News From The Pit

This Old Guitar
By Jimmy Brown

Hi everybody. Well, it's springtime in Louisville and that means the horses are off and running. Our illustrious editor, Paul Moffett, asked me if, for this month's column, I could tell a story about an old guitar and the Kentucky Derby; something like how we got a great guitar because someone needed a little extra cash for that great tip they got on the 8th race at Churchill Downs, or something to that affect. But about as close as I could get was Gibson's famed and super-rare Citation model guitar, and the fact that the winner of the '48 Derby was also named Citation. At least I think it was 1948.

Well, I gotta be honest, given that tidbit of information, I realized it would be a real stretch to pull together a story relative to this column. But it is spring, and while I was at my stepson's high school baseball game the other day, two other parents, Courier-Journal writers Martha Elson and Judith Egerton, both asked me questions about guitars. What makes that interesting is that they both asked me about two unusual guitars. Now, you may ask yourself what does that have to do with the Kentucky Derby? Well, frankly, nothing. But it did get this particular story off and running.

Being that I am in the vintage guitar business (and I use the term "business" loosely), I am often asked guitar questions. Often it is about what someone's old guitar might be worth, or would I care to speculate on tomorrow's next collectible. So, when Judy and Martha both asked me about these peculiar guitars, it did make me think about what is to come. Not that I pretend to know, mind you.

Judy recently visited the Smithsonian Institute and saw this funny-looking little miniature guitar called a Martin Backpacker. With spring in the air, hiking, camping or a day in the infield makes this little pint -sized guitar just the ticket. Designed by Martin and made in Mexico, these super-lightweight mini-axes come complete with their very own back pack and will travel well. Sort of like a balsa wood canoe paddle with six strings. Having been around about ten years now, they have the distinct honor of being the first guitar to travel in space. One of them went with the astronauts on one of the space shuttle missions. That feat alone would qualify them for potential collector status, except I believe Martin has already made considerably more then a quarter of a million of them, and I believe that "rarity" has a lot to do with what ends up being a highly sought-after collectible. So anyway, the moral to this one is, play it and have fun.

The other guitar I was asked about was what Martha described as some sort of headless horseman stick thing she had seen while writing a story about a particular recording session. After listening to her description of this thing, I asked her if it looked like a black canoe paddle and she said,"Yes, that's it." So the other unusual guitar in question is the Steinberger bass. This instrument, designed by Ned Steinberger in the early '80s, is truly a modern innovation in the evolution of the guitar. It is an all-graphite stick, if you will, with no headstock, It really does resemble a canoe paddle. They are very comfortable to play, once you get used to them, and they are very balanced, with an even tonal response. Though they have fallen out of favor recently, this is one instrument that I would not consider to be merely a flash in the pan. These are great basses, and, considering that production has pretty much ground to a halt on them, one might do well to hang on to one of the all-graphite models.

Speaking from a player's point of view, I always use my trusty '65 Fender Jazz Bass, but I always take my Steinberger canoe paddle with me, especially when I am having to travel to the gig. It is a reliable and easy-to-carry spare. Now since I don't have a crystal ball, and my Ouji board is on the blink, I will not stick my neck out and suggest you bet the farm on the Steinberger to win. No, we'll leave that to the odds-makers, whoever they might be. But I will say that the Steinberger is a great working instrument, with a reasonably low production total, and, well, who knows.

Well, there you have it. A springtime story about two oddball guitars that just might have you thinking about that camping trip or canoe trip you've been putting off. Oh, and by the way, in case you're interested, the Atherton Rebels won the Fern Creek Invitational Baseball Tournament later that afternoon. Go Rebels!

Well I guess that's all for now. Until next time, keep rockin'.