Saturday, March 29, 2014

Fender Excelsior Pawn Shop Amp

A few years ago I got lucky enough to score a pass to the NAMM tradeshow. If you aren't familiar, it's the musical instrument show at which buyers from all over the country come to see the latest gear from Fender and Gibson and PRS and all the other companies that manufacture guitars and amps and drums and keyboards and marching band instruments and harps and sheet music and metronomes and whatever else you can think of at the local music store. Whew. These passes are not easy to get, but I designed a series of custom guitars for Taylor and they were kind enough to hook me up with a pass. Yes, I just bragged on myself there about the Taylor thing. Sorry.

One of the things that caught my attention was this amp over in the corner of the vast Fender tradeshow sales room. It didn't even have a Fender logo on it. It said Excelsior. And it looked like something you used to see in pawn shops, back when you could find cool, obscure stuff in pawn shops. Or, to put it another way, before the internet. This amp is, in fact, called The Pawn Shop Series and it's a Fender, but just made to look weird...or...awesome...depending on who you are. I loved it. It had one giant 15" speaker, just like Stevie Ray used to use, one knob for on/off and volume, and one knob for tremolo. I LOVE TREMOLO! They made this amp just for me it seems. It also had a bright switch and three inputs. Yep, THREE inputs. That's more inputs than knobs. I love this amp! One input for guitar, one for mic and one for accordion. How cool is that?

I didn't get to hear it at the tradeshow, but I knew I was going to love it. And I was right. I went home after the NAMM show was over and Fender had posted some videos on their website of this new Pawn Shop Series. They were well-produced videos, made to look like some slick blues dude was running a pawn shop and tricking customers into thinking this amp was an oldie that perfectly fit their needs for guitar, harmonica, accordion and whatever else. The videos were a little cheesy, but they sounded great and I had to have one of these pawn shop amps. But where could I get one? Aaaahh. They weren't going to be out for awhile. Shit. I asked anyone I knew who might know something when they would be out. Heck, I even asked a guy at Guitar Center, and they never know anything about this stuff. "Soon!" they would say. Soon.

A few months went by and my nephew was in town. I live in San Diego and he wanted to go up to L.A. for the weekend to check it all out. We drove the 4-hour, 97 mile drive up to Hollywood and I started showing him around. At some point we drove past the giant Hollywood Guitar Center, where there's actually a chance you might see a semi-famous musician in-store. Plus they do have a downstairs vintage room that is astounding. It's worth the trip if you are a guitar geek. We parked the car and headed in. Nephew was busy checking out the latest electronic beats software and musical laptop gear, so I wandered over to see some actual instruments. Guitars. Amps. And holy moly, there it was...an Excelsior Pawn Shop amp. I asked if I could play through it and the salesman smiled knowingly as he plugged a Telecaster in without even asking what kind of guitar I preferred. I was right...I was going to need this amp. I wasn't even remotely planning to spend any significant money that day, but there I was, handing over my debit card and calculating how much gas we'd need to get back to San Diego. The salesman told me that this was only the second Excelsior to hit the shelves in all of California and that they'd just gotten it in earlier that day. Of course that made me want it even more. I loaded it in the back seat and we headed on down the road.

I have owned a 1963 Fender Tremolux amp, and it's well documented here on this website that I am in love with Swamp Thang tremolo pedals. Those are my standard bearers for tremolo. I got this home and plugged my own guitar in and...boom, awesome sound. They aren't super powerful...you're not going to hold your own against a Marshall stack with this amp, but it had plenty of power for my modest needs. Great tremolo sound which I just kept on most of the time I owned this amp. I loved the big ol' 15" speaker and I loved the retro looks. Kind of a secret weapon. Some people would never be happy with an amp with very few controls, but this is right up my alley. Turn it on, set it and forget it. I love it.

"But why don't you still own it?" you might ask. And you'd be right to ask after such a glowing report. Well, I had to go to NYC for a trip that was short notice and to be honest, I just needed a little extra cash in my pocket for the trip. NYC is not a cheap place. So I sold it reluctantly. Some time has passed and now I see them show up on Craigslist every so often. And Jeez...they are cheap. I saw one for $175 the other day and it took every ounce of restraint not the contact the guy and go pick it up. If you are contemplating one of these amps, and you love that cool Fender vibe and some sweet tremolo, don't even think twice. Pick one up. Not loud enough...get two. That's still cheaper than most everything else out there these days. I see that Fender has a new Pawn Shop amp or two out this year. But they just don't have that same appeal to me as this Excelsior did from the moment I spied it. I'm gonna need another one at some point.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Fender Nashville Telecaster 2008 Honey Blonde

It's just me, but even though I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Telecaster guy, I just can't seem to fall in love with these Nashville Teles. They're really nice and, some would argue, more versatile due to the extra Strat pick-up in the middle. But to me, a Tele has two pickups. End of story. Well, I guess not really the end of the story, or else Fender wouldn't be making them. But whenever I find a good deal on one and pick it up thinking maybe I'll keep it, it's not long before it's for sale on Craigslist or Ebay.

This one was manufactured in the Fender Mexico factory in 2008. I have come to the conclusion that, unless you just really have some personal reason, there is no reason not to buy a MIM Fender guitar. My friend O, who is better known as a founding member of legendary San Diego bands Olive Lawn, fluf, Reeve Oliver, The Make-Up Sex and now #Octagrape...and also known as the guitar tech for J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. ...and also known as a legendary skateboard photographer...and on and on, says this: "You can buy a Fender made by Mexicans down in Mexico, or you can buy one made by Mexicans in California. Either way, it's the same machines, the same specs and the same guitars." And he says that lovingly...he's the most die hard Fender guy I've ever known and was sponsored by Fender at one point.

Add caption
I found it in a pawn shop down in Chula Vista, CA, right down by the Mexican border. My son and I were killing a few minutes after his soccer game and I spotted a pawn shop. This always elicits a groan from my kids, until I explain that this is how we get to buy nice soccer shoes and dance lessons. We walked into the shop and there weren't any instruments to be seen. I started to turn around to leave, but the owner asked if he could help me. I explained that I was looking for guitars, and since he didn't seem to have any, I'd be on my way. He asked, "What kind of guitar are you looking for?" I said maybe Gibson or Fender or anything interesting. He brought out a cool old Gibson solidbody from the late '60s with some kind of weird sparkle finish. It was out of my price range. I asked if he had any Telecasters and he said, "Sure. I have one," and he brought out this Nashville model.

I unzipped the grungy crusty gig bag it was in with low hopes. But low and behold, once I took out the guitar, it was pretty nice! It had a couple of dings and one of the knobs was loose, but those are just bargaining chips. The strings were old and useless and you could tell he just wanted to sell it. I asked how much and he said $300. I put it back in the bag and told him it was quite a bit more than I wanted to spend today. Heck, I wasn't even looking to buy a guitar...we were just killing time after the soccer game. He asked how much I would spend and I blurted out "$200 cash out the door." I wasn't expecting him to accept but he said, "SOLD!" Oh. Okay. I guess I better look this thing over again real quick. I barely gave it the once over. Everything looked solid, so I ran across the street to the Mexican grocery store (lots of Mexico references in this story), and used their rickety ATM machine with the $3.50 surcharge.

I got the guitar home, cleaned it all up, tightened some screws, put new strings on it, plugged it in and...boom...nice guitar! Like I mentioned at the beginning, I get these Nashville model Teles and it doesn't take long to list them and sell them. I briefly tried to talk myself into keeping this one. It's nice. The honey blonde finish is gorgeous and the tortoise pickguard looks great with the honey blonde. The Fender Tex-Mex Strat pickup in the middle sounds good mixed with the two Tex-Mex Tele pickups. It has a nice maple neck and an alder body. And as much as I like tradition, the six-saddle bridge does work better than those three barrels. You know what I'm saying.

I listed it on Craigslist and it wasn't long before I flipped it for $300. Not a huge profit, but $100 buys some nice soccer shoes for a 10-year old. Nothing wrong with that.

Sigma Guitars by Martin & Co. DR1ST Acoustic

It seems like every major manufacturer has their second tier brand of guitars these days. Fender has Squier, Gibson has Epiphone, Ovation used to have Applause though I don't know if they still do. And yes, the folks at Martin had Sigma. Note that I said "had" Sigma. In one of those "uh oh somebody's gonna get fired" moments, someone at Martin forgot to renew the trademark on the Sigma brand, and sure enough, one of those crafty overseas companies jumped on it and now own the Sigma brand. But, up until the last few years, Martin used the Sigma brand name from 1970 until 2007. They were made in Japan from '70 until 1983, then moved to Korea. From what I understand, the company that now owns the Sigma brand has been making guitars since 2011, but they have nothing to do with Martin.

Okay, so now we've established a little history. If you want the whole Wikipedia version, click here. However, the Wikipedia version completely leaves out this late '90s time frame. Not sure why, but I have not been able to find out a ton of info other than digging deep in some forums. If you need more in-depth info, you'll need to get familiar with Google.

Now on to this guitar. This is the DR1ST model, made in Korea in about 1998. Could be '99. I have referenced the serial number on the Martin website and that's what I get. I think it's nice that Martin included the Sigmas in their regular serial number runs, rather than treat the brand like an outcast. I think it shows that they were proud enough of their overseas manufactured guitars to claim them as part of the family. There seems to be a lot more documentation on some of the other model numbers. The new company that makes Sigma now uses this model number in their current line-up, but don't be confused by that. This is definitely one of the older models and you can tell right off the bat by looking at the headstock. During this time period, they actually had "Sigma Guitars by Martin & Co." on the headstock. Not much confusion there.

The DR1ST was modeled after the Martin D-16 from what I could find. It's a nice standard dreadnought guitar with a solid top. I think. I've owned quite a few nicely made Asian factory Yamahas and Brunos and others that have been pretty tricky to figure out. I've been fooled a couple of times. So take a good close look if you have one and decide for yourself. I've even heard that, on some of the '70s Yamaha FG models, they would make some solid and some laminate. So, you have to look at the guitar...get a close look right on the edge of the soundhole. This guitar was really nice sounding and had a very clear, rich tone for a guitar in this price range. Those guys at Martin know how to spec out a guitar. I found this one at the Oceanside CA Swap Meet and picked it up for a mere $75. It had some old loose strings on it, so I couldn't get a good read on the neck. Didn't look warped or anything so I took a chance. I got home and got the swap meet layer of funk off of it easily...just a little dust and the smell of breakfast burritos. I put a set of brand new Martin SP Bronze medium strings on it, and...hmmmm. I little buzzing on a couple of frets.

I don't know about you, but I am just always hesitant to break out the allen wrench and start cranking on the truss rod. I've heard horror stories about snapped truss rods and popped necks and it makes me nervous. I made sure everything else was looking good...all polished and clean, and I listed it on Craigslist with a description of what nice condition the guitar was in, but it needed a set-up and a little tweaking due to the fret buzz. I guess that tends to scare people away and no one was biting on my original asking price of a very reasonable $235. I've seen these listed on eBay for a lot more, but they tend to sell for anywhere from $225 to $400. One was even more. But, Craigslist can be fickle and I wasn't getting any interest at all. I dropped the price to $200 and got an offer. A local guy who fixes guitars was looking for a little project to flip and offered $125. I decided that it would be best to get this guitar fixed up the right way and put it in the hands of someone who could really enjoy it. The guy showed up to buy it and explained that he actually used to work in the Taylor Guitars factory. This guitar was going to get a new life, and that's a good thing.

Overall I'd say that the vintage Sigma Guitars are pretty underrated, even though they have the Martin brand behind them. I do see them for sale from time to time on my local Craigslist and they are usually in the $225-275 range. I think if you are looking for an excellent guitar in an affordable price range, you can't go wrong with a vintage Sigma.