Who Did It First?
the real innovators of guitar-ish gadgetry
How original are today's guitar designs? Is there reincarnation in the six string business? Were the ancient luthiers really emissaries from the planet Barf? Most of this and more answered by Paul Day.
Hardly a week goes by without someone, somewhere in the musical instrument industry launching a product that claims at least one feature to be the very latest in design, brand-new and fresher than tomorrow's paint. However, it is worth a few moments reflection on just how new such ideas actually are. Investigation often reveals that it's been done before and is really just another case of the wheel of design turning full circle.
This "new" hype, so beloved by ad people, does tend to obscure, either by accident or intent, the true origins of a concept. The object of this article is to lay bare the truth behind some supposedly revolutionary recent developments in guitar design features and to give true credit to those original thinkers, now forgotten beneath the avalanche of publicity that accompanies the subsequent re-hash of their ideas.
So, where to start? Well, how about those new Fender guitars launched with such fervour by CBS last year. Good instruments they may be, and chockful of new ideas too. Or are they? Take the Bi-Flex truss-rod, for instance, which enables positive neck adjustment to be made in both forwards and backwards directions. Supposedly a Fender "exclusive", but actually a similar design idea was featured on Burns guitars back in the 1960s, and subsequently used on two other British brands of the period, Hayman and Shergold.
Then there's the neck-angle adjuster reintroduced by Fender and previously featured on their three-bolt neck-fixing models launched in the early 1970s. Such an idea can be found on early cheapo American-made solids from the late 1950s onwards, such as Kay and Danelectro, and on British Baldwin models of the 1960s.
The Freeflyte vibrato system on the Elite Stratocaster utilises a knife-edge pivot for a very smooth operational action, and once again this very laudable idea was pioneered some 20 years earlier by Burns, being featured on models such as the Marvin and the Bison. In fact the most recent reincarnated Burns company used the same feature on the re-issues of these 1960s classics, again pre-dating the Fender design.
Another Elite feature is the "intelligently designed" control knob, complete with rubber insert for a more positive feel. This might seem like a minor point, maybe, but it assumes greater importance on a sweaty gig. Japanese competitors have already extolled the advantages of such an improved component, but even prior to this the Italian Dynelectron models of the early 1970s used a similar "easy-grip" idea.
However, the Fender company isn't alone in over-optimistically claiming so many "firsts". For example, the 1970s witnessed a spate of guitars featuring aluminium necks designed for greater stability and increased sustaining properties. Leaders in this field were instruments from Travis Bean and, later, Kramer; these makers made much of the originality of this concept. But their products were pre-dated by the Messenger range from a small American company called Musicraft, and also by the all-aluminium efforts of another USA maker, John Veleno.
And, in the early 1960s, a glut of unusually styled Italian-made solids and semis appeared, under various brand names such as Davoli, Wandre, Framez and Goya. These sported a very novel aluminium-frame neck, certainly designed to combat the basic instability of wood. Of course, all-aluminium lap steel guitars have been around since the 1930s, but this technology was not applied to normal six-string solids until much later. What must be the earliest examples of such a design are the instruments built by Ray Simpson in New Zealand, way back in 1955, which came complete with electrostatic pickups and on-board valve-powered pre-amp!
Active circuitry on guitars is now quite commonplace and is seemingly a comparatively recent idea, but back in the 1960s Burns produced the TR2 semi-solid featuring a transistorised pre-amp, and the same era saw similar attempts from other manufacturers such as Framus and Vox.
Another idea recently re-packaged and re-marketed is that of an electric guitar with built-in amplifier and speaker, allowing total portability for the player, ideal for practising or busking and so on. Examples have appeared from Hofner in Germany and various Japanese concerns, but in the mid-1960s Japanese-made Teisco models were proudly boasting just such a feature. The idea obviously didn't catch on in a big way back in those days, so presumably they're now trying for second time lucky.
Pickup design and technology has certainly come a long way since the early days of the electric guitar, and today's player is offered a wide array of sounds and noise-free performance. A recent "innovation" has been the stacked-coil humbucker with two pickup coils mounted vertically instead of side-by-side. This idea isn't new. Again it was Burns who fitted such a pickup on some of their 1960s models, including the Baby Bison and Virginian, and in fact went one stage further by providing a Density control which actually governed the operation of the second coil, providing total sound flexibility.
Alternative materials for fingerboards are often pushed as another recent avenue of exploration, with Kramer, Steinberger and Status, among others, providing a variety of modern substitutes. But as far back as the late 1950s the Swedish Hagstrom company was producing solids with perspex fingerboards, as on the P46 glitter-bodied range, followed by the Coronado series in the mid-1960s, and by this time others had followed the example, such as the Welson instruments from Italy.
Of course, various manufacturers have also investigated the use of materials other than wood for the actual guitar body. Ovation are prime exponents of the employment of modern technology in this field, more recently joined by Steinberger and others. And in 1969 Ampeg launched the Dan Armstrong-designed perspex-bodied solids, these soon being followed by various Japanese copies and alternatives. But, prior to this, in the early 1960s' several other companies had produced similar innovative ideas such as the National and Supro fibreglass-bodied models, and similar semi-acoustic effort by the British Fenton-Weill concern called a Fibratone, the Cora metal-framed "solid" from Dynachord in Germany, metal-bodied solids from Vox, and numerous weird-shaped plastic-bodied designs from various Italian makers.
So many guitar manufacturers are experimenting now with new materials and designs that we're witnessing a welcome return to more imaginative and original thinking. But, as we've seen, not all "new" ideas, large or small, are really that fresh, no matter how much they may be portrayed as such. So let's try not to forget who thought of it first, and when.
Feature by Paul Day
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