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A Budget-Rock Guitar Built for Woolworth’s

A Budget-Rock Guitar Built for Woolworth’s

Crank a small amp and the gold-foils in this Audition solidbody will gladly scream.

We used to have an excellently eccentric local public access channel in our area, and the recording studio was just a little ways from my house. Some of the touring punk bands as well as local ones would play live on the channel, and let me tell you.… It was so awesome. The performances were the stuff of legend. I can remember one particular band playing where a song culminated with the singer hammering a long nail into his nose! (My wife and I share these crazy experiences, and our kids are always shaking their heads at us, unable to comprehend that VHS era.)

Now, there isn’t much evidence on the internet regarding our local public access channel, but you can find some totally rad old clips of bands, acts, and weirdos from all over the U.S. One of the legendary public access moments was when a California band named the Mummies played on a San Francisco show in 1991. My goodness, that band was rocking out. Please search out the video and watch how much abuse a Farfisa organ can withstand.

The Mummies were part of a cool late-’80s garage revival where energy, rawness, and lo-fi were all the rage, and bands were embracing the forgotten guitars of the past—like J Mascis and his Jazzmaster and Kurt Cobain and his Jaguar and Mustangs. Later, Jack White did the same with his Airline. Of course, the raw-er you wanted to go, the more obscure you had to go. Old Sears amps, ’60s import guitars, and insane import fuzz pedals were just sitting on music store shelves gathering dust back in the late ’80s. Bands like the Mummies, who were considered “budget rock,” could indulge in all sorts of musical experiments on the cheap. In that public access video, guitar player Larry Winther can be seen playing an old Framus guitar running through a Silvertone amp. Bet you never tried that combination!

If budget rock sounds appealing to you, then let’s travel back in time to the budget department store chain, Woolworth’s. The guitar brand for those stores was Audition, and the early models were just the gnarliest sounding axes ever. Exhibit A is this here guitar made by the Zenon Music Company in Lake Suwa, Japan. Zenon’s foray into electric guitars counted this early Audition as its flagship of sorts, and this model was one of the first Zenon electrics to be seen in the states. And just like Jack White’s Airline, man, you had to fight this guitar to play it!

Appearing right around 1965, this particular guitar was called the ZES-70T in company literature. It sported a robust neck (no adjustable truss rod), a non-adjustable plastic bridge, a tremolo, and two non-adjustable pickups (I used little rubber washers to raise the bridge unit on mine). The electronics layout had two tone knobs, one volume, and two pickup switches. But the true beauty of this guitar were those gold-foil pickups. There were a lot of variations on the gold-foil designs (which were copied from American DeArmond pickups), but the ones in this Audition were special. Played through a nice old Fender amp, they’re okay. But if you plug this guitar into an old Ampeg or Gibson amp, then you’re getting somewhere. An old Valco or Danelectro amp would put you right in the center of thrash city! The sound I always liked with this Audition was to use an amp-switching pedal and use two amps: one for loudness and semi-clean tones and a smaller amp that would be dimed for distortion. You don’t even need effects pedals.

“An old Valco or Danelectro amp would put you square in the town center of thrash city!”

I’ve spoken about Zenon guitars in the past, and what I’ve always liked about the design are the wavy pickguards that kind of match the flow of the guitar shape. Today, I was even searching around online and saw a bunch of this same model guitar selling rather cheap. Of course, each one of these guitars is like a snowflake and no two play the same—but they do sound the same. The one I had was worked on extensively and had a refret, and I miss it terribly sometimes. Especially when I see bands like the Mummies going insane on public access. I should totally start my own show. I think the Mummies are still playing concerts!