January is a pretty big month for guitar enthusiasts across the globe thanks to the Winter NAMM show, with participants and penitent onlookers salivating at each new model and reissue announced. Hungry-eyed viewers of social media feeds hit refresh as often as the apps will allow, hoping to catch a fresh glimpse of the excitement coming from their favorite brands and musicians. Those who attend know just how loud the clatter and din of detuned guitars and cymbal circles can be, and those who watch from home may actually be getting the better deal, with channels such as Guitar.com and online influencers doing the heavy lifting for them. Still, it’s an interesting time for all.
However, if new guitars, amps, and pedals aren’t your thing, then perhaps the Amigo Guitar Show in Costa Mesa would be more your speed. Based at the OC Fairgrounds (only 13 miles from the Anaheim Convention Center) the Amigo SoCal Guitar Show is the perfect place to scope out all manner of rare and unique vintage guitars. Dozens of vendors collectively boast hundreds of guitars, amps, pedals, parts, and assorted memorabilia, making it the perfect way to spend a weekend for those of you after something a little less frenzied than NAMM. Read on for some of our highlights…
During our first lap around the show, we encountered famed dealer and ‘Burst Brother’ Drew Berlin, whose booth was understated and unassuming – a look that belies the treasures lurking within. Behind a makeshift entryway of folding tables were rows of vintage ’50s Stratocasters resting in their original cases, their sunbursts showing off absolutely gorgeous figuring in their ash bodies. Drew pointed out nearly identical but well-hidden seam lines on two particular examples that the naked eye might normally overlook.
The guitar that initially captured our attention was a 1962 model in Fiesta Red, a colour that’s the subject of much admiration and speculation due to the sheer number of shades we see these days. Some unfaded examples exist, but yellowed clear coats wreak havoc on the definition of what actually constitutes ‘Fiesta,’ and even the most accurate restorations struggle to hold a candle to vintage examples. This one, however, was breathtakingly original.
The Strat features a deep chocolate round-lam Brazilian rosewood fretboard and gently oxidised hardware. It’s clear that this one’s been played thanks to a refret with much larger frets, and because the guitar has no undercoat, the finish is starting to flake off, particularly around the edges of the body. It also retains its exceptional, original mint green pickguard.
Drew then surprised us by pulling a gigbag from beneath one of his tables, and with a smirk asked, “Do you want to see something really impressive?” In the gigbag was an old brown case, and within that case, a 1958 Gibson Les Paul Standard. Its lemon-tea sunburst is one of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen, applied over a top that was neither plain nor obscenely flamed. It was light, acoustically resonant, and felt like a time capsule to a bygone era of guitar craft.
Drew informed us that this guitar has never been circulated, and its serial number has never been posted online. It’s a little guitar secret, available only to those who are in the know – and that forbidden knowledge comes with a price tag of a mere $320,000 USD.
Dakota’s Cool Guitars
On that same lap, we ran into our good friend Dakota Raysik, the eponymous mainman behind Dakota’s Cool Guitars. Dakota is a gainfully employed road tech for a number of acts you’d recognise if we had the space to list them all, and those connections gives him access to interesting pieces that just wouldn’t come up at other shops.
For instance, take this ’78 Les Paul Standard (seen featured above) that comes straight from Doyle Von Frankenstein of Misfits fame. This guitar was employed during the Danzig era and painted by Doyle himself, with blacked-out binding, dripping blood on the fretboard, and The Phantom Of The Opera looking outward from the headstock. As the story goes, Doyle traded this “piece of shit” for a tattoo in 1983, and it’s been hidden away ever since.
Dakota also had two exceptionally rare pieces on display from Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong: two TV Yellow Gibson Juniors hailing from 1961, each with a different body shape. Both were touring instruments, so tiny yet reversible upgrades have been made, such as aftermarket tuners on both guitars and added knurling on the speed knobs of the LP DC. The guitars represent a transitional period for Gibson, and sell as a set for $45,000. When pressed, Dakota agreed to throw in the MXR Dookie Drive pedal for any buyer willing to pay full asking price. You’re very welcome.
Cincinnati dealer Mike Reeder rolled out the proverbial red carpet for us at his booth. His shop, Mike’s Music, is renowned for the quality of its inventory as well as Reeder’s reputation for detailed appraisals. He’s worked for scores of famous musicians, and even consulted with Gibson on a number of reissues, so he’s definitely the kind of guy you want in your corner when you’re after something truly special.
And special – that’s what he had in store for us. In a silver case was a delightful Rickenbacker-esque guitar that was made by Paul Barth, a largely unsung hero in the development of the electric guitar in the early to mid 20th century. Barth was instrumental in the creation of the Ric ‘Frying Pan,’ regarded as the very first electric guitar in existence. He also worked for National and Magnatone on a number of guitar projects, leaving his indelible fingerprints on a sector of the early electric-guitar industry.
This blue-bursted beauty was made by the legend himself, with a double-bound body shape reminiscent of the Rickenbacker Capri. It’s somewhat of a cross between Magnatone and Rick elements, with a three-bolt neck joint, graceful cutaways, painted fretboard, and full-body white pickguard.
Another treat for us was a stunning 1948 Gibson J-200 with an exceptionally flamed maple back and sides. It’s an early, fantastic example of one of the first maple backed guitars in the line, and it came to Mike from its original owner in San Francisco. Mike also had a deliciously aged all-gold 1956 Gibson Les Paul, greened-out and gorgeous in every way, as well as a perfect mid-late ’61 Jazzmaster in Lake Placid Blue with a wavy Brazilian fretboard and a patent number vibrato. Be sure to keep up with Mike’s adventures with his Fret Buzz and Guitar Pickers web series at The Village on YouTube.
Emeryville, CA guitar dealer Jay Rosen is well-known for his eye for the cool, the kitschy, the unique. Legendary in vintage circles, Jay always seems to have the cream of the crop in stock. His showing at Amigo did not disappoint, with rows of cool Strats from the ’50s through the ’90s, as well as an Elite model from the late ’80s in Bahama Green.
Unsurprisingly, our attention was quickly focused on a particular Lake Placid Blue Jaguar at the table, but out of the many custom colour offsets at the show, this one had the most interesting story. Observing the guitar from headstock down to the bridge, it seems to be a totally original 1964 Fender with clay dots, a mint guard, and relatively clean hardware; once you gaze upon the heavily weathered bottom edge of the body, things come into focus.
This guitar clearly has taken some water damage at some point in its life. While the finish is in otherwise lovely condition, the lower portion of the body is utterly bare. Jay speculates that the guitar was stored upright in a basement that flooded, a mundane tale which satisfies curiosity as it lines up with the placement of the damage.
On his website, Rosen asks, “Would you rather have this oar or a new guitar?” We prefer to imagine that this Jag has been used as such.
The real star of his display was a 1966 Precision Bass in a shockingly clean, unfaded Charcoal Frost Metallic. CFM is one of the rarer finishes from the Fender catalogue, and seeing it in person in its original steely blue-grey is really something special. Generally, this colour tends to fade to a brownish-olive hue as the clear coat yellows from exposure, and Jay suspects the clear coat may have been buffed on this one to remove said ageing. In fact, there’s just a hint of that going on around the pickguard on the treble side cutaway. Just an incredible vintage piece.
McKenzie River Music
Artie Leider of Eugene, Oregon shop McKenzie River Music lured our gaze with a beautiful, clean Airline JB Hutto in the brightest, shiniest red we’d seen in years. If you aren’t aware, that’s the particular model that Jack White slung around his shoulder during the reign of garage-rock supremos The White Stripes. The guitar was completely original and set up beautifully.
McKenzie River Music seems to revel in the rare and unique, and one special instrument at the booth raised our suspicions almost immediately: a Takamine Archtop Prototype from the 1960s. Artie gave us a quick tour.
Takamine dabbled briefly in archtop guitars for a few short years in its nearly 60 year history. This particular one, Artie tells us, is a prototype, one of only a handful of which were produced. The guitar is equipped with an onboard pickup system, an oddly shaped white plastic pickguard, and a classy trapeze tailpiece.
Guitar Center Hollywood
We caught up with our friend and former interview subject Nick Conte of Guitar Center, and as always he had a few rare treats to show off. One was a black Gretsch Tenor Duojet from 1954, made just like its six-string counterpart with four pole Dynasonics, a four-string neck, and ‘G’ tailpiece.
Tucked under the table was a Gibson model produced for only two years! Nick pulled out an exceedingly clean 1964 Thunderbird bass and our jaws hit the floor. Not only is this bass outstanding in its features and low production numbers, it’s also well-kept. Although the bass has clearly been played, it wasn’t abused; the finish is bright and clean, with only the most minor of incursions. And with its two original, giant T-Bird pickups, it’s easy to imagine the kind of earth-shaking sounds this thing puts out.
The bass also sports its original mute mechanism, essentially springs mounted to the top of the body underneath the strings by the bridge, which exerts pressure on tiny foam pads, which in turn make contact with the strings and make the Gibson sound more like an upright. As one of only about 60 in existence, it’s a real honour that we got to spend some time with it.
UK vintage aficionado Mike Long from ATB Guitars flagged us down on the show floor. He wasn’t presenting, just window-shopping. After a quick catch-up, he took us out to the parking lot to show us his latest score, and nothing could have prepared us for the singular glory hiding in his trunk. Out of its original case came a Cherry 1959 Gibson ES-330TDC.
330s just didn’t come in Cherry in 1959, unless they were custom ordered, and there are likely only one or two others in existence. Also curious: the guitar wears the parallelogram inlays of an ES-345 and a custom engraved truss-rod cover which bears the name of its former owner, one Heidi Barkentin. Heidi was a client of one of Gibson’s many teaching schools in the late 1950s, and one of their agents frequently ordered Cherry instruments. This Bigsby-equipped beauty is such a special guitar, and if you’d like to know the full story, head on over to atbguitars.com. We’ll also be featuring the guitar in more detail in these pages soon!
Meeting up with Shai Ashkenazi of Imperial Vintage Guitars is always a pleasure and regular readers will be familiar with him thanks to our recent guide to guitar-shopping in LA. First, he pulled out a lovely ’58 Strat in original three-tone sunburst for us to ogle. It’s been played hard over the years, as evidenced by the wear on the maple fretboard caused by vigorous strumming in the neck position. Despite this, the original plastics are bright and clean, and the hardware has patina but isn’t totally corroded. Perhaps its former owner never played down by the bridge?
Among the handful of gems Shai had with him was also an example of one of his very favourite 1960s Epiphone models: a supremely clean ’64 Crestwood Custom. The naming convention of this type of guitar can often be confusing, but if you’re unsure here’s a hint: most Customs of this era feature two pickups and oval inlays, while the Custom Deluxes have three pickups and the usual big block inlays of a Les Paul Custom. If it’s a Wilshire, it’ll have two pickups and dot inlays. If it has a single pickup, it’s a Coronet.
This Crestwood Custom retains its original Cherry finish, two barking, biting mini-humbucker pickups, and the delightful Tremotone tailpiece. Dig that long, white, Dolphin-like pickguard and the output jack placed between sets of controls. It’s quirky, it’s cool, and they’re quite good instruments to boot.
After leaving the show, I realised that I didn’t have to wear earplugs, that I wasn’t yelling when I asked a question, and that I didn’t have to walk miles through capacity crowds just to look at something that piqued my interest. As we drove back to NAMM, the Amigo show started to seem a lot more my speed.
Amigo Guitar Shows has a number of shows going on all over the US throughout the year – stay tuned to amigoguitarshows.com for info about the next crop.