The (Way) Back Beat: A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody

Fretted cheesecake advertising through the years, Part 3: The 1960s
The (Way) Back Beat: A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody
Fender’s 1965 Tahitian treat.

Fretted-instrument advertising in the 20th century relied heavily on “glamor” or “cheesecake.”

Electric instruments and accessories, in particular, are still marketed to a primarily male audience, and with that testosterone target comes a temptation to go the sexy (some would say sexist) route.

This marketing approach has a long history, waxing and waning but never completely going away. As the 1960s got rolling, guitar advertising (especially electric guitar advertising) targeted the young male. The folk boom had been somewhat democratic in offering performing role models to budding musicians both male and female, albiet heavily weighted in the male direction. The ensuing rock explosion, especially after the Beatles hit, gave little encouragement to female performers who were anything but stand-up singers. The industry was not slow to notice this, and despite some instruments tentatively marketed at teenage girls – the Gretsch Princess being an obvious example – quickly adapted. Another change was that guitar advertising was directed less at the traditional targets of experienced professionals and teachers, and more directly to “the kids” themselves. With the advent of surf music, the British invasion, and folk-rock, the electric guitar became ubiquitous in youth culture, second only perhaps to a car as the most desired symbol of young male virility!

A Gibson and a Rose.

Even if intended for “the kids,” the overwhelming majority of ’60s advertising was created, directed, and approved by middle-aged men, “the straights” in circa 1965 parlance. The fretted instrument industry had never been particularly “hip” the way, say, some parts of the music business were. In fact, most of the people involved were quite conservative in outlook, and the decade saw many groaningly stale attempts at hipness alongside some genuinely clever campaigns. As musical instrument makers and distributors tried to position their products in this burgeoning market, every approach was thrown against the wall… and some stuck!

Some of the most stylish – and most imitated – guitar advertising of the era came from Fender Sales. Don Randall’s powerhouse marketing organization was as much a factor in the overall success of Fender in the 1960s as Leo’s unmatched instrument designs. By the late ’50s, Randall was using experienced adman Bob Perine to create consistently strong print campaigns and promotional materials. Ranging from whimsical (the long-running “You won’t part with yours, either” series featuring guitars in unlikely places) to the purely technical, Fender ads were always sleek and breezy. Perine’s materials often featured clean-cut California kids, the type who were actually among Fender’s local customers. While a number of cute young beach bunnies found their way into Fender “art” – mostly as background material – Perine’s work rarely strayed to obvious cheesecake. He certainly wasn’t averse to using a lady’s charms to set off the beauty of an instrument, but the result somehow looked as wholesome and clean as a toothpaste ad. Perhaps the closest to a classic “leg art” piece Fender produced in the ’60s was a cover for the ’65 pocket catalog featuring a bewitching dark-skinned model in Tahitian dress posing alluringly amidst a nice array of new Fenders. She stares directly at the camera, a little sullen, seeming almost to be challenging the viewer: are you man enough to tame my white Jaguar?

Guild’s solidbody twisting duo.

Fender’s primary competition, Gibson, had a long history of using feminine charms to draw attention to their products. Strangely, by the ’50s, this tendency had seeped out of the company’s playbook, and most ’50s and early ’60s Gibson advertising was classy if a little drab. Perhaps CMI, Gibson’s parent company and the nations biggest jobber, frowned on frivolous promotion. At any rate, despite making some innovative instruments, Gibson spent the rock and roll era with a rather stiff and tweedy public image. The company’s concentration on staid-looking (if brilliant) jazz guitarists as endorsers, and emphasizing their high-end products, cemented the firm’s status as athe classiest act of the fretted world, but their presentation lacked the flair or cachet of Fender’s. A nice exception was Gibson’s 1963 catalog cover, the first printed in color (though the interior was still in half-tone). It features a brilliantly red ES-355SV and a serene lady in a red dress clutching a rose, turning to entice the hesitant guitarist to step into the crimson limelight. It’s a classic image, fully worthy of the Gibson glamor gals of the past, if something of a non sequitur. This lady in red is a sort of descendant of the semi-draped musical “muses” of the early 20th century, with no discernible reason to be there except to look good… but hopefully not so good as to detract from the guitar!

Gibson’s New Jersey doppelganger, Guild, never came up with anything quite as striking. Despite flirting with female endorsers (notably folksinger Carolyn Hester, who appeared in the company’s catalogs for several years) and sponsoring a wholesome-looking teenage two-girl dance team (The Guild Au-Go-Go Dancers!), Guild also never went into the cheesecake business in a big way. The cover of their ’63 catalogs does features an ink-wash drawing of a dapper gent wheeling his Guild amp into a television studio and getting the once-over from two well-dressed ladies, with the caption “For the Guild equipped guitarist, doors open magically.” I’ll leave it up to the individual to decide if that qualifies as a double entendre! In ’65, that image was replaced by a couple of supposed entertainers wearing (that is, not quite actually appearing to play) Guild solidbody guitars. The tuxedoe’d gent with the S-200 Thunderbird seems earnest, if a little lost, but the babe in the long cocktail dress and stiletto heels seems to have already gone past “wild” and into “Like wow, Baby!” With her S-50 dangling from her twistin’ hip, this unnamed “guitarist” in long white gloves (!?) qualifies as the Guild Babe of the ’60s, although for the time it appeared the image already seems strangely outdated. Once again, youth culture was moving so fast that things were square before they even appeared.

The Baldwin Blonde and her Vibra-Slim.

If projecting a class image isn’t a priority, the most direct approach to sell anything to the teen market is obvious, but by ’60s standards a bit problematic: buy our product and you’ll get some! Or at least get a start in that direction. This was hardly a tough sell in ’64, as hordes of teens turned on by rock and roll and/or folk music had already made the connection! The tougher part was getting this across without being too obvious, and risking offending staid dealers/editors/publishers and, most importantly, the parents, who often controlled the purse strings of the young buyer in those far-off days. While the major American makers largely left this point largely unsaid or at least implied subtly, in other places, less was left to the imagination.

Nowhere was the concept more obviously stated than in the starkly simple advert from Selmer U.K. that ran in the spring of ’64. “Life’s a ball when you play guitar!” Well, obviously! What spotty English lad with the slightest inclination to avoid terminal nerdiness could fail to respond to this? Note the expression of knowing satisfaction on the pen-and-ink face of the lad with the slightly conservative haircut… and the agape smile on the beat-girl blonde snuggled tightly under his fretting arm! How he manages to play both the sort-of Höfner he’s strapped into and the sort-of Bardot he has attracted is rather a mystery, but if you were the spotty teen staring at this, it’s a good bet that sending in for a Selmer catalog was the crucial first step to solving the puzzle! This ad appeared at a particular moment of kismet for Selmer U.K., when they controlled the inland distribution of Fender and Gibson, as well as their longstanding Höfner line. Fender (which had recently moved on from Jennings) would soon shift English distribution to Arbiter. But for the golden year of British Beat, Selmer U.K.’s catalog boasted the greatest guitar lineup in the world.

Note also that this piece does not actually sell the guitars, but simply offers a free book of dreams to stoke your beat-group fantasies… and hopefully aid the young punter in creatively selling the inevitable dad, mum, or uncle on the immediate need of procuring an instrument! One could hardly go begging to one’s parents with a line like “Aw, dad! I’ve got to get a beat group together by next weekend so’s I’ll be swimming in crumpet like this lad!” On the other hand, the technically detailed and most professional looking Selmer catalog, once procured, might well help the cause – although the prices must have caused many a parent to feel the onset of cardiac trouble! “A hundred-sixty guineas for a Strato-what?” Quite a few extant copies unsurprisingly carry dealer-hire purchase terms in a prominent location.

Kent on the beach.

Back in the good ol’ U.S.A., this sort of ad was common, if not as direct. The New York jobber Bugeleisen & Jacobson imported Kent brand instruments with a typical and superficial derivative of the Fender approach. The Ray-Ban’d young hipster with the solidbody Kent is obviously enjoying the female company drawn in by his musical acumen (and presumably good taste in inexpensive guitars!) but is far too cool to grin like a limey monkey. He’s concentrating on his newly-mastered G barre chord (actually an impressive achievement to many aspiring players who might have stared long and hard at this ad, and proof of the superior playability of the Kent!), studiously ignoring the finger-snapping beach bunny nestled by his side. “Don’t bug me, baby… I’m groovin’!” Unlike the grinning clean-cut Fender surfer types, this East Coast strummer has a bit of the rockin’ rebel in him. Many mid/late-’60s advertisements were broadly similar, showing groovy chicks dancing to the beat supplied by the electric guitar, warmed up by the age’s newest mating ritual.

While catalog text often still emphasized technical advantages of the product as opposed to the fun potential, the illustrations often hinted at this other aspect! Baldwin (which had recently bought London’s Burns guitar operation lock, stock, and barrel) provides a fine example of this with the cover of their ’66-’67 catalog, which features a curvaceous instrument caressed languidly by a truly classic ’60s modette babe in fishnet stockings. That particular guitar, by the way, is called the Vibra-Slim (no snickering, please!). This full-color catalog is something of a high-water mark of the corporate mind trying to capture the hipster zeitgeist, at least visually. While the text rambles on about Baldwin’s so-called “fundamental features” and experience in instrument construction, the extensive illustrations in a sort of sub-Peter Max colorful style project an aura of neo-hipness that doesn’t quite gel. “You’ll be as proud of your Baldwin equipment as your mother is of her Baldwin piano.” Hmmm… Despite the elaborate presentation and an extensive print campaign, Baldwin’s Cincinatti-based sales operation failed to make much of a dent in the U.S. market with its line of Burns-derived guitars. Still searching for gold in the teen market, Baldwin would also take over the Gretsch business the next year. Some insiders claim one motivator for the deal was the need for a sales department with some idea of how to move the huge backlog of guitars!

The Coral bass amp babe.

Another guitar company to shift marketing direction after a buyout was New Jersey’s Danelectro. The firm’s promotional efforts took a sharp turn toward cheese after the company was purchased by entertainment conglomerate MCA in ’67. Under founder Nathan Daniel, Danelectro’s marketing had been minimal, with clean and uncluttered annual catalogs with a sort of early-space-age feel. Of course, the fact that the bulk of the company’s output went to giant catalog merchandizer Sears-Roebuck was certainly a factor in this! MCA immediately went for a harder sell, and this babe-in-stripes caressing the company’s Coral bass amp lineup is a fine example of the new look. Then there’s the infamous Coral publicity shot from ’68 featuring a topless all-girl lounge band in all their natural glory – certainly the single greatest piece of ’60s fretted cheesecake ever served! Reputedly printed in large quantities for distribution at dealer conventions, copies (and reproductions) of this picture regularly turn up in online auctions or elsewhere (in case you’re curious).

One of the less appealing “girlie” ads ever was a rather lackadaisical 1969 effort from U.K. amp maker Simms-Watts. The company, little remembered now, was part of the wave of tube amp builders that sprung up in England following the success of Marshall. Simms-Watts had some local success, but never really made the big-time like Hiwatt or Orange. This rather halfhearted print ad features two not particularly glamorous girls who look like they were woo’ed from “down the pub.” Hopefully, they were offered at least a couple of pints and a fiver to get naked and stand in front of a mass of Simms-Watts gear holding a couple of handy guitars (a Gibson EB-2N and Mapleglo Rickenbacker Rose-Morris Model 1996). While those blondes (the guitars I mean) would be of great interest to many collectors now, at the time they were just typical used gear… The ladies, well, let’s just say they appear slightly uncomfortable and one hopes someone had a good time at the photo shoot!

Selmer lays it on the line, 1964.

Actually, with many of today’s ads looking crasser than ever, the likes of the clumsy charm of the Simms-Watts bookends, the misplaced hipness of the Baldwin bombshell and the random enthusiasm of the white-gloved Guild twister look almost charmingly naive. Yesterday’s cheese is tomorrow’s nostalgia… at least here at “The (Way) Back Beat!”

This article originally appeared in VG’s December 2007 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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CLICK HERE to read Part 2.

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