Thursday, May 14, 2020

Dream Guitars

Guitar players love to play, look at, talk and dream about guitars. To the uninitiated, a guitar is just a guitar. For a musician though, guitars have different sounds, purposes, and looks that make them desirable. I own a cherry-sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standard and a Fender American Standard Telecaster, guitars I've played for decades. They have served me well in various bands and recording but, of course, guitar players always have a list of axes they dream of owning. My list is short and no, I don't really need any more guitars, but oh to dream...

Gibson SG, wine-red

Several years before I bought my first guitar, I worked in a mall and every day, I walked past a guitar store. They had a lot of guitars, but the one that made me stop to look every day was a spectacular wine-red Gibson SG. This guitar just screams rock and roll, and although it's made in a bunch of colors and finishes, the shiny, wine-red with the wood grain showing through always struck me as spectacular. It is a stunning piece of equipment.

I've had the chance to play several of these beautiful guitars over the years and discovered two problems. First, the design of the body makes them neck heavy, meaning you must at least keep your left hand on it at all times, or else it takes a dive toward the floor (better have strap locks installed.) The other problem is the double cutaway makes for a longer neck and fretboard, a problem for short guys like me with short arms. I could live with the first problem, but it's the second that kept me from buying an SG over the years. Still, this is one fine looking axe.

The SG (short for 'solid guitar') has been used by many notable players, including Eric Clapton, (he had his painted) Angus Young, Robby Krieger, (the Doors) Tony Iommi, (Black Sabbath) Frank Zappa, Pete Townshend, and many more.

Fender Stratocaster

Back in the mid-'80's, I went looking to buy a Strat. It didn't take five minutes in the guitar store for me to realize that every one of those beautiful Strats was way out of my price range. I ended up with a blue Telecaster – an excellent guitar, but it wasn't my first choice.

Strats come in many colors, but the two or three-color sunburst with a rosewood fretboard are, in my mind, the cream of the crop. Seafoam green is striking and attractive as well, but if I could only buy one Strat, it would be the sunburst.

The Strat sound is as unique as the look – especially the tones produced by the neck pickup alone, the neck and middle together, and the middle alone. Those sounds make the Strat unmistakable, and attractive to guitarists in many genres.  

The list of Strat players is long and distinguished, and for good reason. Eric Clapton switched to Strats in the late '60's with Derek and the Dominos and the Layla album, and it's still his main axe.

Other well-known Strat players include the late Rory Gallagher, Mark Knopfler, (Dire Straits) the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, his brother Jimmy, Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore, David Gilmore, (Pink Floyd) Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, Bonnie Raitt, and more.

Rickenbacker Electric 12-string

The electric 12-string produces a spectacular sound that you can't get any other way. It's that chiming, chorus effect that you hear on many songs by Led Zeppelin, the Byrds, the Beatles, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, REM, and others. Several companies have made electric 12-string guitars, most notably: Gibson, Danelectro, Hagstrom, and Rickenbacker.

I recall standing in a pawn shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, back in the '80's, eyeing a nice-looking red Hagstrom electric 12-string. I played in a cover band at the time, and our setlist included several songs that would sound great with such a guitar. I didn't have much money, but the asking price was not too shocking, so I played it for a while. I was this close to handing over the money when I took a long look at the headstock. Changing strings has always been my least favorite guitar activity, and the thought of having to change and tune 12 of them on the same guitar made me pause. I paused long enough to talk myself out of buying that guitar. It's a shame, because the sound really would have been worth the effort, but at the time, I couldn't convince myself. Danelectro now makes a very nice model for a very reasonable price (under $500). I played one recently, and I was tempted, but eventually put it back on the rack.

All 12-strings give you that beautiful sound, but Rickenbackers are a little different. It's a great look, especially in my opinion, the natural finish 360/12, and the three pickup 370/12 Roger McGuinn model, famously used on songs by the Byrds. Apart from the look, the Ric 12 sound is different because the arrangement of strings is different than other brands. For 12 strings, the three treble strings (E, B, G) are usually paired with one of the same gauge and tuned in unison. The famous 'jangly' Ric sound is achieved as the three bass strings (E, A, D) are paired with octave strings as usual, but placed on the treble side, as opposed to Gibson and other brands that put the octave on the bass side. The difference is striking and sets Rickenbackers apart from the others (it's obviously a matter of taste, as is everything else I'm writing about in this piece.)

Besides McGuinn, Rickenbacker electric 12-strings have been used by George Harrison, the late Tom Petty and his lead guitarist, Mike Campbell, REM's Peter Buck, and others.  

Fender Telecaster Natural or Butterscotch

As mentioned, I bought a blue Telecaster back in the '80's. It's a great playing guitar but it's nowhere near as good-looking as the butterscotch or the natural finish Teles. I know they play the same, and they sound the same, but there is something striking about those looks, and decades after I bought my blue model, I'm still kicking myself for not paying a little more attention.

Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen are Tele guys, and are often seen with the simple, yet attractive natural and/or butterscotch blonde models (Bruce's main guitar is a Telecaster body with an Esquire neck.) Teles come in many looks and finishes, but to my eyes, the simple look is spectacular.
Gretsch Country Gentleman

George Harrison, with his Country Gentleman played through a Vox AC-30 is one of the great equipment combinations in rock and roll history. They're not especially attractive guitars, but it's the sound that made me notice. I also liked John Lennon's black Rickenbacker 325, but George's Gretsch was something special. The semi-hollow, big bodied guitar worked well with the early Beatles songs, and was especially good for the lead and fill riffs in the country-flavored, Buck Owens tune, Act Naturally.

Other guitarists who used the Country Gent include Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy, Brian Setzer, (the Stray Cats) and, of course, the legendary Chet Atkins.

Gibson Les Paul Goldtop

Les Pauls come in several finishes, and they're all good looking guitars, but the first Les Pauls in the early '50's were Goldtops with P-90 pickups (single coil, as opposed to the humbuckers that followed a few years later.) Like the natural finish Telecaster, the Goldtop is a simple, yet elegant look. Gold looks expensive, and of course they are and always have been, but a quality guitar isn't going to be cheap. That gold finish just pops, making it, in my view, one of the best looking guitars you can buy.

Notable Goldtop players include Buddy Holly, (he used a Goldtop with P-90s early on before switching to a Fender Strat) Tom Scholz, (Boston) Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, George Harrison, (the red Les Paul seen in the Revolution video was originally a Goldtop, refinished and given to George by Eric Clapton) Steve Hackett, (Genesis) Freddie King, Neil Young (his 'Old Black' is actually a painted Goldtop) and John Fogerty.

Gibson Les Paul Custom Black Beauty

Yet another stunning axe, the various black Les Paul models are just badass looking, and they scream, pick me up and play loud! In the early '80's, my band booked studio time, and the guy who owned the studio was happy to bring out his Black Beauty. I was shocked and thrilled when he offered to let me play it and record with it. At the time, I was playing a Fender Jaguar, and still dreaming of owning a Les Paul, so this was a treat. I strapped on that spectacular guitar and used it on several songs. It didn't make me a better guitar player, but it sure made me feel like I was a better guitar player. Such is the power of an iconic guitar.

We’ve seen Black Beauties in the hands of guitarists far better than me, like Ace Frehley, (Kiss) John Fogerty, Peter Frampton, Al Di Meola, and Steve Gaines, (Lynyrd Skynyrd).

Carvin DC 150

The Carvin company built guitars, basses, and other equipment, selling via mail order. In the late '70's- early '80's,  they advertised in Guitar Player Magazine, and I was struck by the DC 150 especially. This guitar came in black and natural finish, with rosewood or maple neck, but it was the natural finish 150 with rosewood neck that grabbed my attention. It looked a bit like a Gibson Les Paul Special, but it was a unique and attractive instrument. Unfortunately, at the time, I had no money for such a purchase. The Carvin Company has since been renamed Kiesel Guitars, after their late founder. I still love the look of this unique guitar.

Gibson Double-neck

Fans of Jimmy Page and the Led Zeppelin song 'Stairway To Heaven' understand the allure of this spectacular guitar - the Gibson Double-neck. It's expensive (about $6500), heavy (13 pounds), but wow, what an axe.

As mentioned, an electric 12-string would be a great addition to a collection, especially for guys like me who play a number of songs that sound great on such a guitar. Why would I need a double-neck? Just watch a video of Page playing 'Stairway', and that tells you all you need to know. 
Gretsch 6120

I was already a fan of Gretsch semi-hollow body guitars from George Harrison, but when Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats burst onto the scene with their blazing hot brand of rockabilly, this beautiful guitar became an object of interest. It's not so different sound wise than George's guitar, but the look is unique and worthy of a place in any collection.

I played one in an Austin, Texas guitar store and it was smooth with a great feel. Like Gibson SGs, it's neck-heavy, but that's a problem you can deal with to get that Setzer look and feel. Even unplugged, this Gretsch has a great sound.

Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'Twisted Logic: 50 Edgy Flash Fiction Stories', 'The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories', 'A Sports Junkie', 'The Avery Appointment', 'Between the Fuzzy Parts', 'Beyond the Fuzzy Parts,' 'Jonathan Stephens Is Just A Kid', 'Jonathan Stephens Is Moving', 'Suspended Logic', 'Descended From Royalty,' and 'Covering the Astros.' His books are available in paperback (some in e-book.)
He writes about sports for Season Tickets, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat.

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