A Great First Act

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In the relatively pedestrian arena of automotive journalism, Ronnie Schreiber is that rarest of birds: a classically educated, research-oriented, undeniably intellectual writer who also has the ability to spark an emotional response in his readers beyond the typical “OH NO YOU DIN’T.” His path into the business is also perhaps a unique one; he began by impersonating an automotive journalist for the purposes of obtaining press kits which he then resold on eBay and elsewhere. In the course of sneaking into various auto shows and press events, he realized just how low the bar was set for writing and critical thinking in this business, so it made perfect sense for him to become an actual automotive journalist and make money that way.

Not everybody has been willing to forgive Ronnie for his origin, story, particularly not the journosaur crew that runs the Chicago Auto Show, but the depth of Ronnie’s talent has spoken for itself at TTAC, Hemmings, and elsewhere.

(This paragraph was removed at the request of the person discussed in it.)

As a former memorabilia seller, Ronnie is always on the look out for items with collector potential. Which is how he got involved with First Act guitars, which eventually led to him building the guitar you see above and presenting it to me as a gift.


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A few years ago, Volkswagen teamed up with First Act to include a guitar with the purchase of certain new VW models. VW had previously included bicycles and various other outdoor-centric items with their cars — remember the “VW Jetta Trek”? — but this was their first shot at doing a musical instrument. The guitar used a special cable to plug into the 1/8″ input of whatever VW you bought, and it had a built-in solid-state distortion circuit. Here’s John Mayer in the original ad:

Ronnie owns quite a few First Acts, figuring that they might be valuable someday. He also likes the idea of being able to buy a fully functional guitar on Craigslist for under fifty bucks.

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On a whim, he decided to customize one of his VW First Acts. Lime green paint, an Entwhistle humbucker pickup in the bridge position, carbon-fiber wrap for the pickguard, and a custom “shocker” truss rod cover. Last but not least, he milled out a ziggurat-style relief on the upper bout. He then gave it to me as a gift, presumably for all the times I completely lost my temper with him, with little or no provocation, when I was Editor-In-Chief of TTAC.

It’s a lovely guitar and I can’t wait to play it out somewhere. The quality is about what you’d expect from a Chinese-made instrument given away free with the purchase of a Mexican-made Beetle, but it’s very far from unplayable. The built-in distortion is possibly the worst thing I’ve ever heard; it makes the distortion in the $99 “Gorilla” solid-state amps of the Eighties sound like Clapton’s Bluesbreaker amp dimed. That’s okay. I have my own distortion pedals. Just a few of ’em.

I’m grateful to Ronnie for the gift and for his friendship. If you only know him from TTAC, check out this story on Hemmings. Ronnie was about as perfect a writer for Hemmings as you could imagine. Unfortunately, his editor, Daniel Strohl, was a bit of a moral coward when it came to standing up against a bunch of Internet trolls who had Ronnie in their collective sights. Let’s hope that Ronnie eventually finds the readership, and the respect, that his writing deserves — indeed, demands.

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17 Replies to “A Great First Act”

  1. Nick Luczak

    Just picked one of these up on eBay a few weeks ago. As a GTI and Guitar nut, I figured it was a fun decoration in my music room.

    Reply
  2. Ronnie Schreiber

    You’re most welcome.

    A couple of notes.

    Jack Baruth is the most loyal person that I know. A green guitar is the least I could do. Call me a fanboy or that we have a mutual admiration society, I don’t care. Loyalty is a rare thing today and it deserves reward.

    Regarding the Chicago Auto Show, Mark Bilek, who has been in charge of communications for the CAS for the past few years, has been very gracious to me and in fact has arranged for me to get comped travel and housing a couple of times. He predecessor, however, never forgave me for being a “press kit thief” in his words, and there’s an obese Chicago based big shot in the MAMA, who amusingly called me “a parasite” at the Detroit show a couple of years ago. He rewrites press releases for Consumer Guide and he awarded his “long term tester” Dodge SUV his car of the year prize in no small part (pun definitely intended) because of the interior room. At ~350 lbs, he’d have a really hard time reviewing a Miata, but I’m the parasite.

    Restomodding the First Act was fun, other than almost giving myself a hernia when I bent and reached for a part from where I was sitting while reassembling it. The faux carbon fiber looks great against the green (technically not lime green, rather Ace Hardware Fluorescent Marking paint, with a glass bead reflective clear coat that lights up like a traffic sign if you hit it with light at the right angle), and VW’s lame hand signal truss rod cover was just asking to be replaced with something more familiar to Mr. Baruth.

    Reply
    • Disinterested-Observer

      FWIW coming from a hopefully anonymous person on the Internet I like your writing. Your comments are often better than some of your colleagues at TTAC’s articles, which would make them better than almost any other auto “journalist’s” articles.

      Reply
    • Will

      As a resident of Chicago, you just didn’t pay him for it. A city this corrupt needs the wheels greased.

      Reply
  3. jz78817

    it’s recently occurred to me that if you put Ronnie Schrieber and Steve Lehto together, you could get a pretty damn comprehensive history of the auto industry out of it.

    Reply
    • Ronnie Schreiber

      Thanks for the kind words. Lehto does fine work that I enjoy. I also heartily recommend Aaron Severson of Ate Up With Motor. When I see some of the nonsense PhDs awarded in Lady Gaga Studies and the like I think it’s a shame that Aaron doesn’t have a professorship in industrial history somewhere. He does truly academic level work and he’s got the integrity to go back and revise pieces when he learns more about the topic.

      If I had a budget to pay the writers I think I could put together an interesting automotive website. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

      Reply
      • jz78817

        since I can’t edit, I’ll post again.

        why I think what I said above is partly because Lehto focuses more on the cars, and you seem to focus more on the people. I think the one which really “hit home” with me was your TTAC piece which talked about Prof. Harold Josephs. I was one of those kids who cruised through grade school and most of high school, but when I got to university I kind of “hit the wall.” Everything up to that point had been easy enough where I didn’t know how to study, and when I had to, I was lost. Prof. Josephs pretty pointedly said to me “you’re spinning your wheels here, this is what you need to do to succeed. That’s all I can do to help you.” I was able to get my shit together and have spent the next decade and a half working in the auto industry.

        I’m richer for having Prof. Josephs as a teacher.

        Reply
        • Ronnie Schreiber

          Dr. Joseph’s son-in-law is a sofer, a Jewish ritual scribe and a wholesale customer of my embroidery shop, and a friend. They live right behind me. I gave Mr. Ellis a copy of your comment to pass along to her father.

          Reply
  4. Acd

    Ronnie has been one of my favorite TTAC writers and its good to see that he’s as nice a guy as I’ve thought he was. I spent about six months in Detroit last year and one of my regrets is that I did not try to meet him in person.

    Reply
  5. LIQ

    Just dug out my old First Act Discovery electric guitar I got as a gift about 10 years ago for Christmas when I was 6 or 7. Still in the original box and the built in amp still works. Never learned to play it since I liked drumming better though.

    Reply
    • Ronnie Schreiber

      First Act has made guitars in four or five levels of quality. There are the models sold at Toys R Us or Walmart that are regarded as toys but as far as I can tell, if you had a luthier do $50-$100 work setting them and cleaning up the fret ends, blindfolded you probably couldn’t tell them from any of the name brand stuff sold by Guitar Center on Black Friday for $99. At the other end are the guitars made in their custom shop in the Boston area, now closed. The idea was that they were going to generate buzz for their sell-to-kids stuff by making guitars for name performers. It was staffed by folks they hired away from Gibson and graduates of luthiery schools.

      On the used market, their custom shop guitars range from ~$600-$1,500.

      The custom shop also gave the company the talent to design some original guitars. Some of those body designs ended up at department stores but it looks like they also made a couple of levels of guitar shop quality instruments in Asia. Those all use a proprietary bridge/tailpiece with a brass retaining insert on the back for the through strings. There are some set-neck Sheenas that were made in Korea, supposedly by the same factory that was building for Epiphone, and some screw on (I’ve worked on too many cars to call those wood screws bolts – I understand Leo Fender’s original idea was to use threaded inserts and bolts so the guitars could be broken down for travel) neck guitars made in China that are pretty decent, like the VW guitar. Their ME501 guitar is the one that some name players like Paul Westerberg have used as gigging guitars. It’s a bit higher quality than the VW guitar, with binding on the body and neck, nicer rosewood for the fretboard, and a cool retroish red burst finish. I also like the fact that it’s not a Strat or LP copy. First Act called it the “kei” body style, though I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with 600cc powered JDM cars. People mention other guitars that it reminds them of, but when one guy says it looks like a Tele and another says it looks like a Les Paul, those are disparate enough to say that it’s an original design. I’ve picked up a few of those for less than $50 each and everyone who has played them has liked them. If you want to start fooling around with mods and hot-rodding guitars, it’s a great foundation.

      They also made a semi-hollowbody called the ME701 Cordoba that’s got a flamed maple top (also made in a burst finish), the body, tone block and sides are carved of a single piece of wood, some cool diamond inlays on the fretboard and a five piece neck. Very pretty guitar and the user reviews are glowing. Those are hard to find, though, and are going to cost more than $50.

      It seems to me that the “MEx01” models are the decent ones. For example, the ME501 is a guitar shop quality instrument while the ME5001 and ME5008 have the same body style but are simpler guitars that were sold at Walmart.

      ME201 – Les Paul Copy
      ME301 – Stratish copy
      ME401 – Slightly different LP copy
      ME501 – described above
      ME601 – offset “melted” Kei body, no binding but similar build quality as 501 flamed maple top with a blue burst.
      ME701 – described above
      ME801 – Original Les Paulish body
      ME821 – I think that’s an 801 with binding and inlays. Set neck.
      PW580 – Paul Westerberg signature model
      Borg ME535 – thicker mahogany version of the ME501 in a flamed maple finish and sold under the Borg brand name.

      The ME701, ME801 and ME821 are very hard to find. I’ve seen one 701 for sale in the past year and a half and none of the other two. Generally, when it’s hard to find something used for sale, rarity aside, it means people don’t want to sell them.

      The ME501 can be found on eBay but the prices there, $75-$150, are higher than you’ll find on Craigslist. I’ve bought a couple at the Shopgoodwill.com site for ~$35.

      Reply
      • mj

        Enjoy reading Ronnie’s articles — always learn something new. Thanks for the history on the First Act guitars. I own a Westerberg model, and for what it is it’s not bad. I gave it to my niece to learn on, and look forward to having it back in my collection soon!

        Reply
        • Dale Houston

          I’ve got the Westerberg Model and the ME501 that it’s based on. They are pretty cool little guitars.

          Was hoping they would make a Tommy Stinson signature bass with the plaid pickguard.

          Reply
  6. -Nate

    Nice article , I heartily agree that loyalty is important and long gone missing in American Culture .
    .
    The git fiddle is a cool gift .
    .
    Thanx Jack for the ‘Vette article link , in The Auto trade I’ll always be a nobody as a Journeyman Mechanic but I love reading these detailed account of the who’s , whys , wheres and whens .
    .
    Mr. Schreiber , I too greatly enjoy your writing , keep up the good work .
    .
    -Nate

    Reply

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