Monday, February 04, 2008

Good Things for February 1st, 2008

Awhile back, I asked a pal to lend me a guitar (he owns several) so I might try to play again. I'd played through high school and college, but could never afford one. I'd just gravitate to someone's house that owned one or managed to always have one to borrow. I'd not actually owned one.

Then once I got married it was one of those hobbies I ditched. Too expensive, no time, blah, blah, and blah.

So this friend has a terrific piece he lends me. Its too nice for the newbee likes of me. Fact is I was scared to death to lug it to lessons or something for fear of scratching, denting, or who knows what. It was enough to give me the bug. See it was a guitar I'd always dreamed I'd own. A
Fender Stratocaster. Yeah like Hendrix, Clapton, Robin Trower, Stevie Ray Vaughn and countless other guitar gods played. Yes I know its the player and not the axe that makes the music. No one will be spray painting "The Curmudgeon is God" anyplace. Yet it is fun to dream, right?

So after playing around a bit and enjoying myself far more than anticipated, I started to save and look. I discovered that yeah, if you wanted an original 1954-1974 you'd better be prepared to pay an arm or a leg. A '64 draws about $15,000. A '74 might draw $3,000. So I began learning while the money accrued in the bank.

The beauty of the Internet is you can learn if you truly want to. Oh, sure there are lots of bogus sites and if you believe every review of every piece of gear you'll find most stuff is polarizing; either its the greatest thing they ever owned or its a piece of shit that wasn't worth the postage used to mail it back. I learned about US made Strats, Made in Mexico (MIM) Strats, Made in Japan (MIJ) Strats which aren't even technically sold here. You can order them individually if you like from a website. Fender doesn't import them here. Then there are some called Crafted in Japan (CIJ) which are another flavor entirely. Fender offers a line of Stratocaster by Squire. Bargain models if you will.

I liken guitars to automotive tires. Sure Firestone is a good company. They make tires that are cheap, have the traction in inclement conditions equivalent to banana peels and wear like iron. Oh and they ride like iron too. Then they make middle grade tires which blend the best of all worlds; which means they suck at all the extremes. They give a reasonable life, have decent traction, and ride comfortably. Then there is the tires for racer wanna bees that wear out quick, give great traction, and fail at the first nail and cost more than most people want to spend. Last they make real honest to track racing tires that are used by their sponsored drivers and gear. So, you pick what you want and you can be happy or sad with your decision.

So, I was really jonzing to buy new. I dunno why. Maybe my nephew that said all the used guitar he bought always needed something fixed. He was tired of buzzing frets, no longer magnetic pick-ups, and saddles that were better off on horses. Then I started scouting out used stuff locally. Most shops have a few. Some have more. Then one day I started skimming Craigslist. Some days five new Strats would appear. Most were crap. Beat to hell, or of the Squire vintage or worse. Lots of people like to put the word "Strat" in the subject even if it resembles nothing even close to a Stratocaster. Sounds like, plays like, feels like, heavy as or whatever; you get the drift.

Then I stumbled on an advert where the guy said if he didn't sell by a date he'd store the bugger. He hadn't mucked with it. It was made in Japan (a good thing), and it was in great shape. His price was fair and included a solid hardshell case. I smell a wiener.

I figured the guy probably has sold it, put it in storage and just forgot to pull the advert because the advert is over a week old when I stumble by it. I sent a message anyway. I'd like to come and see for myself and I would really like to play it. This apparently endeared me to him as most people sent messages asking lots of stupid questions that grew annoying. There are lots of things on a guitar that are minor and if you don't like them, change them yourself. Our schedules didn't match too swell and so I finally got to see it Friday.

Its everything he said it was. He showed me the two minor dings from a slow life. Its spent more time in the case than in someone's hands. He had replaced the saddles from the stock stamped with nicer ones that say Fender. He also upgraded the tuners, but he'd said that in the advert. But that is it. It really plays nice and was very well set up. He put on a new set of Ernie Ball Super Silkies for me.

He had a really sweet Marshall amp to play with. All tube and didn't think to ask for vintage. His preferred model is a US made Stratocaster of forgotten vintage, but another re-issue. He's a machinist and had painstakingly replaced all the screws for the saddles of his. They aren't stainless, so he made stainless to fit. He'd also made his own replica knobs and pup covers from I think a high nickel stainless. He also makes customer pick guards out of a number of materials he machines himself. His favorite is aluminum which is dual anodized so you can have your name carved, engraved, loaded or two colored if you wish. He has my email so he said he'd send me a link when his website was ready. He had three Strats in progress of rebuilding. He has someone else do refretting and does rewiring. Mostly he works stuff others muck up and he returns to original. I didn't ask what his user name is on
Harmony Central, but I'm guessing he knows his way around there. The only thing he mentioned was he never does eBay. Too many losers and scammers.

One of the funny stories he told about how to tell a MIJ (versus CIJ) or even a US is the area under the pick guard. He'd pulled off this one and was astounded at how clean it was. He'd never seen that. When he'd got the US one he said there was flux from soldering and they'd just applied the nitrocellulose right over all kinds of sawdust and other crud. Kinda like lifting a rug to see the owner had swept all the filth under it. He was just a really nice guy and I could have stayed a long time.

Last he directed me to a little guitar shop I'd always ignored (they are really big into Gibson, more "V" than I'd ever seen before new and used), but were really competitive on pricing. I got a strap, braided cord and thinger bobs to hold the strap on. Just a generic black and white strap. No HD or skull and crossbones. The guy I spent a lot of time with there looked like he could have stepped into any punk band you can name. More piercings in view than I have fingers and tats and black hole hair dye. So I quizzed him just for fun and he's more a classical guitar player than anything for fun. He named a Spanish classical composer who died in 1884 who he is currently playing. He just shreds for the dough. He likes giving lessons a lot but the pay sucks. Plus nine hours a day in a shop. Tons of Marshall gear. Not a single fender except beat to snot used stuff. Most half the size of the Champ. Or else a 4 by 12 or some monster.

All in all a pretty awesome day. And yeah like the previous owner it feels like an Earl so that it's name. Now its back to saving for an amplifier.

Weird Things for February 4, 2008

Read this via the Velo News. Cannondale has been bought by the same company that ruined the reputation of Schwinn and GT. The same company that brings such fine reasonably priced (that is sarcasm folks) Schwinn and Pacific bikes to WalMarts, KMarts, and Target near you. And they are pretty worthless. When they fail, and they will fail, they are hard to repair and often cost more than the owner paid to begin with. Disposable bikes in a world that needs less disposable and more people riding bikes.

Sure they talk about splitting the company in two and that the Cannondale Sports division will focus on direct to bike shop sales. Whoopie. I can hardly wait. I've owned several beer can mobiles and I actually like them. I've come to respect and appreciate a steel ride more, but for what I got at the time, I liked. Cannondale for a time was the only big company marketing a bicycle for touring and it came with fenders included. At one time a real leather Brooks saddle too.

So it goes

RIP Sheldon Brown

The crazed looking man was a bounty to cyclist everywhere and last night he passed away, probably due to a heart attack. His name is Sheldon Brown and I've know of him and communicated with him almost as long as I've know and been on the Internet and into bicycles. His websites included those of the shop he worked for Harris Cyclery are the stuff of legend among cyclist. Often in some cycling discussion either on the Internet or in person when someone asked a question it would be followed by a question; "Have you checked Sheldon's site?"

On his site you could not only buy the normal parts like wheels, tires, saddles, brakes, shifters, but many of the little bits that no one else might carry. Then to top it he had or had others write guides to many things. Want to know the vintage and origin of some Japanese bicycle you scored at a garage sale? Its there. Want to know how to take off and correctly clean and then lube and re-install your first chain, tire, handle bars or whatever? Its there. Want to know how to adjust your brakes for the maximum stopping power? It's there and he'd tell you the brand and type of shoes that would work in the rain too.

The man was not only a font of knowledge. He was funny. Every April 1st you could depend upon Sheldon propagating some crazy method, product, or something that was hilarious to cyclist. A saddle for real men was a rock he found in exactly a saddle shape. Want to clean your chain right? He offered a kit and method where you completely disassemble the chain link by link until you had a completely useless pile of bits although spectacularly clean.

He was irascible. With his knowledge he would discuss, argue, and educate those who wanted to know in the best manner. There are those that write in a way INTENDED to make you feel foolish for not knowing what they are about to teach you, but that was not Sheldon. He didn't need to denigrate you to help you understand. Now if you chose to go out of your way irritate him, he'd simply ignore you.

He was more than a cyclist. He sang old sailing songs with a group in his Boston area home. He took photographs and was willing to share anything he knew about a piece of photographic gear that worked well or poorly with anyone that asked. He had websites to shed light on the accomplishments of his spouse. He could be depended upon to have updates on what his two children were doing as they grew from youngsters to teenagers to young adults in college.

Recently Sheldon had to stop cycling in the normal two wheel way. He'd come down with MS and it didn't stop him. He bought a trike style of recumbent and kept on moving. He had to resort to a scooter to get around the bike bike events, but that didn't stop him. He wrote volumes about his impressions of the shows and included dozens of photographs. I know others that would have been embarrassed. Not Sheldon. Not being able to walk a show about pedaling bicycles didn't matter. What mattered was being there. Probably harassing his friends and needling his enemies alike.

Once there was a great cyclist who wrote a great deal and had created a huge website for his writings. Unexpectedly he was killed, while riding, by a drunk driver. Sheldon took on the task of providing a home to all those valuable writings. Did he publicly ask for funding to support the weight of all those servers? Not that I've ever known. I've no idea what the cost of the bandwidth he had to manage cost, but it was significant.

Sheldon Brown was a great man of the highest sort. He gave to his community. He gave to his family. He gave to his fellow cyclists around the world. He was a champion of a variety of products and was one of the first to show the greater good the Internet could do. In Sheldon's world no bicycle couldn't be saved. In Sheldon's world, no cyclist couldn't learn more. And he I'm sure was a huge benefit for the shop he worked for.

So, how do they replace a man like Sheldon? You don't. So it goes...