Monday, February 13, 2017

The '59 "Top-Loader" Tele & It's Devoted Fans

Late '58 Top-loading Tele bridge, courtesy of Premier Guitar

The 1958-59 period is a vintage often associated with Gibson guitars, the Les Paul Standard in particular, as discussed in a previous article. But in Fullerton, California, Leo Fender was experimenting as well, albeit not as drastically; for possible cost-cutting or time-saving reasons, or simply just emulating the popular evolution of the Precision Bass a year prior, the traditional string-thru-body design of the Telecaster was foregone in favor of a top-loading bridge, with the string slots drilled thru the rear lip of the "ashtray" plate. This began in late '58, and after a full year of production with mixed to negative results, the old string-thru-body construction was brought back by 1960, although the remaining supply of top-loading bridges were re-drilled and still used, allowing some models from late '59 all the way thru '62 to swing both ways. Why bring up such an obscure design failure? Because one of the most infamous Telecasters in rock-and-roll history was in fact a "toploader" from this period.

The Jimmy Page "Dragon" Telecaster

Jimmy Page's Dragon Toploader Telecaster, circa '68

Beginning it's life as a white-blonde Telecaster with white pickguard (exact date of birth unknown, but the slab rosewood fingerboard indicates mid-'59 at earliest), it was purchased by John Owen in 1961, who sold the guitar to his friend, former Deltones bandmate and then-Yardbirds lead guitarist Jeff Beck in 1965, who used it as a backup to his beloved Esquire while on tour. When Page joined the Yardbirds in 1966, Beck presented the instrument to him as gift, a thank-you for recommending Beck for the Yardbirds gig in the first place, and for throwing him some session work as well.


Jeff Beck playing the Toploader with the Yardbirds circa '65 (top & left), and Page with it in '66 (right & bottom).

The guitar underwent a few cosmetic changes, from white pickguard to black with Beck, then back to white with Page, who also added a few circular mirrors for a psychedelic effect, perhaps as a tribute to friend Syd Barrett's Esquire, in '67.

Page with the Toploader, circa '67.

Eventually, by 1968, Page stripped the guitar to it's natural ash grain and had some fun with paint, adding a mirror pickguard as well; the "Dragon" was born. This was Page's main guitar during his time as lead guitarist of the Yardbirds, as well as the New Yardbirds, who would change their name to Led Zeppelin and record a crushing self-titled debut album released in January of '69.  Along with a Supro combo amp, Vox wah, and Tone Bender fuzz, the Dragon helped Page create some incredible and timeless guitar tones on that record.

Page bowing Dragon on the first Zep tour, with Bonzo in background.

While also used for recording parts of Led Zeppelin II,  the Dragon was last seen live in May of '69, only to be brought out of retirement to record the epic climactic outro solo of "Stairway to Heaven" in 1971. Unfortunately, while away on tour (and favoring his Les Pauls for live use), a friend thought he'd do Jimmy a favor by crudely refinishing the iconic guitar; the new paint job "totally screwed up the sound and wiring" according to Page, and he scrapped the guitar, salvaging just the neck and using it on his brown B-bender Tele later on. "As for the body", says Page, "it will never be seen again!".

Did Jimmy prefer this Tele to others due to it's top-loading bridge? He never said publicly, at least not to my knowledge, but you've got to assume he had access to others and still went back to the Dragon. There are some reports that this guitar was drilled out for string-thru setup as well, meaning it would have been a very late '59 or even a '60 production model, but Page clearly strung it up thru the top of the bridge. In theory, and claimed to be true by some fans, the toploading bridge adds a looser, slinkier feel to the strings by eliminating the drastic breakpoint angle behind the saddles and the extra string length (not to be confused with scale length, which stayed the same); this would aid in ease of bending and vibrato, but hurt sustain and the ability to really "dig in" to the strings, the main complaints with the design in '59 and beyond. Most traditional Tele aficionados love the way the guitar fights back when you play aggressively with either hand, and that was diminished with the top-loader. I suppose none of that bothered Jimmy, though.

The Jim Campilongo '59 Telecaster

Jim Campilongo with his '59 original (left) and playing his signature model.

There's also a modern Tele-master who prefers the '59 Toploader, and it's someone I've had the privilege of seeing live and taking lessons from right here in New York City: alt-country/jazz/western swing guitarist extraordinaire Jim Campilongo. Jim was given his authentic '59 as a gift from a friend after falling in love with it, and it's been his main instrument ever since (I need some friends like Jim's). He describes the feel of the guitar as "rubbery" compared to standard Teles, but still capable of the twang reminiscent of his guitar idol, Roy Buchanan, and excelling at behind-the-nut bends due to it's extra slinkyness (something Page did as well, albeit not as extensively).

Jim's '59 Toploader and Princeton Reverb amp

Fender released a limited edition Custom Shop Campilongo model in 2010, an exact replica of his beloved '59, and I had the pleasure of playing Jim's personal copy. It was strung up with .009's, so I couldn't give a fair comparison to a standard Tele, as I'm a .010 player; one would need to go back-and-forth on virtually identical instruments with matching string gauges for a fair shootout. Regardless, it's a fine instrument worthy of the headstock signature. If you're not familiar with Jim's music, I suggest you check out Orange or Dream Dictionary, both excellent albums with some great guests, including Norah Jones. He's also a phenomenal teacher with some great online lessons available for download.

The Jeff Buckley '83 Tele

And now, for the wild card... 24 years after the original Top-loader Telecaster, Fender brought the design back in 1983, now utilizing a Schaller "Freeflyte" top-loading bridge as opposed to a modified traditional-style unit. Although just as unpopular the second time around, especially due to a common complaint of microphonics in the bridge pickup, it became the main instrument of famed singer/songwriter (and hugely underrated guitarist) Jeff Buckley.

Jeff Buckley's '83 Tele (left), and a closeup of the Schaller Freeflyte toploading bridge (right).

Jeff borrowed the blonde mirror-pickguard instrument from his friend Janine Nichols in 1991, after all of his personal gear was stolen; he never actually purchased the instrument, but played it from then until his untimely death in 1997. A Seymour Duncan Hot Stack replaced the stock bridge pickup, and the mirror pickguard was originally added by Janine as a tribute to Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. This Tele was used for the recording of Grace, Buckley's lone studio album, including his breathtaking version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", and also featured on much of Live in Chicago and Live at Sin-e. The guitar was returned to Janine after Buckley's passing, and auctioned off via Chelsea Guitars in 2011 for over $50,000.

Fender only produced this Freeflyte-equipped model of the toploader through 1984, although some future versions of the instrument, like the Made-in-Mexico Classic 50's Tele, have featured variations on the toploading bridge since. It just goes to show that a universally unpopular design can still be magic in the right hands, regardless of style or era. One person's con might be another's plus.

Modern Classic 50's MIM Toploader bridge

Friday, February 3, 2017

Gig Survival: MONO Cases, Airports, & Norman's Rare Guitars

Fresh off the plane and already typing... I'd say it's good to be home, but honestly, nah. Four days in LA wasn't quite enough, although I packed about as much into that time frame as I fit in my Mono Dual M80 for this excursion...

Not pictured: eyeglasses, sunglasses, phone charger, iPad.
Otherwise, all I needed for 4 days.

First off, it does not get any better than these Mono cases for travel gigging; the perfect amount of protection and convenience for two Fender-style guitars, as well as a Pedaltrain Nano and cables. It could get a little heavy on a long TSA line, but really not terrible at all. Speaking of TSA, no major issues whatsoever at either airport, LAX or Newark... Newark took it off to the side of the scanner, which immediately concerned me, but all the agent did was open up the Tick and swab my pedals, then handed everything back with a smile and zero questions. In LAX, they sent me down a different line for a larger scanner, which the case passed thru with no issues.

As for the United Airlines staff, no problems at all with carrying on; I suppose they've received enough negative press in the past for a few infamous incidents, but a phone call to customer service the day before my flight reassured me there would be no problems as long as space was not an issue (also printed out the FAA Regulations regarding musical instruments, just in case). The Dual M80 fit perfectly into the overhead compartment with the Tick removed and placed alongside, and thanks to priority boarding, had an entire bin to itself. I'd definitely advise upgrading to a priority group if your airline of choice offers it strictly for this reason. Most planes have closets, but they're not very wide at all, possibly not wide enough for the dual case (A thin hardshell case or single-guitar Mono might fit, though).

Upon arrival, it was time to pick up my white Mustang convertible (yes, really!) and cruise up to Shadow Hills for a rehearsal with the incredibly talented Ms. Helen Rose and the rest of her band, consisting of guitarist/songwriter extraordinaire Jonah Tolchin, the man with the tastiest fills since Bonham, Kevin Clifford on the boom-booms, and bassist/hypeman/guitar builder Don Moser (who has one of his beautiful Katrina-inspired Voodoo guitars on display at the Smithsonian Institute. Jonah also played a brand new custom Telecaster by Don). After working out the set and running the tunes, we headed down to The Mint for a soundcheck and some dinner before the show.

Don's original Katrina-relic Voodoo Guitar (left), and Jonah's new custom Gratitude Tele (right).
More on Voodoo Guitars here in the future!

For the guitar nerds out there (basically all of you), I used one of The Mint's house amps, a Rivera Fifty Five Twelve EL34 1x12" combo (since evolved into the current Chubster model), which had an incredible clean tone with lots of depth, detail, and character. For dirt, I chose a Fulltone Plimsoul overdrive pedal, which is my go-to safety blanket for unfamiliar situations, along with an Ibanez AD-9 Keeley-modded analog delay and Strymon Flint for spring reverb and tremolo, my usual tone candy of choice.

My girls with their Rivera 5512 date for the evening.

The monitor & FOH sound was handled superbly by Steven, an employee of the venue, who was extremely accommodating to us as well the headliners, Grant Farm. By the way, if you're not familiar with these guys, check them out; self-described as "Cosmic Americana", and if I must label them, it would be something along the lines of the Allmans meet the Dead with some phenomenal chicken pickin' by guitarist Tyler Grant. Four-part vocal harmony, to boot!

All in all, the gig was great, and we'll be back on March 24th to open for British blues guitar phenom Davy Knowles... come say hi!

Helen Rose & the gang at The Mint

In other guitar-related news, a trip to Los Angeles would not be complete without visiting Norman's Rare Guitars in Tarzana, most notable for providing Nigel Tufnel's Spinal Tap collection (including the Les Paul you can still hear sustaining if you listen very closely), as well as Marty McFly's cherry red '59 Gibson ES-345. Joe Bonamassa drops by almost weekly when in town, and store manager Mark Agnesi posts his Guitar of the Day videos on Instagram to make me drool regularly.

Norman's Rare Guitars & me (on couch, with 1940 Martin). Photo courtesy of the lovely Lauren Hans.

Mark happened to notice me checking out an all-mahogany 1937 Martin, similar to the '39 model that Helen's father, Alexander Wright has (that I spent the night before playing), and handed me two others to check out: an Adirondack spruce-top 0-18 from 1940, and a refinished '48 model. There was something very special about the 1940, likely due to it's pre-war vintage (when Martin's craftsmanship was supposedly at it's absolute peak), and after comparing it with the other Martins and a few similar Gibsons, I knew it had to happen; Mark made me a great deal including shipping to New Jersey, and it's on it's way as I type.

So that just about wraps up an incredibly fun, productive, and exhausting trip, complete with a lunch at Duke's in Malibu, a dinner at James Beach in Venice, and a ridiculously fun night out at Jumbo's Clown Room on Hollywood Boulevard. Until we meet again, La-La Land!