Ask Charlie...

Are You Gonna Go My Way?

Hello Troubadourians! I have devoted the last few columns to encouraging everyone to play and practice as much and as often as possible. Also, I urged those of you who had stopped playing to give it another go. No pressure, just play. By the time you read this column, I will have attended the 2015 NAMM show and I’ll have seen as much cool new gear and innovative ideas that I can cram into three days. That also means that beginning in March, I’ll transition back to more gear-centric columns while I give you my impressions of the trends, new releases, and general health of the music business as I experience them up close and personal.

The music business is fickle and confusing. What is celebrated as good and panned as bad can change with each news cycle. What the general public really likes is hotly debated, but in the era of $0.99 downloads there isn’t much at risk for the consumer if they decide they don’t like a song or artist. Musicians can be just as conflicted in deciding which genre to chase next, but when it comes to the gear in which they invest their hard earned dollars, most can zero in with laser focus. While we musicians sometimes explore the “next big thing” and give in to the trendy, we mostly spend our money on instruments that are, or resemble, the “real thing.” Some instruments transcend trends and genres and are truly classic and timeless.

Let’s begin with acoustic guitars and the venerable Martin Dreadnought. I still remember how I felt when I saw my first real Martin. It was at a bluegrass festival in Long Beach, and there was this one guy who seemed to be everywhere and playing with or backing up everyone. He had a well-worn D-28, a leather jacket with fringe, and a real tortoise shell pick. He was definitely a good player, but the Martin and his whole persona put him into the realm of legend as far as my 12-year-old mind was concerned. A year or so later when I was able to actually play an old D-18, I was so intimidated by the guitar I could barely function. Eventually, I was able to buy my own Martin – a beautiful D-41 – and I cherished that guitar for 30 years.

There are other legendary guitars, of course. Fender has Telecasters, Stratocasters, and Precision basses. Gibson has Les Pauls and ES-335s. And there are Fender, Marshall, and Boogie amps that did, and still do, inspire awe in every musician. My uncle Bob owned a sunburst ’59 Fender Telecaster Custom and a ’59 Fender Tweed Twin with a matching reverb unit. I watched him coax amazing sounds out of that rig and I was mesmerized by it long before I understood anything about its vintage value or coolness. To me, that’s just how electric guitars were supposed to look and sound, an imprint that remains with me to this day. My first electric guitar/amp rig was a sunburst ’64 Fender Stratocaster and a ’64 Fender Vibroverb with a 15″ JBL speaker (aka the Stevie Ray Vaughn amp). While I knew that my rig was cool, I really didn’t know what I had back then. That rig would be worth about $25,000 today. Wow. But as I said, it wasn’t just Fenders that held me awestruck, it was Gibsons too. Gibson released the Les Paul model guitars in 1952, but it is the ’58-’60 models that are the most sought after. The 1959 sunburst Les Paul guitar is considered by most players and collectors to be the Holy Grail of guitars. According to Gibson, there were around 1,700 Les Paul guitars produced in 1959. According to burstserial.com 663 of them have been accounted for. The most desirable of these even have names, and are cataloged much like Stradivarius violins. The original price for a sunburst Les Paul guitar with a hardshell case in 1959 was $295. The guitars I mentioned above often sell or trade for 100,000 times that much. The first Les Paul, in fact the first Gibson guitar, I ever saw up close and had the chance to play was one of these ’59 guitars. This was sometime in ’74 or ’75 and I, of course, had no idea what I had in my hands. Apparently neither did the old guy who was selling it. He was asking $375 for the guitar because he said it was too heavy for him to play. He joked that since the guitar was “born” in 1959, as was I, it should be mine. The prices for ’59 “bursts” hadn’t hit stratospheric levels yet so it was a good price for a good guitar but more than my mom wanted to spend. Little did we know… Thanks mom.

The other legendary Gibson is the ES-335. This was the first semi-hollow guitar ever produced in production numbers by a large builder. The ES series guitars were revolutionary in that they combined the punch and sustain of a solid body guitar with the resonance and airiness of a hollow body guitar, yet you could plat it loud and it wouldn’t feed back. The debut of the ES-335 was in 1958 and as with the Les Paul, the ’58-’60 335s are the most desirable. By 1959 two more models were added to the ES series: the ES-345 and ES-355. These were essentially the same guitar as the ES-335 but with more upscale features such as gold hardware and fancier inlays. I was the proud owner of a beautiful 1960 ES-345 for about ten years. That guitar was awesome and was everything a vintage guitar should be. That was good and bad for me as a working musician. When I purchased the guitar in 1979, it had already been played by a professional musician for long time; still in excellent condition but experiencing the normal wear of having been played for 20 years. For me to continue to use it every night for the next ten years, I had to repair or replace some of the critical components to make the guitar consistently playable and reliable. Changing anything on a vintage guitar is a no-no but I had no choice at the time. Fortunately, it retained enough of its vintage value and desirability for me to trade it straight-across for a brand new Mesa-Boogie MkIII amplifier. Boogies are of course legendary and I was stoked to be seen playing through one. Next month, NAMM 2015 news.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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