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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 Uncategorized, editorial, gear


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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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