TNAG Notes #23 by Stephen Bennett
“…and a Happ-ee New Yeeeeaar (add own tune)”! RIght. At least all that’s out of the way. And with the merry festive venality, gluttony and simmering interpersonal resentment laid aside for another year, we can get back to the real business of individually rescuing the world’s endangered guitars one instrument at a time. Indeed, let’s not worry about lack of storage space and impending bankruptcy for now, reader, as there are far more important issues at stake, like the subtle differences between an OM and a 000, the appropriation of someone else’s successful formala and whether NOTES spoke too soon about the state of guitar-shopping in New York. Yes and no (as usual – Ed.).
O-O-O, it’s Magic…
Things used to be so simple ‘back in the day’. Like when, in 1902, Frank Henry Martin introduced the company’s biggest-boned guitar to date, the 12-frets to the neck 000 model. Then, in 1929, to keep pace with the latest trends in playing and recording (and, not least, to meet the personal needs of contemporary banjo star, Perry Bechtel, who wanted a familiar-feeling longer neck) Frank’s Depression-Era successors conjured the 14-fret Orchestra Model. Its versatility, global financial meltdown notwithstanding, quickly propelled it to that elusive pinnacle known as “industry standard” and the OM, subsequently replicated by just about every steel-string guitar-maker in the world, has remained there ever since.
But, because clever people take so much delight from being contrary (or innovative, as they like to call it), we now have 14-fret 000s and 12-fret OM models, often beautiful, high-end instruments from builders of impeccable reputation. So many, in fact. And so little time. So, because the world has become such a very confusing place, here’s how to spot the differences between the two – and weigh their relative advantages – by using the ever-popular TNAG Beginners’ Guide to Figuring Out Two All-But Identical Guitars.
000 and OM guitars are essentially the same size and shape. The main differences, traditionally, are in scale length and nut width. The 000 tends to feature a narrower nut-width (1 11/16”) and a 24.9” scale length which affords the player a bit more ‘slack’ and makes string-bending easier while the OM’s scale length usually clocks in around 25.4” over a 1 ¾” nut width – more suited to the fingerpicker. That’s pretty much it. The 000 tends to produce brighter trebles while the OM delivers more mid and bass response – arguably with a better balance. Inside, though it’s not a hard and fast rule these days, the OM generally features scalloped bracing for freer top vibration while the 000 opts for the tighter response of a non-scalloped braced top.
One feature of Martins, in particular – subsequently followed by many builders – is the handy, instant give-away. OMs have a tear-drop pickguard, 000s a bigger, standard plate. Knowing that will save a lot of measuring and is guaranteed to enhance your shop browsing cred when you ask for one as opposed to the other from the massed ranks on the wall.
Cautionary Tales: Part 56
All names having been omitted to protect the guilty. We’ll muse in more detail on body-shape in a later section. Not with regard to our own sorry post-Christmas waistline spread but to the beloved contours of our favourite instruments. Imagine then, a prominent guitar company, in conjunction with a major superstar player, taking the instantly recognisable, classic shape of a rival manufacturer’s flagship instrument and chucking the upgrade kitchen sink at it to the point where it’s been described as the best version “of itself” for many years. In an attempt to keep the identity/marketing thing relatively civilised, though, said company retains its own equally distinctive headstock. Dodgy? Possibly. Does anyone outside these giants’ respective boardrooms really give a toss? Well. A friend bought one and the hype, it seems, was justified, as the guitar proved a genuine thoroughbred; sound, finish, the lot. And yet. Six months on, the friend has sold it. Why? Because, as the novelty wore off, he couldn’t stand to look at the wrong headstock on the wrong body. Trivial, maybe, but that’s what guitar-love is all about. There’s a lot to be said for purity.
Not so much a retraction, more a minor realignment.
A few weeks ago, we lamented the demise of a number of Manhattan guitar institutions; Maury’s and Matt Umanov’s, in particular. With the ever-changing cultural demographic, the rise of on-line shopping and the crippling demands of relentless rent increases all playing a part, we wondered where the guitar lovers of the greater New York area could now go to find the instrument of their rock-star dreams. Well, never let it be said that a passion for all-things-vintage and $2.75 Subway ticket won’t reveal hitherto unknown treasures, especially to anyone lucky enough to be wandering the up-and-coming Carroll Gardens area of Brooklyn on any afternoon that isn’t Sunday.
From the outside, RetroFret looks like a trendy architects’ studio or a Camden temp-agency. Inside, it’s a whitewashed Aladdin’s Cave of vintage six-string wonders - acoustic and electric - any or all of which the visitor is invited to handle and explore, unsupervised, for as long as their covetous heart desires. You might want to consider taking a collapsible camp-bed. It’s an active repair shop, too, busy despite the New York post-holiday lull, as well as an invitingly laid-out sales emporium in which the ‘none-more-knowledgeable’ staff couldn’t be more accommodating. It’s a proper musician’s place and as such, quite the rarity these days.
What’s more, you never know who you might meet there.
In light of which, a quick plug: the fantastic Brooklyn-based vocal-guitar duo, Rachael & Vilray, will be playing (one night only, folks) at Colours in Hoxton on the 23rd January. Their superb new album tells you everything you need to know apart from “don’t miss the gig”. It’s grown-up, tasteful, contemporary acoustic music with a slinky, sophisticated 40s vibe, beautifully played and sung by two consummate musicians. And it’s in TNAG’s old ‘hood!
This Fortnight’s Fab Five
Shapes! Yes, we’ve prattled on about six-string visual aesthetics at great length in previous posts and, no doubt, over-used the word ‘iconic’ in lauding the beautiful design concepts of Fender and Gibson, in particular, as they developed the electric instruments that would er…shape the future of jazz, rock and pop music across two centuries. Genuine body-contour innovation has become virtually impossible now that the ‘basics’ have been so successfully imprinted on the minds of guitarists who neither know nor care about Art Deco influence or mid-C20th US automotive design. We’ve become so blithely convinced that we know what we want in terms of ‘looks’ that anything beyond the most minor template variation often takes on the aspect of an outlandish physical aberration. Surely, it’s not a question of the familiar shapes being perfect, it’s just that we’ve become so used to them.
So, here are five bold, ballsy hybrids that, in the past, have too readily been looked upon, disdained and cast into the aesthetic abyss. They’re all beautiful, highly collectable and what’s more - for the reasons outlined above – they’re all cheap. So, it’s our sworn duty as champions of dubious taste* to revive them. How’s that for a New Year’s Resolution?
*maybe just me, then.
- In which case, let’s start with a personal favourite, the Silvertone 1413 L, built by Kay in Chicago in the early 60s. The one with the melted-blob headstock as opposed to the more common, pointy rectangle. The company must have had a lot of spare sea-foam green paint lying around at the time which only augments the timeless beauty of this little masterpiece.
- Not a million miles away, profile-wise, is the Danelectro ’59 “Short Horn”. It’s another artfully sculpted plank that benefits from a fabulous set of colour options. And like the aforementioned Silvertone, it brings with it the added bonus of sounding pretty awesome, as well. Proper old-school twang!
- Next up and further along the weirdness spectrum is the National “map of America” design that subsequently morphed into the Eastwood Airline (as sported so elegantly, in white, by David Bowie). The all-embracing Valco empire produced the National Westwood 77 and Glenwood 95 and 99 from 1962 - basically, upmarket versions of their popular Supro composite models featuring the same Res-O-Glass body - but despite the ingenious concept, strumming an electrified fridge-magnet turned out to have a limited appeal. Shame, that.
- Another Silvertone hybrid is the truly fantastical Teisco Del Ray KL3 ET-312 “Shark Fin”. Even the name is barking; not least because, unlike the pointy-cutaway beast it advertises, it’s almost impossible to remember. It could only be Japanese in its magnificent, shiny-pop-madness and stands proudly alongside mutant stable-mates from Burns in the UK, Galanti in Italy and the (yes!) iconic ‘Jetsons-meet-Picasso’ marvel that is the legendary Vox Phantom.
- Finally, maybe the weirdest and most beautiful of all – unless you think it’s ugly, of course – the Hohner Zambesi 333, made by Fenton-Weill in London in 1962. With its swooping, elongated Giacometti/Modigliani lines and sculptural anteater-snout headstock this has to be one of the great electrics of all time. Once seen, never forgotten and it’s a cold heart that won’t feel the need to check out the rest of the Fenton-Weill output; always eye-catching though never quite as ‘out there’ as the genius 33. Who cares what it sounds like?
Why this sudden interest in shapes, you ask? Perhaps it’s seeing what’s due in the TNAG showroom, courtesy of Toronto’s Frank Brothers. Shapes! Cool, subtly different and very classy – not an easy trick to pull off in this crowded 2020 market. Time for a change? Hmm…
See you next time.
by Stephen Bennett