A Very Special Episode of NGD: 1955 Gibson ES-295

Around 2005 or 2006, I spotted something on craigslist that I wanted and agreed to meet up at the guy's house. When he told me his address, I was shocked - it was a less than three minute drive from my house and he had, to say the least, a large, impressive collection of guitars and amplifiers. This was pretty odd to find in our neighborhood and we hit it off immediately.

I don't recall exactly what I was buying (or selling), but what I do remember is that he kept generously putting guitars in my hands to check out, many of which weren't even for sale - we were just geeking out and he was happy to share.

I recall two guitars from that day that really moved me: one was a 1982 AVRI Fullerton 50's Strat that must have been played for hours in damp & smokey bars nightly for years - it was far more beat than most actual 50's Strats I've ever seen. The second one was a 1955 Gibson ES-295 that had been refinished in Sonic Blue.

I should mention that at this time, light blue guitars were kind of "my thing". I was especially really into Rickenbackers - there is the famous photo of country singer Jim Reeves and his band with an all Blue Boy lineup, and they were just coming off their "Blue Boy" Color of the Year. I loved everything Sonic Blue too, probably because of the Strats that the Beatles played. And I loved big guitars. So to say that this guitar made an impression on me is an understatement. I wanted it badly - and it wasn't for sale.

This one photo I had of that guitar (above) was my desktop wallpaper for quite a long time. I would send the owner an email once or twice a year - "still have that blue 295? is it for sale yet?". For years, the answer was "yes i have it, no it's not for sale". I lost track of him for a year or two. Then, I saw an ad on Los Angeles craigslist (we had been living in NYC) that was unmistakably him. I emailed him to confirm, say hello, and of course, asked about the blue ES-295. This time, the answer was different: "i sold the blue es 295 about 6 months ago out here".

Life went on. I added it to the "ones that got away" drawer of my memory bank.

A few weeks ago, my best guitar geek buddy picked up an all-original '56 ES-295 for himself and brought it over. I fell in love with it and knew I absolutely had to have one, though they priced well out of my range. I started peeking at reissues, looking for refins & non-original examples, looking for ES-175s to convert to ES-295s, until last week, out of the blue, this popped up on my Instagram feed:

Yes - it was the very same light blue ES-295. And it was in LA (I had just recently moved there).

I contacted the owner, told him my story, and asked him to please consider me if he were to ever sell. As it turns out, he was interested in selling. We came to a price that made us both happy, and to say that I am over the moon is an understatement.

I will allow the photos to speak for themselves - the good, the bad, and the ugly.

2007 Fender "Thin Skin" Jaguar, Sonic Blue, Staytrem Bridge

I saw this one on NYC craigslist at work one morning, advertised as a "USA Sonic Blue Jaguar" for $850. I had a hunch it was a Thin Skin and met the guy that afternoon to buy it, figuring I had a quick flip on my hands. 

It did turn out to be a Thin Skin, and holy hell, what a fantastic instrument it was. I have had a lot of offset instruments pass through my hands and this was no doubt one of the finest.

The Thin Skin guitars have tall frets, a modern 9.5" fretboard radius, some kind of nitrocellulose finish.

The only modification I made was the addition of a Staytrem bridge, which I absolutely loved (I am not a fan of the Mastery bridge).

Sadly, I did buy this one as a flip and I made a tidy sum in short order. But almost a year later, I'm still kicking myself for letting this one go.

1996 Guild JF65-12

Continuing the trend of not settling, I present to you this magnificent Guild JF65-12 from 1996:

I have lusted after a Guild 12-string for ages, and I am thrilled to finally have one in my clutches.

Sure, I could have picked up a much cheaper, more more plentiful variant of a Guild 12-string ages ago. You can find several Guild 12-strings for quite reasonable prices, plus Guilds are undervalued as it is. But several of the distinct features of the JF65-12 (and its twin, the F412 - same guitar, different name) beckoned to me, and I refused to settle this time. I waited, I found a deal (guy happened to be very local to me) and I pulled the trigger.

Why did it have to be this model specifically? Well, for instance, the gorgeous flame maple back and sides were a must. Some Guild acoustic models also have a neat "arched" back, rather than flat, and this guitar is no exception. I love the big deluxe pearl neck inlays set against a perfect Ebony fretboard - coupled with the gold tuners, this guitar has more bling then you can shake a stick at.

And boy, you gotta love the huge body. Wearing this thing makes my 6-foot frame look completely miniscule.

The sound? Strumming this thing is like hearing a Hammond organ - completely rich with overtones. Fingerpicking it makes it sound like you're being accompanied by a harpsichord player.

Yeah, I like it.

(Photos © John Biscuti, May 2015)

1981 G&L L-1000 Bass

The G&L L-1000 - or "Wunkay" (1k, get it?) - was among the first instruments produced by G&L, Leo Fender's post-Music Man venture, circa 1980. The single-pickup L-1000 was designed by Leo and combines elements of two of his legendary, enduring creations: the Fender Precision Bass and the Music Man Stingray.

This all-original, Mahogany-bodied example was produced in 1981 and is a "transitional" instrument, produced while Leo was still refining the recipe (one example is the chrome control plate on this bass - these would soon be black powder-coated).

The pickup is Leo's proprietary MFD ("Magnetic Field Design") pickup, which is a ceramic (rather than Alnico) pickup. This example has adjustable slot-head pole pieces, which is a rare, short-lived feature bookended by large allen-head pole pieces (1980) and smaller allen-head pole pieces (1982-on).

This bass is passive, not active like Leo's Stingray. The controls are volume/bass boost/treble boost, and the three-way switch provides (left to right) series / single coil / single coil with bass boost.

One of my favorite features of the L-1000 is that rather than rosewood fretboards, which Leo traditionally used, these came with ebony fretboards (maple was also an option, of course). The ebony fretboard on this bass is stark black and completely streak-free. Combine this with the aged white pearl dots, and this is an instrument with a real touch of class.

These basses have a reputation for being heavy, but I am happy to report that this bass weighs in at a relatively svelte 9.5lbs. 

The nut width is 1 11/16", which is a little skinnier than I'm used to, and the neck profile is thin. The truss rod works perfectly on this bass, and the action is nice and low. This bass plays absolutely beautifully.

It is in fantastic shape for its age, showing signs of use but not abuse; note the buckle rash on the back, and the thumb wear above the pickup. The chrome on the control plate shows almost no pitting or peeling, and the frets are in tip-top shape.

Enjoy the photos, and scroll down further for the story of how I happened upon this amazing bass.

I have lusted after a B00 serial number (i.e., first two years of production) L-1000 for the last few years. I had a very particular configuration in mind - I wanted a sunburst bass with an ebony fretboard.

Whenever one came up for sale, it always seemed to be too expensive, too heavy, not quite the configuration I was looking for, etc. I had also never played one or even seen one in the flesh. These are extremely rare birds.

As of writing time. for my last 3 gigs, I have gigged without a backup bass, which is a really bad idea. After a recent gear purge, only my Road Worn Precision remained, my main bass for the past 3 years. With my band heading up to Boston for a mini-tour this weekend, I needed a backup bass and I needed it fast. 

Although I was in absolutely no position to be picky here, I found myself completely paralyzed. No bass on my local (NYC) craigslist or at any Manhattan shops moved me whatsoever. Having something shipped in was not an option considering the time crunch I was under.

Pretty much resigned to the fact that I'd be shipping up to Boston with only one bass (and perhaps buying one while up there), as a last-ditch effort for a cheap Precision or something, I went to Castellano's House of Music in my hometown of Staten Island, where I taught music for several years full time.

Castellano's is a very cool store, but they mostly carry entry-to-mid level instruments (usually they'll have a couple of Les Pauls on the wall, and it trickles down from there). 

But wouldn't ya know it - I walk in (having not been there for several years), and what's hanging on the wall but a 1981 G&L L-1000, sunburst, ebony fretboard, in GREAT condition! Before I even picked it up, I knew I'd be leaving with it - and I did.

I'm still reeling from the fact that I found the exact bass I had been after in the place I least expected to find it. 

(Photos © John Biscuti, March 2015)

Across The Sea: Japanese Fender Instruments, 1982-1992

These early MIJ Fender instruments, while climbing in price, are still an excellent value (hell, they're 20-30 years old now - they're VINTAGE!).

Though most of them could benefit from a complete electronics upgrade (pickups, pots, and switches), the fit and finish are generally excellent, and in many cases, exceed that of their USA-made brethren.  

Here are a few that have passed through my clutches over the years. I especially love the double-bound Esquire Customs.

1986 Fender Esquire Custom

1985 Fender Telecaster Thinline '69 Reissue

 This 1985 Olympic White Stratocaster included a rare feature - a matching (yellowed out) headstock.

This 1985 Olympic White Stratocaster included a rare feature - a matching (yellowed out) headstock.

 1983 Squier Jazz Bass

1983 Squier Jazz Bass

1990 Fender Jaguar, which now belongs to my partner in noise.

1986 Fender Esquire Custom

1989 Fender Precision Bass, '62 Reissue

1985 Squier Stratocaster

Main Squeeze: Fender Road Worn Precision Bass

It's been three years since I first picked up my #1 bass. Not sure what took me so long to gush about it, but here goes!

It is fairly well-established fact that the Fender Precision Bass is the most ubiquitous bass guitar on the planet. It's really no surprise why - the P-Bass is the perfect marriage of the Stratocaster's spage-age looks and comfort and the Telecaster's no-frills construction.

This is also the reason it took me so long to warm up to it. 

My search to find the right guitar/bass has always been an attempt to make really quirky, odd instruments work as if they were their well-established (read: boring) cousins. 

Try as I may, though, a Guild Starfire is not a P-Bass. a Rickenbacker 4003 is not a P-Bass. A Gibson Thunderbird is not a P-Bass. Only a P-Bass has that versatile tone that comfortably slips into any type of music, and does so while boasting an instantly-familiar feel and balance. 

I got my P-Bass - a Fender Road Worn model - three years ago this week, on December 30th, 2011. The idea of owning a Precision was already firmly planted - I had been getting heavily into Bruce Thomas' absolutely brilliant playing and tone on all those early Elvis Costello and The Attractions records, not to mention always digging James Jamerson's P-Bass wizardry. Plus, I wasn't happy with the basses I was playing; my main bass was a Classic Stingray which I had been playing for two years. It looked gorgeous and had super low action, but it weighed a ton and had an absolutely pathetic D/G string volume, an issue which I simply could not solve. 

On the Talkbass forum one day, I stumbled upon a thread whereupon the virtues of the Road Worn bass series (which includes a P-Bass and a Jazz Bass) were being almost unanimously extolled by the notoriously picky posters there. I was not aware that these basses were so beloved and instantly got to looking for a used one. As luck would have it, there happened to be one on craigslist in Brooklyn. I drove there and bought it that very day.

I played it at my gig that very night, and it has not missed a gig since (thats 152 gigs across 5 states). 

I've only modded it minimally since then; the most notable non-cosmetic mod would be the DiMarzio Model P pickups (an original set from the mid 1970's). Though I quite liked the stock pickup, I needed something a bit more aggressive for my band. I dropped these DiMarzios in about 4 months after I bought the bass, and have had zero desire to change them since. They are just perfect for what i do (I love the vintage cream covers too). 

Though some might turn their nose up at this bass for being made in Mexico, it is easily better than the majority of the USA Fender P's I've played, and certainly all of the vintage 70's ones I've owned and played. It is ridiculously lightweight, making it the ideal foil for my band's long gigs. The body is extremely resonant, the tone is punchy and warm, and the neck is very stable, requiring only occasional tweaking (unlike my VERY needy Stingray).

  Me and my Road Worn Precision at Met Life Stadium; 11/2014)

Me and my Road Worn Precision at Met Life Stadium; 11/2014)

As is evident in the photos, I take great pleasure in playing this bass very hard. The nitrocellouse finish gives way quite easily to night after night of my drunken, heavy-handed picking. The missing finish behind the second fret on the back of the neck is a nod to Bruce Thomas, and a great aid on dark stages! Though I am now an ex-smoker, the cigarette burns in the headstock are a reminder of the outdoor gigs. Plus, ya gotta love the Captain Beefheart sticker, which has been on the bass almost as log as I've owned it (the Coast Guard sticker is a small homage to my Dad).

Quite simply: it is my workhorse, my constant companion, and without question the best bass I've ever owned. 

(Photos © John Biscuti, January 2015)

Miracle on 34th Street: Gibson Les Paul SG Custom VOS

On a day off from work during Christmas week, I visited several guitar stores in Manhattan, with my best experience of the day being at Sam Ash on 34th & 9th. They have, by far, the best selection of non-beginner new and custom shop-caliber instruments of any NYC shop (though the GC in Times Square boasts a better vintage selection). 

Though mainly browsing for a Fender Mustang Bass and possibly a Johnny Marr Jaguar, I spied a beautiful Gibson Les Paul SG Custom VOS behind the counter, the blingy kind with three humbuckers and the long Maestro Vibrola. It was cherry Rrd, which was unusual - not the white these are most known for. 

Sam Ash was asking a surprisingly low $1999, but with this caveat - a large note on the price tag that read "Manager Blowout. As-is. Needs neck reset".

I found this to be more than a little odd. It was clearly a new, or new-ish guitar - it had all the plastic & stickers still on it. As a longtime admirer of these guitars, neck issues or not, I had to check it out.

Oddly enough, it played pretty well. The action was a bit on the high side for my liking, but it was perfectly playable, and the bridge still had room to go down. Hmm.

The sound? Unbelievable. Through a stock Fender Deluxe Reverb with the volume low, the neck pickup was sweet and clear. The middle position was like a darker Strat 2nd position quack; very pleasing. The bridge pickup was a little on the thin side compared to my Les Paul R8 but more bitey.

I probably noodled around on this guitar for a half hour. I have no idea where the time went. Have you ever picked up a guitar that just made you play better? I swear, this was one of those. It was inspiring to play, and an absolutely joy to look at as well - I always thought I liked these in white, but MAN, the combo of the red with gold hardware and the white pickguard was just fantastic.

I've owned a ton of guitars and it takes something really cool to knock me out nowadays. I couldn't possibly take it home though, mostly because I was so confused. Why did a new Custom Shop Gibson need a neck reset? And why didn't Sam Ash just send it back to Gibson so they could take care of it under warranty?

I went back home to Astoria to mull it over and ponder a bit. Under any normal circumstances, my next step would have been to find a used one online and buy that instead, but I couldn't find a single red one for sale anywhere. There wasn't even one among the Completed Listings on eBay! It also appears that you can't buy these new any longer, even in the ubiquitous White.

I went back to Sam Ash a second time a few days later to investigate further. It was then that I hit on what the real issue was. It wasn't the neck at all, but the break angle over the Maestro Vibrola; there was essentially no angle over the bridge, which meant that the bridge couldn't be lowered because the strings would just float over the tailpiece. The action would have to stay relatively high.

I took another day to do some research on the matter and found that this is a totally common issue with recent Gibson Maestro Vibrolas. The spring is facing upwards instead of downward. I felt much better knowing that it was a hardware issue, not a wood issue. 

I went back, negotiated a lower price, and took it home!

Though I've been absolutely tickled playing it at home through my rig (it is a gorgeous sounding guitar), I'm going to attempt to see if Gibson will replace the Vibrola under warranty. To be continued.

Merry Christmas!

(Photos © John Biscuti, December 2014)

New Gear Weekend!

This 2012 Gibson ES-330 VOS '59 Reissue arrived the same day I picked up this souped-up tweed Fender Blues Junior, which has been modded by noted amp tech BillM. I'm having a blast playing both, and it doesn't hurt that they're easy on the eyes too!

Lipstick Vogue: c.1960 Danelectro Convertible

The Danelectro Convertible was introduced in the late 50's/early 60's as a student guitar sold through the Sears catalog; note that it is both an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar (featuring Danelectro's ubiquitous "lipstick" pickup). The sides of the guitar are covered in linoleum, with a "Hardboard" top and bottom. Completely unconventional, totally wacky, and a blast to play. Enjoy the photos, and read more about how I came to love mine below.

I purchased this guitar at the Tinicum Guitar Barn in rural Pennsylvania for $95 (with case and a set of strings) in November 2007, while on a guitar-hunting trip with some good enablers/friends from the RickResource Forum. Despite the horrible-looking crack in the neck and seemingly random holes in the face of the guitar, it played pretty nicely. At that time, I was buying a lot of guitars, and at that price, I simply could not resist the quirkiness.

 Me and my Danelectro, the week I bought it. November 2007

Me and my Danelectro, the week I bought it. November 2007

For the next 7 years, I barely played it. But, against unbelievable odds, it remained in my rapidly-revolving collection. I'm not quite sure why - I think a part of me felt like it "might come in handy" someday. I sure wasn't into it for very much money either!

At some point, I decided to dump the absolutely horrid floating bridge and slammed a cheap Tune-O-Matic bridge I had lying around on it. A bit heavy-handed, but effective!

In the time I've owned it, it went through stints as a slide guitar, a dedicated open-tuning guitar, and a guitar-I-keep-at-my-girlfriends-house. It was only recently that I realized I'd had a diamond-in-the-rough this whole time.

I had been on the lookout for a small acoustic guitar to keep at the office and to travel with when I don't want to haul my rather bulky and expensive Guild D55. The front-runner was the all-mahogany Guild M20 (a guitar made famous by, but not played by, Nick Drake), but no reasonably-priced vintage examples were surfacing.

It suddenly hit me when I glanced at my guitar rack one day - there was the Danelectro, dusty, rusty, strings broken, and neglected. It was basically a small acoustic guitar, it was already beat-to-hell, and I already owned it! All it needed was a little TLC...

After de-griming it with Windex, oiling the Brazilian Rosewood fretboard, re-stringing it with a beefy set of strings, and tuning it to C standard (being wary of the neck crack), I let'er rip - and rip she did.

I'm rather disappointed in myself for letting with guitar languish for so long. It has a really unique acoustic tone, quite usable for my purposes; but holy crap, I do not remember it ever sounding this good while plugged in! There is magic in those old lipstick tube pickups - it's jangly & bright but meaty too. I'm absolutely amazed at the tone from this thing.

Even tuned super-low, the bass-side of the neck is quite bowed and it does not appear to want to straighten out - kind of a bummer, but it's still playing decently and is going to make one hell of an office guitar!

(Photos © John Biscuti, July 2014)

Jingle-Jangle Morning: 1982 Rickenbacker 360/12WB Fireglo

This exquisite Rickenbacker is not only an iconic-sounding guitar; it is a custom-ordered specimen from an fascinating period in Rickenbacker's history. 

The Rickenbacker company has experienced two major "booms" throughout its long, storied history. The first one came in the mid-60's, vis-à-vis The Beatles and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds. Both groups, especially The Byrds, made extensive use of Rickenbacker's then-new model - their electric 12-string. In fact, George Harrison was given the second 12-string the company ever produced (the first went to Las Vegas cabaret singer Suzi Arden). The electric 12-string proved to be the perfect foil to the burgeoning folk-rock movement, and Rickenbacker's 360/12 was the one to have.

The second boom came in the mid-70's, but this time, the demand was for the company's ubiquitous 4001 bass, utilized to great effect by Chris Squire of Yes and Geddy Lee from Rush.

By the time the early 80's rolled around, however, the landscape was shifting in popular music and instrument choice followed suit. Syntheizers, locking vibrato units, and headless guitars had become the must-haves for professional musicians. For Rickenbacker, a notoriously stodgily-run company, business was slow. 

Circa 1980, Rickenbacker catalogues suddenly listed checkered binding as an option on their guitars. Checkered binding (actually purfling) is a handsome feature that had been a mainstay on nearly all deluxe Rickenbacker instruments in the 60's and phased out across the board circa 1973 (though it did make an appearance on the "rare-as-hen's-teeth" 4002 bass in 1976).

A handful of guitars like the one featured here have surfaced in recent years - standard 360/12WB (double-bound) models, inexplicably with checkered binding instead of the standard single strip of white binding commonly found on this model. All were made between 1980 and 1984, and feature other ultra-cool features, like X-bracing (eliminated circa 1985), 7" fingerboard radii (changed to 10" soon after), Kluson tuners (exchanged for Schallers circa 1985), and nameplates denoting the model name - note the "MODEL 360" text at the bottom of the Rickenbacker logo.

(Photos © John Biscuti, July 2014)

Dark Star: 2000 Guild Starfire Bass

The Guild Starfire bug really bit when I discovered Justin Meldal-Johnsen, known mainly as the bassist for Beck (and a fantastic producer to boot). Justin achieved some of my favorite bass tones ever using a 90's Guild Starfire Reissue, made in Westerly, RI. These reissue Starfire basses came stock with Guild's proprietary humbucking pickup, which Justin made great use of on recordings such as "Paper Tiger" from the Sea Change album.

This is noteworthy because the majority of folks who use or are interested in using Starfire basses are after the sound & look of the classic Hagstrom Bi-Sonic pickup, which came stock on Starfire basses from 1966-1970 (roughly). To my knowledge, Justin is one of the only Starfire players to make extensive use of these "Guildbuckers".

I was thrilled to finally have the opportunity to sit down with a 90's reissue Starfire, after having played Starfires from the 60's, 70's, and the 2013 reissue extensively. These 90's versions are really cool. One of the most striking things you notice immediately is that the body is about half as thin as an original Starfire. This makes the bass feel a lot more "familiar"; it almost has the feel of a solidbody instrument.

The particular Starfire is rather special in many ways. In fact, it has been suggested to me that it was perhaps built for a recording artist of some import. The combination of a non-standard color (black - these were available in Cherry, Sunburst, and Natural finishes) atop a non-standard wood (Mahogany, as noted on the sticker in the soundhole) certainly makes for a convincing argument.

The heart of this bass is of course the pickups, but this one does not have those Guildbuckers, like JMJ's bass -- this one has a pair of the wily & elusive Hammon Darkstar pickups.

Darkstar pickups were launched by Fred Hammon circa 2005, and despite being about a unique pickup as you can imagine, they became wildly popular. Before long, these large, gleaming beasts were being installed in Precision Basses, Jazz Basses, Rickenbackers, and even multi-laminate "coffee-table" basses. Hammon's creation was a more modern take on the classic Bi-Sonic pickup, wound about twice as hot as the originals for a completely unique, aggressive, yet classic sound that nothing made previously had truly captured.

For whatever reason, Hammon eventually quit making these pickups and dropped out of sight. Rumors abounded that he was simply overwhelmed by the demand, and the prices for used Darkstars skyrocketed. SIngle pickups have sold on eBay for upwards of $600, and still routinely sell in the $300-$400 range.

Recently, famed winder Curtis Novak picked up where Hammon left off and began producing his own high-quality variant of the famed Bi-Sonic, available in vintage or Darkstar (hotter) variations. Early reports on these are very favorable, though I have not hear or played one myself yet.

Being my first experience with Darkstars, there was a bit of a learning curve. These pickups are extremely sensitive to plucking hand placement and dynamics. With a light touch, they're fat and totally vintage; with a heavier-handed approach (as mine typically is), they are extremely aggressive -- occasionally to a fault. Listen to the variety in dynamics in the video below:

2013 Guild Starfire Bass "Newark Street"

These fantastic new reissues of the venerable Guild Starfire I Bass were unveiled at NAMM in January 2013, but with a tentative April ship date.

Well, this one just came in - the first one I've seen ANYWHERE on the internet. COOL!

So, here's a video detailing the awesome tone of this bass, via the Bi-Sonic (esque) pickup. Three of my favorite bassists are represented - Bruce Thomas, James Jamerson, Bruce Foxton. The bass was recorded direct, using an Apogee Duet, Logic 8, and Amplitube 3 (The Ampeg SVT Classic setting, with minimal EQ'ing, no compression or other effects).

I am very impressed with the neck and tone. It is also pretty well constructed, and comes shipped in a very nice TKL hardshell case.

(Photos © John Biscuti, April 2013)