Home

Nacho nails it

8 Comments

Anyone who’s read my eclectic blog knows my love and reverence for Leo Fender and his creations. Here’s the story of a gentleman who shares that and uses it to make the world a better place.

Tragic but true:
Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, there were few who had much interest in older instruments. You could buy ‘em cheap, because they were just old guitars.

Here’s a photo of our old Boy Howdy Band, taken in Naples, Florida, in June, 1972. From left to right are my still-best friend, John Klingler, drummer Mike Collins, and me on bass. My bass back then was a used Gibson EB-3. The guitar John’s holding is a 1952 Fender Telecaster.

John, Mike, Jim Boy Howdy Band, 1972

Old Teles and their predecessors — made by Leo Fender’s small company from 1950 to 1954 — are now reverently called “Blackguards,” because of the single-ply black pickguards Leo fitted them with. These early Fender guitars — the Esquire, Broadcaster, one with no model name now called a “NoCaster,” and the Telecaster — all looked much alike, sharing the neck headstock, body shape, pickguards, and control layout.

Today, John’s Telecaster, if in nice condition, would be worth $50,000 or more. John bought it in Tampa for $250 in 1972 and proceeded to sand it to bare wood, stain it, route a hole for an old humbucking pickup in the neck position, and fit it with a pickguard he made.

I watched him do it and neither of us gave it much thought. John was handy and was just customizing an old guitar.

After playing the modified Tele for a few months, John sold it to someone for $250 and bought a beautiful Gibson Firebird. But this little anecdote just proves that old Telecasters were not, at that time,  recognized as being particularly valuable . . . except by a few unusually perceptive people.

52_Telecaster

Meet Nacho Baños:
Let’s meet someone who was not only perceptive, but went on to “write the book” on old Teles and related Fender guitars. He’s regarded as the world’s foremost expert on Leo Fender’s guitars, and, happily, is generous enough to share that info with anyone.

Nacho Baños

Nacho Baños, a native of Spain, was in the U.S. working on his MBA in the early 1990s. He fell in love with the Telecaster, especially the original Teles. He scrimped and saved to buy them when he could, and over the years began to amass an incredible amount of info. He took photos of Teles and their component parts, and talked with others who shared his enthusiasm. Nacho is an absolute gentleman with a engaging personality, and soon gained a worldwide reputation for his knowledge and the kindness with which he shared it. The attached ToneQuest Report magazine has his bio and an interview, and I urge you to read it. They call Nacho The King of the Telecasters, and he is, of course, that and more:

TQRJun15_01_Page_01

TQRJun15_01

The book:
Eventually, Nacho decided to write a book, and THE BLACKGUARD — Telecaster Style Guitars from 1950- 1954, was published in 2004 or so and is considered the bible of Telecaster lore. At over 400 pages, the 12” x 12” book, with its slipcover, weighs over 10 pounds and has over 2,000 highly detailed color photos of 50 early Esquires, Broadcasters, NoCasters and Telecasters. The amount of info in this volume is stunning.

Blackguard Book And Sleeve

Nacho self-published 5,500 of these books, and, knowing print production like I do, I suspect that he sold them at about half of what they cost him to print. Proceeds from the book went — I told you Nacho was an absolute gentleman — to establish a foundation building homes and a school for the poor in India and providing clean water in Africa.

I treasure my copy (#3196), not only for the images and information in it, but for the gracious inscription Nacho penned in my copy. The book is out-of-print  — if you see one for sale, buy it — but this website has many photos and gives you an idea of Nachos’ love and knowledge:
The Blackguard Book

Blackguard 2

Blackguard 1

Blackguard 3

Nacho nails the Blackguard:
With the help of some famed guitar-slingers and old-world craftsmen, Nacho has somehow arranged to make a few reproductions of some early Telecaster and Stratocaster guitars. They are jawdroppingly accurate, and — best of all — they are sold at about a tenth of what a vintage guitar costs. As lovers of fine old paintings revere every crack in the varnish on an old masterpiece, so do those of us who love the old Fenders.

Nacho and Billy Gibbons

Two gents who know their Teles! Nacho and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.

Using the best components money can buy, and guided by years of examining — and owning and playing — hundreds of the old Fenders, Nacho has nailed the look, feel, and tone of these old classics. Uncanny. He also recreates Statocasters from the days of Buddy Holly.

Here’s the website to learn more and see some photos of these guitars:

Nacho’s Guitars

Nachocaster 2

Nachocaster 1

Screen Shot 2015-12-27 at 12.41.08 AM

Labors of love from a man whose love for Leo Fender’s creations have shaped his life and brought joy to so many other guitar lovers. And, along the way, homes for families, and a school for their kids, and clean water for whose who wouldn’t otherwise have it.

Leo would be proud.

Four Cents Is Four Cents!

2 Comments

As I continue my pointless research into the folks who designed, built and sold the guitars we know and love today, I come across some funny stories.

Last night I read about Hartley Peavey, who started the Peavey Electronics company in Meridian, Mississippi back in the mid-1960s. Like Leo Fender before him and the original C.F. Martin before Leo, Mr. Peavey was a shrewd person who knew the value of money and didn’t waste it when making his instruments or amplifiers.

The story I found funny was that Peavey and a young and innovative guitar builder named Chip Todd collaborated back in the 1980s on a new guitar. This guitar eventually became the first of the T-series Peaveys and are still highly regarded for their tone and playing ease. It was the first guitar to use computer-controlled wood cutting and shaping for the bodies and necks. Chip’s design called for a small metal slug to be in the base of the neck, to be the bearing point of a neck-angle adjustment bolt.

As the time came to produce the guitars, the metal slugs still hadn’t been procured, and Chip told Mr. Peavey that, for now, they’d use a nickel coin for the slug they needed. Mr. Peavey, the brilliant business person, replied, “No; use a penny.”

Here’s Chip in a recent photo as he rides a Segway in his living room:

Another story of these wonderful music-industry folks: There used to be some music stores in the DC area called Veneman’s Music. Great stores. Veneman’s also made and sold their own line of guitars and basses and most of us in this area owned some of those; they were good utility instruments. The owner of the stores and guitar factory was a Dutch-born gentleman named Koob Veneman. He was a sweet guy with a beautiful smile and we all respected Mr. Veneman. But he was all business!

I had lunch a few months ago with an old-time salesman at Veneman’s rival, Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center, and he told us a funny story about Old Man Veneman, as he called him.

The salesman from Chuck’s was in Veneman’s Rockville, Maryland, store (now the Guitar Center on Twinbrook Parkway) and a young man was approached by Mr. Veneman, who said, “Hey, I recognize you. I sold you a Les Paul a few years ago. Do you still have it?”

The kid replied, “Why, yes, Mr. Veneman. I still have that guitar and I love it.”

And Mr. Veneman replied, “Well, I still have your $800 and I love that!”

Leo the Hedgehog

Leave a comment

The ancient Greek poet Archilochus wrote that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

I’ve spent the last few months learning everything I could about Leo Fender, creator of Fender Musical Instruments, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, like the hedgehog, Leo had one guiding principle; his was: Make simple products for the working musician which can be quickly repaired.

Leo-Fender

Leo Fender tinkering. Photo by Jon Sievert.

Mr. Fender never bothered with a “mission statement,” which many firms try to have. Mission statements require precision of thought and clarity of vision, which is uncommon, so most mission statements confuse by including too much. Clarity requires exclusion.

How did Leo Fender develop his vision? Because he got his start as a radio repairman. Folks came to his little shop in Fullerton, California, every day with a broken thing and they needed it fixed in hours, not days, because they made their living with it. And Mr. Fender became known as someone who could fix things quickly. As he was fixing amps and PAs made by others, he noticed what was wrong with the designs of the products.

He got into making guitars– lap steels at first– so he could sell his amps. He decided guitars were too complicated and decided to simplify their construction to what was absolutely essential and could be quickly replaced without special skills or tools.

Guitars of that time– we’re talking late 1940s here– were not always made by painstaking individual craftsmen, but they did take skill and time to make. If something went out of whack, as always happens even to the best guitars, it took a lot of skill and time to correct.

Leo’s guitars were a military-grade assembly of easily replaceable components. Other guitar makers scoffed at his “canoe paddle” solid-body instruments, but they didn’t laugh for long. And the amps Leo made, from tried-and-true circuits using the best hardware he could find– war surplus was cheap and plentiful after WWII– were solid, dependable and sounded great. No one laughed at those; they were too busy trying unsuccessfully to copy them. Without Leo’s vision, other guitar and amp makers most often tripped over their own feet. It might look like a Fender product but it didn’t play or sound like one.

As long as Leo ran his company, his vision, like gravity, was always in effect. Leo wasn’t a socializer and he was thrifty to a fault. He was happiest tinkering with new ways to simplify and improve things and he’d only pal around with those who produced something with their hands.

Leo didn’t design his products for rock and roll, because that wasn’t being played in the clubs and honky-tonks of his day. He and his assistants would take their prototype guitars and amps to local clubs where country guitarists worked, and have them try them on stage. Leo listened to the comments and criticisms he got from these working musicians and incorporated their feedback into the next prototype.

When kids who grew up hearing country, gospel, blues, folk, rhythm and blues and other music got the early Fender products in their hands, it sparked a revolution in music. The hedgehog Leo, who never played guitar, wore hearing aids and hadn’t planned to help create rock and roll, was astonished. Happily astonished. And so were we.

In this photo from 1950, Leo Fender is on the right. The player holding the Fender Broadcaster guitar is Dub Williams and the fellow behind him is singer/songwriter/bandleader Eddie Miller; together they wrote the classic “Release Me.” The woman hasn’t been identified.

Fender After Leo:

Leo sold Fender Musical Instruments to CBS, the TV folks, for a staggering amount of money in January of 1965, because he thought he was dying. He wasn’t, and CBS, full of foxes and savvy operators, ran Fender into the ground. Even teens like me realized the CBS-made Fender guitars and amps were less than what they had been, and a market grew for “pre-CBS” Fender products.

Some brilliant Japanese craftsmen made a huge impact in the mid-1970s building guitars like Leo made them. They’d buy old Leo-made Fenders, blueprint them down to the tiniest detail, and replicate them precisely. I own one of their Stratocasters (a Tokai copy of the 1958 Strat Buddy Holly played), and I took it apart and put it back together until I “got it,” and then built my own version of a early-1950s “Leo” Telecaster. It’s my favorite guitar. It’s like a tank that sings.

In 1985, CBS realized it couldn’t complete with the Japanese guitars or the early Fenders, threw in the towel and sold the company at a loss to some guitar guys, who took Fender back to its roots.

Leo, when his non-compete with CBS ran out in 1975, founded Music Man and later G&L Musical Instruments. Both companies made guitars and amps that Leo thought were improvements to his earlier designs. Both companies, like the back-to-Leo Fender, are going strong today.

Leo died in 1991. G&L has kept his unpretentious office/lab exactly as it was the last day he worked, a couple of days before he died. His coffee cup (a white styrofoam cup with “Leo” written on it with a Sharpie marker) is still on his work bench.

Leo-Fender-Lab_bench-1A

Leo’s office as he left it. Photo by John Connell.

Leo the hedgehog changed the world and did it his way.