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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2 thoughts on “Guitars That Got Away #3: Gretsch Billy Bo Jupiter Thunderbird

  1. Giselle says:

    Yes! Finally someone writes about guitar electronics repair.

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