Collecting Oddball Guitars 101

Hey peoples!  Here I’d like to share some important lessons I’ve learned along the way of collecting guitars.  The experiences presented here are just based on my opinions and years of buying and selling.  I guess my hope is that you can learn from my mistakes!

Buying vintage department store guitars is a real roll of the dice.  The bigger American names like Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker, and Gretsch produced excellent instruments since the middle part of the 20th century, but even extremely well-made guitars run into problems with the passage of several decades.  Have you ever seen the binding issues with vintage Gretsch guitars?

This leaves us, humble collectors of the bizarre that we are, with some problems. Particularly when we’re buying guitars that were being churned out in huge quantities and quality control wasn’t even a big consideration.  I’m talking about the US brands like Kay and Harmony, and the Japanese brands like Teisco, Ibanez, Kawai, Guyatone, and others.   I’m really writing this for the actual players of these guitars, not for the collectors who hang them on the wall. The overall quality of these guitars are really all over the place, and it’s sort of a shame to relegate these oddball guitars to wall flowers when they all have some potential. Let’s check out some common problems associated with 1950s-1970s oddball guitars.

Guitar Necks- Probably the most problematic of the problematic!

  • Frets -Right away I think of fretwork.  So often I see fretwork that was really poor, straight out of the factory.  Things like uneven frets, and uneven fingerboards are common with guitars of the era.  Why is this a big deal?  Poor frets cause buzzing and the only cure is to raise the strings, i.e. high action.  Kay guitars are some of the worst, with those brass frets!  Combine poor fretwork with an instrument that’s been kept in less than OK conditions and you’ve got to expect some issues.  Also keep in mind that almost all the “oddball” and “dime-store” manufacturers used tiny vintage sized frets.  If you’re a picker and a grinner you’ll probably do fine, but you’re an aggressive player digging’ into those bends, well, they’ll be some issues.  Curiously, Danelectros/Silvertones used very nice jumbo frets.
  • String Alignment– This is more common to the Japanese guitars I’ve seen.  I’m referring to the straight edge the strings make from the bridge to the nut.  All the time I see really weird alignment, sometimes to the point where the strings take a curving route from the tailpiece to the bridge to the nut.  Re-drilling of the tailpiece and bridge is sometime needed to get those “e” strings back onto the fingerboard and over the pickups.
  • Neck Relief– Check this out, the necks on these ARE NEVER STRAIGHT!!!  Seriously!  I don’t care if you ask an online seller if the neck is straight.  Unless the seller is a serious tech or has been playing for years, then all the necks “look” straight!  I see so many online ads that say something like “the action is OK” or “I use this mostly for slide.”  Those statements almost always translate to “the neck plays like shit and I have to use a vise to clamp the strings down!”  Humps and bumps from the (usually) rosewood fingerboard almost always develop over time with temperature and humidity changes too.  And most importantly is the truss rod adjustment, or lack thereof!  Most Danelectro and Valco guitars don’t even have an adjustable truss rod!  So what do you do with a neck that’s twisted or bent or bowed from 40 odd years of string tension?  It ain’t easy!  One thing I don’t like to see is an old guitar that only has two or three strings left, and those strings are all towards the low E, and they’ve been tuned for the past few decades.  Red flag!!  There’s a saying, maybe you’ve heard of it.  It’s called the “Valco twist.” That’s going to be the name of my next song!
  • Neck Angle– Probably the most overlooked aspect of guitar set-up, and believe me when I say that neck angle was also often overlooked at the factory! The necks were cut, the bodies were cut, and they were screwed (or glued) together.  Simple, except for that dreaded neck angle.  Also consider that trems and tailpieces were interchanged all the time, and neck angle wasn’t often accounted for.  Do you know what shims are?  You’ll need to!  Now, I don’t mean to pick on Kay guitars but for the longest time I was seriously lusting after the Jimmy Reed model, the Thin Twin. They’re pretty raunchy sounding guitars with really unique pickups, just an awesome guitar.  Except for one thing.  The neck set.  These necks were glued-in but over time they almost always need a neck reset.  A bad neck angle from the factory combined with a poor string break angle over the bridge makes for some real dicey set-up when it comes to these Thin Twins.  I really love them, and still want one, but I’ll never buy online or sight unseen.  After about 5 years of searching, I still haven’t found one that wasn’t in need of a neck re-set.
  • Neck Radius– This isn’t always a problem for all players.  I know a lot of older players who prefer a more rounded radius like 7.25″, but some of these necks get crazy rounded! My Italian Galanti Grand Prix had the most rounded neck radius I’ve ever seen!  The Danelectro necks had a pretty flat radius that I found comfortable, something around 17″!!  The problem with a rounded neck radius is, again, string bending and fretting out.  Fretboards can be sanded out to have a flatter radius, and that’s what I often have done to my vintage guitars.
  • The NUT– That little bugger doesn’t always need much, but just like our nuts, when they’re off, you notice it right away!!  The zero frets eliminate a lot of the need for a properly cut nut, and not too much effort is needed to fix nuts by raising or lowering the action.  A little skill is needed though.  To be fair, many modern guitar makes, even expensive guitars, suffer from poor nuts.  ha ha.

Electronics – The next problem you’ll encounter.

  • Pots– These all vary in quality but most of the vintage American pots were great, and most of the Japanese pots were not so great.  There are exceptions to this, but in general, pots are often dirty, loose, or just plain shot.  Also, I want to mention that oftentimes with Japanese pots, the pot values are too low.  For instance, the master volume pots on these guitars can often attenuate output because the pot values are too low.  A 50s stratocaster for instance, had a 250k pot for volume.  With the Japanese guitars they often had 100k, and overall sound quality is diminished because of the odd value.  American Harmony guitars can have unusual 50k volume pots.
  • Wiring– Again, quality will vary.  I found that many vintage US brands had some great wiring.  The biggest problem I see is that the guitars aren’t properly grounded so the output can get intermittent.  Some of the later Valco guitars had so much extra filtering that the pickups sound sort of dead and lifeless.  I’ve seen the same thing with Italian guitars. It’s like they’re being muffled with a pillow.  The wiring looks like the same people who wired the amps also wired the guitars!  One cool thing about some of the Japanese wiring is this series wiring scheme.  Especially on some guitars that have three or four pickups.  As you turn on each pickup, the output increases!  Like the middle position on two-pickup Danelectro guitars!  Lastly, input jacks on almost all older guitars will need to be looked at and/or replaced!
  • Pickups– The Valco single coil, the Danelectro lipstick, and most all the DeArmonds were some of the best pickups ever made!  Many of the Italian brands had some great pickups too, and some really sweet mini-humbuckers.  With the Japanese brands, quality and sound really varies.  What I like about many of the Japanese pickups is the trashy, almost echo-like quality they have.  Dano calls it the “empty beer can sound.”  The issues arise when a pickup goes microphonic.  You know, that constant squeal?  And if you buy online, that’s a tough realization when you play it for the first time.  Wax potting does really well in these situations.  Pickup magnets can sometimes be flipped for a hum-cancelling middle position.  Although, flipping the magnets is a scary job, and you’ll only want the best techs trying this one out. Killing one of these old pickups is a very real option here!  Finally, sometimes a good idea is to preamp these pickups.  Sometimes the difference between a good sounding guitar and flat sounding guitar can be a simple preamp.
Other Issues
  • Tuners– The Japanese open key tuners are what they are, and often aren’t that great.  For some reason, I can live with these tuners!  The Italian tuners are better, and the American Kluson types are pretty good.
  • Neck Thickness– Often the guitars that don’t have truss rods have the thickest necks.  Basically to support the pull and tension of the strings.  Again, it’s something else that doesn’t bother me but it does bother a whole bunch of players enough that the thick neckers often get flipped pretty quickly.
  • Bodies and Finish– Again, I’m not too picky when it comes to weight or cleanliness. One aspect to look for is separation of a body that was built with glues together pieces of laminate wood.  They often come apart, many times near the strap buttons. Some glue and clamps can fix this pretty quickly.  Many of the Italian guitar had some pretty thick paint, almost like a candy coating.  It didn’t do any favors for the resonance of the body, but again, it’s all up to whether this is a huge deal breaker or not.
  • Tremolo Systems– Where the hell did all those trem arms go?!?!?  Seriously, isn’t nice to see an old guitar that still has the arm?  I suspect the reason they’re often missing is because the tremolo systems didn’t work all that well to begin with! Certain Japanese tremolo systems worked particularly bad.  A little wiggle is all you’ll get with these old tremolos, before everything goes out of tune.  But then again, that’s true with a lot of modern tremolos too!
OK, so maybe you’ve read this far and are wondering if investing in these guitars is worth it at all?  Well, of course it is!  Hey, invest some money into making the guitar play right and you’ll have something that’s different and sounds like nothing else!  Back in the day there were some pretty experienced techs in my neck of the woods that wouldn’t even touch these guitars so over the years I had to learn as much as I could, where I could.  I’ve become pretty decent at some of the work but guys like Dano are becoming pretty scarce. Over the years I’ve seen so many of the same guitars get bought and sold over and over again because they have so many of these recurring issues.  And if you’re cash strapped, then just buy a cheap department store guitar and learn the ropes man!
Now with all this being said, I think of a player like Jack White and his fiberglass Airline guitar.  One working pickup, never had a re-fret.  He mentioned once that he likes to “fight” a little with his guitars, and I like that.  Another player is Dan Auerbach.  Shit, when I saw the Black Keys in concert and he was using hollow body Harmony guitars, with FUZZ, and he was controlling the feedback just fine, well again I’m just impressed.  Maybe the real point of all this is to PLAY these guitars!  Don’t let ’em gather dust!  Or you can just send them my way and I’ll take care of them!  Or just send them to Dano and you’ll have an excellent player for years and years!

8 thoughts on “Collecting Oddball Guitars 101

  1. ramblinrourke says:

    Wondering if you happen to know anything about Kay Galaxies? Pre-Valco & co merger to be exact – back when they were a more legitimate company. They’ve got that sweet Barney Kessel pickup in the bridge, but your comments on neck issues and the fact that they going for $500 minimum is making me think of going for a Harmony instead. Any advice?

    1. drowninginguitars says:

      The set-neck Kay guitars usually need neck re-sets if you want to play them a lot. Not all of them need it, but many do. Also, Kay used some bad frets too. But really, all of that can be corrected by a good tech.

      1. ramblinrourke says:

        Thanks. Would you say a Harmony Rocket for example would be a better bet off the shelf – or at least cost less to fix up? The page and video of your Rocket has me thinking hard now, but I understand it had a super pro setup as well.

      2. drowninginguitars says:

        Yeah, probably because, for instance, my Rocket is a bolt-on neck. It’s much easier to get a better neck angle. Whenever I get a guitar I want to play a lot, I usually plane the neck and give it a re-fret. If I found a Kay guitar I liked, I would do the same.

  2. david says:

    I’ve a couple oldies – but one irritates the hell out of me now – an El Maya Les Paul copy – when the pickups worked I preferred it to my Les Paul (which I therefore sold) but not as good as my “The Paul”.. (mind you, I prefer my indian givson to my ’72 strat, ok, am weird :)) … my question: how can one attack the glued-in plate at the back of the El Maya and find where the coils have broken/disconnected??

  3. Maxwell says:

    Drowning in guitars is always worth it to stop and see what I come across and one of my go to for research heip Thank you for all your lists and amazing videos of guitar demonstrations.
    Although today I am searching for info regarding maybe redoing the frets on my Harmony H-50, I think they are brass.n I have the back removed, it had a few too many cracks on the top. So with the back r3moved it lays real flat so thought if I am going to do a refrett , this would the time to do It??? .
    Well and since I stopped here and left a message I wanted to thank you for making a wonderful website

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