Monday, March 23, 2015

The First Guitar

My first guitar was like this no-name brute of six string. Terrible action, heavy plywood body, almost unplayable.  The pickguard was painted on. I got it at the Onondaga Music shop in Syracuse, New York, when I was 13. I think it cost 12.50$.

The Spanish Guitar Method

I'd write and order me books. There was a guy called Nick Manoloff. Nick Manoloff had books. Guitar instruction books in the Sears Roebuck catalogue, the big one. I'd order those books and I studied them religiously, and that's how I learned to put my fingers on -- learned how to tune the guitar and learned my first bit of learning how to read music.
B.B. King
Academy of AchievementJune 10, 2004, Chicago
I don't know how B.B. King got much out of Manoloff's Spanish Guitar Method, Book 1.

I found it fairly impenetrable at thirteen.

Manoloff's Instructions for the Guitar on page 7 should have killed all interest right off:

The first care of a beginner is to procure a perfect instrument ( unless you have only $16.83 in which case there is no need to read further) . The strings when tuned must not be too high a distance above the fingerboard nor too low so to rattle against the frets (unless you have a no-name guitar with the fingerboard markers painted on) . Very often a pupil with delicate hands will have their finger blistered (most beginners already have calloused fingers from nervous drumming and tapping) ; to prevent this the frets should be rounded and smooth at the edges because, when gliding up and down, the fingers should not be interrupted in their passage (unless of course interrupting the passage is your thing).
There is a pretty useful set of instructions for tuning the guitar. You had to get a pitch pipe. Hidden deep in the fine print was the instruction:
In tuning to a 6 note pitch pipe or tuner be sure to tune an octave lower than the tone actually produced by the pitch pipe, otherwise the strain of the string will be too great and might cause damage to the instrument.

No mention of ever cleaning the pitch pipe. I still have mine but would no longer put it near my mouth.

How to Hold the Guitar is good too:
Sit upon a chair of ordinary height, with the left foot slightly elevated, and the right leg crossed over the left.
So you sit with your left foot up in the air, slightly, and cross your legs. So basically you have both feet up in the air.


There is a certain correspondence of pain with the the blistered fingers inherent in the holding of the instrument in this way.

The best part of the book for me was the "Names of the Principal Parts of the Guitar ... know your instrument thoroughly before you begin to practice" page. There is a full page photo of Nick's guitar with all the parts clearly labeled.

It's a mysterious instrument.

I've tried to find out what kind it was but no luck.

It appears to be a concert sized flat-top with a split, square headstock like a Martin but with no brand name on it (just like mine!). The pickguard is tucked up next to the bridge though - sort of flamenco style. I've still never seen another guitar with a pickguard like this. You can see Nick's fingers actually resting on it in the photos.

It's a twenty fret neck. His doesn't have the double fret markers at the 12th fret where the neck meets the body. I studied that picture a lot, matching everything to my own instrument. Especially useful is the "FRETS (little metalic bars) and the SPACE BETWEEN FRETS.

On page 9 there is what appears to be a Man Ray photograph complete with solarization of Nick's disembodied hand and shirt cuff floating in deep black space demonstrating the correct way to hold the pick.

It looks very much like the hand shadow puppet for a chicken head.

Nick refers to the pick as the "plectrum" which was very confusing but there was a picture of one "actual size" as well.

I am assuming you could match your plectrum to the one on the page in order to be sure you hadn't gotten one that was too big or too small. He went on to say that the pick should "not have an extremely sharp point, since the rounded point will give better results in every way."

This I have found to be very true. Yes. No pointy picks. Roundy pick good.

Also rest your pinkie on the sounding board because "the tone is clear and powerful and locating the strings is very easy."

I have found that wearing a tuxedo to play in also improves your playing enormously. Nick doesn't really go into that and it takes quite awhile before it sinks in somewhat subliminally.

Very clever teaching method the Spanish method.

Right opposite the sheet music for "Massa's in de Col' Col' Ground" (B.B. must have loved that huh?) are instructions for "Hot" Accompaniment and How to Make It.

But before we plunge into staccato playing we have to have a look at the very best part of Book 1: The Modern Accompaniment Guide.
This is a really nifty thing. I still have it and I still use it. It's a computer actually. My first computer now that I think of it. And it was free with Book 1. Says so right on it.

It also says "For Spanish Guitar". Confusing. Is this for flamenco or what?

Note Nick's raised left leg and tuxedo.

Anyway it is worth repeating the instructions on this. It is a musical education in itself. If you don't need a musical education you can skip this. It's long and theoretical.

If you don't like music theory you won't like this.

Don't read it. Skip it. Come back to it.
To accompany any key the student should know either the name of the key or find the number of sharps or flats in the piece he will play. Then turn the disk until the arrows point to the desired key or key signature. Use the 3 chords tonic, subdominant, and dominant for accompaniment. The 3 relative minor chords shown in the upper right opening, have the same key signature as the major key. To determine whether a key is in major or minor see the last note or chord in the piece. If it ends on the tonic note of the major, accompany with the 3 major chords; if it ends on the tonic note of the minor, accompany with the 3 minor chords. When a sharp or a flat occurs in the music and does not appear in the key signature, accompany with 3 accidental chords.
The accidental chords I found extremely interesting. I had learned a lot of chords by accident already just fooling around. Maybe I could work backwards from accidental chords.

It was worth a try.

I might have found the secret to learning the Spanish method: a tuxedo and accidental chords - the keys to the kingdom of guitar.

This exposition probably makes me sound like I can read music. I can't. I won't lie. But it does make me sound like I want to read music. That's important.

The Modern Accompaniment Guide is a wonderful thing. Two pieces of cardboard with a rivet in the center. You just turn it and it tells you what goes with what and has little fingering drawings that tell you where to put your fingers. Forget the book. Focus on this primitive calculator/computer. I've had mine for 49 years and it still functions perfectly.

I don't have much I can say that about.

I nearly forgot this part about "Hot" music. This is important. This is rock and roll but in 1935. I will always remember the scene in the Benny Goodman Story when Steve Allen turns to Donna Reed and says "So you like hot music?"

How many times have I used that line huh?

Because I had read Manoloff when I was thirteen I knew from hot music.

I have to quote this extensively because its important that you read it all. If you want to know how hot music is played pay attention. You'll never listen to Eddie Van Halen the same way again.

"Hot" (the quotes are Manoloff's) Accompaniment AND HOW TO MAKE IT
This term, commonly used in playing popular music, is known in the theory of music as staccato playing; i.e. buffed, damped, suppressed or muffled sounds. To play staccato means to detach or separate notes from each other giving them only about one quarter of their time, making a rest of the remaining time belonging to each note. It is usually indicated either by round or pointed dots over or under the notes. When there is no indication in the music, the performer could use staccato at liberty for greater "hot" effect.
Staccato at liberty..get it!!!??? That's the whole secret to pop music - staccato at staccato..staccato gone your face staccato!
To perform effective staccato on the guitar, strike the strings quickly with a heavy down stroke, then stop the sounds by stopping the vibration of the strings. There are two ways of playing the staccato (this is before Hendrix remember):

1. By damping or muting the strings with the right hand.
2. By releasing the pressure of the strings with the left had.

The first method is employed when there are open strings included in the chord. In this case, the staccato is produced by quickly laying the edge of the palm of the right hand across all the vibrating strings, or by quickly laying the thumb across the strings on its side.

The second method is employed when the chord is composed of all closed notes. The vibration is stopped by releasing the pressure of the left hand fingers, so that the strings may rise a little from the finger board, but not taking them entirely off the strings.

Staccato is very important, being used in modern orchestra music frequently. At first it will be found rather difficult and will require considerable practice.

Strike the strings quickly with a heavy down stroke. I'll bet Pete Townsend read Manoloff too.

The Onondaga Music Company

On June 6, 1960, the Onondaga Music Company was on West Jefferson Street in Syracuse, New York. I have no idea if it's still there.

The motto of the Onondaga Music Company was "IF IT'S MUSIC, WE HAVE IT."

That might well be the motto of the human race.

It was the day after my thirteenth birthday. I was an official teenager at the dawn of the '60s. My older brother Frank accompanied me to the music shop so that I could buy a guitar. Frank had a passing interest in bongos and harmonica and a flirtation with a Jew's harp, jaw harp, mouth harp, Ozark harp, marranzano pancake or whatever is politically correct to now call it. He chipped a front tooth with it and lost interest.

Frank thought having a guitar in the house would be a good idea. It would be a fine companion to his Kingston Trio albums. One of our great concerns about the Kingston Trio was where could they have gotten short sleeve shirts that came down to the elbow. Our short sleeve shirts didn't come close to the elbow.

It was possible they had altered long sleeve shirts or maybe they were only available in California.

My guitar cost $16.83 which I had saved from my paper route and probably some birthday cash. I still have the receipt. That's how I know the motto of the store. It was a very basic flat- top acoustic with steel strings. The pickguard was painted on. It was unplayable. The strings hurt, the action was awful, it had a tin trapeze. I don't remember it having a brand name. I wasn't into brand name guitars then.

I also bought a new Chet Atkins record called The Other Chet Atkins (1960) which was him playing Spanish classical guitar, and a Johnny Smith (he wrote Walk Don't Run in 1955) record. I had never heard of either one of them but they were guitar records. The Johnny Smith record turned out to be jazz and I was too young for jazz. The Atkins record had Maria Elena on it. I still like that.

My father said it was a waste of money and that I was never going to learn to play the guitar. He was right about that guitar. But then he insisted everything was a waste of money or made too much noise. Later I put nylon strings on it and ruined the sound further in order for it not to be so painful.

I also got a copy of Nick Manoloff's Spanish Guitar Method, Book No. 1 with a free accompaniment guide included for $1.50. Nick guaranteed that this was the latest, most modern and thoroughly illustrated method ever written. It would teach the most practical fingerboard harmony; circle of chords; chord relations; modern orchestra, radio and recording accompaniment. Book No. 1 was published in 1935.

Nick was wearing a tuxedo and playing a complicated barre chord at the fifth fret of his guitar. The book was recommended by guitarists Paul Whittenmeyer, Henry Dixon, Sam Friedman, Alfred Quartillo, G.M. Peters Clarice Rogers, Ralph V. Garcia, Lawrence Salerno, Sam Gorbach, Frankie Masters, Peter Voornas, Sam Mussman, Rodney Rogers, and Frank Lannom. I had never heard of any of them but I was sure my ignorance would be short lived.

In truth, I've still never heard of any of them. But why worry about it now. I've been playing the guitar for forty nine years. Last year I took lessons.

Onondaga Music, Syracuse, NY circa 1960

The Old Framus

My first real guitar was this Framus classical 5/34 “Bocacciao” Sn#28189  61 H made in August, 1961. Framus master of guitar-making Richard Mueller approved the quality of the instrument by signing the label in it before it left the Framus workshop in Bavaria. The Bocaccio models date from the mid-1950s but the design was changed in the 1960s. I got it for my 16th birthday in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1963 at a little shop run by Mr. Tamburini, an Italian luthier  It has had quite journey. I left it with my older brother when I hit the road after University in 1970. His son played it and got in a fight with it. The front of it got pretty scratched up. I got it back when I moved to Austin, Texas, and messed around with it there for a few years. Then I gave it to my sister and she took it to Colorado and it sat in the attic there for a long time.  I got it back again when I lived in Cambridge, MA, in the 1980's and then gave it to some friends of mine for their daughter to take lessons. They took it to Seattle and then gave it back to me when she grew up and didn't want to play it anymore. I still have it. It still sounds good. I took it to someone here in Nova Scotia to see if the neck could be reset. Instead of giving me an estimate he just went ahead and reset the neck. It has a lovely low action now. I corresponded with the Framus historian at the factory museum about the model and value of it and it seems that it has become collectable. A long life so far - 1961 to 2015.

Framus Boccaciao, 2015

Kay Archtop

When I was a kid I used to see these Kay archtops in the back of magazines and always wondered whether you should have one of these if you were going to be a professional guitarist. I never got one. In 2007, I stopped at Paul Roger's auction shop in Pleasantville just to see if he had any instruments. In the back of the shop was this old Kay that had been rained on - there were stains on the front - a it had been dented pretty good on the top and badly repaired. He wanted 20$ for it and thought it might look good as a decoration. It could have been made anytime between 1935-1956. It says on the Kay seal inside the guitar – "World’s Largest Manufacturers of String instruments, Kay Musical Instrument Co., Chicago, Established 1890."  The pickguard on it is original. The tuners were not in good shape and the action was way to high. I repaired and re-varnished the spruce top lightly and left the maple sides and back alone. It got a new trapeze, a new bridge, and new tuners.  Recently I installed a P90 pickup in it and tone and volume controls on the front with some ancient Fender amp knobs. The Kay logo on the headstock is classic. It makes an great slide guitar as well as a finger picking monster. I finally got my Kay archtop.

Martin 1-17

In 1964, I was a Junior at Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach, Florida.  Steve Laing was a student that lived at the Neptune Ave. beach entrance and we would often run into each other there. He mentioned that he had an old guitar that had belonged to his grandfather but that it was damaged - the top had pulled up on it along the lower bout. It just sat in the closet and no one knew how to play. He wondered if I would want to buy it - he needed $12.00 for it. I took a look at it and noticed that stamped on the back of the headstock it said "Martin, Nazareth, PA." I knew that someone in the Kingston Trio played a Martin and that they were supposed to be good guitars. I bought it.  I had the top of it glued back down and put some strings on it. It sounded good but the action was still a problem on it. I did some research on the serial number stamped inside it as well as the model number "1-17" stamped on the back brace and discovered that it was a 1932 student model guitar, all mahogany with a slotted headstock. I gave it to my brother after university to keep while I was traveling around. When I settled in Austin, Texas, in 1970, I had him ship it back to me there. I got the action lowered a bit so it was easier to play and learned to play open tunings and slide guitar on it from my pal Tim Berger who was quite an accomplished guitarist. He played a Martin D35 but loved that old Martin. Jimmy Vaughn thought it was a pretty cool guitar as well and played it in our backyard in Austin. It is still in amazing condition for its age and still sounds great. Original tuners, bridge, saddle, frets all in good condition.

Steve Laing, 1965

Gibson J45

I traded an inexpensive Regent acoustic and a very nice "Lincoln" Les Paul copy and a Peavy bass amp for this 1970 Cherry Sunburst Gibson J45 at Sandy's Music in Cambridge, MA in 1995.  I took my two funky guitars and amp in thinking I would trade them in on something. The two guys working there looked them over and said sure I could trade them in on something. What was I looking for? I said I wasn't sure and started to look around. One of them said "Wait here a second".  He went in the back room and came out with this J45. He said it wasn't pretty and the headstock had broken off and they had just finished repairing it but to give it a strum. I did that. It sounded amazing, a real player. I gave them my two guitars and walked away with it and I have never stopped playing it. Evidently it was made at the Nashville plant or in Kalamazoo.

Gibson J45, 2015