Meanwhile In The Back Yard

On a chilly rainy morning, there was a brown squirrel resting and keeping dry in a homemade bird feeding box. It may have been sleeping with its eyes open - when I came out into the yard it took awhile to notice me taking its picture. Do squirrels even have eyelids, and if so, do they ever blink? The answers are: yes, and not very often.

While up on a ladder hanging some suet feeders for the birds, I sensed, in peripheral vision, something moving above me. Looking up, I almost fell off the ladder when I saw these hazy tendrils of floating mist coming fast from the south. Pretty amazing in a subtle way.

This is sort of an update to the post "First Signs of Approaching Spring". A couple weeks later, sure enough more flowers have come up and opened: grape hyacinth, daffodils, and the first tulip. Up until recently the only things green in the yard have been grasses, but now that's changed. Soon those first few iris shoots will be waist high all along the back fence, and already it's time to get the lawnmower and trimmer out before the grass takes over everything.

You know what they say: "Let sleeping doves lie". That's probably also true for doves that are only resting. This mourning dove feels secure enough under the new spring foliage of a blueberry bush to take an open-eyed siesta in the early morning sun.

A couple of weeks ago when most of the yard was still fallow, a red shouldered hawk came down amidst a flock of 18 doves foraging for seed, quickly snatched one up, and flew off, all within a couple of seconds. There were feathers everywhere, and doves haven't been back in quite those numbers since. We're glad to see two or three now, and hopefully more as the leaf cover habitat for them improves.

*Update on the squirrel in the bird box: Probably the same squirrel, taking a short nap out of the rain:

1977 Gibson Les Paul TV Special, Model 55-77

In an earlier post, I started a series on my limited bunch of guitars:

After doing a follow-up featuring an old Danelectro, other things came up and I sort of dropped the thread. Today it's bitter cold out and cloudy; sounds like a good day to pick up where we left off, and do a post about my 1977 Gibson Les Paul TV Special, which I bought brand shiny new in 1978.

We won't be focusing on Gibson Les Pauls in general, their construction and development, or mythology and arcane lore - that's all been done before, millions billions of words already written. This post is about one particular electric guitar, what I know about it, and a few of my impressions and experiences.

Let's start with a view of the back of the headstock:

That stamp tells us about this guitar: it's a Les Paul model 55-77, it was made in the U.S.A., and there's a production serial number which might or might not be useful in finding additional information. One question I get asked is whether it was made in Kalamazoo or Tennessee, and the answer is I don't really know. Experts have told me that, a) it's from one place, b) it's from the other, and c) there's no way of knowing. That's all I need to know; living with a minor mystery is in itself a fun thing.

I should apologize for masking the serial number in the above photo, but as Randy Newman says, "It's a jungle out there". A jungle full of con- artists, scammers, and online agents of bad actor governments, such as, for instance, russia.

Here's a frontal shot of the peghead:

Not much to see here, looks like many other Les Pauls. Note the pencil lead graphite in the 3rd string nut slot. Also, around the tuner shaft bushings are circular impressions left behind by the large washers which were part of the original tuning machines (see below for more info). And yes, the truss rod cover is upside down. Why? Idle hands, devil's playground, evil weed, 1980.

Another pic of the obverse of the headstock:

These are Gotoh open back tuners. They're kinda sorta copies of the world's greatest machines, the famed Waverly tuners. And since they're Japan made Gotohs, they are ultra fine and precision, easily the best tuners this guitar has had, and it's had a few.

In the beginning... the LP Special came with ugly and merely okay tuning machines: Gibson branded, possibly made by Schaller, with plain nickel backs and plated steel "tulip" Keystone knobs. Almost immediately one of the key posts got bent in action and they were replaced with a set of Gibson Schallers that looked a lot like vintage Kusons (with golden creamy colored plastic Keystones), except they were cast body tuners. Although I prefer vintagey style light weight pressed sheet metal machines, that set of cast Gibson/Schallers were good enough, and fit into the larger modern style holes. They lasted about two years of gigging until they wore out, and were replaced with another set of the same.

Since those first three sets, a few other tuners have been on the 55-77, either due to getting busted up at some of the wilder gigs it went to, or not making the grade quality wise: 4) old Grovers; old = pre-worn out = bad. By that time adapter bushings to retrofit vintage style machines into headstocks drilled for cast tuners became available. So next were: 5) New foreign-made Klusons, really pretty but sub-par quality. 6) Japanese Gotoh Kluson copies, very nice, but green tulip knobs = yuk. 7) Gotoh small white knob Kluson clones - take the pickguard off, and voila! instant Les Paul Junior. And finally, 8) these fine Gotoh open-gear beauties, keepers for sure.

Here's a shot of the original store sticker from Bobby's in Denver:

Very classy. Underneath that clear sticker, you can see a hint of what the finish originally looked like - a shade somewhat lighter than what the 55-77 aged into over the decades. If you look carefully, you can see the seam lines between each separate piece of mahogany.

It's hard to take a photo that accurately shows the neck, so I didn't. Basically here's a description in a few words: It's made of a three piece mahogany sandwich, with alternating grain, so it's really strong, no fear of the headstock getting sheared off like a lot of older Pauls do. This guitar has fallen from stands and slipped off amps it was leaned upon, bumped into mic stands and drum hardware during frenetic shows, and even dropped onto a couple stages when straps have broken - snapping off tuner knobs - and never had a cracked or distressed neck.

The neck profile is a bit different than most other guitars - it's wide and slim at the first couple frets, and gradually becomes really hefty by the 12th fret, over an inch thick there. Modern descriptors such as C or V or U just can't do justice to how it feels in your hand. If you play this Les for any amount of time, you'll always know where your fretting hand is, just by the differing thickness of wood under your thumb, coupled with varying fingerboard width as you get up the neck. The perfect "close your eyes while soloing" guitar.

A close up of the rosewood fretboard and some of the wide, low profile frets:

Note the slightly flattish tops of these frets: all due to my own particular habit of doing note bends and wiggly vibrato. Also, there's no gouges or trenches in the rosewood; I fret with enough pressure but don't do the "death grip" thing.

Stock and never been filed down or re-crowned, made of some indestructo material, they're the toughest frets I've ever seen, besides stainless, showing little wear although played a lot over the years. I've never really liked low frets, but that didn't stop me from playing the Special. Sure, I have a definite preference for a certain type of beer, but that doesn't prevent me from drinking and enjoying whatever brewski you hand me. All three of my electric guitars, the Parts-O-Caster, the '59 Danelectro, and this Gibson Special, feel very different in the hand, and have almost radically dissimilar tonal output. But hey, if all my friends were alike, life would be dull indeed; same with guitars.

A lovely body for sure:

Unlike the neck the body is only one piece of very solid and heavy mahogany, no seams anywhere.

As you can see, the control layout isn't like the usual Les Paul. Not too long after getting the Special I rewired for in/out of phase and series/parallel pickup selection, but that didn't last long. Like Jekyll and Hyde, my mad scientist brain enjoyed drawing circuit schematics and getting at it with a soldering iron, but my simple minded playing brain didn't like having to think at all. So the controls got dumbed down to where it's been ever since: single volume and tone, switch below the bridge - straightforward enough for the young Neanderthal rocker, and still okay with me.

The chicken-head knob (a vintage 1940s or '50s part, a gift from a friend) on the upper bout is attached to a pot with wires that go nowhere and do nothing. Looks cool though and fills in an empty hole. The cream colored pickup covers are a bit pinkish looking under certain lights, and I've been meaning to change them for decades. There's an un-plated solid nickel one in the parts bin, and next string change we'll see how it looks on the 55-77. The original black covers were replaced after messing up the bridge pickup cover during a late night experiment I'm not proud of - Dr Jekyll again. Don't ask.

As you can see, in bright sunlight the pickup covers aren't pinkish at all:

When one of the original black "speed" knobs fell off and got lost at a gig, I installed gold volume and tone knobs. One of those two split in half, and the ones on there now are almost new. The original aluminum strap buttons got changed to what the guy at the store in Nebraska in 1986 called "bass buttons" - nickel pegs larger than the usual ones - after the stock one at the tail end of the guitar broke off and disappeared. Packed away in a bag inside a bin, within a box on a shelf in the closet, there's a small collection of miscellaneous original parts; a strap button, three speed knobs and a couple of pots, two black pickup covers (one with holes in it), a corroded switch, switch plate and black knob...

The Thomas sticker, which used to be on the Strat, is a gift from our youngest kid. There used to be a Tigger sticker on the pickguard, put there by his older sister (yellow + black guitar = Tigger), but it literally got played to shreds. I'm looking for another one like it, something like this:

That's about it for mods.

Let's see - what else? That's the original bridge and tailpiece, recently cleaned and de-grunged; never had a reason to change those, they work fine and stood up to hard usage, only had to replace one saddle. Same with the pickups - what we used to call "Gibson single coil pickup", but are now known as P90. Very nice tone and texture, moderately high output, non microphonic. I've tried a few different tone capacitors through the years, but went back to the stock little green one. With a pleasing tone and smooth non- peaky rotational response, it's a good match for these pickups - even better than Bumblebees or Black Beauties, Brown Blobs, Orange Drops, or Blue Hot Dogs. People actually give capacitors pet names - weird, huh?.

Through its life, the 55-77 has usually had various brands of regular gauge 10, 13, 17, 26, 36, 46 nickel strings. For a couple years it had a custom set: 10, 12, 17, 28, 38, 48; and currently it's got the slightly heavier GHS Gilmours: 10.5, 13, 17, 30, 40, 50, with a bit higher action for both finger and slide stuff.

Here's some fun had with natural elements:

When it was new, this Paul just looked too nice and newish. And though I wasn't treating it gently, the heavy polymer finish didn't get broken in like the older guitars I had. So being the young idiot I was, I set about giving it some visual history. Took it to gigs, rehearsals and the studio without its case, just thrown into the back seat. One really cold 5 degree day in the Colorado Rockies, I forgot it was there and left it in the car overnight.

It wasn't exactly done on purpose, but the resultant finish cracking was like instant character:

You can see by the photos above that the finish is fairly thick, a typical 1970s sort of coating. If it was a more retro nitro, or even just plain paint like what's on my 1959 Danelectro, this guitar would be even more visually interesting. In the modern age, it's considered cool to take sandpaper to an instrument and artificially "age" it, but that's so obviously phony you wonder why anyone would do that.

There are a few nice real dings:

That's some thick and tough skin on there! Due to its heavy finish, most of the Paul is free of deep divots, not because I was being careful, which I wasn't. Tough skin, 3-piece neck, monolithic single piece body - this thing is built like a tank.

In my younger days I wore a heavy rose pattern, cast brass belt buckle that did some cool damage to the backs of other guitars, but not so much here. Just a few gouges that didn't faze the finish:

Here's a picture of the back of the Les Paul Special, in dim Oregon winter cloudy daylight:

Nice chocolate brown control covers, stock and original. Once I tried getting a matching brown pickguard made at a specialty shop in SoCal, but after a strange conversation with someone who appeared to be living on another astral plane, it didn't seem like a good idea. Especially when he suggested leaving the Paul at the shop overnight.

Ever since it was new, the Special has always felt great, played great, and sounded great, and it's still all that today. My first quality guitar, a 1947 Martin D18, had tall narrow frets and a chunky V shaped neck, and this Les Paul's wide flat fretwire and slimmer neck felt a bit odd at first. But that was immediately forgotten as soon as I plugged into a '50s Fender Deluxe and cranked it up - the tone was there, effortlessly perfect at any spot on the volume knob, with all the fidelity, grit, and sustain I could ask for.

In my (and the guitar's) gigging days I would often get offers to buy it, sometimes for ridiculously high amounts, but never once considered selling. Over the years, I've lost the Special three times, not knowing if I would ever see it again. Each incident is a long story in itself - one involves a somewhat evil guy, twice there were saints and a series of fortuitous and improbable events, and in the end it always came back. I suspect that means the 55-77 is mine for all time, and that's all right with me.

One last photo of my old friend, the 1977 Gibson Les Paul Special 55-77:

First Signs of Approaching Spring

It hasn't been a very good winter here in Oregon's Willamette Valley, unless you're one of the newly arrived from warmer and sunnier climates. There was a snowy couple of days in early January, and that was great, but overall there's been only a fraction of the usual amount of rain. The long multi decade drought cycle in the western United States continues, possibly to historic low levels of precipitation.

No matter what form our winters take, it's still always a welcome event when we see the first indications that spring is on its way. Over the last week and a half the temperatures dropped into the teens overnight, with highs not much above freezing, but the previous two days saw some warming, and today, although overcast, it got up to 60 degrees. Coincident with that, the first flowers in our yard popped up and opened out: spring crocuses, yellow and violet and white.

It won't be long now until tulips, daffodils, and grape hyacinths also show up to welcome the arrival of longer and warmer days. In the meantime, it's a cheery scene, to look out and see crocuses here and there, the first signs of spring.

Seen through open door -
First sign of approaching spring
One yellow crocus

Thrift Store Fun: Vintage 1960 Norelco AD-4877M "Labor of Love"

Wednesday was a dental appointment day in neighboring Springfield, and afterwards we stopped by the St Vincent's thrift store on Q St. There were some interesting Asian ceramic pieces in stock that day, and my eye was caught by a pair of brightly painted home made speaker cabinets.

According to the staff, some idiot removed all the screws holding the back panels on, yet still couldn’t get them off, and then grabbed the burlap grill cloth of one cab and ripped it, just to see what the speaker looked like. Seeing a dual “whizzer” cone, he left in a huff, leaving a bunch of screws laying around.

No doubt due to their appearance, these cabs were priced low, so I took a gamble since I’ve had good luck in the past with brightly painted home brewed cabs built in a certain era. It was obvious to me what they were: a labor of love by a 1950s or ‘60s do-it-yourselfer home handyman with a limited tool selection:
an electric jig saw, drill, screwdriver, caulking gun, pencil and probably a long ruler, were all that was needed to build up these cute yellow cabinets.

Mr Handyman also had a novel solution for framing the grill material; in spite of having few tools to work with, he was an intelligent and most likely a creative sort of person.

One indication that these speaker cabs were valued by the builder was a blue Allied Van Lines sticker on one, showing he thought enough of them to pay to transport them as part of a whole house move, most likely to another region of the country.

Nice heavyweight terminals:

They metered out as okay:

The jerko Vinnie’s customer couldn’t get the backs off because the entire cabinet was caulk sealed. Using a very small pry bar, it came apart easily, with a sharp snap and pop noise as the 60 year old caulking separated.

The cleats were screwed in place:

The builder had totally stuffed every cubic inch of the sealed non- ported cabinet with fibreglass batting. Although not done very often anymore, at the time it was sort of a popular concept in the DIY projects as seen in magazines like Popular Mechanics.

Down at the bottom of all that carcinogenic stew was this:

Cool. The magnet cans look amazing, and the 8" (nominal size) speaker drivers themselves are really heavy.

The cones are in overall excellent shape, except for a small bit of damage to one surround, caused by the Gorilla of St Vincent's. Which sounds like the title of some story by Edgar Allen Poe.

"What a maroon!”, as Bugs Bunny would say. (hint for those not familiar with classic Warner Bros cartoons: Bugs meant to say "moron")

Here’s the label:

An online pdf of a vintage Norelco hi-fi ad shows these AD 4877M drivers as costing $26 apiece back in the day, which is the equivalent of over $600 for the pair in today’s money - no wonder the builder / owner kept them through a long distance move.

In the pre-internet days I'd seen a magazine article mentioning Norelco and Philips Alnico magnet drivers as being well suited for use with flat panel "open baffle" speaker design. Checking online today, it’s hard to say if that was so - one of many things gone down the internet memory hole.

Well, let's see what these Norelco speakers sound like. I hooked up the cabs, one as-is sealed and chock full o’ fibreglass, and the other with no batting and the back removed to approximate an open baffle audio experience, and had a listen to some
pieces on the local classical station, KWAX, and selected tracks from a few of my favorite test CDs:

Sarah Vaughan, "Sarah Vaughan" (1954);  Bill Evans Trio, "Sunday at the Village Vanguard" (1961); Bill Morrisey, "Songs of Mississippi John Hurt" (1999); Modern Jazz Quartet, "Django" (1953-1955); Beach Boys, "Pet Sounds" (1966); Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, "Jazz Samba" (1962); Dread Zeppelin, "Un-Led-Ed" (1990) - If you haven't yet heard Dread Zeppelin, you're in for a unique listening experience: Led Zeppelin tunes done by an ultra tight rock group in a Reggae style, with vocals by an Elvis impersonator.

Also auditioned were a rare String Quartet in E minor by Giuseppe Verdi (Joe Green!), JS Bach's French Suites played by Andras Schiff, Samuel Barber's Symphony No 1, and one of my all time faves, "Graceful Ghost Rag" by William Bolcom.

Never mind the slightly comical looking cabinets - these are nothing less than the greatest sounding single driver speakers I’ve ever heard, and very efficient - at a guess I’d say at least 25% higher efficiency than the Wolverine 8” loaded (plus 12” woofer) Electro-Voice Leyton speakers I have in the living room. Truly astounding detail - I could hear every nuance of brushes caressing the snare skins on vintage jazz recordings, Sarah Vaughan at conversational volume level sounded like she was right there in the room, the separation of moving harmony lines in the Verdi string quartet was incredibly lifelike, and Carl Wilson's vocal on the Beach Boys Pet Sounds album cut “God Only Knows” was sweeter and more angelic than I’ve ever heard it.

Since Pet Sounds is a mono mix I panned between the two cabs to hear differences in the cabinet configuration, and found the open back cab to be a bit more efficient (louder), and the closed one to have a slightly better low end, but not by very much.

Uh oh, I feel another project coming on. Maybe build a pair of solid pine open back cabinets the same size as these yellow things (external dimensions 13.5" x 19" x 12", 1/2" plywood baffle). Or maybe just keep those funky 1950s labor-of-love cabs just the way they are, enjoy the wonderful sound, and who cares what they look like?