Acoustic Instruments

As I mentioned before, having started on classical guitars, and moving from there straight to electric guitars, it did actually take a while before I actually decided to get a real acoustic guitar. Since I was playing with Steve Cammack and John Taloff in Bürnt Toast, we could always go over to Steve’s house and use his mom’s and dad’s guitars, they had a nice Guild and some other things. But after my 15th birthday, I decided to get my own. And the real place to do it was of course the Bay Area, a 75 mile drive. I ended up going to an acoustic instrument store in the complex on Vine street in Berkeley, behind Peet’s Coffee (the original shop.) I was familiar with this place because my mom always wanted to go to Berkeley to get coffee beans here. I spent $335 on a (stamped “Sept 19 1978”) Takamine F-363S. It’s an amazing guitar, the F-360 series are basically Martin copies. The difference between this model and the normal F-360 is that the “S” means it has a solid Spruce top, and the 363 designation means it has a mustache-shaped bridge and top of headstock, and it has a split bridge, where four strings have one bridge and the B & E strings have their own bridge, better for intonating. Basically made to emulate the Martin D-28 otherwise.

well, the only pic I could find of it is where Steve is playing it and I’m playing somebody’s 12-string.

I have not only written a great percentage of songs I have ever written on this guitar, but has used on nearly every record I have ever made (that involves guitars.) It exists on several Camper Van Beethoven records, even.

In fact, one odd piece of trivia is that the entire Storytelling basic tracks were recorded not “drums/bass/electric guitar” as would be normal for tracking with drums and bass, but “drums/bass/acoustic guitar (or mandolin)” and I was in an isolation booth on the side of the main (small) room where the drums and bass were. Storytelling is basically an acoustic album! You can hear the squeaky door to the iso booth at the beginning of side 3*.

Anyway. The Takamine is an amazing guitar and has aged wonderfully. I know many of its scars, saw them happen. I remember a dent in the back finish when it was leaning against a wall at a high school party and somebody flipped a beer cap from across the room and hit it. During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, I ran to the doorway of my room and watched the bookshelf shuffle away from the wall and drop a glass vase filled with marbles onto the shoulder of the guitar which was on a stand next to it. Knocked out a piece of the binding. I even still have the wide leather strap that I used with this guitar in high school, on which a friend wrote “rock n roll forever”, now slowly fading out.

Now, the frets are starting to get a little low, the last dressing done in Berkeley at 5th String has made it sound a little splanky. But the wood of the body is resonating really well.

In the past decade, all of us in Camper have been needing to upgrade some of these old things, and we made use of Mr David Immerglück‘s contacts at Martin to get the Artists’ rep to choose instruments. Greg bought a D-28, and Victor bought a D-18. Victor has become an amazing fingerpicking troubadour on this guitar. After teaching for several years, I started working at Pandora and finally had an almost-living-wage ($20/hour!) so I wanted to get a Martin finally also. I considered getting the D-28 to replace my Takamine, but thought that would be redundant. The Takamine is fine. But what I really wanted was a smaller bodied guitar that rand like handbells. I bought a 000-28. Wow. What a guitar this is (January 2010 model). I personally have only used this for recording a couple songs (on “All Attractions“), but on the upcoming Camper Van Beethoven album David plays this guitar on every song. Every one. We used it to write all the songs, and then kept using it to record all the songs. It is incredible. In fact, I think David finally caved and got himself a small bodied Martin also (i think a 000-15 or 17?).

These small bodied Martins are something special. Just listen to some old Jethro Tull! (and ignore Eric Crapton’s more recent crap. I mean, I liked the EC model 000-28, it’s a bit higher quality than mine, but I would never want another artists’ model of guitar. I don’t understand why people do?) They ring like each string has its own guitar body, and they have a very wide frequency response. It’s a little different than the D-28 cannons. I’m really into it. Plus this guitar smells good.

David on the little Martin 000-28. Greg on his Chandler tele. And the M-3 in the background.

So, back to the late 70s. Inspired by the combo of Led Zeppelin (and maybe Heart) and the Davis Pickers and Singers community music scene, I wanted to get a mandolin. I played violin, but had stopped pretty much for the duration of high school (which was a mistake, in retrospect, of course) so I thought the Mandolin would be pretty easy to pick up. Unfortunately, I had no concept of mandolins, even though I was acutely aware of guitar history and models.

I found one for a reasonable price at a stand at the Renaissance Faire (!) in Marin county one fall, made by some hippies from a shop in Felton, CA, called CapriTaurus. (Guess what the builders’ signs were?) It was a basic flat back mandolin, not great, but not bad. And yes, in fact, getting used to playing it was pretty easy. When I moved to Santa Cruz and went to UCSC, I actually performed some Vivaldi mandolin pieces on this instrument, and in yet-another-odd-conicidence, my second year at school we ended up living in Felton just down the street from the CapriTaurus shop. I don’t think it’s there anymore.

Anyway, this mandolin was used on the first few CVB albums also, and we took it on tour. Which is where it was stolen, in New York when we were playing at CBGBs (1986?). It and a nice black MOTS (Mother of Toilet Seat) 50s lap steel we had left in the van (and a bicycle too, if I remember correctly) were all liberated while we performed. All in all it was not such a great loss, not like having all the instruments stolen in Montreal in 2004 nor some instruments and amps stolen in Dallas in 2005 nor just having the van ransacked in Columbus in 2005. The silver lining to this particular cloud was that we were in Nashville on the way back across the country, and we went to Gruhn’s and I bought a black topped 1916 Gibson Model A-1 mandolin. This is the best sounding mandolin I have ever played, it has an amazing ring to it. It’s a oval sound hole mandolin, and I realize now that I don’t really understand the love people have for f-hole mandolins. They seem to lack the overall frequency spectrum of the oval sound hole instruments, maybe they are better for rhythm playing, but they always sound sort of narrow to me. My black A-1 has been used on many, many recordings, including of course Camper records since the 3rd, and Storytelling, Hieronymus Firebrain, any of my own other CDs, several of Victor’s… etc. And the new CVB album (out Jan 22 2013)…

Playing the Gibson with McCabe and Mrs Miller

In the late 80s I thought it would be good to get an electric mandolin to use live, and I did get a relatively cheap Kentucky (Chinese-made) solid body electric mandolin. I used that in Hieronymus Firebrain quite a bit, but have not used it much since.

David Immergluck has a nice A style mandolin also, that he tours with. He was even a professional mandolinist for John Hiatt, so he must know what he’s doing. After I left CVB, and he joined, he played mandolin, and in the past decade or more, with both of us there, he continues to play mandolin and pedal steel. His mandolin tremolo is maybe a bit guitarist-like, even so, but he’s an amazing musician and while he is mostly a guitarist (well, really so am I, though) he can switch hats and not play mandolin like most guitar players play mandolin. Which is similar to saying “like guitar players play the bass”… (which I will get to eventually.) My approach to mandolin was based on a couple things, one is violin, which is similarly tuned, and obviously the other is guitar. I translated notes and chords initially and I have ended up not playing the common Nashville fingerings for chords, as they seem to want to use no open strings and I love the ring of the open string. My tremolo is getting better, I can almost sound like a real mandolinist these days! (See “Hey You” for example.)

Nice pic of the Gibson, while David Immergluck is playing the Takamine. This is from an instore at “Hall of Records” in the Haight in SF, ~1989.

While living in Santa Cruz in the 1980s I also found a strange instrument made by Flatiron in 1985, it’s labeled “3M Bouzouki”, and it’s basically an 8va mandolin. It sounds great when you are playing it, but it sounded pretty dull to record, for some reason, even with an AKG414 or similar, so the guys who ran a shop there (who became Santa Cruz Guitar Company, I believe?) sanded and topped the bridge with ivory (bone, whatever) and it was better. I also switched out the two lower courses for octave strings, it sound pretty good and records well now. This was used on Storytelling a lot also, and several other places. (Here also )

Serenading Marlowe with the 8va Mandolin

Then there’s violins.

This is an old story by now, but when I was in 4th grade I was really into Susanna Stein (whose parents now live across the street from my brother’s family! What is up with the universe?), and she was already a good violinist, such that she performed for our school at some assembly. And she played “Pop goes the Weasel.” She bowed the melody and then plucked the “pop” part. And this, for whatever reason, stuck in my 9 year old brain as being cool that you could both bow and pluck. So I wanted to play violin too. I started at 10 years old, on a 3/4 size cheap-o violin, and the Suzuki method. Playing Twinkle Twinkle and bits of Vivaldi violin concertos in A Minor. In 1975 I started junior high school and was in the orchestra (Susanna was already the concert master/mistress) and I got a real violin. I recently came across the receipt for this instrument, from Albert Müller’s shop in Sacramento, CA, it cost $450 with case. (Mr Müller was a renowned violin maker from Sacramento, who died at age 87 in a car accident…) I think it’s a French made instrument from the 1920s, a Guarnerius copy. Nice, loud, red. As I have mentioned, I stopped playing during high school in favor of the electric guitar, but started again in college at UCSC, where Chris Molla asked if I wanted to play in a band, Camper Van Beethoven and the Border Patrol. So I started over on violin at UCSC, taking lessons from Roy Malan, who was concert master of the SF Opera Orchestra at the time. He knew I sucked, but for whatever reason let me take lessons, he started me all over again, no notes at first, just bowing exercises. I sucked that much. But by my second year, I got into the orchestra (more by enthusiasm than skill) and also become the orchestra assistant manager, for 3 years. Another strange coincidence, after avoiding me during high school, (I was weird) and then going to USC, Susanna Stein transferred to UCSC and became the concert master of our orchestra. (By this time she had abandoned the idea of concert mistress at all, she wore a tux like all the boys did.)

So I used this violin for the first years of CVB recording and touring. Put a little transducer thing into the bridge and plugged into the amp. It didn’t sound awesome, and ultimately the violin did not like this; the top started separating from the sides, so i retired it from touring and had the top reglued. I also got a viola during this period, and played viola in the UCSC orchestra for a little while. My viola is not very good. The bridge is too high, it’s sort of hard to play, but I don’t play it often enough to do anything about it. I do use it to record though, it’s on the song “New Roman Times” for example, and several others. I used it on Storytelling when my initial idea was not to play violin at all on that record, just cuz, but I didn’t follow through with that in the end.

So to tour I bought a new violin, a very cheap Saga Cremona violin, and put on a Barcus-Berry electric bridge. This violin was actually pretty good for its price. ( I think it cost $125? My rationale was that if it broke, I would just get a new one.) But then we toured and toured and recorded, and I recorded with it, and it never broke. And I drew and painted on it, and put stickers on it, and it never died. And it was a nice woody tone when recording, not too much high end, and I got a Boss-GE7 EQ pedal and cut out everything above about 600hz, with a little bump below at about 200hz, and this thing sounded excellent through my Fender Deluxe Reverb, and pretty good through the MusicMan RD112. These are still my touring amps, by the way.

a pic from Sid at TooMuchRock.com, this is actually from Boston, the night before the violin was stolen!

Then of course, this fiddle was stolen in Montreal in Oct 2004 along with my 1971 Fender Stratocaster (#337498, in case you ever see it.) Crap.

Initially after the heist, I used Ezster Balint‘s violin, she was on tour with us. And then I tried a Fender Electric Violin for the remainder of the tour dates, it was pretty cheap and a solid body. Wow, not good for me at all. I don’t really like solid body violins. Yeah, I get some feedback sometimes, some stages cannot keep from resonating the D string. But the difference in sound is immense. I don’t like the synthy buzz of the Zeta, for example. I want real violin sound, even if I’m going to use a distortion box or an echo.

Then, as the Montreal even had happened in Canada, it was national news (there) and a violin maker from Halifax heard about it. His name is Andrew Kirk, (The Canadian Violin) and he had seen CVB in Maine many years back and was a fan. He offered a violin to me, I received it in the mail! This violin in my violin now. I started using it toward the end of 2004, it initially was so new it sounded like a wooden box and all the sound went straight up from the top, but after playing it hard on tour for a couple of years, the sound has opened up wonderfully. It is sounding amazing now. I’ve used this on every tour and recording since. Amazing generosity from Mr Kirk, and amazing instrument. I can’t find him online anymore, but I’d guess he’s still making violins in Nova Scotia.

playing with Camper Van Beethoven. Photo by Ian Weitraub.

The remainder of acoustic instruments that I have acquired over the years are odd things that I have purchased while traveling. For example, I had a nice charango made of orange tree wood that I got in Peru. It’s used on “World of Suckers” on Edgy Not Antsy for example, and on an Artship improv I did for a small set of 3″ CD releases… I should put that up somewhere…

Also I bought many instruments in Vietnam and Cambodia in 2000, many of which are used in various recordings, for example the Camper Van Chadbourne “Psychedelidoowop“. I lost most of them when I moved to Sweden, gave them away. I still have a Dan Bau. No Dan Tranh, anymore, though.

*(…I don’t know if I should really ever explain this stuff, but this is actually a joke on the middle of the song’s lyric (the “Address” of the song, where the epistle is sent): “Song Singer of the Door”, which itself is a joke on my girlfriend’s name, Diana Carol Keener. Keening is a crying style of singing, a carol is a song, and Diana=Jana=Janus, the watchman of two faces (hermaphrodite, some say, Janua/Janua) who holds the keys to all doors. Hence the root of the word janitor, by the way.)

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Posted in Guitar, Music, Violin
2 comments on “Acoustic Instruments
  1. SSteve says:

    I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say about “like guitar players play the bass”. A friend who I play with in a cover band wants me to come over and record a bass track for one of his original songs. I found myself wondering why he doesn’t just do it himself. He’s a guitar player and a very good musician so I’m sure he can play whatever he wants to play on the bass. Is he just embarrassed about asking to borrow my rig or is he afraid he’ll sound like a guitar player playing the bass?

  2. JT says:

    Hey JS – funny, I ended up with a very similar takamine that I got around 1987 – an F-360S… it has definitely gotten better with age. Bought it at the music store here in arcata, brand new. I always liked yours (and garcia was playing one back then for acoustic gigs – the high end one with the cutaway and built-in pickups) – really glad I have it. – take care – JT

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