performed on this tele. My original intention was to pull it out and sell it, and replace it with a TV Jones. However, it turned out to be an excellent pick up that does especially well in single coil mode.

It's turned out to be an extremely versatile Tele, that can get most of the traditional sounds, and can range into Gretsch and Gibson SG territory. After a couple of years it seems like the Bigsby should've become a standard feature on at least some of the tele models. It's a lot of fun to have one on this type of guitar.

It's not the ultimate telecaster, i'm sure more than a couple of Fenders will find their way back into the collection in the future, but this one will be always be one of my favorite guitars. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Bo Diddley style cigar box guitar project: Part One

I'm sure that anybody who has listened to the blues for any length of time has heard the old stories about how some of the early blues legends built their own guitars out of various materials like chicken wire, tin cans, and various types of containers for the body such as the cigar boxes.

I have to admit I'm not so sure about cigar boxes, because unless they found one lying around that would normally require the purchase of a box of cigars which may or may not have been within the reach of the average blues musician back in the 20s.

It is a historical fact that various objects were used and recorded in blues music such as wash pans as the basis for basses, washboards as part of the rhythm section and of course spoons.

In some of the earliest African guitar music, the rhythm was often provided by tapping a Coke bottle with some sort of metal object.

Getting back to cigarbox guitars, like I said before I'm not sure those were that common as a blues instrument, I'd have to look that up on Google or something.

One thing that is certain is it does have a definite cult audience these days, and quite a few of them are used to create blues music at least on YouTube.

I recently obtained a cigarbox banjo, or what was called one. It does have a 20s banjo neck and an old harmony tailpiece and it has a pretty nice looking cigarbox as the body and appears to be well braced. 

Even though It didn't even remotely sound like a banjo, I went ahead and bought it anyway. The price was right.

The main reason I got it was that it looked like I could possibly turn into a Bo Diddley style cigarbox guitar, which was one of the coolest guitar shapes in blues history.

So one thing I should make clear, is that the cigarbox guitar has not been built from scratch. It's one that I purchased and intend to modify.

I should also add that if I decide to that project is impractical then I'm simply going to restring it and use it as a ukulele.

It hasn't come to that yet of course, we're just getting started.

The picture you'll see below is what the guitar looked like at the time of purchase, 
and I've already made one modification.

The original bridge was a thin rectangle of wood with a bolt sitting on it loose being held in place by the strings. That little piece of wood is looks like a soft wood and the only contact the strings have to the body is the threads of the bolt, which is a sure fire tone killer.

In fact considering that the body is a cigar box, the guitar sounded unusually dead or muffled in tone.

The first modification I made was to remove that bridge and temporarily put a banjo bridge on it, so that the vibration from the strings would be transmitted directly to the cigarbox in proper fashion.

That's only a temporary measure, I mainly put it on to see if the tone of the thing was good enough to invest the time to modify it. Using the banjo bridge clearly increased the volume considerably.

The volume level and resonance of the cigarbox is important, in case I decide to leave it acoustic or convert it to a ukulele-like instrument.

The 20s banjo neck, like most banjo necks of that era is pretty thick given that the things didn't have truss rods, and the pegs appear to be able to stay in tune.

Many of the cigarbox guitars I've seen are three stringed instruments, but since this one has four, my early thought is to proceed along the lines of making it a tenor style guitar.

Also I'll be looking to mount pick ups on it, otherwise as an acoustic instrument I would prefer it to be a ukulele.

I'll be working on this project as I have time, and as I find the correct hardware for it at a good price. So the installments on the blog won't be consecutive.

Other than changing out the bridge my real first step is to think about it for a bit and visualize what I'd like it to look like.

The person who made the instrument glued the top shut, but fortunately left the hinges of the box unglued so it should be fairly easy to remove the top.

I'll want to see the bracing inside if for no other reason to see where I can put the various electronics such as the volume knobs that'll be necessary, etc.

I can understand the reason for using the top of the cigarbox as it has the logo and looks cooler but if I were building a cigar box guitar, I would definitely do it upside down so that the box could open from the bottom to make it easier to install the electronics. After all I don't want to start drilling holes and find myself going right into the bracing.

So, i'll spend a little time visualizing what it will look like, and begin a search for a trashed old 60s guitar that has surface mounted pick ups (I would never buy an intact guitar just to take the pick ups off it, an old vintage guitar, the matter how cheap, deserves to stay intact if it's in playable condition).

I'll write a part two when I've begun work on the new Bo Diddley cigar box guitar.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Guitar Review: 2004 MIM Fender Nashville Deluxe Telecaster

It was actually a guitar picked up in the way more than one guitar had ended up in someone's collection; I was actually using it to test out amplifiers,and ended up buying the Fender instead.

It wasn't so much as an impulse buy as fate. I had been in the market for second telecaster add to my collection, and the Mexican made Nashville was actually one of the models I was keeping an eye out for.

The Nashville model I'm most familiar with is the one with the semi hollow body, but when I was looking for a guitar to check out some amplifiers I saw the solid body version on the rack.

As you can see from the picture it pretty much looks like a standard, except it has a stratocaster pick up in the middle. This is supposed to be a secret that many Nashville session men use in their customized guitars,which are virtually always telecasters.

The selling point is that you have a telecaster and the stratocaster combined in one guitar.

This is only technically true.

Putting a strat pickup in the middle does give you the extra flexibility to get some Strat-like tones in your music, but as a general rule most strat players don't use the middle pick up by itself.

Of course the fact that most don't could be a good reason for you to go ahead and do that. Why follow the crowd?

This is actually one of the more admired Mexican made teles from Fender. From what I can see on the Internet, most of those who  own one like or love it.

The main point of controversy, at least as far as such things go in the guitar world, is the Tex-Mex pick ups. All three are basically like the pick-ups that are used for the telecaster and strat standards, except that the wire coils around the magnet has extra winds in order to create a "hotter" sound. Though in guitar terms that doesn't necessarily mean more fierce sounding. Just a little fuller,

The fact that I bought it based on how it sounded out of the amplifier, as opposed to researching it first on the Internet, was a good reminder of the basic rule of the guitar buying, which is to trust your ears and not what people say.

In other words I didn't know there were "Tex-Mex" pick ups on that guitar. If I had known that I wouldn't have even picked the guitar off the rack.

The reason is years ago one of the strats that I owned (and didn't keep) was the Jimmy Vaughan model with Tex-Mex pick ups. It was a model that I absolutely hated the sound of, and returned to the store within a week.

Add to that the small but vocal chorus of bad mouthing that goes on about Tex-Mex pick ups on the Internet, and you have a guitar that I would normally avoid.

Actually I should've known better. The first telecaster I owned back in '73 and used for 25 years had a rewound front pick up, in other words what they now call a Tex-Mex.

Which is the first thing I realized when I was playing the guitar at the store. The front pick up sounded like my old telecaster.

This was an important point to me since I generally use the front pick up. Part of the reason was that my old CBS era telecaster had a crappy back pick-up sound, and part of it was that I liked the sound of the front pick-up with the treble turned all the way up.

If you listen to those few songs where I played the solo or lead guitar in the Handa-McGraw & The Internationals recordings, that's the sound of a rewound front pick up a telecaster (on an old small amp with gain and volume high).

The general word on the Nashville deluxe that I've read is that it's a hotter or darker telecaster and won't give you the "traditional" sound.

By traditional sound I believe that means that thinner 50s sound you hear on old country records. By the same token, that term has pretty much lost it's meaning by this time.

Fender's been making telecasters for over 60 years, most of which have certain things in common in terms of tone, but there's really no longer any such thing as a single classic sound.

The Fender Nashville Deluxe is a Mexican made telecaster, though much of it was made in the United States and sent down to Mexico for assembly.

In the case of my candy apple red version, it has the usual alder wood body, and in this case a maple neck. Which I prefer.

The style of maple neck on this model is what you would call a "fast neck," which means it's a little thinner and slimmer. Since I have small hands that's a desirable feature.

The basic hardware like the bridge and pegs are more than good enough. I've heard some criticism about those metal parts but these tuning pegs in particular are way better than the ones I had on my old '73.

The heart of the electronics is the three pick-up configuration, with the middle pick-up being a strat type.

The two Tex-Mex telecaster pick-ups sound just fine, The two basically sound like standard telecaster pick-ups except a bit fuller sounding, basically as advertised. If you want to sound a little sharper and thinner like a standard, i'm sure you can adjust the tone on any decent amp.

I'd describe the sound with a little more detail except what I hear is probably not going to be what you hear. 

The fact is, although electric guitars haven't changed a whole lot due to the conservatism of most guitar buyers, at least the older ones, amplifier technology has always moved at a fast pace. 

In fact it would be moving even faster if it wasn't for the fact that most of the older guitar players want amplifiers that duplicate the old vintage types. How amplifier makers responded to that demand is a story in itself.

I can say that these telecaster pick-ups will give you everything from the old twangy sound, to a classic jazz sound, and a superior blues tone. If you have a decent amp, like any telecaster, it will give you pretty much any tone you want, even metal, even though a lot of reviewers say the telecaster can't play that type.

In this day and age, if you have the right amp and pedals, you can get any sound you want out of almost any guitar.

The middle Strat pick up on the Nashville actually works very well. To me it sounds like a strat pick-up that's been moved  closer to the neck.

One other thing different about this telecaster is that it has a five position switch instead of the traditional three. So you can combine the bridge and middle, and middle and neck, but to be apparent anguish of many telecaster traditionalists, you can't combine the bridge and neck pick ups.

That neck and bridge combination isn't one that I ever used very much, but plenty of telecaster players do. In the early 70s you would've been SOL, but we live in an era where you can easily have have the front and back combined setting customized into the guitar or even do it yourself.

If you want the "standard" telecaster tone, you'd probably better be better off just buying one of the standards, if for no other reason that you won't have musicians looking at your Nashville and psychologically not being able to hear a standard tone from it.

When I was in the store there was a standard American Tele on the rack next to this one for only $300 more, but after trying it I felt that it didn't sound $300 better. 

I've owned a couple of other American standards, one I would say sounded better than the Nashville, the other a lot worse. That may sound strange to some doesn't play guitar, but most musicians know what I'm talking about.

The Fender Nashville deluxe telecaster has been one of it's more successful Mexican models, and given what I've seen of it, it's probably one of the best values in the midprice range. If you can find a used one at a good price, it'll be both a bargain and a keeper.

In my case I've found a telecaster that has a front pick up that sounds like my old '73, and that's priceless.


The guitar instrumentals I was referring to earlier in the article are, "Texas Jook Joint Boogie," "Rocking Juke Joint Blues Shuffle," "Night Train," and the opening of "Internationals Rock The Blues." 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Electric Fog Factory On YouTube

The Electric Fog Factory YouTube channel:

Sunday, August 10, 2014

My 2014 Fall Collection

Like any instrument enthusiast, my collection undergoes changes every year. This year the emphasis was on a smaller collection.

A lot of instruments passed through this collection before it was finalized, including a screwed up 1933 Gibson arch top. The temptation would be to keep it, but even after a week of work I simply couldn't get that thing to sound right.

An wonderful sounding Eric Clapton signature strat passed through, but the fact is I just simply don't keep strats. I won't bore you with the list of Strat models that've made their way through my collection over the decades, but suffice to say, it's become obvious to me that if it's going to be a Fender, it's going to be a telecaster. Ironically the tele that's in this collection isn't made by Fender.

I finally went to two banjos, which makes sense since it's probably my primary instrument now. I must've gone through over a dozen brands over the years before settling on these two vintage models.

I didn't decide on these two banjos simply for collector value. In fact the price of both combined wouldn't get me anywhere close to a modern top of the line banjo like a Deering. The reason was simple, both gave me exactly the sound I wanted that a lot of modern banjos don't have any more. It's a certain tone that 'a hard to describe, and it's an anesthetic that I'm sure more than a few modern banjo players would disagree with.

The mandolin pictured is quite recent, and it's the cheapest instrument in the collection. I got it simply because it had the sound I wanted. The Charango you see is the one that I've been pretty much using all this time, same with the old Glen Campbell 12 string in back.

I traded down a collection of over 21 instruments down to these eight for two reasons.

One, I specifically looked for instruments I intended to use in the fall recordings by the group I'm in.

Secondly, I got tired of having to move heavy instrument bags and cases aside just to get to my clothes and other parts of my room.

My philosophy has changed and I decided to get instruments that wouldn't be traded off every year.

I'm sure many of you guitar players can relate to my history of collecting. It's gone through various phases. For example, I went through a phase of collecting cool cheapo guitars, and the worst phase was when I got into collecting low and medium priced Instruments, and the total hit nearly 30. Not only did it take up three quarters of my bedroom, but I found myself constantly losing track of what I had, and obviously most normal guitar players don't play that many instruments. In fact the number was so overwhelming to me, I eventually stopped playing them.

I went through a Fender phase, where I not only tried to collect every model they made, but began to accumulate every type of telecaster I could find. A massive car repair bill, probably sent down by a vengeful God, ended that phase.

Fortunately, if you have to sell a lot of guitars fast, I can safely say that Fenders are definite blue chips.

I have to admit I never went through a Gibson phase. You can get three top really nice Fenders for the price of a top line Gibson, and it doesn't make sense to collect a brand where it's off the shelf guitars are the same price as a decent used car.

Obviously there's a Gibson Les Paul in the picture, but the nice thing about those is that type isn't incredibly versatile, so having one tends to be just fine.

Also went through a phase of trying to collect every instrument made in the world, but I'll save that for a future blog as it was an interesting experience having to research instruments from other countries before deciding to add them to my collection.

I won't list the instruments that are shown in the picture. Those who know vintage instruments will recognize every single one, and to the average music listener, the fact that one of the banjos is a 1962 Vega FP-5 is probably as interesting and useful as knowing the maximum thrust of an F-16 fighter engine.

Experienced musicians will definitely notice that I don't keep the instruments on stands. Basically either I'm playing the instrument, or keep it in its case. I know that having them out on stands makes it easier for a person to pick one up and spontaneously play, but in my case, my mind doesn't work that way.

An idea for a piece comes to my head, I imagine the sound that I want, then pull out the instrument I think will give me that sound.

Besides, the way Gibson guitar necks break if you even look at them funny means I'm never going to keep one on a stand.

I admit that's a bit anal and paranoid, but all of us guitar players who accumulate more instruments than we really need are sort of odd ducks in the flock.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Latest gear report: 2007 Kentucky KM 172 Mandolin

Latest acquisition is a 2007 Kentucky KM 172, a sort of midline oval hole mandolin that ran at around 380.00 in an era where it seemed like there were dozens of 60 dollar mandolins around.

It was an import like many others in that price range, but the Kentucky brand seems to have a good reputation even with those who own American-made mandolins.

Considering it was an oval hole type, which doesn't make it as suitable for bluegrass (where the mandolins with F holes dominate), it was well liked, and if you look in of discussion forums for mandos, it's obvious it was a well regarded model. This type of mandolin is especially suitable for Celtic, folk, and blues.

It was certainly a success and most places had a hard time keeping it in stock. Particularly ones of this peach color, which still looks good even in its old nitro coat (nice touch not using poly).

It was an all solid wood instrument, with a tone many would associate with a more expensive instrument, and these days if you can find one it's a bargain compared to mandolins that you see even in the $500 range these days and sounds as good or better.

I got it to replace the old Martin that was being used on earlier recordings by the band. I could've gotten a more expensive one, but sometimes getting the right one with the right sound is more important.

I guess back in 2007, some guy back there in the mandolin factory was having a good day and put out a good product off the production line. From the sound of this one, I think it's going to have a good long life.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Electric Fog Factory On YouTube!

The Electric Fog Factory YouTube channel:

Friday, July 18, 2014

My Guitar Hall Of Shame: Guitars I sold cheap that later could have funded my retirement

Any guitar player who started playing in the 60s or 70s should be able to relate to the list of guitars below. I know that for a fact because at various guitar stores, I've stood there at the counter exchanging SOB stories about the guitars that got away with other musicians, like two drunks comforting each other at a bar over some heartbreak.

In reality there are some regrets, but they tend to be colored more with black humor and dismissed with a shrug that says, we simply had no way of knowing that the guitars that we sold and traded back then would eventually escalate in value to ridiculous levels.

The guitars seemed pretty costly even back then, but sometime in the 80s or 90s, a sort of perfect storm of Guitar collecting occurred. Both baby boomers who wanted to buy the same guitar as their music heroes, Japanese investor/collectors, and more than a few millionaires got into the act. Guitars that used to cost a few hundred dollars could go for over a million if it was played by the right musician, or a sizable percentage of that if it was the right type.

My very first guitar was a late 50s Gibson gold top Les Paul, with the white "soap bar" pickups. It's peak value I think was in the late 90s (keep in mind this is a blog and not an authoritive article), and I believe the figure was about a quarter million.

I bought it for $400, and in the early 70s that took just about every cent I had. I enjoyed it for a bit, but found that the neck was so thick I had a hard time playing with my small hands.

I took it down to Dean Markley's music store (before he became a string manufacturer), and he told me it was worth when I could get for it.

Back then the main people who bought guitars were other musicians, which was another way of saying that I wasn't going to get anything more than what I paid for it, and most of the offers came in at around 60% of its price.

So I went to another music store, and traded it in for an early model Gibson ES 330, plus no charge on the $150 in repairs it needed. That one was a relative cheapie, maybe worth a few thousand now.

I was also doing acoustic music at that time and wanted to upgrade the guitar I had. Since I had more electrics than acoustics, I traded the Gibson for their acoustic "country and western" model guitar plus $200. I later sold it to a friend for a decent Yamaha guitar and 150 cash as a favor. The remorse factor is relatively low on that one, as I think the highest I've ever seen that model go is maybe 2500 or so. Peanuts.

I finally settled on a 1972 Fender telecaster, bought for $250, which was stock except for a rewound front pick up. I later sold for 850.00, which was less than it was worth by then. I had been in the Midwest for couple years, and hadn't realized that the guitar collecting boom had begun. I just simply thought the guy was just some really well off dude that was willing to pay way more than the guitar was worth.

During this time I put a cheapie Buck Owens guitar on layaway, but shifted the funds to another purchase. Decades later it became known that Buck Owens wanted the guitar to be inexpensive, but a few higher end companies wanted to be associated with the product and were willing to subcontract it. The company that ended up doing it was Gibson, and of course now that guitar is worth over thousand dollars.

The reason I ended up not buying it was simple, once I got past the cool red white and blue striping, it simply didn't sound that good. The fact that the subcontractor was Gibson has escalated the price drastically, but there's $200 acoustic guitars out there on the market that sound three times as good.

I do have to admit that because of that cool American flag coloring, it is one of the few regrets I have in my guitar buying life.

In the middle 70s I added a bell shaped Danelectro electric 12 string guitar to my collection for $100. Nowadays you can probably easily get at least 800 for it, but for the life of me I can't remember what happened to it.

As the more expensive Gibsons skyrocketed in value, it increased the cost of some of the lower line models. I've owned two student model ES-125's, one in mint condition. They were cool guitars, but frankly not very good unless you played blue slide, so those were traded off for various other guitars. The one in mint condition could probably get at least 1800 now, maybe more.

The escalation in price for many of the guitar that used to be economy or beginner models is an interesting subject in itself. I'll definitely cover it in the future blog.

A few years back I bought a 1920s Gibson mandolin that was in pieces for about $200. It turned out to be easy to repair, and the neck was in perfect condition (rare for that era now). It was an economy model back them, and since it didn't quite have the sound I wanted it was sold off for a few hundred dollars. I've since been told I should've sold it for at least 800, it's top value more like 1200, but I figure once you've lost out on a quarter million dollars, what's a few hundred now?

Given close to almost 4 decades of my faithless attitude towards guitars and other instruments, I could easily add a dozen more examples to the list.

The reason I don't have any remorse about any of those sales and trades is twofold.

One, I wised up and got smart about my guitar buying and trading, and because I've become reasonably competent at basic repair, my collection may not be as big as it used to be, but every one was obtained at a good price, and in some cases were a bargain.

Second, after a few years, most of the major guitar companies wised up and began to work harder at finding ways of providing guitars that were reasonably priced.

The guitar industry had done better than that. It's gotten to the point were at every price range you have a choice of several guitars that are all beautifully made. In fact, given what was available as entry-level guitars back in the 60s and 70s, more than one writer has wished that these modern guitars had been available back then.

America is a unique guitar market. If you read the discussion boards on the Internet, you'll find a lot of opinions and ideas that to people in other countries would think rather strange.

For example, many seem to think that each guitar has a basic sound, and even if the guitar is versatile, it's basically built for a narrow range of music. That means to play a wide variety of music, it's considered best to have a few guitars that can get you each of those special sounds.

Also we assume that the more expensive the guitar is the better it is. In the case of blues music, that's totally out of step with the history of recorded blues. A lot of the early blues in the 20s was recorded on cheap instruments like the old Sears catalog guitars and Stellas. The idea that you need a $5000 Martin guitar to reproduce that sound is a tribute to consumerism.

That 1972 telecaster that I had was my only electric guitar for 20 years. It's image is that it's basically a country guitar that can also play blues and certain types of rock. However it's also a guitar that's been used as a serious jazz instrument.

In the 60s and early 70s the idea that a guitar like the Les Paul could only play certain types of music was probably true. The reason was amp technology wasn't as far along.

These days amps are so sophisticated that even the cheap $100 ones have the option to do a competent imitation of at least two or three other brands of amps at the flick if a switch. Guitar design hasn't changed all that much since the 60s, whereas amp technology has made huge advances every decade.

Which is why I could just play one electric guitar for 20 years. As the amps got better, I found my guitar was capable of more and more.

What the smartest guitar players know is that skill and talent is what brings out the best in the guitar, or can make the sound they want. Ted Nugent and George Thorogood, for example, play Gibson hollow body jazz guitars, and neither could be accused of being a jazz musician.

Of course certain guitar designs bring out certain types of sounds that are unique. But I would say a majority of the guitars sound more similar than different.

The whole collecting boom has subsided a bit, if for no other reason that most of the rare guitars are already owned by collectors, beat up copies of the same model have become overpriced and way too many of the ones out for sale are counterfeits. 

There's a lot of 50s Fender stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls on the market that were actually made in the Philippines or China. Many of these counterfeits are so good, at least in terms of appearance, even the best experts can't always tell.

The ironic thing is it's not illegal to sell a counterfeit, as long as you identify it as one. There's companies that make replica 50s strats, complete with nicks and scratches, that are eagerly bought by guitar players for up to a few thousand.

Being somebody who prefers to keep guitars in nice condition, the idea of deliberately scratching and wearing out the paint on the guitar (called "relicing") seems pretty weird. But it's their money, and if it makes them happy, well shoot, that makes me happy for them.

So the second point was the longest to explain, or at least led to the most digressions, but the fact is the collector boom had a positive affect on the mainstream guitar industry.

From entry-level to advanced, for those who want a top quality replica of a vintage model, or super cheap copy of a vintage model looks at least 90% accurate, there's a guitar for you.

As far as that gold top Les Paul, I actually have a more modern version, and it's neck is slim and easy to play. Taking away the issue of money, if given a choice of the two I would still definitely take the one I have now.

The reason is that guitars are for playing and enjoying, not for investment to be put in a glass case and never played again.

An instrument that isn't being used to create music, and treated like some museum exhibit, is basically a gift of life turned into a joyless object. I'm very lukewarm on the "work of art" argument.

There's a lot of incredibly expensive Stradivarius violins out there in the classical world, and most are being played, and the music world is richer for it.

Maybe someday the guitar world will catch up with the classical world and how it treats valuable instruments.

 One can only hope.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Electric Fog Factory YouTube channel:

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Are American made guitars really better?

As a general rule, American-made guitars, particularly electrics, are better made and of higher quality.

The reason isn't because Americans are better at making guitars.

The primary reason is because America only uses the foreign factories to make the lower priced economy models. Countries like Japan, when making first-line guitars for their own market, make guitars as good as American.

One example is Stevie Ray Vaughn. He was playing Japanese Stratocasters before he signed an endorsement deal with Fender. There's one famous photograph out there where he's playing a Strat in a Fender ad, but it was really his Japanese guitar with a Fender logo airbrushed over the headstock.

The reason for that was that for a decade or so, Fender wasn't producing guitars in United States. It was after the infamous "CBS era"when that company bought Fender in the early 70s.

During the 80s Gibson was owned by company called Norlin, and that era was considered a low point also.

During that era both brands were at the receiving end of a lot of critical comments by American buyers (that's miraculously changed now thanks to the vintage market), and Japanese companies like Tokai, Burney, and Ibanez flooded the market with lower-cost high quality (and low quality) copies of Gibsons and Fenders, the best examples of which have become collectors items today.

That was known as the "lawsuit era," where overseas companies had to stop copying the Gibson headstock. It's since become an era that's developed a whole set of myths, where every Japanese guitar made then was superior and of legendary quality.

I won't go into it now, as it's a subject that really should be discussed in a separate blog.

The fact is an overseas made guitar will be as good as the contractor/customer wants it to be. The guitars are made to a certain specification and budget, not because somebody wants to make the guitar inferior to an American-made.

All things being equal in terms of materials and craftsmanship, one of the primary reasons an American guitar is more expensive is labor cost.

One good example was a special limited-edition budget guitar line Gibson came out with a couple of years ago at around $500 each. The guitars were crudely cut, the paint job cheaply applied, the fretboard was baked maple instead of Rosewood, and the only sign that it was a real Gibson was that each had a single stock pick up, and the distinctive headstock shape Gibson has patented.

You could've simply removed that stock pick up and wiring, and put it in a Korean made Epiphone of the same body shape, and you would have had a better guitar for $200 less (or more).

It was sort of funny reading the various reviews for that line of Gibson guitars. The reviewers stressed the simplicity, that it was for players, not collectors, and that it was a Gibson. In other words, they walked a very fine line between telling the truth, and not saying something that would cause Gibson to pull ads from their pubs.

The guitar forums were more entertaining. The opinion split between those who were just happy to have a Gibson at a cheap price, those who saw that if it could be had cheaper (like when Gibson reduced the price to 300 when it closed out the line) that it wasn't a bad "fun" guitar, and those who brutally pointed out all the production shortcuts that the company had made to produce a guitar that was a worse value than their cheaper Epiphone line.

I should add that I did briefly own one at the 300.00 price, but gratefully took advantage of the store's 30 day return policy.

Fender was one of the first major American companies, at least one that most American guitar players care about, that was willing to put out a foreign guitar under its own logo.

Their cheaper Squier line already came from overseas, but somewhere around the 90s the first Mexican made fenders appeared. Those guitars were made cheaply, and didn't sound as good. But the price was certainly right, particularly for those who knew how to upgrade a guitar.

There was some of the usual contempt, some of it borderline racist, but as a whole Fender not only continually improved the process, but has created several lower line Fenders and Squires that all but the most hardline have accepted as exceptional values in each price range. In fact, they've made the mid-range price market competitive with models that cost more.

Fender could do this because it's owners have a different culture than those who own Gibsons. Fenders were intended to be a quality affordable assembly-line guitar, that was screwed and bolted together, thus allowing users to mix-and-match parts.

The Gibson culture values a guitar that is supposed to be the top quality American guitar that has no equals. That would be disputed by companies like PRS and Fender, but there's no denying that Gibsons are like Harleys. It doesn't even have to be better, the name has that much cachet in United States.

In the 60s you could definitely say that an Asian made guitar was inferior to an American one. Most of the Japanese makers didn't even try to be better, as the idea was to capture the low-end market (though the vintage market has changed that).

As Japanese guitar makers got better, they got more expensive. So the next generation of Asian made guitars came from Korea, and the usual denigration of guitars made there began all over again.

The ironic thing is when production began to shift Indonesia and China, guitar players began to value Korean guitars as if those were the good old days, and the perception of Japanese craftsmanship rose even higher.

But like I said, when these countries decide to build a good guitar, they're certainly capable of it. One good example is jazz great George Benson who uses an Ibanez.

America is a richer country than most, so we have strange ideas about guitars and guitar making. Most American guitar players seem to assume a certain superiority in American craftsmanship, and I'm sure our attitude that a $400 guitar is only adequate for beginners would make many musicians around the world roll their eyes.

We're definitely one of the few countries that think if you buy a guitar at a certain price, it will make you that good. Even if some of the most legendary music England and America ever produced was made on cheap or catalogue quality instruments.

The fact is the world can make Instruments just fine.

Any good flamenco guitarist worth his salt will want one made in Spain. There are probably plenty of good luthiers in the United States that can make a flamenco guitar, but if they opened up shop in Spain they'll find that there's centuries of subtleties in the craftsmanship that they don't know.

Guitarists who look down on Chinese guitar makers are simply forgetting that the Japanese had the same learning curve in the 60s, and are making excellent guitars now.

The Chinese are already making very nice guitars for the price, which shouldn't be surprising, given that their culture made vases centuries ago that are now worth millions. A markup that would turn any red blooded American capitalist green with envy, and make computer software makers nod their heads in approval.

The primary value in an American guitar is that it was in fact made better and with better materials. If you gave the same budget and materials to a Japanese maker, i'm sure most guitar players these days would admit that they just might come out with an instrument that is just as good and cheaper.

Our guitar market is actually somewhat of a rigged game, because we're dealing with a product with a basic design that simply hasn't changed much for half a century. Making a guitar that's as good as a Gibson and for less really isn't difficult.

One of the reasons the Asian guitar companies haven't tried to take on Gibson is that as a rule they don't want to. The idea that the average American wants to pay $2000 for a first-line guitar is a philosophy that would put most guitar makers out of business fast. The meat of the industry is in the 300 to 1000 range.

Plus not all Gibsons are 100% American anymore. A lot of their acoustic line is actually made in Canada, where good quality wood is still cheap. I'm sure the reasons why a Canadian made guitar seems perfectly fine with the Gibson crowd run the garment from the obvious quality to stereotypes about Asian factories compared to ones in the Western Hemisphere.

One instructive thing an aspiring Gibson Les Paul owner can do is check out the various guitar forums about that type, and not just the ones dealing with or hosted by Gibson.

A Gibson Les Paul's isn't a complicated guitar to make. In fact except for the fact of the neck is glued on, and the top requires some shaping, it's really as simple as any Fender. Which is why it's probably the most imitated and counterfeited guitar in the world.

You'll find that the majority opinion is that if you find a Les Paul copy that's made with the same craftsmanship and materials, and stick Gibson pickups in it, you probably have a guitar that's as good as Gibson makes. Plus more than a few Gibson owners don't like the stock pickups either and replace those as soon as possible.

Craftsmanship does count. A lower line Epiphone copy that is made will often play better than a Gibson that was made by worker that might've been at less than top efficiency that day, or was passed and approved by careless QA inspector. That goes for guitars as much as tables or anything made of wood.

Even in a lot of the machine made guitars, care in the assembly and manufacturer is a factor. Plus not all pieces of wood are the same, some are excellent quality and resonate sound well, and some don't. If you get a guitar made from the latter, it won't matter if it has a Gibson logo on it, as more than a few Les Paul buyers have found out.

The answer to the question in the title is actually pretty simple, it was just a good vehicle to ramble a bit about guitar quality.

The answer that I stated at the beginning of the blog was obvious (to me anyway), but a lot of the feeling about the quality of American guitars is very emotional, and about supporting American workers.

My general point of view in guitar reviews is that whether it was American-made is only one of the factors. It's certainly an important one, as there's no denying that an American guitar has a certain aura about it that can't always be quantified in price.

As a matter of disclosure, I do own some American-made instruments. Two electric guitars, a 12 string, and a banjo to be exact. The banjo was made in the 30s, but two are modern American electric guitars.

My personal view on buying an American guitar is that if it gives you what you want, then it's worth it. Paying more simply because it was American-made is certainly valid, but I wouldn't pay more simply because it's an American guitar.

Paying 200 or 300 more because it was made in America is patriotic, paying a thousand or more is just a crass exercise in capitalism.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Devil's Dictionary For Music: A Language Translator For The Layman-Part 1

Disclaimer: this guide is for entertainment purposes only. The fact that some of the definitions may have some truth in them is only coincidental.

I'm sure all of you have read the Devil's Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce, but if you haven't, I definitely recommend it.

This is part one of a handy translator guide for music fans, who wish to decipher some of the more confusing terms in music, and thus armed with the truth, can navigate the vast assortment of music available on the Internet and possibly avoid the waste of cash that was earned working a real job.

It's presented in dictionary form, that is to say in alphabetical order. This is the start of a series that will be done on a casual schedule.

Devil's Dictionary For Music: Part 1

Common Terms:

Classic: this is the generic industry term for any album that's demonstrated the ability to generate sales over a long period of time. Generally at least one year.

It is generally safe for the consumer to assume that any album that's called a classic by at least two different media sources or in at least one book that isn't ghostwritten for the artist is probably a classic in modern terms.

Critic: everybody is a critic, but in industry terms, it's a person who has some sort of media outlet for their opinions on music, and are considered a lower priority for payola and special access to the artist than radio program directors and the few music DJs that have any choice on what they play on their show.

Critics are considered necessary by the media because music fans find reviews entertaining, and thus a service that needs to be provided.

The music industry likes critics because it has been scientifically proven that a review has absolutely no influence on what the average consumer thinks, and thus can't hurt sales, and the reviews often provide excellent quotes for press releases.

What causes some people to quote critics is a psychological disorder that still isn't understood, and research in the area has been sparse and underfunded.

Some researchers feel that musical opinion is similar to politics, where large numbers of people let others do the thinking for them.

The average listener can safely assume that if the critic says things about their favorite artist they agree with, it's a good review.

A bad review on a record is generally a signal to the industry by the media outlet that they haven't bought enough advertising.

Cult Artist: this is generally a label applied to any musician who has a small but dedicated following who feel that the artist creates works of genius (see genius), fits a niche taste, or is considered legendary (see Legendary), or is considered unjustly ignored by the general public by publicity firms.

For the average listener, it's safe to assume that if being a fan of a cult artist makes you feel cooler, hipper, beautiful, or more discerning than the general public, then it's a true cult artist.

Genius: this was generally a term used to describe an artist who created music that made all the other artists feel like they made stupid or inferior music, or created a desire to emulate that genius.

The word is undergone several changes and meaning over the decades, so in the modern era it's difficult to define the word.

In music industry terms it's applied to a very small percentage of artists, a maximum of 99%. The term is sort of treated like a medal, in this case, awarded if the artist has done something exceptional, like actually generating a profit for the label.

The average Music consumer can safely assume that any artist that's considered a genius is generally is a signed artist with a good publicity agent, though due to modern recording technology, it shouldn't be construed as a term for someone who can competently perform music.

Legendary: this is actually a complex term, but if read in a publication, it's it's word applied to only a very special percentage of artists, possibly no more than 95%.

In real-world terms, it's generally applied to an artist who's had perhaps at least two hits, shown career endurance of at least three years, or is a cult artist (see cult artist).

For the average music listener, it's generally safe to ignore the term when evaluating an artist.

Special Edition: in music industry terms, this generally means a release that's been augmented with demos, previously unavailable live performances, versions of the song that sucked for some reason, or half-assed B sides
of singles to create a more expensive version of the album that the label assumes will be bought by the most dedicated fans of a particular artist.

It is safe to assume that this is merely the replacement for the 70s-80s era double album which generally only contained a single album's worth of worthwhile music. It generally signaled the peak of a particular artist's earning power, and was simply a form of profit-taking while the iron was still hot.

Author's Note: in the next installment, I'll provide accurate translation for common musical phrases.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bootleg Recordings: Fan Love Or A Fart In The Elevator?

You don't see as many bootlegs around anymore, at least the type that you saw in the 60s. The things are certainly around, but getting ahold of one doesn't seem as easy as it used to be at least for the average consumer.

A lot of times while I'm cruising through YouTube, I recognize live recordings that were once famous bootlegs.

Bootleg records in the 60s was the musical equivalent of download piracy today, at least in the music industry's eyes, but what was different back then was that the villain was on the supply side.

People didn't prosecuted back then for owning a bootleg record, like some downloaders have been in this era.

For one thing you would've had to sue more than a few artists. Many of the Dylan covers that came out while he was semi-retired due to the now famous motorcycle accident, were learned by artists who bought the "Great White Wonder" bootleg.

Some histories date that as the first rock bootleg, and later on it was issued as a legitimate record as the "Basement Tapes." Or at least some parts of it, there were actually a few different versions that were going under that bootleg name.

Other famous bootlegs  included "Wooden Nickel," that forced Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to issue "Four Way Street," and the bootleg of the Stone's Oakland concert that some people feel was a better performance than the one that came out on the "Ya Ya's" album. 

Also the famous Woodstock Festival was pretty much in circulation in its entirety before even the first three record set came out.

Bootlegging wasn't some new development in the 60s, it had been common in jazz for decades.

There was a difference in the attitude about it in jazz. It was considered more of a hard-core collector hobby, and the tapes were traded back-and-forth between fans. It was considered bad form to sell them.

The early rock bootlegs actually started to become a large industry, and more than a few vinyl record pressing plants knew that some of the releases they were contracted to put out were bootlegs.

The bootlegs were marketed like most rarity items, without any quality control, and often were what they call audience tapes. A tape made by somebody sitting in the audience.

As a general rule, unless you were a fanatic fan of the artist, bootlegs were a rip-off. Extremely bad sound in most cases, and low quality vinyl that would sometimes last only a few plays.

In the early rock days, most of the artist were ambivalent about it at first. For one thing it was the label's problem, and it was probably at least a little flattering to know that people wanted everything that you recorded.

What the artists mostly complained about was the lousy sound. When you see some video on YouTube that was once a famous bootleg, it's probably higher-quality because it's a more direct copy of the original video or tape. Back then, combined with a bad vinyl pressing, the music would often be almost unrecognizable

Later on the money got serious, then artist began to become more hostile to the idea of bootlegs.

Which is perfectly understandable. Most sensible artists know that people probably lend each other recordings, or trade tapes, but it is mitigated a bit by the fact that somebody bought an actual product and copied it. In other words the artist did get a sale from it, and maybe more if the copy turned a listener into a fan.

A bootleg is something different entirely. It's basically a recording of a performance taken without permission, and sold for profit. It doesn't matter if the artist is already a millionaire, it's not fair.

Criticizing an artist for being greedy for not liking bootlegs obscures the real issue, that somebody is profiting off another without their permission.

When CDs became common, bootlegging really took off because you didn't need a chain of vendors to create a bootleg anymore. A single person with a computer or CD duplicator could crank out thousands of a bootleg copy with very little overhead.

It also made it possible to bootleg videos of concerts, which is pretty evident on YouTube. That makes it possible to make a higher-quality bootleg when you have the video or film since that was probably the source of many bootlegs.

Other sources included tapes from the soundboard, and some even stolen from recording studios.

Ironically most of those bootlegs don't get censored on YouTube because of the lousy sound. It's the studio recordings that the artists often block, and sometimes they get around to the live recordings, but as a rule you're more likely to hear a song from some old TV show on YouTube, than from a copy of the studio recording.

When I first started record collecting, I start off buying the new stuff. I then discovered trading those in to the used record store would stretch the dollars spent, and from there discovered bootlegs.

I only ended up buying a few, there was the thrill of having something rare at first, but it didn't take long to get out the habit.

For one thing, those who know me well, know that I can't stand a recording where you can't hear the drums, which is a common fault of bootlegs. 

When I'm considering a new recording in a record store or download site, the first thing I check out is the drum track. If the mix is bad and the drums mixed down too low, no sale.

Another factor is bootleg pricing isn't standard. Some could cost over a hundred dollars back then, and like I said, unless you were a fanatic fan who had to have everything, in virtually all cases the bootleg was a huge letdown.

If you notice later on in the CD era just before digital took off, and up to the present, artist have started routinely including rare cuts and demo tracks. Most of those mainly appeal to collectors, but it's a smart move, and gives the artist a return on the earlier stuff that before would often end up on bootleg. 

It's also an irony, when you think that artists complained about the lack of quality, and now they're getting a premium price for adding their demos and cuts that in most cases are pretty dull stuff.

Some artists have actually taken to studying bootleg patterns, and regions where illegal downloading is heaviest, and use it as an indicator of where to market heavily, and have been quite successful at it.

That doesn't make bootlegging good, but it certainly shows that the difference between different artists isn't just talent, but also business acumen.

Eventually industry will figure out that the emergence of all these unauthorized recordings into public outlets like YouTube will work in their favor.

If someone who holds the rights to a particular concert season on YouTube, it becomes relatively easy to take control of that video, or block it. Many groups have done the smart thing and released official videos, which they did for MTV anyway.

So you have bootlegs that started from tapes, and I'm sure there's still websites out there where bootlegs are traded or sold, and have continued their life now on video on the web.

But the emergence of YouTube puts that sort of material into what I think is still unknown territory. Personally I think YouTube is the new radio, or at least one of its most important forms. It'll take a while, i'm sure, or the record industry to figure out how to monetize it, and what parts to leave free for promotion. 

That's important because radio play in the old days was very important, and it's better to study YouTube and civilize it slowly, rather than take a chance on killing the next era equivalent of radio.

I think the primary problem with the recording industry and bootlegs, is that the recording industry and more than a few artists simply don't get that if you charge too much for a product where most of it has a short shelf life (most don't become hits), it creates a temptation to take it for free when the opportunity arises. Most of the music industry business is spent putting out music that people listen to for a while and then move onto the latest.

Hits are great, but in industry terms, detrimental if they all become classic and get listened to over and over and people don't get interested in the new stuff.

I think streaming may not make a lot of artists entirely happy in terms of the lower royalty rate, but it's a new industry, and if they support it will probably drive most of the people who were illegally downloading into the fold of paying users.

I would think that's something the recording industry and artist would understand, since more than a few debut albums in retrospect didn't really provide top value, and tacitly assumed that the fans would stick with the artist as they grew and developed.

But that's a little off-topic. In terms of bootlegs we're talking about an unauthorized product that often can command a big price. It's created by somebody not authorized by the artist, and makes money off that artists name.

I think that the labels and artist will get a lot more of the fans support in this when they go back and start suing the supply side, instead of suing the potential customer.

Underlying all this drama about bootlegs, there is one central fact it's almost always ignored. That there isn't an artist on this planet who's a big star that didn't get there without the help of countless fans who paid money for his product. There is, or was, any other path of stardom. The idea that someone became famous because of some sort of genius or talent is a fairytale. In the real world, fans make you famous, nothing else.

As Napoleon once said, talent is nothing without opportunity.

Get the fans back on your side, stop giving all those inflated figures for downloading and suing fans, and I think bootlegging will simply go back to the small time trading between fanatic fans that it used to be. Most fans aren't inclined to buy a bootleg anyway in this day and age, and could be easily persuaded to buy the legal product for a bootleg.

(Keep in mind talking about music here, the problem of movie bootlegs I think is a more complex and different subject)

Then the entertainment industry can worry about the real problem, which is the mass counterfeiting of their products overseas, much of which ends up back here. Putting a lid on that will bring a real return.

Much more than trying to collect a hundred thousand dollars judgment against a single mother or college student...