Prince plus Fender Stratocaster (This counts as news in my world II)

I’ve been a Prince fan since I was a teenager, although I have to admit to losing interest in his records during the 1990s, he’s still in my book one of the greatest artists of all time. Back in the days of Parade and Sign O’The Times I was actually a pretty obsessive Prince fan. Those records from Dirty Mind to SOTT (and probably 50% of Lovesexy) were just fantastic.

Was just scanning the news and found this nice article on Prince’s lost gems by The Guardian.

At the top of the article is The Wee Purple Groove Hobbit with a Fender Stratocaster.

Photo hotlinked from The Guardian website

Although Prince is a famous Telecaster player, his classic instrument was actually a  Hohner Madkat Tele copy. So it’s interesting (if you are a guitar geek like me) to see him with a Strat. You can tell it’s a strat because of the pointy angle on the headstock opposite the tuning keys. The Tele headstock is thinner and more rounded. But it could also be he has some kind of partscaster or special edition he had built for him by Fender or a minion luthier.

Anyway. Prince and a Strat. That is all.

GAS Update — Bass Exchange and No Love for Cheap LPs

It’s been a while since I’ve written about guitars and Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Although I’ve not made any major purchases, I have been somewhat active

I said goodbye to my Dean EAB acoustic electric bass. This was sad, as I enjoyed playing it. But it was necessary, as getting any kind of signal out of it and into Garageband seemed impossible. Weedy passive pickups. I advertized on Craigslist and got $100 for it. So 6 months of ownership cost me about $40 after buying new in December. That’s pretty good value.

I put the money from the EAB towards a solid bodied pure electric bass. The Craigslist market was very quiet (only very high end or very low end instruments available), so I decided to buy new. After checking out the Squier range at Guitar Center for an hour or so, I plumped for a Squier Vintage Modified P-Bass in amber. It’s a lovely looking guitar and I’m pretty pleased. It cost me $225 before tax and after haggling.

Getting good bass tone into Garageband continues to be a challenge however, as the interfaces I use (M Audio Fastrack or Apogee Jam) seem to clip easily at low frequencies, but then roll off in gain just an octave above. Ultimately this will require investment in some kind of DI box, EQ or analog compressor to fix, but I am not sure how. It might also be that I  chose the wrong bass. I liked the mighty low-end thunk of the P-Bass, but it could be that the multi pick-up Jazz bass or Jaguar might’ve been easier to work with. Or I perhaps should’ve looked at a second hand Ibanez with active pickups or similar. But at least the P-Bass is a step forward.

The only other purchase I’ve made is an M Audio Keystation 32 MIDI controller keyboard. This is a very compact device that can be used for playing software instruments on a Mac or iPad (which is the reason I bought it).

There is of course still one slot open in my guitar collection. I don’t own a Les Paul type guitar; solid mahogany body with set-neck and dual humbuckers. I wouldn’t mind getting one, but I find it difficult to work up any enthusiasm for those in my price range, which currently is less than $300. In order to get an ‘on-brand’ model you need to spend $400 to get an Epiphone Les Paul Standard, which is the cheapest one they do with a set neck. Below that we’re talking bolt-on necks and basswood/agathis bodies. Even if they’re any good wouldn’t expect them to sound like a real LP.

My cursory experience playing Epis in stores is also, unfortunately, that they often have some really serious fit and finish problems (poor setups and neck twist being very common), so I’m really not feeling the GAS.

There are some really nice off-brand LP type guitars such as Paul Reed Smith SEs, Michael Kelly Patriots, but they’re priced similarly to the higher end Epiphones. $500…$600 and up.

On paper, the best deal out there for an LP type guitar appears to be the Ibanez ART100, which is only $350. With a mahogany body and set mahogany neck it checks all the boxes too. I really love the used Ibanez Artcore hollowbody I picked up earlier in the year, so this looks the most attractive value option in the LP world. But I don’t feel any pressing need. If something comes up on Craigslist with an attractive starting price (say around $200), then I might be tempted. But unfortunately Craigslist in Phoenix is clogged up with the same old Epi Les Pauls, priced at nearly new levels and that– surprise surprise– fail to sell.

So that’s it. The GAS update. Nothing much cooking. In a way this is a good thing — I can turn my attention to the really important stuff, which is of course playing what I already have.

What’s the point?

While writing the Les Paul post in the Guitarchetypes series, I seriously lost the will to live. I began to wonder if this blog was really such a good idea after all, especially if I’m not enjoying writing it. I think I started feeling like that because I committed myself to writing 5 posts on the five different types of guitar. I’d locked myself into a pattern I couldn’t break. So that’s why I dashed off the ES335 one as quickly as I could.

But the whole Guitarchetype concept does have a point I feel. As I said at the outset, these 5 guitars should be the cornerstones of any collection. Of course what I really meant is that these are the guitars I aspire to have in my collection. They’re all distinctive classics that I believe can be justified on musical grounds. A painter needs a palette of colours to work with, no?

So really this whole Guitarchetype thing was just an extended setup to pose the question:

What kind of guitar do I want to get next?

I already have a nice flat top acoustic (Guitarchetype I) and a Fender Stratocaster (Guitarchetype II). So next it has to be either a Telecaster, Les Paul or ES335 type.

Please note; I believe that these five guitars represent types, I don’t necessarily think I need to own exactly these guitars. In an ideal world I would, but they are just so expensive. Especially the Gibsons cost over $2k each, even used. I just don’t have that kind of disposable income.

But there are a huge range of options within these types. For the ES335 it would be possible to get the Epiphone version rather than the Gibson, or instead go Gretsch or Ibanez Artcore. For a Les Paul I could consider an Epiphone or a similar ESP-LTD type.

I am looking for maximum bang for my limited bucks and I don’t know yet where I will find it.

Guitarchetypes V: Gibson ES335

Chuck Berry. BB King. Lots of other blues dudes I guess I could look up on Wikipedia. John Lennon’s Epiphone Casino. Shoe-gazers. Feedback. Noel Gallagher. Can get an Epiphone Dot Studio (“if Ikea did guiitars”) for 300 bucks at Guitar Center. Ibanez Artcore. Insert picture of Chuck.

Job done. Thank God that’s over with.

Guitarchetypes IV: Gibson Les Paul

Lester William Polsfuss or Les Paul as he was better known was an enormously influential jazz guitarist and studio innovator, active from the 1940s until his death in 2009. Outside of guitar geek circles he is not well known, but amongst the guitarists who came through in the 50s and 60s, particularly in the US, he is an absolute legend.

If you have never heard him, go look up his recordings on Spotify. You will be amazed. He was an incredible virtuoso and pioneered many of the techniques that are used now, both in terms of playing the guitar and also in terms of building a layered, multi-track sound in the studio. It sounds great now, but must’ve sounded like something from outerspace in the 1940s and 50s.

In the 1940s, he also started messing around trying to create a solid-body electric guitar and approached Gibson with his design, rather uninspiringly named The Log. Because that is what it was. A pine log with frets, strings and a pickup. He first approached Gibson just after World War II with the idea of refining his design into a proper instrument, but it wasn’t until after Leo Fender´s Telecaster took off in 1952 that they began to take him seriously and invited him to collaborate with them on a real guitar. The result was the now legendary Gibson Les Paul.

It took however, an Englishman to really show what the guitar was capable of in a rock-blues setting. In 1966 John Mayall released The Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton otherwise known as The Beano Album, due to Clapton´s choice of reading material on the cover.

This was a record of Chicago blues standards, but featured the rabid, manic guitar tones that Clapton wrung out of his 1959 Les Paul Standard. This album took the already vibrant UK blues scene and kicked it to global prominence. The reverberations of Clapton´s fearsome technique and tone were felt globally and from then on the Les Paul became the ultimate blues rock machine. The guitar that Clapton used was one of a limited set produced in the 1959-60 time period where the pickups (by now the Les Paul had two humbucker Patent-Applied-For or PAF) were actually incorrectly made. They were actually overwound, with two many turns of wire around the magnets, but this made gave them a higher output, making them hotter and contributing to Clapton’s tone. Of course for later models, Gibson began deliberately over-winding the pickups, but those original 1959 PAF models are amongst the most sought after and expensive guitars in the world. Only about 1700 were made during this period and you can expect to pay about a half million dollars for one. John McEnroe has a left handed version valued at twice that.

Clapton continued to use dual humbucker Gibson guitars (such as the LP, an SG and an ES-335) through his late 1960s Cream years, before jumping the fence (and perhaps the shark) and defecting to Fender and the Strat in the 70s.

But after Clapton, came the ultimate Les Paul wielder– Jimmy Page. Although of course Page used a variety of different guitars throughout his career, he´ll always be the ultimate Les Paul player in my book. His most famous guitar is also one of the 1700 Les Paul Standards made around 1959. Page proved also proved the versatility of the instrument, taking this guitar that was first designed for jazz, but adopted by blues players and then extracting from it a huge variety of tones, from delicate leads to the heaviest of tectonic riffs.

After Clapton and Page, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac completes the triumvirate of late 60s and early 70s Les Paul Gods. The LP was cemented as the ultimate rock guitar from then on and the lineage continued through Gary Moore, Mick Ronson, Mick Taylor, Marc Bolan, Joe Perry.

During the dark days of poodle metal in the 1980s, the Les Paul was displaced by the Superstrat trend, until Slash and Guns´n´Roses came and rebooted the whole hard-rock genre with Appetite for Destruction in ´87.

The guitar also managed to fight on both sides during the Punk Rock Wars, with both Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols and Mick Jones of The Clash (the eras two defining bands) both using the Les Paul, even though it was also used by that ultimate prog rock brontosaurus Jimmy Page.

LPs and LP type guitars (heavy mahogany body, glued-in ´set´ neck and two humbuckers) remain de-rigeur for heavy rock guitarists to this day.

Like Strats and Teles it’s also possible to get a Les Paul brand-new for less than $200 in Guitar Center, via Gibson’s budget Epiphone brand. And of course you can spend as much as you like on Gibson versions, artist signature editions or hunting down those rare vintage examples.

Guitarchetype III: Fender Telecaster

The Tele was not the first solid body electric, but it was the first to be mass produced. Initially known as the Broadcaster, Leo Fender made the first version in 1948.

The previous two guitarchetypes I’ve written about– the flat top acoustic and the Fender Strat— I actually own. The Telecaster, along with the Gibson Les Paul and ES-335,  I only covet.

It is impossible to think about the Telecaster without also thinking about the Statocaster that succeeded it and in the end has outsold it by an order of magnitude. The Tele was Leo Fender’s first attempt at a solid body electric and its aesthetic remains firmly rooted in the 1940s, whereas the Strat’s design is from the jet age. To attempt an analogy, if the Strat is a Boeing 747, the Tele is a Flying Fortress.

But in terms of construction they’re not that different. The Tele, like the strat is classically made from an ash or alder body, has a bolt-on neck and blonde maple fretboard. The Tele has one less pickup than the Strat, with a single coil at the bridge and another at the neck. The major differences, at first glance, are in styling, with the Tele having flat parallel sides versus the Strat’s highly sculpted body. This sculpting was introduced by Fender to the Strat in response to Tele players complaining that the guitar’s sharp edges could be uncomfortable after extended periods.

But there is more to it than just styling. The Tele has a really distinctive tone, especially when played clean with the bridge pickup selected. On the bass strings it chugs, on the treble it twangs. The Tele remains the go-to instrument for country guitarists.

In rock, two good examples of really distinctive Tele sounds can be found on Prince’s When You Where Mine and Springsteen’s Born To Run (especially the solo).

Apart from Prince and Briuce, there have been many great Tele players in every decade since its introduction. Bluesman Albert Collins was known as The Master of The Telecaster.

There is famous footage of Jimmy Page playing Dazed and Confused on a psychedilc Tele, complete with violin bow. From the late 60s until his death, George Harrison was in the Tele camp.

(The above Youtube video is not actually the Zeppelin footage I was thinking of, but rather an earlier Yardbirds rendition that I stumbled across.)

But of course arguably the greatest Tele player of all, the man who first jumps to mind is the incomparable Keith Richards, whose most famous guitar ‘Micawber’ is a Tele with a humbucker neck pick up taken from a Les Paul that is kept in Open G tuning, with the bottom E string removed and usually featuring a capo at the fourth fret to raise the key to a presumably Jagger-friendly B.

Possibly due to the fact that it sold less, or that the Claptons, Gilmours and Van Halens of this world largely ignored it, the Tele retains a rebel cache that the Strat just does not have anymore. The Tele and the Strat — similarly constructed guitars made by the same company in the same factories– found themselves on opposite sides of the Punk Rock Wars of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Joe Strummer played a Tele, as did Chrissie Hynde and more latterly Graham Coxon and Jonny Greenwood.

Like the Stratocaster, the Tele is available today at a wide variety of pricepoints, from less than $200 for a Squier Affinity, with different models seemingly available at every subsequent $25 interval from there to the cost of a decent car. Vintage specimens are again, highly sought after and highly valuable.

Guitarchetype II: Fender Stratocaster

If you had to get a child to draw a picture of an electric guitar, then they’d probably draw something that looks a lot like a Strat. Lozenge shaped body, softer than the squared-off boxier Telecaster, two cutaways where the bolt-on neck meets the solid body, made from ash (more desirable) or alder (less so). Blonde maple or brunette rosewood fretboard. The classic pickup configuration is three single coils. The sound is precise, resonant, with a sharp attack from the bridge pickup and is warm, round and soulful in the neck position.

The first classic player was arguably Buddy Holly, who pioneered the ‘between bridge and middle positions’ pickup selection by using a matchstick to get that now classic out-of-phase, airy Strat sound. He was followed in the 60s by Hendrix, 70s by Clapton and 80s Stevie Ray Vaughan. But the list of iconic strat players goes on and on; Hank Marvin, Rory Gallagher, Dave Gilmour, Buddy Guy, The Edge. Although Keith Richards is more strongly associated with the Telecaster, he often plays a Strat as well. Jimmy Page unexpectedly picks a Strat over a Les Paul as his first guitar love in the movie It Might Get Loud.

In the 1980s, the Strat also underwent a metamorphosis. Influenced by Eddie Van Halen’s self-built Frankenstrat guitar, makers such as Ibanez, Jackson and Charvel, started creating strat-like guitars with humbucking and active pickups, locking tremolo systems and super-fast necks. These beasts became the weapon of choice for the eighties wave of hair metal and shred players and became known as Superstrats. I used to own a kind of Superstrat-lite: A jet black Japanese built Aria Pro II Wildcat with a humbucker in the bridge position. I got it for my 15th birthday, it was my first decent six string. It fell into disrepair and I gave it away to a friend about ten years later.

I think partly due to this 1980s metal period and the strong association with players such Gilmour and Clapton, the Strat became less than cool by the 1990s, as musicians favoured Les Pauls, Telecasters and semi-hollow guitars instead. The Edge used a black Strat with black pickguard as his main instrument up to and including The Joshua Tree tour, but the time U2 had finished reinventing themselves with Achtung Baby album, he had by and large switched to Gibsons. It is still unusual to see a modern player with any pretensions of hipness using a Strat. Jack White– arguably the most compelling guitarist of this young century– even implicated the Strat in a tirade against “note-pushing Stratocaster white-blues bullshit“. However, I contend the Strat is a design classic. As evocative as an original Coke Bottle, a Coupe de Ville or a Boeing 747. Almost all the great guitarists have at least flirted with them. They’ve been used in the creation of some of the best music ever. Was Electric Ladyland note-pushing Stratocaster bullshit, Jack?

Thanks to Fender, It is now possible to get a Strat for any budget from the very affordable (less than $200 new) Squier Affinity series, through Made in Mexico (‘MIM’) Fender-branded models, to the American Standard and on to expensive artist signature models and Fender Custom Shop creations that go for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. Vintage Strats with the right serial numbers or pedigree sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.

I own a Strat, a Made In Japan Fender sunburst model purchased in 1994 when I got my first pay cheque after university and then paid for in installments, along with a Tascam Portastudio and Trace Elliott Supertramp combo, both of which I also still have.

I love my Strat. It is truly irrepraceable. It’s in storage back in Finland and I miss it very much.