Digging in the dust for six-string gold

Digging in the dust for six-string gold
Reviewer: FerencD
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The Strat in the Attic:
Thrilling Stories of Guitar Archaeology
256 pages
First edition
June 10, 2013
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

Tells the true tales of 50 thrilling rare guitar finds that will make guitarists green with envy.

America’s mania for mining the depths of our own homes, exemplified by shows like “Antique Road Show”, has led to all variety of experts helping to find forgotten treasures. With The Strat in the Attic, Deke Dickerson is your congenial and knowledgeable host, tracking down lost guitars and the great stories that go along with each adventure. But as each find is scrutinized, the less than 100 year history of the electric guitar is continually rewritten. Questions like “who built the first solid body?” and “who made the first pickup?” are redefined as "guitarchaelogists" unearth new finds.

The mid-century era of the creation of the first electric guitars, led by garage inventors and artists who didn’t keep spread sheets or shipping manifests, is a murky swamp of misinformation and unknown facts. It’s a history that cannot be found in product catalogs or press releases, but by digging through the dust of pawn shops, basements and classified ads. Along the way come stories of incredible finds on EBay and Craigslist, strange homemade guitars by innovative and eccentric builders, family drama, celebrities and forgotten hillbillies.

Perhaps the best known Strat in the Attic story is that of the sunburst ’64 Fender that Bob Dylan used when he first played electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Flying home after the gig, he left it on a small plane. The pilot tried to return it repeatedly to no avail, and it ended up in his closet for 35 years until his death. At that point his daughter tried to have it authenticated, but Bob’s people were still not forthcoming and wrapped the pilot’s daughter up in legalities. (As of October 2013, the Stratocaster will finally go up for auction and is expected to fetch at least a half million dollars). While celebrity and famous guitar stories abound, it’s the tales of lesser known instruments that enrich the book.

Dickerson’s determined quest for guitars with Danelectro, Vibro, Mosrite and Bigsby on the headstock reveal just how passionate he can be. Paul Bigsby is best known for designing a reliable vibrato, but at the beginning of his career he hand made 21 guitars that inspired Leo Fender and Les Paul to design their own (If you see Bigsby’s guitars, you’ll know exactly how much they influenced Paul and Fender.) As he dug deeper and deeper, Deke found himself joining a council of Bigsby afficianados, steering him through uncharted paths to find and purchase three Bigsbys, one of which had been left in a closet in Alaska for 40 years.

Dickerson claims that most of the time luck is not involved. Dogged pursuit and attention to the fine details of press photos, album jackets and hearsay are the best leads. He tells one story of a luthier who found a gospel album from a local church in a used record bin; on the cover a young woman holds a beautiful 60s Strat. He contacted the church and asked about the album and if the group still performed. In fact, the woman who answered the phone was the guitarist and now minister of the church. For a relatively small donation and a guitar swap, the luthier walked away with a very clean guitar. "Clean" as in “it was only played on Sundays by a church lady” as opposed to “it was owned drinkin’, smokin’ and fightin’ bluesman for 300 bar gigs a year.”

The guitar finds come in all varieties and all with a colorful history. One thing is clear, it helps to know what you are looking for. Deke Dickerson has had a great advantage in his life as a collector by identifying his passion at an early age, and being surrounded by family and colleagues who encourage eccentricities and the quest for knowledge as a path to an interesting life. He’s a gifted musician, writer, archivist and sleuth – clearly a hillbilly renaissance man – and knows how to spin an engaging yarn. The Strat in the Attic is a well written, high quality, full color book that will engage any active or armchair fan of electric guitars.