One Thousand Miles, Thirteen Guitars, and One Night In A Transit Connect, Verse One
This is not a review of the Transit Connect. That’s coming next month courtesy of another TTAC writer. This is a story about childhood, loneliness, obsession, friendship, the Gateway Arch and its ridiculous security humiliations, and what happens when four old white guys play a Rage Against The Machine song in a state-of-the-art studio. You’ve been warned.
There’s this company, you see, called St. Louis Music. If you’ve ever heard of Dan Armstrong, Ampeg, or Crate, you’ve heard of “SLM”. They used to make good stuff, and they made a lot of it in the United States. During the Seventies, the product quality of many US-made items was in the toilet. The Big Two of American guitars, Gibson and Fender, seemed to be engaged in a war where the prize was bankruptcy and the weapons were crap guitars, high prices, indifferent corporate ownership, and refusal to listen to their dealers.
SLM decided to take matters into their own hands. From 1971 to 1984, they designed their own line of guitars and had those guitars made by the Matsumoku factory in Japan. Most of these guitars were named “Electra”. The first Electras were basically Gibson fakes, but led by a young engineer named Tom Presley, Electra slowly gained a reputation for unique, innovative designs. By the time the last Electra was sold in 1984, they weren’t copies of anything; in fact, they were regularly copied by Ibanez, Jackson, and most hilariously, Fender.
I played the trumpet as a kid. Hated it. I was the first trumpet of the student orchestra. When I was twelve, I bent the “bell” of my Bundy student model on the face of the aforementioned orchestra’s second trumpet. Dad realized I wasn’t cut out to play well with others, so he took me to buy a guitar. The year was 1982.
I wanted a Fender Stratocaster. It was $499. The guy at the guitar store told my father that the Electra X130BL had more features, was made of better wood, and would require less repair. He was right about all of that. He also told Dad it was $339, which was all the old man needed to hear to make me an Electra player instead of a Fender Stratocaster player.
I was thankful to have a guitar, but I didn’t really like my Electra. It didn’t sound like the guitar Jimmy Page played, which was a Gibson Les Paul, and it was also kind of hard to play compared to a Gibson. Also, it wasn’t cool at all, because it was a “fake”. Still, I was a lonely kid in a ticky-tacky suburb, so for a long time that Electra was effectively my best friend, suffering along with me as we learned Zeppelin songs note-by-note and wore long shiny dents into the frets. By the time we went to college together, I was savvy enough to use it to meet women, and for that reason it was rarely out of my sight until I left school.
There didn’t seem to be any room in my house for the Electra when my new wife and I came home from college. She didn’t like me “wasting time” with it. My amp broke and I couldn’t afford to fix it. The Electra went into a bag and the bag went into the basement, and that’s where it stayed for a very long time.
Last year, I felt compelled to take it out and start playing it again. Perhaps it was because my marriage was coming to an end. It might have been because I wanted to write and record some songs and doing so required an electric guitar. I’m not sure exactly why I started playing, but I did. Before long, I was playing in an empty house.
I’d never seen another Electra guitar in my life, but a quick check of the web revealed a vibrant owners’ community. I also learned something else: St Louis Music sold a lot of Electras, and they’d held up very well. Six months ago I bought my second Electra, an “X130” just like my first one. In the months that followed, I purchased seventeen more.
It wasn’t hard. I over-bid on auctions, often simply typing “10000.00” into the bid window for two-hundred-dollar guitars to ensure that I couldn’t lose. I traveled hundreds of miles to answer Craigslist ads, handing cash to widows, old men, and frowning, agitated wives. I went into one shop in Ohio on a whim and walked out with two time-capsule examples, having paid perhaps five times what they would fetch on eBay. My particular fetish was guitars made within a few months of my gloss-blue, twin-humbucker 1981 original.
Along the way, I discovered that I was far from being alone. There were other collectors. Most of them were focused on the Seventies Electras, but still, they were out there. And they meet once a year, in a private, unannounced location. If you want to see them, and play their guitars, you have to apply. I applied, was accepted, and that’s how I found myself loading twelve Japanese guitars, none built after October of 1983, into a Ford Transit Connect.
The Transit Connect, like the St. Louis Music Electras, represent an attempt to use overseas engineering and assembly to conquer an American problem — namely, the lack of small, economical commercial vehicles in this country. It’s basically a first-generation Ford Focus with a very tall roof and the 2.0L Duratec engine, and it’s built in Turkey. This is how I put twelve guitars, plus a tube amp, my music stand, and a few mattresses, in one.
Obviously I could have fit a lot more stuff in the back of the Transit Connect, which is kind of the point. At $23,600 — the pricetag of my essentially loaded press loaner — there’s nothing available with that mix of space and four-cylinder economy. During the 437-mile trip to the secret St. Louis location of ElectraFest 2010, I averaged over 25 miles per gallon. Try that in your E-150. Hell, try it in your Honda Odyssey.
Nearly all of my drive took place on Interstate 70, where the little Ford proved capable of an easy 80mph. It’s a relaxing vehicle to drive, spacious and offering a fantastic view through the big windshield. I left my house at 5:30am on Saturday morning; in under seven hours I was unloading the van at a fabulous, closed-to-the-public music studio.
Not pictured: my “Studio Zephyr” white doublecut, but you get the picture. I brought at least one example of every type of Electra I own. Everything was in place for a great day. There were nearly forty outstanding Electras in the studio, we had access to literally millions of dollars of vintage music equipment, including a Leslie rotating-speaker cabinet, and there were even two restored Electras to be given away in a raffle. One of them was a perfect 1980-built X130… something I’d pay hundreds of dollars for. With only nine collectors in attendance for the session (but dozens more watching online) I had a pretty good chance. The day was perfect, except for one little thing: I didn’t have a place to sleep…
to be continued
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when i was in high school, i was embarrassed about listening to led zep. i mean they had lyrics cribbed from the hobbit for chrissake! i would chat up girls talking about miles davis. still i wasn't too much of a snob to pass up the jersey boy annual haj to msg and watch page play bathed in a pyramid of green laser light. now, i'm a middle aged guy who mostly listens to classical with my family in the volvo wagon. when the wife and kid are out, i crank up kashmir, etc. and cry at the sheer beauty of it.