What do polka, beer, accordions, and hot mini-humbuckers have in common?
I had an interesting grandpop. The guy stood about 5'6" and was hardy as hell. He was a WWII army vet and had the scars and tattoos to prove it. Man, he was a tough dude. Looking back, I idolized him, but I was also sort of scared of the guy. I’d seen him get into a few scraps—even getting into a fight with my other grandfather! One thing I really enjoyed about him was his love of auctions, flea markets, and sales. He had an eclectic taste for nostalgia and indulged himself with all manner of beer memorabilia, war artifacts, tools, and musical instruments.
His family was from Austria, and he truly enjoyed drinking beer and listening to polka music (which always seemed to go together really well). As a kid, I remember going to local carnivals and festivals where polka bands drew a rambunctious and happy crowd. Those were some great memories and, even today, I enjoy seeing polka bands because I think the music is just so darn upbeat and happy. And most of the lyrics are about drinking beer! Though my grandpop couldn’t play any instruments, he did have an interesting collection of accordions, drums, guitars, and these totally crazy percussion contraptions called a “boomba.” You really need a boomba in your arsenal.
Why am I describing my grandpop and polka music? Well, back in the day, there were many prized Italian accordions and concertinas used by these bands. One of these makers was the Excelsior company, which was started in America in 1924 by brothers Egisto and Roberto Pancotti. Eventually, the family returned to Italy and set up a factory in the famous Castelfidardo area, which became the home of many instrument manufacturers after WWII. One of the crazy accordions owned by my grandpop was a particularly sparkly Excelsior, and I recall him really admiring it. In fact, it had a special place on the wall behind his basement bar. Anyone else had a grandfather with a barroom in his basement?
Years later I would find myself visiting flea markets and estate sales to search out old oddities, just like my grandpop. One day I came upon a truly kooky electric guitar with the brand name of Excelsior. And wouldn’t you know it, the guitar and my grandpop’s accordion came from the same factory. See, by the early 1960s, many accordion companies were sensing the profit potential in electric guitars, and Excelsior jumped into the boom with a full line of 6-strings. Of those, the most expensive model was the Jamaica III (Photo 1), which retailed for $189.50.
These guitars are interesting in several ways. First off, many of the components were exclusive to Excelsior electrics. The bridge is a thing of engineering beauty, and it’s very effective. The pickups are excellent mini-humbuckers, but the pickup covers have this hard plastic (or ceramic) black insert (Photo 2).
The pickups are rather hot: The neck and middle pickups read in the high 8k range, but the bridge pickup measures a mighty 11k. When your pick hits those black covers, it creates this plinky, dinky, tapping sound that translates through the amp. You definitely can’t be sloppy when playing this guitar.
The headstock on these Excelsior solidbodies has to be one of my all-time favorite designs. It’s simple (Photo 3), but looks really cool in an understated way. My particular example has a black painted headstock, though the guitar sports an extra thick natural finish that resembles melted polyester. The bodies of these guitars were apparently made of maple, as were the necks, so the guitar feels substantial. All the Excelsior fretboards have a very rounded radius, but the extra odd carving at the lower strap button sets this model apart from the company’s other offerings.
So there you have it: an Italian guitar with an island name made at the same factory as a sparkle accordion hanging in the basement bar of my polka-loving grandpop. So throw one back this weekend in memory of this fine fella, and then go find a boomba. Consider it homework, due next month.
Watch the video demo: