When I was a kid, visiting my mom’s side of the family was a really cool experience. Most of the family was from Austria, and spoke plenty of German. They also drank plenty of beer and I can still see my grandpa drinking beer from a bottle without putting his lips to the glass! It was so interesting to me, and it’s funny when you examine the random things that stick in your memories. Anyway, when my grandpa got to the bottom of that bottle, I’d be there right at his side like a little puppy. He would always hand the bottle down to me to take that last swig! Good times. So where am I going with this story? Well, I’m gettin’ there…
It was the music! Polka music to be exact! I’d hear it all the time at my grandparent’s house! Maybe many of you reading a guitar blog would scoff at the mention of Polka, but let me tell you something. That Polka music is really happy music! Fun, happy friggin’ music man! I can remember vividly going to carnivals and fairs where there were big Polka bands cranking out this happy music, and maybe it was all those swigs of my grandpa’s beer, but I just recall those times as some of the happiest memories of my youth. There’d be couples of all ages just swinging around and laughing their asses off! The craziest instruments would be up there, and even as a kid I’d be marveling at the “boombas” and sparkly accordions (no, boombas aren’t breasts). Well, now are you getting the connection? Even my grandfather owned an accordion, but he couldn’t play it at all. I wonder why he had that damn accordion? I do know he won a lot of weird things playing poker! He had all kinds of cool things like naked lady whiskey bottles, WWII uniforms (he served in the army during world war II), and random musical instruments. Well, for some odd reason (maybe because I was the only grandson, and my parents had the worst luck and we were always broke), per his will I ended up with most of his belongings. So there I was, at 16, with his crazy accordion!
I had absolutely NO interest in learning to play that darn accordion! But once I visited my friend’s house, and I brought along the accordion to show his dad. My friend Pete had the “cool” dad, who went to Woodstock, and had old guitars hanging on the walls of his basement. So Pete’s dad says to me, “Hey, that’s a really good accordion! It’s an Excelsior!” And I’m like, so? Being a typically dumb teenager who thought everything I didn’t like wasn’t “cool”, he schooled me on the finer points of accordion construction. And you know, I was strangely interested! Talking about celluloid and sparkle brought me right back to those happy, drunk Polka parties!! It would be years later that I was on one of my crazy, week-long guitar hunting excursions. While driving around upstate New York, I stopped by a pawn shop and saw this guitar hanging on the wall. Upon seeing the name Excelsior, I started firing up the ol’ neurons and making the connections. Could it be? The same Italian Excelsior accordion company? You bet your boomba!
It was surprising to me at the time, but now I know just about every musical instrument company was somehow involved in guitar production during the mid 1960s. And this is a fine example. The Excelsior Accordion Company was started in America in 1924 by brothers Egisto and Roberto Pancotti. Eventually, the family found its way back to Italy and set up a factory in famous Castelfidardo, which became the home of many accordion/guitar manufacturers in the 1960s. By the early 1960s, many accordion companies were seeing the profit potential in electric guitars, and Excelsior jumped into the fire with a full line of electric guitars. Of those, the most expensive model was this Jamaica III, which listed at $189.50. You can see a catalog for the Excelsior guitars here at the wonderful Guitar Fetish site.
These guitars are interesting in many ways. First off, many of the features were exclusive to Excelsior guitars. It seems like the bridge and pickups were designed, built, and attached all at the Excelsior factory. The bridge is a thing of engineering beauty, and it’s very effective! The pickups are really cool, or weird. I’m not sure which! They are mini-humbuckers, and they are covered with this hard plastic (or ceramic) black cover. Very interesting indeed! The finish is a very thick, almost candy coating material! The finish has cracks in this thick finish that radiate out from almost every pick guard screw, but that’s the nature of many Italian electric guitars. Although I have to say these Excelsiors seem to have an EXTRA thick finish, like melted polyester! I call this guitar my “lollipop”! And the headstock has to be one of my favorite all-time designs ever! It’s simple, but really cool looking in this understated sort of way.
My Excelsior Jamaica III has a black painted headstock, but most that I’ve seen have a natural finish. The bodies of these solid body guitars were made of maple, as were the necks, and the guitar feels pretty substantial. This thing ain’t a toy! The pickups are pretty hot, with the neck and middle pups reading in the high 8k, but the bridge pup reads at 11k! Man, this guitar has so much bite in that bridge position! The only downside to these pickups are those black covers I mentioned before. Whenever you hit the tops of the covers with your pick, it creates this plinky, dinky, tapping sound that translates through the amp! You definitely can’t be sloppy when playing this guitar. Even a master like Mike Dugan figures out the touchy nature of these pickup covers. Check out the first few strums he takes in the video below!
But first check out that little tailpiece curvy do-dad down there at the strap pin! It seems like that little design feature was one of the only things separating the Jamaica models from the Dyna model guitars in the same catalog? What do you think of when you see that little curvy feature? Hmmmmm? Of course, the MAN Dano did all the work on this guitar, which involved a refret and a fretboard sanding. For some reason, the fretboard radius on many Italian guitars was REALLY round! Very hard to play, at least for me! Otherwise, this guitar was built very well, with quality components. I just love this darn thing, almost as much I love those old Polka party memories. I still try to drink beer like my grandpa, and if you’re wondering what I did with that old Excelsior squeezebox, well my friend Pete’s dad now uses it at least once a month for, well, you know what he uses it for! Grab that boomba bitches and head over to the hunky hall! That’s the Hungarian Club for all of you not from eastern Pennsylvania!