“String tension” is one of the most misunderstood of all scientific realities of lutherie. Many luthiers do not understand the term, and I dare say most guitarists and other fretted instrument players are utterly clueless when it comes down to what it really means. String tension is NOT the feel of how slinky a string is. It is NOT related to string afterlength…the string length between the nut and tuner posts or bridge and string anchor point or tailpiece. It is NOT related to the break angle of the string over the bridge or over the nut. A given string at a given vibrating length at a given pitch has an absolute tension. The formula for this is based on the linear density of the string…for instance, how much an inch of the string weighs. This factor can be expressed in a number of ways, and it seems that each string company has their own take on it, but it all comes down to the same basic thing. When people talk about “string tension”, they are very often actually talking about the stretch factor…how the string feels when fretted or a note is bent. While the string may have an absolute scale length, those after bits of the string also stretch a bit and greatly affect the feel of the string. Were you to lock down a Floyd Rose “trem” (it’s really a vibrato…) and lock down the strings at the nut with the strings tuned at pitch, you’d have the shortest stretchable length of string possible, and you’d find the strings feeling stiff, but changing in pitch with relatively small sideways bending movements. If you have a guitar with long afterlengths from nut to tuner post and bridge to tailpiece, you’d find that if you had the same scale length (nut to bridge saddle) and same string gauges, you’d find the strings felt slinkier (NOT lower tension!), and you’d have to move the string farther to get the same pitch raise as with the double locked down guitar. Also, changing the break angle of the strings from nut to tuner post or bridge to tailpiece (if any) does NOT affect tension, though friction may affect the stretch feel. So many myths, so little understanding.
In 1998, my old friend and client Henry Kaiser saw an acoustic guitar that I’d built at the San Rafael Guitar Festival, sponsored by “Acoustic Guitar Magazine” and held at Dominican College. He loved the guitar, and a few weeks after the show, he called me up and asked, “On what continent has a record album never been recorded.” I kind of stammered, and Henry broke in, “Antarctica! And I think I know a way to get there and do this!” He had found that the National Science Foundation which runs the American mission to the frozen continent give out several “Artist in Residence” grants per year, and no musician had ever applied for one. Henry knew a couple of folks on the grant committee, and they assured him that if he submitted a half-way decent proposal, he’d get the grant.
Then I asked, “Will you go diving there?” Henry has a Masters in Marine Biology from Harvard, and he taught scientific SCUBA diving at UC Berkeley for a number of years. He’s basically certified as high up…or as deep down…as you can get. Henry laughed, and said, “I’d probably just confuse the grant committee if I told them that I trained about half the American divers down there. I’ll just go and see what can happen.”
Henry wanted to take down an acoustic “built with real wood”, and we both considered the making of this guitar to be an experiment. We knew that the guitar was going to be subjected to some of the harshest climate conditions on earth with temperatures as low as minus 60 F, even in the Antarctic summer, and humidity levels would range from single digit percentages outdoors up to maybe the low 30’s indoors. These are conditions which utterly destroy wood guitars.
I wrote up a proposal for building the guitar which became part of Henry’s grant application, and Henry agreed to buy the guitar no matter what the committee decided, though we knew he had practically a dead lock on it.
I proposed to use high altitude, very slow growth Engelmann spruce for the top and equally slow growth Honduras rosewood for the back and sides. The beautifully quartered grain is incredibly tight and even on the pieces I sourced from Todd Taggart at Allied Lutherie, and I just went with a gut feeling that wood with these characteristics would have the least problems with expansion and contraction due to humidity changes. To further strengthen the guitar, I topped the back braces with carbon fiber, and put in my carbon fiber “flying braces” to support the neck block.
The neck would be laminated mahogany and maple with 1/8” x ½” carbon fiber bars dadoed up into the underside of the fingerboard and down into the neck. This makes the fingerboard itself a very strong and stiff structural element of the neck.
The kicker was that I wanted to do my own version of the fully tilting neck design I first saw on 1890s “Howe Orme” guitars…instruments that proved to me very early in my lutherie career that a dovetailed neck joint was totally irrelevant to great tone. I figured that with this neck attachment design, Henry could tweak the action very easily to suit his playing…and the climate…if need be.
There were a few aesthetic tweaks, too. I went with white binding around the body to represent the snow, white mother of pearl top purfling to represent the new ice, and then blue lines of purfling and a blue veneer peghead overlay to represent the ancient ice which turns blue from centuries of compression pushing all the air out.
I went with really traditional finishes…”spirit varnish” (shellac + natural resins) for the neck, back, and sides…and French polish (shellac + walnut oil) for the top. I figured that these materials would be the easiest to touch up should the guitar suffer any damage, and indeed the guitar did get dinged up a bit. When I suggested going over the finish with some fresh French polish, Henry demurred, saying that the guitar had earned it’s scratches and dings. I had no problem with this; I like to see a guitar showing it’s usage.
The guitar was a total success. Not only were we very happy with the sound…it’s a loud and well balanced guitar with tons of sustain, particularly of harmonics, but also when the guitar came back from Antarctica, the action had not changed one bit. There was no adjustment needed then…and none needed even now, some 20 years later.
Here are my old friend, Dennis “Wiz” Leonard’s tech notes on the recording of the Grateful Dead’s great live album, “Europe ’72”. Most of my blog is my own writing, but I asked Wiz if I could share this, and he graciously said, “yes”. This is the clearest explanation of how Alembic did live recordings that I’ve ever seen. Wiz now works at Skywalker Sound…he went way big league!
Dennis Wiz Leonard Europe ’72 Technical Liner Notes By Dennis Leonard
“Less is more!” This was the motto of Alembic and many of the sound artists in the S.F. Bay Area’s growing community of folks trying to advance the state of the art in both “live” and “recorded” sound for rock ’n’ roll. One can hardly mention this philosophy to recording without touching on the Alembic PA system and its unique qualities.
The new paradigm for live sound: the Alembic PA. In 1964 The Beatles played at Shea Stadium using a circular array of Vox Grenadier Column speakers, a box quite similar to the Shure Vocal Master Column. This approach to sound for a stadium was doomed even if all the girls did not scream. Fast-forward to ’67-70 and things were not much better.
The Alembic PA was the first really hi-fi approach to a live system. It had direct radiator low-frequency elements rather than horn-loaded boxes, which were the standard. It was an electronically crossed-over three-way system using McIntosh MC-75, MC-275, and MC-3500 vacuum-tube amplifiers and Ampex MX-10 vacuum-tube mixers as the front-of- house console. It eventually evolved into the famous Wall of Sound. This was a philosophic approach, brainchild of The Bear, put together by some of the most talented engineers in the Bay Area, and the same philosophy was applied to the task of recording bands.
Alembic Recording did not have a truck to pull up to a venue. We had gear, and we often built a studio at the venue in a room somewhere backstage. Sometimes we would haul the gear to the gig in a rental truck, then unpack and build the studio for the gig in the truck, take it apart when we were done, and take it back home.
Recording Europe ’72 was a monumental task, and we came up with a great solution to building a truck which we could fly airfreight to and from Europe. A video-production company was letting go of a pair of cargo containers built for them to ship a portable video-production remote unit by airfreight. This was perfect—when set back-to-back, these two rode in the top of a 747 airfreighter. Each container was built around a reinforced floor, the sides and top latched on and off.
We moved all of the components of our Ampex MM1000 16-track into a video chassis that put all 16 sets of AG-440 electronics down below the transport which was then on a 45 degree angle. This was not only more robust, but it was also going to allow us to run 14-inch reels. This took place in an all-night marathon. When we started, Ron Wickersham was not sure all of the original cabling would work. We were lucky it did! At around 5 am, the new machine was rolling; no cables needed to be cut or spliced from the original wiring loom!
Another obstacle was that the capstan speed in an MM1000 was derived from line frequency. Ours was a 60-Hz machine and we were going to 50-Hz land. Ron came up with a solution which would also solve another problem down the road: He built a precision 60-Hz crystal oscillator; we drove a McIntosh 275 vacuum-tube amplifier and picked off a tap on the output transformer, which would give us 120 volts with enough current to run the capstan motor at our precise 60 Hz/15ips, also now immune to line-frequency fluctuation. The other problem arose when we tried to get Ampex to give us their 207 tape on 14-inch reels. Ampex 207 had a thinner backing; instead of the traditional 30 minutes one got out of a 10.5-inch roll, 207 would give us 45 minutes, so a 14-inch reel was going to run 90 minutes—very desirable when recording a band with long sets, like the Dead. Ampex would not build the reels; we had to do those ourselves. Remember, we were running the recorder’s capstan on an oscillator, so for building the reels we hooked up a variable-frequency oscillator. We would ramp the machine up to 60ips to pack the tape. Each of the 14-inch reels had a splice in it. Ron and Sue Wickersham and I spent a few nights at Alembic having a 14-inch- reel-building party.
The recording rig was quite simple: “less is more.” We recorded the Dead quite often, so a lot of what we did for Europe ’72 had been tested and proven.
We built the rig at Alembic. One of the newly procured containers had the 16-track and an outboard equipment rack, the other . . . a custom built cabinet which was our tape library, and this cabinet also had our monitor console, Revox two-track, cassette machine, and Orban reverb units mounted on top of it. A carpenter met us at Heathrow airfreight in London. When the gear arrived, we took the sides and tops off of the two containers (which were left there in storage for the tour) and had them forklifted into our rental truck for the tour. The container floors were about ten inches high, so after the two were in the truck, the carpenter secured them and built us a filler floor so that the recording truck would not have a split- level floor.
We wired the truck up and hung drapes and the 4310 JBL monitors, as well as many other things at the first show venue, Wembley Arena.
The flow of the rig, starting inside the venue, consisted of the following:
Two nine-pair snakes plugged into a custom Alembic split. AC from the stage ran to the truck with the two nine-pairs. Once inside the truck, the AC power was conditioned in an automatic, motor-driven variac made by General Radio. This was to, hopefully, prevent severe voltage fluctuation. The split plugged into the rack, which held a patch bay and minimal gear. We had a couple of Ampex MX-10 tube mixers and some limiters. The limiters, by the way, were used only on vocals for our monitor mix; we did not want to do anything to the vocals on the 16-track record master.
One of the big “less is more” philosophic bits of Alembic magic was the use of transformers in the input section of the MM1000. Ampex offered modules which plugged into an octal socket on the back of each 440 record amplifier. We used these sockets for the transformers, which would allow us to take microphone level right into the tape recorder, totally passive—no electronic noise added and no record console electronics to fail.
The MM1000 fed a very small, 16-track Alembic monitoring console built by Ron. Janet Furman was our technical engineer and not only fixed things, but also set up the 16-track to the custom equalization we were using with the thinner-backed Ampex 207 tape. We could monitor, solo, and build a two-track mix on this. We recorded to a Revox B77 and a Sony cassette machine, and we also had some pretty simple spring reverbs for our two-track mixes.
Shows seemed to generally fit on two 14-inch reels and a ten-inch reel or two. Tape changes were quite interesting: We did not have a lot of room and had practiced this quite a bit, and it took three of us to do this at high speed. In an effort to not run out of tape during a performance, we had an indicator-light system of communication. Under Jerry’s monitor wedge there were three small lamps mounted on a piece of wood. The lights could be lit from the truck. A green, yellow, and red light: Green = we are rolling and in record; yellow = if you can wind it down and stop, we need to change tape; red (if, in fact, the band did stop for us) = changing tape, not in record.
This, of course, did not fit in with the way the Grateful Dead worked. There were not going to be any rules. Early in the tour, I tried a “yellow,” asking for a possible wind-down of the jam so that we could change tape. Even though this had been an idea we had discussed Stateside, Jerry was having no part of it! As I switched on the yellow light, I looked at Garcia on our 13-inch B&W TV monitor. He looked up at the camera, knowing I was watching, and simply smiled and nodded no in a very friendly way. Don’t fuck with the music!
We did some tape changes while the band was playing. We really did not want to interfere with the flow of the music.
I was in the truck for the tour, parked in front of the Ampex 16-track. Since we had no record console in the path to tape, the 16-track itself was actually the only place to make any level adjustments, so with our custom MM1000, all 16 of the AG440 record amplifiers were clustered together in two stacks of eight, easy to keep an eye on. Betty Cantor did our live two-track mix in the truck; she was around eight feet away. The band really had no set lists in those days, so as the show went down, I would write one on each of the tape boxes. Bob Matthews was at front of house. We would chat on our intercom after songs, and he, Betty, and I would decide how many stars to give a song: Three stars meant it was a really good performance! The star system was used when we got back home in order to focus on candidates for the Europe ’72 album.
Twenty-two shows in two months (57 days) is a vacation tour. The current tour-booking standard is to average 4.5 shows a week, and the Grateful Dead Europe ’72 tour was booked at around 2.5 shows per week. It does not get much better! Although it was an amazing time, with many days off, we took recording this tour very seriously and there was no relaxation on a show day at all.
It was a high time for everyone. The music was just amazing and for me not seeing any of it except on a small B&W TV was OK. I did, however, get inside on the last night. Due to circumstance, I was alone in the truck. We had, only minutes before, put a fresh 14-inch reel up and had 1.5 hours before the next tape change. A microphone onstage needed attention and I had to go inside. I did this with a bit of trepidation; I really did not want to simply leave the truck, but no one else was available and the mic needed to be fixed. The band was in a spacey jam and was very unlikely to produce levels which would be a problem on tape.
I locked the truck, went inside, and quickly fixed the bad mic, which was just a bit loose on its stand. As I went for the stairs to leave, the band dropped into “Morning Dew,” which has always been a favorite tune of mine. I decided to stay. Dynamically, the levels in the truck—which was now “running itself”—were going to be fine, and I had to stay! I parked myself behind Jerry’s rig for the song, a time I will absolutely never forget.
Fast-forward to Alembic Studios, 60 Brady Street, San Francisco. The band is choosing the final songs for the album. I am walking down the hall towards the control room. Jerry bursts out, very animated as he catches me, “Hey, Wiz. Guess what? ‘Morning Dew’ from the Lyceum is for sure going on the album.” (Big smile from Jerry.) He says, very emphatically, “And no one was in the truck!” (Bigger smile.) The Grateful Dead’s music was built on taking chances, embracing the unknown, letting serendipity have its hand. So the fact that, while no one was in the truck, a true pearl was recorded was not unusual at all! It was just an affirmation that we were letting the muse guide us in an invisible and mysterious way.
The tour was a truly magical time. It changed my life forever! If I were to be marooned on an island with only one piece of music I could ever listen to, “Morning Dew” from Europe ’72 would be it. Jerry’s solo says it all!
Oh… One more anecdote, I got back to SF after a quick trip to Vermont to get my dog Zach… Got back to Alembic in time to meet the gear, we were now at 60 Brady street… Big M (Bob Matthews) grabs me and says, “Hey remember we had to fast wind some tapes off, so I want you to play the tour, the whole tour, so all the reels are playback packed at “Tails out” the control room is yours” So I said, “hey I’ll just live here till it’s done, ok?” Big smile from Big M… What a drag, I had to play the whole tour, update thoughts (Star System) on quality and I put another pair of 4310’s in the back of the control room and played the room miss through them… (Surround sound) sat and did a live mix for I am not sure how long, I would play and sleep, sleep and play… But it was pretty constant… Stop every show to clean the heads….. Then I moved up to Fairfax and really slept..
In the fall of 1964 Banana (Lowell Levinger), Michael Kane, and I moved to Cambridge from the Vineyard into a second story apartment off of Putnam Ave. The spot was near the Charles River in an area about equidistant from Central Square and Harvard Square. We were gone from Boston University, and we were living the folkie Bohemian life in one of the best places to do that in the US. Rent was cheap, we could walk anywhere in town, and there were always friends like Paul Arnoldi or Jim Mairs who had cars if we needed or wanted to go anywhere the subways and busses didn’t go, and beyond that, hitchhiking was an accepted and reasonably safe way to get to New York, Providence, or wherever. I remember us hitching out to U Mass to see Bob Dylan perform, and we got a ride from a woman who turned out to be involved with putting on a folk festival out there. We wound up staying with her and her husband, played well into the night, and her only request was that we not bring any pot to the festival. Pot? Us? No way…never heard of the stuff… Yeah, sure…
I don’t know what Michael and Banana did for money in those days, but I had a real job, working at Briggs and Briggs, an old time full line music store in Harvard Square. They sold records and had three listening rooms for auditioning the latest albums. They also had an incredibly extensive selection of sheet music all stored in a wall of filing cabinets behind the counter, and I, with practically no education in classical music, quickly learned to fake it and find the sonatas, concertos and the like being sought by Harvard students. And down stairs were two rooms with guitars…Gibsons, Epiphones, Guilds, and Harmonys, and since I was the young guitar player, I got to be the guitar salesman, too. To top it all off, on my way to work lived my first post high school serious girl friend, an “older woman” three years my elder who was a local folk singer playing all the clubs in Boston and Cambridge. Nancy introduced me to the joys of French press coffee and sex in the morning before going to work. For a preppy turned acoustic guitar player that was pretty cool stuff all around. Sometimes I stayed with her, sometimes back at the musician’s boarding house that our apartment had become. It was right out of “Tangled up in Blue.”
It was about this time that I first tried psychedelics in the form of extract of heavenly blue morning glory seeds, courtesy of Maria Muldaur who had given a jar of this vile gray glop to my friend Diane Tribuno, later to be married to bluesman Nick Gravenites. Diane, Jim Mairs and I did the whole 1964 ritual…we read from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, we lit incense, we put on Bach organ fugues on Diane’s record player, and then we all took a trip, and it was the real deal. Laughter, visions, intense profound revelations…at least they seemed so at the time, and just one hell of a good time.
In those days there was a new tradition in Cambridge of psychedelic exploration. Richard Alpert, better known now as Ram Dass, and Timothy Leary had been teaching at Harvard and in the late 1950s they became academically interested in the effects of psychedelic drugs, particularly on creativity. This whole thing blew up in their faces, and in the spring of 1963 Dr. Alpert was fired from his job, and he and Leary headed for Mexico under a cloud of scandal…and were promptly unofficially declared the patron saints of the whole psychedelic revolution into the back yard of which we had dropped. We all regarded acid as a combination of sacrament, brain opener, and, well, fun.
A few weeks after my first trip a number of us decided to try LSD and go see Hard Day’s Night for the first time. Three of us would take the acid before seeing the film, three would wait to see if we killed ourselves or anything and get a report from the other side before downing their doses. I was in the first wave, and what can I say? It was wonderful, spectacular, those guys were having so much fun just goofing off that we all never wanted the movie to end or we wanted to step into the screen, or, and this is what really happened, we wanted to live life as large as we possible could, get paid for it, and just keep going for the rest of our lives. The movie, of course, came to an end, and out we stumbled, by then six stoned musicians coming out into a nice snowfall. For some reason we decided to go over to Bill Lyons’ house and get him stoned too. Bill was a balladeer around the clubs and sometime guitar repairman. He was a bit of a curmudgeon, he was gay, and he was fun to hang out with having a wicked sense of humor and having been around the Boston Cambridge folk scene since the very inception. To get to his place we had to go down a moderately steep drive way to part in back of the house which we did only to find him not home. So we piled back into the car, probably Jim’s Volvo, and headed for the street. No go. The snow and a light sheet of ice had glazed over the driveway, and we only made it up about half way and then started sliding back. What to do? Back up a bit further, gun it, and try for the top. No go. Back a couple more feet further, and hit it. No go. Well this went on for a good half hour. We were cracking up so much that we didn’t dare get out of the car to try to sweep off the snow or through sand out or get a shovel or do any of the things that normal sane people would do. The problem was that we were abnormal and insane and we knew it. Of course it didn’t occur to us that a neighbor might wonder why a car full of proto-hippies with exploding heads was repeatedly attacking a snowy hill with a Volvo. Too much fun, and the next phase of a pretty good run.
Banana, Michael and I sold a bit of pot and we had a fantastic connection for Sandoz LSD that a guy in a Cadillac would deliver. Up the stairs he’d come with a briefcase full of glass ampules of brown liquid acid of the highest quality from the folks who invented the stuff. We’d pipette it onto sugar cubes, and move it on.
The apartment became a real hangout for musician/psychedelic connoisseurs and we continued to have out of town musicians stay with us there. One of them was Monte Dunn, guitar accompanist to Ian and Sylvia whom we had met in the summer of 1964 when they played at the Moon Cusser. We’d all hit it off, and played a lot of music together, an eclectic blend of folk, Bluegrass, and what would become known as folk rock.
Another regular, but relatively local was Peter Rowan, a great Bluegrass singer and guitarist drawn into the scene. We got along famously with Peter, and when his draft notice came, we all got together to strategize how to convince the draft board that Peter was unfit for service. Bear in mind that we didn’t even know about Vietnam at this point. We hear vague rumblings of things going badly in South East Asia, and we were for the most part Seegerized anti-war peaceniks, but we weren’t yet anti-Vietnam war protesters. We just didn’t want our pals or ourselves to be pushed into the army to be trained to kill for no particular reason other than corporate maneuverings and politics.
At that point in time, the standard ways to be declared 4-F were to show up without any underwear and unwashed for a few weeks, say you were queer, or appear to be a drug user, They hadn’t yet figured out that half their army was about to be drug users and that they could just throw stoned soldiers at the front lines. So we decided to give Peter a good dose of acid that he would take right before going for his draft physical. Well, it worked, and how! Peter went in a mumbling lunatic without having to do very much acting. They basically threw him out on the street whereupon the legend is that he found a Macy’s department store pet shop and started to let the birds go free from their cages, just as he had been let free. Ask Peter about that the next time you see him…
Island String Shop, summer ‘64
In the spring of ’64 Lowell “Banana” Levinger, Michael Kane, and I, room mates in Brookline where we were busy dropping out of Boston University, were at a party at the apartment of Dick Randlett, co-owner of “The Mooncusser Coffeehouse” in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. Dick was an electronics designer by day and folk music fan at night; he and his partner, Charlie Close were gearing up for another summer on the Island with a great line up of booked talent. Banana and I got the idea of opening a music store in a part of the building that had it’s own store front and backed up to the Mooncusser’s kitchen. The store was on a side street in Oak Bluffs, right next to an incredible Portugese bakery and two doors from the post office. It was a perfect setup for us; it was about 250 square feet, had nice windows flanking the door, and had great light. Rent was cheap…Banana negotiated a percentage of our net. No net, no rent, and we were indeed doing acrobatics without a net!
Banana and Michael were making music with John and Jane Nagy as the Proper Bostonians, and they all needed a summer out of the Boston scene to practice. Banana found us a great huge apartment above an African American beauty salon about a block and a half from the club. We painted the apartment totally weird colors, which bothered Jane, but she got over it, and so we all moved into this place, none of us having the slightest idea of how we were going to do financially. And that should have been a worry, as the store was a disaster from that point of view, but we really didn’t care. We had access to all the coffee we could drink, a “day gig” which consisted of hanging out and doing a little bit of guitar repair work, and nights in the club where we were the house band, and I washed dishes for spare change. How we paid the rent I don’t recall, maybe it was from the proceeds of selling some pot, but there was a day when we were happily broke, figured we needed protein, and there it was, canned mackerel kind of down at the end of the cat food section in the market. It wasn’t labeled pet food, but it sure was cheap. We bought it, ate it, and prospered.
The week before the Newport Folk Festival was to take place, we were so broke that I doubt that among the three of us we could have scraped up the fare to get one of us off-island, and that was of tragic proportions in our lives. The lineup of talent, both on the old traditional side and the city folks and up and coming talents like Bob Dylan was incredible, and we couldn’t go. Life at the club was good, though, Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band with Jim, David Simon, Mel Lyman, Fritz Richmond, and the Muldaurs, Geoff and Maria were tearing up the nights. They were at one of their several peaks of performance that summer, and they had a lot of fans on the island. One of them happened to be a yachtsman, and he popped into the dressing room downstairs from the kitchen and our store and announced to us all, “Hey, I’ve got a 45 foot cabin cruiser and I’m headed for Newport. Anyone want a ride?” I hope he wasn’t too shocked at how many takers he had, because we all wanted on-board, and so it was. Diane Tribuno, she of my first acid trip, was hanging out with me, not as my girlfriend, but just as a pal, so she was literally my bunk mate; Banana and Michael and most of the Kweskin band came along, and so it was that we arrived in Newport with a floating hotel for the duration of the weekend and a ride back. The only problem was that we didn’t have tickets. Diane was fine; I think she had scored tickets weeks in advance; the band was fine, of course, as they were playing the festival; Banana, Michael, and I just figured on figuring it out even if it meant slipping under a fence like kids sneaking into a big top circus. No need…the first person we saw upon walking up to shore from the dock was Bernie Apothecker, a folk scene gig hustler from Boston who was to become Peter Rowan’s manager for a while. We knew Bernie through John Nagy, and had hung out with him quite a bit.
“Hi, guys, whatcha up to?”, Bernie called to us. I said, “Just got here on that boat, and we’re trying to figure out how to get into the festival.” “Oh, no problem…I’m in charge of giving out press passes and I have them all here in my pocket. Who is going to be who? OK, Banana, you represent the BU paper; Michael, you’re from Brandeis, and Rick, you write for the Boston College daily!”
And so we got to enjoy the festival in style…full back-stage access, first five rows of main stage seats, food, the after-show parties in the little Newport “cottages”…the whole thing. And little did I know that the next year, 1965, would see me playing on the main stage with the Canadian duo, “Ian and Sylvia”, some of that set now immortalized on a Vanguard recording, “Ian and Sylvia, Live at Newport”.
In 1959 I went off to an all male boarding school, Moses Brown in Providence, Rhode Island, to start my last three years of high school. At that time and given where my folks lived, the seaside town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, this was totally normal, especially for boys on a liberal arts college track. These days we tend to think of boarding schools as a way to straighten out kids on a path to destruction or as a way for the parents to get rid of the kids, but in New England in the 1950s, it was very common. My dad had gone to Exeter, and so I was quite happy to go to Moses Brown, and in fact, it was quite wonderful.
At that time, about 1/3 of the junior and senior high school students were boarders with the rest being day students, and to help make the life-styles of us boarders not too different from the rest of the boys, the policies regarding getting out at night on Fridays and Saturdays were reasonably liberal. We’d have to sign out and back in, and there was a curfue, but it was pretty easy to deal with.
Late one afternoon before it was time to go to the dining hall, I was hanging out in a fellow student’s room chatting, and a junior classman, I think a freshman (a year behind me) came in and said, “Hey, my grandfather is playing a show at RISD down the street this weekend. Anyone want to go?” I looked at him and replied, “Your name is Edward Ellington, III, right? You’re damned right I want to go!”
And go I did with a couple of the other guys to see Duke Ellington at one of the several peaks of his career. He was about three years past his triumphant 1956 gig at the Newport Jazz Festival with the hit live album from that performance. I had that album, Ellington Live at Newport, now considered one of his best and one of the most exciting live albums of all time in any genre. I’d grown up listening to my parents’ collection of swing and jazz 78s. I was into it.
The Ellington band at RISD was just great. Tight, swinging, Duke’s incredible leadership, his and Billy Strayhorn’s wonderful arrangements, and the spotlighted soloists taking the roof off the place.
After the show we all went back to the green room to express our appreciation of Ellington, the band, and the performance. Duke was elegant and gracious. And I was hooked on live music.
In the early 1970s when Alembic was transitioning from being a PA rental company and doing live recordings, then having a recording studio into being an instrument and electronics manufacturing company, I realized that I could very easily get into sound checks at Winterland to show instruments to bands whom I thought would be interested. My strategy was simple: just walk into the back stage area carrying one or two guitar or bass cases. I instantly looked like I belonged there, and with my years of experience in doing sound, being around musicians, and being a roadie, I knew how to stay out of the way and how to identify the guitar techs, the tour manager, and the sound guys. I would pick out the guitar techs, and at an appropriate moment, say, “Hey, I have an instrument that I think your guys might like to see.” Usually that was it; that was my “in”. One unofficial duty of guitar techs is to spot interesting stuff on the road and bring it to the attention of their bosses. And generally I would be invited to stay, be given a backstage pass, etc.
But, I also knew that if Bill Graham ever figured out that I was hustling instruments in his venue, on his stage, I would get permanently banned from any BGP venue. So I stayed pretty under the radar. I knew that Bill had seen me working shows as part of Alembic’s sound and recording crew so there was a slight familiarity, and I probably registered as part of the virtual woodwork; he’d also seen my face at shows to which I’d been invited by clients; but I also knew that I was on thin ice being there and doing what I was doing.
In 1974, George Harrison’s bassist Willie Weeks invited me to the show at the Cow Palace, and I had full back stage access and all that. I was back talking to David Crosby and maybe Graham Nash, both of whom I’d done extensive guitar for, and Graham spotted me, came over and said, “Who the fuck are you? Get out!” David immediately said, “He’s with us…” End of problem.
Years later I was at Bill’s house in Mill Valley at a party attending with my friend, Mimi Farina. Bill looked at me, looked again, and said, “I know you, don’t I?”…I just said, “I’ve been around the music biz here for a long time, and yeah, you’ve seen my face.” After that he couldn’t have been nicer.
One day in about 1985 I got a call from my old friend, Guitar Player Magazine editor-in-chief, Tom Wheeler. He started right off by saying, “Don’t take me wrong when I say this, Rick, I hope you’re not currently in the guitar business.” I wasn’t…I was running a small cabinet shop for a high end contractor in San Francisco, and my main involvement with guitars was playing at the weekly Bluegrass jams at Paul’s Saloon in the Marina District of SF and going to Lark in the Morning music camp. But still it was a funny thing to hear from one of the most respected and well known men in the guitar world. But Tom had a way with words and putting folks at ease, and he jumped right in and said, “I’d like you to write a guitar review column for the magazine, and I can’t have anyone currently in the business because of potential conflicts of interest, and out of respect to fairness with our advertisers.” I totally understood his position, and that he was inviting me to tell it as I saw it, but from an unassailable position. And so, for the second time, I became a columnist for the leading guitar magazine under a brilliant editor and with the great Jon Sievert taking photos of the guitars I reviewed.
Tom wanted a guitar maker/designer’s perspective on the guitars. I’d be getting inside the heads of other luthiers, designers, and manufacturers and bringing not only a player’s opinion of which the magazine had plenty, but something a bit “else”. It was a really great challenge, and I was lucky to have Tom’s great editing skills to weed out the redundant or unneeded verbiage. He made me look really good, and in so doing, he helped me to become a better writer.
I don’t remember exactly how many columns I wrote in that run, but I do remember that my two favorites were one on an early PRS guitar. Paul still thanks me for that when I see him at NAMM or other guitar shows; he says it really helped legitimize his guitars in the eyes of the guitar public. The other was my review of the Martin J-40 M jumbo, a fabulous big bottomed guitar. Of it I said, “For anyone who thinks they don’t build ’em like they used to, go play one of these guitars.” And I meant every word; it was a magnificent addition to the Martin line. The real thrill was being quoted in the next edition of the Martin catalog, and Chris Martin really appreciated the review.
I also really appreciated when Tom called me to ask for a quote for his definitive book on the Fender Stratocaster. He published my comment, “Leo Fender did not have Jimi Hendrix in mind when he designed the Strat!” By way of saying that the musicians are at least as likely to define an instrument as the designer/builder.
So it was really bad news that I got this week of February 12th, 2018. Tom Wheeler, my old friend, mentor, and editor passed away. Hope to see you on the other side, Tom.
Now for something completely different!
The Tittie Kings of Broadway
By 1982 I was out of the guitar making buisness and well into my cabinet and custom woodworking phase in partnership with an old friend Paul Schmidt who had moved back to Northern California after a brief marriage to a Canadian woman. Paul and I moved out of my Novato shop and into an old warehouse building by the river in downtown Petaluma. We were well tooled up for just about any kind of limited production wood working or custom cabinet jobs, and we somehow were contacted by a brilliant and flaky French Canadian interior designer who was working for guys whom we termed the Tittie Kings of Broadway. They were three partners owned a famous San Francisco bar, (the) El Matador which had been a great jazz club in it’s day, then there was the Paladium, an after hours disco, and to top(less) it off they had six strip joints on Broadway in North Beach, the most infamous of which was Carol Doda’s. Next door was “Big Al’s” with a giant sign displaying a 1930’s era gangster with a Thompson submachine gun. Al Capone? No, it was “Big Al”, one of the three partners, and the mentor to Paul and my client Walter Pastore, “Al’s” nephew.
Walter is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, and his intelligence was completely applied in the street trades of booze and women and separating men from their money. He comes across like an incredibly charming “wise guy” right out of “the Godfather”, though as he explained to me, the Mob (capital “M”) never got into the San Francisco scene. Evidently, when Capone sent out scouts in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, the unfortunate emissaries would be met at the train station by the North Beach Italians who had succeeded the Barbary Coast sin salesmen; the boys from Chicago would be given return tickets and invited in no uncertain terms not to alight from the train lest they be bathing in the Bay with concrete bedroom slippers on. So organized crime didn’t get a foothold in San Francisco as the locals were quite happy with their arrangements with the cops and city hall and the bootleggers bringing in Canadian whiskey.
The job presented to Paul and myself was to completely remodel Walter’s fourth floor mini-condo on Telegraph Hill; it was about 900 square feet of great view overlooking Broadway, and the budget was about $125,000.00, a lot of money in 1985. Walter liked to be able to feel close to the street while up in the sky looking over his kingdom. The design included teak paneling the hallway into the living room, making mahogany soffit crown molding with down facing mirrors, putting a mahogany window seat across the window wall with brass grill for the baseboard heating, installing a European-style kitchen with granite counters, and then transitioning into the bedroom, bathroom, and dressing area where the wood theme changed to walnut and red oak for all trim and furnishings. We also got the job to make all the furniture except for a sofa out of the matching woods to the paneling and trim in each area. That included the usual dining table and chairs and a big chest bed with drawers, and it also involved making a glass front gun case, a tambour doored easy-access compartment next to the bed for a sawed off 12 gauge shotgun…never know who’s coming through the bedroom door…and putting a hot tub in the bedroom for entertainment. Did I mention the mirrored ceiling above the bed? Opulent, but the design was good, and Paul and I were (and are) good at what we do.
We really got along famously with Walter, who kind of took us under his wing as two naïve country boys from the sticks of Petaluma who were honest, hardworking, and in need of a North Beach University education. Once we got going on the job, we hit a nice rhythm where we’d build, build, build in our shop and do 95% of the wood work and lacquer finishing work off-site, and then we’d come down once a week or so for a couple of days of installing the latest work we’d done. When we would arrive, Walter would make us tea and serve us hand made North Beach Italian bread sticks, and we’d chat for a half hour or more. It was mostly Walter regaling us with street smarts, Sicilian-style. Some of it was scary, a lot was funny, and the rest was real wisdom from that very old school point of view. There’s something very reassuring about working for a guy like Walter and it’s his absolute honesty in dealing one on one with people. We got it quickly that if we, or anyone promised Walter that they were going to do something; that was better than a contract signed by one and all. Paper is bullshit and your word is your word; it’s very elemental and it forces you to be serious about what you say. It’s primitive, ancient, and refreshing.
One day, when Walter realized that we had no problem being paid in cash, he told me to come down to the El Matador to pick up a payment. I arrived exactly at the appointed hour, and Walter, ever the gentleman, “bought” me a drink. We chatted and then he said, “Follow me back to my office.” I did so, and then he knocked on the women’s room door and barked, “Any skirts in there get out.” A couple of ladies hastened out still pulling up their panty hose, and Walter motioned me inside. He pulled out a roll of hundred dollar bills, and said, “Count it; I’ll be right back.” I counted out 51 “C notes”, and counted again. Fifty one… So I counted one more time, pocketed fifty and waited for Walter to return. He came back in a couple of minutes later, and without saying anything, I handed him a hundred dollar bill. He asked, “Did you count it?” I said, “Yes.” “Did you count it twice” “Yes, Walter,” with a smile. He pocketed the wayward hundred and said, “Good boy!” My knee caps felt good that night…
Kings, Part the Second…
One day Otto, the plumber, was putting in a new low noise, low water use very nice toiled in Walter’s now Travertine lined WC. Big Al, Walter’s mentor and down stairs neighbor came up to look over the progress, and sees thing gleaming new Kohler masterpiece of hydraulic engineering and he asks, “Hey, Otto, how much to put a shitter like that down in my joint?” Otto says back, “’Bout eight hundred bucks, Al.” The big man said, in his best movie-gangster voice exaggerates, “Otto, yer killin’ me, yer killin” me!” and he staggers back slapping his chest in the classic Red Foxx Sanford and Son heart attack routine. Walter chimes in, “Otto, my friend, don’t listen to a word Al, here, says…His biggest problem is that all his money is tied up in cash!” True story, every word!
And the Third…
So there’s this new electrician on the job putting in plugs…well actually they’re receptacles and they’re what you insert a plug into, but who’s insisting on accuracy here, everyone in the business calls them “plugs.” Paul and I get back from a nice North Beach lunch, and the electrician is sitting on the floor looking very, very pale, and he’s not doing shit as they also say in the business. I ask him, “What’s going on, we’ve got a job to finish here…” He looks up at us and says, “I was putting in this plug, and Walter and his pals walked in to see what was going on, and I looked up and all I saw was guns. I thought they were going to whack me!” “No, no, no,” Paul and I say in stereo. “Look, these guys carry guns everywhere, everyday. Hey, just the other day one of Walter’s employees at the El Matador came running up the cellar stairs yelling, “There’s a big rat down there! So Walter pulled out his 38 and dropped six shots down the stairs, turned around and grinned. That’s why he packs heat!” So my nose got just a little longer that day. But it was true…the first part. These guys did carry guns everywhere, everyday, and Walter had the most incredible formula, as near as I could figure out, that determined exactly which sidearm he’d carry on a given day. Walter was and is a very snappy dresser…hand made shirts, bespoke suits, hand blocked Borsalino hats, the finest Italian shoes…the whole shooting match, forgive the pun. So the choice of pistol always matched the clothes, the need for concealment, and perhaps the level of potential gun-requiring trouble that he might encounter on a given day. There was the snub nosed 38 special in blued steel, the Beretta 9 mm in stainless, the Beretta .22 auto that could be concealed in a thing that looked like a wallet in his back pocket…God bless the poor fool who might try to mug him for his wallet…and several other choices. Holsters included the afore mentioned wallet, an ankle holster, and the usual shoulder holster affairs. For Paul and I it all became normal and part and parcel of the scene, and it didn’t bother us a bit. I had grown up with a step-father who was a gun collector, and some of my earliest memories of him included his stashing a couple of shotguns and a rifle in cases under my bed when I was seven. I learned to respect firearms, not treat them at all casually, but still, their presence was not abnormal in my consciousness.
This guitar keeps popping up on Facebook as the “what’s that guitar Garcia is playing here” instrument. It’s often mis-identified as an early Alembic…reasonably enough…but it’s not; I put it together three years before Bob, Ron, and I signed the papers creating Alembic, Inc., in June of 1970. The Peanut is a guitar from my own rock’n’roll playing days in New York when I was in the now-semi-legendary band, Autosalvage.
When my 1965 guitar playing gig with Ian and Sylvia drew to a close, I started splitting my time between Cambridge and New York with the idea of putting together some sort of eclectic band with Felix Pappalardi who had been playing bass with Ian and Sylvia. As often happens in the music world, we sometimes zig while others are zagging and so it was with Felix who had gotten deep into record production with the Devil’s Anvil (great album if you can find it), the Youngbloods, and eventually Cream and of course with myself. I ran into an old pal, Tom Danaher, while walking around Greenwich Village; he invited me to a rehearsal; I played electric guitar…a wonderful 1962 Epiphone Howard Roberts…; we decided to form a band, and that was it. Winter of 1965/’66 was the year I went electric.
By 1967 we’d played out a bit, mostly at the Café Au Go Go, an outdoor gig or two, and some of the right people heard us (including Frank Zappa for whom we opened at his Mothers of Invention first New York gig), thought we were pretty original (yeah, Frank wanted to produce us, but wound up going to Europe for too long), and so we did wind up getting signed to RCA. We also had a nice kind of familial scene; we spent a lot of time hanging out at Skip and Donna Boone’s place right across from the infamous “Night Owl. Marc Silber had a place upstairs from Skip and Donna, and there was always a comfortable hangout scene going on there. One of our buddies managed an apartment building as the super and handyman; that used to be a way to get a free basement apartment, heat in the winter, and a subsistence living, and one of his duties was cleaning out vacated apartments. In one clean out, he found that someone had done a Pete Townsend on a 1961 or ’62 Gibson Les Paul custom (current value in decent shape…more than $10,000.00!)…the SG shaped guitar with three gold PAF humbuckers and the weird sideways acting vibrato system, and miraculously, the neck survived as did the pickups and hardware, though the body was smashed to smithereens. At the time I had an antique “Romantic” guitar, one probably built by Gaesel in the mid 1800s. It had one of the features of the Viennese Stauffer guitars…the “clock key” adjustable tilting neck, and had a lovely little shape…perfect for building up a Phoenix of a guitar.
I made a deal with my pal and bought the wreckage for $75.00, sat down at the kitchen table, and drew up a body design. On Broadway about 1/2 a block from Bleecker St there was a cabinet shop in the half basement, and they happily cut out my guitar body shape in Honduras mahogany; I think that cost maybe $20.00; and I was on my way to electric lutherie. For some reason or other, I decided to go all the way, and I veneered the back and sides of the body in walnut; put a distinctive marquetry strip down the back and bound the top and back in maple, and then sprayed the “new” guitar in the stairwell of our loft building, and then set the guitar up in “stereo” with the neck and bridge humbuckers working as per a “normal” Les Paul, and the middle pickup…missing in the Garcia photo, running out on a second channel. Both channels went through a primitive pedal board with volume pedals, fuzz, and wah-wah, and at different times I tried building some small effects into…or onto the guitar. And if you look closely, you can see that I did indeed add a couple of frets to the fingerboard.
As these things go, the band broke up in the late spring of 1968 about two months before getting a rave review in Rolling Stone for our RCA album (subsequently on it’s 2 1/2 reissue!), and my wife, Amber and I moved to West Marin where my musical activities moved over to playing bass on recordings my pal Jerry Corbitt was producing. I also set up a small workshop at our house in Inverness Park, and started to make my own pickups and build instruments, the first for Jesse Colin Young. And then, thanks to Rosie McGee, I met the Grateful Dead band and family, and got sucked deep into that vortex. Jerry saw the Peanut guitar, liked it; I wasn’t playing it and so it became Jerry’s. At some point I took off the middle pickup, though Jerry would years later go back to a three humbucker setup on his Doug Irwin guitars. Then the guitar just kind of vanished; I didn’t think about it much ’til 1978 when I resuscitated the basic body shape, added a cutaway, and designed the Model 1 guitar about which you can read elsewhere on the blog.
The Glaesel? I had it in pieces for restoration at my house in Santa Rosa, and on December 7th, 1978, an arsonist torched the house. Gone, but it lives on in my Model 1 guitars, and I’m planning on making a limited run of “Peanut” guitars in 2019 which would be just about right for it’s 50th anniversary. The “Peanut” itself? Rumored to be somewhere in Marin. Yeah, I’d love to get it back, but I imagine the price would be a bit rich for my blood these days!
As many now know, all species of rosewood have made it onto the CITES list restricting international movement of anything with any amount of the wood in their construction. For guitars, this can include fingerboards, backs, tops, sides, bridge pins, peghead overlays, heel caps, pickup rings, inlay details, etc. So how does a guitar owner deal with this? I’ve assembled a number of links to articles on rosewoods and to the US Fish and Wildlife Service who enforce CITES regulations in the US. For anyone overseas, you’ll have to do your own research to see what organization. If you’re interested in all wood species, the Wood Data Base is an incredible resource: http://www.wood-database.com/
Please understand that I am not an expert on International law, nor do I necessarily know what rosewood may or may not be in a particular guitar. A number of rosewoods are very difficult to tell apart visually; we’ve had Amazon rosewood, Madagascar rosewood, and cocobolo in my shop that were absolutely indistinguishable from Brazilian rosewood. To further confuse things, Brazilian rosewood is not the only rosewood found in Brazil! Also, when I got into lutherie, we did not distinguish among rosewood species. Rosewood was rosewood, and Brazilian was often used, especially for fingerboards and bridges, on cheap guitars…little Gibsons, Harmonys, you name it. Rosewood? No big deal in the centuries past.
If the links below do not take you to the information you seek, just remember “Google” is your research assistant.
What is CITES and why do they get to restrict trade and movement of rosewood, ivory, etc.?
International travel with an instrument having any species of rosewood; the “passport” issue:
Chris Herrod’s LMI blog on rosewood:
And Chris again on alternatives:
Michael Watts and John Thomas on Brazilian rosewood and CITES
John Thomas again on CITES
NAMM on CITES Update:
An interesting article outlining how to distinguish Brazilian rosewood from other rosewoods:
Information on some (but not all) of the rosewood species we’ve used here at Turner Guitars
Added on 3/19/2017
Here is additional information from my old friend, Chuck Erickson, aka “the Duke of Pearl”. Chuck has been at the forefront dealing with the bureaucracy on behalf of luthiers and NAMM for several years now. Lacey Act and CITES regulations impinge closely on his own business, and he has taken the time to advocate not only for himself but for all of us in the lutherie, decorative inlay, and scrimshaw trades.
APHIS issued guidelines for getting exemption certificates on pre-2008 items (including guitars) which contain unknown woods or lack other information (but only if the wood is really not identifiable!): http://www.aphis.usda.gov/…/lacey-act-special-use-codes….
The non-commercial export of an instrument containing CITES I materials like Brazilian rosewood (BRW), tortoiseshell, or ivory requires a species-specific export permit, such as a preconvention certificate 3-200-32 (http://www.fws.gov/forms/3-200-32.pdf) – but this only applies to the U.S. and doesn’t necessarily protect the owner in other countries. For CITES II materials no permit is needed as long as all other personal exemption requirements are met (such as not involving any type of commercial activity).
This permit can also be used by luthiers to register unpapered stocks of BRW or other listed materials. The cost is $50.00-200.00 (depending on whether applying for a single shipment, personal property, or for setting up a “Master File” for multiple items). Currently the approval process can take 3-6 months. Recently published factsheets by the USFWS regarding musical instrument issues can be seen at: ://www.fws.gov/…/by-activity/musical-instruments.html and ://www.fws.gov/inte…/pdf/factsheet-musical-instruments.pdf.
Everything needs to be listed by metric weight or volume, or by the number of parts in stock; if by weight or volume, you should include an estimate of how many guitars or parts that raw wood will eventually yield. Take good close-up pictures of the woods, and submit an accurate tally of how many sets of backs, sides, tops, neck blanks, veneers, bridges, etc. you have in stock; or, how much wood you have in cubic meters (along with your best estimate of the number of guitars that will produce). Get everything notarized and submit with the application. Then, if approved, be very careful to not make more instruments from that inventory than the estimate allowed for. If the story is credible and doesn’t involve a container load of material, there’s a very good chance of being approved.
As of June 26, 2014, all unpapered BRW already in the U.S. will continue to be illegal to buy or sell internationally unless it receives the above exemption permit, or has CITES paperwork that includes a Pre-Convention Certificate. Domestic sales requirements are a bit more relaxed: to be legal, all that’s required are more informal but credible evidences that the wood was in the U.S. prior to June 11, 1992 (a label date, a serial number that can be referenced to a pre-ban date of manufacture, a dated invoice, a certifying letter from the maker, etc.) and no special permitting is necessary, but get it all notarized.