Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Guitar Next Door: 2006 Gibson Custom 1958 Les Paul VOS

Exercise caution when striking up a conversation with someone at Guitar Center who turns out to manage the Gibson Custom shop. You may end up with a reissue 1958 Les Paul VOS, today’s Guitar Next Door.

Gibson claims the VOS or “Vintage Original Spec” is their most accurate reproductions of the classic late ‘50s models yet. They accurately recreate all of the original instruments' features and characteristics. This example is in the original Cherry Sunburst of the 1958 model year and includes Gibson’s hand-carved plain maple top and solid mahogany body. Some of the period accurate recreations are the vintage style tulip tuners mounted in a straight line, long neck tenon, Burstbucker pickups, and what Gibson calls an accurate rounded ’50s neck profile (shaped like a baseball bat). Does all this attention to historical accuracy do anything for tone and playability? You bet it does.

This guitar even sounds great unplugged. Plug it in though (a Marshall DSL 401 in this case) and the fun begins. I hear the Eric Clapton / Jimmy Page tone burned into my brain from listening to Cream and Led Zeppelin LPs over and over and over again in high school. The tone is courtesy of the lower output vintage pickups coupled with bumble bee capacitors. Yes, they are lower output but can deliver a big over driven rock tone while retaining the ability to produce more nuance of tone than you can get with hotter pickups. This guitar can deliver tone from "Elegant Gypsy" to "Blizzard of Oz" and everything in between.

The custom shop hand selects mahogany and maple wood stocks for the VOS series. Strict weight limits in wood selection aside, this is still a heavy guitar. Expectation is the 50s profile rounded neck would make it play heavy as well. A couple minutes with the guitar though and it is a natural fit. It plays much easier than the Les Paul Special I have with the slimmer 60s style neck. This guitar feels good to play and it makes you want to play more. All of the research into late 50s Les Pauls including x-rays to get trussrod placement right has paid off.

This all begs the question though; if the guitar sounds and plays as nicely as it does because the reproduction is so accurate, maybe this is less of a tribute to the Custom Shop and more of a tribute to the job Ted McCarty and the team did during Gibson’s electric guitar “Golden Age.”

Saturday, October 17, 2009

How to Build Your Chops - Enjoy Your Guitar Favorites “Unplugged”

I posted an article about how playing an acoustic guitar builds fretting hand strength so your electric guitar playing will seem effortless in comparison. This only works though if you find something interesting to work on. Otherwise the acoustic part of your practice routine becomes boring and you will not do it enough to get the full benefit. One way to add interest is come up with “unplugged” versions of your favorite rock tunes.

This idea struck me while sitting in a coffee shop subconsciously listening to music wafting out of the sound system and realizing it was an acoustic version of Stone Temple Pilot’s “Interstate Love Song” a perennial favorite. The acoustic version sounded great.

A couple Internet searches after returning home I worked out the basics and began creating my own rendition. As this involves experimentation and repetition my fretting hand was numb and fingertips sore after the first day. After a couple days the chops are stronger than ever (strong as post middle age chops get anyway). You can find examples everywhere in our connected world. I checked out radio streams from iTunes for example and ran across an acoustic rendition of 10 Years’ “Through The Iris,” my next acoustic experiment.

Acoustic playing is a great way to keep the chops in shape and keeping the fun up motivates you to put in the time necessary to gain the benefits. Try the “unplugged favorites” approach; you will be glad you did.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What Is Open Tuning and Why Use It?

I took up a project to learn some of the 29 titles making up Robert Johnson’s entire recording legacy. Most people know Robert Johnson due to the “selling his soul to the devil at the cross roads” legend. What threw me was reading about “The Tunings”; Open A, Open E, Open Em, Open G, and Aadd9 – “Mystery Tuning.” Isn't open tuning a shortcut to make it easier to play chords on the guitar? What was a groundbreaker like Robert Johnson doing messing around with open tuning?

Standard tuning that we are all familiar with gives you easy chord fingerings along with ability to play scales with minimal left hand movement; just think about our favorite Form 5 Pentatonic Scale pattern and all the licks you can get out of that! Open tuning on the other hand is simply tuning each string on your guitar to represent a chord without fretting any of the strings (one reason this tuning is popular with slide players). You can then play other chords by barring across each fret, which is why I previously thought open tuning is just a shortcut.

I started my open tuning adventure with Aadd9 (Eb-Bb-Eb-Ab-C-Eb) for “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and first thing I found out is a lot goes on in the Robert Johnson guitar style. If I were to play the bass string boogie patterns on one track and then record the high string licks on another track and mix them in Garage Band I could play these tunes easily using standard tuning. Playing both parts simultaneously is the point though and that is where open tuning comes into play.

The open tuning allows you to use one finger to bar across the fretboard to play double stops that would require two fingers with standard tuning. Harmonies in 3rds, 9ths, and 10ths are literally right at your fingertips. Use of the open tuning makes the piece actually playable, albeit with lots of practice; even for short fingered people.

If you want to take your guitar hobby in a new direction give some of these open tunings a try. It is a great way to experience the versatility of the guitar and gain a sense for the creativity of the artists that play it. This could be a shortcut to a new dimension to your playing instead of simply a shortcut for easy chords.