Had fate been just a notch kinder, Ralph Jones might today be a ’60s counterculture icon alongside Bob Dylan, Muhammad Ali, and Steve McQueen.
Hyperbole? Perhaps. But at the very least, Jones’ name would be listed alongside those of Leo Fender and Ted McCarty. Because when he started making guitars in a small shop in Wheaton, Maryland, Jones was doing something very different for 1965.
Though documentation is sparse, Jones’ instruments were the prototypes for what would become Micro-Frets Guitars – an antithesis to the sub-par offerings cranked out for corporate overlords at CBS (Fender) and Norlin Industries (Gibson) who cared little about quality or innovation but were quite concerned with the bottom line.
Working in a 15,000-square-foot factory financed by business partner Marion Huggins on Grove Road in nearby Frederick, in 1967, Jones and a small flock of builders began not only cutting and carving bodies, necks, and plexiglass pickguards, they also machined components including the company’s Micro-Nut and Calibrato tailpiece.
At its launch, Micro-Frets offered four models – the Plainsman, Covington, Huntington, and Orbiter – with a body shape often compared to a potato (thanks to wide lower bouts) and with symmetrical cutaways. Dubbed the Style 1 series, today they’re noted for having klunky two-piece bodies fastened with clips and bearing a pronounced seam around their sides created by what Jones labeled a “Tempered Masonite Gasket.” His system routed two slabs of poplar or maple that were then joined using recessed metal clips and secured by screws in the neck plate and bridge. The design allowed access to electronics and installation of a stylish grillecloth that covered the sound hole from inside (he patented the methods and machines used in their execution using the name “Tonesponder”). The company’s first pickguards were a bi-level design with a scalloped edge that half-exposed four thumbweel controls – two Volume, two Tone. While attractive, their placement was inconvenient.
Jones left woodworking to others and focused his energy overseeing the making of a handful of elements that truly distanced Micro-Frets from the crowd. First was the Micro-Nut, which allowed the player to intonate each string not only at the bridge, but via an adjusting screw on each string at the nut(s). In ’68, he devised the first wireless transmitter for guitar, which broadcast on standard FM and had a variable capacitor that allowed the user to tune it.
Though not available on the earliest Style 1 guitars, another Jones invention was the Calibrato, a sophisticated tailpiece designed to hold tune better than a conventional vibrato, and more importantly, allow bending entire chords in tune. In a 1995 Vintage Guitar feature on the brand, “Different Strummer” columnist Michael Wright described it this way:
“[It] could be adjusted to keep all strings harmonically in tune during use, taking into account string gauges, with less chance of going out of tune upon returning to pitch. The spring was simply a tensed piece of square metal attached to the tailpiece and inserted under two sidebars and the adjustable bridge.”
The tailpiece achieved stability using six set screws that adjusted the angle of the string behind the bridge, and Wright likened the Microsonic bridge (another Jones innovation) to Ibanez’s Gibralter unit of the late ’70s. Speaking of comparisons, Wright equated the feel of the Calibrato to the vibrato developed by Semie Moseley – light and smooth, with a setup/maintenance protocol similar to a Floyd Rose… but more complex.
In ’68, Jones briefly used DeArmond-sourced pickups while transitioning to an original design created by Bill Lawrence. Assembled by Jones’ wife, Hazel, with occasional help from production manager Gary Free, they were wound on bobbins made from plexiglass. Another change saw the pickguard move to a three-knob arrangement – one Volume and two Tone – marking the transition to Style 1.5.
The following year brought the Style 2, which did away with the gasket and grillecloth but kept the clips joining the two pieces. That move, along with pickguards being given a simpler bi-level design and controls moving to a basic one-Volume/one-Tone setup, may have helped the company hit stride, as from ’69 through ’71 it offered its most expansive line – nine models including the top-end Huntington, which retailed at the time for $495.
With the Style 3 series introduced in ’71, Jones and company ditched the metal clips and began gluing the halves, giving the guitars a more-conventional feel and sound. Pickguards became a clear upper/white lower design (previously, they’d been white on white).
But then, fate lent a cruel twist. Just as things were starting to roll for Micro-Frets, Ralph Jones suffered a heart attack and died on April 18, 1972. Feeling an obligation to the workers, Hazel Jones continued operations with Free in charge of construction and design. For nearly four years, he designed and built the solidbody Swinger guitar and Husky bass using remaining inventory of bodies, necks, and hardware. Rumors surfaced of a resonator, a 12-string, and banjos having been built, but their veracity ranges from unsubstantiated to (in the case of banjos) debunked.
Rather than see the guitars drift further from the vision conceived by Ralph, Hazel opted to cease production after Free exhausted the supply of parts.
Will Meadors, who in 2004 bought the Micro-Frets name and built a run of guitars based on Jones’ designs (see sidebar), believes it was also a matter of dollars and cents.
“When you consider the price of each guitar and how many were made – the earliest serial numbers I’ve found were in the 1100 range, so probably 2,600 instruments – at $227 per guitar, wholesale, that’s about $590,000. The company ran for about 10 years, which means they brought in an average of $59,000 annually… theoretically. From that you have to extract real-estate taxes, electricity, water, heat, wages, payroll taxes, worker’s comp, insurance… I can’t see how it ever earned a penny.”
Though Meadors says it’s generally believed money man Huggins would have been willing to keep the company going if Hazel expressed the willingness to do so, in the fall of ’75, the equipment and remaining inventory were sold, the space vacated.
“At that time, I was in a band with the son of the local pawn-shop owner, and they bought a number of the guitars,” he said. “Then, my brother worked for the company that bought the building and it was his job to clear it out before they moved in. He found some interesting things, some of which I have still – a box of barely used sandpaper, unused buffing-wheel pads, and a piece of test-cut wood from the router that looks like it was used to set the round-over on an edge.”
Other items in Meadors’ collection include an assortment of original tooling, prototype parts, and patterns including one for an archtop similar to a Gibson ES-175.
Though it’d be a stretch to say Micro-Frets guitars were “popular,” they did gather a whiff of market momentum thanks in large part to endorsement deals like the one with Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark Farner, who in the ’70s used a Signature model onstage in stadiums around the world. Others who put them in front of wide audiences included country superpicker Buck Trent (including when he backed an upstart singer named Dolly Parton), proto-rocker Carl Perkins, and Buddy Merrill, who as a member of the orchestra on “The Lawrence Welk Show” used custom models with block inlays, ebony fingerboards, and headstock logos cut from pearl.
Still, the brand never came close to competing on a broader scale with Fender or Gibson (or even Gretsch, etc.). Its sales were heavily dependent on local retailers and in time the guitars gained cachet amongst area players like Craig Stang.
“I became aware of them in 1989,” he said. “I was a fan of mid-century anything – tailfins, diners, architecture, furniture, music – and at the time was playing in Killers From Space, a surf band with a space theme. So, for me the guitars were a match made in heaven. They not only were made in our hometown but had names like Orbiter, Spacetone, Stage II, Voyager, Golden Comet. Even the colors were spacey-sounding – Martian Sunburst, Venutian Sunrise.
“I’m especially drawn to the first-gen/Style 1,” he added. “I love the DeArmond pickups and clipped-together body with the gasket. And that creak when you move while playing? I love it – gives them character. Plus, that first-gen Calibrato is a beautiful piece that borrows heavily from Googie architecture.”
Stang has researched Micro-Frets’ history and runs a website where he gathers literature, receipts, stories, and photos. He has owned several models, often holding one for a couple years before selling it to try something different. One particularly memorable example was an Orbiter he bought for $460 from someone who’d acquired it at the factory’s closing sale then essentially forgot it in his closet for 25 years.
“Soon after I got it, a guy from Georgia offered me $1,800,” Stang said. “I was thrilled and took his money, thinking I’d replace it with another. Turns out, though, the Orbiter is rare, and finding one has proven difficult. I saw one for sale more than a decade ago with a $3,500 asking price.”
The building that housed the original Micro-Frets factory still stands.
“I frequently drive past and dream of being a fly on the wall there in 1967,” said Stang. “I recently bought a Style 1 Plainsman from Christian Wargo of the band Fleet Foxes, and I drove it over for a reunion. She got to tour the world and is now back home in Frederick.”
While Stang and Meadors agree Micro-Frets suffered an inglorious end, the latter sees a bright side.
“What’s important is that these cool guitars were ever conceived and built, and still exist 50 years later. It’s just amazing. And, being in a small town, the fact they didn’t ultimately succeed is unfortunate; these were people we knew, people from our neighborhoods. The Micro-Frets story is woven into the history of the town.”
And it’s not over.
In late 2016, Stang followed in Meadors’ super-fan-to-builder footsteps when he is assumed operations with intent to re-launch the brand. He’s now building prototypes.
“I hope to have a website launched soon, and will have an initial offering of four model including the Spacetone, Swinger, Signature, and Stage II,” he said. “On the 50th anniversary of the original factory opening, Micro-Frets will continue to be made in the Maryland tradition, in-house with as much locally sourced materials as possible. And yes, the legendary Martian Sunburst will be among the color options.”
Fan of the Brand
Will Meadors and Micro-Frets in the 21st Century By Ward Meeker
As a teen growing up in Frederick, Maryland, Will Meadors frequented Colonial Music and Frederick Music Center, where the walls were lined by Fender, Gibson, and Martin instruments along with a few by Gretsch, Harmony, Epiphone, and imports like Teisco, Coral, and Danelectro.
And then there were these oddball guitars made by locals…
“I remember the first thing through my mind was, ‘They sure are weird!’” he recalled about his first experience with a Micro-Frets guitar. Picking one up to strum only furthered the notion. “They rattled and creaked… sorta felt like they were about to fall apart!”
As a young man, Meadors’ choice in instruments followed the mainstream, but he nonetheless maintained an appreciation for Micro-Frets and its local ties. In 2004, that interest intensified when he and fellow software engineer/guitar guy/Frederick resident Paul Rose assumed the expired patents, copyrights, designs, and rights to the brand with the intent to reintroduce it to the market.
“We opened a small shop where we built guitars to most closely match the Style 3, with hand-made pickups and CNC-produced bodies and necks,” he said.
The 21st-century Micro-Frets produced only about 30 guitars (with serial numbers starting at 5001) before the onset of the Great Recession, which created challenges in their effort to secure funding and space to go full-scale. All that remains today is a handful of parts.
“Much like the original company, we made everything except the fretwire and tuners, including the Micro-Nut and Calibrato. Ours, though, were not cast or plated steel, but were polished stainless steel and billet aluminum formed on a CNC. They offered significant improvement in appearance and durability.”
For Meadors and others, Micro-Frets’ enduring charisma lies partly in the anti-Gibson/-Fender aspect of their very existence, as well as exotic, hand-made elements like the Rube-Goldberg-esque Micro-Nut.
“I marveled at how a machined, stamped, screwed-together assembly could be better than a basic piece of plastic, and for years I figured it was snake oil,” he said. “But when we started producing them, we saw how it made every note on the fretboard play in tune; that sold me. It’s really amazing when you don’t hear off-sounding notes or beat-frequency oscillations between intervals.”
That was reinforced one day when Meadors was working in his office and heard Gary Free noodling on a guitar in the next room – sounding very out of tune.
“Without getting out of my chair, I softly hollered at him, ‘Hey, can you intonate that better?’ A couple minutes later, I heard him again… still… So I went out and here he was playing a ’77 Les Paul – not one of Gibson’s best efforts, I know, but at that moment I realized that our guitars sounded so much better.”
Even if their efforts to market a new line proved unsuccessful, Meadors thinks the latter-day M-F did some good.
“Because we designed and machined our parts to original dimensions and test-fit them on original models, we know they fit the old guitars,” he said, looking to aid anyone who may be searching. “Pickups, of course, were the most sought-after items, and unfortunately we don’t have any of those left.”
Mistakes of the Past
An M-F Bass Returns to Glory By Ward Meeker
Largely ignored, the odd-looking bass had been hanging in the corner of Keen Kraft Music – Edmonton’s renowned “store for players” – for who knows how long. Its Micro-Frets branding lacked the cachet of Fender or Gibson, let alone the panache of a Rickenbacker or Ampeg. But, one day in 1978, its peculiarity – and price – drew the attention of a bargain-hunting player.
Grabbing it from the hanger, 20-year-old Jim Sellers sat on a stool, plugged the bass into a worn demo amp, and started to pluck.
“It’s nice and light…” he thought to himself, noting its fast action, but the frets were worn and its pickups were weak and noisy. Long story, short? It needed work.
Glancing toward the counter, he asked, “What’s the story with this?” Nobody had a clue, but the sales guys offered only a “take it or leave it” attitude. Sellers bit.
After a few months trying to bond with the instrument, he thought maybe it should be a different color. Though not versed in the repair or maintenance of stringed instruments, Sellers removed its hardware and electronics, separated neck from body, and grabbed a sanding block.
Then, as often happens, life interrupted. A slowed economy impacted Sellers’ employer, forcing him to relocate. His possessions, including the bass and its parts, were stashed away. And when he went to retrieve it two years laters, Sellers was disheartened to find the body hadn’t fared well through two cold, dry Canadian winters in the family’s unheated storage unit.
“There were pronounced separations in the grain,” he said. “But the real shock came when I couldn’t find the pickups, bridge, nut, or back plate.”
For months, he searched in vain for the parts before finally becoming disheartened. For 25 years, his dream of rebuilding the bass was again forced aside. Finally, as the internet emerged as a resource, information gradually began to surface – given the niche element of the Micro-Frets brand, though, there was little beyond minutiae. That is, until one day in 2012.
“I found a story detailing the modification of a Signature model the owner wanted to make replicate a six-string bass played by Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford. The piece included Will Meadors, who by then owned the brand.”
Enthusiasm renewed, Sellers reached out and Meadors replied, saying he had designs for original parts. More crucially, he offered to machine some for Sellers.
“I felt like I was being rewarded for clinging to my dream for so long against what I figured were long odds,” Sellers said.
The next step was to find someone to refinish the body and neck.
“There were a number of specialists in my area, but I had trouble finding one willing to take on the challenge of restoring a 40-year-old instrument that had been knocked around, dinged up, and poorly sanded,” he said.
Eventually, he tracked down Miles Jones at his Fretworks shop near Calgary. A 30-year veteran of the trade, Jones had done work for Amos Garrett, Jann Arden, and Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson. His first step was to repair the wood and plane the neck. Then, he gave it new frets and replaced some of the mother-of-pearl fretboard inlays. For its finish, they chose a wine-red color befitting the age of the instrument and highlighting the grain on the body. The neck was given a slightly dark tint.
Jones’ work, Sellers said, expertly masked the effects of his own misguided effort.
The components made by Meadors – hand-wound pickups, the nut, bridge, and neck plate all machined from aluminum and stainless steel – pushed the instrument close to original with the only conciliations being the black-plastic (instead of white plexi) pickup surrounds and the pots and wiring, which were modernized.
“The result was essentially a new instrument,” said Sellers. “It played solidly, sounded good, and its action was light.”
Thus could have concluded the story of a glorious restoration 35 years in the making… But in late 2013, Sellers got a pleasant surprise.
“It was one of those serendipitous moments,” he recalled. “The original components turned up in a box of family artifacts. Someone was cleaning out their basement, and there they were in a bag with my name on it. I was very fortunate they weren’t thrown out as junk after three decades.”
Dream reignited, Sellers called Jones. And though there were challenges brought about by the parts having aged and wires being broken or brittle, the effort and cost – “several times more than it would have been in 1980” – was worth it.
“I came away with two lessons,” Sellers said. “The first is don’t let kids buy classic guitars until they appreciate what they are, and the other is to let a professional work on them.”
And while he’s fully aware that the money he spent could have acquired any number of basses including one of his all-time favorites, a Rickenbacker 4001, “…this is a fragment of my past. And in a market where guitars and components are as replaceable as the latest cell phone, it’s good to keep something that was built by hand, in limited numbers, purposely different from the rest. It’s a piece of history – a realization of the dream.
“Besides, how many times do you get to go back and fix a mistake?”
By Deke Dickerson
Buddy Merrill became a Micro-Frets endorser in the late ’60s, after a similar deal ended with Fender. One of the lead guitarists on Lawrence Welk’s television show, he commanded a huge audience each week. Micro-Frets initially gave him a sunburst Spacetone, but it wasn’t to his liking and within a year or two they sent him a blond Huntington – top of the line.
In 2008, I paid a visit to Buddy, and while looking through some of his personal memorabilia, we found the Huntington in his closet, water-damaged from a plumbing leak. Its discovery spurred a brief discussion during which he told me that he liked Micro-Frets guitars – maybe not as much as a Strat – but thought they were nice instruments. Then, as we discussed what it would take to repair his, he said, “You can have it, just promise me you’ll practice.”
Buddy always liked the pickups, which are some of the best-sounding I’ve ever heard. They cut through a stage mix with staggering clarity – “like ringing a bell” always comes to mind when I use it onstage.
It’s an exceptionally well-made guitar. The body and neck are gorgeous maple and the Calibrato is a beautifully simple thing that works exactly as it’s supposed to work. The only issue I ever had with the guitar – and probably the reason I don’t play it as much as I’d like – is the Micro-Nut. Micro-Frets did a great job with the design; it does allow calibration of its intonation and plays perfectly in tune. But the company dealt primarily with players who never bent strings, and apparently didn’t consider that in its design. When you bend the unwound strings, they move in the guides, making “screech” and “click” sounds and, unfortunately, not returning to original pitch.
I’d cast my vote for the Micro-Nut being one of the main reasons Micro-Frets guitars didn’t catch on. It’s a good idea, but didn’t translate well for rock and blues players. Too bad, because they’re great-looking, great-sounding guitars.
This article originally appeared in VG March 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.