Ask Franc

Life – Terror. Ecstasy. Fight. Denial. Flight. Failure. PAIN. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Hope. Love. Peace – Death

7.00pm -A none listed [no name] call to my mobile ‘Alright mate how’s it going?

A Guildford number and an unmistakeable scouse accent, Mark Markham? An old new friend? Mark and I were very close growing up together in Downing Road, Bootle and [somehow] we lost touch for 50 years and more. We recently re-connected via FB. Mark, is the only person who I know who lives in Guildford, [me], ‘I’m ok mate been a mad day spent in A&E, the missus done her meniscus in [knee] doing the Santa Dash on Sunday’. [Mark?], ‘What’s the fucking Santa Dash’?

The Santa Dash, is a 5K charity run where all runners wear either a Blue or a Red Santa suit. A big day in the Liverpool Christmas calendar.

Although, Mark has lived in Guildford for many years he has recently decide to relocate back to his home city and has spent most of the last 18 months in Liverpool. If this is Mark on the phone he would know what the Liverpool Santa Dash is. If this is not Mark, who the fuck is it? Shit, it’s Brian!

Brian, another friend from the past who has also, recently reconnected. He lives in Guildford where he operates his business from. Brian was the drummer in our band[s], Fun (late 70’s) & 3D (mid 80’s). Brian along with myself, Jon and Steve, were members of a band called 3D who were signed to Mickey Most’s RAK records thru EMI (1983 -1985). Although I had recently contacted Brian via email, I haven’t spoken with him in over 35 years.

Brian is now a highly successful record producer & music industry entrepreneur. In a previous lifetime we played live and recorded together [without any sizeable success]. Post 3D & RAK, Brian went on to become a successful writer and acclaimed record producer working with many successful artists such as; Girls Aloud, One Direction, Kylie Minogue, Cher, Rod Stewart & the legendary, David Bowie to name but a few. Most recently, he has been working with, in vogue, Harry Styles.

Recently, our earlier band, Fun held a band reunion that eventually happened just after lockdown. I had contacted Brian to extend him an invitation. He declined as it was his daughters 21st [a decent excuse], however, we exchanged several, friendly emails. I felt the door was open for a further reunion [after all we were all not getting any younger], and one or two of our in common friends had recently died.

September 2022, out of the blue, Brian contacted me, whilst I was on holiday, via email. We were on a cruise, in Canada. Whilst at sea, we had limited internet access, relying upon when we were in port to check on urgent communications. Brian had been thinking about a song we used to perform together in 3D, Dreaming of You, a song I had wrote.

Dreaming’, might have been the very first song I had ever wrote. If not, definitely one of the first. I had been sacked from our band, Fun. At the time I was deeply hurt by the sacking from a band I had been co-founder of and had dedicated much of my time to for many years. Post sacking, I was approached by some friends to form a band [later] to be named Snap Shots [shit name], that eventually became 3D a fish in sea, that would further down the line become 3D, with Brian on drums.

After the shock of being sacked from Fun, I worked out that I needed to be a writer in this [any] new musical venture. I started to write songs, I wrote Dreaming, on a piano [I cannot play piano]. A pop love song dedicated to my then girlfriend [now wife] Gail. Brian wanting to rework Dreaming, is ironic as I had been sacked from Fun because I was ‘spending too much time with Gail and I was not giving the band enough priority’. Dreaming of You, has an ultra-pop chorus. One of those annoying songs that you just cannot get out of your head for days after you hear it [for forty-five years, apparently]!

Over the years Dreaming has been re-arranged in many guises, fast, slow & even in-between. It was recorded for a BBC John Peel session which was, more or less, responsible for getting 3D our recording contract with, EMI (RAK Records).

When the session was broadcast, Peeleys comments were above and beyond complimentary and gave the band some massive credibility that resonated within the within the various record labels and eventually, amounted to 3D signing to EMI Records, thru RAK. Romantically, we signed on our deal on Christmas Eve December 1983.

Oddly, Mickie Most (RAK Records) the then king of pop, didn’t fancy the song at all. It was too poppy for him! 3D never recorded Dreaming for RAK, despite recording an album of 14 plus songs and releasing 3 singles. The song has remained unreleased and unpublished for over 45 years.

Brian emailed me whilst on holiday, he fancied rejigging Dreaming of You. He loved [loves] the chorus and still remembers it after all this time, and ‘what did I think’? I remembered he was, previously, very fond of the song and honestly, it had crossed my mind several times, over the years to remind him of it but never did. Clearly, with his current status and influence in the music industry, I was 100% in favour of him working on it, I instantly gave him the green light.

He asked me to send him every recording I had of the song, every arrangement [some he had played drums on]. A week later, once home from Canada, I rang around the other old band members and tracked down every version of the song and sent them to him along with the lyrics. A week or so on, he emailed me to say he was incredibly busy working on a film [soundtrack] but ‘he wanted to assure me he was still very keen to rework the song’ and would send me a first draft ‘once they had something down, & he was excited by the prospect’.

I was more than happy to wait. A few weeks passed, he had told me that he would rewrite the verses and bridge but keep the chorus ‘after all the chorus is why we are here’? Everything so far had been via email. Then, out of the blue, he calls my mobile, a Guildford number, ‘what the fuck’s the Santa Dash’?

He played me their first draft over the phone, I liked what I heard, the new verses and bridge plus his modern production had contemporised the song, an immediate improvement. Ten came the, unchanged, sugar-sweet, big, pop chorus. He emailed me what they had, ‘its not their yet but it will be’. He asked, [more of a statement of fact] ‘you still play, don’t you John?

He wanted me to play some guitars over the track, to add some of my old/new guitar parts to what they had first drafted. I was more than a little surprised. Brian works with several teams of first-class, writers/musicians. Highly skilled, talented, contemporary artists. What could I give that they couldn’t, in spades?

I made some excuses – recent surgery on my right hand [the day I got back from Canada], a longer than expected recovery, resulting in restricted movement in my plectrum hand. I forgot to mention that I had simply-not picked up a guitar, in anger, for at least three years and that I had sold every bit of recording equipment including my guitars, over the past 3 years.

Show willing?

I was convinced he was just being nice. He wasn’t really interested in me playing guitar on the track or not, but, he felt obliged to ask me? He was just being nice. I agreed to sort something out but asked for a little ‘time’.

I still owned one guitar. Well, I didn’t then I did. I had sold all my guitars over a period of 12-18 months, the last to go was my beloved 1976 Limited Edition Gibson Explorer [custom]. The last to go was the Explorer, sold via FB Marketplace to a guy in Glasgow, for £3,500. When Aubrey found out [my son], apparently, he was really upset and I had to buy it back.

Brian wants some guitar parts, I have one, neglected guitar that is desperately in need of some TLC, I have a Blackstar Fly amp, a former student had given to me for facilitating his company, (Blackstar), to record a promo video with one of their sponsored artists at the Paul McCartney Auditorium, (LIPA) and practically nothing else. No mics, no computer software ergo, no way of recording any guitar ideas.

Ask Franc

Franc owns several high-end guitars plus a home studio set-up. In recent years Franc has become, more than, adept in customising, repairing, even making guitars and amps. On first contact he didn’t seem too keen. We made loose arrangements, but the recent mega cold snatch meant nothing concrete was fixed.

I awoke in the middle of the night [4.00am], with some guitar ideas swimming around my head. No choice, I got up and rehearsed finding at least one idea I was really happy with then back to bed at 6.00am. Obviously, the next day I could remember fuck all!

I contacted Brian, apologising for the delay, I made my sore hand excuses but told him to proceed without my input regardless, ‘you are clearly the expert in the room, I trust you, just make us a hit?’ The music industry moves very quickly, I did not want to delay the process in any way, strike while the iron is hot, I was desperate to keep the project alive. Franc got back to me, ‘are you ok to record Friday? I’ll come to yours’? He had figured it all out.

An iPad with a £3.99 DAW app. Built in FX, multi tracking, on the fly editing. A highly flexible, near pro quality recording system. As workable and as flexible as anything I had owned in my own commercial recording studios. Franc provided his Marshal Amp, his 25th Anniversary PRS with a whammy bar tremolo system and a selection of high end, rare, FX pedals.

We were in action. I tried the Explorer first then the PRS which was much better than the, neglected, Explorer, [the electrics were playing up]. I played thru the Marshal amp recording to the iPad via the, built in mic. It all worked, a couple of runs thru, a little production re: what parts to go with and what parts to drop, bang, guitar ideas done!

My timing was a bit ruff but actually, ok? Definitely enough for Brian to decide if he wanted to use any of the ideas or not. Two mixes, one with the new guitars sitting more or less where they should be, in the track and the other with the new guitars raised artificially higher so as they could be picked out by Brian and Co., to reproduce if required. An hour and a half max, mixed and MP3 files emailed to Brian.

I fucking loved it [the playing, the process, the company]. Much more than I thought I would.

It was like the old days, working with Franc, special vibes that I thought had long past me by. Franc took the Explorer home with him, I had asked if he would perform some essential maintenance, some long overdue TLC to my old faithful friend.

Gibson Explorer Limited Edition Mahogany (Natural) 1976 Reissue – [Custom]

The Gibson Explorer is a type of electric guitar model by Gibson guitars, first released in 1958. The Explorer offered a radical, “futuristic” body design, much like its siblings: the Flying V, which was released the same year, and the Moderne, which was designed in 1957 but not released until 1982. The Explorer was the final development of a prototype design that, years later, Gibson marketed under the name Futura.

The Explorer’s initial run was unsuccessful, and the model was discontinued in 1963. In 1976, Gibson began reissuing the Explorer after competitor Hamer Guitars had success selling [very] similar designs. The Explorer became especially popular among the hard rock and heavy metal musicians of the 1970s and 1980s.

Gibson produced very few Explorers during the 1958 run of the original korina wood model. Because production records have been lost and shipping records are unclear, it is not known exactly how many were made, but the original run total has been estimated to be no more than 50.

After the first few guitars, the Explorer had a long drooping headstock with the tuners placed in a straight line on one side (referred sometimes as “banana” and “hockey-stick”). This headstock design was incorporated by Grover Jackson, founder of Jackson Guitars and other electric guitar makers such as Kramer 20 years later, giving rise to the “pointy-headstock era” of guitars. However, the very earliest Explorers made between 1957 and spring 1958 featured an unusual “split”-shaped head with the tuners placed in a standard 3+3 arrangement, carried over from the Explorer prototype (better known as the Futura).

The 1958–1959 Korina Explorer is one of the most valuable production-model guitars on the market, ranked at #4 on the 2011 Top 25 published by Vintage Guitar, worth between $250,000 and $300,000. Only 22 were shipped in its first two years, 19 in 1958 and 3 in 1959; an unknown (small) number of leftover bodies were completed with nickel 1960s hardware and sold in 1963. 38 examples were known to exist as of 2011.

I first seen an Explorer guitar [in the flesh] in the window of Rushworth and Drapers music store, Liverpool. It was 1976, I had just left school. It was a Wayne’s World, lightning bolt moment. I had never seen a guitar like it, I was mesmerised, in love, it blew my mind. I was at college but decided there and then that I would buy this guitar as soon as I started work. Little did I know that it would be a few years before I would eventually own the guitar of my dreams.

The Rushworth’s Explorer had sold, I was on the look-out for an Explorer, more so as my current guitar, a lovely double cutaway, yellow, sunburst, Ibanez Melody Maker had just been nicked from the back of a van in Kirkby. I had some good ideas to produce a special guitar, a guitar that would satisfy everything I had been developing, sound and playing wise. The guitar of my dreams. I found an Explorer, via an advert in Sounds Magazine. For sale at The Guitar Player, a shop in Rochdale, for £499.

Myself and Gail. [Gail had loaned me the money]. We travelled the 40 miles to Rochdale, we waited outside the shop until just before closing. A tactic I had deployed before when buying amps/guitars. They were just about ready to lock up.

I tried the guitar, loved it but was very cool about my obvious love. I waived some cash in front of the owner and we agreed £405! I was well chuffed. Before we left I asked about some modifications. They had a guy who could customise to my specs. I wanted new DiMarzio pickups, [an X2N on the bridge and Super Distortion Humbucker on the neck], a phase tap switch and a coil tap (split coil) pot on the X2N pickup, and a Gibson Vibrola Whammy bar, tremolo system. The guy turned out to be Denny Lane, X wings guitarist.

The Gibson Vibrola tremolo system was expensive, gold plated as on the Gibson Firebird. A friend, Paul Reynolds, aka Flock of Seagulls plays a Firebird, I was always a bit envious of his Whammy system. The two new pickups were also expensive, the most powerful pickups on the market, all in he wanted £200 for the job, half the price I had just paid for the guitar. It would be my dream guitar, a keeper. I agreed.

I collected the customised Explorer two weeks later. I’m guessing this must be as early as 1979 but might have been as late as 1981.

Amongst all the excitement, collecting the guitar of my dreams, they did not offer [and I did not ask for] the original, gold-plated, Gibson Explorer pickups. A schoolboy error. The original Gibson pickups are worth a fortune now, sold separately and or returned onto the guitar. Collectors want totally originality. Any ‘player’ would instantly prefer my customisation of the Explorer, it’s now, very much, a players guitar. The versatility of tone is infinitely better than the original Gibson pickups and the whammy bar addition is genius. Any collector [investor], however, would prefer it to be the way it used to be.

Every day’s a school day

Franc started work on the git straight away, literally the same night of the recording session. He soon spotted that the bridge had been replaced. ‘It doesn’t have any slots in it?’, no little slot to help the string from slipping sideways. He slotted the new bridge. ‘Even with the old strings it is playing much better now’. Only 1000 copies were made of the ’76 limited edition models. Franc checked the pots, ‘they have a date code of very late/early 1975/76’ [fully original].

Franc was already aware that Gibson had a Nashville Bridge and an ABR Bridge but didn’t know they did two types of ABR. His old Les Paul and my Explorer have pre 1980 4mm mounting posts. After 1980 they moved to 6mm posts. I had replaced the bridge around 8 years ago, I lost a couple of bridge saddles, during a gig, an over excited performance, filling in for a friend. I snapped a couple of strings and the bridge, that had long-lost the saddle retaining clip-wire, fell off! A couple of the saddles were lost on stage and never recovered. I put the bridge ‘somewhere safe’ and, of course, lost it. I had half a dozen other guitars to use then so there was no urgency to repair the Gibson. The replacement bridge, I eventually found, is a 6mm type, Franc, ‘easy error tbh’.

The bridge doesn’t need to be rigid tight when fitted, just NOT 2mm loose! Franc fabricated some maple veneer shims [told you he was fucking good] which will more than suffice, non destructive and easy to remove later if I decide to get the correct size bridge. He even sent me a diagram of the important specs I need to know before buying, (highlighted in red of course).

He had wondered if there was too much relief in the neck as the action was low at pick-up end but a bit high down the middle/lower part of the neck. Checked the trus rod and the nut was just loose!! No tension either way! Tensioned it up, gave it a 1/4 turn back, spot on now. Could’ve caused a neck twist if left (worse if it had heavier gauge strings).

Frets dressed and polished, neck was thirsty as fuck for lem oil, a new set of strings…. It’s a fucking beauty! Franc, ‘can’t tell you how good its turned out mate, I think the little straightening out of the neck has made the difference.’

The action is playable at super low now, the good thing is if you like a higher action, the neck is so straight and the bridge intonation is so spot on, there’s no problem increasing the height. ‘It’s probably the first time I’ve actually had a good dive into the pickups and controls on this guitar and that neck pickup mate bloody hell’! Also, the push/pull and micro switch combinations really do help crank some boss tones out of the guitar. ‘If it’s ok can I bring it back in the New Year, would like to have a little play for a bit longer? X’

I hadn’t even considered seeing it for a couple of months!

The phase tap and split coils on the DiMarzio X2N and the Super Distortion neck pickup can give you Les Paul, SG and even scratchy Tele sounds but could never quite achieve a ‘proper’ Fender Strat sound hence why I had to buy a Strat [for recording]. Most of the 3D, [RAK] guitar parts [recordings] were played on Mickeys ’57 Strat…..yeah an original, hens teeth, fucking ’57 Fender Stratocaster!

1954 was the Stratocaster’s very first year in production. Similarly to first-issue books, a ’54 Stratocaster is the most collectible compared to all of the other years. Strats from ’54 are being sold for £100,000 plus [at the time of writing, Reverb.com have a 1954 Stratocaster with a list price of $225,000]. By comparison, a ’57, cheap at half the price, at around £47,500.

The first is [often] not always the best?

The next great year for the Stratocaster came in 1957. With their maple necks and Sunburst finish, you could fall in love with one just by looking at it. And it sounds just as great as it looks. 1964 was another big year for the Stratocaster because it saw a lot more customisation in colour. You’ll still get that full, rich tone that you’re used to. The ’64 Stratocaster is rated by many musos as ‘everything a Strat should be‘.

The DiMarzio neck PU Magnets are that strong they would pull the strings out of tune! The Vibrola Tremolo is so good as well probably because I’m more used to it but it feels much better than any Strat system….although I did really like the whammy on Franc’s 25th Anniversary PRS.

Franc checked out the pickup outputs. The Anniversary PRS supposedly has ‘hot’ pickups (anything over 9ohms output = hot!). PRS, neck PU 9.5, bridge PU 10.5 ohms…. Marvellous! ‘Then I measured your fuckers’, 11.5 neck PU ……… 14.7 bridge PU ‘haha! ffs Like the Spinal Tap amp, this guitar should have volume knobs that go up to 11’! Shockingly, even after all these years ‘they’ still haven’t been able to beat the power of the DiMarzio’s?

The weird futuristic shaped Explorer from the ‘50’s is surprisingly well balanced/weight versus shape, either on the knee or standing. A bit like a fat arsed, engine in the rear, Porsche 911? It shouldn’t work but somehow it does? For me thought, It’s all about the Explorer neck? It is the neck that makes it for me? Not a Gibson Les Paul? Not a Telecaster nor a Stratocaster? Somewhere in between? Perfect for my short, fat, ‘Carney’ fingers?

Thanks, Franc, for doing this for me, it means so much to me [more than I even knew], love you brother x

Thanks for Reading

Peace

Published by Riff

Husband to my inspirational, (long suffering,) wife Gail, father to two, amazing (adult) children, Aubrey & Perri, teacher, former guitarist. When I started this blog I quickly became granda(r) to my beautiful, first grandson Henderson. Grandparenting, something I was relishing but had began to believe I would not get to experience. I now have three incredible grandsons, Henderson, Fennec and just days ago Nate. I Love people. I love my family, my incredible friends, I have love(d) what I do (my Job), I love Music, Glastonbury Festival, Cars, Everton .... I love many things but, most of all, I fucking love life.

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