Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Six Strings, Not Six Figures

By Michael Tanaka

I took a day trip down to New York recently to catch an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few days before it ended—an unusual show for the Met, to say the least. “Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York” displayed an assortment of handmade guitars, a few mandos, some lutes and even a Stradavarius—really nice stuff all around.
            The guitars were incredible instruments, works of art, and pieces of musical history. Most were jazzbo archtops, with a focus on three Italian-American luthiers who lived and worked in and around New York: John D’Angelico, his apprentice Jimmy D’Aquisto, and D’Aquisto’s neighbor and friend John Monteleone. There were some celebrity-owned instruments including D’Aquisto guitars custom made for Paul Simon, Steve Miller and my jazz guitar hero, Jim Hall.
            Cool show, no doubt—but consider for a moment what all that stuff is worth (It is a show at the Met, after all). John Monteleone, who’s still alive and making instruments, will throw something together for you to strum at home, starting somewhere around 40k, give or take. Check out the Mandolin Brothers or Larry Wexler websites for D’Angelico and D’Aquisto guitars for sale and prepare for major sticker shock. We’re talking 70k to six figures, and most guitars in the Met show are probably valued in the vicinity of half-a-million bucks to priceless.
            So I needed a little real-life relief to soothe my own guitar-collecting jones, and stopped off on my way home at POP to see what six string collectibles he had hanging in his emporium of popular culture.
            Forget priceless… screw six figures plus for an axe. Got a hundred bucks? Let us now sing the praises of el-cheapo, Japanese-made (I think “crafted” is too generous) guitars from the 1960’s. Let’s start with the nostalgia card. My first guitar was a Teisco Del-Ray 335 copy with a really bad whammy bar and the loudest, feedback drenched pickups I’d ever heard. I wish I still had that one.
            Next, there’s the cool factor of a 60’s cheese guitar. There’s an entire universe of players who coax amazing sounds out of instruments that snobs call trash. Guitar genius Ry Cooder has been playing hot-rodded, cheap asian junk for decades. He has an almost religious following of cheapo guitar acolytes, including my buddy in LA who had repair guru Flip Scipio craft a “Cooderized” custom based entirely around a pair of nasty-ass Teisco pickups. And Cooder is just the tip of the cheese guitar iceberg (forgive the mixed metaphor—I like the image). I don’t have to name a bunch of el-cheapo fans and players. They’re out there. You’ve seen and heard them.
            Cool, bizarre and wondrous examples of inexpensive 60’s and 70’s Japanese lutherie are scattered throughout POP. One of my favorites is a Norma solid-body, probably from the early 1970’s. Collectors are now hip to the 60’s cheese market. Search Norma guitars on ebay and look at what some examples are going for. But for a player, this Norma’s got everything an el-cheapo fan wants and needs—a wicked-short scale, fake Bigsby vibrato, white plastic flip switches, and two single-coil pickups that promise endless variations of unique, gnarly, gnasty tone. Tone, Baby! And even if you don’t connect to the guitar’s unique design or vibe—pull out those two pickups, pop them into a guitar of your own making, crank it up loud—real loud—and just wail. That’s what it’s all about. That New York museum show was great—musical filet mignon, no doubt. But when all is said and done, I still have a taste for cheese.