Ken Lelen

Ken Lelen
Ken Lelen sings great American ragtime, jazz & swing and performs on vintage acoustic guitars for an authentic, back-in-the day sound.

Monday, June 20, 2016

2016  Concert  Schedule

Date         Community   or   Venue   —   Location             Concert Theme
Jan   19     Lincoln Cultural Assn, Philadelphia PA        When Love Was Nifty
Feb   11     Calvary Homes, Lancaster PA                     Legendary Love Songs
Feb   11     Pine Run, Doylestown PA                            Torch Song Embers
Mar   26     Maplewood, West Yarmouth MA                  Radio Ramblers
Mar   27     Residence @ Otter Creek, Middlebury VT   Broadway Mementos
Apr     7     Lions Gate, Voorhees NJ                             Sunny Side of Street
Apr   20      Greenwood Mens Club, Worcester MA        Sunny Side of Street
Apr   28      Shannondell—Ashcroft, Audubon PA          Broadway Mementos
May    3      The Oaks, Orangeburg SC                          Legendary Love Songs
May    5      Springmoor, Raleigh NC                            Radio Ramblers
May  22      Chandler Center for the Arts                    When Love Was Nifty
                       2 pm, 71-73 Main Street
                       Randolph VT 05060
                       802-728-9878   —
Jun   13      Calvary Homes, Lancaster PA                     Big Band Idols
Jun   17      Lake Prince Woods, Suffolk VA                  She Did It Her Way
Jun   20      Cypress Club, Raleigh NC                           He Did It His Way
Jun   22      Bermuda Village, Advance NC                    He Did It His Way
Aug    7      Oak Crest Village, Parkville MD                   Radio Ramblers
Aug   18     Wilmington Memorial Library                    Big Band Idols
                       2:30 pm, 175 Middlesex Avenue
                       Wilmington MA 01887
                       978-658-2967   —
Aug   19      Havenwood Heritage Hgts, Concord NH    Sunny Side of Street
Sep   24      Mansfield Public Library                           He Did It His Way
                       2:00 pm, 255 Hope Street
                       Mansfield MA 02048
                       508-261-7380   —
Sep   25      Residence @ Otter Creek, Middlebury VT    Big Band Idols
Sep   26      Carpenter-Carse Library                           In The Mood
                       "Better With Age" Concert
                       7:00 pm, 66 Ballards Corner
                       Hinesburg VT 05461
                       802-482-2878   —
Oct    12      Calvary Homes, Lancaster PA                     Broadway Mementos
Oct    19      Heath Village, Hackettstown NJ                  She Did It Her Way
Oct    24      Shannondell—Bradford, Audubon PA         She Did It Her Way
Nov     1      The Arbors, Manchester CT                        Torch Song Embers
Nov   10      Springmoor, Raleigh NC                             Torch Song Embers
Nov   11      The Oaks, Orangeburg SC — Vet's Day       Radio Ramblers
Nov   14      Cypress Club, Raleigh NC                           Torch Song Embers

©  2016 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Gibson’s classical gas
66 pre-war gut string guitars

                    Rosewood oddities — rare beyond belief.
                    Mahogany amulets — closeted 60 years.
                                   ©  2016  —  Kenneth Lelen  —  All Rights Reserved

Newly listed c. 1938 Westgor GS-85
(FON EG-5492) in original condition
Gibson isn’t well known for its pre-war classical guitars among vintage collectors and players. Except when production surged in the 1960s and peaked at 3,979 units in 1967, the Kalamazoo MI firm never built its classical guitars in large numbers.

Gibson’s pre-war foray into classical guitars produced 39 mahogany and 27 rosewood units between 1938 and 1942, according to vintage experts George Gruhn and Walter Carter. These guitars have solid wood tops and bodies, either slotted or solid headstocks, 1-7/8-in. and wider necks, some with zero-fret nuts, and the earliest iteration of the LG body.

These 66 classicals, labeled GS for gut string, are rare birds. Indeed, only a handful of GS guitars have appeared in vintage markets in the last decade. Despite their limited visibility, they have an aura that continues to attract attention.

Pre-war classical shipments
Gibson’s initial batch of classicals were mahogany GS-35 guitars the firm shipped in 1938, (FON 11-D), according to Joe Spann’s review of Gibson ledgers. Later that year the firm shipped one batch of rosewood GS-85 guitars (FON 40-D) and another batch of mahogany GS-35 guitars (FON 41-D).

No GS classicals were found in Gibson shipments for 1939 and 1940, Spann said, but two sets of mahogany GS-35 guitars (FON 3383-G and FON 5328-G) were listed in 1941. No other batches of GS classicals have been identified.

Two of David Sheppard's GS conversions:
c. 1938 Hitch GS-35 (FON 41 D-4), left, 
 c. 1941 Sheppard GS-85 (no FON), right.

To date, only six pre-war Gibson GS classicals have appeared in vintage markets since 2005. The latest one is a May 2016 listing of a 1938 rosewood GS-85 (EG-5492 on the rear of a slotted headstock) by Nate Westgor, owner of Willie’s American Guitars in St. Paul MN. In my view, the discovery of this Gibson pre-war GS classical will heighten the allure of all 66.

Three best-known GS guitars
Besides the 1938 Westgor GS-85, two well-documented pre-war Gibson classicals are the 1941 Sheppard GS-85 (no FON) and the 1938 Hitch GS-35 (FON 41 D-4). I performed with both of these GS guitars in Vintage Music Concerts across the East Coast between June 2005 and September 2008.

Prior to my ownership, both guitars were unplayed by their owners for decades. They were considered hard to play due to their wide necks and both sounded dreadful as classicals.

However, in 2005 both were converted from fan-braced nylon classicals to x-braced guitars with rosewood pin bridges and steel strings by luthier David Sheppard, now based in Mt. Airy NC. Today, both play with deep, loud and woody tones. The rosewood GS-85 sound is a throbbing mix of chocolate and cherry, while the mahogany GS-35 sound is dry, crisp and balanced.

Three less-well-known GS classicals
Details on the other pre-war Gibson classical guitars are sketchy and dated — the vintage equivalent of Bigfoot sightings. The first two owners reported their guitars had mahogany bodies and unreadable FONs. The third owner said his guitar had a rosewood body, but omitted mention of a FON or date.

c. 1940 ListLux GS-35
(unreadable FON)
The first mahogany GS-35, condition unknown and FON unreported, was listed in a 2009 New York City ListLux classified ad as "c. 1940." The volume and tone of his guitar was called “incredible” and great for finger picking.” The seller also stated the “current book value is $2,800, but will sell for $1,200.”

Another mahogany GS-35 emerged in 2010 and 2014 postings on the Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum (UMGF), a listserv for guitar players and collectors. The owner described his GS classical as "An odd duck for sure, but very cool."

c. 1939 UMGF GS-35 (unreadable FON),
in original bridge and repaired top cracks
His posting also said:

"It was advertised as a 1939, but the FON is unreadable. (I think I see a 'D' but I am not sure.) Unfortunately, the top has some repaired cracks and was refinished or ... oversprayed, probably at the time of that repair. The rest of the finish is original. Everything else seems original. I wish I could tell you how it sounds, but as I was cutting off the old strings I noticed the smaller crack was open. I have to have that mended before I can report back."

Finally, in a brief post on the Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum in late 2014, a California guitar dealer said he once owned a rosewood GS-85, but did not report a date or FON. “I had an early GS-85 that sounded great with very light silk and steel stringing,” he said. “They make a great ‘folk’ style guitars that way.”

Low production and rising prices reinforced rarity
Back in the day Gibson’s classicals were pricey offerings. This situation quickly mushroomed as the firm “advanced the price” due to rising costs.

A rosewood GS-85 that cost $85 in January 1939 rose to $93.50 by October 1939 and to $105 in January 1942. So, too, a mahogany GS-35 that cost $35 in January 1939 rose to $38 by October 1939 and to $60 in January 1942.

1936 Martin 00-18G (SN 64232), the first of three
with scalloped X-bracing, pin bridge and 1-7/8-in.
nut width, was the firm's classical guitar prototype.
Even Gibson's rival, C.F. Martin Co. of Nazareth PA, fared poorly in the pre-war classical market. The firm initially made 215 classical guitars from 1936 to 1942, according to long-time Martin historian Mike Longworth. Prices grew as well during this seven-year span, with 00-18G models rising from $50 to $55 and 00-28G models rising from $85 to $90, then to $100.

When Martin’s classical production resumed 20 years later, it sold five fan-braced models in 00 and 000 sizes and the N series. Production reached 8,443 units over a seven-year period of the 1960s, including a peak of 1,600 units in 1968.

Notwithstanding the 1960’s revival, from today’s vantage it’s not difficult to see how low production levels, rising prices and wartime setting combined to make the earliest classicals rare. Not surprisingly, most pre-war classical models are largely unknown even among vintage guitar cognoscenti.

Thus, it’s time to air details about the three best-known Gibson GS guitars.

_________________     1938 Westgor GS-85     __________________

Except for a repaired top crack, Willie Westgor's rosewood GS-85 is offered in original condition, including a tied-string classical bridge with pearl inlays on its wings and below the saddle. It has a FON of EG-5492 on the rear of its slotted headstock, zero fret nut, modern frets and gorgeous pair of classical tuners.

Here is Westgor's website listing for his GS-85:

"Natural, rare model, only 27 made, nylon string, slotted headstock, spruce top, multi-bound top and bound back, rosewood back and sides, repaired top crack, ebony fingerboard sans inlays, pearl ribbon inlays on bridge and behind bridge, sounds good, in good shape structurally and comes with a great ornamental tweed hard case. $2,995"

Westgor acquired the guitar from the family of a long-time owner, who may or may not have been the instrument's original owner. Provenance details are sketchy, the dealer explained, and “memories were faint.”

_________________     1941 Sheppard GS-85     _________________

1941 Sheppard GS-85 — replica rosewood (pin) bridge with
pearl inlays following guitar's conversion by David Sheppard
According to luthier, musician and previous owner David Sheppard, this Gibson GS-85 model (no FON) dates to about 1941. It has a bound rosewood back and sides as well as a red spruce top with a dark sunburst finish. It now has a custom rosewood bridge with bone saddle and replica pearl inlays in the wings of the bridge and under the saddle.

This guitar has an ebony fingerboard, 25.4-inch scale length, 1-7/8-in. wide nut, original Kluson tuners and buttons, and 7-7-5 white-and-black rosette around a bound sound hole. Its paint-stenciled Gibson logo is faintly visible in faded glory atop the headstock.

From the late 1970s to early 2000s the GS-85 saw only occasional use as a nylon string guitar, Sheppard said. Sometime in 2004 he decided the instrument would perform better and see more use if he converted it to steel strings.

So, he replaced the guitar’s seven fan braces with X bracing under the sound hole, two tone bars and maple bridge plate. He also installed a rosewood pin bridge with pearl appointments and footprint identical to the original.

I purchased this guitar from Sheppard for $2,000 at the Philadelphia Guitar Show on June 25, 2005. I was drawn to the guitar because the fingerboard and neck were comfortable for my left hand. What's more, the instrument throbbed with a woody brilliance, dark and resonant.

Finally, like icing on a cake, I knew this rosewood oddity, a pre-war flat-top by Gibson, was rare beyond belief.

__________________     1938 Hitch GS-35     ___________________

This GS-35 (FON 41 D-4 on neck block) was produced in 1938 and may be the earliest known of its kind, according to luthier and vintage instrument dealer Mark Stutman of Folkway Music in Waterloo Ontario. I bought this guitar from him for $2,000 on September 13, 2005.

Ross Hitch (1919-1945), trombonist and Big
Band music arranger, and friend with fiddle.
The previous owners of this GS-35 were Canadian trombonist Ross Hitch (1919-1945) and his family. Self taught on the guitar, he bought the GS-35 at a Toronto pawn shop to satisfy his love of classical guitar music. Though Hitch arranged Big Band music for a living, a lucrative job in his day, he also taught classical music composition to guitar students.

“Mom said Dad was excited when he found the guitar in 1939," recalled Mary Blendick, Hitch's daughter, in November 2005.

"The original owner was a musician who’d pawned it," she said. "When he got some money, he went back to the pawn shop to redeem it, but my father wouldn’t part with it.”

Unfortunately, Hitch’s life ended prematurely due to a sudden and fatal illness, and his guitar sat unplayed in a red-lined tweed case in a closet of the family home for 60 years. Except for slight pick wear, it was found in mint condition by the family when his widow died.

 "When my Mom passed on just after Christmas 2004, Dad's guitar was tuned up and played at her funeral," Blendick said.

"Now, Dad was born on December 27, 1919 and Mom passed away on December 27, 2004, his 85th," she added. "That's why it was so hard for me to give that guitar up."

The guitar has white binding on its mahogany back and sides, rosewood bridge with pearl inlays, bone saddle, carved and polished bone nut, inlaid Gibson logo on the headstock, original Kluson tuners and buttons, "Made in U.S.A." headstock stamp, large 7-7-5 white-and-black rosette around a bound sound hole, and ebony fingerboard. Nut width at the first fret is a hair less than 2 inches and scale length is 25.4 inches.

The natural finish top was originally braced with seven spruce fans. Though a lightweight guitar, the sound it produced was tinny, thin and underwhelming when I first played it as a nylon classical guitar.

Converting the 1938 Hitch GS-35
In early October 2005 I asked luthiers Greg Hanson and David Crawford, now based in Durham NC, to examine the unconverted 1938 GS-35 and compare it to the converted 1941 GS-85. Hanson recommended keeping the fan-braced GS-35 classical “as is.” Crawford agreed, saying converting the pristine GS-35 classical to X bracing would “kill the value of the vintage instrument.”

Still, I wanted to perform with both guitars in my Vintage Music Concerts. These events combine my singing songs of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s and playing steel-stringed acoustic guitars from the same decades. My concerts are filled with classic American music and vintage instruments for an authentic, back-in-the-day sound.

Convinced the guitar’s performance would be enhanced, in late October 2005 I asked Sheppard to convert the GS-35 to X bracing and support steel strings. To begin, he spent an entire day patiently removing the guitar back without harm to its back or bindingHe then chiseled out the original fan bracing and installed an X brace using his private stash of spruce.

1938 Hitch GS-35 — bridge in original condition and classical configuration

1938 Hitch GS-35 — replica bridge following conversion by David Sheppard

Next, he measured and removed the original classical bridge. He then built a new rosewood pin bridge. It has wing-mounted pearl inlays with notched squares (mistakenly called Maltese crosses) and design that approaches the size, proportions and layout of the original bridge.

Sheppard’s conversion work took exactly one year, completing the job in late October 2006. The job cost me $750, but it enlivened the guitar forever.

Selling 1938 GS-35 and 1941 GS-85
The GS-35 and GS-85 guitars worked well in concerts, but the reality of the Great Recession forced me to pay down business, auto and credit card debts. This meant selling a few of my two dozen instruments, including both GS guitars.

Initially, I kept playing the rosewood GS-85 while on tour and consigned the mahogany GS-35 with Buzz Levine at Lark Street Music in Teaneck NJ. In early January 2008 he listed the guitar at $3,750, with a 20 percent store commission and a $3,000 net to me.

But after just two months I was frustrated by the lack of a sale at Lark Street. So, in late March 2008 I brought both guitars to Joe Caruso at Music Emporium in Lexington MA.

Caruso listed the GS-35 at $3,900 with a 20 percent store commission, and the GS-85 at $4,900 with a 15 percent store commission. Following an earnest six-month effort and no sale, I picked them up while on tour in New England in late September 2008.

Neither guitar saw much interest in the store or website, Caruso said. Though they are rare guitars and unusual instruments, few people, neither players nor collectors, recognized their value, he explained.

Gibson classicals traded toward Sandburg’s 1933 OM-18
Returning home from Music Emporium, I stopped in Teaneck NJ to fashion an off-beat deal with Levine that combined my GS guitars and a 1933 Martin OM-18. Previously played by poet Carl Sandburg, it was priced at $27,000 and offered with extensive provenance, including dated, hand-written letters from Sandburg to a female friend who accompanied him when he bought the Martin at an LA pawn shop in 1958.

To make the deal happen, I traded five of my guitars — both Gibson classicals (1938 GS-35 and 1941 GS-85) as well as a 1930 Martin 00-40H, 1937 Gibson HG-00 and 1932 Bacon & Day SeƱorita — for an agreed-value of $25,000. I paid another $2,000 in cash and $140 in tax for a spectacular 1933 OM-18.

I’d seen this Martin on previous visits to Lark Street and my research showed other Sandburg ephemera with an auction value of $80,000. Once I acquired the Sandburg OM-18 I planned to resell this historic guitar within two years for $35,000 to $50,000. How well that plan worked is a story for another day.

Meanwhile, Levine was saddled with selling these rare and relatively unknown Gibson classicals. He listed the 1938 Hitch GS-35 at $3,500 for nearly a year. Then, he dropped his price to $2,850 before it sold in October 2009.

Likewise, he listed the 1941 Sheppard GS-85 at $4,500. After two years on the market, he cut his price to $3,500. The guitar finally sold in January 2011.
                                                                © 2016 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved

                                           REFERENCES & CONTRIBUTORS

George Gruhn and Walter Carter, Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars, 2nd edition, © 1999, Miller Freeman Books — This book was first to calculate Gibson’s pre-war production of GS classical guitars at 39 mahogany and 27 rosewood instruments.

Joseph Spann, Spann’s Guide to Gibson 1902-1941 © 2011, Centerstream Publg. — This book amasses an astonishing collection of data on production of Gibson’s pre-war guitars and banjos, as well as data on its personnel, dealers, artists, teachers, endorsers and vendors.

Mike Longworth, Martin Guitars A History © 1994, Four Maples Press — This book offers a 175-year history on the design, production and prices of Martin guitars, mandolins and ukuleles. These data include tabulated prices and production figures on the firm's 00-18G and 00-28G models made between 1936 and 1942 and its diverse set of classicals (00, 000 and N Series) made between 1962 and 1993.

    Folkway Music, Waterloo ON                 
    Hanson & Crawford, Durham NC           
    Lark Street Music, Teaneck NJ               
    Music Emporium, Lexington MA             
    David Sheppard, Mt Airy NC                   
    Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum                  —
    Willie’s American Guitars, St Paul MN    

                      © 2016 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved