Valley Arts (VA) were a boutique guitar brand from the 1980’s. The original shop was located on Ventura Boulevard and burnt down in 1990. It continued to function for 2 more years but was eventually sold to Samick. The Samick take over was complete by mid-1993; the brand was later bought by Gibson who still own it today. Not much is known about the Samick period of VA. This article is about those missing years
‘That’s an original 1990 Valley Arts Guitar!’
So there I was in Israel coming towards the end of my stay. Had the guitar itch again. Had heard about a ‘local’ Israeli brand called Budagov which was supposed to be quite good. Finally managed to get into a guitar store to try a few and was very disappointed. All the stuff was made in China and quite poorly at that. Jagged fret ends, cheap hardware – you get the drift. And priced two to three times what they were worth, depending on the model. Anyway my gracious host saw my dejected face and even though it was raining cats and dogs outside decided to take a detour and take me to another store she knew about. This was a much nicer place with a lovely ambience and a friendly guy behind the counter. An assortment of Fender and Gibson guitars lined the walls. My eyes though were immediately drawn to one particular guitar on display. It was the only used guitar for sale in the shop and the headstock said ‘Valley Arts’. This is what I saw.
I knew about the brand mainly from Michael Casswell. He’s one of my favourite tutors and has numerous excellent DVD’s and web lessons on Lick Library. He loves these guitars and has quite a few of them.
I took the guitar down to have a go and its weight was astonishing (it later measured in at a hefty 9.13 pounds!). ‘That’s a 1990 Valley Arts Guitar’, said the store guy. ‘Has original seymour duncan pickups’. I plugged into a Fender Blues Junior and had a go. The guitar was fantastic. Sounded great – crisp with a lovely mid range and articulate highs, tight bottom end. The unfinished maple neck was very comfortable, the fret job was superb, and the Kahler Floyd Rose tremolo was amongst the best I have tried. The back plate said ‘Made in USA’. I fell in love with it immediately. Spent half an hour after that trying out various other models but nothing came close. I wished I had played the Valley Arts last – would have enjoyed those other guitars a lot more. Went back to my room later in the evening and spent a few hours trying to find information on the guitar. I did not know the model type or the serial number – had forgotten to note these down in my enthusiasm – I did have the picture given above though. I soon found out that there was almost next to no information on the type of Valley Arts guitar I had seen – the obligatory valley arts website for ‘Pre-Samick & Pre-Gibson’ guitars that comes up with any Valley Arts search had no guitars that matched the head stock I was seeing on this baby. Internet pictures that did match had no additional information that could help; there was one blog post from the UK about a very similar guitar with the black headstock and the guy concluded that it was the real deal offering detailed gut shots and his inferences on them. I did learn about the fire that destroyed the Valley Arts Guitar Store in 1990 and how Samick came on as a partner in 1992 and then bought out VA in 1993. Guitars before this were supposed to be magic and after this ‘really shitty’ to quote some of the forums I saw.
Long story short I bought the guitar and carried it back. At that point I thought I had a pre-Samick Valley Arts and was pretty stoked at the good bargain I had got. Got in touch with Michael Casswell on Facebook and sent him pictures of the guitar. He was the first to point out that the guitar was a Samick. Sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. And so began my month long crusade on finding out all I could about the Samick Period of Valley Arts.
It started with scouring the internet forums – this usually solves most problems. Ran into a number of dead ends before striking gold in the form of a VA brochure from 1995
. Emailed Martin Miranda, who was the VA factor manager from the Pre-Samick days and he confirmed my guitar was a Samick. He also suggested the names of two guys – Martin Bravo and Karl Sandival – Martin had been the paint and finishing guy at VA and stayed on after the takeover. Besides him all remaining 16 original VA employees left over the course of 18 months. Turned out that Martin was now working with Thorn guitars in Los Angeles. Only problem was he only spoke spanish and was not accessible on phone or email. Ron Thorn turned out to be a gem. I emailed him the VA Brochure I mentioned above and he not only got Martin to answer my questions but also named many of the men in this photograph in the brochure.
‘Lots of guitar builder history in that picture..’
So the guy holding the guitar on the far right of the picture is John Gaudesi who now heads the Schecter Custom Shop. The guy on the far left is Karl Sandival – he is famous for designing the color scheme of the Rhandy Rhodes polka dotted Jackson. Not pictured but also working in the Samick VA shop post take over was Dave Cervantes – he went on to head Yamaha Guitar Development and then worked in the Fender Custom Shop as a master builder. He now has his own guitar company in Hawaii.
Martin Bravo helped with the first real information on my guitar. The body and neck were made in Korea and shipped to the US. The bodies came painted. All the hardware was installed in the US and the guitars were set up there. The new black headstock was designed by a guy named Bob Jones, supervisor at the Samick VA Custom Shop.
The California Pro range was meant to replace the VA Standard Pro series. The Standard Pro was a budget version of the VA Custom Pros and were made with bodies and necks shipped from Godin (then LaSido) in Canada. Apparently Samick saw it as replacing one foreign supplier with another. The VA Custom Pro bodies were made in house; the necks were Warmoth in the early to mid-80’s (apparently the compound radius feature was one of the main reasons these necks were so comfortable to play), and then designed in house from the late 80’s onwards. Actual maufacure of the necks was never done at Valley Arts though. To quote Dan Grosh from a forum post, “At Valley Arts we never made any necks on the electrics. The LaSido necks were used on everything in the later years. The Warmoth necks had a round truss rod hole, the LaSido necks had a square hole. Most of the bodies we were making in the later years, but not the Standard Pro. Those came from LaSido already painted.”
There is a lot of talk about ‘Transition VA Guitars’ on the forums. What were these guitars exactly? These were guitars made from Pre-Samick VA parts left over from the original workshop located in Ventura Boulevard (Samick moved the custom shop to the City of Industry, California). Samick necks were stuck on many pre-Samick bodies and vice versa. I couldn’t locate an exact number but estimates about the number of these transition guitars ranges around 40 to 400. I’d favour a lower number here.
Finding Ron Estrada was the real goldmine. He is a master builder and owns Mammoth Guitars
. He was the only person I managed to find who worked in both the Pre-Samick and Samick eras of the VA Custom Shop. Everyone I contacted was very nice but Ron was the best of the lot. He clarified doubts I had left over from Martin’s info.
There were two types of California Pro’s. – a). one with a straight headstock and colourful graphics, b). and another with a curved white on black headstock.
a). The ones with this headstock (like mine) had both the body and neck built in Korea. Assembly, hardware installation, and set up were in the US. All the examples of these guitars that I have seen on the internet have 24 frets and are 24 and 3/4’ in scale length (similar to the standard Gibson scale length). The body is 7/8ths the size of a traditional Stratocaster. A new serial number series was started for these guitars beginning with CAL. The series seems to start from CAL 0100. More on this later.
b). The one’s with this headstock had the body made in the US, the necks were made in Korea; so these were higher up in the pecking order. Assembly, hardware installation, and set up were in the US. The original Pre-Samick California Pro’s did not have any black headstocks. There were only 100 of those made making them rare VA’s along with original VA’s with the inter-lock joint of which only 16 were made. There was quite a range of California Pro’s with this black headstock with uninspiring names like ‘Deluxe Model 8R’. There were 22 as well as 24 fret versions and both standard Fender (25 and 1/2’) scale length as well as the Gibson scale length. These guitars retained the old VA series numbers. There were about 2,600 Pre-Samick VA guitars made so numbers higher than that are Samick, and later Gibson. I own an original VA Custom Pro with serial number VA 1916 – the production date stamped on the inner side of the neck heel is Feb 1993. Production really seems to have been ramped up in the last year of the original VA Custom Shop.
Interestingly there were also headstocks like the ones pictured above and below (CAL 01041 & CAL 01066) which retained the old VA shape with the new Korean Graphics. This is an example of a true ‘Transition Guitar’ – leftover necks from the original VA custom shop used on Korean bodies, as in these two guitars. A tell tale sign of this is the bird’s eye maple necks seen on some of these guitars.
Typical VA Samick California Pro’s have much plainer necks as this one on my guitar.
Also the fretboard may differ from the standard rosewood used on the Samick California Pro’s in the Transition Guitars – one of the examples above (CAL 01041) has an ebony fretboard. Interestingly this may not have all been planned – apparently the first batch of necks sent from Korea for the Cal Pro’s had 22 frets instead of 24. These could not be used and new 24 fret necks were ordered from Korea. It stands to reason that existing (Pre-Samick) necks lying around in the shop were bolted onto the Korean bodies.
Note that these headstocks are not to be confused with the US Samick VA Custom Shop. These were guitars designed and build entirely in Korea using VA design features. These are much cheaper than their US counterparts.
Coming back to serial numbers. The Samick VA Custom Shop shut down in 1998. The latest example of the CAL series I have found online (on a Japanese auction site) is CAL 01916. Mine has been dated to early 1994 by Martin Bravo and is CAL 01084.The two true ’transition guitars’ have serial numbers of CAL 01041 and CAL 01066 respectively. Assuming the serial numbers started from CAL 0100 in 1993, this puts the total output at about 800-900 CAL series guitars over 4 years. A paltry number by today’s production standards.
The hardware used gradually changed over the Samick period. My guitar has original Seymour Duncan pickups – by 1995 these pickups had become ‘Duncan Designed’; these are pickups made in the Far East based on Seymour Duncan specifications. Bridges used through out seem to be good quality – mine has a Kahler Floyd Rose, others had similar bridges as well as Wilkinson trems. Note that all of the guitars mentioned in this article barring the one that says Samick on the headstock have ‘Made in USA’ on the neck bolt on plate. This is misleading due to reasons explained above.
Throughout the Samick VA period there were true Custom Pro’s made as well. These like the original instruments were completely hand crafted in USA. The quality of these seems to be excellent as evidenced by examples such as this beauty crafted by Ron Estrada.
Compare this with my Pre-Samick VA Custom Pro.
Ron worked in the VA Custom shop in both the Pre-Samick and Samick period and when I asked him if there was a drop in quality between the Custom Pro’s of these eras he says there was not. Given the quality of builders in the Samick VA Custom Shop this stands to reason. These Custom Pro’s came with a signed certificate of authenticity, unlike the California Pro’s which were Korean made.
The Samick City of Industry Custom Shop ultimately shut down in 1998, becoming the Silvertone Custom Shop exclusively manufacturing Paul Stanley signature models. The rights to the VA name were bought by Gibson in the early 2000’s and they entrusted production to the original VA owner Mike McGuire. These guitars, though well made, never reached the heights of the original VA’s as far as VA aficionados go. Examples pop up on Ebay regularly.
So there you have it. Everything I have managed to dig up on the lost years of Valley Arts under Samick. I really like both my VA Custom Pro as well as the Samick VA California Pro though the Custom Pro is definitely better constructed. The California Pro is more basic – the main difference between the two is the quality of the neck; the bird’s eye maple neck on the Custom Pro is quite lovely and the ebony fretboard and fretwork are immaculate. Also I think it has a two piece body as opposed to the 4-5 piece body of the California Pro. Other than that the hardware on both is exactly the same quality wise and sonically there is nothing to tell them apart. I’d buy the Samick VA again if I had to in a heartbeat.