Blog neglect is a sad thing — so sad, it makes Paris Hilton’s designer dog weep. I think Bono probably gets choked up about it as well.
I just haven’t had much to say lately. The sleep was out of whack again for a bit, and then I was out slaying giant dragon-like beasts who attempted to impale me with their enormous pikestaffs. Never were genitals wielded with such precision and skill.
Anyway. Yesterday I trekked with Johnny Smith to Folkway Music in Guelph. This place might be the coolest guitar/stringed instruments store there ever was. I first found out about Folkway a few years back through the Smithster’s investigative potpourri when one of my guitars was attempting to off itself (it’s kind of a long story). The folks at Folkway convinced the guitar life was worth living if it was to be struck and caressed by my fingers and nails, and a potential tragedy was averted.
We thought it was about time to go out there and look at actually buying something instead of just having an existing instrument worked on. So yesterday we paid ’em a visit.
Folkway sells some new instruments, but the main attraction (for me, at least) is the vast assortment of vintage instruments from various walks of life. There are acoustic and electric guitars, banjos, mandolins, ukuleles, basses, lap and pedal steel guitars, resonators, dobros…you name the fretted instrument with strings, and chances are they either have it or will have it before too long.
It’s probably the only place a left-handed guitarist can hope to find a sexy twelve-string or Gretsch guitar (not that I’m left-handed…but some people are). They’ve got some insane vintage amps too.
I went there with a list of about fifteen different instruments to play, and there were a few I was pretty sure were going to be on my shortlist. I kind of had my heart set on a 1932 Washburn 5200 (remarkably similar in appearance to Nick Drake’s supposed acoustic guitar of choice), and/or a 1955 Gibson LG-2.
To my surprise, when I was finally standing face-to-face with these instruments, while they were physically quite fetching they didn’t feel or sound like what I was looking for. I ended up playing somewhere around twenty or thirty different instruments, spending a good hour aimlessly searching for something after realizing my list was useless. I almost got a Fluke or a Flea (cool little ukuleles), and the price was right, but in the end I decided I wouldn’t be able to do too much with a uke given the way I play. It’s one of those instruments, like a traditional banjo, where you can do a lot more if you actually play the right way, with more than one of your fingers on the fretboard. Maybe next time I’ll grab one just for fun.
I played some resophonic guitars. Those Nationals are sexy beasts. And then a fella named Rich came over and directed my attention to a different guitar, simply saying, “That one’s a really nice slide guitar too.” And he went back to working behind the counter.
That was the extent of the salesmanship, or whatever that sort of thing wants to be called. No “can I help you look for something?” or getting in my face. They left me alone to do my thing. That’s the way it should be at every place, as far as I’m concerned.
I picked up the guitar Rich suggested, and that was it. Slide guitar heaven. What’s funny is if he hadn’t mentioned the guitar I never would have even given it a try. I’m kind of shallow in that I automatically gravitate toward the National Resophonics and the like, because they just look so stunning. And they sound nice too. This guitar didn’t scream, “I am pretty and you should play me!”
But damned if it didn’t sound just as good as the dobros that cost two and three times more. And unlike some of those guitars, it was also agreeable to being played without a slide.
Praise Jesus. He’s a mighty good leader, he’s a mighty good leader. He’s a mighty good leader, all the way. All the way, up to heaven. He’s a mighty good leader, all the way.
(I think that’s how the Skip James song goes. It’s probably derived from an old spiritual.)
I played a bunch of electric guitars. Again they were full of surprises. Immediately I went for the 1957 Gibson and the 1966 Gretsch. They were nice, but they didn’t get my fingers dancing like I thought they would.
Then I picked up this cheap Japanese Teisco thing, and there it was again. Instant inspiration.
I went there expecting to buy one acoustic guitar and leave with almost nothing left in my pocket. I walked away with an acoustic and an electric guitar after spending only half the amount of money I was prepared to part with. Iggy Pop knew what he was talking about when he sang about success, hills, and Chinese rugs.
This is the teisco.
I’m not sure what model it is. I think it’s technically a “no-name” guitar. As far as I can tell, it seems most similar to a K 4L or a Del Ray Spectrum ET-440, but it’s a little different from either of those, with two pickups instead of four.
It’s not like any guitar I’ve ever seen before. The body shape is not unlike that of a Strat, but the colours are completely different from any Strat I’ve come across on this planet, and the tone is pretty different too. Kind of thin and twangy, but in a cool, versatile way.
This thing is about forty years old and it’s in mint condition, aside from only one of the pickups functioning. Not a mark on it anywhere. The intonation is solid, the frets are issue-free, and the cool tremolo arm works without knocking the guitar out of tune at all. I even threw it in an old tuning I haven’t used since GWD dissolved six years ago (E B E F# B D#, if anyone’s interested, which is a slight modification of an unresolved/diminished open E tuning I used for more songs than I could count, at least up until 2003 or so).
Some guitars don’t like that tuning much. This guitar didn’t have any trouble with it at all.
For the price I paid, this axe is a steal. And it just looks cool. It’s bizarre playing some of these GWD songs again after not touching them for six years or more. Fun, too.
This is the acoustic guitar.
I think this guitar must be possessed by the spirit of some old blues man or something. Every time I pick it up I start playing these bluesy licks unlike anything I’ve ever played on a guitar in my life. I haven’t played slide guitar in years, but this beast is ridiculously inspiring and a slide makes it sing. It’s got that resonator sound I’ve been lusting after ever since I saw Paris, Texas and heard Ry Cooder’s soundtrack, but it might be a bit earthier. How a little parlour guitar that’s so light and comfortable can sound so big and full is beyond me.
The Folkway website — which is where I’ve borrowed these pictures from — has some fun facts about this guitar. Back in 1932 the case sold for $19.50, while a similar Regal guitar went for $10. The case is as cool as the guitar itself, with the green felt that lines it in remarkably good shape, and they’re both seventy-six years old.
Inside the case is some hidden treasure:
– An old metal slide that looks like some sort of strange dull razor.
– An ancient rusty capo that doesn’t look like any capo I’ve ever seen. Funny how I’ve avoided buying one of those things all my life because I never had any interest in one, and now I own one by default, even if it’s probably not wise to use it on any guitar.
– A Hohner “Little Lady” — the world’s smallest harmonica, which looks to be about as old as the guitar and case and fits on your key chain.
– An old white guitar pick that looks like someone used it to play a game similar to Tic-Tac-Toe, with rules only they understood.
– Two La Tosca guitar strings, still in their individual packages, one not even opened (fifth and sixth strings). Again, they look to be seventy-something years old, but in perfect condition.
Inside one of the guitar string papers are two of these identical little vintage advertisements the size of a matchbook. One side has a picture of a Gretsch guitar on it. The other side has a La Tosca piano accordion on it. You open it up, and inside it says this:
It’s fun to play a musical instrument. And profitable, too, when you get good enough to play professionally. But whether you play for your own amusement or whether you play for your living, it’s a safe guess that when you do get around to choosing an instrument, you’ll pick either one or the other of these two outstanding favourites — GUITAR or PIANO ACCORDION. Entirely without obligation, we’d like to tell you more about these fascinating instruments. For full information just sign and mail the coupon today!
And then there’s the bit you tear off after filling in your address and other relevant information. I’d send one of these off in the mail to get some literature about La Tosca piano accordions if I had any reason to believe the company still existed. It’s kind of neat to have this sort of thing.
Back to the instrument itself. There’s a chance this guitar really was owned by a blues musician in the 1930s. Back then a lot of bluesmen and women used smaller guitars like this, since they were widely available at the time and somewhat affordable. Even if it doesn’t come from blues lineage, it’s got some serious mojo.
It was in an open D major tuning when I picked it up, and I expect it’ll be staying there for a while. Maybe I’ll have to look into getting another guitar or two for slide playing down the road and experimenting with different tunings. I wouldn’t want to stress this one too much by detuning it all over the place.
Some serious fun is going to be had recording with these puppies.