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Paul Brett, accidental collector of antique instruments.

Paul brett Viator
Written by Lars Mullen

I’m sort of proud of the fact I can bore the pants off non-acoustic, guitar savvy people at parties or down the pub. I can bang on about all sorts of facts about tonewoods, medullary rays and perpendicular growth rings and the effect it all has on the guitar’s tone (until the drummers starts up).

We all know that if we want to know the time, we ask a policeman, but if you want to know every little detail about the dimensions, weight and type of bracing used in an early 20th Century German parlour guitar for example, you’ll need to track down one of the world’s leading authorities in that field.

Paul Brett fits that mould. As an author, singer songwriter, record producer and skilled guitar designer, he’s also renowned as a world expert on all things acoustic guitar, owning one of the finest collections of antique acoustic multi-string instruments from as far back as the 18th Century.

“I’m often asked where I buy so many wonderful old acoustic guitars, but I’ve had most of these since the early 60’s”, says Paul. “I was in a band called Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera and hung out with the late Johnny Joyce. Johnny was a hero of mine who also had an enormous musical influence on me and taught me so much about historic, electric and acoustic guitars.

He was the master and pioneer of 12 string, fingerpicking acoustic blues guitar in the UK, playing mostly in the style of Lead Belly and Blind Willie McTell. We formed a spin-off acoustic duo and played hundreds of gigs on the folk scene which was very popular at the time, especially in and around London.

Johnny was also regarded as one of the country’s finest guitar repairers, and we’d spend hours rummaging through, what were back then, really good junk shops, paying very little money for guitars that we either liked the look of, or were in need of repair.

There was no such thing as a collectors market for guitars in the early 60’s, the only interest was classical, flamenco or models from the 1800’s, it was more of an antiques market really.

It seems strange to think now that in ’62, a ’59 Les Paul was a mere 3 years old and archtops from the 50’s were available at prices that we can only dream about now. I remember Johnny buying a Gibson LOO for a fiver cleaned it up beautifully and sold it to me for a tenner. We would re-sell some, others we kept for the sake of it, this is how I became very interested in old acoustics and how to repair them.

Stella Flowers and Rosette 1930s

Stella 1920s tree of lifeNearly all the early players that became blues legends played Stella or Sovereign acoustics, both of which were made in New York City and apart from the famous Sears Roebuck catalogue, were also available from general stores that sold household goods. They weren’t dedicated music stores.

These acoustic guitars were all the blues players could afford, they didn’t have any money so they went for the working man’s guitar, whilst train hopping from town to town to play at juke joints and street corners, so it didn’t matter too much if it got damaged.

The more expensive Stellas at $2.99 featured spruce tops with mahogany back and sides, whilst the affordable models at $1.99 used birch for the bodies and tops, with ladder bracing, A lot of people say ladder bracing doesn’t last, well I have a large quantity of ladder braced instruments from the 30’s onward and they’re doing fine.

This form of bracing along with the bare finish of the Stellas, played a major part within their sound characteristics. If you put a microscope on the sound board, you’ll see the top moves like a snare drum, whereas a heavily lacquered acoustic with a detailed braced top, offers little movement. It’s personal of course, but I’d rather have a soundboard lightly sealed which I believe offers better note dispersion, and of course you won’t get the star-cracks, like the old fibreglass Robin Reliant cars as they age”, laughs Paul.

Whilst most recorded old blues songs are preserved for entertainment at the click of a mouse, it’s a shame that unlike today, cameras were few and far between back in the late 20’s and 30’s and photographs can be misleading, Paul continues,

“There’s a lot of myths involved, in those early photographs you see all the young blues players in swish expensive suits, cradling Gibson guitars, well, that to me is a fallacy. Those guitars and suits were all owned by the photographic studios, they didn’t have the money for any of that, they dressed these guys up specifically for the photos.

In one photo, Robert Johnson, assuming it is him, is playing a 1928 Gibson L1 with a fixed bridge and in another he has a Kalamazoo KG14. If he did own an L1, I would say it would have been the latter. Whilst both were made on the same benches by Gibson, the Kalamazoo models were sold a lot cheaper to non-Gibson dealers. These players were puppets really, like a lot of organised singing groups are today, so nothing’s changed that much. I mean, did Robert Johnson meet the devil at the crossroads, or was he just pissed and thought he met him there?

Again, there are many myths involved, I wouldn’t like to say, but when you listen to Johnson’s vocals they are pitched pretty high, hence, it has been said that the recordings were sped up. I did read that some American engineers slowed the tapes down and the guitar and vocals sounded as normal as you’d expect a blues vocalist from this genre to sound. He only recorded about 36 tracks which were recorded over a weekend in a hotel in Texas released over two albums.”

As we know, the Americans were all up in arms about the blues in the 50’s, the so called ‘devils music’ that was a bad influence on the teenagers who were seen shaking their hips.

Racist notice“It was released under the genre of race music which I think only lasted until 58, the do gooders put up posters saying it was a bad influence for young Americans. It was popular in peaks and troughs really, the likes of Muddy Lead Belly and Blind Willie McTell didn’t really sell many records in their lifetime, they didn’t really click in the psyche of it all until Players like Pete Seegar in the USA and Lonnie Donegan in the UK, played their songs live.

When I played with Lonnie, a major part of the set was from the Lead Belly songbook which Lonnie performed in his own way. It was boosting the popularity of these guys. Brit Pop bands from the 60’s like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, also owed a lot to those early blues players, and vice versa. This blues movement could have easily ended up buried beneath a wood pile. There’s an interview where Muddy Waters says how grateful he was to the likes of The Rolling Stones for putting up his name in lights, and where would Eric Clapton be without Robert Johnson and Crossroads?

Dreadlock Guitars from Ancient EgyptThere’s a huge power within music, no matter what the trends have been over the centuries, nothing new really. They discovered a tomb in Egypt not long ago dating back to 2,500 BC and on top of the mummy there was a 3 string tanbur and plectrum, so what’s new?

The Vikings for instance would have a musician at a feast to stir up the passion within the men before battle, so much so, that the chief would get so wound up he’d leap off a table and kill a few of his own army, then he’d blame the musician, nothing new there either, blame the musician”, laughs Paul.

“It’s true though, in the medieval times, travelling musicians were called Skops who went around singing about dragon slaying and brave warriors and telling stories, a bit like social media today. You can go back centuries when musicians had to play for food, that’s virtually what they are doing now with the open mike sessions.

‘Come to my restaurant and get your music heard…play for nothing while I sell all this food’. Ok, so you come to my house and feed me for nothing and I’ll play you a song.’

It’s all going back to the early days when bands didn’t get paid for gigs, and who cares these days about the opening act, everyone’s in the bar or making so much noise, there’s no respect now, if you are an acoustic act, you’ve got no chance. I remember being on the same bill as The Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, Savoy Brown and myself in Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera, we were all named recording bands with records in the charts and the audience watched every band. Now the main hall will fill up when the main act comes on and they record it on their phones put it up online and it sounds terrible. You might have had a great gig but the sound and camera angles are so bad, it doesn’t do the act any good.

The whole approach to the recording and performing artist has changed so much, even in the studio. The legendary record producer Tom Newman said to me recently that there’s not one engineer out there who can record an acoustic guitar properly with an analogue microphone. I think there’s some truth in that. So many producers and engineers these days have been brought up with samples, they don’t use mics it’s all plug-ins and di, what’s wrong with a good analogue mic in front of the soundhole?

TV is just as bad, they have these obituary programs for the music legends we’ve lost, but they’re written by young journalists and reminisced by a comedian. Most of them weren’t even born when the artist in question was around and they come out with a lot of made up bullshit.

Simon Cowell is one of the biggest culprits, who has dumbed it all down to a base level, and then we have Spotify which pays the artist absolute zero, it’s killed the chance of earning decent money as recording artists. There was never a great income in music, but at least back in the day, you could get an advance from a record company who were looking to release a product not just to download one.”

It wasn’t until years of playing electric guitar in bands and as a session player that Paul Brett decided to change to acoustic fingerpicking. 

“I really didn’t get into acoustic finger picking until the late 60’s because the electric guitar in bands like The Strawbs and Arthur Brown were my main focus. I learnt basic blues fingerpicking from Johnny Joyce and then developed it into my own style as the years went on and started to realise that the cheap, used guitars we had bought, had significant and historic value.

Weymann 1920s 12 stringI‘ve never forgotten the theme with the early Stellas, and how they were designed as an affordable working man’s guitar. Over the last few years I’ve been designing my own Paul Brett signature model for the Vintage brand, all of which have been inspired from my collection of early models from the early part of the 20th Century. These include the Paul Brett Signature 12 string acoustic, heavily influenced by my 1920’s Weymann 12 string parlour acoustic, which I believe was actually built by Martin as they were building for Weymann between 1920 and ’26.

Dating Martin guitars from that period is a bit sketchy, they have better records for Mr C F Martins fishing book library rather than their guitar production. I wanted to design a 12 string that 6 string players would love to play, and not one that just sounded ok below the 5th fret and with superb balanced acoustic response not dominated by the low or top frequencies. I also wanted to design a quality travel guitar, but which was affordable as a working man’s guitar and came up with the 6 and 12 string Viator with solid spruce tops, rosewood back and sides, mahogany necks and rosewood fingerboards, based on an Oscar Schmidt parlour dating from 1907. I decided on Viator as a name which is actually Latin for traveller. I just got so fed up with new guitars having model numbers and letters instead of names.

Both, the 6 and 12 string Viator models, have been well received around the world. I followed up with the antique version which also carried electronics and was fitted with a USB output as well. The construction is that good, that with light gauge strings they can be tuned up to Terz tuning. Along with the construction, sound and playability, it’s the price tag that’s so appealing, I really don’t see why you should have to pay so much money for a big brand named acoustic guitar more or less using the same tonewoods.

So many luthiers and big brands are suffering from the wood restrictions now, I’m told musicians are having to get wood passports for guitars…what?

We have these civil servants who are telling us what we can and can’t use, but they don’t have a clue about tonewood or where it all comes from. They wouldn’t know if a shit house door was built from spruce or kipper box wood, without sniffing it. So they banned the bloody lot, so what’s next maple, and why are we allowing oak trees to be cut down left right and centre here in the UK to build houses or for some daft oak furniture land store, selling stuff I wouldn’t have in the toilet? It’s one law for one and one for another, we’re back to myths again.

There will always be myths, they make magic and that’s how it’s going to stay. I feel the music industry and the arts are surrounded by myths. Shakespeare for instance, a lot of people say he wasn’t educated enough to write the classics, and most of it was penned by his co writer Christopher Marlowe. And how do you know Elizabeth 1 was a virgin, she had so many boyfriends?”

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Lars Mullen

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