The Low End: Ibanez Black Eagle

Starting out with yet another series, this being my first blog about basses. In this series I will feature a specific bass or a particular model and showcases its history, musicians who used them and maybe some personal stories relating to whatever I’m talking about. If I get some good recording software I can upload a demo of the bass on YouTube or something. Been meaning to do that for a while anyway (also for guitar/synths) but I still haven’t got around to exactly record/buy anything…

Bass guitar was the first instrument I learned to play on and will always remain my ‘first love’ musically. Bass also got me interested in the history of guitars and basses; all the different models, the amps, effects pedals. I must have spend hours and hours looking at old catalogs on the Internet, browsing through forums looking at all these photos and reading stories of instruments I’d never seen in my life. My interest sparked by general curiosity and musicians who weren’t playing the regular ol’ Stratocaster or Les Paul. The scarcer the information online the more I became obsessed with certain guitars or basses. One of my first guitar memories was craving for a white Mosrite Ventures Mk II like Johnny Ramone played in the Ramones. Still only a bass player then, my obsession with vintage, quirky basses somehow started a little later.

At the time I was in the phase of ‘I-only-want-the-instruments-my-idols-played’ so I became very interested in the various guitars and basses Nirvana played during their heyday. This was a catalyst of sort and the ‘vintage shenanigans’ really started after I bought my second bass: an almost mint ’77 Ibanez Black Eagle. Inspired by the bass player of Nirvana, Krist Novoselic, and wanting something a bit ‘Fenderish’ I bought this beauty off eBay. Novoselic had several (3-4) Black Eagles while in Nirvana. He used them extensively on Nirvana’s first album ‘Bleach’ and most of the early tours before retiring them in favor of Gibson Rippers and RD basses. One Black Eagle was reintroduced during the ‘In Utero’ tour, instantly recognizable since the maple fretboard was replaced with a rosewood one (Krist broke the neck once…). Besides Krist I haven’t seen too many musicians playing these basses. Although endorsed by Ronald LaPread of The Commodores at the time, the only other ‘famous’ people who I have seen using a Black Eagle were Pete Reichert of Rocket From The Crypt and Lee Tomlinson of Clout.

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It wasn’t easy getting this bass. Intrigued by its sound and its strange look, a kind of lovechild of a Jazz Bass and a Burns Bison bass, I saved up all my money stacking shelves at the local supermarket. Getting the money was ‘easy’ since it took me almost a year to finally find one on eBay all the way out in California (I’m from the Netherlands). The day it arrived at my house I was as giddy as a 5-year-old at Christmas, maybe even more. Luckily this Black Eagle was everything I had dreamed off and more. Remember: I’d never played one in real life, let alone seen one IRL. This was my first taste of vintage and I demanded more! So it seems fitting that the Black Eagle was the subject of my first bass blog.

A little history: the Ibanez 2609B ‘Black Eagle’ was an electric bass guitar made by Ibanez in the mid to late 70s. The original Black Eagle were manufactured in Japan as part of a ‘limited’ edition series from 1975 until 1979, the peak year of production being 1977. The bass was made during the so called post-‘Lawsuit’ era in which Ibanez had to change their instruments to avoid lawsuits from Fender and Gibson. Before this Ibanez and other mainly Japanese (sister-)companies were building almost exact replicas of several established guitar models, such as those being made by the aforementioned brands. Especially Fender and Gibson were noticing a decline in sales because of the import of these copy instruments, being cheaper and a lot of the times on par with their American counterparts.

Although the Black Eagle clearly is a Fender Jazz Bass copy it differs on several areas. The body was made of mahogany, instead of the regular alder (or ash) found on Fenders. Earlier models had a three-piece hard laminated maple neck, later ones were one-piece. The neck is one of the more recognizable features of the Black Eagle. The fretboard was marked with ‘fancy intricate inlays’ as described in the ’76 Limited Models catalog of Ibanez. This pattern was borrowed from the banjos made by Ibanez, which in turn was modeled after old Gibson banjos from the 30s. The neck had a slightly smaller scale, 33 1/2”, instead of the usual 34” Fender necks. The most ‘bizarre’ feature was the F-hole cutout in the headstock. Besides companies like Travis Bean with their aluminum neck I never seen this on any other instrument. Made from wood and not too thick this cutout was prone to breaking off, leaving many Black Eagles with a sort of ‘parrots beak’. My ’77 is one of the lucky few with an intact headstock which made me a bit paranoid every time I took it out of the house.  Have since retired it from live performances. To compliment the other quirky features the body had elongated horns which made it slightly different from a standard Jazz Bass shape, again just so to avoid further future lawsuits. The pickguard was decorated with a mother-of-pearl flying eagle, hence the name Black Eagle.

The first production-made Black Eagles were made somewhere around June 1975. Since these first basses lack a serial number an exact date is unknown. It first appeared in a 1975 catalog as part of the Custom Series by Ibanez alongside some fancy wood-carved Strats and a ‘matching’ Les Paul guitar. There exists one prototype Black Eagle made by Fujigen Japan from the 4th of June that year. It has a different neck, the same as an Ibanez 2365B which was just a regular Jazz Bass copy. The fretboard has the correct inlays but made of pearloid rather than black celluloid. The body is the exact same shape as a Fender Jazz Bass, so without the extended horns that were later added. The pickguard had the same flying eagle template and it had an ashtray cover added over the bridge.

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The last of the original 70s Black Eagle basses were made in early 1979. In June of 2015 these basses were (shortly) reissued by Ibanez for the 40th anniversary of the Black Eagle, which caught me completely of-guard when they first showed this at Winter NAMM ’15. Unlike the originals they were made in Indonesia instead of Japan. I have since played one at a music store, quite liked it, but decided I didn’t need (yet) another Black Eagle. If you can still find one of these reissues try them out! The price is right and they’re much cheaper than a vintage specimen.

I’ve already talked about my ’77 Black Eagle but oh no, it doesn’t end there. About 18 months later I found another Black Eagle only this time much closer to home and a lot cheaper. This beat-up ’76 Black Eagle was demoted to wall furniture for the last 10 years before I bought it. The electronics were a mess, it was missing a strap pin and the pickguard but it played great! Some set-up adjustments and soldering shortly after and it was all up and running. After I bought the second Black Eagle I immediately noticed the major differences between the basses and figured out there was at least one ‘big’ production redesign in late ’76 or early ’77.

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The first thing that struck me was the neck shape and profile of both basses. The ’76 has a much slimmer neck, comparable with a 60s/modern Jazz Bass. On the other hand the ’77 has a wider neck and a U-shape neck profile like most mid 70s Jazz Basses. The shape of the body is also different, the ’77 having more contours while the ’76 has more of a slab body, almost Telecaster Bass-like. Minor cosmetic differences are the relocation of the trussrod access from the headstock to the heal of the neck. The bridge also has two extra screws compared to the ‘older’ Black Eagles.

Not that I would have minded two identical Black Eagles but I guess I lucked out getting two different versions of the same instrument. Currently I have the ’77 Black Eagle strung up with tapewound strings, giving it almost an upright sound. Love the vintage ‘oomph’ I can get with this bass but still enough brightness on tap if you really want to dig in. Before I was using Rotosound rounds, which were great but I wanted something different. Meanwhile the other Black Eagle hasn’t strayed far from the Nirvana look and sound. I tuned this bass down to C standard (CFA#D#) with some thick roundwound strings to get that real aggressive yet crunchy bass tone with some added overdrive (for example on the first few albums of QotSA). The weight difference is also pretty apparent. The ’76 bass will shatter your collarbone with the wrong strap while the ’77 is a comparatively more average weight. This tends to vary with most Black Eagles, it is not really bound to any particular year just the piece of mahogany used to construct the body.

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Almost forget to mention this but in the time between finding both basses I managed to score yet another Black Eagle. Well… only half of it. This ’75/’76 neck just came across on the Dutch equivalent of Craigslist completely random. I will be using this for my next bass project after finishing both my guitar projects first, (watch out for the next installment of Guitar Projects!) so it might take a while before I get around to finishing this ‘Black Eagle’.

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Guitar Project #1: Fender ‘Ronald Jones’ tribute Jaguar (part 1)

Very few people will likely be familiar with the name ‘Ronald Jones’, but for those who do: good for you, pad yourselves on the back! In all seriousness, I think he is one of the most underrated guitar players of the 90s, definitively up there with guitarists like Jonny Greenwood, Kevin Shields or Graham Coxon. In terms of creativity and style I have yet to hear someone on that level of playing, making at times such bizarre sounds and weird phrases, that still make me wonder: “How? What just happened?” His creative ways of using certain effects and techniques was completely his own. The only one I know who does even something vaguely similar is Nick Reinhart from the band Tera Melos.

For all of you (everyone?) who don’t know who I’m talking about, Ronald Jones was the guitar player for the American band the Flaming Lips from 1992 till 1996. I have never seen him play live in person (a little too young then unfortunately). Hearing the Flaming Lips for the first time didn’t leave much of an impression on me at first. I was raised with a lot of music around me at the time, back when MTV still showed mostly music videos. Hearing music from the 90s left me with a taste of things to come at an early age. ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’, the biggest hit of the Lips from that period, must have been on several times, although my memory is blurry. Fast forward years later and discovering their vast discography I was drawn to that one specific period in the history of the Flaming Lips: the “Ronald Jones era”.

The Lips only made two albums with Ronald on-board, ’93s “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart” and two years later “Clouds Taste Metallic”. If you haven’t ever listened to these albums, check them out! After Ronald left the music and the band changed, I still like a lot of it but the ‘golden era’ of the Lips was definitely over, for me at least. The sound of his guitar on many live shows/recordings was the pinnacle of psychedelic noise rock weirdness, adding so much textures and covering multiple grounds with his sound; slide guitar, pick scratches, musical ring modulation, crazy synth, fuzzed-out leads, orchestral and otherworldly delays and reverb. Check out this concert from 1995 for a sample of Ronald’s guitar witchcraft (and occasional back-up vocals). Bonus: it’s got good audio too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOvWQrkRb-4.

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Coming to the instruments of the man himself: his main guitars were two nearly identical mid 60s Jaguars. Jones was mostly spotted with a ’65/’66 surf green Fender Jaguar (with neck binding and pearl dot inlays). These Jaguars were only built for a short while before switching to binding with pearl block inlays, which lasted until production ended in 1975. The most recognizable about this Jaguar was that he modded it with Seymour Duncan Hot Rails pickups and a tune-o-matic bridge. Wayne Coyne, the singer/other guitarist of the Lips, had a ’67 Jazzmaster modded in the same way (much to the chagrin of Steven Drozd at first, the drummer and actual owner of the guitar). I don’t know who inspired who though…

Anyways, at first the Jaguar only had one Hot Rails pickup in the bridge position (like the Jazzmaster) but sometime around/before early ’93 a second Hot Rails was installed in the middle position. Notice the screw holes for the middle pickup in the photos below. A custom pickup selector plate also replaced the stock triple switches of regular Jaguars, instead opting for a single five-way toggle switch as used on Stratocasters. Apparently the guitar was modded even further in 1995 sometime after their performance on David Letterman, completing the Holy Trinity of Hot Rails with a third Hot Rails installed in the neck position! Finding good pictures of this guitar was difficult. Ironically the best photos I could find were of this guitar being played by Derek Brown, who alongside Drozd is the current guitar player of the Flaming Lips, the Jaguar still remaining in the band after Ronald’s departure in 1996.

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The other Jag was a ’65/’66 sunburst Fender Jaguar. The neck also had pearl inlays but no binding, making it (probably) slighter older than the other guitar. 1965 and 1966 was a transitional year for Fender after being bought by CBS. Many features like the logo and other cosmetics were used interchangeably on Fender guitars and basses, so it’s possible to get weird combinations like the newer logo on an older neck, the newly introduced neck binding on an older body, etc, etc. The sunburst one also had the same mods done to it as the surf green Jag, albeit the neck pickup was never changed to a Hot Rails (at least to my knowledge). I haven’t seen any clear pictures of this guitar so no idea if it also had the custom 5-way pickup selector plate (edit: it appears it didn’t after watching some live footage from San Francisco 1995). This Jaguar doesn’t appear to have went to the band after ’96, so I guess/hope Ronald still has it somewhere?!

Other guitars Jones used were a black Fender Stratocaster (with white pickguard), used for the very first shows with the Lips in 1992, a red Supro guitar from the 60s, seen in the ‘Be My Head’ and alternate ‘Turn It On’ music video (edit: used live at KC Lollapalooza ’94), a white/blonde Fender Telecaster, seen in various music videos (edit: the Tele was also used live at Roskilde 1996), a blue ‘Rickenbacker’ copy 12 string, seen in the ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ video. Besides the Strat, Supro and Tele, there were various guitars seen in mostly music videos and likely belonged to the band. Other examples are a 60s sunburst Fender Coronado and a Harmony Rocket H54/1 (Wayne’s guitar). Some would have been used for recording, but I haven’t found much footage or info on these particular guitars.

The tribute guitar is built according to some of the specs of Ronald’s original Jaguars, diverging only ‘slightly’. It’s a tribute remember, not a replica! I want to build a replica someday though, be patient, maybe in a couple of years or so…

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As you can see it is still a work in progress, missing the neck, vibrato tailpiece and part of the electronics (edit: now all wired up!). The ash body is from Warmoth, finished in the color ‘Transparent Amber’. If you check out their website this exact Jaguar body is still used as their model for this particular finish. Instead of the tune-o-matic bridge I’ll be using a Warmoth modified Mustang bridge. Mustang bridges were/are used as a cure for the saddle problem of Jaguar and Jazzmaster bridges. TOM bridges can also be used, which is what Ronald and Wayne did, but you’d have to mod the body slightly. The Warmoth ones are drop-in replacements and even offer height adjustment that original Mustang bridges don’t.

The tortoise pickguard is an original Jaguar pickguard from 1965, same as the neck pickup and the main control plate (plus knobs). These pickguards have a much nicer look to them than the reissue tortoise guards. These are either brown tortoise or the graphics aren’t pronounced at all, so I opted getting an original 60s pickguard. It just so happened that the guy who offered one also had a spare pickup and plate which he kindly sold to me for a fair price. The bridge pickup is of course a black Seymour Duncan Hot Rails. I was thinking of adding a second one, but then I’d have to rout the body and the pickguard. The pickguard still being original would probably give me bad karma… The lower switching system will be the regular Jaguar triple selectors, at least being faithful to Ronald’s ‘Mk 1 Hot Rails’ Jaguar.

I’ll be finishing up the guitar in the next few weeks, so stay tuned for pics of the completed tribute guitar and some final words! Hopefully it will sound and play as good as it looks.

Desert Island Pedals #1: Chorus

Was thinking about writing about my next guitar project, but instead I wanted to talk about effects pedals. Just to vary it up a bit. In these blogs I want to tell the story behind some of my favorite effect pedal types and give examples from my own small stash of not-so-secret secrets.

After finishing the title doubt struck my mind: “I should call this “Desert Island Pedals #1: Chorus (and Flanger and Phasers)”, or not?” Choruses, flangers and phasers share a lot in common, but I’ll dedicate the blog to this specific effect. Maybe later I can add a DIP about these other effects, I do love me some good ol’ flanging and phasing!

Even if you are not an avid fan of bands like The Cure or The Police, or pretty much every (pop)song from the 80s for that matter, you will know what a chorus sound is in an instance. Explaining it to someone who doesn’t know what chorus is just by giving the dictionary definition is harder than you think. Trust me, I’ve done it, it was messy. If applied tasteful you can’t go wrong with chorus, don’t overdo it though. Looking at you, 80s musician…

My love for chorus pedals actually started with one of the aforementioned effects: the flanger. One of my first effects pedals was an old purple box from the 80s, a Japanese Boss BF-2 I bought for around 40 euros. Inspired by Robert Smith of The Cure I needed at least a good flanger on my proto-pedalboard (i.e. the floor). Still playing only bass guitar at the time the BF-2 succeeded in adding that moody atmosphere on my bass tone, think Simon Gallup during the “Faith” album from 1981. While I wasn’t using my onboard chorus that much on my tiny 1×10 Roland combo, the sound was big and lush.

Fast forward a few years later and chorus has been taking up more of my sonic real estate. My time as a bass player has learned me that the non-intrusive effects are often the best choice in a band mix or for your guitar tone (or even keyboards/vocals). Adding a chorus with any number of effects will thicken up your sound and emphasize the dynamics when you want to. Sure I wouldn’t use it all the time, but the same can be said for reverb, delay or even overdrive. Or people who don’t know how to use a distortion or fuzz pedal properly in a live situation… please don’t use it if you can’t get at least a ‘decent’ sound that doesn’t overwhelm the band or implode on itself.

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Besides my trusty old Boss flanger, these are 2 of my current favorite choruses: a 70s Boss CE-1 and an Ibanez SF-10 from the 80s. Yes, I know the Ibanez is technically a flanger but this pedal is a sleeper chorus treasure! A friend of mine bought one and after trying it for the first time I was amazed at how good the chorus sounded with the proper settings. The CE-1 is another one of my all-time favorites and is already considered the Holy Grail of choruses. This pedal is basically the chorus and vibrato section from the Roland JC-120 amplifier in a separate box. JC-120’s are famed for their lush built-in chorus and superb stereo sound. Got it ‘cheap’ several years ago, because someone painted it black (Rolling Stones fan maybe?). Don’t know why, aside from that it was done quite nicely and it saved my a lot of cash. Honorable mention goes to the Electro Harmonix Small Clone (old or new), haven’t personally owned one but I tried it multiple times on bass and guitar. Really a one knob wonder box!

Next time I will be completing the first part of Guitar Projects, featuring my first assembled-from-parts guitar. This tribute guitar is being made according to the specs of one of my guitar heroes, who nobody has heard of probably (but you should!). Raising the curtain a tad: it’s another offset, a Fender Jaguar.

Fender Mustangs: underappreciated offsets

The first real blog on this page! Huzzah!

The Fender Mustang: most people have never tried one or were quickly scared away by its shortscale size or somewhat confusing/annoying pickup switching system. Introduced in 1964 as a redesigned student model guitar by Fender it followed the lines of the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic as Fenders entry level guitar. Despite its humble beginnings major players like Adrian Belew, David Byrne, the guys and gal of Sonic Youth and many other (alternative) rock musicians played Mustangs at one point, albeit somewhat modded by most. Popularity of the instrument peaked when Nirvana became one of the biggest bands in the world in the early 90s, Kurt Cobain playing several Mustangs. The most iconic one being the late 60s Competition Blue (with matching headstock) Mustang played in the ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ video. Still popular with students or people with smaller hands (and Nirvana fans) the Mustang is not as prized as other offsets like the Fender Jaguar or Jazzmaster. Vintage prices for a 60s Mustang are steadily climbing, but nowhere near the price point of a Jag/Jazzmaster from the same era. The reason I bought my first Mustang (also my first guitar) was because I couldn’t afford a 60s Jazzmaster.

Everyone knows how a Strat or Telecaster sounds, but how does a Mustang sound in comparison? A quick YouTube search of ‘Fender Mustang’ gives you some idea of the sounds capable with this guitar, although I might add that hearing a Mustang in person is much better. Of course the Nirvana ‘craze’ is still attached to this guitar, one to many bad ‘Come as You Are’ cover on YouTube isn’t doing the Mustang any favors (nothing against Nirvana by the way!).

What are some of the pros and cons of these offset guitars? The things I’m listing are my own opinions based on the Mustangs I have played, not everyone will agree of course. The shortscale neck and the pickups give the defining sound characteristics that make a Mustang sound like a Mustang. The shorter scale gives the strings a lower string tension and a more ‘elastic’ sound (for lack of better terminology). The pickups are less hot than those in for instance a Stratocaster. Especially with an overdriven amp or any type of overdrive/distortion or fuzz pedal the pickups show some of their magic. The clean sound is perfect for any style of ambient music, from 60s surf music to shoegaze. The pickups out-of-phase also work nice for funk or with distortion. Why they added this feature in 1964 still remains a mystery to me… I am not that much of a vibrato user, but the Mustangs vibrato system works great if adjusted properly.

Everything I just listed can be interpreted as weaknesses of Mustangs, but do make up your own mind whether you agree or disagree. The Mustang is one of these polarizing guitars, you either like or despise them. One thing I should mention that strikes me as a bad design choice is the pickup switching system. Although not complicated to understand, (the amount of professional guitar channels explaining it wrong is somewhat embarrassing…) the location of these switches above the pickups is just infuriating if you don’t properly adjust your playing technique. A regular 3-way toggle switch like a Jazzmaster seems more appropriate, but lacking the out-of-phase option.

If you have never tried one yourself I suggest doing so. They really are comfortable guitars despite the obvious quirks! Mustangs are also very easy to mod to your wishes, the easiest being the pickups. Maybe even get a vintage one while they are still somewhat cheap. Tip: 60s Mustangs have a slimmer neck profile, while 70s ones have a thicker neck. If you have larger hands but want to try shortscale I suggest taking that into account. The reissue Mustangs also have varying neck shapes, so do take that into account if you’re shopping for one.

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As of lately I own not one but two vintage Mustangs. The photos above are of my own Mustangs (plus a ’67 Coronado XII). My first guitar was this black ’67 Mustang. The body was painted black over the original white paint which is now peaking through at some places. Could try to remove it, but it looks great as is. Pickups have been replaced. No idea what specific brand, probably Fender reissues. The rest is stock. Plays and sounds great. Despite me having ‘large’ hands (I am used to playing P-basses and 34 1/2″ Gibson basses) I haven’t had any problems adjusting to a shortscale guitar. The second Mustang is a ’70 Competition Blue with matching headstock which has been stripped of its finish somewhere in the 70s. The original blue paint is still underneath the pickguard (lazy hippies right?). The guitar is all stock, minus a few minor replacements (it was missing a tuner bushing somehow). The refinish gives this guitar a real unique look, the matching headstock Mustangs were only made for about 2 years. It also plays great, definitely a win-win.

Next blog will likely be about one of my guitar projects. A tribute guitar to one of my lesser known guitar heroes.

 

Welcome to Guitar Archive!

P1010505Hello! How nice of you to somehow see this page on the vast ocean of content that is the Internet! I guess this is my introduction to my guitar blog I’m starting as of today.

Who am I? I’m a Dutch guitar enthusiast and music lover of many a genre and style, from pretty obscure to bands even your tone deaf grandmother would know. Several years ago I made one of the best decisions of my life: learning to play an instrument! At age 16 I picked up the bass guitar, little did I know that years later I would be addicted and suffering from the incurable disease know as GAS (Gear Acquiring Syndrome). Not to long ago I also started really getting into playing the guitar after buying my first electric guitar. Although primarily a bass player, I find the history of the electric (bass)guitar, effects pedals and amps in conjunction with its famous (or the not so famous) musicians to be fascinating. I don’t claim to be a specialist or professional, this blog is purely made for people (guitar freaks like myself) to enjoy and share ideas.

What will I be posting here? Having a small collection of mostly vintage basses and guitars, I’ll share some photo’s of my favorites (all of them of course!). Maybe also add some interesting facts behind the model or the specific instrument itself. Not every guitar will be my own (trust me, I’d run out of content real soon…). If I get suggestions from dear readers of this blog I might add these as well.

In the very near future I will be completing some guitar projects from parts laying around the house. I guess this can be interesting to people building their own guitars from parts or giving inspiration for your next guitar project! Anyways, comments, suggestions or discussion is much appreciated. Happy reading! 🙂

(PS: the guitars displayed at the top will be the first to be featured here.)