The Weird and Wild Vintage Guitars of Japan and Italy
As the caretaker for a vast collection of unusual vintage axes, blues guitarist Mike Dugan has carved out a second career in front of the camera.
GO SEARCHING FOR information about 1960s-vintage oddball electric guitars and there’s no doubt you’ll stumble onto videos featuring Mike Dugan. From U.S. and Canadian rarities to European, Asian, Russian and Scandinavian models — Dugan has been filmed playing them all. And yet, ask him to name his favorite and, without hesitation, he names a guitar that was a first for many players of a certain age: a Sears Silvertone/Danelectro in maroon sparkle. “I actually used to go to Sears when I was 12 years old, back when you
could play the guitar in the store,” he recalls. “I’d pick that baby up and plug it into the Valco-made tube amp that’s built into its hard case. How can you not love that?”
While Dugan doesn’t own the vast number of guitars he plays in his videos, he has the good fortune to be close friends with the man who does: Frank Meyers. In fact, Dugan is the collection’s caretaker, and he comes by the job honestly. Meyers sought him out in their hometown of Allentown, Pennsylvania, when he was looking for guitar lessons. Meyers came up as a guitarist in the late-1970 and early 1980s punk scene, but when he grew frustrated with his limitations as a player later in life, he asked around to find someone who could help him advance to the next level. “Mike Dugan” was frequently the answer. The guitarist’s band, Mike Dugan and the Blues Mission, had been an area favorite for some 20 years, during which time they typically played 200 to 300 gigs per year and recorded three albums of Dugan originals for Rave On Records. And, like many pro musicians, Dugan offers private lessons.
“I had known of Mike Dugan and knew him to be at the heart of the blues scene in those parts,” Meyers says. “He was even semi-sorta famous, putting on concerts and such. But as a punk rocker, I hadn’t started caring about that type of music or that style of guitar playing just yet.” Meyers ended up studying with Dugan for more than 10 years, during which time he learned blues, theory and how to improvise.
Though they came from different musical backgrounds, Meyers and Dugan shared a love of oddball vintage axes, and Meyers had the motherlode. His collection stems back to his youth in working-class Allentown. “Dad worked at the Bethlehem Steel plant, Mom was a hairdresser,” he says. “We didn’t have a lot of money to spend on nice stuff, so I’d look for the cheapest guitars out there.” After a while, he explains, “I found these guitars to be weird, interesting and even artistic.” After graduating college and getting “a stable and good-paying day job,” he began buying up as many as he could. He reckons he acquired some 700 examples over the past 25 years.
But Meyers didn’t just play them. He also started tearing them apart to see what made them tick. After opening up a couple dozen of these guitars, most of them made in Japan in the ’60s, he began cataloging brand names and matching them to the pickups, pots and bridges. It was a trek down a rabbit hole, and it led him to write an impressive tome, History of Japanese Electric Guitars (published by Centerstream). Ten years ago, Meyers began to think he should create videos to demonstrate the guitars in his collection, but he wanted a totally legit guitarist to do the honors. Enter his guitar sensei and good friend Dugan. “Mike is like an incredible human jukebox,” Meyers says. “He knows every song from the last several decades.”
To date, they’ve shot more than 500 videos using guitars from Meyers’ collection, with Dugan usually playing along to top-notch tracks that he tastefully matches to the guitar being demonstrated. For their demo of the Teisco B.B. King 335 model, Dugan performed to B.B. King’s own backing tracks. Given his deep background as a performer, it’s not surprising to learn Dugan once opened for the King of the Blues. “B.B. was such a nice man,” he said. “We hung out in the dressing room, shared meals. He was a real class act.”
In the 1990s, Dugan also befriended Les Paul, whom he met after Paul’s rhythm guitarist, Lou Pallo, shared one of Dugan’s many-layered guitar demos with the original master of multitracking. Impressed by what he heard, Les gave Dugan an open invitation to sit in with his group at the Iridium in Manhattan, where Les played every Monday night for nearly 15 years before his death in 2009. These days, Dugan performs with his partner, Jenn McCraken, in the duo Cheek2Cheek (mikedugan.com).
Dugan and Meyers kindly invited Guitar Player to see some of the vast collection, which we explore over the following pages. To view many more excellent examples, visit the YouTube account DrowningInGuitars, and be sure to check out Meyers’ excellent and thorough cache of information and photos at drowninginguitars.com.
“I’D LOOK FOR THE CHEAPEST GUITARS OUT THERE. I FOUND THESE TO BE WEIRD, INTERESTING AND EVEN ARTISTIC” — FRANK MEYERS