When Les is More . . .

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I have always been attracted to oddball guitars, and have had a bunch of them. However, the three classic electric guitars– the Fender Stratocaster, the Fender Telecaster and the Gibson Les Paul– were ones I always passed up. Maybe it was because they were so frequently seen; I don’t know. These three icons of the guitar world were all developed between 1950 and 1954 and a lot of companies have either copied them outright or made their own variations of them. More on that in a second.

In the last couple of years, as I amble into my dotage, I finally gave in and got a Stratocaster (though not a Fender; more on that in a second, too!) and a Tele (made by me from various old-timey Fender parts). The Telecaster is now my favorite electric. For those of you who don’t play guitar, there’s a big difference between acoustic and electric guitars; in my mind, they are two different instruments. I started on bass, coming to guitars as I did from playing a baritone sax, and then mainly played acoustic guitars.

For some reason, guitar players develop an affliction called Guitar Acquisition Syndrome, or GAS. I try to ignore it, but seeing rows of Tolex guitar cases all over the house proves I came down with GAS a long time ago. I guess I still have it, though I try to keep it in check.

My latest GAS object of desire is a Les Paul, but not just any old Les Paul. The one I want is a type that Gibson made for only a few years: The Fretless Wonder Black Beauty model. Its official designation is the Gibson Les Paul Custom, and it was originally made from 1954 to 1960. These originally sold for about $350 but command astonishing prices now– say $15K or so. I saw one for sale on the Net this morning for $37K. And most of the ones I’ve seen in person have been modified with taller frets. I play with a very light touch and the original flat, tiny frets would be perfect for my style of playing; most players today hate those kind of frets and have them changed to the more modern type.

Since the original Fretless Wonders are so pricey, I looked into Gibson’s “Historic” and Vintage Old Stock reissues of those guitars. Even those are past the $3K mark; I’ve seen some selling for over $7K. Yeesh!

Now Gibson Guitars realized several years ago that their prices for guitars built here in the U.S. and built using the original materials and finishes were beyond the reach of most players. And as the quality of the American-built Fenders and Gibsons declined– and they surely did when accountants controlled the companies–Tokai and a few other Japanese companies blueprinted the original classic guitars and painstakingly reproduced them by hand. Gibson and Fender both gave in and had their own Japanese contractors make guitars for them, and they are quite good. I have a Japanese Fender reissue of a 1951 Precision Bass that is a beautiful instrument. And the Stratocaster I got a year or so ago is one of the early-’80s Tokais and it is a spooky-good recreation of a two-color sunburst 1956 Strat– just like the ones Buddy Holly used to such good purpose.

So I looked at the Tokai versions of the 1950s Les Paul Customs. They’re beautiful and exact copies of the Gibson Les Paul model I want, but even those are selling now for over well over $2K. And, being a crazy GAS-afflicted guitar player, I wouldn’t be satisfied unless the Les Paul I got was one of the tiny-fretted, fat-necked gloss-black nitrocellulose-lacquer-finished Les Pauls! Really!!!

So to heck with it. No Les for me. As I struggle to find a permanent day job in this frustrating economy it makes no sense to throw that kind of money at a guitar. Besides, Patty has learned to count those hardshell Tolex guitar cases and I am scared of her. But can you imagine how wonderful it would be to have a black Les Paul ’58 Custom that matches Murphy, my Boston terrier?!?!?!

Les Paul presents Paul McCartney with a custom lefty Les Paul.

G.E. Smith And His Telecaster Lead Me Astray . . .

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G.E. Smith Telecaster

I never paid much attention to G.E. Smith until early this year. He was the leader of the Saturday Night Live band and he was in some concert videos I had, but I hadn’t focused on him.

My loss!

I was starting to research the history of Leo Fender and came across this YouTube video (link above) where Mr. Smith talks about his signature Fender Telecaster. It’s a twenty-minute video, but Mr. Smith is smart, articulate and he knows what he’s talking about. He’s also pretty musical! He really has command of his instrument, as you’ll see if you watch the video. So watch it!

I’d never owned a Tele before, but this video got me wanting one. Since I have way too many guitars and basses already, I decided to use my way-too-ample spare time to research the various iterations of the Telecaster since 1950 or so; they started as the Esquire, then Broadcaster, then no official name for a while (now called No-Casters) and finally Telecaster. TV was just becoming available then and that name was a natural.

The Telecaster I put together, after countless hours of research and comparisons, is now my pride and joy. It has the big boat-hull-shaped solid-maple 7-1/4″ radius neck of the original Teles and, unlike most modern instruments, has a nitrocellulose-lacquer finish on the neck and body. The body is ash wood, so the guitar weighs a ton but is resonant with amazing sustain. I decided on gold-plated hardware simply because I had never had that on a guitar before. After researching a component of the Tele, I’d order exactly what I decided on from wherever in the world I could find it. Took me a few months to get it all together.

I like it:

I keep fiddling with this Tele I built (people call these “parts-casters”) and I just tonight ordered, with the help and advice of two talented and knowledgeable buddies (thanks, Slim and Don!) new pickups for it. It’s the guitar I love to play the most and it demands more of me than my other guitars do. Yet, it makes me a better player.

Go figure! Thanks, G.E. Smith, for your enthusiasm and knowledge.

We’re Having a Party . . .


Got the FJ Cruiser all packed up with gear. In addition to the stuff shown, which is my rock/rockabilly/Bakersfield country rig, there’s my ’51 Reissue Fender Precision bass, D-41 Martin acoustic, spare amp (Fender silverface Vibro Champ), my trusty Shure SM-58 mike and stand, essential cables and other little goodies.

Dave Martin is having his 23rd Annual Adelphi Music and Arts Festival this afternoon and evening, and the weather is certainly cooperating. Live music will be going on from about 3pm till midnight and there’ll be a wide variety of music; from authentic Islands reggae to Flamenco to classical to rockabilly and Appalachian folk tunes.

We always look forward to this event and have a lot of fun. Yee-hah!!!