By Art Thompson
Whenever the words “aluminum” and “guitar” are put together, it’s usually in regards to Travis Bean or Kramer, who were the best-known makers of alloy axes. Those companies weren’t the first, however. In fact, Bean was predated by some seven years by a small outfit called Messenger, which, in 1967, began building 6- and 12-string guitars that featured aluminum-magnesium necks running though a medium-depth hollow body.
Messengers sported distinctive cat’s eye soundholes and three finishes:
Morning Sunburst, Midnight Sunburst, and Rojo Red. Some models had built-in fuzztones, and all suffered from being equipped with cheap DeArmond pickups. Some models were wired for stereo output with a switch that let you route both pickups through one jack. To enhance resonance, the metal neck/chassis assembly was tuned to resonate at 440Hz.
The principals of the company—which was known as Musicraft Inc., and was located at 156 Montgomery Street, San Francisco—were Bert Casey and Arnold Curtis. Intending to expand Messenger production, Casey and Curtis relocated to Astoria, Oregon, in 1968, but the company quickly disappeared.
Messenger’s claim to fame is tenuous, but these alloy oddities remain high on the must-have list for some collectors—probably due to their use (in modified form) by Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad.
So little is known about Musicraft/Messenger that we probably wouldn’t have much more to add to the story had it not been for Detroit photographer Ken Settle, who sent us the following recollections of his tumultuous relationship with a Messenger.
“As a 13 year old in 1972, I was a big fan of the primal power of Mark Farner’s guitar playing,” says Settle, “and I tried in vain to find out the name of that strange, duct-tape covered hollowbody guitar he used. One night, while discussing it with my cousins, Paul and Randy, Paul suddenly said, ‘I know where Mark Farner lives.’
“Soon, we were driving though the verdant farmlands of South Eastern Michigan until we arrived in the tiny farming town of Parshallville, and approached the white, wooden fence of Farner’s huge farm estate.
“‘Go look at the name on the mail box,’ Paul suggested. I chuckled as I read the name aloud: ‘Ivan K. Baum.’ Then I heard the vicious sounds of an angry dog, and froze in fear as a snarling Doberman deftly slid under the fence and headed toward me. ‘Tish, get back here,’ boomed a nervous voice. The dog halted, and the fellow quickly attached a leash.
“Gathering my composure, I asked, ‘Do you know the name of that tape-covered guitar Mark plays?’
“‘It’s a Messenger,’ the man tersely responded, as he and the dog headed up the long driveway to the house.
“My search for a Messenger finally paid off when I answered a local newspaper ad. The seller brought the guitar to my house, and I immediately noticed a thin, rawhide strap tied around the neck, just above the nut. The guy said it was a gift headband from his departed girlfriend, which he had promised to never remove.
The guitar produced the unique voice I heard in Farner’s tone, so I bought it with the money I made from selling a mid-’60s, Olympia White Fender Mustang.
“When I changed the Messenger’s strings, I learned the sentimental ‘headband’ was there for a much different reason: The combination of improperly sized Grover tuning pegs and a faulty nut doomed the E string to pop out of its slot without the rawhide strap holding it down. I also discovered the D’Armond pickups were noisy, and they couldn’t hold their own against a humbucker-equipped guitar. I wanted my money back!
“I called the seller, but his phone had been disconnected. I advertised the guitar in the local Tradin’ Times, but I received no calls. I even took it to every pawnshop in Detroit, but no one would give me a dime for it. Finally, I tried to seed interest by calling local pawnshops, and saying I was looking for a Messenger like the one Mark Farner made famous. That afternoon, I walked into Sam’s Loan on Michigan Avenue.
“‘Hey, do you guys want to buy a Messenger guitar?’ I asked. The pawnbroker looked up, and said, ‘Mark Farner, right? I’ll tell ya son, I’ve been in this business 40 years, and never once has someone called looking for an item, and then it comes walking into my shop the same day. I know when I’m being scammed. Now, get your guitar and scoot!’”
More than 30 years hence, Settle still owns this Messenger, and he has come to appreciate its peculiarities. “I like its nasally, but mellow tone when played through a clean amp—think of the intro to Grand Funk’s ‘I’m Your Captain,’” he says. “I also like the built-in fuzz—which sounds as loud and ratty as two Jordan Bosstones connected together—how the metal neck rings like a huge tuning fork when it’s removed from the body, and the chilly embrace my hand receives from the stone-cold metal neck. But that wayward E string still tests my nerves!”
(hey was that Mark with Trish the Doberman?)