Golden Years… Are We Living In A Golden Era Of Gear For Guitarists? Custom Shop Nocaster

In Guitars by admin

Doing all right, but you gotta get smart, Wish upon, wish upon, day upon day, I believe oh lord I believe all the way, Run for the shadows, run for the shadows, run for the shadows in these Golden Years

– David Bowie

“Golden Years” has always been one of our favorite Bowie songs, and if you pay attention, you’ll notice that the Thin White Duke was the first ever to have a rap hit, complete with finger pops, whop-whops and a whistling solo refrain. It’s a catchy one alright, smoothly held together by Carlos Alomar’s funky and steady rollin’ Motown riffs panned left and right that smell deeply of a Telecaster, although in Carlos’ case, it could have been anything with six strings. Whatever it was, there can be little doubt that he was plugged into a Fender amp with reverb. The song itself seems to have wormed its way into our brain as we pondered the opening theme for this edition of the Quest… If you wanna get yerself in the mood, cue up the lip-synced Soul Train version on YouTube with peace to you, Don Cornelius.

The term ‘Golden Era’ has evolved in the world of musical instruments to describe the decades that preceded the dark days when America’s foremost guitar and amplifier manufacturers completely lost their mojo. Of course you are quite familiar with the golden years associated with Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Martin, and the bigger small companies occupying the fringes like Guild, Epiphone, Silvertone, Harmony, Rickenbacker, Ampeg, and the mighty force that was once Valco. Most would agree that the guitar and amp industry sold its soul to the devil right around 1969, having feasted heavily on the bloated profits from the guitar explosion set off by the British Invasion of the mid ‘60s. We have observed here in the past that when you peel away the facts fine enough to see the truth, you can blame the Beatles for screwing up the guitar business. Well, they supplied the initial accelerant, at least. The actual crash and burn was caused by nothing more than pure greed, and the state of the industry generally remained disoriented and confused throughout the 70s and well into the ‘80s – longer than it had been ‘good’ for many companies in those precious golden years.

In the world of ‘vintage’ gear, one might assume that prices are determined by the demand for a dwindling supply of desirable pieces. Perhaps, but that’s not the whole story. Further elevating vintage prices and driving demand is the assumption that the old stuff is just so much better than the newer stuff can, or forever will be. Really? Are you sure? Certainly the people who have ponied up and paid top dollar for ‘vintage’ guitars might say so, but we’re not so sure. No, we are sure… We’re sure that we disagree. Besides, aside from a few brave touring pros, how many people that own priceless vintage guitars today ever take them out of the house? When a guitar becomes a commodity too valuable to be used for its intended purpose, it is irrelevant to any meaningful discussion of ‘tone.’ We’ll never see it, never hear it, never play it. Like the mythical Onza, for us, unfortunately, such guitars simply cease to exist.

For those of you old enough to remember, ‘vintage’ beater Strats, Telecasters, 335s, SGs and, yes… even Les Pauls were once dirt cheap for a reason. Nobody wanted them. We put in plenty of time perusing the walls at Gruhn’s in Nashville in the ‘70s (we never ever even sniffed a ‘59 burst by the way) looking at a ton of old ‘50s and early ‘60s Fenders and even greened-out Gibson goldtop Les Pauls with no interest deeper than historical curiosity. Granted, George Gruhn possessed a keen sense of potential future value – in 1976 dollars his prices were high even then, but our lack of interest wasn’t driven by cost. We simply had no interest in playing musty-smellin’ old beaters. Eventually, even Firebirds ascended to rare vintage status despite the fact that for most guitarists, they were functionally unplayable. Have you tried to play one for any length of time? How’d that work for ya? Well, if you are willing to tag along for a while with the idea that there might even be newer guitars that can meet or exceed the playability and tone of a mega-dollar collector’s dream, we can offer you hope, which is no small thing. Without it, where would you be? You’d be hopeless, that’s what.

Consider this… When you think of the obvious dominate brands in the guitar business today, what are these companies but a group of managers and employees tasked with marketing, building and selling guitars? Whatever vision, quality and build standards that exist at any given time in a large company are usually created and communicated by management. It’s what managers do, hopefully, although in a fully functional and creative manufacturing environment, innovative thinking is also encouraged to flow up from the factory floor where the hard work is actually done. Now consider how the makeup of a large guitar building operation changes over time… People inevitably come and go – managers and employees – while the materials required to build guitars are constantly replenished with some degree of unavoidable variation. Wood, in particular, is a variable commodity, especially when used to build musical instruments.

Much has been written about the early Fender Custom Shop run by John Page, for example, staffed with master builders like Michael Stephens and Fred Stuart. Was that a ‘golden era’? Was the period in the mid ‘90s when Vince Cunetto and his crew were building the first Relics a ‘golden era’? And what about the early ‘90s when Tom Murphy and the Gibson Custom Shop began to develop specifications for the ‘59 Historic Les Paul, which eventually inspired the entire Historic line? Was that a ‘Golden Era’? We think so. You see hints of this in the market place frequently – ‘Prehistoric’ Les Pauls are now highly valued, as are Cunetto-era Relics, and Fender necks stamped by H. Gastellum or Custom Shop necks stamped by John Cruz (we noted Cruz’ obvious talent in shaping necks years ago). In fact, in case you hadn’t noticed, we have been documenting what we consider to have been a recent ‘golden era’ at the Gibson Custom Shop related to Historic Les Pauls dating to the Fall of 2009 through early 2010.

The various ‘57 Les Paul goldtops, ‘58s and ‘59s we bought during that time period reflected a long list of changes that had been made in 2009 in the interest of historical accuracy, from Corian being replaced by the original nylon nut material, to a re-designed ABR-1 bridge, a shallower maple top carve, and many cosmetic tweaks that had no effect on tone. Still, the guitars we bought revealed an extraordinary resonance that could not be explained, and our impressions were echoed by a well-known West Coast guitar tech who sees a lot of Historic instruments pass through his shop. Our 2010 ‘57 Goldtop is one of those instruments, and we have never owned or played, nor can we imagine a Les Paul that sounds or plays any better. For now at least, it’s the end of the road for us as far as Les Pauls are concerned. We have also pointed to the late ‘90s through 2002 as having been a particularly savory period for Gibson USA SGs, and the early to mid ‘90s for various Fender reissues made with basswood and stamped Made in Japan (rather than Crafted in Japan). Ten years ago you could find dozens of these excellent guitars for $400 or less, exceptionally well-built and ripe for a pickup and wiring harness swap, although they really didn’t sound bad at all stock.

We can vividly recall times when we would walk the floor at Midtown Music and pick up Fender Relics that appeared to have been ‘aged’ by an intern, with crude swipes sanded to mimic actual wear from a thousand one night stands. Maple fingerboards would reveal worn spots in the wrong places with no realistic pattern of ‘wear,’ and we wondered, “What’s going on at Fender? Who let that out?” A year or so later the Relics would be good again – really good, as if the people doing the aging were actually guitar players who understood where and how a guitar becomes worn over time. Our 2007 Relic ‘60 Stratocaster is in every regard among the best we have ever owned, but we may never stop searching for the perfect Strat pickup set in all five positions… Can we somehow prove the existence of golden years occurring within the recent past among all the major guitar builders, if not golden months, weeks or days? Nothing man-made is unerringly and dependably consistent (ask NASA), so how can we not agree that good times and bad times happen with some pattern of consistency based on employee turnover, training, experience, and… variable materials. When it comes to wood, there is little to debate. Wood varies according to where it grows, changes in climate during the life of the tree, and even different parts of the tree from which wood is cut. Secondarily, the manner in which wood is dried and stored can affect its long-term stability when used to build musical instruments. Weight and corresponding density can be specified by the builder to some extent within a certain range, but in a high-production environment that chews through thousands of board feet of wood daily, to suggest that the builder is controlling much more than that is suggesting too much. You need only note the highly variable appearance of rosewood fingerboards on new guitars hanging in any store to appreciate just how much the same species of wood can vary. In this regard little has changed from the ‘golden era’ of the ‘50s. While premium wood in 2012 is far more expensive than in 1959, for now, Fender, Gibson, and builders like Collings, Martin and hundreds of much smaller builders are still able to source excellent mahogany, maple, ebony, rosewood, swamp ash and alder, as well as more exotic wood species. Does the available supply vary? Inevitably it does, and anyone with a hands-on relationship with wood in guitar building can share stories of exceptional wood coming into their shop, but do larger companies stop production if their current supply of wood isn’t quite as good as the last? Those of you who are acutely sensitive to the weight of an electric guitar have surely noted the wide variation among otherwise identical solid body models. In the late ‘60s and ‘70s when Fender seemed incapable of sourcing lightweight ash (or thought heavier was better), they designed the Thinline Telecaster. More recently, Gibson has employed chambered weight relief as a means of consistently providing customers with a ‘featherweight’ Les Paul weighing under 8 pounds. If you can find one player working at the Custom Shop (and there are plenty) that regularly plays a chambered Les Paul, we’ll buy your lunch. The point is, understanding the variable nature of guitar building and the materials used to make guitars can be a source of encouragement and hope in your quest to find modern instruments that uniquely complete you as a player. While we can’t point to a string of serial numbers within a specific product line and proclaim those instruments as being exceptional, we can truthfully state that we have consistently found exceptional contemporary guitars often bought online, and in many important respects it seems that we have been living in a new golden era of guitar building that may never be seen again. To fully appreciate the present in a culture that thrives on the trivial pursuit of immediate gratification without consequence requires thought, reflection, foresight and most importantly, a willingness to simply take a few risks and Quest forth…

Aside from having poured over the pictures featured in the blackguard Telecaster book by Nacho Banos, our deep experience with vintage Telecasters has been limited to two guitars – a ‘57 Telecaster we bought in Indianapolis in the early ‘80s during a holiday visit home to mom, and a stripped ‘54 bought from a Maryland dealer shortly after launching TQR in 1999. The guitar we found in Indy was hanging on the wall of a tiny store near Broad Ripple. The finish on the body had been stripped, the left lower bout contoured in the style of a Stratocaster with a belly cut in the back, and a mini toggle switch sat on the control plate in between the volume and tone controls rendering an in-series double coil setting with both pickups. We asked how much as we turned the Tele in hand and the answer was $600. You can guess how long it took for us to reach for our wallet. The young clerk in the store shot us a cautious Norman Bates look as he informed us that there was a case in the back and he’d be right back. He was, and as he laid the case down on the counter he shot us the look again as we stared at a well used lacquered tweed case with STEPHEN STILLS stenciled on the top in bold, black paint. Oh… a bonus, gulp. The clerk casually busied himself writing up a receipt, perhaps relieved that the stenciling hadn’t been a deal breaker – not because the guitar had clearly belonged to Stephen Stills and maybe he had intended to keep it, but as if dude had no idea who Stills was and maybe we wouldn’t like buying a guitar with a case spray painted on the top and back with some dumb shit’s name all over it. We’re serious. Remember now, we’re in Indianapolis, and this kid looked as if he could have definitely been into the Pogues, but he probably did not own a Manassass album… Well, we rented that guitar for about two years, recorded some of our best sessions with it, and in every respect it was and shall remain in our memory as one of the most formidable and utterly mind-blowing, ass-kickingest guitars we have ever played. At the time we owned a ‘78 Twin Reverb with factory-installed orange label JBLs, and that guitar played through that amp was a religious experience. On tougher, harder rockin’ tracks we would roll the Twin into a tiled bathroom, put a mic on one speaker and hang another above the cabinet, nudge the volume to 10 and just close the door.  Don’t let anyone tell you that the late ‘70s pull/boost 135 watt Twin Reverb wasn’t a fine piece of work. Just don’t pull the boost knob and you’ll be fine. As for the Stills guitar, Captain E. Van Up paid a visit to our Midtown Atlanta apartment one Friday morning while we were at work and repossessed the Tele for destinations unknown. Our best guess is that it wound up somewhere in the ‘hood, got pawned, and probably belongs to a collector now. Lord, we would give up much to get that guitar back. If you happened to own a Telecaster with Steve Stills stenciled on the case, please call. For the record, we did send two letters to Still’s record label (this was the ‘80s) with no reply. Had we enclosed a gram of coke, things might have been different…

The ‘54 Tele was essentially a stripped body and neck with the original finish and worn out frets, signed by ‘XA’ 7-54 (Xavier Armento).  We had it finished in a 2-tone burst, put it back together with a set of Bardens to start with, and used it as a pickup mule in the early days of TQR. We eventually sold it to a reader in Massachusetts, who eventually sold it to someone in the Netherlands. It was a good guitar, but less than great. When some joker has played a guitar so long in the G and A box that the wood on the bass side of the neck has been worn so deeply that the low E string slips off the edge of the fingerboard, what are you gonna do? We have acquired and reviewed two Nocasters in these pages during the past 13 years – one that was fitted with a Lollar Charlie Christian neck pickup, and another that we optimized with Callaham hardware and a fret job. The first Nocaster was a heayweight blaster, and the second a featherweight 2006 model. Both had their distinct advantages. We spent quite a lot of time in the March ‘07 issue of TQR bitching about the bridge saddles and tuners on the ‘06 being so corroded with ‘realistic’ rust that the whole mess required replacement, and this was true. We had to do the same with a ‘63 Relic Tele. We love Telecasters. Of all the guitar iconic guitar designs, the Telecaster seems to convey the ultimate mark of credibility. They are not the easiest or most comfortable guitar to play, and you will rarely if ever find a hack wielding a Telecaster. Still, they can be challenging, and it is sometimes difficult to find one that really speaks to you without putting up too much of a fight. If a Les Paul is the big, slobbering dog  of the guitar world, the Telecaster is the alley cat.

As we began to get the April 2012 issue together, we were also pondering the details of arranging the lineup for May and June. That’s the way this works – when you’re writing one issue you’re also working on the next two – or ya better be… We were also on a short leash because we were taking a week off to make a run to St. George Island across the bay from Apalachicola and on to three nights in New Orleans with our son for Spring break. We mention this because it was the first time we have actively trolled for gear on the road using an IPhone. The eBay Mobile app sucks, by the way. You can’t send questions to sellers without logging on to eBay from a PC, and of course, the size of the pictures on an IPhone leaves more than a little to the imagination. Nonetheless, we eventually scored a 2007 Nocaster Relic from a seller in New Mexico for $2,000 that had been special ordered in Aztec gold by the original owner. That’s a fair price for a Nocaster in our favorite color that never really existed until the ‘80s. The guitar is basically new old stock, arriving with every scrap of case candy, Custom Shop certificate, warranty card, strap, cord, inspection tags, hang tags and even the inspection slip for the brown tolex case. We took one look at the Nocaster and muttered, “Never been played more than a few hours at best.” Why? Well, some people buy guitars that just don’t get played for a host of reasons, but the quarter sawn neck on this one is without a doubt the biggest piece of hard maple lumber we have ever seen bolted to a Fender body. It’s f’ing huge – a massive piece of work with a deep U shape fretted with Dunlop 6105 fret wire, tall and narrow. The combined weight of the maple neck and ash body tipped our digital scale at just 6.9 pounds, perfectly balanced. Perhaps the original owner couldn’t handle the size of the neck. The tall and narrow frets also require a rather precise fingering technique. Players with a sloppy left hand would feel like beginners again with this set up. Let’s call it as unforgiving as a Dual Showman on 7. We’re completely down with the Nocaster now, but it took a solid week to adjust to the narrower string spacing, tall frets and that big-ass neck. Now, of course, we are addicted to it. We also changed the black pickguard to white. That’s the good news. Less flattering to the Custom Shop is the obvious misplacement of the inelegantly conceived ‘arm wear’ on the top, which could only occur that high on the body if your picking hand was habitually over the 18th fret or you hung the Nocaster down around your knees. Chalk it up to poor training and supervision, or worse… nobody cares. Hey, guys, try to live up to the wording on the certificate… “This instrument has been custom built by Fender’s finest craftsmen…” That suggests you oughta know better.

Most interesting to us, however, was a familiar phenomenon that we frequently experience with more expensive Custom Shop guitars… In nearly every instance when we have bought  relatively newish guitars, they have clearly not been played much, and they certainly haven’t been set up since they were originally shipped. The neck on the Nocaster revealed a visible bow and a loose truss rod that was easy enough to correct with a little more than half a full turn of the truss rod adjustment screw. Having sat in the arid climate of New Mexico, the neck had shrunk and sharp frets ends could be felt along the edges of the fingerboard on both sides of the neck. We bought a Gator 220 grit sanding sponge at Ace and smoothed the fret ends with steady, even strokes and light pressure in about 5 minutes with very little evidence left along either side of the rolled fingerboard edges, which had been ‘worn’ as part of the relic process. We could have simply left the frets alone and the humid climate of Atlanta would have eventually taken care of the problem, but since the Nocaster is a Relic with simulated wear along the fingerboard anyway, why wait? We don’t recommend that you try this on a guitar with a bound fingerboard when a few days in a room with a humidifier usually makes those sharp fret ends magically disappear.

With the work on the neck done we strung the guitar with Pyramid .010-.048s and got to work setting the intonation. We like the hefty stock vintage Fender 3-barrel brass saddles, but we couldn’t get the intonation set close enough for our taste, so we exchanged them with a set of brass Callaham intonated brass saddles. Once again, the original screw holding the E and B saddle was so rusted from the ‘aging’ process that the saddle couldn’t be moved along the length of the screw until we liberally spread a few drops of 3 in 1 oil along the rusted threads, allowed it to penetrate and torqued the screw hard with the biggest screw driver that would fit. All three screws are soaking in a light coating of 3 in 1 and we may try the Fender saddles again just to see how close we can get with all three screws freely turning inside the brass saddles. The Callaham saddles and height adjustment screws are slightly smaller, everything effortlessly moves, and intonation is spot on. Recommended especially for moderately high action. We dug out another aged set of bigger brass Tele saddles that had been drilled at an angle for the screws for better intonation, and these allowed us to get the string height up where we wanted it. Where they came from we do not know – Stew-Mac perhaps…

And now for the really interesting stuff… With the Nocaster fully set up, we quickly decided that it needed a set of .011s and the stiffer string tension on the top three strings they provide. After swapping them and spending another 20 minutes adjusting string height, the Nocaster still seemed quirky and out of sorts. Despite stretching the strings, it didn’t hold pitch well at all and just seemed to keep coming undone as we played. The tall 6105 frets also required us to very carefully make repeated adjustments to the individual height of each string. We finally got that dialed in, but it took at least a full day and night for the Nocaster to fully settle in. Finally, it remained in tune, and we noted that our set up had significantly enhanced the resonant character of the guitar. The ash body was fully resonating in response to chords where it hadn’t before, and the Nocaster seemed louder played acoustically. It was as if the guitar needed to be played, broken in and woken up, and we have experienced this very same phenomenon before. Our Nash Tele seems to become unhappy and cranky when it hasn’t been played, but after 20 minutes or so it settles down again and behaves perfectly, as usual. Our Les Paul Junior does the very same thing, confirming once again that guitars do indeed get better when they are played, and they seem to behave in odd ways when they aren’t.

The Nocaster pickups sounded good at first blush. The 7.08K  ‘51 bridge is built with a historically correct tin base plate instead of being copper plated, and it was bright and twangy enough, if a little muted to our ear. The 7.26K neck possesses that signature hollowbody tone played clean that has always defined a great Tele. The combined sound of both pickups and their relatively low output produces the perfect rhythm tone – wide glide, rich and spanky. We were especially digging the Nocaster in drop D through the ‘64 Princeton Reverb with the tremolo set for a subtle throb, until we stopped, set the Nocaster down and picked up our Nash Tele loaded with Jim Rolph’s Tele set. The Nash occupied a completely different space, the pickups producing clarity that was missing altogether in the Nocaster pickups by comparison. Well, this is nothing new. A lot of things sound good until you hear something better, and then you’re ruined for it. Then we installed a Tele set made by Rod McQueen in Australia, otherwise known as ‘Slider.’  His 7.79K bridge pickup revealed even more lush harmonic shimmer than the Rolph, perfectly balanced with just the right mix of brilliant treble, upper mids and deep, growling bass. The output of Slider’s neck pickup measuring 7.30K didn’t really match the bridge in volume, but it sounded damn good – very much like a great Strat neck pickup – bright, scooped and woody. We invited Mark Johnson over for a blind taste test and after repeated flings with our Teles he too pointed to the Nocaster loaded with the Sliders. Are we having fun yet? This is the point when guitarists have to do a little soul searching. Confronted with such an obvious contrast in tone, now what do you do? You contact a fellow by the name of Ron Ellis. Next month: Why Ron Ellis’ pickups may be the worst kept secret in Nashville… TQ