My first electric guitar was a Stratocaster. Well, OK, that’s not quite true: it was a copy of one, made by “Memphis” (from Japan).
(Actually, that’s a lie as well, I briefly had a “Pan” brand SG copy before this, but it didn’t work.)
This would be about 1975 or 76. I actually started playing guitar as soon as I was physically capable, maybe 1971 (7 years old), after already bumming out on my piano lessons with Mrs Chang (“Finger goes HERE” with physical pushing of finger to there) and recorder lessons even earlier than that. My mom, being a good almost-a-bohemian 60s University person, got herself a guitar early on to play some folk music. It was an Aria brand classical guitar, nice dark wood back and headstock. In 1973, for some reason, we got a second guitar, a Goya classical guitar (ostensibly for my brother, though I don’t know if he ever played it.) I still have the Goya. I have no idea where the Aria went.
When I was about 4 I got my own room, which was cool because I didn’t like sharing a room with my brother, because he fell asleep early and I didn’t, so when we switched around rooms I got the room in the northwest corner of the house, which I stayed with until I left for college. I also got a clock-radio. An ugly beige plastic AM device, that luckily for me picked up KFRC (AM 610) from San Francisco and some other rock stations from Sacramento. So I would happily go to bed at 8pm or whatever and then listen to rock music. This would be about 1968 and the AM stations were in the process of changing over from bubblegum/Beatles (which I liked—I was 4!) to the increasingly more popular rock music that the kids were digging so much in those days. By 1969, the AM was playing the Jefferson Airplane and Rolling Stones and sometimes even more psychedelic stuff. So I was listening at night to this (and Dr Demento) until Mystery Theatre came on, then I’d listen to that. Or The Shadow. Then maybe I’d sleep. Unless the last song was ‘Knights in White Satin’, which I hated because the poetry part scared the shit outta me.
So I spent the schooldays drawing pictures of some sort of characters who were like Cousin It, i.e. just hair, but then with a top hat and bat wings and a pointy tail, playing electric guitars.
In 1973, I also became interested in the violin… more on that in a separate article. By 1974, I had a full on AM/FM receiver, which meant EarthRadio 102 and album rock and longer songs…and headphones. In 1975 my family moved to Tucson for a year, we lived in the Owl Apartments, corner of 4th Ave and Speedway, so after school I would walk down 4th Ave, going to all the rock record stores, thrift stores etc, on my way to Barry’s Books to find used comic books. The record store people were like, “hey kid, what do you listen to?” I said, Beatles, because that was safe. They said, ever heard Alice Cooper?
We took a trip back east that year to visit my mom’s and my dad’s families in the New York area. My dad’s sister’s kids were going to see Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden. I listened to Physical Graffiti, but didn’t get it, so when I got back to Tucson I bought used lps of LZ I, II and III. By the time I got back to Davis for 7th Grade, I was a full freak. And I was gonna play the electric guitar.
So I got my fake Strat. A sunburst, maple necked one. And I met John Taloff, who lived a block away. His older sister dated a bass player, so he decided to play bass too, bass players were cool. The older sisters listened to mellow rock, though, (Eagles, James Taylor) and so we had to sometimes too, but that developed a little appreciation for the Topanga sound. Then we started school, 7th grade, and we met Steve Cammack. His parents played guitars, they were part of the Davis Pickers and Singers, a folk group that met at different people’s houses and jammed on bluegrass, country, folk and blues, whoever could play whatever they could.
So we had a band. I had a little Kay amp, solid state, tweed grill. Feedback like whistling. Not very strong. Eventually got a Yamaha solid state with reverb. That was ok, not a super pleasing tone. We mostly jammed on acoustic instruments anyway during 7th and 8th grade, we’d meet in the park and bring our moms’ guitars and play chords and the other guy solo’d and then we’d switch. By 8th grade, I actually took some lessons from a jazz player, I remember bringing him Led Zeppelin records to tell me how to play the songs, he was OK with the blues stuff, but not super into the rock stuff. He showed me the pentatonic scales and blues things. When I finally got tired of my same old records and listened to Physical Graffiti again, I was amazed and brought that to him… he was a little more impressed with them this time.
So, Steve got a Fender Mustang, and John got a fake Fender Jazz bass and we needed a drummer then. By 9th grade we were called Bürnt Töast, for a talent show with Brian Gore singing. We looked amazingly weird, we played a song called “Eggshell Head”.
We sort of actually became a band after this, playing Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and such bands’ covers. We would have played Yes, but we couldn’t. We wrote a few songs, but nobody could sing very well, so Mark Groesbeck sang with us. We actually had a couple drummers that played for us in 10th-12th grade, Robert Press (BearDog) was our band drummer, but also a guy named Ken Silva sometimes played with us, who was pretty good. I played rhythm guitar in a couple other bands with Cory Hall playing piano and Paul Schwab on lead guitar (I’m mentioning all these people by name, because most of them still exist!) Cory also played in a band with “older guys” and asked “since you play guitar, you can play bass, right?” At a real bar? Fuck yeah. (more on this later… when I talk about playing the bass…)
By the time we had drums, John had bought an awesome Rickenbacker Bass, through his sister’s boyfriend no doubt. A 1965 MapleGlo 4001. I was playing my Strat-o-fake still, now upgraded to a 1967 Fender Dual Showman amp, which sounded amazing. Even with no distortion (I liked distortion. This amp was a zillion watts so there was no way to get overdrive out of it at less that 150dB.) My first pedals were an MXR distortion, a Electro-Harmonix EchoFlanger and an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi. I was loud. Steve used the Yamaha then. John got an Traynor YB-1.
In moving recently, I had to go through a bunch of old papers and things, and I found my Christmas wish list from 1978, I was 15 (10th grade). On it was “a Pre-CBS Fender Stratocaster Neck” which I planned on putting on my fake-o-caster obviously, and some “Stars Guitars brass bridge” and other Stratocaster things, and Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings. And: Tickets to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Winterland for New Year’s Eve.
I got none of these things, of course.
At one point I had the house to myself for a week in the summer, and I basically played guitar the whole time. I still remember some of the music theory realizations that happened that week (yes, I was probably high): relating 4ths and 5ths, understanding the common tones in the I and IV and the I and V chords, and why they sounded and behaved like they did. I drew a graph of strings and frets (i.e. half steps) that had about 20 strings arranged in 4ths, and drew colored dots where every scale related note would be for the key of E. Pretty patterns!
In 11th grade, my mom was fed up with me being high and playing the guitar… I had sort of stopped playing violin slowly by 14, partially due to breaking my left hand in 8th grade and not being able to move my pinky as far… so she bet me the price of an electric guitar that I couldn’t stop smoking pot for a whole year. Well. Mind over matter, motivation is the key to these things. A year later I got a new 1979 Rickebacker 481 (AzureGlo Blue!). So Steve got to step up from the Mustang to the Fake Strat.
In 1981 I moved to Santa Cruz to go to UCSC, with my Rickenbacker. Stopped at Leo’s Pro Audio in Berkeley and traded the Dual Showman for a 1973 Deluxe Reverb. I still wanted a Strat, but the fake one wasn’t cutting it. I also started playing the violin again, now that I was in college and officially studying music. In 1983 I started playing with Camper Van Beethoven, so whenever I played guitar the Rickenbacker was it. In 1985 we started actually playing out of our local Bay Area and I started looking for a Stratocaster at music stores and pawn shops (and comic book stores. Not that I was going to find a guitar there, it’s just that when we traveled, these were the places I went to.) The Fake-o-caster had become an electric rake to play with Chadbourne by 1987 or so. I’m not actually sure what happened to the neck. I think I still have a couple of the pickups. It wasn’t until late 1987 or 88 that I found *my* guitar though, after we came home from a tour.
Like always, on my way to the mall ( not a “shopping mall”, rather a street in Santa Cruz that had shops on it which was called the Pacific Garden Mall, which was the street with the Coffee Roasting Company, Zachary’s, other delis and patisseries and cafes and shops, etc…) I always stopped by the Musician’s Trading Post and look at their guitars. After going over all the normal stock of electrics, I took a look into the acoustic room, and there was a sunburst Strat with no strings, with a tortoise pickguard with Lace Sensor pickups hanging there. How much? I asked. They didn’t know, had just got it in that day. Call me when you know. Later that afternoon they called and said $450, I said I would be there in a minute. I went by the Santa Cruz Community Credit Union (wish I had stayed with them!) and to the shop, paid for the guitar just as the guy that sold it was coming back by with the new Eric Clapton model or something that he had bought with the money at Guitar Showcase in Aptos. He said, oh, you’re buying my old guitar…I think I still have the old pickguard and pickups. I offered him $50 for them…
So back at home now, time to reassemble the guitar. Took out the Lace Sensor pickups immediately after playing them for a bit. Yuck. Put back in the real pickups, white pickguard. This guitar was a 1971 Fender Stratocaster, now essentially stock. Serial number 337498. Over the years, the guitar was named “Honey” by a kitchen label on the front. The knobs had to be replaced at some point, they became late 70s Fender black knobs. It also had a sticker of a salmon on the back covering the buckle rash that developed, and lettering on the bottom back that said “Rev. Dr. Firebrain.”
I played this guitar on every record that I made between 1988 and 2004. I played this guitar in all shows with Hieronymus Firebrain, Jack & Jill, Sideways, Clyde Wrenn, Mike Marrt, Sparklehorse, Magnet, Camper Van Beethoven and under my own name. I would say that despite all the playing I ever did up until getting this guitar, I learned how to play the electric guitar by playing this guitar. I started small, even though I was playing lead before this in my high school bands, I didn’t in CVB, so I started playing rhythm guitar and singing. I started exploring the #2 and #4 position for lead and rhythm sounds. I had given up long ago on the MXR in favor of an Ibanez Tube Screamer and Rat box. (I still use these. I also still have the MXR and the EHX devices.) I started listening to Richard Thompson again, and dissecting how to actually play lead guitar. I took lessons from Jim Campilongo on how to play country and swing lead. I started actually using the tone knobs.
During the 1990s, Camper Van Beethoven did not exist. I played violin with various groups like Dieselhed and Granfaloon Bus, and played guitar or mandolin in my other groups. I grew as a guitarist. After Camper dissolved (I was the first part of that dissolution, in early 1989, the rest dissolved “like a urinal cake” in 1990) I attempted over and over to front my own bands, playing guitar and singing. My first “solo” album, “Storytelling”, came out on Pitch-A-Tent/Rough Trade at the end of 1988. Spin magazine’s Guide to Rock at the time called it a “double album art-rock horror” (a phrase i am still proud of!) which made it less than ideal as an album to start a career on. Not that I could have tried to make anything other than a double album art-rock horror.
In rehearsals for the only shows promoting this album, my Stratocaster, Honey, kept breaking strings. I’m not exactly sure why, probably because I was so freaked out about being out of Camper and nervous about trying to play my own material in front of people. Honey had a brass nut (very 70s!) but was made before they switched to the solid tremolo unit, so had the older “pat. pend” steel saddles, which were becoming fairly notched, I think. Also I was using light strings. Anyway, at the request of my backing band, the Monks of Doom, I ended up using a 1983 American Vintage ’57 reissue which Victor had purchased a couple years earlier, Black with maple neck (like the Clapton icon.) We played about a week of East Coast shows, me opening for the Monks of Doom, my band was Chris and Victor on drums and bass, David Immerglück and I on guitars, and Graham Connah on organ. Nice!
After this tour, we were supposed to play some west coast shows, but they never happened. I was inspired by the Monks quite a bit in the late 80s and into the 90s. They were a pretty awesome guitar-rock back, very prog and a lot of instrumentals. When I bought Honey, and changed out the pickups/pickguard, I had this pickup set sitting around, so I went around Berkeley and SF in 1989 after leaving Sant Cruz for San Francisco looking for parts to build a new guitar. I found a very nice (but very badly refinished) black 1963 Strat body (L19995: Werner’s List says it was once an April 1963 instrument), and a Squier Strat rosewood neck, and built a second “back-up” instrument. However, in the early 90s, again inspired by the super technical Monks, I wanted to put on a stunt guitar whammy bar/locking nut system. I was smart enough to not use the old body, it went into the closet with the electric rake. Again, influenced by the Monks, I bought a Warmoth Strat body, painted this black (again, a bad black finish? wtf?) and had Gary Brawer destroy route it and the Squier neck into some Floyd Rose system. With the locking claw at the nut. This guitar had the Lace Sensor pickups, black with tortoise pickguard. It actually had a really clinical sound to it, and with the claw at the nut was sort of uncomfortable. I didn’t actually play it much unless I needed that clinical sound (which was when?) or I broke strings on Honey.
Speaking of breaking strings, after that first Storytelling tour, I took some steel wool to the steel saddles on Honey and switched to Dean Markley Light Top/Heavy Bottom strings. Never had problems again with tuning or string breakage. (of the LT/HB strings, Immy says: “just like you like the girls…”)
I sold the Warmoth/Squier thing when I moved to LA, some metal dude picked it up for like $300?
After playing in Sparklehorse for 1998-99, we started inching toward Camper reforming. I was also doing a lot of film and dance music, and went back to grad school in music composition. Among my teachers there was Fred Frith; I was the assistant for his Contemporary Performance Ensemble. It was good to have a person like this, for me, a role model who had managed to work in the rock, improv and art music worlds simultaneously, and who played the electric guitar (and violin, just like me!) My experience with art music (by which I mean composed music, I suppose, which isn’t necessarily “classical” music, but comes from that tradition) had been strong, as I had studied music composition at UCSC starting in 1981, which is where I fell in with Camper Van Beethoven due to Chris Molla being in one of my classes. I had been composing with dots and lines all along. I had studied electronic music there as well, with Gordon Mumma and Peter Elsea. Coming back to this world at Mills College in 2001 was really fun, and I got to play both guitar and violin in new and different circumstances and ways, and learn again and again how to listen to music and how to improvise, including working the electric guitar into live electronic music.
In 2004 Camper Van Beethoven recorded our first all-new studio album since 1989, New Roman Times, and in the subsequent tour that fall, we had all our instruments stolen in Montreal. I lost my violin and lost Honey. I don’t think I realized how much I had grown into that guitar. After all this time, maybe I took it for granted. The immediate mental consequences were that I became obsessed all over again with the electric guitar, and as that happened I went back to relisten to all of that old music that got me into it – lots of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, (early) Fleetwood Mac, Can, Gong, Richard Thompson, etc., etc… and I played a lot. You can see it developing in the sets I played, for example at the CVB/Cracker Camp-Out which started in 2005…
By 2006 I started recording yet another rock music record, this one called “Honey“, with a lot of electric guitar. It came out in 2008. And then more, starting after that, which ended up as a double-CD set (another double album art rock horror!) that came out this year, 2012, called “All Attractions” backed with the second disc of all-jam session tracks, “Apricot Jam“.
Next entry, I will go into the gory technical details of all the replacement Stratocasters ever since! Guitar nerds, watch out.