“Right on Beale Street there, I bought my Stella. Paid $11 for it. It was hangin’ in a window. Played it ’til it wore out.”
Joe Callicott was talking to blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow about the instrument he used at the Memphis sessions of 1929 and ’30, where Callicott and his partner, Garfield Akers, made their brief but beautiful contribution to the history of recorded blues. Cheap guitars came up again in Wardlow’s conversations with H.C. Speir, the Jackson, Mississippi, music store owner who scouted a roster of early blues recording talent that included Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, Skip James, and Son House. When asked what they played, Speir also mentioned the Stella brand—specifically a model he sold for $9.95—as the instrument of choice “across the board.”
The sound of bluesmen on a budget remains an aesthetic legacy to the present day. Stellas from the 1920s now have four-figure price tags, and players shop for guitars, both vintage and new, that deliver a stiff, crunchy low end, strong midrange, and sustained highs—the tone associated with roots pioneers who, ironically, might have played Martins if they could have afforded them. “Good for blues”—like the currently common “parlor,” “Piedmont,” or “lap-style”—is a fabulously non-descriptive term when applied to a guitar. That said, here are a few notes that may be useful whether you’re looking for a MYSLAD (Makes You Sound Like a Dead Guy) instrument or not.
In the early 20th century, as steel strings came into common use and manufacturers began mass-producing inexpensive guitars, it became important to design durable products that could be made cheaply. As the name implies, ladder-braced instruments forgo the more complex X and fan patterns used on the soundboards of costlier steel-strings. In their place are heavy transverse struts—usually four—above and below the soundhole and on either side of an enlarged bridge patch.
Although roughly finished inside, some early examples are fancy on the outside, heavily appointed with bindings, decals, and stamped-out inlay work. But Plain Jane is generally the rule. Some of these guitars are petite, barely larger than a baritone uke; others, like the fabled long-scale Stella 12-strings, are massive. Many, like the Kalamazoo brand made by Gibson, were crafted to resemble their pricier counterparts.
The sound of such guitars is generally less complex than that of the X-braced equivalent, but ladder-braced examples tend to be loud for their size, and their mid-to-high register is bright with a long decay rate—good for blues. A combination of hide glue, hard use, and history makes older guitars of this type—Washburn, Regal, Stella, etc.—in original playing condition a rare find. Their increasing value, however, has made some well worth restoring. Additionally, the designs have been adapted and improved by builders like Todd Cambio, with his Stella-inspired Fraulini models, and high-end manufacturers such as Collings, whose Waterloo line includes a variety of ladder-braced guitars.
Four decades after that 1929 Memphis session, Joe Callicott clearly remembered the lexicon of now-legendary artists who were at the studio in the Peabody Hotel that day. Among these were Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe, ready to score a major hit with their “Bumble Bee Blues.” Notable in Callicott’s recall were their instruments: A gleaming pair of brand-new National Style 1 tricone resonators—the first guitars of this type that anybody around Memphis had ever seen or heard.
At the time, National guitars had been available for barely a year. The sound of the resonator, now so widely linked to early blues, was absent from the original recordings of blues guitar pioneers such as Blind Blake, Lemon Jefferson, and Lonnie Johnson, who recorded well before that. Even when popular players like Memphis Minnie, Tampa Red, and Bo Carter began using Nationals, their high prices put them out of the range of guitarists more accustomed to $11 Stellas. In 1935, a Style 1 was priced at $125 (about $2,300 in today’s money), more expensive even than a Martin D-28 ($100, or around $1,850 now).
These days, National Reso-Phonic and several other custom builders offer a variety of resonator guitars. Regardless of body style or whether they’re made from metal or wood, resonators feature superior volume and projection, thanks to spun aluminum cone(s) mounted inside the body and connected to the bridge. This aspect of construction has remained unchanged since the 1920s. Another characteristic that has remained unchanged is price. Quality resonator guitars, new or vintage, are not cheap, and buyers should be aware of budget lookalikes—especially those that profess to be “just as good as.” They’re not worth having, as their lesser sound, volume, and resale value will attest.
The New Cheap
So what to do if you, like Callicott, don’t have a lot of money to spend but would like a nice- looking, good-sounding, playable guitar? Keeping in mind that the new $11 may be closer to $400 or $500, a look around the local music store will turn up some new items that fill the roots/blues requirements. These include instruments like Seagull’s Entourage and Taylor’s BBT (Big Baby Taylor).
In the “previously owned” category, a number of budget guitars made in the ’50s and ’60s, notably by Harmony, are still around in one piece. Affectionately known by people with lots of cases in the closet as “beaters” or “fishing guitars,” these stamped-and-stenciled assembly line products, often ladder-braced and made with laminated construction, will play in tune and deliver a lot of twang when properly set up. They look kind of cool, and if nobody’s busted ’em up by now, it probably ain’t gonna happen. (By the way, Harmony acquired the Stella brand in 1939 and used that logo for decades on some of their cheaper guitars. Just so you know.)
“When properly set up” is an important phrase to remember when trying out what may be your next guitar. A plywood beater in good repair with properly adjusted intonation and string height will play better and more in-tune (and deliver more sound) than a pricier piece that’s out of whack. Buy your guitar from someone who is ready to talk about its condition and ready to demonstrate its playabilty.
Once you have a guitar you like, treat it that way! It’s commonly supposed that a dirty, poorly maintained instrument is somehow bluesier or more authentic than one that is kept clean, freshly strung, and carefully stored. That’s an incorrect assumption with no basis in musical reality. Finally, remember that the “new cheap” may be not so. Finding the guitar you need can be kind of like seeing a rattlesnake or a bald eagle—you just know that’s what it is. When that happens, remember another thing that people with lots of cases in the closet like to say: “Just get the instrument in your possession.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.