Right here is an excellent example of the plethora of cheap guitars that could be had in the late 1960s. This is also a good example of a “theme” guitar. This is also a good example of a clean, under the bed guitar. This is also a good example of what great guitars were available to the youth of the 60s! Hmmmm, not too bad for a forgotten, dime store guitar, huh?
OK, so lets talk about the obvious theme of this guitar, that Red Baron. In 1966, the Royal Guardsmen came out with that tune “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron.” I’m guessing that song was some serious bubblegum pop for it’s time, so this guitar has this playful theme going on. You don’t see that too often with vintage Japanese guitars, so this guitar right here interested me right away. The Red Baron “logo” is impressed and painted onto the pickguard, instead of just a cheap sticker. I’d gather to reason that this guitar was made/sold in the 1967-69 range. Somewheres around there anyway.
That Merlin name is one I’ve never heard of before, but after searching around the net, I came across a loose reference to these Merlins being sold through the original Lowes store, I’m guessing in and around the North Wilkesboro, North Carolina area. Could that be? Maybe someone can confirm that. I don’t know but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Hey, Western Auto sold plenty of guitars back in the day! What’s really cool about this guitar is how clean it is. Like, it was bought and stored, and that was the end! It must have happened to a lot of guitars back then.
At first I thought this guitar might have been made by Guyatone, mainly because of the pickups were reminiscent of Guyas, but then I found this (almost) exact guitar in a Harris/Teller catalog from 1969 that was carrying almost exclusively Kawai-made guitars. Of course that catalog guitar didn’t have this Red Baron theme. Here’s how the listing went in 1969:
Solid Body Guitar
“Double cut-away solid body 2 pickup w/ tremelo. Tone and volume control. Separate on-off switch for each pickup. Adjustable Canadian maple neck No. C2T $43”
Can you imagine, a guitar for $43 bucks?!? I guess I should add a little context because I found that in 1969 the average weekly American salary was $91. I don’t know, $43 still sounds like a good price! Maybe that’s because a new Fender Telecaster was about $200 in the 1960s. Other random roundabout new prices in the 1960s go like this: Stratocaster=$300, Jaguar/Jazzmaster=$400, Gretsch Jet=$375, Gretsch White Falcon=$1000, Gibson ES175=$350, Gibson Byrdland=$700. That’s just a quick comparison, but you see the differences?
Guitars like these were literally pouring over from Japan and were just about perfect for the budding guitarist, except that many didn’t play well at all! This Merlin is an exception though. This guitar is as it was in the late 1960s. Never cleaned or had its strings changed. It still has the wound g string! Pickups are strong, electronics work (with tiny bit of scratchiness) and the jack held up. Even the neck is pretty straight, although I’ll need to work on the neck angle. But let me tell you, today’s average salary is $650 a week (depending on the source). I defy you to find a new guitar for $325 with this kind of coolness. These guitars got soul! Maybe it’s my fondness, but have you ever tried to play some new import guitars? They are really awful in so many ways. Sometimes when I see these new cheap guitars I feel sorry for the poor trees that had to go into making them! I suppose it’s just my opinion, but I’d rather buy a vintage Japanese guitar like this, sink some money into fixing it up and play it out all the time!
So here we go, check out the video demo of this time capsule guitar. I told Mike Dugan to just play it the best he could. At the time of this video, this Merlin had never been set up, cleaned, adjusted, or improved beyond what was given to it at the factory! It’s like a cool sociological experiment, if sociology only dealt with guitars. Maybe it’s a psychological experiment for me!!!!
A kindly ebay member sent me this information about the Merlin badge!! Here’s what he said:
I thought that you might be interested in this. I recently picked up a Merlin Guitar, different design, mine is a re-badged Greco 921. Anyway, this is about the Merlin name. My guitar is an “Arthur Smith Country Squire” autograph model using the Merlin badge. In my research I found my way back to Lowes like you. Here’s the interesting part, Arthur Smith’s middle name was Merlin. Apparently he was involved in the promo of Merlin guitars, and Lowes (North Wilkesboro) was his backyard.
So how about that!! I actually emailed this member back but didn’t get a reply, and I emailed Arthur Smith but didn’t get a reply there either. But do you want to know something that’s totally weird? Whenever Mike Dugan comes over to jam and demo guitars, he just does one straight take. He always says he lets the guitar “speak” through him. Hey, he’s a spiritual guy! But get this, when I did a YouTube search of Arthur Smith, I’ll be damned if the guy isn’t known for the “Guitar Boogie.” The actual tune dates from way back, but compare this with the tune Mike played! And we recorded our video way before I ever knew anything about the Arthur Smith connection! Kinda eerily similar, isn’t it?!?!