1970 - 1979 - first steps
Around this time people travelled to Hamburg to buy equipment. There was "No.1" in Talstraße and "George's Music Shop" in Gärtnerstraße. No.1 was very big (the name didn't suggest otherwise), was overpriced and had arrogant staff. George on the other hand was a real insider. He regularly had old Fenders from the 60's, he knew a lot about them and his prices were ok. His expertise went so far that he could tell in which month or year Strats and Teles were built. This kind of expertise was hard to come by in Germany in the early 70s! He also wound pickups that were supposed to sound like old Gibson PAFs or even better. Anyway, they were great and that was long before the first DiMarzio pickups came on the market in Germany. Another nugget from George: he was the one who told me that if you take the little spring out of the Strat 3-way switch, you can get these intermediate positions between the pickups. 5-way-switches didn't exist at that time!
The big dream of becoming famous as a musician was soon gone, despite the fact that I had plenty of time. Shortly after graduating from high school in autumn 1972 in Bremerhaven I was always short of money and I had to go to work with some band members unloading a banana steamer at five in the morning. The yellow bananas went onto the cattle feed pallets, the green ones for further sale. Our gig at an American club had fallen through. But we were not bad at all - soul music with all kinds of Billy Preston numbers and stuff. Back in Hannover I wrote German songs like "Hallo Herr Frankenstein, bau'n Sie mir ne Frau". (Hello Mr. Frankenstein, build me a woman.)
Thanks to a student job as a helper for a junk removal company, I got the idea to do the same thing myself. The guy I worked for really made a killing. Of course my first thought in those early years, as I said before, was to become independent from my parents as soon as possible. So I bought an old Ford van and started in the business. "Student does small transports and clearing out any time at low cost". This was a great thing, although it should be noted that even then in 1972, I spent part of my income eating Italian food. Just around the corner from my shared flat was Hannover's first Italian restaurant, Via Veneto. They not only made the finest pizza and pasta but also offered a handsome antipasti buffet.
Then I found out that that in London one could buy old Marshalls at very reasonable prices. Yet another possibility to make me financially more independent from my parents. I immediately went to London with my van to buy amplifiers and speakers. There was a newspaper called "Exchange a Mart," where you could find the good stuff.
Across London and various suburbs the van filled up day by day and at night I slept in my sleeping bag on the mattress on top of the layers of equipment. When it came to buying a Höfner Committee guitar, I met a guy named Roger Giffin in a shop on Denmark Street, a guitar repairer who had a small basement workshop at home and produced Fender necks out of raw wood. This kind of initiative has always inspired me and brought me to think: what he can do, I can do as well! I still have the Höfner today, and it has given me a lot of inspiration to incorporate "German design" into my Duesenberg guitars.
The old amps and cabinets from Marshall, Sound City, Vox etc. were easy to sell. Only collecting the money from musicians was a problem. But I had learned something from the business.
In this beautiful period the Leine Domizil club opened its doors, the best small live music venue in Hannover. A lot of good local bands played there as well as a lot of other name bands like Vitesse, Steve Gibbons, Inga Rumpf, Herman Brood etc. In general, the Domi was a great scene and meeting place, where bands wooed members away from each other. Focus on guitarists. And last but not least, after the foundation of my business a few years later, a lot of hip musicians would show up at our Hannover location, which opened in 1980. A highlight was always Roger Chapman, whose guitarist Steve Simpson also used our guitar with the female body during a breathtaking concert.
Actually, I wanted to study art. I had sent a folder of my artistic creations at that time together with my application to the University of Berlin. There was no answer for a long time. When I finally got the acceptance, I had already begun studying teaching at the Pädagogische Hochschule in Hannover, what a crazy idea! Besides, I had been living with my girlfriend "Hanni" for quite some time and so I left Berlin and art behind.
After five semesters of studies I was unnerved by the daily pedagogical routine and moved to Würzburg with Hanni, the future mother of my daughter Julia "Jule", to study law. Law, the second crazy idea! I think most lawyers only did that because they couldn't think of anything better to do, then lead a life as "rentable conscience!" No thanks, but for now it doesn't matter... In Würzburg my band "Otto's Ohrwurm" was quickly founded and I kept my head above water with junk removal, moving and transport of all kinds. In addition, I dedicated myself to repairing guitars and basses of the local musicians in this wonderful place.
In the kitchen, I had already set up a small workbench and my main work consisted of disassembling various pickups of Höfner guitars - which I could acquire very cheaply. I had to unsolder the covers and look inside, because some sounded really good but others didn't, and I wanted to know why. Conclusion: instead of two coils (humbuckers) only one was used. But at least the Höfner pickup had an Alnico 5 magnet underneath the coil. The same silver magnet that was used in the Gibson PAFs. Well, well, well... Anyway, the pickups with two coils sounded great, the best mini humbuckers.
But nobody really believed that then, and maybe not to this day. Everyone was just following in the footsteps of these supposedly great Gibson humbuckers. I remember that years before I had heard from somebody that there were some guys in San Diego who supposedly made good copies of the old PAF pickups. I went to the Hanover Chamber of Commerce and looked through American company address books. I found a company in San Diego whose business was listed with "pickups". I wrote to them and about four months later I received a letter in reply, saying that they were happy about my inquiry, but only modified cars into vehicles with a bed: Pickups, of course!
1976In 1976 our daughter Julia was born and shortly after that we moved from Würzburg to Göttingen. All good reasons to visit the families in Hannover and Eimbeckhausen more often. The parents of my Hannelore had a huge furniture factory in Eimbeckhausen (35 km away from Hannover), where they could have made guitar bodies, for example - no question! Hannelore's brother Hardy managed the factory and gave me all kinds of insights. My first impression was that it is much more complex to produce a Biedermeier chair than a guitar body or neck! In general, a lot of milling templates are used to copy and produce shapes on professional machines.
I had bought a severely warped 62 Strat neck from a dance musician for 50 marks, the frets were shot. At that time I could not yet do fretting, but a friend knew a guitar maker in Erlangen-Bubenreuth. I went there, handed him the neck and we started talking about which other companies were around. There were not only the guitar factories like Höfner, Hoyer, Framus and Klira, but also a number of subcontractors who made wooden and metal parts like pickups, pickguards and other things for those factories. A real hot spot!
And here is an important aspect of guitar production that I had not been aware of at all and that is still kept secret from guitar buyers: a guitar factory does not produce everything itself. The main activity is the design of their models, some of the woodworking and component selection, followed by finishing and final assembly.
Most of the components are ordered from suppliers who specialize in the processing of certain materials. This is just like a car factory that does not make seats, exhaust systems, interior fittings, tires and rims, brake drums or anything else itself. All those German companies supplied the German and American guitar industry. And as you know, "Made in Germany" had quickly become a new term for quality after the war.
I wrote everything down in my little notebook, looked at the road map and then visited a few. Surprise! In particular, there was a hardware and precision engineering company and a company that manufactured pickguards, among other things. Really great stuff! And nobody knew that these companies also supplied the Americans. We Germans sometimes have an inferiority complex, not believing in ourselves. Since I've been living in Spain, I see it completely differently. Our country really has an incredible reputation when it comes to our products. And so it was in this case! Great things with a high standard of quality, and the main point: everything at great prices! A set of machine heads at a third of the Schaller price, a wrap-around bridge, which cost DM 120 from Badass in the shop, was available from the hardware company for a fraction of that. At that very moment I knew what my future business would be: Guitar Parts!It should be mentioned that such a thing practically did not exist at the time. Maybe a few Schaller parts or horrendously expensive Bigsby vibratos and eventually the first Di Marzio pickups became available, but that was it. All the guitarists, including me, were longing for something like that! There were already some decent German guitars back then, especially from Hoyer. But everything was a copy of Gibson and Fender and almost everything was elaborately made with all these metal pickguards and the Schaller machine heads of the best quality. But apart from that, most German guitar companies at that time produced rather non-functional instruments at a high cost. Just think of these laminated wood necks from Framus! They were certainly very stable, but they just didn't sound right. A lot of details were not quite correct, not enough string spacing on the bridges, weak pressure angles from the tremolo to the bridge, and even with the pickups, nobody paid attention to the fact that the meticulously calculated coil values would totally go down the drain after being covered with a nickel-plated brass cover. What a pity!
Back in Würzburg I sat in the bathtub a few evenings later and meditated on these things. Worth knowing about Erlangen! Everything was there to start a business with all the components. Everything was cheap and excellent. Hardware, tuners, pickups, wood for the necks. My meditation suddenly ended with the inspiration for the first electric guitar kit in the world. Yes, provide people with everything they need to build their own individual guitar!
When I went to Bubenreuth to pick up the wonderfully refretted Strat neck, I made another detour to some suppliers. I bagged all brochures and price lists and thought about a first assortment for my mail order business.
Unfortunately, the Müller company has long since ceased to exist; a small, medium-sized precision engineering firm with no less than 20 employees. They produced hardware for practically all German guitar factories, i.e. bridges, tailpieces and more, milled from brass and sheet metal. You can fabricate metal parts out of solid material with mills and drills, or cast in a mold under high pressure with zinc. The latter allows better design possibilities and is much cheaper in production. But for us guitarists, this unfortunately leads to a reduction in the sound quality of stringed elements (apart from parts made of cast aluminum).
Anyway, this company made everything from solid brass blocks, including the beautiful tailpieces and bridges for well-known American companies like Gretsch and Guild. The boss was an ingenious older man with a good sense of humor and when I asked him if I could order hardware of my own design from him, he answered, confident of victory: "We can do EVERYTHING!” Now that's a statement...
Based directly in Bubenreuth and out of business for a long time, the Robert Kolb company had the sonorous brand name of ROKO. It was a German thing that the company owners extracted one syllable each from their first and last names and made it their brand. See also HARIBO (Hans Riegel Bonn)
After the war, the good Robert Kolb began to produce guitar and violin components - as did the Schaller company- especially machine heads, bridges and tailpieces with die-casting technology, as well as stamped steel parts. Robert was politically quite right-wing, always walked around in traditional suits and always turned up his nose at small orders. "Mr. Goelsdorf, if you order ONLY 20 sets, it can't be a business for you!"
He overlooked the fact that I wasn't able to order more than 20 sets in my financial situation. Apart from that however, you have to admit that he was a really innovative technician and had some extraordinary and extremely durable products to offer, which were built into a lot of Höfner, Framus, Klira and also Gretsch guitars, quasi bullet proof construction. The best product from Kolb, however, was a patented mechanism in which the worm wheel was pressed against the gear wheel by means of a steel spring plate clip. This mechanism still works perfectly today after about 50 years. There is no other make of gear like this!
This reminds me of the little story that I told Mr. Kolb in 1979 that his patented spring plate was hidden under the rhombus-shaped covers of the 6-left tuners used in particular by Fender - manufactured by the Schaller company. Kolb then sued Schaller and must have won a huge chunk of money in court. He never thought of paying me a small compensation for my tip. That's just how greedy many people are!
Höfner was just around the corner, at that time still under the management of a Mr. Benker, who was a really friendly man who immediately showed me around the place. There were plenty of half-finished necks, some of which he was happy to sell to me. For production they had a copy router and each neck was exactly like the next. All of them were made of maple, which was hardly visible on the finished guitars, because the necks were all painted opaque. Anyway, this way I got a first impression of neck production.
Rosin and ceiling protectors ... What are ceiling protectors? Pickguards. And Mr. Glassl produced all pickguards from real celluloid for the German guitar industry and for a bunch of guitar builders. I wasn't interested in the rosin; reddish transparent chunks over which you draw the bows of the string instruments. For pickguards, however, they had various colors and layered plates (white-black-white or black-white-black and a beautiful tortoise shell). And his prices were as cheap as all the other suppliers. Unfortunately he stopped the pickguard production a long time ago and specialized only in the rosin business.
Neck blanks etc.
There was also this wood company which produced bodies and tops for hollow bodies as well as complete bodies made of plywood. "Boxes" they called them in those days, while solidbodies were called "planks". They even had a patent for making solid tops using heat, moisture and pressure. In addition, these Franconian perfectionists made precisely made-to-measure milled neck blanks from maple and mahogany, including a truss rod. They "only" had to glue the fretboard on it and then of course a lot of sanding and fretwork followed. At that time practically all smaller guitar builders and individuals bought the blanks from this company, because it saved a lot of work, time, shavings and dust.
There was also a fretboard and marquetry company named Klier, which produced all kinds of slotted fretboards with mother-of-pearl inlays using sophisticated technology. During my first visit the boss, Mr. Klier, proudly presented me with various headstock overlays with Gibson emblems. It’s hard to believe, but this man did inlay works for almost all American companies, i.e. Gibson, Fender, Martin, Gretsch and others.
He also had first-class fret wire in all possible sizes and a large assortment of saddles, bridge inlays and bridge pins. I bought a lot there, especially necks with precut fret slots and radiused fingerboards. With the pre-milled neck blanks I could actually make the necks myself.
Shadow Pickups – Joe Marinic
Joe "Josip" - also nearby - is a great guy who helped me a lot in the beginning. He not only invented the under-saddle piezo pickup but also made a bunch of pickups for all kinds of companies. Also double coil pickups for Hoyer, which had a nice humbucker sound for those days. But the most important thing was: he offered me all kinds of pickup parts like coil formers, magnets, pole screws and pole pieces for sale, as well as pots, switches, sockets etc. At this first visit I bought a lot of parts right away (see later Pickup-Experiments).
Practically all plastic pickup parts were produced by injection molding. For this, you have to have high-pressure resistant steel molds made by specialist companies, and each mold of this kind cost about 10,000 Deutschmark even then - nothing I could have afforded. But I had the source for real pickup parts!
In the same location there was a company that specialized in the production of strings for classical instruments, but also imported guitar and bass strings from the USA and resold them in private label or anonymous packaging.
With that, I had just about everything together to make all guitarists and bassists - and myself, of course - happy! Nothing was more plausible than to start a business with it.
So back into the bathtub again - (for me still the best place for creative thinking) to my idea for the first guitar kit in the world:
- - a neck (practically finished except for the headstock shape)
- - a rectangular body (which could be used to create many different designs)
- - absolutely high-quality hardware
- - real quality pickups... and your guitar is ready!
The only problem was the body with the cut-outs, but anyone, like me at that time, could take it to a carpenter to have a self-designed shape cut out on the band saw.
But a tight neck fit was an important point even back then, which was often criticized in guitar tests by the trade press and led to heavy negative points in the final score (especially with the CBS Fender guitars after 1965).
With my kit the buyer would have the option of gluing the neck in or screwing it to the body. If the neck pocket of the kit had "too much play" (like on a Fender), this would have been the end of my idea. It was absolutely necessary to make sure that the neck would fit exactly into the body, regardless of the design.
Hanni's brother, Hardy, explained me how to get the millings done perfectly in the wood, so after work I went to the furniture factory to a copy mill and started working. I learned a lot in that factory, practically everything about woodworking.
At last the time had come to start my business and I needed money. A musician friend of mine worked as a banker in Hannover and advised me to apply for a small loan with my idea. Of course that was pure nonsense because without collateral the banks won't give you a penny. Fortunately my dear wife Hanni (with the furniture factory backing her up ) vouched for me. But we only were able to borrow a paltry 5,000 Marks (today € 2,500)! Nevertheless, with the little I had already saved and the tiny loan from the bank, I ordered my first assortment of parts and kit components. Jumping into cold water ...
Official start of business
Atze’s Soundhouse holt den Sound raus! (Atze's Soundhouse gets the sound out!)
I placed a small advertisement in the rock trade magazine "Fachblatt" (formerly "Riebe's Fachblatt", today "Gitarre & Bass") and drove with my kit to Dieter Roesberg’s in Bonn for a test report.
To show the many design possibilities of the kit, I had built a guitar in cowboy boot form. In retrospect, it was not my best marketing idea. A Stratocaster shape with special features would have been better. But Dieter immediately realized that something new was going on here.
To start off, I had two different "DIY KITS" as well as a manageable assortment of machine heads and self-designed wrap-around bridges (see the first catalogue "Atze's Soundhouse"). On top of that I even had the first wrap-around tremolo ("the Style Super-Vibrator"), bridges, all kinds of electric parts and strings etc.
Already the first catalogue orders trickled into the narrow row house in Göttingen's east quarter, with the workshop and storage in the basement. Shortly after the kit test report had been published in the trade journal, the orders started coming in and never stopped. The first catalogs were still laid out with an IBM typewriter and Letraset rub-on letters for the headlines.
First advertizing in "Fachblatt" and the worlds first electric guitar kit!
I had practically already dropped out of law school and only continued enrolling because of health insurance. My band "Schulzrock" had local success, and my new business was growing by leaps and bounds. As a result I involved our bass player Michael Zülsdorff in my business (Gölsdorf & Zülsdorff). "Züli" was a physics student and knowledgeable in electrical things; processes that were rather foreign to me. My friend Ullus, our lead guitarist, whom I had met in Würzburg and who had moved to Göttingen at the same time as I did, knew a lot about electronics and the like, because he had had a Cosmos-Electroman construction kit as a child.
Ullus had a Les Paul Junior and I had two Gibson Juniors and an Epiphone, which were all equipped with P-90 pickups. We thought it was a really awesome sound. Leslie West must have felt the same way as an experienced Les Paul Junior player when his band "Mountain" caused a worldwide sensation in those years. Fat Leslie, Ullus and I obviously had the same taste in guitar sound. Once again - although a bit far-fetched - I felt confirmed in my thesis that the guitars to have were not the Les Paul Standards (or other humbucker guitars), but rather the Les Paul Juniors, TV and Melody Maker. These were all guitars with single-coil pickups and wrap-around bridges. Whoever saw and heard Carlos Santana with his "cheap" P-90 equipped SG and that incredible awesome sound at the Woodstock-Festival knows what I mean. But everybody’s tastes are different.
It was a coincidence that I was able to get all the components for P-90 style and other pickups from Erlangen. As a result I was able to follow my own muse and live by my credo: We’ll do it ourselves!
"Sure, a pickup, that's just a coil of copper wire and a magnet", said Ullus. Zülsdorff too, was on fire and immediately procured a measuring bridge, a tone generator and an oscilloscope to get to the bottom of the physics of pickups. The idea: What comes from the strings as vibration into the pickup and what comes out? And how can this be physically verified?
The first thing we noticed was that all P-90s had completely different values, it didn’t matter if it was in the bridge or the neck position. Apparently, Gibson had simply used a sense of proportion and discretion. Anyway, we had a couple of Juniors that sounded just gigantic, and an ES-330, whose neck pickup was just as brilliantly open sounding. We used the analysis of these two pickups for our own creations, and continued to think about "perfect" pickups.
Ullus knew how to wind the coils from his kit skills. However, it had to be considered that at that time most commercially available guitars already had humbuckers, with corresponding cut-outs. No conventional P-90 would have fit. But Zülsdorff managed to achieve exactly the same values for a humbucker-sized P-90 coil as our magnificent Junior pickups. Our "Domino" pickups thus came into being, as the look of them somehow reminded me of a domino.
Here Ullus with his TV-Junior - Schulzrock at the Altstadtfest in Göttingen
The same tests and analysis were done with all other current pickups (Strat, Tele, Jazz-Bass, P-Bass etc.) and we were able to offer our first pickup assortment: all wound, assembled, soldered and wax potted against possible feedback in-house. Züli recorded in detail all frequency response curves of the different windings and also discovered that pickup covers made of brass pushed the curves upwards because of the nickel contained in them, thus negatively affecting the sound. Only the original Gibson PAFs had nickel silver covers, which did not affect the sound. And the Müller Hardware Company was able to make these covers out of nickel silver. Bingo!
We really worked our asses off all night long back then, 22-hour days were not uncommon. But that's what you do when there's something to research and develop.
One of Züli's masterpieces was to connect our electricity meter in the basement so that it ran backwards. "That way you save twice!". There was also a kind of rip cord so that the supply cable could be removed in a flash in case of a visit from the municipal utilities.
And here you can see our winding machine. A small electric motor with a disk to hold various coils, together with a counter and wire guide, which was used to wind the coil wire in a more random pattern, reducing the electrical capacitance and thus making the pickups sound more open.
1979 - Necks through body design
Suddenly, the first guitars and basses with through necks came onto the market. Of course we had to adopt this new construction method immediately for new kits. The Erlangen-based lumber company had also immediately started producing this style of neck blanks. You could order them made to measure in various wood variations, e.g. maple with a middle stripe mahogany or mahogany with different thick maple stripes.
Then followed a labor-intensive process: gluing, sanding, levelling, pressing in and levelling frets, polishing etc. It wasn't that simple. Of course, the fingerboards had to be exactly centered and aligned with the outer edges of the neck blanks. And if you glue two pieces of wood together with wood glue, the pressure of a clamp can shift the wood in any direction. Our solution was to hammer two short nail pins into the lower part of the neck, so that they still stuck out slightly. Then we positioned the fingerboards and set them with two hammer blows, so that nothing could move when the clamps were tightened. The frets were pressed in with a converted Wolfcraft drill press, then everything was levelled with different files and polished to a mirror-like finish with an orbital sander along with the finest wet sandpaper.
Still in Göttingen
We were looking for more exotic wooden side panels for the kits with through necks. And once again it was Joe Marinic who could help me with a good tip: I should try old Wilfer. Wilfer? Sure, the Framus company, which just had the big bankruptcy. They'd probably have some wood for sale.
Wilfer father and son had just launched the Warwick name. Their previous company Framus had shrunk considerably, but it was still a huge factory in the broadest sense. Hans-Peter, the son, had just taken over the management, and father Fred was also around the factory, trying to get the heavily damaged ship back on course. But the really good ideas for Framus, or now Warwick, always came from a certain "Bill Lawrence", whose civil name was Joseph Stich (then better known as "Billy Lorento"). He advised Wilfer’s son to copy the Spector basses, which at that time were very popular on the market. These became a great success for Warwick.
We finally had the idea to buy a special Reichenbacher copy router for guitar necks again, as it had unfortunately been auctioned off during the Framus bankruptcy in 1975. This machine works with a model of two necks glued together on the fretboard side, which is scanned all around and controls a milling cutter that cuts one or more wooden blanks. In this way any neck contours can be produced automatically and perfectly. The milled block is then cut apart in the middle and you have two necks where you only have to rework a minimum of fine details - immensely less work than with the neck blanks we used.
And just such a machine became available in the Eimbeckhausen furniture factory of my in-laws for the production of chair and table legs. I drove with old Wilfer from Erlangen to my in-law’s factory.
Fred Wilfer was a pretty crazy guy, egocentric, narcissistic and still had incredible energy for a guy in his mid 60’s. But when we sat together with my father-in-law and the financial part of the transaction came up, it unfortunately turned out that Fred had weird financial ideas and not a dime in his pocket. So the project failed but the 1,000 kilometer journey was interesting and Fred had all kinds of things to tell that were important for my business career.
I met Bill several times through this Framus episode. Most of the time they were rather exhausting (and one-sided) conversations, because he liked to ramble endlessly about physical formulas, which I could hardly or not at all follow with my minimal knowledge. At least he knew about our targeted pickup experiments, which seemed to have a lasting effect on him. As a convinced theorist, he tried to put our experiments into perspective by mentioning that the principle of the humbucker was invented in Italy as early as 1825, for a seismological instrument with two coils working in opposite phases for measuring earth tremors. Yes, Bill Lawrence was at the forefront in terms of physics, and his pickups certainly set a milestone.
With a sound knowledge of physics he didn't change the world, but he did change the world of guitarists in those years at least a little bit. Hats off!
We had just changed our name from "Atze's Soundhouse" to "Rockinger". That sounded more professional and much more like a "brand" - especially considering our various proprietary products. But also because as a Les Paul Junior fan, I had the idea to transform this actually very simple guitar concept into a model of my own with a significant face. And very important: the "face" should be female.
In the Würzburg times I had once grafted a Höfner neck bought from Mr. Benker onto one of my own bodies, the lower side of which had a kind of female "buttocks" shape. I then further developed the body shape using a curve ruler and used a special neck insert with the neck protruding into the body almost up to the pickup. We added a fingerboard extension with chic Geipel tortoiseshell or some other colourful stuff, which we later called "LSD-2000". The "Lady" was also supposed to have a pickguard, on which our P-90 Domino pickup and controls were placed. What could be more obvious than to design this pickguard in the shape of a female breast. That's how the Rockinger Lady came into being. Carl Carlton was the first to celebrate and play this guitar!
Soon a Lady model with tremolo, the newly developed Vibromaster from Rockinger, came along. This worked with a pressure spring under the base plate and was mounted with two screws.