A rebuttal to Micro-Frets Guitar Secrets Revealed!
Like we say all of the time, we here at GuitarAttack get a lot of information just "out of the blue". Starting in June 2003 we got a treasure trove of information from Dan, aka. Dan Electric Banjo Man, who worked for the Micro-Frets company back in the day.
Well, we got some emails from Gary Free, the plant supervisor for Micro-Frets. He had some "clarifications" that he wanted to make reference Dan's information. Gary recently had major surgery, but is doing well and is playing guitar! This page is the original "Dan" story with Gary's comments in bold.
Disclaimer: These are recollections from 30+ years ago, and we at GuitarAttack have no way to verify every nuance of this story. However, it does make for some interesting reading, and we'll continue to pursue this story! You be the judge...it appears that about the only information you can get on Micro-Frets is from personal accounts. Read on!
Subj: Hi there I use to make Micro-Frets Guitars
Date: 6/27/03 10:22:33 PM Central Daylight Time
I noticed that you had a Micro-Frets FM cordless guitar in your collection. Those were the first cordless guitars made, and they were sent along with a FM tuner box that sat on top of you amp. We set them up for the Fender Twin. The FM tuner was plugged into the amp.
I went down the stairs of the factory out the door and about fifty yards down Grove Road while playing one while it was still picking up the guitar sounds!
I made Mark Farner's Cherry Red Signature Micro-Frets myself. It was the first one to have knurled screws in the Calibrato so he could fine-tune it while on stage.
Gary Free: "Farner's guitar was straight out of the showroom and not a custom job. Mark just picked one he liked. Dan may have done the assembly on this guitar, but it wasn't a custom instrument. He doesn't recall it having fine tuners."
We wrote back and asked for more information and
if there were any parts around, and we got this response.
Subj: Hi there I use to make Micro-Frets Guitars
Date: 6/28/03 3:19:23 PM Central Daylight Time
Yeah! not many parts around for those. The Orbiter that you have was made on a special order basis. There were only about ten of them made. Yours is a good example of the rebellious nature of our guitars in style & color. (PS -- The antenna pulls out a short way down the length of the neck).
Gary Free: "Not true. They made a boatload. Note -- Gary has one of the 10 bodies made sitting in his basement. The Transmitter portion had a variable capacitor that you could tune to an FM radio band(remember FM airwaves weren't nearly as crowded then). They did not have a patent on the device, so the circuit was encased in epoxy to conceal the components."
Most of the Orbiters and Comets were green or orange. Your guitar's color was called Moonscape. The Darker Green to Maple on later models was called Martian Sunburst. The Orange was called Venusian red! The typical brown to maple was called Tobacco sunburst.
Gary never remembers a color called Moonscape
or Venusian Red. The dark sunburst was called Western Sunburst.
Your guitar was the older Micro-Frets style 3-piece body. Some of those had the Volume & Tone controls under the pick guard. As we changed the body we changed the pots and position. The Calibrato and the Nut were also changed three different times. The pickups were changed twice; The Golden Melodys eventually became the Spacetone & the Stage II.
Gary Free: "By 3-piece, we assume he means a front, a back and the gasket." Also, the Golden Melodys, Spacetone, and the Stage II were three different guitars. This statement is not true.
The second body style was two-piece and we took out the grill cloth from the (F) hole. The third style was made two-piece but glued together to look like a semi hollow body. There were many different body shapes and names. For example, The Huntington, The Signature, and Signature Custom, which were my designs.
Whenever credit is taken or given, somebody takes exception. This was the statement Gary really took issue with. Gary states, "Those guitars were designed by Ralph Jones! Dan never designed a single guitar there. Good of him to take credit for the best designs." Ouch.
Then there were the Orbiters, Comets , and Spacetone which were Ralph Jones' designs. The Swinger, Huskybass, & Stage II were Gary Free's design. The Sound Hole pickups for acoustics were Woody Free's design.
Gary said this is 2/3s correct. Gary designed
the Swinger and Husky. However, Jones designed the Stage II. The excellent
soundhole PUs were designed by Jones and Woody Free.
Except for the Swinger guitar and Husky bass (which were solid body), the inside of the guitar was cut out with a wood lathe. If you look inside you'll see the cavity was cut out like a record with the center circle and outer edges of the body. That's what the bridge is setting on -- a round center. The body is held together with slide clips. To take it apart you take off the neck, hold the guitar facing you standing up on the end of the bout, and lightly slam the backside. That will slip the two parts apart! You put it together the same way only turn the body face away from you.
But you know the old saying -- if it ain't broke, don't fix it!
We were all musicians in that factory, and we ate across the street at a 50's style restaurant called the Pontiac Inn. We would always eat lunch there, and sometimes dinner. We were a very open about trying new things. If it was weird we liked it. To us every guitar was different -- every guitar was the Batmobile! It was great fun. If you like customizing guitars, then you should have been there son! Pretty girls and great people to work with.
Life at Micro-Frets in Maryland was a guitar customizer's heaven on earth. There was me and one other guy who put the guitars together. During the last year the other guy quit and I had them hire this nice looking young girl guitar picker. She was with us until early 1973. I was the last one left. I worked the last two weeks for free putting the guitars together before the company was auctioned.
Conflict Alert! Gary states, "Oh, this is WAAAAAY off! I worked ALONE for the last year at the factory. Dan only worked there a few years and was let go by me for performance."
We were all working musicians. I played some with Waylon Jennings and Dottie West while I was there. Gary Free had his own local Blues & Jazz band.
Gary Free: "I don't remember Dan playing with
Waylon or Dottie. My band was a variety act. Pop stuff of the day. Really, more rock than
Well ask what you will and I will try to help.
Dan Electricbanjoman aka the (MicroFrets) guy!
Then on the 8th of July, 2003...
Subj: Hi there I use to make Micro-Frets Guitars
Date: 7/8/03 12:01:22 PM Central Daylight Time
The Truth about Micro-Frets Guitars
by Dan Electricbanjoman, a designer & former employee of the defunct Micro-Frets Co.
I never thought I would write a Dear John letter!
There have been a lot of question over the years about the Micro-Frets guitar Company on Grove Road, Frederick, Maryland. I have also read a lot of things about the Company, written by guitar collectors that are not true!
I lived in Rockville, Maryland at the Monroe Street Apartments. I would drive to Frederick every morning to a job that I loved!!!! I would go to work so fast that the telephone poles on Route 355 whizzed by like pickets in a fence. Make a left on Grove Road and pull into the parking lot on the left. (Now called the Auto Trim Co., but still on Grove Road.
Here was the building layout when it was Micro-Frets : You go in the front door, to the left was a door that led to the guitar room. That's where we kept 2 of every model of guitar that we made. There have been some very famous people in the room -- Buck Trent, Carl Perkins, and Mark Farner, to name a few.
You come out of that room back into the hall and on the right was the secretary `s office. One of the secretaries that I remember best was a girl about 18 years old named Deloris Schrower, We called her Dee! I had a BIG crush on Dee!!! The next off was where Mrs. Huggins, wife of the head of the company Marion Huggins worked. The next office was Marion Huggins' office.
You're wondering by now -- where is Ralph Jones? We're not there yet.
Down the hall past Huggins' office you went through a door. Take a left turn and there was the Machinist. I can't remember the Machinist's name, but Ralph Jones worked there sometimes. In front of that was the metal buffing booth. You have to remember most of the parts on the new guitars were Aluminum!!
Gary states that a lot of the aluminum parts were
cast in his yard with help from his kids.
Down from that area was a hole in the wall by the steps. Billy Boggs worked there! He did the fretwork. Billy use to pick with Chet Atkins on the road. Over in front of him was the body lathe, where we hollowed out the bodies. In front of that was the overhead pin router where we cut out the bodies. Farther back was the pickguard pin router.
Gary Free: "That is funny. Bill and I are
huge Chet fans. Billy was and despite his emphysema, is a great fingerstyle player.
But he never picked with Chet!
There is a funny related story. One year, Microfrets was at NAMM or some other event and Billy was in the booth playing guitar. Chet was a ways down in the Gretsch booth, heard Billy playing, craned his head out and threw Billy a dirty look. I don't think this qualifies as picking with Chet though."
Pete Lagocky, a rock picker, ran that for a while until he just about lost a finger!! Around the corner was the table saw where the pickguards & Pickup pieces were cut out. Back to the steps and up the stairs, just at the top, was the shipping booth. Now this is one big room the whole upstairs was open.
To the right was the electronics area. Do a 180 and you would see the paint area. A Magician by night, Painter by day -- a guy called the Amazing Tracy!! He painted the guitars. Beside him was where Mary Jones, the wife of Ralph Jones worked. She sanded between the coats of paint. A real beauty for her age!
Everyone wanted me to try to talk her into keeping the plant open. Believe me I tried. I even tried to get out on a date. Didn't work because I wasn't good looking enough, I guess. But I will tell you this she was a nice lady.
Down from there to the right was the body and neck wood sanding booth. A little Blond worked there named Linda. She looked like a small child but she was beautiful 19-year old. Do a 180 and you're looking at the guitar assembly stations. There were two of them. One of the stations was mine. A Hippy named Larry worked there also. He was a hard rock picker as well. He quit and I had them put this female assembler over by me. She was a great person and did her job well.
Just behind me was Woody Free. Woody assembled the sound hole pickups. His son, my Boss, was Gary Free. Gary was the plant Supervisor/custom builder/guitar designer. Then there was me, Dan Electricbanjoman, guitar assembler & custom builder/designer.
Gary Free: "Dan was an assembler. He
was not a designer or custom builder."
Now who was Ralph Jones and where did he work in the factory? He worked the whole factory, and he was at every station at some time everyday making things. He was the creator of the Micro nut, Calibrato, and the FM wireless system.
We made the first FM guitar, called "The Orbiter". It was a Swiss cheese model -- front & back & white center piece. There was an FM box that came with that guitar, so you could set the box on top of your amp. The guitar had an antenna that came out of the upper cutaway. I walked down the stairs and out the door one day picking one of those, half way down the street to where the red light is now on Grove Road. It still picked me up through the metal wall to the amp upstairs.
We had wild names for the guitars but we all helped name them. Gary, Woody, and I designed the newer bodies, Micro Nut, and Calibratos. We had three different guitar styles: The Swiss Cheese, The Twin, and The Single.
Gary Free: "Ralph Jones and I were the
designers. Names came from Ralph and the marketing/ distribution guys."
First were the Swiss Cheese Models. They were really wild looking, like from outer space, hence the space names like Orbiter, Golden Comet, Calibra, Wanderer, and Spacetone. Ralph designed these guitars. They had Gretsch guitar pickups with a metal case.
Gary Free: "Microfrets guitars never had Gretsch pickups. Never. Early on, they sourced PU's from DeArmond/Rowe that used the same case as the Gretsch Dynasonic/Dearmond 200/Guild PU but had a different PU inside. More later."
Huntington ( mine), Signature (mine), the Stage II, the Swinger solid body guitar, the Husky solidbody Bass, and The Spacetone (Woody and Gary Free) -- those were our guitars of the 60`s
Gary Free: "See comments above as to who
really designed these guitars."
Ralph Jones died and we kept the older guitars there for a while. All of a sudden the order came up to clean them up and get them out! So we sold those out fast. Some of those went overseas to England, Germany, France, Japan, and China. One of those shipments sank in the Atlantic.
Gary states that he doesn't remember a boatload.
These were the guitars of the 70's. At that time we bought our pickup formula from a guy at the Rickenbaker Guitar Company in California.
Gary Free: "No, no, no. No plexi was bought from Ric. Ric has never made their own plexi. They've always had to buy it from outside distributors. One of the incorrect features on the Ric reissues is the color of the plexi due to the fact that Ric can't get that 50's/60's formula from their supplier."
We made the pickups out of White Plexiglas, and a few Black ones as well. Mrs. Jones did all the guitar pickup wire wrappings by hand. She had a booth 8 feet square. It was a big secret so they kept the curtain closed.
Gary Free: "Billy Lawrence designed
pickups for our later designs."
We would work all day and sometimes for no pay on the weekends. We redesigned the pickups, the bodies, and revamped the Micro Nut and Calibrato units.
The rumor is that the guitar just didn't sell so we had to close. NOT TRUE!!! We closed about four years after Ralph Jones died. Marion Huggins was the money man. He wanted to keep the place going, and would have if it were up to him. I would still be there making guitars! Mrs. Jones wanted the company to close with her husband. "It's his invention", she used to say. "I don't want anybody to take credit for it. I want to get my money back out of it, and I just want this place to just go away."
Gary Free: "Very true."
There was a court trial, I think in Frederick, Maryland. There would be a case on file. Jones v. Huggins Micro-Frets Corp. It is probably public domain now because it's been 30 years. Mrs. Jones won the case. I watched people's jobs get cut one at a time. They cried as they walked out the door! I was one of the last ones to leave, and I cried too!
Gary Free: "Again, Dan was long gone by the time the doors closed."
We made thousands of great guitars, and were getting to bring out a couple new ones that Gary, Tracy, and I were drawing up.
Gary Free: "Tracy worked in finishing. Neither he nor Dan did any designs. Gary had a vaguely Les Paul-ish design that was going to be next. Huggins got that guitar."
Our sales were good all over the USA, Canada, and the world.
Our Patent covered all countries. Nobody could make the Micro-Frets nuts and Calibratos
but us! Now I hear that a company in Japan is buying up all the guitars. They plan to make
the Micro-Frets again. So the older USA made ones will be real collectors now.
I will answer any questions about the guitars that I can. It has been 30 years and we made more than 4,000 guitars. The numbers on my Signature Custom and my Spacetones are in the 37 hundreds, and I got the Signature when I was at the factory in 1973.
Date:7/8/03 12:47:03 PM Central Daylight Time
This is Dan Electricbanjoman.
This will be the address that I use for you and I to communicate from now on. Any questions about Micro-Frets you can pass to me I will answer them to you or you can put this address on your site as a Q&A site for Micro-Frets.
Subj: Hi there I use to make Micro-Frets Guitars
Date: 7/10/03 10:01:04 AM Central Daylight Time
Someone asked me," What makes the Micro-Frets guitar
different from the others?" Most other guitars have a tunable bridge that sets the
harmonics up to the twelfth fret. The Micro-Frets has the Micro-nut. It's 52 pieces of
adjustable nut. Each string can be adjusted up or down in height, which is convenient as
the weather changes. This is especially true if you're very picky about you string height.
As for back and forth, the back and forth is what sets the harmonics above the twelfth
fret. The guitar was totally in tune all the way up the neck. The stainless steel rollers
don't roll, but they let the string slide across without sticking. Their are little ears
that stick up just behind the roller that allow you to set the width of your strings.
The necks were called Speedline necks because they were the thinnest around at that time. Made of solid maple, most with rosewood fingerboards (some with Maple fingerboards), the necks were fantastically quick! But it was always my opinion that the frets were cut too low. We at the factory always argued about that.
I was a country and Southern music string bender and I needed a taller fret. As I remember we made Mark Farner's frets a little taller. The taller fret also helped the sustain. The older Guitars would distort better than the new ones. The older pickup was a Gretsch pickup.
Gary Free: "See my comments above regarding Gretsch pickups."
The Gretsch was making pickups at the time for an experimental Martin electric guitar.
Gary Free: "Not at all true. Why would
Gretsch make a PU for a competitor? The Martin M series hollowbody electrics had Dearmond
PU's that were very similar to the Gretsch Dynasonics, Guild white face 200's, and other
Deramond users. All of these PU's used the same case. The Gretsch, Guild, Martin and other
brands like Premier Dearmonds were the same with the exception of the PU's face.
Gretsch=black, Guild, premier, others= white, Martin=wacky art deco thing. The Microfrets
Dearmonds used the 200's case, but had a different magnet structure. The old Gretsch Dynas
had pole pieces at the top which were big slug magnets that went into the top of the
guitar. The Microfrets Dearmond had the polepieces in the middle and were threaded screws.
The only Martin/Microfrets connection was that Martin asked Jones to design hardware for a hollow body bass."
That was a great pickup. Our newer pick up was designed NOT to distort and it was hard to make it distort.
Gary Free: "Actually, they were pretty hot PUs. But true, they weren't designed to distort."
I think because it was made totally of Plexiglas everything
was really tight inside. You could get a good bluesy distortion -- you know, just enough.
But not that grinding Rock & Roll distortion.
The Micro-Frets was a good blues / country / Southern, and soft Rock guitar, but it was never meant to be a Hard Rock instrument. The Calibrato was not your normal vibrato tailpiece. The Calibrato was designed to shift chords. You can tune the Calibrato to dive in a chord, and ends up just barley one octave lower while still in tune. This was done as a steel guitar effect. Or the bar could be set to just really dive until the strings were floppy. In 1971 I came up with a locking nut, but we never made it part of our line. We didn't think it would ever get used. However I did put it on an electric banjo that I had built myself. So the first tunable tail and locknut system was built at Micro-Frets Guitar Co. and I made it for a banjo!
Later that year I put the system on my Micro-Frets . Using the bar that crosses over the strings at the nut, by drilling holes so the strings would go through the bar and putting in setscrews that screwed down through the top of the bar that would come down on the strings. That was one of the reasons for the Bar on top of the strings on the newer Micro-nut. Before that the strings went over the nut we would put extra nut rollers as hold-downs for the strings on top of the peghead.
Now, the body!!
The body was solid on the outer edge, and a 4 to 5 inch center under the bridge was solid. This was true on all the guitars to make them lighter except for some of the older Swiss cheese bodies like the Orbiter and the Golden Comet.
The newer bodies were cut out on a lathe. I cut some of these out as well. We cut out a doughnut from the inside, with the solid sides and the very center. This helped in the distortion ability but not much. The hollow body didn't affect the overall tonal ability of the guitar.
The bridge was very tall, which was great for a finger picker like Chet Atkins, or maybe a slide guitarist. Yet the action could set very low, and it was a very comfortable guitar to play and had a great sound. But when we made the Carl Perkins guitar, Carl wanted a Brass bridge. We made his brass on both of his guitars and had them chrome plated. I made him a Red Swinger with a white pickguard. I also made him a Burgundy Spacetone.
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