Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dean Mondo Mando (or: What Was I Thinking?)

I wrote an entry awhile back about an Alvarez Yairi nine-string acoustic guitar that had been very intriguing and that I wish I had back. Take that Yairi nine-string and add it to my ongoing fascination with both traditional mandolins and 12-string mandoguitars (of which I'll write about soon), and you might possibly understand how I came to own this Dean Mondo Mando. It's no excuse, but maybe you understand. I like the idea of being able to record a mandolin sound on my songs, but I don't really want to take the time to learn to play one. I know how to play a large handful of chords on a mandolin and I've faked a few people out, but the truth is that I'm no mando player. I did own a Phantom Mandoguitar at one point, which is an exact copy of the old Vox Mandoguitars. In fact, I owned the original NAMM show model and I REALLY wish I had it back.

So, a little over a year ago I came across this Dean Mondo Mando on eBay. It's a little larger than a traditional mandolin, with nine strings; the bottom 3 strings are doubled, while the top three strings are single [ed. note: to be clear, the three treble side strings are doubled]. So, it sounds somewhat like a cross between a mandolin and a 12-string. But here's where eBay fails us now and then: you can't try the instruments out ahead of time. If I had, I would have known what a piece of junk this was.

As Jack Nicholson said in the Batman movie, "Crap, crap, crap!"

This thing sucked more than a Hoover in a rice factory. Or something like that. What looks to be the body style of an F-style mando really turned out to be very flat on the top of the arch. It had a pick-up built in, but to get the thing intonated you had to move the bridge so far back that the wires were showing up through the hole in the top. Excellent design!

The only thing going for it was the intricate inlay on the neck, which was pretty...pretty useless. The pickup sounded like crap and that's all the nice things I can think of to say. I realized that I had made a big mistake and put it back up for sale on eBay. It's hard to list something on eBay that you just recently bought, think it sucks, and try to describe it so that it will sell but you don't have to lie about it either. I took a hit on the price of this one just to get rid of it honestly. I hope the new owner enjoyed it more than I did. He couldn't have enjoyed it less.

So, they can't all be winners. I'll keep my eyes open for more unique instruments in the future, but I'll be a lot pickier about giving them an in-hand tryout before I buy. And I definitely will have my eye out for a Mandoguitar in the future. Anyone have an extra?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Silvertone Guitar and amp model 200G

I'll have to keep this one short and sweet because I have to admit I don't remember much about them. One weekend I went to my favorite Sunday swap meet and came across this '60s Silvertone guitar and matching amp. I was actually kind of excited because I thought that maybe the guitar would sound kind of cool and it would become a very interesting guitar for recording or maybe a few songs at a gig. I figured the amp sucked and I was right, but when you come across a set that has been together for that many years you can't break them up. I think that should be a cardinal rule of guitar collecting. So, I forked over the money for both, which I don't remember how much I paid. Since I never take more than $100 to the swap meet I know it was under $100 and I seem to remember it being somewhere around $40 or $50 for both.

I got them home and they both needed a good cleaning. The guitar was missing a couple of knobs but worked just fine and sounded okay. I seem to remember that the action was pretty decent and the amp did work fine. I was right about it sucking though. The sound was terrible. I think we forget about how good the quality of our cheap instruments tends to be these days. If you bought a "student model" or inexpensive brand back in the '60s or '70s you were most likely getting a pretty inferior instrument. And the amps were downright awful for the most part...unless you consider a silverface Vibro Champ a student amp. But if you are talking about a solid state Sears Silvertone 200G, you are talking crap. Think about how truly usable a Squier P-Bass is these days. Or a Jay Turser Strat-style guitar.

I bought my daughter a Squier Affinity Strat for $75 NEW (with a gig bag) and it just plain doesn't suck when it comes down to it.

It's obviously not my choice for guitar of the year and it doesn't have any "vibe," but if you got to a gig and had no choice but to play it, you could survive just fine. Anyway, back to the real story here...the Silvertone. I quickly realized that it was just a guitar to put on eBay and make a little money with. I paired it up and, true to my own rules, sold the guitar and amp as a pair. I have no idea what I sold them for, but I do remember being quite pleased with the outcome. So, the moral of this story is: Sears is not a guitar store.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Grant Distortion 15 Pedal

A few years ago I read a story in Tape Op Magazine (if you don't get this free magazine you are now required to go sign up...seriously) about Jason Falkner from the band Jellyfish. They were talking about how he was able to get amazing home recordings on things as basic as 4-track cassette recorders. He mentioned that he ran literally everything through an amazing effect pedal called The Choker by a '70s company called Locobox. Of course I had to find one and it was next to impossible to do. So I checked to see if "" was available, which it was, and I bought the domain name and started a website about Locobox pedals. I figured that if people had a Locobox pedal for sale they would Google "Locobox" and find me. And guess what? It worked. I ended up buying many Locobox pedals...not just The Choker compressor pedal. They made some really cool other stuff as well...I recommend the Locobox Tubemaniax and the Mysto Dysto distortion pedals.

What happened next was that I started finding information about other pedals as well. Guyatone, Memphis, Coron, Electra and many others. I found that some of the factories in Japan at the time would make particular pedals and put many different brand names on them, but they were all essentially the same pedal. Locobox did this with Electra and Volz. Coron is probably a more well known name, but the same people also made the Memphis, Storm and Grant brands exactly the same as the Corons. Many of these pedals sound great, many are at least interesting, and quite a few I have found to suck. Just my opinion. The one that I have found to like quite a bit is the distortion pedal made by Coron/Memphis/Grant/Storm etc.

I ended up buying a Coron Distortion 15, a Grant Distortion 15, and a Storm Distortion 15, mostly just to see if they really did sound the same.

Of course there were slight variances, but for the most part they all sounded about the same and I really like the sound. I would say they fall more in the Tubescreamer variety of distortion...more of an overdrive I guess than heavy distortion. The one I kept for a long time was the Grant pedal. It sounded the best of the ones I had, though that's probably fairly subjective. I have found the Memphis pedals to be the least consistent and quite a few of their pedals that I have found I sold right away. In particular the Freq Attack. For some reason, people email me all the time at the Locobox site wanting to sell their Freq Attack pedals.

If you happen to come across any of these I would suggest giving them a shot. It just might be that little slightly different sound that you are looking for. I ended up selling mine at one point and I really do wish I had that one back. If you want to see what all of these pedals look like, visit my site and scroll down to the bottom of the home page. You'll find links to all of these brands that I have mentioned and a few more.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Fender Telecaster - Inca Silver

I used to be in a band called how tricky we were with the "dot" between the two words, absolutely insuring that no promoter would ever spell it correctly? We rented a rehearsal space at one of those big rehearsal complexes and in the lobby area there was a small guitar shop. How convenient! The guy always had some really cool stuff for sale and rumor had it that his partner in the shop was the guitar tech for Stone Temple Pilots. This seemed to be true because they used to rehearse at this complex back before they hit the big time.

One evening I was hanging out and wandered into the store. He had just put a 1966 (more on that later) Inca Silver Telecaster on the wall. I don't remember how much it was at the time...maybe $800 or $900, but it seemed like a really decent deal for a a custom color Tele, just one year into the whole CBS thing. I ended up buying the guitar and really loved it. It was my main guitar for a few years and it sounded fantastic.

Unfortunately, it was a casualty to my inability to keep my finances straight at the time and I had to sell it and downgrade Teles. I took it into a local shop to see what the guy would give me for it. If you are old enough to remember life before eBay and Craig's List, this was a painful process. Inevitably the shop owner would give you some super lame, lowball price for your guitar and you'd cry about it and possibly call him names. He'd say, "Well, you can always put an ad in the Pennysaver and try to sell it there." Then you'd realize that he was were screwed and you'd take his crap offer and slink out of the store.

Well, that's exactly what happened to me except that it gets worse.

Being that the guitar was actually a decent year and color and all that, he was pretty interested. He made his lowball offer, I cried, he made me an offer that included another guitar from him and some cash, and we said "deal." Then he said he'd better crack it open and double check the neck dates and confirm he was getting what I said it was. That's when we discovered that it wasn't a 1966 at all. It was a 1968 neck with a later body that wasn't an original paint job. Fortunately for me, the neck alone was still worth what I had paid for it a few years prior and I sheepishly walked out of the store with my new, lesser guitar and not nearly as much money as I was thinking I would have.

Final note to the story: A few years down the road, we found out that the guy who sold me the guitar originally had been caught in some sort of sting operation. He had been taking in people's guitars at another location for repairs and then fixing them and selling them at the rehearsal place under a different name. Rat bastard.

5-19-08 Update to the final note: I received this note from a reader from San Diego who knew of the guitar store in question. Here's what he adds:

I was reading your latest blog about the silver Tele today. That guy that had the shop down at Soundtrax [rehearsal studio] was in fact a guitar tech for Dean DeLeo. His name was Eric and he was a pretty flaky-sketchy guy and seemed to really like drugs; he blew his nose a lot. Nobody seemed to know his real last name but he went by Eric Christian. He always had old amps and cabinets and I remember a few guitars lying around, but not many. I had heard that Dean was part owner of the shop and its contents. However, I never had a problem with him and over the years he repaired my stuff several times; guitars, amp, pedals. He would even add mods to my wah pedals, all for really discounted prices and sometimes for free. One time I needed my Small Stone fixed and Dean, who happened to be there, offered to bring in some of his Small Stone pedals for parts. I thought that was pretty cool, a millionaire rock-star offering me parts if I needed them. He was a pretty down-to-earth guy. But I digress…. After Soundtrax closed down, Eric moved over to Jeff’s Guitars on Convoy, but that didn’t last too long. I don’t know what happened, but Jeff didn’t speak very highly of him after that.

I think a few months after that is when he opened up his own place on Adam’s Ave. It might have been called Adams Ave. Guitars? His prices went up, he was never around or was hard to get a hold of, and had weird people hanging out. There was just something different about him. He seemed more sketchy than usual; drugs probably. Sometimes you would go down and the place would just be closed for no reason. I took my guitar there once to be fixed and after that I stopped going. I didn’t like the vibe in there. I went by there a few years ago and saw that he had closed up. I’m guessing that’s because of that sting you mentioned.

Also: again I seem to have misplaced a few of my old guitar photos, so the photos of this guitar are not my actual old guitar, though it's pretty much the spittin' image of mine.

AWESOME UPDATE: I finally found a photo of this actual guitar. Here is a photo of my friend and Northern California legend Greg E. Noll playing the guitar. It's the only shot I can find. Man, it brings back memories.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Emerald Combo Organ - Frankfurt, Germany

I'm going to keep this story short and sweet. It's not a guitar, but it's cool and it illustrates my luck. A couple of years ago I got to go on a business trip to Frankfurt, Germany to a tradeshow called Paper World. I think there was actually a German translation for it, but you don't care and I can't remember what the heck it was. I had never been to Europe before and was excited to FINALLY be going, yet a little nervous about how easy or hard it would be to communicate and get around. Germany turned out to be extremely easy since the majority of the people spoke at least some English and were amazingly friendly and helpful. I flew in on day one and had the evening to get settled. On day two I went to the tradeshow and then a nice Italian dinner. On day three it was Saturday and I decided to go down by the river to the art museums for the morning.

It was very cold and snowing lightly and there was ice on the sidewalks. I didn't time things very well and, after the taxi dropped me off in front of The St├Ądel, I realized that nothing was going to be open for at least an hour. The museum district is right on the banks of the River Main and so I decided to take a little walk along the path next to the river. I looked up ahead and noticed some people selling junk and sausage and coffee.

I realized that somehow I had come halfway around the world and managed to find the biggest swap meet in Frankfurt.

I walked along for over a mile and checked out the same old junk we have here in the USA. There were a few weird guitars, but nothing worthwhile. All of a sudden something else caught my eye. It was a cool '60s era combo organ lying on the ground amongst pots and pans and other crap. I thought, "How cool would it be to come home with a swingin' organ from Germany?" I asked how much and the told me it was the equivalent of about $35 US. I was about to say "SOLD!" and then realized I would have to somehow figure out how to get it home. It just seemed to be way too much trouble, although it would have been a great story. Well, maybe it still is.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Fender Jazz Bass

If you are a regular reader of The Ones That Got Away, you know that I frequent the Oceanside Swap Meet when I have a few extra bucks in my pocket. I seem to have a knack for finding cheap basses there and today's entry is yet another one of those. I have a certain pattern I always follow when I walk in...I walk through the gate and make a sharp right and head directly for a particular aisle that a couple of regular sellers are always on who seem to find guitars and other instruments week in and week out. Then, once I've seen what they've got, I head to the very back of the swap meet and work my way to the front, row by row. That way I don't miss a thing and, maybe if I start at the back, I'll get to a particular instrument before someone else who started at the front. Hey, it's an iffy theory at best, but I seem to have scored more than once on the back row.

That's exactly where I found this hidden gem...the back row of the swap meet. A very nice gentleman who spoke very little English was selling all kinds of home stuff, clothing, tools, and this bass. It wasn't pretty just sitting there on a sheet with no case or gig bag, and I wasn't entirely sure what was original and what wasn't. In fact, the only thing I was pretty sure of was the neck. It was from a Mexican made Fender Jazz Bass. That much I know. The body shape looked generally like a Jazz Bass, but being primarily a guitar player, I wasn't sure enough to be positive. The bridge looked to be a Badass Bridge and the pickup looked like someone melted it into place. The controls were all f*$#ed up looking and there was no pick guard. Still, there was something interesting about this bass.

I asked the man how much and he said $50. I said $30. He said $45 and I countered at $40. ¡Trato!

Anyway, it was mine and I was pretty pleased, but curious if it was going to work when I got home. I walked in the door and fired up the Music Man amp I had at the time and sure enough it was working great. The next thing that went through my head was that it was my good friend and bandmate Rob's birthday. I wonder...what I should get him? Maybe the bass. Why not?

I spent a little time cleaning it up...gave it a good polish and found a Quiksilver sticker of a hand making the rock'n'roll sign. I cut it out and put it on under the strings for some reason and pronounced it a cool looking bass. I put it back in the car and drove on over to Rob's and walked in and said "Happy Birthday." He was really happy as he had been thinking about getting a bass to record with. I'm definitely of the opinion that you don't need a great bass for home recordings if you aren't a bass player. A nice old Memphis copy will do or a decent Squier set up properly is fine. That's what I've got now and it's absolutely fine for what I'm doing. I usually just have a real bass player rerecord the track anyway.

Rob decided to take the bass in to his guitar tech and see what he thought. They decided that a really nice pickup would really make this thing sing, so Rob ended up dropping over $200 putting a new pickup in it and getting it all set up. Seems like a lot, but when it's all said and done, $240 for a great bass is a bargain. And that's what this thing turned out to be...a GREAT bass. I still don't know what's original and one seems to be able to say with complete certainty. But literally EVERYONE who plays this bass loves it. It sounds fantastic and plays great.

So, what can sometimes look like a piece of crap mutt might end up being your axe of choice. If it feels good and it sounds good, who cares about the rest?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Dickerson Lap Steel and Matching Amp

I used to work in San Juan Capistrano, CA at Snowboarder Magazine and it sat right in the direct center of about 8 really good thrift stores that I could hit at lunch time now and then. If I went one direction I could make it to Las Golandrinas for cheap Mexican food and still hit 3 great stores. The Salvation Army in San Clemente used to have an "antique" section that they would put anything that they remotely thought was worth a little more than the regular junk. It was funny what they would deem "valuable."

One day I walked in and there was a late '40s Dickerson lap steel guitar and matching MOTS amplifier. I figured they were going to want an undeserving fortune for it. The week prior to that they had somehow received a Fender Rhodes piano and matching amp and it was sweet, but not worth the $4000 they wanted for it. I'm not joking. So when I saw the Dickerson set I figured I was going to end up arguing with the manager about the real value. To my surprise they only wanted $125 and five minutes later it was mine.

I took the set home and hesitantly plugged the amp in. If you've seen the back of one of these things you know how scary they can look electrically.

Long story short, it all worked great and sounded pretty cool. I knew, however, that this was one of those items that should be in the hands of a real lap steel collector, which I'm not. I cleaned everything up and headed down to Guitars West, an old dealer that used to be near my house that has since gone internet only or disappeared or something. They always had really cool stuff and I wanted a Strat. We struck a darn good deal and I ended up walking out with a nice Japanese Fender Stratocaster in Fiesta Red.

That's it. That's the end of the story. It's not much. Oh, a quick disclaimer: I couldn't find my photos of this set, so I have found exact matching photos on the internet of the same thing. Please Lord, forgive me for stealing these internet photos. Phew.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Swamp Thang Tremolo Pedals #11 and #147 (UPDATED June'08 and Dec. '08)

When I first started this blog the theme was, "Man, I wish I had that one back!" As I kept writing stories I came across some guitars that I didn't really want back all that much. There was a bass I wouldn't take back if you paid me. Well, depends on how much you paid me. Anyway, I've covered basses and guitars and a guest column about a reverb tank. But, I haven't gotten into an item that you can really rely on for your sound...pedals.

Technically, I'm actually covering two pedals. They are both Swamp Thang tremolo pedals by Monster Effects and MAN, I WISH I HAD EITHER OF THEM BACK. I will be completely honest and say that both times I have owned Swamp Thang pedals I got a good deal and made a profit, but that was never the intention. The intention both times was to keep the damn pedal. I am a big fan of tremelo as an effect and I have tried a number of pedals and processors. None of them compare (in my less than humble opinion) to the Swamp Thang. A number of years ago I owned an early '60s blonde Fender Tremolux amp and 2 x 10 cab. I loved this amp very much, but I started running into issues. It was old and had ground problems in certain clubs I played in. Once I stepped up to the mic to sing the first word of the first song of the night and I got JOLTED backwards from the electrical shock I got when my lips touched the mic.

I had a small burn on my lip for a week.

So, I reluctantly sold the amp and went a little more modern...moved all the way up to the '70s with a nice old Music Man 410 Sixty-Five. Hey, can I get all of these back please?

Anyway, the real point of all this is that the tremolo on that old Tremolux is impossible to beat and is "often imitated but never duplicated." However, the very best thing I've found to compare with the old blond Tremolux is the Swamp Thang. Love it. Need another one. Keeping my eye out daily on eBay. I don't know how they do it at Monster Effects, but they seem to get that brown saturation like a real Fender. I could go on and on, but I'll just say that this is one pedal I will definitely be replacing when I can afford another one.

Over the years I have shrunk my electric rig down to "living room" size and I have narrowed my needs to four things. 1.) A Fender Telecaster (just got my eleventy millionth one today), 2) A Fender tube amp with reverb (currently a Blues Junior for size restrictions), 3) an Ibanez Tubescreamer ('nuff said), and 4) a Swamp Thang tremelo pedal. That's it. I can do without a chorus, a phaser, a flanger, anything made by Z Vex, and all that crap. I would have to consider a Crybaby wah if I added a fifth item, but basically I can get by with the four.

If you have a Swamp Thang and want to part with it, particularly the early brown large box models, let me know. I'm gonna need one.

UPDATE: June 9, 2008 - I got another Swamp Thang. I battled long and hard on the eBay for it and shelled out more for this one than for either of the other two ($163). This one won't be getting away. It's one of the original "large box" versions, #81 to be exact. This one stays put. Don't even try. Go ahead, call me "sucker" to my face. I dare ya!

UPDATE 2: Dec. 23, 2008 - I got #147 back.
I got an email from a guy who had read this story and he said, "Hey, I think I'm the guy that bought Swamp Thang #147 from you on you want to buy it back?" He made me a great deal and I bought it back. Since I already had found one for myself (see above), I decided to get this one and give it as a Christmas gift to my good friend and band mate Oliver. It's now in his hands and I don't think it will ever leave. That one is out of circulation.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Harmony Lap Steel Guitar

Last year I decided, once again, that I needed a lap steel guitar. This happens to me every few years like a disease that recurs and goes into remission once I feed the need. It's usually about the time that I start recording a few songs and I think how cool a lap steel will sound. Then I get one and realize I don't know what the hell I'm doing. I've had a little success recording a lap steel...not that it sounds like I can actually play it well...just that it adds a nice atmospheric sound with tons of reverb.

So, last year I started keeping an eye out for a lap steel and eventually one showed up on Craig's List. A guy was selling an old Harmony Lap Steel along with a bunch of accordions and other interesting instruments to make rent. I always feel bad in that situation and probably try a little less to bargain if I feel like the guy is truly having a hard time. I emailed the guy and said I was interested and almost immediately got a response saying that I had first dibs and to come on down to get it. It was a long drive...I live in far North San Diego County and he lived on the other side of downtown...that's almost an hour away with no traffic. I made it there and followed his very sketchy sounding directions. "Turn left into the alley, go one block, there will be a large fenced in lot with locks on the gate. My brother will come out and unlock the fence and you can come in to the back of the warehouse where we live."

I was either going to get a smokin' deal on a lap steel or get my head bashed in and my money taken and left in an alley.

I got there and, sure enough, there was brother in the alley waiting for me. I pulled in and walked into the strangest place you've ever seen. This guy, his brother, two other super sketchy lookin' dudes and a normal looking guy all lived in the back of this old warehouse. It looked like it probably leaked and probably wasn't the warmest spot in the winter, but I guess it was better than the alternative. The place was PACKED (I used capital letters for a reason!) full of wierd stuff from thrift stores and junk shops and who knows where else. Collections of all kinds of things stuffed and crammed into every corner of the place. If he truly needed rent he could have made thousands of dollars on all the strange collections of things he had. There were old fezzes and kites and statues and books and old cameras and pottery and I don't even know what else. It looked like the trashiest antique store in town.

He pulled out the lap steel and one of the sketchy dudes...the one with only three teeth and the greasy Gibson shirt on...plugged it into an old Marantz stereo so I could see that it worked. It was one of the old models from the '40s I looks just like an old Roy Smeck model I found online, but without the Roy Smeck markings. It had three legs that screwed into the bottom so you could play it sitting down and it came with a big ol', heavy duty case that weighed a ton.

It had the "S' Dearmond pickup in it and at least one of the two knobs was original. As odd as I've made these guys out to be, they were absolutely nice guys and musicians and easy to deal with. I've got some weird old collections of things myself, so although most of you would probably be a little more than uncomfortable in this setting, I was pretty comfortable once I started talking to them. I pictured them playing some kind of weird gypsy music on street corners for change or something. Either that or old Iron Butterfly covers.

Everything worked and I paid the $150 the guy wanted and I was out the door. Once I got home I decided to put the whole thing together with the legs and discovered that one of the leg sockets had been stripped out. The next day I got together with my next door neighbor who is a master wood craftsman and he helped me (I should say he completely did it all himself) reconstruct the socket and even did a little paint and touch up and relic job to make it look completely original.

I used the Harmony on a couple of recordings and then, once again, realized that I had no business attempting to play it. I think this time I was pretty unsuccessful at even getting something useful on the recording, so away it went on eBay. It sold for a little over $250, which was a nice profit...not that I wanted to take the extra money down to the sketchy guys or anything...but I did feel a little bad. Okay, now I'm over it. Anyway, what's the lesson for today kids? Lap steels aren't as easy to play as you think they are and are often a waste of money. I'm sure I'll be looking for a new one in, oh, about 4 months.