In this feature Sid Bishop delves into the world of budget vintage guitars, beginning with Gibson’s changeable Melody Makers, followed by Fender Jaguars, Jazzmasters, and some fascinating though lesser-known Fender models…
A 1966 Melody Makers
The Gibson Melody Maker was introduced in 1959, and is still with us. There have been many variations in the intervening 55 years, and all have been good consistent sellers – Gibson’s ‘bread-and-butter ‘ line if you will. The original concept was to offer potential Gibson customers a basic stripped-down guitar, aimed primarily at beginners. Once hooked into the Gibson ethos, and as their proficiency improved, they would aspire to invest in one of Gibson’s more expensive offerings, hopefully then being ensnared for life. Quite often this strategy worked very well. A significant number of today’s big-name guitarists would have had a Gibson Melody Maker as their first ‘real’ guitar, and now look upon them with affection.
Being basic student models, none of these were expensive, and today examples of Melody Makers, even the less common models, can be picked up at relatively moderate prices. It becomes a viable proposition therefore to build a collection consisting of genuine vintage items, but without breaking the bank. Throughout the 1960s Gibson also manufactured their Epiphone equivalents in single and double pickup versions, designated the Olympic.
A Joan Jett Signature
There are four basic body styles. First came the single cutaway version, based on the ’50s slab-bodied Les Paul Special and Juniors, but the Melody Maker having a thinner body (Joan Jett used one of these extensively, and there has been a Joan Jett tribute model). These were made in single or double pickup flavours, and in a threequarter-scale version for younger beginners. Secondly came a double cutaway variant. In the mid-’60s came the rather primitive looking ‘almost like a half-finished SG’ body model (Joan Jett used one of these too), and finally the SG-styled series with the familiar sculptured bodies. All of these guitars, regardless of body shape, featured a distinctive narrow headstock. They were available in single and double pickup formats, but the SG-bodied series included a three-pickup model, and also a 12-string for the first time. These ‘SG’ versions were available in red, white or blue, all with white pickup covers and scratchplates. The necks were not finished in a solid colour, but were a varnished bare wood – so no, it hasn’t had a replacement neck, it’s meant to look like that.
We have recently witnessed the introduction of five new Melody Maker models, their names giving a clue to their body style. We now have the Explorer MM, the Les Paul MM, the SG MM and the Flying V MM, and finally the Melody Maker Special, which actually bears a very close resemblance to the single-cutaway ’50s models but with P90s. All reasonably cheap (some may say just a little too cheap), but it has become realistic at last to own a real US-made Gibson for the same price as many Korean or Chinese guitars.
All of these (other than the latest MM Special) are fitted with single-coil Fender-style pickups, but without exposed poles. As these units are not particularly powerful, or tonally efficient, many players upgraded their guitars with the addition of humbuckers, or on occasion P90s. This is the most commonly seen Melody Maker mod, but as the fitting of these necessitated routing out the body cavity, reversing such an alteration is not very practical. Any such ‘upgrade’ is certain to diminish the value of a vintage guitar to a collector, so make due allowance when you consider a purchase. If however you want to buy one as a ‘player’, then this might not represent so much of a concern.
1972 Fender Bronco
Most desirable will be the ’50s single cutaway models, especially the twin-pickup version, but the SG-bodied examples shouldn’t be cold-shouldered and in fact would provide a nice alternative to an SG Junior or Special, and at around half the price.
Now some interesting Fenders. Fender have manufactured a wealth of guitars aside from the iconic Stratocasters and Telecasters. Some have turned out to be very successful, hence highly sought after, and others have been disastrous and since transformed into trendy kitchen clocks. There have been the entry-level Broncos (1967-1981), Duo-Sonics (1956-1969 in various forms), several versions of the Musicmaster (1955-1982), Mustangs (from 1964 on), Customs (also designated Mavericks), and a handful of rarely seen oddities such as the Cyclone, loosely based on the Mustang, which limped along from 1997 to 2006 in various forms (a Squier Cyclone also exists), the Swinger (1969 only), the Marauder (1962-1966), recently reissued though with major alterations, the Prodigy from the ’90s, and the rather unmemorable Lead 1’s, Lead 2’s, and Lead 3’s, made from 1979 to 1982. There have been Fender semi-acoustics too, such as the Coronados and Starcasters, but I’m not going to cover these here, though I will do in the next feature if I live that long.
The Fender Katana: ‘The guitar world’s equivalent of Jedward’
Despite my instinctive aversion to do so, I also have to mention the truly ghastly Katana, made in 1985, thankfully just for that single year, though it did later resurface as part of the Squier range. I would consider the Fender Katana as being the guitar world’s equivalent of Jedward. You know it’s awful, but you just can’t help staring in horrified fascination.
Buy any of these if you want to – after all, it’s your money – but are you likely to quickly find another person who will buy it from you? Perhaps not. Several of these models have reappeared in more recent years, such is the current vogue for vintage nostalgia. There are those who will eagerly buy absolutely anything that’s old, though paradoxically not every old guitar will be especially valuable.
Squier Venus 12-string
For all you bass fans, I also have to make mention of the Musicmaster bass, the Mustang bass, and even a Katana bass. The first two have been good steady sellers for many years, and I also must mention the recently introduced Jaguar bass, all in addition to the rightfully legendary Precision, Jazz, and Telecaster basses.
Much more desirable will be Jaguars and Jazzmasters. The Jazzmaster first appeared in 1958, and the similar but higher-spec Jaguar followed in 1962, which at the time became the most expensive guitar in the Fender catalogue. They got stuck in a bit of a surfing rut at first, and when that craze eventually subsided giving way to a heavier variety of rock’n’roll, the Jaguar/Jazzmaster found itself somewhat left hung out to dry. Although one would turn up here and there over the next few decades, they didn’t become especially popular again until very recently. Unfair, I think, as they are versatile and thoughtfully-designed instruments with an unrivalled tonal range.
The Jaguar was discontinued in 1975, not to be seen again until 1999, and initially then made only in Japan. They look cool too, though beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Prices have been up and down, but at the present they are much sought after, especially earlier examples, though they will never fetch as much as a Strat or a Tele of similar age.
Broncos, Duo-Sonics and Musicmasters, being basic instruments aimed at beginners in the same way that Gibson’s Melody Makers were, can be picked up at fairly friendly prices with a little hunting around. Keep in mind that both Duo-Sonics and Musicmasters were made in short-scale and standard-scale versions at various times.
You’ll be paying a little more for Mustangs, and the way the market is right now, comparatively high prices for Jazzmasters and Jags. The older they are, the more you will pay. They are fascinating to collect though, and a practical alternative to Strats and Teles, many of which in any case will be priced way beyond our means. Unlike Strats and Teles, forgeries of most of these ‘other’ Fenders will be very unusual, as they are not worth enough for anyone to bother.
I’ll round off this segment with a look at Fender’s solid body 12-strings. There have only ever been two, a recent and highly useful Japanese made Stratocaster 12, issued in sporadic limited runs which I’m confident will continue into the future, and the famous ’60s ‘hockey-stick’ model, with the split-coil pickups, offset Jaguar-style body, and distinctive headstock, hence the epithet. I spotted one in the hands of Lloyd Cole a couple of months back. These were in production from 1965 until 1969, and being only ever made in small batches remain fairly rare.
Despite all my years in the business I can’t recall handling more than a dozen or so. These were designed specifically for the folk-rock market, but were doomed to be eclipsed by the all-conquering Rickenbackers. If you ever see one of these at what seems to be a reasonable price, just grab it, especially if it’s a custom colour. Curiously they’ve never been reissued, though I wouldn’t like to guarantee that they won’t be sometime in the future; however in 1997 there was an all too brief appearance of a broadly similar Venus 12-string as part of the Squier range, but if you’d blinked you would have missed it. Perhaps we should start up a petition requesting that they make a few more.