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Wear and Tear and Custom Shop Relics

Wear and tear – it's like a display of character, isn't it? Which is why it can seem somewhat suspect.

Maybe we should blame Eddie Van Halen a bit for making spare parts guitars into worn-down monsters and feeding a deep-seated need for something vintage, authentic and well-worn?

I noticed in a Jan Akkerman YouTube clip the other day, where he was playing an old black Les Paul Custom 3-pickup, the back of the neck was worn right down to the bare mahogany wood; it looked like it had been sanded because it was so uniform, all the way up and down the back of the neck.

The wear and tear on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s axe sure looked like it had simply been played so much and so recklessly for so long that it was worn down (but not out!).

Willie Nelson's acoustic is surely worn from years of play. Same thing for Monte Montgomery's guitar and the face of Tommy Emmanuel’s favourite acoustic, I think. People see this and I think they want a bit of that mojo, even if it doesn’t come from wear and tear. 

When I first joined Triumph, Mike Levine had a vintage bass. It had a horrible green (amateur) re-finish, and it had a huge divot (like a golf sandtrap) scraped out of its face above the plane of the four strings. As I watched him play, I noticed that he used huge triangular heavy picks, and his picking motion had a lot of full forearm “sawing” going on. He was chewing into that face on every up-stroke. Well, in the very early days of the band, he took the guitar into the repair shop and had the divot filled in with a new piece of wood. He also refinished the guitar in white. Within a year or so he had started carving himself a lovely brand new divot right through the finish and into the wood. Again.

Plus, Mike used to have (still does, actually, although not as much) all kinds of silver jewellery, and that kind of heavy-metal approach around guitars can put little dings and chips in finishes over time so that they eventually start to look pretty beat up. Rings, belt-buckles, chains. I'm surprised Zakk Wylde hasn't turned some of his guitars into toothpicks.

Now that some custom shops do a brisk trade in “relic” models that look like they have years of wear on them – right down to the cigarette burn marks and the worn fretboard finish in certain places – it makes me sceptical of some distressed guitars.

I once had a Pete Townshend quote in a Guitar Player magazine article I wrote: "I don't polish the [expletive] thing: I just play it."

I also once had the lead singer from 54-40, Neil Osborne, say to me (with a fair bit of disdain after I had asked him where the knobs and switch head had gone from his guitar, and why the guitar was so battered and mangled): "Well, I don't care how it looks. For me, it's just a [expletive] tool."

Fair enough. Some people take care of their tools, and others are less concerned. For my part, I always felt that my guitar was a musical instrument, and an instrument required a certain amount of respect and care if it was going to function at a high level. But some people sure do seem to be able to get high-level performance from some beat-up gear, so that probably feeds the vibe.

I've worn the finish off my old 12-string acoustic's face in a few places (mostly around the soundhole), and the lacquer on my Gibsons usually gets thin and foggy in the area down around the treble side of the rear pickup ring and the bridge. I usually go through the gold hardware plating finish at contact points or start to see some wear through the nickel plating on the treble side of bridges. But I'm not a very sweaty or oily-handed kind of guy, so the finishes usually remain pretty good elsewhere. Plus, I've always owned a stable of guitars and changed out and rotated my tires frequently, so to speak, so they don't wear out.

But I'd maybe like to get down to the bare wood in a few places on my black Les Paul in this lifetime. We'll see.

Posted: 7/6/2011 5:47:19 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

A Few Notes & Thoughts on My Gibson Guitar Collection (Part 2)

Over time, chunks of my guitar collection were gifted for charity things, school programs, and then a bunch were given to my own kids so that they could sell them off and raise dough for their college funds. There were a handful of rare guitars that ended up in the Hard Rock Cafés around the world. And I have no regrets about guitars that came and went. To me, it's always been about evolution. Plus it's for fun, a job-related diversionary pastime, and the collecting of guitars is something like collecting—I dunno—art, maybe, or cars...? We are all only caretakers on this planet, and in the case of musical instruments, especially guitars, most of them were made to be played—not to be museum pieces. Once a guitar has been hanging on a display wall for over a year, it's changing from an instrument into an objet d'art. And there is a place for that, maybe. But for me, I'd prefer to have a smaller group of guitars that I use, and that I play on a fairly regular basis.

For posterity, I already have the first (plywood catalogue) acoustic I ever owned, the first (one pickup Kay) electric, the first (Yairi) classical (a factory "second"); I can't replace those sentimental landmarks. I also have a turn-of-the-20th-century Hall & Sons miniature guitar that my wife bought for me one Christmas. I have one great classical nylon string. And there are always a few guitars that one needs to be able to create some special effects: my old trusty National lap slide, a sitar guitar, a dobro... But a good Gibson—it kinda comes down to that, for me, to cover the spectrum of "classic" rock sounds. Lately, as I've been playing on the 356 (and my Classic '60s Les Paul sits there in the stand, making me feel guilty, because it's a really, really fine guitar, and has stood me in perfectly good stead), I feel like I'm finally boiling it down to basic needs, and have the necessary tools.

I can live without a whammy bar. But I sometimes think about putting the non-invasive Stetsbar tailpiece on one of my Gibbies. If anyone reading this has any experience on this, feel free to write in and share your thoughts.

Now, feel/touch-wise, the 356 is a dream to play. Tonally and response-wise, its semi-acoustic nature gives it just a bit more bite/honk/character when you really play it hard—and that's a difference between semi-acoustics and Les Pauls. The LPs are incredibly good when you turn them up fairly loud. But maybe they do not have quite as much dynamic response and tonal range at lower levels as a semi-acoustic electric guitar has. My chambered black LP is pretty darn good for that dynamic responsiveness, (the chambering is the thing that takes it more in the direction I favor) and adding piezo bridge saddles gave it even more clarity at lower levels on clean settings. But the 356 has an audible difference in articulation/definition of notes. It may not have as much punch, or as much sustain—but it has a brighter twang or pop on the front end of notes, ("brighter" might be a misnomer—it's also more of a "woody" thunk…an archtop's roundness) which maybe gives it just a bit more "cut," even if it might not have as much output. Plus, when you dig in (and I mean REALLY play hard), the 356 gives that snappy edge, whereas a Les Paul seems to kind of compress out a bit more.

Esoteric description, sure. Possibly purely all in my own head. But that's where the music starts before it makes it outta my fingers anyways, right?

Posted: 4/14/2011 12:00:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Never-Ending Pursuit of the Holy Grail

So, I picked myself up a used CS-356. I admit – I was seduced by the deep ruby flame top, the feel of the '60s neck, and just a little bit more of that "pop" (or maybe it's a Tennessee country "twang?") on the front end of a note. I also detect a bit more of a natural decay than my Les Pauls have (sustain monsters that they are).

I don't know how many other folks experiment around with strings, but I love to try different gauges, to see how the guitar reacts. I know why Gibson chooses the gauges they use when they ship out guitars: the trebles can take a bit more of a gauge size, because of the scale length. But the bass strings don't need to be heavy in order to speak with plenty of depth: the pickups and the guitars themselves are already voiced with warmth and punch.

Flatwound strings are a whole other world, but it's also a great place to visit, because I love the tone I hear on old Joe Pass and Kenny Burrell records. No good for bending full steps, but fantastic for squeak-free sliding and shifting. The action gets velvety and the balance of the strings is wonderfully even, begging for harmony and chord melody and voice-leading.

I'm not kidding when I say the neck and fingerboard "action" seduces me. It feels inviting: my left hand wants to start and try all of that masterful gymnastics and chemistry of Ted Greene. Alas, if I only had his talent and intellect.

Speaking of a silky kind of seduction, one of my favorite recorded guitar tones is on the Eagles' "I Can't Tell You Why" solo. There seems to be some debate as to whether it was Glenn Frey or Don Felder who actually laid it down in the studio – and it's not exactly a virtuoso barn-burner of technique. But the tone?! Like budahh! ... To die for! And it sure sounds like a clean ES guitar to my ears.

On most stages, in a rock band setting, with amp distortion a big part of the sound, there's no doubt in my mind that a Les Paul is the workhorse. But the family of ES guitars maybe provides a bit more flexibility, especially at lower volumes and cleaner settings.

That extra little bit of front-end cut translates from a Larry Carlton (Mr. 335 — the Maestro, surely) approach, to B.B., to Chuck Berry to Alvin Lee... With a few tweaks, you can get to that tone world where Hank Garland, Jimmy Raney, Howard Roberts, Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow did some of their best work. But there's also Clapton (does not get better than this) ...

... Alex Lifeson, Grant Green, Justin Hayward (Moody Blues) — and Eric Johnson's "Cliffs of Dover" was reportedly a 335! That's a lot of guitar history, right there. Small wonder that eclectic guitarists like John Scofield, Lee Ritenour and Ted Quinlan dig the thin/wide-ass ES body.

Although I own and love an ES-345, I noticed in some photos and video from live gigs that the big-ass size of the guitar made me look a bit like a small child whose uncle had lent him his guitar to play. At 5' 8" and shrinking, the size of the Les Paul suits me better. But the pursuit of the elusive Holy Grail of tone: Ahhh, folks – I'm going to see if it comes in the size and shape of a 356.

Posted: 3/15/2011 12:00:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Advice to a 10th Grade Music Student

Every year, I get a few requests from young high schoolers or college kids, who have been given an assignment to interview someone “famous” and bring the evidence back to class to share.

I recently sent an e-mail to the son of an old friend who had contacted me, and I figured, “What the heck – share this...”

Here are his questions and my answers:

How would you define success?

Success is fulfillment (or, at least, always aiming towards fulfillment – intention, if not necessarily successful outcomes all the time): for me, always – happiness and security for the people I love. A comfortable self-image and self-awareness as one feels/considers the orbit of the seven circles that run through their heart and soul:

1.Family and friends – love and friendship.
2.Community – virtuous social behavior (seven virtues: boil it down to Golden Rule and acting in good faith).
3, 4 and 5.The 3 levels of government that you get to vote at [municipal, provincial, federal] – political, social and cultural participation: being a conscientious citizen.
6.Citizen of the planet earth. (Leave the campsite the way you found it? Better than you found it?)
7.Tiny speck in the infinite universe. (God? Mother Nature? Why are we here? Why are you here? What will you do with your short little dance on this little blue ball that circles the sun?)

What is your occupation? How long have you been doing what you’re doing? Have you had any other jobs?

Singer/songwriter /musician/guitarist. Started singing in the choir as an 8-year-old. Started writing songs when I was about 11. Got very serious about professional guitar playing when I was 17, and joined the musician’s union, playing weddings, bar mitzvahs, gigging weekends in a country band, etc.

I had part-time jobs as a drugstore delivery boy, a pin-jam-clearer in a bowling alley, a vacuum operator in a car wash, a drop-in center gym instructor, a camp counselor, a public school teaching assistant and a music teacher [both privately and in summer music schools].

Did you have any special training to get where you are now? If so, what kind?

I’ve only got a Ph.D. from the School of Hard Knocks.

I spent one semester in the music program at Humber College, but that experience only reinforced my suspicion that I was not an academic, but a performer. Ironically, I am now on the faculty in that program, and have been awarded an honorary diploma. I teach music business, songwriting and consult on the graduate year recording program (directed studies).

What changes have you experienced throughout your working life?

Far too many to list. A career in show business is all about constant change: the digital age has only increased the rate of change to the speed of light [the rate of bits and bytes flowing through fiber optic cable, and bouncing off satellites]. You have to be light on your feet, keeping centered and balanced. It’s a tricky challenge, and never completely successful. But “success” is often measured by simple survival. (Maybe that should have been part of the answer to question #1. Change, morph, adapt.) The biggest changes happen to the business around me, and therefore my role and my image and my work must adapt to those changes. But the biggest change inside me is to try and maintain my own sense of purpose, and my integrity and dignity, even as I get older and my skill set, um, matures – and the business swirling around me creates its own pressures and compromises. This is delicate and gentle diplomacy, these arts and crafts: to be able to compromise, collaborate and cooperate, without sacrificing any of one’s own sense of dignity and integrity. Sounds easier than the way it plays out. One requires a strong personal moral compass, combined with great humility in the face of the infinite challenge of music-making.

How did you cope with these changes?

The best that I can. I make a whole bunch of mistakes. And I get knocked down fairly easily. But I’m also fairly predictable: when I get knocked down, I get back up on my feet again, and try to find my center of balance. Long ago, I decided I could never win the war: it was all about trying to fly under the radar, and fight a kind of guerilla campaign, and just win the minor, um, engagements, here and there – try to pick my own moments, and remain the master of my own destiny in a small, humble way.

The single constant I remind myself about; I see the same face in the mirror every morning. It’s my own head that I have to reconcile with, when it hits the pillow every night. If I want to like that guy I see, and sleep well with him, I’d better make choices that keep him satisfied.

You have to know yourself. I get myself in trouble when I lose sight of who I am, and forget who I am, and what I’m made of. This is not heroic talk, by any stretch. It is, however, about a sense of integrity.

How did these changes influence your career path?

I hitched my wagon to rising stars and partners early on, and learned a great deal, and had some very lucky success from some right-thing-at-the-right-time opportunities. I’ve also made some career choices that were extremely difficult, when it came to “integrity,” and some things that you go through are also very much about how time plays into the equation. Over the years, I eventually downsized to an indie, self-employed, artist who decided that – as it says in my bio – a unique artist can still keep going strong if the career path is based on being a loyal friend to one’s gifts, instead of being a slave to fashion (with luggage to match). The less luggage I carry along, the easier it is to handle, with my aging capabilities. This may just be a fancy way of saying – keep it simple, stupid.

A sense of humour is also critical, I truly believe. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. And also at the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Are you happy doing what you are doing now?

Yes. It is satisfying. I still consider myself very lucky to get the opportunities that come my way. I still make a lot of mistakes, but I find that audiences and fans are very gracious, forgiving and willing to cut me plenty of slack and give me latitude, as long as I show my concerns and pay service to their expectations of me. (There is no point in denying a hall-of-fame lifetime career of luggage: I just don’t want to get buried under it, and lose my sense of direction.)

What have you learned from the variety of experiences you have had and roles you have played?

Not to get too far up or down, not to swing too far left or right: all that talk about balance and even keel makes good common sense. I always say to students – don’t let your own ego get out in front of the music: let the music lead you and tell you what it needs. Humility in the face of the infinite challenge: it keeps the focus in the right place. It’s not about rich and famous. It’s about the work. It’s about enjoying and loving the process. I love the chance to make music. I may not be the world’s greatest, and I may not even be having a great night, but if I always show people that I love that opportunity, and I remain dedicated to the work, with good faith, it seems to work out more often than not.

Paul McCartney was the eternal optimist in The Beatles, and a song like “We Can Work it Out” resonates because I think he believes it’s true. Whether it was/is or not, he was being honest. Honest work is cleansing – healthy.

What advice would you give to a grade 10 student who is beginning to plan for their future?

Plan for a future that will change even more rapidly than it does now. It’s not about fearing change: it’s about how you embrace it and integrate it into your own vision and mission. Know your limitations, and be realistic. Don’t keep disappointing yourself by setting short-term goals that you can’t achieve. Set short-term goals that you can accomplish, and make yourself into a winner: someone who can believe in yourself.

And at the same time, plan for a future where you can put your heart and soul into the work you do, whether you are a poet or a plumber, a kindergarten teacher or a Ph.D. There is honour and dignity – integrity – in every choice you get the chance to make, so take the time to ask yourself – Who is the best me that I can imagine? And what choice would that “best me” make?

Make those choices consistently, and you will become the best you that you can be.

Posted: 1/26/2011 12:00:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

What Made Lester’s Guitar Design Such a Classic?

Why do I prefer a Gibson Les Paul?

I prefer the aesthetics of Gibson, and their ergonomics.

Aesthetics are found in things like the body shape and size and contours: the fretboard bindings, fretboard inlays, the tulip pegs. The Gibson vibe is classy, and elegant. I’ll come back to this later.

Mostly, it's a “feel” thing, and I love the way a Les Paul feels. When I get the strap length just right, I love how it hangs on my shoulder, and how it presents itself to my hands. I love how the string plane is up off the face of the guitar — makes it easier for me to dig in. And my right hand can rest on the perfect height of that tune-o-matic bridge, with the strings falling away towards the tailpiece, or curl my picking hand down around the bottom of the string plane, without a volume knob getting in the way. (Not great technique, I know, but I’m a leftie playing right-handed, so something had to give, and it’s my picking style, known as West Toronto Brutal Make-Do.) I always remove Gibson pickguards, and prefer having that open space below the first string, and I prefer that lovely gap between the neck and bridge pickups.

A Gibson Les Paul has the vibe of an old-fashioned arched top, 17-degree angled headstock, and four-degree neck-body angle. The guitar wraps around me: it's sexier, and a Les Paul is the right size for a 5’ 8” dude like me.

The 24 ¾” scale length makes bending easier, and also makes it easier for grabbing wider voicings/fingerings, plus things like thumb-wrapping-over-the-top voicings. (The slim taper ’60s neck helps with that, too.) Gibson frets, traditionally, were usually higher and wider. I also prefer having 22 frets instead of less. I do prefer the '60s slim-taper necks of Gibson. For my hands, that neck profile just feels soooo good: if the guitar is set up right, it plays like butter.

The chambered body of my Les Paul Classic reissue is a big plus for me: it’s not just a case of reduced weight (although that was a big concern for a middle-aged guy who spent too many years lugging doublenecks around on big stages and doing a lot of headbanging and mane-waving). Even the tone of the chambered body appeals to me: it starts to head towards a 335. The notes get a bit more “thunk” or “pop” to the front end of them, as opposed to the very even and smooth sustain from a full mahogany body.

Let’s not forget tone. While other designs and makes may have plenty of cut, I find that Gibson punches, and is fatter and creamier. The shorter scale length is more conducive to darker, creamier tones, too. To my tastes, a Gibson has a better “pure” tone, unadulterated through a clean amp — which is probably why jazz players usually tend towards a Gibson-style guitar. A Gibson Les Paul’s powerful humbucking double-coil pickups can give you that range of old jazz tones, but can also go all the way up through the warmth and brighter punch of Clapton “Bluesbreaker” Cream-era rock sound (well – chasin’ Freddy King tone, right?) — and how about Allman Brothers, early Santana, early Lukather Toto, Gary Moore, Jimmy Page, and even Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow tones? Robben Ford has been using one of Larry Carlton's old Goldtops for the last few years, and it sounds killer. Nowadays, Warren Haynes and Joe Bonamassa are doing great things with Pauls. That’s more than enough company to convince me.

But — having said all that — it's important to note that Les Paul invented the guitar because he wanted clean, bright, snappy, sustaining tone: the solid body guitar was designed originally to compete with the country snap and twang of Leo Fender’s bright ideas — and a Les Paul can give a satisfying amount of that clean country/jazz tone, too. But it becomes a game of what amp settings one employs, and what pedals and amounts of overdrive one uses. That game is infinite. So I prefer to try and get back to basics — what can my hands create on a straightforward amp setting? What guitar lends itself to that approach?

One of the huge reasons to love a Les Paul is sustain – no matter what, a Les Paul has what I would describe as an authoritative voice. Play it unplugged, and try notes all over the neck, playing it hard and soft, to see how it responds to dynamics, and you'll realize that a well set-up Les Paul has a kind of sustain and ring to it that other guitars just don't have. My Les Paul passes the blindfold touchy-feely-listening sessions. Check out guitars in this most basic way: play a note in first position, play it again up in the middle of the neck, play it again way up the neck — the guitar just has a good “voice” to it, no loss in output, or sustain, but with changes in color. Plugging it in will only enhance that, usually.

Finally — vibe. The intangible. This goes back to the aesthetics I mentioned earlier. I just feel right when I’m wearing my Les Paul, so it inspires cool things (the same thing I get from wearing a good suit and an expensive shirt — or a totally comfortable, relaxed ensemble — but mostly, the right shoes with the right outfit!).

Sometimes I can get that extraordinary feeling, playing a passage, and it just seems like it came from somewhere else ... like the notes are just channeling through me and the instrument. That's vibe ... it's that you have the right guitar in your hands at that moment. For me, the odds increase when I have a Les Paul in my hands. We are always in pursuit of an elusive quality: but I think we end up choosing a guitar because it suits our personality and character. I never got the chance to meet Lester, but like thousands of others, I think we share something special.

Posted: 11/3/2010 12:00:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Portrait of the Guitarist as a Musician Who Becomes an Artist

It’s an honor to have a blog here on, and I’ll try to do the opportunity justice. It’s been about 15 years or so since I wrote a monthly column for Guitar Player magazine, but guitarists I meet [some who have even risen to professional status!] occasionally mention that my scribblings had a positive influence on them somewhere back in the day. So - that got me thinking - what might make a good beginning for this new adventure?

What makes amateur guitarists take the leap, to begin to see themselves more as musicians, then perhaps even as artists?

It’s not just a question of accumulating chops, because we’ve all seen and heard guitarists who have fairly limited “gifts” and/or technique & theory to draw upon, yet they manage to reveal great imagination and passion in their music-making.

And I think that’s the first, big, necessary quality – imagination. Hand in hand with that is a developing ability (and desire) to communicate on an emotional level. And certainly, these things require a confidence, an ego that can withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Some may see this as a kind of craziness, or at least a passion (maybe bordering on obsession), but MTV labeled certain qualities as being “Driven,” and there has to be some combustible fuel from somewhere.

When a guitarist expands consciousness to consider more than the challenge of fingers and hands getting notes correct, and starts to encompass the vision of those notes in a much bigger landscape – the music, the mood, the “whole” being greater than the sum of the parts – a musician has begun to evolve from the guitarist.

Then the musician begins to consider originality, and feels a need for self-expression. Playing studies and exercises seems somewhat beside the point: performing covers, even perfectly, isn’t really on the agenda anymore. But an arrangement that reveals a personal kind of truth? This becomes a priority, as a musician seeks, and starts to discover his or her own “voice”: now an Artist emerges.

An artist believes in a personal vision, and commits to it. Artists take chances based on their own “sense” of what feels right to them. An artist maintains a pursuit of truth, and hopes to continue to evolve and develop this “voice.”

A long time ago, with a tongue somewhat planted in my cheek, I offered a Six Point Hero List, so that guitarists could perhaps identify some of the traits separating them from the Yardbirds alumni of Beck, Clapton & Page.

These Six Points were:

  • Technique
  • Creativity
  • An experimental nature
  • A dramatic, theatrical performance quality
  • An awareness of tradition, and…
  • Timing (being the Right Thing in The Right Place at The Right Time)

I also compiled a list of Eight Basic Secrets: the things that separate wheat from chaff. The Eight Secrets were:

  • Emotion, soul, feeling, personality, interpretation
  • Attitude, desire, intellectual hunger, persistence
  • Timing, feel
  • Melodic sense
  • Harmonic sense
  • Physical technique
  • Mental approach
  • Tone – sound

These Eight qualities flesh out the Three True Musician Fundamentals: Tone, Taste and Feel. Of these, FEEL is the fundamental building block of everything. A guitarist, working his/her way towards public performance, must develop the ability to play in time, and to lock in with other musicians, and then to listen to what’s happening and find a way to blend in with that, complement it, sometimes ride on top of those sounds and sometimes sublimate their efforts to become a cog (or maybe even a bit of a ghost!) in the machine.

Those are my thoughts for my inaugural blog. Feel free to respond with comments here at You can also find me posting regularly in my member’s forum at, and the complete series of four books of my series, For The Love of Guitar, is available as a CDR full of 284 pages of PDFs on all kinds of basic (and not-so-basic) guitar stuff.

Posted: 9/20/2010 12:00:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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