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.

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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!

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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).

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Crow Guitar Rim Shot

Good progress is being made on The Crow guitar. The top and interior templates have been made from baltic birch based on full scale drawings refined from my sketches—now they’re ready to go. Here are the steps below: the drawings, the  templates and the interior of the rim, which in this case was routed from Honduras mahogany.

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The center block still has to be routed with the three different size tone chambers that I want to put directly under the bridge and tailpiece. Each chamber is a specific volume which relates to a different frequency range. This breaks up the spectrum and evens out the response when played at high volume. It reduces the tendency of the guitar to howl on a single note.

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This is the rough rim placed on the spruce top which was being routed in the last post. The next task is to carve the interior of the top, then bond it to the rim. When the top and back are glued up, then the outside can be finalized and the top and back carved. Traditional archtop builders carve the entire top before attaching it to the rim—tapping as they carve to determine the thickness needed from each individual piece. In my case, I like to carve the interior, then carve the outside—tapping the entire assembly as one.

F-Word in the Workshop

The Crow build continues in tandem with other projects in the shop. I like it this way—dividing my time between creative thought, and the zen-like trance induced by laborious, repetitive handwork like sanding. Each of the Signature guitars that I build starts with the journal—a place for ideas and stream-of-conciousness rants. The good, the bad and the indifferent are all there. As the ideas begin to coalesce into a usable and recognizable form, the journal starts to morph into a set of plans.

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Here, I’m laying out the f-hole shape and control locations. After this step, a paper template is made so I can evaluate the placement of the controls from the player’s perspective. Do they fall to hand easily? Are they blocked by each other, or does the bridge get in the way? These all can be tested before going any further.

Once I’m satisfied, the next step is to make a 1/4″ thick router template from the drawing, onto which the spruce top can be pinned. Then it’s to the router I go.

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You can see the locating pin holes as well as the control locations. The interior volume of this instrument will be a bit larger than some of my other designs and I’ve reduced the size of the f-holes and moved them inward about 1/8″ closer to center. I’m going for a very old-school blues sound with this guitar, and it’s going to be interesting.