Monthly Archives: August 2012

Serviceman Jazzmaster

Since we opened up shop, we’ve been getting to buy, sell and repair more than our fair share of Fender offset instruments, especially Jazzmasters.  And while my partner in crime Michael Adams is a stickler for a guitar that has rock solid reliability, I tend to gravitate towards the more unreliable and quirky.  Now, I’ve always had a sweet tooth for oddball “lawsuit” and direct copies of my favorite Gibson and Fender instruments, so when I first heard of “Serviceman” guitars my interest was piqued.

These Serviceman instruments are one of the weirdest niches in the offset Fender world, and they were so-called because of how they originated in the Philippines in the 1960s when American soldiers were on their way to Vietnam.  This cottage industry of knock-off Fender instruments produced some very unique pieces, the most common of which are Jaguars, although there have been documented examples of Stratocasters and even Coronado hollowbodies.  Logic dictated that this line of homemade blantant Fender forgeries would also include a Jazzmaster,  and I was so excited when I finally had a chance to snag one and tear into it.

While these Serviceman instruments look the part on first glance, the quality varied widely, mostly leaning towards instruments which are composed of balsa wood and prayer.  This wide variance in quality naturally comes from the environment in which these instruments were produced, and while there are some relatively mass produced parts (vibrato units, necks), each craftsman had the ability to create an instrument to his liking.  Also, it’s doubtful that the Serviceman luthiers actually had Fender models to use as reference and this explains many of the cheap/ingenious/huh? elements of these guitars which were probably derived from photos. Further muddling the issue, many of these instruments were upgraded out of necessity by subsequent owners to make them play better (or at all), which makes it difficult to nail down how these instruments left the “factory.”

Well, now that we’ve laid the groundwork for what we’re looking at, let’s dig deeper into the Serviceman Jazzmaster. One of the first things I noticed was the fake, yellowed woodgrain and giant (we’re talking ate your ’52 Tele for lunch) neck profile.  The headstock also has open-back tuners, a dead giveaway that this instrument is not a Fender, despite the two piece decal on the headstock which does its best to trick the buyer.  And while most of these Serviceman guitars have a Fenderish decal on the headstock, I’ve also seen examples with hand painted logos which were surprisingly well done and infinitely cool.  A couple other interesting points on the neck include the tiny brass bar frets which are better suited for the early 20th century than a space age guitar from the 1960s and lastly, while I failed to capture this in a photo, you’d be hard-pressed to find a truss rod (although it’s marginally straight and doesn’t fret out!).

Another dead giveaway that you have a “genuine” Serviceman can be found by removing the neck plate.  Don’t worry about slackening the strings on the guitar, because nearly all of these instruments have a second neck bolting system hidden beneath the neckplate.  As with many features on these guitars, the visuals match their Fender counterparts, but functionality is a different story altogether.  This also rings true for the pickup height adjustment screws…which do nothing.  They are simply small semicircle plastic pieces nailed into the one-ply pickguard which has a black line around the perimeter to simulate a three-ply construction.  One more great example of this (and my personal favorite) is the way that the vibrato unit is put together.  Instead of the bar locking into the collet on the base of the unit, the bar and the collet are the same piece!  The whole shebang just screws into a baseplate which also slyly has the Fender logo and a couple patent numbers etched into it for good measure.

Electronically the guitar is an elegant mess, and while both pickups work, the stock five-way rotary switch which is in the place of the normal three-way toggle gives the user an unorthodox collection of pickup settings: bridge, bridge, bridge+middle, bridge+middle, bridge.  And don’t try to engage that rhythm circuit, because while it was wired up with the best intentions, a few key wires are missing and thus it’s a very elaborate kill switch.  So this all begs the question: What does this thing sound like?  Well, the pickups are quiet and microphonic, but they do have a low-fi clanky quality all their own that I’m going to try and use in a recording some day.

Here’s the funny thing: for how much I’ve knocked my quirky little Serviceman buddy…it’s really fun to play.  In fact, I’ve been picking it up almost every day while my real 1961 Jazzmaster hangs out in a stand.  And while I won’t be relying on the Serviceman to carry me through my next gig, it is a charming reminder of a bygone era of guitar counterfeiting and its got a song to sing!

-Mike Ball

One last note, please check out Jim Shine and www.FenderJaguar.net for a few more examples of these guitars and further documentations on the models available.

1967 Prototype Fender Rhodes Suitcase/Stage Piano

When we officially launched this website last month with the “Gear Spotlight” page, I had a real stroke of luck with getting to play and document Buddy Holly’s personal tweed amp. After wrapping up that post it dawned on me that it would be very unlikely I’d get to blog about something half that cool ever again.  Thankfully, the powers of the cosmos have smiled upon the Guitar Bar and we stumbled upon another one-of-a-kind piece.  We’ll save you the nittygritty on how this piece came into our possession, but we’re very proud to have a prototype Fender Rhodes piano in our shop.

What makes this piece so fascinating is that it is completely undocumented in any photographs or archival footage, and from what information we’ve been able to gather (and a bit of conjecture), this piano was the factory test bed for just about every change Fender made to the Rhodes in the late 1960’s.  Now, this was a time when Fender was revamping the Rhodes inside and out by devising a new preamp/power amp combo, new pickups and perhaps most importantly the introduction of the “Stage” model piano.

A peek under the hood! Look at those beautiful square tone bars

The basis for this piano is a 73 key “Sparkle Top” Rhodes, like all of the early models made from 1965-1969 (think Billy Preston playing with the Beatles at the rooftop concert or “Bitches Brew”) with the original Jordan model preamp, but that’s about where the similarities to the early Rhodes pianos end.  The case looks more like something you’d see at grandma’s house, with a wood grain veneer over a plywood box.  Now, before you start thinking that we’ve gotten far too excited about a rehoused early Rhodes, give us a sec to drop a few more nuggets of goodness:  The faceplate for the Jordan preamp is an etched gold metal, seen only on two other early Rhodes prototype examples (most notably an early abandoned 88 key model) and the bottom of the piano features a faint, but discernible “Fender Inc. c. 1967.”  Also, the 73 individual pickups on the harp assembly are the earliest documented example of Fender using red wire on the coils and the only example of this wire being used on the full 4″ pickups.  This piano is dated two full years before that change hit the market, and when the red pickups did finally make their way into consumer hands, they were a full 1/2″ shorter than the ones in the prototype.  Pretty cool, eh?

Rare 4″ red wire pickups, with one earlier greeny hanging out for good measure. It’s like Christmas!

Next, we have the aforementioned Jordan preamp with the uber-shiny gold faceplate which features one notable diversion from the original design: an XLR jack and five-pin connector mounted to the side of the preamp.  This was a time when Fender was shifting from a 1/4 input on their piano preamps to a new and proprietary four-pin connection, and this piano was the one to pioneer that change.  It looks as if the folks at Fender were working out the kinks on that idea as well, as the matching Jordan power amp that comes with the piano also features a matching XLR jack.

Now, as many Nord players of today can appreciate, the Fender Rhodes Stage piano was a great upgrade for its time because it allowed the user to just bring his keys with him without hauling around the extra 4×12 speaker cabinet (and sustain pedal system) that Fender had designed for the earliest Rhodes.  What we discovered when we took a gander at the underside of our piano were notes on the placement of the legs for the Stage model and also for the dowel to operate the sustain rod.  The original set of legs and flanges even came with the piano, and while they are cool they are also decidedly rougher than the final product!  And with this discovery it seems like the Fender folks were also dreaming up the Stage piano design a couple years before it hit the market.

Check out the low serial # on the early Jordan preamp

Then again, one of the coolest things about this prototype is that it gives the distinct impression that it was a very useful part of the Fender Rhodes development for a few years (the components inside the Rhodes date it back to ’66) and could have been tinkered with endlessly while Harold Rhodes and Co. figured out the best way to improve their designs.  The collection of cigarette burns on the moderately battered top tell tales of a company which had already created a great product and was working hard to make it even better and more reliable for the working musician.

Perhaps the best thing about this prototype is that it sounds and plays incredibly well.  As far as we can tell it remains completely unmodified from it’s original factory condition and has great action and incredible bell-like chime (not to mention a bit of grit) thanks to the original Raymac tines.  We couldn’t be happier to have this piece in our shop and get to share a few of the details with you!

We’re only able to post a few photos in this blog format, but luckily http://www.FenderRhodes.com has assured us that they will be making a special page for this piano on their site, and we hope we can convince them to archive a few more pics.

Lastly, if you’ve fallen in love with this piano like we have and want to take her home…just browse on over to our Contact page and give us a call!  We’d love to find a good home for this unique piece.

-Mike Ball

Thanks anonymous Rhodes employee for giving us a clue!

This Land: Rehearsals Part 1

A little inspiration. Maybe I’ll have a sticker printed up for my J45…

Ever since my musical outlets all sort of collapsed this spring, I’ve been listlessly pacing in my one bedroom apartment wondering exactly what the hell I’m supposed to do. To be sure, I love my job (guitar tech) and my wife (hot redhead), not to mention the music I’ve already made (good) and the amazing instruments I work on day-in, day-out. (lots) Still, with no band and no shows, something just isn’t right in me, as if there’s a spark missing from my mind or a spring from my step. I’m sure you can relate.

So, when I got a call from my good friend Edd Key about a certain project he was working on, I promised myself I’d say yes no matter what it was–I just needed to get out there! Lucky for me, this one was a total no-brainer.

Edd invited me to participate in This Land, a production that draws from the writings and music of Woody Guthrie to tell a story that’s as much about the characters he created and what he witnessed as it is about the man himself. Acting, puppetry and live music all combine to weave a tapestry of rambling railways, lonesome choruses and dust bowl depression. Trust me: this show is brilliant.

Under the direction of Greg Carter, the cast and crew of this show have already pooled their collective talents to produce something rife with both substance and beauty. We’re only in our second week of rehearsal, and I can honestly say that this show is going to be at once inspiring and heartbreaking.

As I mentioned earlier, my role in all of this is as a musician, backing up the vocalists on acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, dobro, lap steel and a few other instruments as well as leading a couple of songs on my own. In total, there’s a catalog of 30 songs I’m learning, every one of them a national treasure.

Our rehearsals usually run 4-6 hours a day, 5 days a week–an intense workout! The sessions usually start with vocal exercises and time for hashing out songs, and sometime during the second hour the actors get to explore their scenes with Edd and I providing the musical backdrop. Thankfully, these people make it easy to keep up, with plenty of laugh breaks thrown in for good measure.

Every one of these cast members is professional and talented, but what really moves me is their kindness and sincerity. There’s a camaraderie that runs through these rehearsals, with everyone throwing in their ideas and reactions. There’s also a deep respect for the source material, and many of our sessions either start with or break down into a discussion of where Woody was coming from when he wrote a song or a journal entry. To be honest, I’ve never worked in such an open and encouraging environment; it’s a safe space.

I’m already so proud of what we’ve accomplished in this short time, and I can’t wait for all of you to see and hear this labor of love.

We start at Erickson Theatre Off Broadway on September 6th! You do not want to miss this one.

-Michael James Adams

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’66 Sparkletop Rhodes Key Bass! SOLD

This thing rocks.

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Muff is on the Menu. No, wait.

UPDATE: RAM’S HEAD SOLD (RIGHT)

How do you take your fuzz? Thick and rich? Beefy? Or do you prefer your dirt with a bit less gain, a bit more fizz?

Whatever your preference, here at Mike and Mike’s Guitar Bar we pride ourselves on having at our disposal the very finest blends.

“The best part of waking up is stomping a Big Muff!”

Guitars That Got Away #3: Gretsch Billy Bo Jupiter Thunderbird

Recently, I picked up this guitar on Craigslist hoping it would be a suitable replacement for my beloved Les Paul, with which I finally parted due to weight and disuse. As soon as I first laid eyes on the Billy Bo, I fell in love with its Cadillac lines and chromed-out embellishments. I had to have it.

The Billy Bo has an impressive spec sheet: 22 frets on a rosewood fretboard, two TV Jones Power’Tron Plus pickups, pinned Adjust-O-Matic bridge, laminated maple top and a 24.6″ scale length. Very cool. Also, it weighed in at 6.8 lbs, so it had that going for it! And the look? I mean, damn.

Luckily, the price was right so I splurged. I didn’t hesitate, and the minute I got it to the bench I knew exactly where I was going. I lowered the action and fiddled with pickup height and pole piece balance, and did a slight electronic tweak to brighten up the guitar. (More on that later…) After the set up–and cutting a new nut as the original one was horribly cut–the guitar went from affectation to a full-on obsession. It was the only guitar I played for three weeks!

I mean, just look at it!

The guitar played great and sounded huge, so why is it a guitar that got away? Well, it was dark. These guitars are notorious for not having a ton of treble on tap. While the guitar sounded authoritative and gruff, I really found myself missing the high end I associate with Gretsch guitars. Had I possessed the means to swap out the pickups for TV’s Classic Plus or Power’Tron standard models, I would have been happier. Bear in mind that this isn’t so much a criticism of the guitar rather than an issue of personal taste; to be fair, I got some absolutely killer tones out of the thing. The only other complaint I had was that it lacked a vibrato of any kind, which is something easily addressed with the addition of a Bigsby.

I was able to partially remedy the lack of treble response by adding what we call a treble bleed/volume mod network across the 1 and 2 lugs of the Master Volume controls. MVs are oftentimes the cause of excessive darkness in some guitar circuits, and re-wiring for a simplified scheme or adding one of these networks can lift the blanket from your sound. I’ve linked to my favorite combo, a 220K resistor in parallel with a 471pf capacitor. This not only retains treble frequencies at reduced volume settings, but also alters the taper of the pot, enabling a smoother transition from loud to quiet and with plenty of noteworthy stops on the way.

I sold this guitar about a month after I bought it, and while I was happy to make a few bucks I’ll admit that I haven’t stopped thinking about this guitar. Though it was too dark for my tastes, this guitar became a staple of my daily life and was the only guitar I played for two weeks straight. It even inspired three really great riffs that have made their way into some new songs, which is something that doesn’t come to me easily. I think that says something about how fun this guitar is to play, a quality severely lacking from some more traditional offerings.

My prognosis? I’ll definitely be buying another one in the future; the guitar was as fun to play as it was to see, and if I could have added a Bigsby and brighter pickups, this would have been one of my main guitars. I fully regret selling this one. Firebird Red isn’t quite my favorite color, but aside from the white-and-gold Falcon-inspired model, I can’t imagine loving that offset shape in any other finish. My only hope is that I can get such a tasty deal on the next one I buy!

-Michael James Adams

It also had the best bone nut I’ve ever cut in my life. Seriously. Undetectable to the hand and such a beautifully striped piece of bone.

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