Great Guitarists #10: Mary Osborne

Great Guitarists

In this, the tenth installment of my Great Guitarists series, I’m a little ashamed to say we have only looked at male guitar players so far. So, to round off my first ‘dectet’ of influential guitar players (and keeping in a jazz theme, like the previous installments), let me introduce to you Mary Osborne…

Picture Credit: Gretsch, 1959

Osborne was born into a musical family in North Dakota, 1921. Both her parents were musicians and her father’s barbershop was a known gathering place for local players. Already playing live by the time she was a teenager, Osborne was influenced by the playing of early jazz pioneers Django Reinhardt and Eddie Lang. However, it was Charlie Christian who first captivated her, and mentored her for a while, fine tuning her great sense of swing.

Osborne’s career ranged from trios (her own, and the Winifred McDonnell Trio near the start of her professional career), as well as some work as a sideman (or sidewoman) for the likes of Buddy Rogers, Joe Venuti (whose act included vocalists Kay Starr and The Andrews Sisters), amog many others. In the first of two spells in New York, she was the guitarist in Minton’s house band, where bebop was invented during the jams the legends of jazz had there. Her career continued throughout her life, and she was still performing live up until her death in 1992, at the age of seventy.

Osborne (R), with Billie Holiday (L), 1958. Picture Credit: Nancy Miller Elliot

Equipment

Osborne purchased the same model of Gibson archtop that Charlie Christian played – the ES-150, an early version of the classic archtop ‘jazz boxes’ we know and love today. It came with a large spruce body and a single-coil pickup near the neck, itself containing a large magnet that helped deliver good definition and attack. She later played other guitars by Gibson, as well as models by Gretsch, such as the White Falcon. In the 1970’s, Osborne founded her own guitar company, Osborne Sound Laboratories, formed from the ashes of the Mosrite Guitar Company (whom her husband had worked for at the end of the 1960’s). Osborne Sound Laboratories made amplifiers personally tested by Mary herself, as well as a selection if interesting instruments (including funky looking solid bodies such as in the picture below). Sadly, they couldn’t penetrate the market due to the dominance of the big manufactures, such as Fender (despite their well-known quality issues in this decade) and the company folded in 1980.

Osborne Sound Laboratories guitars from the 1970’s. Picture Credit: VintageGuitar.com

Recommended listening

Osborne’s 1959 LP A Girl And Her Guitar (Warwick) stands testament to her talents in a golden era for jazz guitar. Her later record Now And Then (Stash, 1981) shows a player who survived longer than most of her contemporaries, and continued to play beautifully.

Also, check out The Mighty Two (1963, Roulette), an LP by the two legendary drummers Louis Bellson and Gene Krupa. Although this was conceived as an instructional album for budding drummers, several tracks feature six musicians accompanying both drummers through nine of the songs on the record. As well as featuring Osborne on guitar, you can hear Milt Hinton (bass), Joe Wilder and Joe Newman (trumpet), Phil Woods (alto sax), Dick Hymen (piano) and Tyree Glenn (trombone) – something of a who’s who in sidemen for the time. The ensemble playing is tight, and the entire LP is a unique artefact of jazz history.

I accidentally bought a guitar, and ended up with an unexpected bargain

Guitars & Gear

I’ve noticed a few decent-looking guitars going for sale on eBay recently. In the past, I’ve picked up a few great instruments and amps, including the Strat which was my main touring guitar for a decade, as well as two Fender Mustang floor units, which I use for live work most of the time nowadays. However, buying something online, especially a musical instrument you haven’t played, or even held, can be a risky business. I therefore try to set an ‘absolute maximum’ price which I won’t go over. This is price is normally quite low, meaning I should be able to at least earn a small profit on any guitars I decide to move on – but it does mean I’m not usually the ‘winning bidder’ when interesting pieces catch my attention.

That is, until I saw this gem…

What is it?

This guitar is modeled on the Gibson non-reverse Firebird III, one of Gibson’s early forays into the offset market, only flipping the body to be a mirror image of the shape in the above picture, hence the term reverse. From 1965 to 1969, Gibson offered a non-reverse version, in a much more Jazzmaster style shape. The ‘III’ in the name is a reference to the guitar having three P90 pickups, unlike the two mini humbuckers on previous Firebird models. Because these non-reverse bodied, three pickup guitars were only available for around four years, they are considered highly collectible and even ones in poor condition go for thousands of pounds.

However, I knew from the price I paid for it alone that this guitar was not a real Gibson. Once it had been delivered, it was clear that the ‘Gibson’ logo on the headstock is actually a decal, added after the original purchase (although some of these copies were actually supplied with stickers such as this, or alternative truss rod covers that read ‘Gibson’, so perhaps it came with the instrument). An original Gibson of this style from the mid to late sixties would have looked slightly different, too – chrome hardware, black pickup covers and probably a Firebird decal somewhere on the pickguard. But I have to say, I quite like the gold hardware, and I’ve always preferred cream/aged white pickup covers, especially on retro-styled guitars such as these.

So who made it?

In my initial research, the Japanese manufacturer Tokai looked the most likely suspect. Tokai, along with Ibanez, were famous for their ‘lawsuit guitars’ in the seventies; the lawsuit occurred because they were making better Les Pauls than Gibson were (the 70s saw huge reductions in quality from both Gibson and Fender guitars, making the Japanese rip-offs much more appealing, and better value). Tokai have certainly released their own take on the Firebird design, but after a little more digging, I believe this model to be made by the almost completely unknown Gould brand; seemingly British-based, but put together in China, probably in the early 2000s.

Is it any good?

Heck, yes. It sounds amazing, and reinforces my belief that sometimes, one is merely paying extra money for the right name on the headstock. This guitar plays really well, hangs nicely on a strap and has a good vintage-feel neck (i.e., it’s thicker than many modern guitars). The guitar’s budget P90 pickups sound as good as any other I have played, and the unique control layout of three way switch (neckb/ neck & bridge / bridge), shared volume for neck & bridge pickup, plus a separate volume control for the middle P90, allows for seven different pickup configurations, all of which can be tweaked by how you decide to blend pickups together. The master tone control appears to taper smoothly as well – rare for what is clearly a budget guitar. P90s sit somewhere between humbuckers and single-coil pickups in terms of output and ‘beefiness’, and I certainly get a ‘Strat on steroids’ vibe from this guitar. I love the sound of this guitar played clean, through a Fender Deluxe or Twin Reverb style amp as well as a more retro-styled dirty sound – a Fender Bass man plus a vintage tremelo effect sounded wonderfully evocative…

Could this instrument become my main guitar for soul work, replacing my main all-rounder, my vintage-voiced blonde Stratocaster?

There was one slight fault. The frets don’t seem to be the best quality, and a few were coming away slightly, causing bends to choke at certain points on the neck. I noticed the same issue might be happening in a few other places, so I sent the guitar off to my tech guy for a partial refret, which thankfully didn’t cost too much. Upon it’s return, the notes all sing beautifully, especially with those P90s…

Three great sounding P90s, giving seven different pickup combinations – and just look at that gorgeous sunburst finish…

Pros and cons

Pros

  • Great build quality
  • Amazing triple P90 sound
  • Gorgeous sunburst finish (and general retro styling)
  • A really classy twist on the classic Jazzmaster shape
  • Great copy of an otherwise unattainable guitar

Neutrals

  • Neck might be too chunky for some (but just right for me)

Cons

  • Needed a partial refret
  • Resale value won’t be that high if I decide to sell it on

All in all, I think I’ve grabbed a bargain! Especially from a random purchase on eBay. At least it’ll give me a new toy to play with while I wait for my new custom guitar to be completed (more on that later this year…)

Tonerider pickups Vs Squier Classic Vibe Pickups

Advice & Tips, Guitars & Gear

Last year, I was in the process of changing the pickups in my two Stratocasters. One, my blonde Squier Vintage Modified (pictured below), was fitted out with custom pickups handmade for me by Rohdan Pickups in the USA. These were made using Alnico III magnets in the neck and middle pups, the same as the very first run of Fender Strats in 1954. The bridge was a mix of Alnico V & II, for better definition, without the harsh trebley bite.

strats

My three Strats, before I sold the red one (top) or changed the pickups in the other two…

For the other guitar, my trusty Mexican HSS Strat (the blue one, pictured above), I only needed replacement neck and middle pickups. I was playing with different groups with less emphasis on heavy rock, and needed something more versatile. I’m still really happy with the Seymour Duncan ’59 humbucker in the bridge (this is usually a Les Paul replacement/upgrade, and has a great tone for classic rock). Having loved the sound of one of my other Strats, a Squier CV, or ‘Classic Vibe’ (Simon Neil signature model, based on a CV 60’s model), I started researching it’s pickups online. I thought I might get an idea of where to look for similar-sounding pups to install in my Mexican Strat. However, in my search, I happened upon an interesting, and ultimately money-saving, discovery…

Tonerider Pickups

Tonerider make replacement pickup sets for Strats and Teles. They appear to operate out of Squier’s main factory and sound as similar to the pickups used in Squier’s Classic Vibe guitar range as to lead most people to believe they are the stock pups built into the instrument.

An excellent article by Tidy Words seemed to confirm what many Squier player had long suspected, and which Tonerider set was (allegedly!) being used in which guitar:

  • CV 50’s Strat – Tonerider Surfaris
  • CV 60’s Strat – Tonerider Classic Blues
  • CV signature Strat (Simon Neil signature, etc) – Tonerider Vintage Classics

For full details, you can see the full article here.

tonerider

Picture courtesy of Worth Point.

The takeaway message…

If you have a Squire Classic Vibe guitar, don’t upgrade it with Tonerider pickups, as they are already in there! And frankly, if you’ve bought a CV guitar to get the overall ‘vibe’ of a certain era in Fender’s history, the stock (Tonerider) pickups do a great job, and don’t need replacing in the first place! These guitars are well built and in terms of sound, playability and build quality, give the ‘real’ Fenders a run for their money – at a fraction of the price!

On the other hand, if you like the Strat you have, but want to improve the pickups, you could do a lot worse than the Tonerider range. Check out their full range of Strat pickups here.

How did it work out for me?

I bought a City Limits single coil set from Tonerider. These use Alnico V magnets, and are aiming for the ‘Texas Blues’ sound Fender Strats do so well – think ‘SRV’ and you’ll have a fairly good idea what I mean.

city-limits-new

Picture courtesy of Tonerider.com

I sold on the bridge pickup and replaced the Vintage Noiseless ‘hot’ pickups I had in the neck & middle positions. I now have a much more Strat-like guitar. It works for blues, rock, funk, jazz and everything else I throw at it. In combination with my blonde Strat, I have a fairly versatile setup, and don’t expect to be changing the pickups in either of them again anytime soon. For those interested, you can hear them on the most recent music releases I worked on, which are currently among the Popular Tracks section of this Spotify page.

Good luck in your buying choices!