News From The Pit

This Old Guitar
By Jimmy Brown

Well, for this month's column, we are going to veer off the path a little bit. (I should say now that if you like old cars, read on, and if you don't give a hoot about such things, then maybe now's the time to just move on.) Because last night, my wife Mary Jane and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Carl Casper Custom Auto Show. I have gone practically every year since I was a kid, and I still love to admire these classic pieces of American beauty. I must admit the show has changed through the years, and although I believe it has not necessarily improved with age, I still get a kick out of it. My favorites are the originals, or the restored-to-original cars, such as the '66 Corvette Stingray with 41,000 miles, or the cream puff '60 T-Bird that Mary Jane said I could go ahead and buy. (It was for sale). I was trying to figure out if it would fit in our garage when reality set back in. I really want a '57 T-Bird, and if you are going to dream, you might as well dream big, right?

By now, you might be asking, what in the Sam Hill does this have to do with old guitars? Maybe not a lot, but on the other hand, I have always felt there was a parallel between the two. There is no denying that hotrods, cruisin' and making out in the back seat all go hand-in-hand with rock 'n' roll. It must be the rebel within each of us. When I was a kid, my next door neighbor's son could have been the inspiration for the cool hotrodder who ended up with 12-year-old Mackenzie Phillips in tow in the movie "American Graffiti."

I can remember standing on my tiptoes to get a peek in their garage to see what kind of heavy metal monster he was creating. On Friday night he would pull it out and man, what a sight and sound it was. Words cannot describe the impression it made on this kid. I was totally awestruck. His mom had a boyfriend, and I remember he always drove a Thunderbird, and maybe this is the reason why I have always been obsessed with someday having one. I thought they were the coolest cars.

From there we went to customizing our Schwinn Stingray bicycles: extended forks, spray-painted Candy Apple Red, and on and on. As we got older, the idea remained the same, but we began to focus on fixing up our old guitars. With southern California being ground zero for all of this, George Barris, Ed Big Daddy Roth, et al, helped inspire the Fullerton, California Fender Guitar Company into applying these cool custom car colors to their guitars as factory options. And as we took in the sights at the car show last night, I thought about how the model names have overlapped between the auto and guitar makers.

First thing we saw was a beautiful Canary Yellow '58 Corvette. Gretsch would also use this model name for an early '60s solid body. Gretsch also had the expensive Falcon (white, of course), while Ford would offer its Falcon in any color, as long as it was relatively cheap. Generally, I believe that the guitar industry - especially the electric guitar builders - looked to Detroit and Southern California to see what was hot. Gibson even had Detroit designers draw up the idea for the '63 Gibson Firebird guitars. Pontiac added this model name to its line in '67 to go head-to-head with the Chevy Camaro. The Gibson Bass that was partner to the Firebird was the Thunderbird. Guild Guitars in '63 also used the name Thunderbird, although it was never as popular as its namesake Ford, or Gibson's instrument, for that matter. Muddy Waters and The Lovin' Spoonful's Zal Yanofsky were the only two people to popularize the Guild guitar that wore the almost sacred auto name.

One of the most successful crossover model names came out at about the same time and did wonders for both Ford and Fender. Can you guess? Well, come on now, it should be pretty obvious. Think mid-Sixties. Hugely successful for both. Possibly Lee Iacoco's crowning achievement. Pretty much helped set the stage for Leo Fender to sell his company for millions. Got it? Give up? Does the name Mustang sound familiar? It kind of makes you wonder if there were spies around. In 1964 both Fender and Ford introduce their new product model, the Mustang. Affordable, sporty, demand outpaced the supply. Now that's what I call a nice problem to have. Can't build 'em fast enough. Guild and Gibson both introduced their Thunderbirds at about the same time, too. Yes, I would imagine that the guitar industry kept its eyes and ears open. A little "Spy Versus Spy" was probably in the works.

As we walked around, taking it all in, I saw many names that applied to the old guitars. Riviera: Buick and Epiphone; Polara: Dodge and Guild; Thunderbird: Ford, Gibson and Guild; Stingray: Chevy and Music Man; Zephyr: Lincoln and Epiphone; Mustang: Ford and Fender; Jaguar: Jaguar and Fender; Falcon: Ford and Gretsch; Firebird: Pontiac and Gibson; New Yorker: Chrysler, National and D'Angelico. Perhaps I had better stop. There is plenty more. Enough for part two, I suppose.

These cool cars, whether souped-up or vintage original classics, and these cool old guitars triggered that certain something within our emotions. Strap on and plug in a vintage Candy Apple Red Stratocaster, a Competition Orange Mustang with racing stripes, a Pelham Blue reverse Firebird, a gold-plated White Falcon or sit behind the wheel of a '63 Corvette Stingray, '57 T-Bird or '51 Merc lead sled. You will get excited. If not, check to make sure you are still breathing.

Well, I guess that's all for now.

Until next time, Keep Rockin'.