It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time
certain weird inventions in the name of music
Extremely weird inventions for musicians. Extremely sane Paul Day catalogues the loonies.
DO YOU get the feeling that recently, the world of musical instruments has been imbued with a feeling of technology for technology's sake? Yet however imperfect today's marriage of musician and machine, it's the result of a long courtship between science and eccentricity.
Along the way there have been many commercial false starts, plenty of failed hopes, and a large helping of shattered dreams. And these haven't always been down to the contrary nature and conservative outlook of most musicians, but more likely come from poor marketing, bad timing, and... well, mistakes. Let's take a closer look — no flinching, please.
GUITARS have always been ripe for experimentation, with often drastic changes in shape, style, colour and circuitry. You might think that every idea has been explored, re-vamped and relaunched to the nth degree, but the basic concepts of type, construction and materials have been challenged only infrequently.
Departures from the six-string norm, for instance, such as the Gretsch George Van Epps seven-string, Hopf's eight-string semi, the Vox Mk IX and Framus Melodie nine-stringers, are comparatively few and haven't exactly set the world on fire. Perhaps most guitarists have enough trouble coping with six-strings?
Construction materials have sometimes varied wildly beyond the traditional woods. Perspex seems a favourite, having been tried by Dan Armstrong, Eko, Hayman, Mitten, Renaissance, and even Fender, plus the inevitable Japanese copies. Metal has proved an interesting alternative, as on the tubular frame-style Dynacord Cora from Germany and the British Vox Winchester (based on a wah-wah pedal chassis). Various makers have opted for aluminium, including New Zealand's Ray Simpson, and Veleno and Brunet in America.
Angling the frets, supposedly to facilitate faster and easier playing, has also been tried by Rickenbacker — and also appeared on a prototype Fender, the Maverick.
Another Fender idea was to hide the pickups, all four of them, beneath the scratchplate of the Marauder, another model which didn't make it into commercial production. A similar now-you-see-them-now-you-don't approach was adopted on the Hoag Light guitar, which actually dispensed with pickups altogether, employing instead an infra-red light beam system to transmit string vibrations.
Back in the Rickenbacker camp, how could anyone forget that product of its time, the psychedelic Lite model, complete with a self contained instant light show? Also from Rickenbacker came the Bantar, an electric hybrid of banjo and guitar, and the Converter model which provided a mechanical option between 12 and six strings on one instrument.
The late Sixties saw the appearance of the electric sitar, courtesy of Danelectro, and it proved quite successful in its day. But who remembers its competitor, the Rajah Zeetar? It was more authentic in appearance, but was still played like a conventional electric guitar. Perhaps it looked too much like the real thing and thus too daunting to play?
The concept of an organ-guitar was a perennial favourite prior to the advent of the guitar synthesiser. Best known has to be the Vox version, but its development in the mid-Sixties was part of a neck and neck race with Burns, Menitone and Watkins, modified and simplified, subsequently appeared as the Fifth Man. Later the Italian Godwin company came out with an over-the-top, oversize version, while in the US MusiConics produced two similarly unwieldy models. All died a commercial death, being operationally unpredictable. Really the concept was ill-fated from the outset, requiring a complete re-think of playing style and attitude — a problem still facing guitar synthesiser makers and users.
In the Sixties, Vox also launched their range of "electronic" instruments featuring various built-in effects including distortion, repeat and boosters. Some even sported a hand-operated wah-wah pedal mounted behind the bridge. Again, these proved commercially unacceptable, perhaps indicating that the knobs-with-everything approach wasn't required then.
"Easy-play" guitars have often been tried, aimed at the beginner market, but they've met with little success. This didn't deter Fenton-Weill from launching a 24-string effort in 1964, complete with note-changer pressbuttons and requiring a not exactly normal playing technique. In fact the guitar was far from easy to play.
Another idea that has never caught the imagination of the guitarist is the interchangeable fingerboard system. No doubt the concept is being revived even as you read this, but certainly the American GIF (Guitar with Interchangeable Fingerboards) from Intonation Systems didn't achieve any dizzying heights of success back in 1977.
By virtue of practical requirements, the AMPLIFIER has to be somewhat conventional in concept and appearance, but there have been a few oddball exceptions to this rule. How about the early Sixties Transonic from Vox, a very bizarre set-up aimed at maximum visual impact? An oval-ended speaker enclosure sat on a chrome stand, surmounted by the amplifier section which was in turn topped by a weighted cross-member bearing two metal-enclosed high-frequency units, all mounted on a central stem. After this an AC30 must never have seemed quite the same again.
Another novel "separates" idea appeared in 1968, the Triumph Slave Master, a complete pre-amp unit designed to be worn on the guitar strap and feeding a remote slave power amp via various umbilical cords slung around one's person. As if guitarists didn't have enough trouble with the controls on their instruments...
Over in the US, who could possibly have missed out on the Flip Top Monster, brought to you by Toby (the people who had already given you the circular Hat Box combo and other bizarre designs). Another circular design from the early Seventies was the Maestro Rover, with pedal-powered speed control for that authentic rotary sound. This was in competition with the original Leslie speaker — Leslie themselves responded with their 950 model, compete with four graphics-covered rotor discs and built-in black light for instant psychedelia.
Back in Britain the Fenton-Weill company had already explored the idea of circular speaker enclosures with their Projectile series. Once again, these designs were short-lived — most players seemed to prefer the sounds that emanated from more conventionally shaped boxes.
There have been one or two oddities among the multitude of boosters, benders, distorters and delays posing as EFFECTS UNITS. One such early attempt was the Topaz treble boost and tremolo. So what, you say? Well, it was designed to be mounted on the guitar strap. From personal experience I can vouch for feeling a trifle foolish when fumbling vaguely for the controls of the damn thing somewhere in the region of my left shoulder, while still attempting to produce a meaningful guitar sound.
One of the most impressive add-on units from a few years back has to be the mighty Wurlitzer Brass Horn. Akin to a hunting horn mounted on its own stand, it was powered by a driver unit and was supposed to add extra zing to your sound. The visual effect was, frankly, hilarious, while the extremely directional treble could prove very painful for the unwary listener wandering into range.
In the late Sixties the Jennings company launched a range of effects and, just to be different, decided to incorporate a rotary turntable instead of the usual vertically operated pedal. Advertised as providing a more natural movement for the ankle and foot, this didn't work too well as in practice one's foot has the disarming tendency to tap up and down regardless.
Back in the days before programming became a way of life for so many, there were devices aimed at providing the soloist with a complete backing band — rhythm, bass lines, drums and so on. One of the more impressive units was the USA-made Creager Peda-Band, complete with gigantic semi-circular pedal-board containing a prodigious array of tightly-packed footswitches, presumably allowing operation by one's big toe only.
And what of ALTERNATIVE INSTRUMENTS? One that did escape was the wonderful Livingstone Burge Tubon from 1965. Battery-powered and played slung over the shoulder, it resembled a somewhat ornate piece of drainpipe, embellished with a 30-note keyboard along half its length. It was advertised as being "child's play" and "a must for beat groups". It wasn't.
Equally bizarre was the range of electro-percussion marketed by Jennings and bearing such evocative names as Tympano, Duo-Tymp, Multi-Tymp and Trad-Tymp. Using a speaker as a pickup transducer, these units could be hit in various places to produce different percussive effects... if you could stop laughing long enough, that is, and again I speak from personal experience.
The range of GUITAR-RELATED ACCESSORIES produced over the past three decades is awesome, and although some have actually proved useful and durable the majority now seem totally laughable and leave one wondering just why, how and for whom? So many of these accessories and add-on goodies originated in the US, and it has to be said that most of the more off-the-wall ideas would've been laughed out of existence in any other country. That's why most never found their way out of their homeland — a pity really, as at least they would've provided some much-needed light relief.
To be the guitarist who had everything, you had to be using the Stan Guido Friction Reduction Pick from 1968, complete with stainless steel grip and artificial rhinestone and precision jewel bearings. This was followed up in 1972 by the Jerry Oddo Hi-Fi Pick, a pick logically providing a thicker doubling sound. Here I must modestly lay claim to coming up with this idea in 1963, but I didn't have the nerve to market it! Or how about the Electronic Plectrum (1977), designed to promote more volume from acoustic guitars — unlike the Cat's Paw leather pick from 1979 which provided a softer acoustic sound.
Another electronic aid was the PMT Electronic Slide for "an electric lead sound from any acoustic stringed instrument". The more manual Geraci Keetar Converter from 1970, however, used six keys and hammers to hit the strings for a percussive effect.
You could've been winding on your strings automatically in 1973 with the battery-powered Westwinder and expending the energy you'd saved by flexing the arm of your guitar's head-mounted vibrato unit.
If tuning was a problem then the Vu-Pitch Visual Tuner (1973) could help, it too being located on the head of your guitar. The Kitcraft Studio tuner would provide an accurate A-440 tone and you could then employ the Third Hand String Depressor which freed both of your hands for tuning up.
Your guitar would be supported by a Fender Waistbelt strap, or perhaps a Bobby Lee Safety Strap with "E-Z-on, E-Z-off Safety Device" which enabled you to pass your jolly axe over your head without dislodging a single hair or tooth. However, for ultimate pose-ability you just had to use an Invisible guitar strap from Rivers Music — and keep everybody guessing.
You could have protected your Fender with its own genuine Bodyguard, and later your Les Paul too with either a See Sharp clear plastic protector or a Fiddle Frock in terrycloth, which could absorb knocks and perspiration. Professor Farley's String Sudzer would bring your strings back from the dead, while Gibson's Play On & On & On anaesthetic spray could do the same for your fingers.
To put your guitar just where you wanted it you could go for the Guitar Works inflatable Guitar Cushion, or perhaps opt for the carpet-covered, wooden Guitar Lift from TKH. To put your body in a similar state of Nirvana you had to have the Gilmore Guitarist's Rocking Chair, designed to make practising that much more fun.
But enough of these oh-so-useful accessories. I think that even this small selection will give some idea of the inventive scope of those who feel the need to provide all for every player. Complex or simple, large or small, these heroic failures do have something in common. You could say they're a testament to the eternal optimism of the music industry. On the other hand, perhaps they point to a distinct absence of gullibility on the part of the average musician.
Feature by Paul Day
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