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String gauges

During my first few years as a guitar player, I didn’t have the first clue about string gauges. Sometimes I bought the pink pack (Ernie Ball Super Slinky, .009-.042), sometimes it was the yellow (Ernie Ball Regular Slinky, .010-.046), depending on what they slapped onto the counter when I said I wanted some strings for my Fender. Inevitably, I got less overwhelmed and more picky over the years, and by the time I was 14 or so, I had settled on 10-46. However, it was only two years before we started playing more extreme metal, which seemed to demand downtuning. The guys at the music store recommended 11:s in order to take up the slack, and that worked well for a while, and when I experimented with 10-52 it felt even better. When we gave up the extreme stuff and tuned back up, I got used to the increased tension, and thus I stuck with 10-52 for years and years.

It took a concerted effort for me to go back to regular-gauge strings again. During my formative years, I developed the habit of never practicing through an amplifier, which inevitably made me play harder to compensate, which was exacerbated by the fact that I could seldom hear myself properly on stage. In those years, I developed a hard and rough playing style that not only had my fingers and lower arms fatigued within five minutes on a stage, it was also murder on regular strings. My dad preferred 9-42 strings in those days, and when I borrowed his Fender and hit a chord, you could hear the “bawaiaoum” of the bottom E string hitting F and then settling back on pitch. But a few weeks of proper warm-up exercises and diligent practicing with distortion allowed me to develop a lighter touch and an almost effortless right-hand technique, and thus I was able to go back to Regular Slinkys again.

Making this journey was a massive learning experience, and sometimes you cannot grasp the obvious until it jumps up and hits you right in the face. Here’s what I’ve learned. The feel of a string depends on three factors: length, thickness and pitch. Obviously, it is impossible to change the scale length of a guitar. Furthermore, one tends to prefer a certain tuning standard, mine is standard 440 Hz concert pitch, if nothing else then for the fact that music tends to be a team sport. Once during my downtuning days, I tried to jam with some other guys that were in concert pitch, and it was almost out of control. When they followed me, it was a cacophony since we were two semitones apart, and when I followed them, you could smell the smoke in the room, that’s how hard I had to think. Long story short, the scale length is fixed and you generally want to tune to the same pitch as the other guys and gals, so the only thing that is left to experiment with is the string gauge.

What I learned from my own experiments was that there are even subtler physical things going on with a guitar. When I tuned up to concert pitch back in 1993-94, I started noticing that the intonation was off. I could be in perfect tune and when I checked my intonation at the 12th fret using a tuner, it was spot on. Still, when I played certain chords, they would sound horrible. Open G was especially nasty with the low G audibly sharper then the higher open-string G. I tried lightening my touch, but to no avail. I examined the fretwire to see if maybe my rough playing had worn it down, but it looked all right. The clincher came when my next guitar, the yellow Stratocaster that I still own, developed the same problems after a while. I almost sold it out of sheer frustration. But the problem vanished overnight when I dumped the 10-52 strings for the slightly thinner 10-46. The conclusion was that thicker strings vibrate less at their extreme ends, i.e. next to the nut and bridge, which creates the physical effect of a shorter effective length, i.e. a higher pitch. You also have to expend a bit more energy to fret notes closer to the nut. Ergo, intonation was off on the first few frets, but not on the fifth or 12th frets. The thinner strings were able to vibrate in their full length and make the problem disappear. The last major revelation was that the problem actually hadn’t occurred gradually, I had only been made aware of it gradually. It wasn’t even an issue until I went back to concert pitch on the BC Rich in late 1993, or on the Stratocaster in 2000. As long as I tuned the strings down, the lesser tension enabled a freer range of vibration. I never noticed any problems on the Les Paul that I got in 2001, because it has a shorter scale length and consequently less tension to begin with!

Since about 2008 or so, when I reinvented my guitar technique, I have been constantly experimenting with string gauges (and picks; more about that in a separate article). The biggest variable in the equation is me. I rarely go for more than a few days without picking up a guitar, but when I do, it varies wildly what I do with it, and for how long. If I’m in the middle of a recording project, I might concentrate more on rhythm and clean playing, and if I’m between projects, I might practice the hell out of scales and sequences. If I have been slacking off for a while, 10:s feel too tight on a Fender, but when I get going again and rebuild my chops, I get used to them and they’re perfect. Conversely, 10:s always feel right on a Gibson, but after a few weeks of intense playing, they start feeling flimsy and I am tempted to experiment with 11:s. I just love the beefy feel of 11:s on the shorter-scale Gibsons. They sound monstrous when riffing, and really solid if I want to play more feel-type leads. Even though I seldom shred on record, I like doing it for fun, and with 11:s, it’s like running a 100-meter dash in moon boots. I’m not even going to mention the one time I put an 11-54 set on my Stratocaster, now that was a challenge!

A few years back, I was bothered enough by the tightness of 10:s on a Fender that I tried finding a compromise. One workable solution was a hybrid set, 9-46. It had the correct amount of oomph on the wound strings, but was nice and bendy on the plain strings. Two things, however, ruled that out. First and foremost, it made logistics twice as complicated. I didn’t like the idea of having to keep two different gauges around on the off chance that I would break a string and find myself missing a replacement. Second, I discovered that tension isn’t the only criterion to pay attention to. Sure, the difference between 9 and 10 just about compensated for the extra 0.75 inches of scale length on the Fender. But I didn’t like the lessened resistance of the thinner string against my pick. It’s like I need a certain amount of inertia against my right hand.

So the inevitable conclusion is that the string gauge that works across the broadest possible range of conditions and on all my guitars is the middle-of-the-road 010-046. I simply have to keep my chops up in order to enjoy my Fenders fully!

 
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Posted by on 23 May, 2017 in gear

 

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Marshall Code 25 – nine months later

In August of 2016, I bought the first Marshall Code 25 combo that landed in my regular music store. The initial impression was very positive. How has it held up?

The upside is that the Code 25 is a compact little amp that takes up hardly any space, and I haven’t been inspired to tweak new sounds since a handful of the built-in patches are just fantastic. I have drifted away from my original favorite patches (41 Bluesbreaker, 51 JCM 800 and 67 Silver Jubilee) in favor of 44, 52 and 68, which are basically identical except for the added reverb. Sometimes I do a bit of tweaking on the fly just for variety’s sake, mostly it’s about rolling off the bass, but sometimes I’ll add some chorus when I feel like channeling Mr. Lifeson, and whenever I use it with one of my Fenders, I add a bit more gain. Patch #44, Bluesbreaker with Reverb, with a Fender and the gain at 7 or 8, is a very inspirational sound indeed!

What I don’t like is that the speaker still appears to be underpowered, it just can’t handle the bass frequencies whenever I play with less distortion. It farts out in a very unmusical way. Hence the rolling off of the bass that I mentioned above. I can also report that I still haven’t been tempted to track anything in Reaper with the Marshall. It might edge out the Blackstar ID:30 as an out-of-the-box practice and home shredding amp, but it just can’t do the big, boomy Fender sounds that the Blackstar can, and it doesn’t sound as organic when going from the line out into my sound card. And I do get tired of that classic Marshall master volume taper: inaudible – [scratch] – LOUD AS HELL.

Having said all that, I still think I got my money’s worth and I haven’t regretted my purchase in the slightest. I would recommend this amp to anyone looking for a compact, affordable practice amp. Just don’t expect it to do it all, and if you prefer American sounds, look elsewhere.

 
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Posted by on 22 May, 2017 in gear, review

 

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Pick choices

After playing acoustic and electric guitar for 30+ years, I have come to two major conclusions about picks. Number one is that it is basically pointless to try to state that one particular pick shape or gauge will be more or less suitable for a certain style or genre. Every time I try to offer up a blanket statement about stiffer picks and speed playing, I come across a shredder who plays with medium or even light picks. The first conclusion leads into the second, which is that you should always be on the lookout. Picks are just about the cheapest pieces of equipment, so you can’t afford not to buy every variety there is, and try them out. You never know what is going to be the secret sauce for you.

I played for 23 years before I found the perfect pick for my style, which turned out to be the Dunlop Jazztone 204. On one hand, I was amazed that the simple act of switching picks enabled me to get faster and more accurate overnight. In the spring of 2008, I was convinced that the plateau I found myself on stretched all the way to the horizon. On the other, I’m kind of peeved that it had to be that pick. Sometimes I’m jealous of bass players, or guitar players like Mark Knopfler and Jeff Beck, who express themselves using fingers only, without having to worry about dropping those small but essential pieces of plastic. But I find it more annoying that I can’t just use any old pick. It has to be a very specific and fairly hard-to-find model!

The most obvious thing with the Jazztone 204 is that it is rigid. I have one next to me as I’m typing this, and when I use my thumb as a fulcrum and pull for king and country, I can get it to flex a few tenths of a millimeter. This is no news as far as I’m concerned: when I first got into hard rock and metal guitar, I noticed that I could achieve more speed and more consistency with a stiffer pick. I find that for my playing, more thickness means that I am control over the string release. Over the space of just a few months, I went from faux tortoise shell Fender medium picks (0.7 mm?) to Dunlop Delrin 500 1.14 mm (the cerise one). The next point I want to make about the Jazztone 204 is the cross-section. When I first discovered Dunlop Delrin picks, I noticed that they had beveled edges, and that proved to be vital as well, since the bevel means that the string slides more easily off the pick. (That, incidentally, is why I’m not wild about Dunlop’s 1.5 mm picks. The gauge is just about perfect, but the bevel is assymmetrical: shallower on the back than at the front.) The 204 is even smoother, it is a less pronounced ridge where the pick starts getting thinner towards the edges. Thus far, there is no major difference between a 204 and the Delrin/Gator Grip 2.0 mm. Moving on to the penultimate but perhaps the most important feature: the shape of the tip. The 204 is about as blunt as one of the opposite corners of a more traditional pick, and that appears to be the secret sauce for my playing. The first thing that struck me when I got a 204 and dug into the strings was that someone took 80 per cent of the friction right out of the equation without taking away the tone. I know that some players like the positive feel of a sharper tip, but my playing has evolved so that I happen to prefer the exact opposite. I barely nudge the string, and that works wonders for my speed and stamina. Lastly, the 204 is a jazz-type pick, which means that it is fairly small. To be perfectly honest, I only tried it out because I was distracted by a conversation, had I been fully aware it is unlikely that I would have touched such a weird-looking pick. It almost doesn’t look like a guitar pick! But after a few weeks of intense practicing, I found it hard to go back to a regular pick, they felt like credit cards in comparison!

All of this goodness comes at a price. They aren’t more expensive than any other Dunlop picks, but they are indeed harder to find, and that’s why I tend to hoard them. Whenever the store has them, I buy a couple, and I have about 30 in an Altoids tin at home. No, the drawback is that they are pretty impractical. The classic way to store picks is to squeeze them against the strings against the first fret, and there is simply not enough surface area on the 204. This has become even harder after I started using the Teflon-coated Elixir strings. It is impossible to tuck a 204 underneath the pickguard of a Stratocaster or Telecaster, so I have to use one of those rubber profiles that you stick on a mike stand. And even that is a less than optimal fit. Still, I accept these drawbacks since no other pick gets me that tone and that feel. It’s not that I can’t play if I don’t have a 204 on me. I can use just about anything, a pick, a coin, a credit card, to get a decent sound out of a guitar. It’s just that my muscle memory has reset itself around the feel of a 204 across the strings, so whenever I alter something in that very delicate equation, I lose the top few per cent of my speed and accuracy. Sometimes, I deliberately use a different pick in order to slow down and work on other aspects of my playing. I might use one of the Hendrix picks my parents gave me, just for the mojo. But most importantly: just because I think I’ve found “my” pick doesn’t mean that I have stopped looking. I have to remind myself that I thought I had “it” for almost two decades with the Delrins.

 
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Posted by on 21 May, 2017 in editorial, gear, Uncategorized

 

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Review: Marshall Code 25 combo

I grew up on Marshalls and played them off and on for the first 20 years of my career. It was only when someone forcibly plugged me into a Blackstar that I realized that there even were other brands. Previously it had always been about Marshall, and the only other option would have been Mesa/Boogie. But after this epiphany, I actually started seeing Marshall in a new and not altogether flattering light. As soon as the wool fell from my eyes, they started to appear a bit fuddy-duddy, seemingly too preoccupied with their own excellence, too absorbed by their pedigree and traditions to attempt any sort of innovation. I did try a number of new Marshall products in 2011 and 2012: the Class 5 combo, the first three 50th anniversary 1-watt amps. All of these were fine amps that put a big smile on my face. But as a control measure, I made sure to plug into some form of Blackstar immediately afterwards, and it never failed to amaze me how much more clarity and flexibility I could get out of them for a fraction of the price of the Marshall. My image of Marshall did not improve when they started releasing headphones, hi-fi amplifiers and smartphones. But when they announced the Code range of digital modelling amplifiers, developed with my countrymen from Softube, my curiosity was piqued. It got even more intense when the first sample videos started appearing on Youtube, the buzz got going, and to me, the most important indicator was that the Code amps were impossible to get a hold of for months. I asked my regular music store if they could get one for me and they agreed. This was in April, and the amp arrived in August. During those four months, I went from “I can’t wait to try this amp” to “I gotta have it NOW” on the strength of one glowing review after another. I tried very hard to not want the Code 25. After all, I have been extremely satisfied with my Blackstar ID:30 for three years, and if it ain’t broke, etc. But then it hit me that I didn’t really need the ID:30 either, since between 2010 and 2013 I was perfectly happy with my Fender G-DEC 3 Fifteen. I suddenly recalled what some guy in the store said to me years ago about the second-hand value of digital amps: they’re like computers in that a new model comes out and then you can’t even sell the old one for coffee money. During the long wait for the Code 25, and the constant debate about whether or not to actually buy it, I realized that three years is a long time in this digital era. Last year I bought a fairly recent digital camera and was floored by the technological improvements made since my old model was released in 2005. The Blackstar was a significant improvement over the Fender. So the Marshall should run rings around the Blackstar. Right? Well, let’s have a look:

First of all, a few words in general about the Code range: three combos: 25, 50 and 100 watts, and a 100-watt head. The 25-watt combo has a 10-inch speaker, the 50-watt a 12-inch speaker and the 100-watt combo two 12-inch speakers. All amps have the same software and the same controls, the only difference between them is that the Code 25 has a smaller LCD. I like this setup because if there’s one thing that bothers me with the Blackstar ID:30, it’s the lack of a midrange control. One thing that definitely sold me on the Code range was the aggressive pricing. The Code 25 is almost half the price of the ID:30 when I expected the reverse to be true. Diving into the actual digital contents, you select between a full range of Marshall preamps, and what I can only imagine are simulations of Fender, Vox and Mesa. There are four different power-tube selections and a number of speaker simulations, everything from a 1 x 12 to a full 4 x 12. If you have a smartphone, you can download the Marshall Gateway app and have full control over the amp via Bluetooth, which is kind of nifty. Another great selling point, something I missed sorely from the Fender G-DEC 3, was the ability to insert effects before the preamp. For some reason, I prefer dialing back the gain a little for my lead tone and boosting it back up with a clean boost or overdrive pedal, and I like having a bit of compression on my clean tone before it hits virtual tape. This Marshall lets me do both without having to plug in my pedalboard! The effects block consists of the usual fare: chorus, flanger, phaser, tremolo, delays, reverbs, a pretty cheesy pitch-shifter. About the only real surprise is the Uni-Vibe setting on the phaser, which is actually pretty good! I’m not going to go on and on about the effects, because 1) I haven’t spent that much time figuring them out, possibly related to the fact that 2) I didn’t buy this amp for the effects but for the British overdrive tones.

There are quite a few sweet sounds among the 100 factory presets. I am not wild about factory presets in general, since they tend to be a bit exaggerated, which is understandable, since the manufacturer obviously wants to show off the entire range of the product and they can’t predict the whims of every user. But there are a few zingers in the list. Six weeks after buying the amp, I have actually yet to get around to fine-tuning the thing, because some of these sounds are so damn good. I find myself scrolling between three sounds in particular: nos. 41, 51 and 67, or, a Bluesbreaker sim, a JCM800 sim and a Silver Jubilee sim. No 13 is positively shredtastic: a JCM800 with an overdrive in front and everything on 10! It is quite likely a bit too over the top for recording, but for practicing and general couch shredding it is not far from a dream tone. About the only Marshall tone that doesn’t work is the DSL sim. I have simply no idea what they were thinking when they dialed that one in. And the American sounds are not convincing at all; my Blackstar does one hell of a better job with the blackface Twin sound. Someone commented that the Code series is a good way to try out different Marshall amps and combinations with tubes and cabs to see what works for you. I don’t know about that. Of course I’d like that to be true, but I couldn’t tell, since I simply don’t have enough stick time with any of the models that the Code is supposed to simulate. All I know is that the JCM800 model comes pretty damn close to the proverbial good British metal tone. One thing with the Code 25 that manages to be heartwarmingly charming and amazingly annoying at the same time is the master volume knob, which works just like an old tube Marshall: either too soft or too loud. The one thing that I absolutely do not like with the Code 25 is the speaker. I don’t know if this particular speaker is bad, or if there’s just something about 10-inch speakers, but it farts out if you look at it funny. Single notes can work fine, but chords and dyads on the bass strings and the thing just makes weird noises. Thankfully, the direct signal from the headphone socket sounds fine, and that was the main point behind getting the amp anyway. This is not something I intend to mike up or put behind me on a stage.

The Marshall Code 25 is not going to supplant my Blackstar ID:30, but it complements it very well, and it has given Marshall a bit of a comeback from my perspective. I might very well write a second review when I’ve logged some more hours on it, especially in the studio.

 
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Posted by on 2 October, 2016 in gear, review

 

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Review: Gibson Les Paul 2016 60s Tribute T

There are few things indeed that can beat walking out of a music store with a new guitar. I recently had this pleasure when I bought a new Gibson, the 2016 60s Tribute Les Paul T. For about a year, I have been in the ridiculously privileged position of owning a stable of guitars of outstanding quality, fantastic sound and with basically no annoyances or weaknesses. As the old saying goes, there’s always room for one more. But which one? For years, it’s been back and forth between my two favorite guitars. During odd-numbered weeks, I’ve been convinced that the Stratocaster is my first love and that what I really want is a maple-neck American Standard. The next week I’ve realized that I’ve been an inveterate Les Paul player for 15 years, and I’ve dreamt of owning a sunburst Standard for about 30 years. But desirable as these guitars might be, neither will enable me to do something new. Neither will give me a new sound. If I am to spend thousands of crowns on a new guitar, it’s not enough to convince my heart, I also need to convince my brain. And the older I get, the more difficult it gets to justify the huge expense of a Les Paul Standard or Custom.
As stated in a previous review, it was quite the revelation to plug in a 2015 Les Paul Special with P90 pickups. It was quite frankly the nicest clean sound I have ever heard, way more massive than the Fender single-coil sound, but at the same time a lot crisper than a humbucker. The P90 has almost an acoustic quality to it, you can really hear the vibrating metal of the string! It even sounds awesome (if noisy!) with distortion: it drives the amp pretty hard and has that extra pick attack that tells you instinctively that this is not a humbucker. My problem with the 2015 Special was that it was a 2015 model. I don’t care for the wider neck, adjustable nut or ugly logo, and the first thing I’d do were I to buy one would be to disassemble and sell off the G-Force tuning system. To my immense satisfaction, it turned out that the 2016 range included a proper Les Paul with P90:s, and when I finally got to try one, I bought it inside of ten minutes!
I still like the Les Paul Studio, but ever since they started turning upmarket (they’re currently 16000 crowns, 60% more expensive than the 50s and 60s tribute models), I’ve been increasingly iffy about purchasing one. The tribute models might just be the bargains of the entire 2016 Gibson range. For just under 10000 crowns, you will get a US-made Gibson Les Paul, with either P90 or humbucking pickups, in a small but nice selection of finishes, and with few compromises, most of which are aesthetic in nature. (And, admittedly, most of which you would get on a Studio model as well!) These guitars don’t come with hard cases but a small padded gigbag, which is not a dealbreaker for me even though it might be for you. Otherwise it’s the usual Studio fare: unbound body and neck and a not especially flamey maple top. The sides and back of the body and neck are finished in opaque black, likely to hide the fact that the bodies are glued together from several smaller pieces of mahogany. If you get the 50s version with humbuckers, be aware that you get the old-school wiring, so there is no possibility to split the coils.
Both the 50s and 60s tribute models come in three finishes: black, tobacco sunburst and honeyburst, and with the former you also get a goldtop option. I already have two black Gibsons, and I wanted the 60s tribute, so it was basically a choice between the two sunbursts. A note to the wary: Gibson’s photos of these guitars simply do not do the finishes justice! The Honeyburst appears to be way more faded and brownish than it turns out to be in real life. I was amazed when I pulled it out of the gigbag, it was so beautiful! One of the nicer details with these guitars is the satin finish. It is wonderfully smooth, especially on the neck, where it allows a bit of the natural grain to come through, for a very nice feel.
The one thing I can’t wrap my head around is the way Gibson differentiates between 50s and 60s models in this range. If someone says “50s tribute” to me, then I immediately imagine the proverbial Les Paul, a humbucker-equipped flame-top sunburst. But if you mention two models, a “60s tribute” in addition to the 50s, then I think in different terms. Then the 60s tribute is the sunburst with humbuckers and the 50s tribute the goldtop with P90 single-coils. In the 2016 range, Gibson have managed to get this almost completely the wrong way around. The 60s tribute has the P90:s and the 50s tribute the humbuckers and goldtop. It’s a shame, since I really, really wanted a 1956-style P90-equipped goldtop. But I shouldn’t complain, since the honeyburst is so much nicer than I had imagined! And the more I think about it, the more I enjoy the thought of owning a 57-style goldtop with humbuckers.
This “review” makes one serious omission which I’m now going to address. The Gibson 2016 range actually consists of two distinct subranges: Traditional and High Performance. The former is basically the way you would expect things from Gibson: standard tuners, standard bone nut, standard neck width and the old-fashioned neck joint. The latter continues the modernization efforts started with the controversial 2015 range: robot tuners, a wider neck and an adjustable nut (this time in titanium!). New for 2016 is the improved-access neck joint. My music store only stocks the Traditional guitars, so I cannot make any statements about the HP range. However, I can imagine that I would enjoy the shaved-down neck heel.
 
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Posted by on 29 May, 2016 in gear, review, Uncategorized

 

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Review: Gibson 2015 Les Paul Special

In 2012 I bought my fourth electric guitar, a Gibson SG Standard, and completed my collection of classic rock guitars. Since then, I’ve added a further three guitars to my line-up: a Taylor steel six-string, a 12-string and an Alhambra nylon-string. These seven axes along with my wife’s Jazz Bass give me basically any kind of tone I could conceivably need. This is the most logical stopping-point I have come across since I bought my Les Paul in 2001 and had two electrics for the first time in a decade. But it isn’t enough. It’s never enough. How many guitars does a guy need? Always one more. Therefore, after getting the nylon-string in January last year, I started thinking about the subject pretty seriously. What do I need? Irrelevant. What do I want? That’s the better question. The first thing that always seems to pop into my mind whenever I ask myself that question is a maple-neck Fender Stratocaster. The second thing seems to be a Les Paul Standard of some kind. That’s all and well. Except that it doesn’t really allow me to do something new. One train of thought led me to consider a seven-string guitar, or a six-string shred guitar with a Floyd Rose, or both. Another had me looking at more 60s-inspired designs, like a Rickenbacker 330 or an Epiphone Casino. Last weekend, I spent two hours at the music store, mostly trying out Stratocasters and Les Paul Standards. Towards the end, I was kind of in a bit of despair, since I just didn’t like any of the Gibsons I tried, and none of the Fenders were any good-looking. Then my eye fell upon a Les Paul Special in Heritage Cherry, and I thought, what the hell, and picked it up.

The Les Paul Special is basically a low-end Les Paul, with a flat-topped mahogany body (no arched maple top), simplified controls and usually single-coil P90 pickups. This particular model is part of the 2015 range, so it is a double-cutaway guitar with no pickguard. I have never played on P90 pickups in my entire life, the closest I ever came was a 1956 Les Paul reissue I picked up and played unplugged in another music store a few years ago. I’ve almost always been a humbucker guy, so I’ve never been very interested in P90:s. My loss, it turns out now. I played the guitar through the clean channel of a Blackstar HT Metal 5, and I have never heard a nicer clean tone. P90:s, it seems, have a bigger, fatter, brasher sound than the comparatively small Fender single-coils. It just sounds fuller, less toppy, less brittle. I almost didn’t want to put the guitar back, it was so fun to noodle around! The best bit is that Gibson have put a reverse polarity/reverse-wound neck pickup into the guitar, so whenever you select the middle position of the pickup switch, any buzz or noise just disappears.

I very much enjoyed the body shape, and the wraparound one-piece bridge and tailpiece actually felt more natural to my picking hand than the Tune-O-Matic bridge that I’m very much used to by now. The bridge compensates for intonation issues via staggered ridges, and even then, there are tiny set screws that allow you to fine-tune the thing even further. Honestly, I don’t worry about this issue at all, not since I tried Paul Reed Smiths with the same set-up. The absence of independent tone and volume controls for the two pickups (the Les Paul Special has master volume and master tone only) wasn’t much of an adjustment. I play both Fenders and Gibsons, so I am accustomed to the pros and cons with both systems. The master volume solution gives you control no matter what, and the dual-volume allows you to preset two different tones if you wish.

The only drawback that I could find (other than the G-Force robot tuners, that is!) was the very limited access to the upper frets. Anything above the 20th fret basically requires a new hand position to reach those high D:s, E:s and, conditionally, F:s. This is a bit of a conundrum, because I know I’ll be getting a guitar that has a well-known limitation like this. Then again, I am probably not going to use this guitar for the same sort of stuff for which I use my current Fenders and Gibsons. I’d probably reserve a Special for cleans or possibly regular crunch, anything but screaming leads. It is a blues, rock and possibly punk machine. Still, it’s something that I know is going to go on nagging in the back of my mind. Therefore, I didn’t put my credit card down on the counter. Instead, I’m going to wait and see what the 2016 Les Paul 60s Tribute sounds like. It’s a trade-off, I suppose: a familiar body shape with decent upper-fret access. But I liked the feel of the flat, single-cut body. A new body shape forces you to think and to play in new ways.

 
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Posted by on 20 September, 2015 in gear, review

 

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Review: Gibson 2015 models

I am obviously very, very late to the Gibson-2015 party, since from what I’ve gathered, Gibson has already been flying in their 2016 models under the radar, at least over in North America. I have to admit that I’m horrible at this whole blogging thing. I mean, what the hell, this is my first post this year!! So here it is, more than six months overdue.

Life as a Gibson fan has not been especially pleasant in the past few years. I liked the 2014 models a lot: the Les Paul Futura was especially impressive with its humbucker/P90 combination, the nicely implemented boost and the cool colors. The Studio Pro was really neat, that cherry sunburst is an awesome take on the classic Gibson finish. I just didn’t care for the 120th Anniversary marker behind the 12th fret, it was jarring to the eye. I don’t know about you, but when I spent that much money on a new guitar, it must be perfect, and then I mean in every possible sense of the word. If I had known then what I know now, I would not have been so upset over a 12th-fret inlay.

The 2015 range is, in my humble opinion, bloody awful. Of course they’re pretty, with the sunbursts and the triple-A flamed maple tops, but that’s par for the course for Gibson. We’ve come to expect nothing less over the years. The first thing that struck me was that the store hadn’t put a price tag on any of the 2015 Standards. I know exactly what this means: if you have to ask, it means that you cannot afford it. So I asked, and the guy told me straight up that the philosophy for this year was to jack up the prices 25% to put Gibson closer to boutique makers such as PRS in price, if not in quality and image. One of my constant daydreams during the past 30-odd years has been to own a Les Paul Standard and a Les Paul Custom, and when he told me this, I realized that the only way I could fulfill the dream would be to go for used guitars. There is just no way I’ll shell out close to 30 Swedish grand for a guitar and I don’t care how good it looks or how well it plays. It has to beat my 25-year-old Les Paul Studio at everything hands down, and it turns out that few guitars do.

Then we come to the issues with the actual guitar. Looks are important. I’ll come clean and say it. And the new guitars are ugly as hell. I don’t care for the new logo, not one tiny bit. I respect the hell out of Les Paul the man, but I don’t need his shaky autograph on the headstock of my ridiculously expensive new guitar. I want the “Les Paul Model” logo! The new adjustable brass nut is okay. I appreciate the utility of it, since it gives me a whole lot more flexibility in adjusting the action, for instance if I want to set the guitar up for slide guitar. And then, the tuners. Those tuners. They tie into the price discussion mentioned above, because I would not only have to budget for a Les Paul Standard, a DiMarzio Cliplock strap and a set of Elixir 10-46 Nanowebs. I would also have to plink down 1000+ crowns for a set of replacement tuners! I have tried the Min-ETune/G-Force robot tuners. They were fun – once! I was amused by the novelty of pressing a button, strumming the strings, and watching how the guitar tuned itself. And after that first time, I wanted to go back to what I always do: play a bit, strum a chord and then fine-tune the strings that have gone sour. Only then did I realize that I had to turn the tuning peg about five times to bring the string up a quarter-note. And the tuners for the wound strings are the wrong way around, like the guitar was restrung by an amateur! Not to mention the mechanical resistance you feel when trying to tune manually. I also got the feeling that these tuners were decidedly less reliable, since I was forced to retune every two minutes.

There are a few features of the new Gibsons that I do very much enjoy. One is the push/pull volume controls for coil-tapping the humbuckers. I have even considered installing coil-taps on the two Gibsons that I own, so getting it set up that way from the factory is very nice. I have nothing against a built-in boost per se, but this is one thing that is implementation-dependent. I have always shied away from active electronics since I always imagine that the battery will wear out when I least want it to. A clean boost or mid-boost has to be set up so that you can still use the vanilla guitar when you run out of juice. Then it has to be unobtrusive. Last year’s Futura model did it nicely: the boost was controlled via a push/pull pot, so you couldn’t tell even up close that the guitar was hot-rodded. This year’s “Classic” model replaced one of the tone controls with a toggle switch, which is at best extremely ugly. What’s “classic” about that model, I wonder.

I am not alone in all of this. But the grim satisfaction didn’t take hold until I heard that Gibson was forced to dump the prices just to get rid of the 2015 models. Guitar Center ordered whole batches of special-production guitars sans all the 2015 “innovations”. And from what I’ve understood, Gibson have rushed out the 2016 models, and notice if you will that none of them sport the nonsense that Gibson tried to force on us with the 2015 range. I am intensely pleased that the market has spoken and uttered a very firm NO, and that the manufacturer has listened! The only sad part in all of this is that we have a bunch of dealers worldwide that are sitting on hundreds of thousands’ worth of stock that is going to be fairly tough to get rid of. I feel their pain. But for Gibson, the only thing I can muster is schadenfreude. Then, having said that, 2016 might just be the year I buy a new Gibson!

 
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Posted by on 19 September, 2015 in gear, review

 

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