Guitars, Basses and Gear through the Years (Part I)

Let’s face it, the gear is an omni-present part of a musician’s life.

You have to be part-technician to survive.

There is no way I can give an accurate chronological list of all the gear I’ve ever owned, used or tried. But the more I think about it, it’s a matter of separating various eras, broken down by guitar or bass. Amps and effects are important too.

Now if you say “If you remember the late 70s and early 80s, you weren’t there,” I’ll say, I was in the 60s in the late 70s and the early 80s aaannnnd… ummm, were you saying something?

So, here’s how we’ll do this: by decade, then by guitar and bass. Then, eventually by live sound gear and recording gear. You gear heads need to reply with any questions or comments…

The 1970s

Guitars

I didn’t own a guitar until 1979. I had been loaned a guitar in about 1976, but I removed the skinniest two strings so I could practice bass on it. Then I had to give it back.

What I did wind up with was a Korean Epiphone acoustic. It had a tobacco sunburst and a bolt-on neck with a rosewood fingerboard. A tiny “parlour” guitar body, but a sweet, sweet neck. I don’t know, but I guess it was a mid- 70s model. Low on the price-range spectrum. The one in the picture is a 77 model.

I always was told it had peculiar intonation. I was thrilled to get it, because the dude I always played bass for also played an Epiphone acoustic. Eventually, we’d go out and play acoustic guitars almost every night. While still in the 70s I unbolted the neck and folded two jokers from a card deck in half. I put them in the neck-hole as shims and bolted the neck back on. This actually improved the play-ability and intonation.

Well, my Epiphone was purchased for $100, sold for $100 twice, bought back for $80 the first time, and for $60 the second time. It was sent, sans-case, down a flight of stairs by an irate and unstable partner.

It was used a a serving platter for lines of coke – with the guitar neck as the handle – in a stolen white convertible from Queens while living the “rock star life” with some similarly low-brow and oblivious fellows in Brooklyn.

This guitar later got a cheap Dean Markley wedge-it-in-your-sound-hole pickup, so I could play through P. A. systems when I started playing at open mics in Las Vegas. It was my only solo acoustic gig axe until the mid-90s.

I still have it – it is barely playable because the frets are so worn out, but every now and then I experiment with weird slide guitar tunings with it.

As far as electric guitars go, I only touched one in the 70s – to speak of. My guitar buddy (the one I always played bass for) introduced me to a lot of music people. I could actually play bass, so I was useful. One of these mutual friends had an Ovation solid-body electric guitar. I was already over the moon for Ovation acoustic guitars, but when he brought this axe out – and an early battery-powered amp, I was transfixed.

I probably played it for 45 minutes. All the really hard-to-play cheap tricks I’d managed to learn on acoustic guitar to that point were so easy and sounded SO much better on that electric! Also, we were in an alcove in a big schoolyard, so the slap-back echo effect was amazing too. I was years from owning one (so I thought), but I knew I had to get an electric guitar.

Basses

I got my first bass in 1976. I went and had a custom-made leather guitar strap made for it right away. I had the design in mind already and my hippie-infested neighborhood had a good number of custom leather shops on the main avenue.

It was a Gibson! A hollow-body EB-2 model – also a tobacco sunburst with a rosewood neck. It was similar to pictures I’d seen of the bass played by the great Jack Casady (of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna) in some album covers. Actually it was a dog and never stayed in tune.

While still in the 70s I bravely replaced the tuners and the bridge myself. I felt qualified because I played the damn thing twelve hours a day in my angsty, neurotic teen years. The operations were successful and it carried me into some professional situations and into the 80s.

I played this bass first through an old Kustom combo bass amp with one 15-inch speaker. It was so old, it still had upholstered fake leather padding all around it! Before the decade was out I upgraded to an Acoustic amp (also a 15-inch speaker) which was also a combo amp, but this one had a reflex bin.

The 1980s

Guitars

In the 80s, my guitar situation really began to take off. I was still most likely to get gigs as a bass player, but this was the decade where I started getting guitar gigs.

Acoustically, the whole 80s was all about my little old, beat-up Epiphone. Except for March of 1982. The Epi was in Brooklyn in my ex-girlfriend’s closet and I was in Denver in Air Force tech school. I broke down a spent $100 on a cheap Ovation copy at the base exchange. I played it for about 6 months until I changed bases and got the Epi back from Brooklyn. It sucked!!! But I wrote a few tunes on it.

Otherwise, it was a great decade for Fender electric guitars. Once I left the Denver area and got to my real permanent base in North Carolina, I immediately bought a used Fender Bullet. At the time, they were an industry joke, a beginner-level abomination.

All anybody wanted back then was a Charvel or a Jackson or a B. C. Rich. Heavy metal shredder axes.  But today, that early 80s Bullet would be worth 5 times the $200 I paid, or more. When I picked it up I also shelled out for an old, small, used Fender amp. I paid maybe another $75 for the amp. The amp turned out to be a pre-CBS Princeton Reverb. Silver-face.

It was just barely loud enough to be heard over drums when set to full volume. But then it was cranked and sounded outrageously awesome!

It was only a matter of weeks until I traded in the Bullet and some cash on a used Fender Telecaster. Again, a rosewood neck, but with a sea-foam green body I didn’t like. I bought it for the double-stack hot rail pickup in the bridge position. Close to this but this one doesn’t have the hot pickup.

Soon, I traded this sweet Tele and the amp (either of which would quadruple in value by 2000) for what turned out to be a used 1973 Fender Strat. They said it was a 1968 Strat, I didn’t know… I guess I got the Strat for a total of $400. In 2004 I sold it for $1400 even after messing up two of its three original pickups.

All throughout the 80s I played that Strat through my Acoustic 15-inch bass amp, although I picked up a great Vesta Fire spring reverb unit for it. So my guitar rig, such as it was, was both loud and proud.

Basses

I had my Gibson bass into 1983, even when I was in the Air Force in North Carolina. I guitarist buddy and his friend and I went all the way to Brooklyn in a little Datsun 4-seater hatchback and picked it up as well as my bass amp (large). I made the 8-hour drive back in the hatch area curled up around the amp and was contorted beyond recognition, but we made it.

I soon traded the Gibson and some cash for a used Fender Precision bass – a vast upgrade! That bass was with me throughout the 80s and it was the source of most of my professional musical engagement during that decade. It even went on tour with me in about 1986!

I did my touring and travelling with a small folk band with kids (none were mine at that point), so to conserve space, I built a more compact cabinet for the speaker and another just or the amp head. Not knowing any better, I broke every speaker cabinet rule ever conceived, but the result was said to make my Fender sound almost exactly like a big stand-up acoustic bass.

Pedals and Such

For me the 80s were a technically simple decade, but I did begin recording in about 1987.

I used only a tuner with my bass, but the Strat was almost always going through an overdrive pedal. I didn’t really dig full-on distortion – I was trying to distance myself from the “shredding” guitarists of the day. I had found a used Pearl overdrive pedal and I’ve never seen another one before or since (except sleuthing around on ebay to see what it might be worth now).

I know I had a delay pedal for a while, as well as a flanger and a compressor. These I usually used sparsely and never really at the same time. They were all donated to me by, of all people, an in-demand NYC bagpiper, who had experimented with them while doing the Broadway production of Brigadoon.

The real major breakthrough of the 80s was the advent of cassette multi-track recording. A musician could now produce music at home. Unfortunately, the results sounded like home recordings. As always, I went for used gear: I got a deal from a friend on a Fostex X-15!!!

A cassette always had an A side and a B side, but in cassette multi-track recording, you used the A side only and got 4 mono tracks instead of 2 tracks on A (left and right) and two tracks on B. This meant you could flip the tape and see what your tune sounded like backwards! I recorded answering machine message in 4 part harmony and used it backwards. It was generally not well-received…

I produced dozens of tracks on this thing, but eventually, the transport functions quit on it. I opened it right up and saw that a little drive belt had broken. I replaced it with a similarly sized common rubber band and got another few dozen tunes recorded!.

1990s

Guitars

Well, I stuck with my Strat all through the 90s, despite a sale and buy-back and another near-sale. But I finally upgraded my acoustic guitar situation because I needed a better way to play through P. A. systems…and I needed a better guitar in general. I was going for used, of course.

This time I had a $500 budget, so I went to the guitar store and asked to play every used acoustic in my price range. I knew what the “right” brands were supposed to be and I knew a bit about some models of some other brands, but I was going for (price, of course) sound and feel. The winner turned out to be a new (my first new guitar purchase) Ibanez with a built-in Fishman pickup system. It sounded great right away and no longer did sound-people give me the stink eye!

I still have that bad boy!

Basses

The 90s started out as a bad decade for the bass guitar. I spent over 3 years utterly bass-less!! Inconceivable, but true. I had my 69 Strat (that I had been offered upwards of $2000 for already) and my Fender Precision bass in their cases in a closet. I lived in a rather fluid roommate situation at the time, and whoever it was, chose the bass instead of the Strat. The guitar was really beat-up looking and the bass was in mint condition – that was probably the rationale. If they sold the bass, they probably only got between $250 and $400 for it.

Well, I eventually replaced my bass three years later – initially with the first one I could afford – which was not anywhere near the quality I was used to with my Fender. But in very short order I upgraded to a Fender P-Bass Lyte.

I had done the same with my bass purchase as I had with my acoustic guitar purchase, except it HAD to be a Fender Precision in my price range. They let me play 6 or 7 basses and I wasn’t thrilled with any of them. Then they remembered “the one in the back” and brought it out. When I saw it I almost had a heart attack!

I spent a lot of time in the 70s and 80s on 46th street in NYC. Between 6th and 7th avenues there was just a crazy number of music stores, and even some guitars-only stores. I was drawn like a moth to a flame again and again to these stores and remember salivating at one particular bass I saw in the window of Alex Music. It was my personal Holy Grail. A Fender Precision Bass with a small body, no pickguard, rosewood neck, tobacco sunburst and gold hardware. I never even approached the store about trying it out…it was that out of reach.

Well, here it was ten or fifteen years later on a silver platter!

I still have that as well, although I gave it to Susan when I “retired” from bass to focus on guitar and our little combo we have going on.

Other Gear

In 1991 I left Brooklyn for Las Vegas on a presumably permanent basis, and was flying (one-way) so I could only take what I could carry. Naturally, my big ol’ amp was going to have to go to a new home. So, I gave it to a bass player friend of mine and only took the acoustic, the Strat (these two duct-taped together) and the Precision bass. Yes, three axes and all the clothes I owned plus a ditty bag full of cables and pedals. I could barely walk!

There was no security in airports back then. Not like now, but I was a spectacle and the ditty bag was inspected by the gate agent as I was boarding. I also had a sack and a pipe in my denim jacket pocket, but finding that hardly raised an eyebrow. Nevertheless, the rats nest of cables and small metal boxes in my ditty bag had the gate agent going to the cockpit to get the captain. Apparently, it might be a bomb and only an airline pilot could make the all-important correct determination. He looked over the ditty bag himself. I was finally cleared and allowed to board.

Well, I had no amp now, but in the course of the 90s I had brief dalliances with tube amplification and other solid-state under-powered wanna-be amps. I can’t even remember what I was playing electric guitar through after we moved to Memphis. But I was playing a LOT!

By he time we left Memphis for the Cincinnati area, I was in possession of enough odds and ends so that I was able to jury-rig together goofy combinations of equipment that would serve as a P.A. system I could sing through.This not anything I could go out and play gigs with, though…

I did upgrade my cassette multi-track recording situation, though. I got hold of a used Tascam PortaStudio 414 MkII.

I made a ton of recordings with this thing – and for a while I had the use of a keyboard that had some decent drum patches on it as well as some good organ sounds. The results were still nowhere near pro-level, but it was better!

Damn, folks…it turns out that I am indeed covering almost every stupid bit of equipment ever to grace my musical arsenal. This newsletter is getting a bit long-winded. So I guess I’l cover The New Millennium next week. A bit of a cliff-hanger for you tech heads, but its how it must be.

Hey does anyone want to hear some samples of stuff that I recorded from the mid-eighties through 1999? I have some stuff!

Just reply and It shall be made to happen!

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Peace and Love to ya!

 

-Tom and Susan