Echoes of THE PAST

Paul Brett may love his archaic acoustic blues guitars – his Stellas, Regals, Oahus and Weymanns – but he’s also got another side that displays an equal fascination with the lesser-known electric brands of America and Europe. Lars Mullen listens in.

Some guitar companies – the most famous ones – are so well-documented these days that with the purchase of a couple of books you can attain a level of knowhow that would have been near-impossible to achieve 30 years ago. When it comes to more obscure brands, though, enthusiasts all over the world are still poring over rare catalogues and comparing notes to build up an accurate picture of what really happened. One of those enthusiasts is Paul Brett, whose interests cover a range of instruments from exceedingly rare flat-tops of the early 20th century, to more modern handmade guitars to the unusual electrics you see in the photo above. It’s a knowledge he’s put to use compiling several books and videos, and he’s also an acoustic guitar designer for a popular company. ‘Over the decades I’ve built up what I suppose you’d call a working man’s knowledge of acoustic guitars, and I’ve drawn on that for my latest designs,’ said Paul. ‘We use quality tonewoods, and of course those contribute to the tone and volume, but it’s what comes out of the soundhole that matters. It’s one of the fascinating things about some older acoustic and semi-acoustic guitars – some of the ones most responsible for the music we now adore, the ones we regard as very collectable, were actually almost slung together – often with whatever wood was available.

‘The bulk of my collection has always been acoustics and electro-acoustics, but the ones I’ll be showing you today are guitars I’ve had for a very long time, stuff that I’ve stacked away over the years just in case they ever had some historical value at some point in the future. Most of them were picked up during the ’60s and ’70s from corner junk shops in London, the kind of places that just don’t exist anymore. I paid a tenner for some of these guitars – and at the time I thought I was paying far too much!’

First into the limelight from Paul’s collection is a pair of Harmonys. ‘The sunburst one with the single pickup is a Harmony H45 Stratotone-Mars,’ details Paul, ‘while the natural-finish one is a top-of-the-range Jupiter with a pair of DeArmond gold foil pickups. Both these guitars date from the late ’50s, and they’re prime examples of the sound of that era. These guitars have got something I just don’t think can be accurately replicated. There are some very nice reissues available, and they play pretty well, but it’s what’s underneath that counts. They just don’t sound or feel the same as the originals. The whole building process, the technicians, the technology, the woods, even the electronics from that age were so different.

‘Silvertones also fall into the “early workingman’s guitar” category. These were available from the Montgomery Ward and Sears and Roebuck mail-order catalogues in the early ’60s, and they’ve have rocketed in price over the last few years. These two black Silvertones are in really good condition and they both play and sound exceptional – the acoustic chambered bodies really add to the raunchy sound. The one on the left is a high-spec Jupiter in black sparkle with a pair of DeArmond silver foil pickups, and it’s really powerful and sweet-sounding. The black Stratotone on the right has a really raucous sound… superb for rhythm.

‘Someone who didn’t have a clue about guitars recently asked me why these old and basic-looking guitars are now becoming more collectable. Well, the answer is that they were pretty good in the first place! They were also really original in design, and they played an early role in the careers of many legendary acts from American blues players to British artists. Once, almost every up and coming player was learning on these simple budget models of the ’50s and ’60s, and to me they make such a refreshing change to all the endless copies out there today.

‘The collector’s market has been through some real ups and downs. We’ve had serious collectors paying up to a million dollars for a ’50s Les Paul played by a legendary guitarist and a lot of people paying almost that sort of money for other highly collectable guitars, but not really knowing what they were doing. Companies were even set up to advise young bankers on investing their bonuses on valuable guitars instead of watches and posh cars, but it was a sure-fire bet that as soon as there was a dip in the market, they were likely lose a lot of money. Interestingly, all through the troughs and peaks of the recession, the acoustic market has always remained pretty stable, unlike electrics. I think that’s possibly because acoustics appeal to an older generation who want to own and play a specific guitar, so they’re doing it for the right reasons.

‘But going back to budget electrics of the ’50s and ’60s – the “brand X” guitars like Kays, Harmonys, Silvertones and others – I think they offer an alternative approach to the boutique movement of today. There are many luthiers who make exquisite acoustics and semi-acoustic guitars, and I know several bedroom players who own them, but they’re often far too scared to take them to a gig – and imagine the ‘bad karma’ involved if anyone else touches them, or the worry that the slightest ding will devalue it! You should surely buy a guitar to play it, even if it cost five grand. Having spent all that money, though, you’ve got to wait a very long time to see if it’s going to go up in value, and nobody knows what’s going to happen 40 or 50 years down the line. But with Harmonys and the like, some collectors simply want them in the condition of the present day – pretty scruffy, and not buffed back to the original shine.

‘Kay is another brand that sold in huge quantities to teenagers around the world during the ’50s and ’60s… so much so that it’s often said that Kay was arguably accountable for single-handedly creating the vast American guitar market. The six-string Thin Twin electric guitar in particular was an instant hit with blues players in the Chicago area; it became known as the Jimmy Reed or Howlin’ Wolf model, and to this day it remains a favourite with many guitarists, session players and collectors.

‘This big archtop semi-acoustic Kay Upbeat is a rare transitional model, made around 1958. It has a black finish, the full “Kelvinator” headstock, a white sparkle pickguard and white pickup covers and surrounds – a combination of features that didn’t run for more than a couple months, as Kay switched from white to black for their headstocks, pickguards and pickups. The Upbeat has a well-rounded mellow jazz tone with lots of clarity thanks to the Gibson-made “Kleenex tissue box” pickups. Some say that these pickups morphed into early Gibson P90s. I was lucky with this one – it was literally an “under the bed” find.

‘The single-cutaway guitar with the two copper-coloured anodised scratchplates is a Kay Style Leader, and it’s in great condition for a guitar built over half a century ago. There are several versions, but this is the twin-pickup model. The scratchplates seem so retro today, but at the time they was a radical step forward in design. It’s a good player, and the pickups can drive any amp, vintage or modern – it’s an ageless guitar for the serious blues player. Lonnie Johnson, one of my favourite blues artists, could make his Style Leader sound so sweet.

‘The little guitar finished in various shades of spring green is a mid-’50s Kay 136. It only has one pickup slap in the middle of the body – but what a killer sound! You can play jazz, blues, rock or slide on this guitar; it sounds as clear as a bell through an amp’s clean channel, but it howls like a good ’un through the dirty side. Mind you, I think even lovers of really thick necks might find this one a bit of challenge to play.’

Let’s move across the Atlantic from Chicago, Illinois to Germany, and begin with a ’60s Hofner Committee. ‘I actually swapped a Kay Thin Twin for the Committee, as at the time they were both about the same in value,’ Paul recalls. ‘I had quite a few Kays so I thought this would be a nice addition to my hoard of Hofners. I was attracted by the excellent condition and the unusual distance between the zero fret and the nut. Hofners, of course, were basically designed for ’50s jazz bands. Most of mine have that typical metallic midrange bark, but this one is warm and mellow – you can even play sultry blues on it.’

Still with big-bodied archtops, Paul unveils a very unusual Goldklang. ‘This is one of my favourite-looking guitars, similar in basic design to the Hofner, and made by Heinz Seifert in the ’50s for Goldklang in East Germany. It’s got a capped headstock, full block fretboard position markers, and a wonderful “piano-key” design scratchplate that follows the outline of the f-hole. The pickup was added later at some stage; I’ve no idea what it is, but it sounds fabulous through an amp. Goldklang started up in the 1920s making mandolins, and they never made many guitars. It’s a fine example of Eastern bloc luthiery – on the other side of the wall it was all Hofner and Hopf.’

The two little blonde guitars pictured left are something very special. ‘Sometimes simplicity is the best, and these two very rare Magnatone instruments really take some beating,’ Paul enthuses. ‘In their day Magnatone produced some of the finest USA-built valve amps, and those amps are now very collectable.

‘The main guys behind the guitar designs were Paul Barth, who made a major contribution to early guitar design by working for all the big names including Rickenbacker, Gibson and Fender, and Paul Bigsby, who designed the vibrato unit and also had input into some of the guitars. Bigsby himself designed the ’56 Magnatone MkIII with a through-neck on the right. I just love this guitar to bits. Played acoustically, you can feel the chambered body resonating; drive it through any big valve amp and it sounds phenomenal, with a sound that seems to combine the tonal characteristics of a Strat, Tele and a Les Paul.

‘The one on the left is a MkVI with a bolt-on neck in a see-through cream finish. This one was designed by Paul Barth, and once more it just includes the barest essentials for a well-made budget guitar. You could walk on stage with a Magnatone guitar or similar, plug into a basic amp, and without thousands of pounds worth of effects still get that early raucous blues sound, because these are the original guitars that were used. It’s the rarity and condition of these two that make them very collectable, and both come complete with the original cases.’

After all these thrilling obscurities, a pair of Gibsons almost comes as a shock to the senses. ‘Well, I thought I would throw in a few!’ Paul laughs. ‘The Gibson Sonex 180 Deluxe is very underrated and undervalued guitar, in my opinion. It was launched in the ’80s as an “affordable” Gibson with a bolt-on neck and a pair of Sonex humbuckers. If you want a cheap Gibson that does the same job as a Les Paul, this is the one.

‘On the right is a short-scale 1959 sunburst Gibson Melody Maker, which is actually my favourite electric guitar. Once again, it was built way back for the entry-level market. The way the wood has matured over the last 50-plus years has no doubt got a lot to do with the endless sustain, which is evident even when played acoustically. I love this guitar… it’s just so handy to have lying around.’

Let’s zoom back to the wacky side with a pair of Far Eastern guitars from the ’60s. ‘The Japanese built so many great guitars in the ’60s and ’70s, and I love the innovative designs and the quirky onboard switches and effects,’ Paul enthuses. ‘The one on the left is a ’60s sunburst Teisco Del Rey MJ-2L – pretty typical of the era, and superb for slide work in a Hound Dog Taylor or Ry Cooder style. I love the way the large pickup rocker switches are labelled “Mic 1” and “2 on/off”!

‘This Alamo Fiesta is another collectable USA-built budget guitar. Fitted with a pair of single coil pickups, this one was regarded as the “luxury” model, but it was still fairly basic. A lot of these guitars are pretty similar in construction, but they all have individual sound characteristics and original designs. This one is quite bright and snappy thanks to the bolt-on neck and lightweight construction. I have the original case too, complete with the guarantee card.’

We couldn’t resist asking Paul if he would like to show us a solidbodied rarity from later years, and we are astonished when he produces a custom-made two-in-one Fender. ‘I have quite a few “out of character” guitars,’ says Paul, ‘and this mid-’80s doubleneck Fender is definitely unusual! It gives you the choice of a four-string Jazz Bass and a six-string Stratocaster.

‘This is a true hybrid Fender – not a production line model, but a very special Custom Shop order. The extra mass of the body certainly enhances the tone and sustain, but the trade-off, of course, is the weight. It would take a real man to stand up and play this one all night. I’ve used it for a lot of recording and on my YouTube videos, where I demonstrate a lot of these guitars… luckily, I was sitting down each time!’

Our penultimate guitar from Paul’s electric collection takes us back to that guitar-making giant, Harmony. ‘It’s interesting seeing just how much certain brands influenced each other,’ Paul points out. ‘This big Harmony H72V semi-acoustic has some of the essence of Gretsch and Gibson, but with a bolt-on neck and a single-sided Fender-style headstock. It’s got the typical gold foil DeArmond humbuckers and an original factory-fitted Bigsby vibrato. In terms of the sound, I think this guitar would have been best suited to a really good dance band rhythm player.

‘Lastly, I thought we’d come back home to an iconic British guitar maker, Jim Burns. This Burns GB65 was his first attempt at building an electro-acoustic, and it was a model he was very proud of. It’s a big flat-topped semi-hollow, and they’re regarded by the Burns Museum as the rarest and most unusual Jim Burns guitar of them all. Very few were made during 1965, and it was the first model that Baldwin discontinued when they took over the company.

‘The body is mahogany, with a sycamore top; the neck is maple, and the fingerboard is Brazilian rosewood. The two soundholes were actually called the “Controlled Resonance Design”, and the Rez-o-Matic pickups give a clear, bright sound, great for jazz or country picking. I think this guitar could have been really popular as it came out at the right time – in the middle of the British beat boom, a time when a lot of players, like the Beatles, were using acoustic guitars with magnetic pickups.

‘Jim Burns was incredibly innovative with his designs, but it was always a hand-to-mouth operation. It’s a shame that he didn’t have proper financial backing at the time. Recently the British prime minister said the music industry in Britain is one of our major exports – yet what do they invest in the skills of UK guitar makers? Nothing… unlike the USA, which backs their own with millions of dollars. Why don’t we have training schools for guitar luthiery in this country?’

So how would Paul sum up his eclectic selection of lesser-known electrics? ‘Well, to me, they’re “time-line” guitars, instruments which countless players used to craft their own unique playing styles and sounds,’ he points out. ‘I’ve had all the Les Pauls and Strats, but instead of those I’ve hung on to the ones that I felt were valid to me, rather than the brands that were on everyone’s lips. Sure, Gibson and Fender made their mark, but in my opinion only really from the mid-’60s onward, thanks to players like Hank Marvin, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix. I feel the guitars in my collection are some of the true front-line workers, and they reveal a world of guitar-playing history.’

For more information on Paul Brett’s guitars see www.paulbrettguitarist.co.uk

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