Category Archives: Guitars That Got Away

Guitars That Got Away #3: Gretsch Billy Bo Jupiter Thunderbird

Recently, I picked up this guitar on Craigslist hoping it would be a suitable replacement for my beloved Les Paul, with which I finally parted due to weight and disuse. As soon as I first laid eyes on the Billy Bo, I fell in love with its Cadillac lines and chromed-out embellishments. I had to have it.

The Billy Bo has an impressive spec sheet: 22 frets on a rosewood fretboard, two TV Jones Power’Tron Plus pickups, pinned Adjust-O-Matic bridge, laminated maple top and a 24.6″ scale length. Very cool. Also, it weighed in at 6.8 lbs, so it had that going for it! And the look? I mean, damn.

Luckily, the price was right so I splurged. I didn’t hesitate, and the minute I got it to the bench I knew exactly where I was going. I lowered the action and fiddled with pickup height and pole piece balance, and did a slight electronic tweak to brighten up the guitar. (More on that later…) After the set up–and cutting a new nut as the original one was horribly cut–the guitar went from affectation to a full-on obsession. It was the only guitar I played for three weeks!

I mean, just look at it!

The guitar played great and sounded huge, so why is it a guitar that got away? Well, it was dark. These guitars are notorious for not having a ton of treble on tap. While the guitar sounded authoritative and gruff, I really found myself missing the high end I associate with Gretsch guitars. Had I possessed the means to swap out the pickups for TV’s Classic Plus or Power’Tron standard models, I would have been happier. Bear in mind that this isn’t so much a criticism of the guitar rather than an issue of personal taste; to be fair, I got some absolutely killer tones out of the thing. The only other complaint I had was that it lacked a vibrato of any kind, which is something easily addressed with the addition of a Bigsby.

I was able to partially remedy the lack of treble response by adding what we call a treble bleed/volume mod network across the 1 and 2 lugs of the Master Volume controls. MVs are oftentimes the cause of excessive darkness in some guitar circuits, and re-wiring for a simplified scheme or adding one of these networks can lift the blanket from your sound. I’ve linked to my favorite combo, a 220K resistor in parallel with a 471pf capacitor. This not only retains treble frequencies at reduced volume settings, but also alters the taper of the pot, enabling a smoother transition from loud to quiet and with plenty of noteworthy stops on the way.

I sold this guitar about a month after I bought it, and while I was happy to make a few bucks I’ll admit that I haven’t stopped thinking about this guitar. Though it was too dark for my tastes, this guitar became a staple of my daily life and was the only guitar I played for two weeks straight. It even inspired three really great riffs that have made their way into some new songs, which is something that doesn’t come to me easily. I think that says something about how fun this guitar is to play, a quality severely lacking from some more traditional offerings.

My prognosis? I’ll definitely be buying another one in the future; the guitar was as fun to play as it was to see, and if I could have added a Bigsby and brighter pickups, this would have been one of my main guitars. I fully regret selling this one. Firebird Red isn’t quite my favorite color, but aside from the white-and-gold Falcon-inspired model, I can’t imagine loving that offset shape in any other finish. My only hope is that I can get such a tasty deal on the next one I buy!

-Michael James Adams

It also had the best bone nut I’ve ever cut in my life. Seriously. Undetectable to the hand and such a beautifully striped piece of bone.

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Guitars That Got Away #2: ’99 Gibson Les Paul Standard

That’s Beverly. *sniffle*

Recently, I was faced with a dilemma: either start playing my cherished first ‘real’ guitar or pass it onto its next owner. For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, the guitar spent the majority of its last two years in my stead tucked away in my closet, languishing in its case. It was a hard decision to make.

Beverly, as I’d come to call her, was the most constant companion I’ve ever had, remaining a part of my life through the ebb and flow of many relationships, changing locations and life events. I had the guitar since my graduating year of high school, took it with me on various tours and to college, and it even ended up following me across the globe during my time living in Prague, CZ as a missionary. When I moved to WA to get married, the guitar came with me.

While I’m usually the first to come up with reasons against selling one’s first guitar, in this case that sentiment was difficult to justify. Ultimately, I decided to sell. What led me there?

First, the guitar was 10.6 lbs. When I was younger, I loved the feeling of a boat anchor around my neck, daring me to defy the laws of gravity. As I’ve aged (30, my God!) I’ve noticed those same laws having their way with my back, and I’m not a fan of back pain. I wouldn’t say I’m of weak constitution, but after wearing that guitar for half an hour I was feeling it. My other electric guitars–a ’77 ES 355, a Thin Skin Fender Jazzmaster, and a ’73 Fender Precision–don’t even come close to that kind of weight. In the case of my back, I’ve found that even one pound less can make a huge difference in how I feel. As a result, this guitar didn’t see much stage time.

Second, as I’ve grown older (30!) my tastes in music have, of course, changed. When I acquired this guitar I was looking for hot pickups and a loud, brash Punk Rock tone; I wanted huge mids, easy distortion and kick-in-the-pants output. This guitar definitely got me there. While I wouldn’t say this guitar is limited to that genre, I would admit that the pickups no longer suit my tastes. These days, it’s medium-output pickups that really get to me, offering more in the way of dynamic range.

Also, I have a fetish for vibrato-equipped guitars. When I play a hard tail, I love the sound but miss the familiar warble of my Jazzmaster or 355. I realize I could have added a Bigsby to my Les Paul but that comes at the price of weight. No thanks.

What kept holding me back in the months that preceded the sale was history. I had some great reasons for letting go, but even though I put it up on Craigslist a few times, I never had the heart to give her up. All because I was attached.

We humans have an amazing capacity for bonding with inanimate objects. You’ll often hear folks talk about their first car, referring to it in anthropomorphic terminology, lending to it not only a name but personality traits as well. Hand made or mass produced, it doesn’t matter either way. Even if there are a thousand identical copies, invariably we will find one and fall in love with it. We even become possessive: it’s never ‘the’ car or ‘a’ car. Always my car. This is how it is for me and guitars.

In the end, it was a really hard decision to part with this old friend, but I’d rather have it out there being played rather than gathering dust in my closet. “Beverly” now lives in Alaska with her new owner, and I hope she couldn’t be happier.

When it comes to passing a guitar along to its next owner, what reasons come to mind for or against the action?

I miss this guitar.

-Michael James Adams

This is the last photo I have of me playing that guitar. Note: I look super burly in this one. The Three Men and a Baby shirt helps.

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Guitars That Got Away #1: The Silver SG

Tonight, I remembered a guitar. It’s not an uncommon thing to happen; very often, while working or pretending I’m listening to my wife, my mind will drift through a catalog of all the guitars I’ve come across over the years, pausing on a few familiar favorites but eventually coming to rest on a particular instrument for whatever reason. I’ll dissect it in my mind, then open the laptop and do a little research. It’s a pastime of mine.

Tonight, I remembered a guitar, one from the early days of long drives and short shows. I was in a band out of central PA, performing in converted churches and fire halls. We played frequently in the area with our friends’ bands, and as is common, we’d all look out for each other and offer shows when a slot opened. One of these “Brother Bands” with whom we frequently rocked had a guitarist that favored Sunn amps and SGs.

Tonight, I remembered a mid-1970s Gibson SG Standard. What makes this guitar memorable for me is that it wasn’t the ubiquitous cherry red. Instead, it was silver. Yes, silver. It’s the only one I’ve ever seen in that color and I have no doubt in my mind that it was original. This guitar had all the standard features of the era: block inlays, a bound neck, harmonica bridge, the normal switch position and chrome hardware. Really cool guitar. But what really gets me is that color. It all comes back to that color…

When I say this guitar is silver, I’m not talking about silver sparkle or silverburst, I mean a gorgeous-looking silver. When you see a late ‘70s Gibson Les Paul Custom in silverburst, the color you see in the center is exactly the color of this guitar. Its color had faded ever so slightly, beginning to green but not losing its brightness. A breathtaking instrument. 

I only had the chance to strum a few chords on it in those days–if I’m honest, I don’t think its owner liked me very much–but I remember being immediately struck by how sweetly it rang out acoustically, with a low and slinky action with very little buzz to speak of. It also had old-style low/wide Gibson frets and a smooth rosewood fretboard. The owner of this guitar also had an early to mid ‘90s SG Special in black that was also nice, but that guitar never wowed me the way that silver Standard did. Mmmm.

The other crazy thing about this guitar is that I can’t find anything about it on the internet. No matter what search I perform, I can’t seem to conjure up a photograph or even a verbal acknowledgement that there are others out there. Now, I don’t think for a moment that it’s the only silver SG in existence, and knowing Gibson it’s highly unlikely that this specific guitar was a one-off. Even so, sating my thirst for even a glimpse of this guitar seems to be a nigh-impossible task!

I’m putting out an APB for these guitars. If you have one, I want to know about it!

EDIT: finally found a photo of one online. See above.

-Michael James Adams

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