28. Tanglewood acoustic
I’VE never been much of an acoustic player, but all the same, I’m sure most people who play guitar would tell you there was the odd time when it’s really, seriously handy to have an acoustic guitar knocking about. Solo and duo blues gigs, for instance, where an electric guitar sometimes doesn’t look or sound quite right without bass and drums.
And busking. Not that I’ve ever busked – though there was a time in the early 90s, when my job security looked a tad tenuous and I feared I might need to take to the streets with a battered old acoustic and sing for my supper. On reflection, it’s probably just as well I never needed to. I’d have either got a lot better at the strummy, singing stuff pretty quickly…or starved. Well, maybe not starved, but not become quite as fat as I am now, anyway.
In pursuit of this notion, I decided to buy an acoustic – and was very lucky to find a really smart-looking secondhand Tanglewood dreadnought in the old Zings music shop by the bus station in Maldon. Even then, £60 didn’t usually buy you much, but with new strings, this one sounded as good as it looked, played pretty well, too and even came with a fairly rudimentary cardboard case.
That was my one and only acoustic for years and years and it saw me through quite a lot of gigs and a couple of home-recorded cassette albums with my mate Phil Davies – we called ourselves Slim Tim (a reference to my band Automatic Slim, rather than to my waistline) and Lightin’ Phil (not a typo – he was an electrician!)
Quite early on, the upgrade bug bit. I replaced the tuners (those really horrible items with the diamond-shaped chrome covers over the gears you see on loads of cheap guitars of all sorts) with a nice set of Gotohs and installed a piezo pickup under the bridge. The latter lasted about six weeks. It sounded awful – I’ve never much liked under-bridge pickups, as they always sound brittle and pingy to my ears. Fine, if you’re Monty Montgomery and that’s your sound (allied to technique to die for and an array of pedals) but otherwise a bit of a no-no.
I found a great secondhand Fishman Rare Earth humbucker on eBay and I’ve sworn by them ever since. It’s a trifle illogical that a magnetic soundhole pickup should actually sound more “natural” and “acoustic” than a transducer, but I’m far from alone in being a big fan of Fishman magenetics. Actually, I bitterly regret keeping the pickup in the Tanglewood when I sold in the early 2000s, it haveing been superceded by the Simon and Patrick. I thought at the time it would add to the saleability of the guitar.
It did. And someone got a pretty substantial bargain. Bugger!
29. Vintage AMG-3 “Notional” Resonator
Ah, the allure of the shiny metal guitar! Punters love ’em – can’t get enough of ’em! You can blame Mark Knopfler and THAT Dire Straits album, really, but there’s definitely something about the way they catch the light (married to the fact they’re often used for slide – a voodoo as sexy as it is incomprehensive to non-players). The first metal-bodied reso I ever saw was the one to which Lightin’ Phil treated himself soon after we started playing duo gigs together. It was brand new, utterly beguiling and blisteringly expensive. A National Style O – all bell brass, engraved palm trees and chrome plating (or was it nickel?). To say it was loud, acoustically, was an understatement. Played with a full handful of plastic thumb and finger picks, it was positively thunderous.
Phil’s resonator cost him the price of a moderately serviceable used car. My humble secondhand Vintage AMG3 I bought on eBay set me back £260 – complete with a hard case. It was a Far Eastern knock-off, with only a hint of the sound, vibe and general pizzazz of Phil’s National – but I soon learned there are things you can do to make them sound and perform better.
First I decided it needed a pickup. Amplifying resonators to capture the unique tone of that metal cone at the heart of the beast is a peculiar blend of art and science. If you have loads to spend, you get a Highlander system, simple as that. It’s what the top pros use, but the pickup and associated gubbins costs more than I paid for the whole guitar! Even Phil hadn’t gone that far with his Style O. He used some strange and rather inelegant, proprietary system involving small mics attached to the body and pointing into the F-holes attached by bits of sticky-back Velcro. It never seemed to work all that well, to be brutally honest.
I started off with a transducer from a very well-respected Canadian company called Schatten, which fitted under the “biscuit” – the round wooden disc in the middle of the cone upon which the bridge is mounted in this type of reso. It worked – up to a point – but sounded thin and weedy, no matter what you did to it. Next came a slimline Kent Armstrong humbucker attached to the body under the strings with a super-sticky pad. It worked, but never sounded like a resonator. Then I found a decent compromise in the shape of a Lace resonator pickup, a flat, slimline stick-on humbucker specially voiced to make the guitar sound, well, like a resonator. It works surprisingly well. It’s still there! (Thanks Richard Townend – I owe you one!)
Along the way, the guitar also acquired a new resonator cone – a vastly superior Quarterman job, procured at some expense from StewMac website – classy-looking new Waverly-style tuners (lovely, elegant, smooth-turning and great value from the GFS website) and a volume control and jack socket. It was only when I drilled holes for the last two that I discovered the body wasn’t brass, as Vintage claimed, but common-or-garden steel. Or at least the swarth coming off the drill was steel!
Oh yes, and while I had the tuners off, I sanded off the word, “Vintage” and added a snide, but very convincing snide National decal. Not that anyone who knows a thing about guitars would ever be fooled. If anyone ever asks me, I tell them it’s not a National, but a “Notional”!
Thus modded, it’s a pretty terrific working guitar, albeit relegated to second place these days by the REAL National I bought last summer. The Vintage still looks great (I remember an old boy coming up to me at a gig and telling me confidentially, in hushed and reverential tones: “That guitar is worth a lot of money, you know!”)
It sounds terrific, too and has served me very well. I gigged it a fair bet when Rob Barry, Paul Lester and myself had an acoustic blues trio called Los Tes Armadillos – and offshoot from the Rockin’ Armadillos.
I also recorded with it on the first WOLFPACK album and it’s also the resonator you hear Joel playing on a couple of tracks on the band’s second album.