By on July 19, 2010

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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33 Comments on “One Thousand Miles, Thirteen Guitars, and One Night In A Transit Connect, Verse One...”

  • avatar
    Phil Roast Beef

    I want one of these:

    I would have an easier time loading my Ludwigs into the Transit than into my Focus SVT.

    BTW, Jack, I dig your method of padding your guitars. Punk rock ingenuity at its finest.

  • avatar

    Most modern minivans could match the Transit Connect’s 25 MPG highway. It’s in the city where the TC delivers better MPG. I’m still glad Ford decided to import the TC. Hopefully one day we’ll see what the little van can do with a first string engine and transmission.

    By the way, the guitar on top called to complain. It felt the pea.

  • avatar

    I like your 1st pic, it really illustrates the size gap with a MB Sprinter.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Brilliant, thank you for sharing that story!

  • avatar

    Very nice! You’re well served getting back into music. Incidentally, my 2004 focus SVT holds a gig’s worth of keyboard gear, qsc amp, 2 speakers, 2-boards, speakeasy ama/122 and EQ, stand, cables, etc. I’d love to get a transit connect.

  • avatar

    No place to sleep? You’ve got a van full of mattresses!

    I hope it was a comfortable evening wherever you were.

  • avatar

    I was curious to see how the car is offered here in France. In short, there is no gas option only diesel. A 1.8 l engine with choices of 75hp, 90hp and 110hp. I’m assuming there is no diesel option in the USA.

    I’m sure that if there was one, you could have transported all those guitars with a 40mpg average. No, you wouldn’t blow any doors off anything coming out of the toll booths, but I’m sure there’s enough torque to hold a steady 80mph once you got there.

  • avatar
    Cole Trickle

    Thank you, Jack. I don’t give a crap about guitars or vans, and this is still the best thing I have read on the interwebs since the last thing you wrote. Thanks for not going to a print publication so I don’t have to wait a month to get my next fix.

  • avatar

    25 MPG is pretty horrible for a Connect. The Diesels are much better, at least in the fuel economy department, but slow even by euro van standards. The Connect also handles poorly compared to many others, it’s an understeering slug with horrible body roll.

  • avatar

    thanks for posting. Because the more you do, the more the truth comes out. Just like your public driving skills, your spending skills are lacking. It provides all readers great insight into the void between your eyes.

    P.S. I think you posted on the wrong site. The Truth about over paying for guitars is this way

    • 0 avatar

      Dude, get the sand out…

    • 0 avatar

      I’m trying to wrap my head around the ‘void between the eyes’ comment. The only thing I have between my eyes is my nose, is our little flamer trying to imply Mr Baruth is noseless?

    • 0 avatar

      I think he’s implying that Mr. Baruth is brainless. Personally I never try to judge if someone should be spending what they are spending on a hobby or a passion. I love golf but still have the set of clubs I bought for $130 at a Service Merchandise store back in 1993 cause I can’t justify spending more. If Jack’s got the money (which clearly he does) more power too him.

    • 0 avatar

      Why the hate?
      Because he knows how to drive and you don’t?
      Because he fed his hobby and you don’t?
      Because he’s cooler than you?
      Because he gives the impression of being happy with his life?



    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Vintage-guitar buyers have a saying, “You can never pay too much… you can only buy too soon.” Which I’ve certainly done more than once.

  • avatar

    Great read. Looking forward to part deux.

  • avatar

    “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.”

    Is this the same woman who made you get rid of your Caprice wagon? BTW I feel your pain, having had to rid myself of a similar woman and wondering how I ended up married to her.

    I know it’s not a review but seeing the transit connect loaded up like that, giving you secure storage, I hope even harder than I did before that it makes serious inroads into the tradesman’s market.

  • avatar

    How fast were you driving to get 25mpg in that thing?

    Just last weekend I took the family on a trip from Richmond, VA to the Trenton, NJ area (with an overnight stop at my sister’s in MD) for a total of about 320 miles averaging just over 24 mpg in our 2000 Odyssey with the 4-speed auto. I had the cruise set on 78 the whole way (85 to the Honda speedo, but I go by GPS as Hondas always indicate faster than reality) slowing only for work zones and tunnels with the back end loaded with suitcases, stroller, kid beds etc. In addition to driving fast I drove quite a bit more aggressively than normal, but not quite Baruthian levels of aggression.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    JB, thanks man….you lost me for a while after you posted that 120-mph-on-the-beltway thing a year or so back….but since RF’s lamented departure (or was it a demented laparture… ;^])if there is a poet’s soul here at TTAC, it yours…Rock on mate.

  • avatar

    I swear, guitar people are their own special brand of crazy…

  • avatar

    In the months that followed, I purchased seventeen more.

    No OCD in Jack, no, none at all.

  • avatar

    Not getting rid of the wife… but pulling my ESP tele “copy” out of the closet.

    Thanks for the motivation jack ;)

  • avatar

    What’s cool about playing harp is that I could probably carry all my gear, including both my amps, in my Lotus Elan (well, if the Elan wasn’t in pieces). I can carry about 20 harps, plus my three mics (Shure Green Bullet – not vintage, original Shaker mic, and a CAD HM 50 VC which is an Astatic JT30 with a black case and a gold grille) a couple of cables, and a small Casio metronome all in a very cool tweed harmonica case that Fender markets under the “Mississippi Saxophone Case” brand.

    They make it in black tolex too. Between the harp case and the Pro Jr. amp (black tolex, the preamp section has lower gain tubes than standard to prevent feedback – playing a mic through a guitar amp has the greasy Chicago sound but it also is prone to feedback), I don’t need much space. If I want to play through my Silvertone (by Danelectro) head and the small 10″ Celestion cabinet I built, they take up a bit more space, but I still wouldn’t need a van.

    A couple of harp factoids. Guitarists obsess over pickups, guitars, amps, tubes, you name it. Harp players will go through a box full of crappy ceramic mic cartridges to find the one with just the right flavor of grease. I once invented an electric harmonica just to give harp players an expensive toy to buy. The Fender tweed case cost more than a handful of harmonicas. A decent pro quality harp like a Lee Oskar or Hohner Special 20 is $20-$30. To play rock and blues you’ll need at least 6 to cover the basic keys, and 12 for all the standard keys. Some players carry harps tuned to alternate tunings, like the harmonic minor scale. So even if you have 20 or more harps, you’ve only got about $300 invested.

    Also, if you’re a fan of a guitar player, you might be able to get a pick of theirs for your collection. If you’re rich, you can buy their axes at auction. Any pro harp player has a box full of blown out harps at home, so if I figure out the right address, ask nicely and include a Sharpie and self-addressed and stamped mailer, I usually am able to get one of their old harps, autographed. Every year the Chicago Auto Show puts on a party or concert for the journalists. This year it was at Buddy Guy’s Legends club, which has an impressive collection of famous guitarists’ instruments, along with a case of harmonicas and I believe that I have a better collection.

    RE: guitars. My son, my only son, whom I love, has disappointed me grievously by starting a metal band. He had such good taste in music when he was younger. When he decided to get a Strat in addition to the Korean Steinberger that he learned on, he was telling me about the great pickups he was having installed (which are so “metal” that he can’t get a true clean tone with them). I asked him if he considered Lace Sensors, which I’d used in my electric harp project. What are those? he asked. Kids these days.

  • avatar

    The TC van would probably be a pretty cool musician’s ride with a little customization. What shocked me though was you being a fan of Electra guitars. I always loved those instruments (and the subsequent Westone models), they look, sound and play really good — but all the Electras and Westones I’ve found and tried were so darn *heavy*. Now I mostly play a Floyd Rose DST2 guitar with the speedloader trem like this one but in black:

    Never goes more than the slightest touch out of tune and sounds really great. Though I may replace the neck with a Warmoth soon for a smoother feel…

  • avatar

    I know Ford is marketing this strictly as a commercial vehicle, but I wonder if it wouldn’t have a place in the garage of a small family (3 kids or less) that wants to carry bikes, dogs, camping gear or various combinations thereof. It keeps piquing my interest as a family schlepper, although I wonder if crosswinds would make driving it on the highway a chore.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Wind is NOT a problem in most cases. Ford is happy to sell it to you as a tall-roof wagon with glass in the doors and seating for five.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks, Jack… that’s interesting to know. I’ve looked at the wagons version: it looks nice in dark blue. I think if it had glass aft of the C-pillars I’d have already taken it for a test drive. Still might.

  • avatar

    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.

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