Vintage Marshall Resurrection

I love the look of a proper vintage Marshall stack. After playing various combo amps in the 1960s, graduating to a blackface Fender Bassman and then to a Vox AC 50, I was staggered by the sheer presence of the 100 watt full stack when it arrived upon the scene in 1965. Equal parts audio device, stage backdrop and weapon of youthful enthusiasm, it was a statement which stood alone from all that had come before. I bought my first one in 1968 and added a second in 1969. You haven’t really lived until you’ve stood on stage in front of two wide-open full stacks. Since then I’ve collected quite a few more—a number of which are in need of some repair.

6a00e54ee874da88330148c6d48b81970c-800wi

So, while I was down in Nashville Jim took it upon himself to finish a project I’d started in 1985—I guess he figured it was about time. Many moons ago I’d rescued an original “plexi” 100 watt stack from the rehearsal room of a ’80 era metal band where it sat forlorn and neglected. Its owner had “graduated” to a nice little fifteen space rack full of solid-state gizmos and no longer wanted the towering relic. “It’s too clean, and doesn’t sustain” he’d told me. “My new rig sounds more like a record anyway.” To prove his point he danced on the rack’s pedal board and then fired off eight bars of 64th notes at about 120 bpm—holding the last one for ten seconds of whammy-bar gymnastics. For $300 the Marshall was mine, I didn’t even bother to turn it on.

When I got it home, I inspected it, cleaned some corrosion, checked some voltages and then plugged in my guitar. Score! The amp was fine but the cabinets had seen better days. They started life as a matched pair of metal-handle, salt-and-pepper grille 100 watt cabinets; and as good as they sounded they now needed cosmetic help. Somewhere along the line someone decided that they’d sound better without the original grillecloth and they had added period incorrect white logos. The straight cabinet had indeed been re-grilled with a low-budget fabric better suited for sheer curtains. From ten feet away it looked OK. An added bonus was the screaming highs that were now free to stab your ears without impediment—awesome, dude!

6a00e54ee874da88330148c6d48d73970c-800wi

If you’ve never taken an old Marshall cabinet completely apart and re-assembled it before, you’ll soon find your first attempt can be a struggle on par with splitting an atom. The second cabinet showed that the previous owner had learned quickly from his experience with the first. Apparently, after Einstein finished the first grille cloth conversion he had a better idea for the slant cab. Out came the carpet knife, and in about three minutes that ugly old vintage grille was gone without even having to look at a screwdriver. They say genius comes in threes (or is that bad luck?) so Mr. Brainiac’s next step was to staple some hardware cloth (chicken wire) over the speakers. A little flat black spray paint and the whole heavy metal universe was in balance again. (Cue devil horns here).

6a00e54ee874da88330148c6d48e77970c-800wi

So, while I was away, Jim methodically disassembled each cabinet and removed every stitch of cloth and every staple—the man has patience. The whole affair took the better part of three days, which is why I’d put it off so long.

6a00e54ee874da88330148c6d4901a970c-800wi

Here’s the front baffle with the remnants of the original grille. Note the vertical orientation of the white stripes.

6a00e54ee874da88330147e0ca9e8b970b-800wi

Along the way, Jim found a piece of broken beer bottle embedded in the tolex—a testimony to its long tenure playing in bars I guess.

6a00e54ee874da88330147e0ca9f6c970b-800wi

Inside, greenback 25 watt Celestions with original wiring. Some people like the even lower wattage Celestions, but when they get this old I’m happy for the small bit of extra headroom when only using one cabinet. Age will provide plenty of sag and the dense woven grille is an effective high frequency filter.

6a00e54ee874da88330148c6d49f94970c-800wi

Next, a roll of NOS Marshall grille cloth that I’d squirreled away twenty five years ago came out of hiding, looking great. I had just enough for two cabinets.

6a00e54ee874da88330148c6d4a018970c-800wi

The first order of business is to lay out the grille in the proper direction—the North-South orientation determined by the white threads. If you get it wrong the finished job will look weird when placed next to a correctly placed one.

6a00e54ee874da88330148c6d4a186970c-800wi

Using one of the bold white threads as a guide, Jim starts the folding over and stapling in one upper corner, continuing down and across being careful to keep the thread aligned on the edge. He’s got to stretch the material as he goes to get the proper tension. I’ve heard some people say that if the cloth isn’t tight enough when you’re done it can be wetted to make it shrink, but we’d previously tested this with a scrap of the new cloth and found it didn’t do a thing.

6a00e54ee874da88330147e0caafa1970b-800wi

After finishing the top and side edges, Jim stretched the cloth and tacked it down using the vertical threads to align it as he went. The next step was to replace the damaged white piping and then slide the baffle into the cabinet. Jim made sure to tap it home with a dead blow hammer before replacing the screws.

6a00e54ee874da88330148c6d4a5d7970c-800wi

With the baffle locked down it was just a matter of refitting the speakers with the wire harness and putting the back on the cabinet. It was also a chance to replace any stripped screws as needed.

6a00e54ee874da88330148c6d4a45c970c-800wi

The last touch was scrounging up some NOS gold logos from my box of parts. The originals were brittle plastic that broke easily—you’ll often see period photos of bands with mangled logos. After a while, Marshall got wise and started making them out of a more durable nylon type material that flexed rather than broke. My NOS are the brittle kind with gold on the front. While he was at it, Jim replaced some sketchy knobs on the head.

6a00e54ee874da88330147e0ccd45f970b-800wi

Original wheels are almost impossible to find in decent shape, but I have a stash of suitable impostors that are tall and thin like the real ones, so they’ll have to do until we unearth some originals.

6a00e54ee874da88330147e0edb72c970b-800wi

Restored to their former glory, it was time to roll ’em into the “Tone Pit” next to the other amps in my office arsenal. This is the place where I evaluate every nuance of the instruments I build so I’ve got a wide variety of amps in there.

6a00e54ee874da88330148c6d4bbd7970c-800wi

6a00e54ee874da88330147e0caec59970b-800wi

Now, the Dantzig Tone Pit finally has its proper pair of half-stacks—what a nice surprise. Thanks Jim.

 

 

Nashville Cats: Steve Cropper Tribute to the “5” Royales

Late last week, I left Jim to his own devices in the shop as I took a sojourn to Nashville to do some studio time. Generations of musicians have grown up with Steve Cropper's trademark licks as the soundtrack to their lives, so when producer Jon Tiven invited me to participate in the making of Cropper's new recording, a tribute to the "5" Royales, I couldn't say no.

5royales

The Royales were a seminal R&B group who bridged the gap between Doo-Wop, Soul and Funk. Their guitarist, Lowman Pauling, wrote most of the hits, and was a madman on guitar—so I understood where Cropper was coming from. I anticipated a good time, but it was only when I arrived in Nashville that I realized the true magnitude of the undertaking. 
As an unforeseen bonus, the recording was being done in Dan Penn's studio. If you're not familiar with Penn's career, do yourself a favor and follow the link—very cool stuff.

Joland steve

When we arrived at the studio, Cropper had already unloaded his silverface Quad Reverb and Billy Block was dropping off a drum kit for Steve Ferrone, who would play on the first day. Bassist David Hood was on hand and he and I immediately started talking bass-player trash.

Jol and David

What a thrill to sit and watch this guy track—a master class in restraint and note choice. Although he'd brought four instruments including a '57 P-Bass, David was tracking with a pink Jazz Bass made in Chicago by Lakland. When I asked him why he chose to use it he said "it was just the first one I took out."

David Hood

As one of the Muscle Shoals "Swampers" Hood was one of my teachers through the grooves in vinyl, and here I was in the studio with him. As the session began to roll Billy Block and I busied ourselves with the video and audio equipment. I was soaking it up, learning a few new tricks along the way.

Muscle Shoals Sound

Keyboard chores were handled by Spooner Oldham, who is a legend in his own right. Knowing when not to play is the test of any musician, and Spooner has mastered this art. Standing two feet from him as he laid down piano and organ parts was simply a sublime experience.

Spooner Oldham

Day one brought vocal performances from Buddy Miller and Bettye LaVette. Laying down vocals live with the band is the best way to capture the raw energy of a song, and the sessions proceeded at a breakneck pace. Near the end of the day Dylan LeBlanc dropped by to do some singing and was clearly loving the atmosphere in Penn's studio.

  Buddy Bettye Jon

Day two saw the arrival of drummer Steve Jordan who took over from Ferrone, who happily attended to various percussion duties. Jordan's recordings with Keith Richards and the Winos are some of the best grooves ever committed to tape so I was stoked. I wasn't disappointed—two of the world's most solid drummers laid it down together without a hint of ego. Tiven had assembled an unbelievable team of individuals. 

  Spooner Steve Dan

One high point was having lunch at the Penn dining table. Eating 'taters and greens surrounded by music legends listening to stories about Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Jerry Wexler, Wilson Pickett and more from the people who were there—just priceless. 

  Bettye LaVette

As the days wore on, we got confirmations from some soon-to-be-announced guest-stars, but I had to high-tail it out of there before any of that went down. As it was I got more than my share of mojo risin'. I can't wait to hear the finished product.

 

Skulls and Angels: Headstones to Headstocks

Here cease thy tears, suppress thy fruitless mourn
his soul—the immortal part—has upward flown
On wings he soars his rapid way
to you bright regions of eternal day
—Headstone inscription, Massachusetts c. 1800

It’s always surprising from where and when inspiration comes. Creativity has its own ebb and flow, without regard to schedules put in place by man. Over the years I’ve become more attuned to that moment when something I’m working with beckons to be turned or twisted slightly in order to realize a direction to be taken. I’ve learned that when I’m trying too hard, I’ll usually miss it. Such was the case with my headstock design. I’d already created a monogram in a Gothic font motif, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to use it, so I just put it in the drawer for another day.

Separate from that exercise, I’d been thinking about winged skulls and day of the dead imagery. As an old-school motorcycle guy, I’ve been surrounded by that stuff since I started out working at Frank’s Maintenance & Engineering (Forking by Frank) making chopper parts in the late 1960s.

6a00e54ee874da88330147e02d8be8970b-800wi

Most of the machinists that I worked with were members of the Devil’s Disciples, a Chicago motorcycle club. Their toolboxes were stocked with weapons and their garb was adorned with wings and skull symbols. Not that this is a new idea; it’s a visual statement that rock and roll has appropriated over the years, but it seemed like a good jumping off point. I recalled seeing headstones in some New England cemeteries that seemed to morph skulls with angels, and I liked that idea and made some sketches, but nothing really came of it.

Some time later as I was reading In Small Things Forgotten, The Archelogy of Early American Life by James Deetz, a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley, I came across an illustration of how New England gravestones had evolved from winged death’s-heads to cherubs.

6a00e54ee874da88330134898999b9970c-800wi

The imagery had gradually changed from the dark decay of death as a fearsome adversary in the 1700s to the more rewarding view of afterlife offered by the cherub by the 1800s.

I put pencil to paper, and as I sketched, the wings became less literal and more implied as they stretched out from the face. The wings became the headstock top and the face became the monogram “D” from my surname.

6a00e54ee874da88330147e02d6276970b-800wi

Even though I hadn’t set out to design my headstock, once the juices began to flow, it only took a short time for everything to fall into place.

6a00e54ee874da883301348989c6f3970c-800wi

After I’d settled upon the idea, it was a matter of laying out the dimensions of the string alignments and the tuner locations. There’s only so much latitude because the limiting factor of the tuner key clearances, so it is a balancing act between string angle and key inset. I made a mock up to check all the clearances and positions using a large selection of possible tuner choices.

6a00e54ee874da883301348989ea32970c-800wi

I couldn’t wait to see it on a guitar—it couldn’t have been better if I had planned it.

Tweed Suitcase

As I’m gathering impressions for new guitar builds, I’m reading Kerouac and driving around the NE for inspiration. It’s fun to just get in the old car and just drive. No predetermined destination, no schedule. From a store in New Hampshire, I picked up a beat up old tweed suitcase from the forties that struck my fancy. We stopped by a derelict farm and Carla took this image of me, my vintage suitcase and the farm. It’s a wonderful shot…

6a00e54ee874da8833013488fee77c970c-800wi

Here’s a quote from Kerouac’s “On the Road”

“Just ahead, over the rolling wheatfields all golden beneath the distant snows of Estes, I’d be seeing old Denver at last. I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was “Wow!”

The Road From Lowell

Jack Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, on the banks of the Merrimack—not too far from where we are right now. Apparently, he was a pretty good high school football player and went on to Columbia on an athletic scholarship. As much as the young Kerouac wanted to be a football star, what he wanted most was to just get the hell out of Lowell. It was a typical New England mill town that had seen its best days a half-century before Kerouac was born, and to him, New York city seemed like a better place for an aspiring writer to be. Of course, the rest is history, and the genesis of the “Beat Generation” (a term that Kerouac neither coined nor endorsed) began.

Jack

I’d been through two “Beat” phases myself. The first was in my late teens, naturally. It was right around the time I’d discovered Ornette, Parker, Miles and Monk. I was devouring Ginsberg, Burroughs and the like; while staying up way too late with my friends; drinking and discussing life, love and the nature of existence. On the Road and The Dharma Bums were required reading. I think every kid with a dream goes through this phase. Well, unless your dream is to be an accountant.

6a00e54ee874da8833013488a06796970c-800wi

Lately, I’d noticed that my apprentice Jim had been setting the Pandora in the shop to a channel called “On the Road Again” which at first I thought was a Willie Nelson thing. Jim has done his share of changing addresses. He and I have talked about the strange urge to ramble on, that comes from an addiction created by moving households often. But then I noticed that a little library was growing in one of the shop’s cubbies.

6a00e54ee874da88330133f57ff5c2970b-800wi

I’d failed to make the connection between the Kerouac biography on my desk and the subtle musical program in the shop space. Once apparent that the hint wasn’t sinking in, the library began to grow. I smiled as I realized that the slow, solitude of a workshop in the woods is a million miles away from the hustle of  NYC. Our space is antithesis of what Kerouac initially wanted for himself. Yet, at the same time it is the lost Americana that he spent his life seeking.

6a00e54ee874da8833013488a03ee6970c-800wi

Jim in the shop doorway, with more books.