Tag Archives: archtop guitars

A Life in Guitars, part 2 – Electrics

My longest-serving electric is a Fender Highway One Stratocaster. I bought it new in 2007, but I think it had been kicking around in the shop for a year or two as it has a 1960s-style small headstock, and at some point around 2006 the Highway One range was revamped, with the Strats getting bigger, ’70s-style headstocks (and hotter pickups). Because it was an older model, it had been discounted, bringing it down to a price where I could, at a stretch, afford it. Highway Ones were conceived as workhorse “player’s” guitars – officially American made, but with at least some of the manufacturing process taking place in Fender’s Mexican factory, and hence sold at a lower price than American Standard and Professional models (or whatever they were called at that point). They had thin nitrocellulose finishes, supposedly designed to scuff up and look played-in quickly, but again, that was probably at least partly a cost-reduction thing.

Strat, when blue. Live with Carterhaugh at the Camden Eye, 2008. My good friend Chris Martin on drums

Mine began life a cool translucent blue, but about four years ago I followed my heart and asked the great Andy Gibson (guitar tech based in Denmark Street) to remove the paint, so I’d have the natural-finish Strat I’d hankered after for years. It’s put in a lot of hard yards for me, but still looks, sounds and plays great. To aid tuning stability (which I have to say is rock solid), the tremolo is blocked off.

That same Strat, stripped bare and refinished by Andy Gibson. Photo by Andy, taken in his workshop.

My other main electric is my most recent purchase. In 1997, while still at school, I did a few weeks’ work for my dad during the summer holidays and used the money earned to buy an Epiphone SG. I hung on to it for years but decided in 2019 I’d earned an upgrade to a Gibson model. Thing is, when I tried out various SG Standards, Specials and ’61 Reissues in a shop in Camden, I didn’t like any of them as much as a Les Paul Tribute model that I’d tried out on a whim because it was on display near the till. Although I’d have willingly paid whatever the asking was for an SG Standard if I’d have fallen in love with it, the Les Paul was about £300 cheaper, too (like my Highway One Strat, it had been discounted as it was the previous year’s model).

Live with the Les Paul. James McKean and the Blueberry Moon, Spit & Sawdust 2019

Les Paul Tributes are the cheapest Gibson LP range, selling for a couple of hundred quid less than Studios. They have the same pickups as Studios, but an even more stripped-down finish. That’s actually a plus point for me – as you can probably tell, given I love the Takamine EN series soundhole rosette and I stripped the finish off my Stratocaster, I’m very much of the less-is-more school aesthetically.

Les Paul, close up

Anyway, this Les Paul was more to my taste in terms of feel than any of the SGs I tried, even the one I liked the most, which was the Standard. The SG Standard had a thin neck, wide but low frets and high-output pickups – it just felt aggressive in a way that even a set-up (lowering the pickup height, raising the strings a little) wouldn’t have compensated for. The Les Paul could do aggressive, but it sounded sweeter played clean, and seemed more versatile. I’d never really seen myself as a Les Paul guy, but there was no denying it. I liked the LP a lot more. I’ve never regretted the purchase. That said, I’m pretty sceptical of some of Gibson’s cost-cutting measures like mounting all of the wiring on a PCB, so I asked Andy Gibson (yes, him again) to pull all that out and rewire it by hand. Now I can clean the pots if I need to, and it’ll be easier to change pots and pickups down the line if I get the urge.

My third electric is an in-betweener, although I bought it before the Les Paul, in 2014. It’s an Epiphone Casino, in natural finish. You know the drill: P90s, no centre block, trapeze tailpiece. It’s pretty much stock, other than the bridge – the original unit buzzed annoyingly so I replaced it with a Tone Pros (once again, courtesy of Andy Gibson). Casinos are incredibly adaptable. They can chime like crazy if that’s what you need them to do. They can get jazzy. They can give you a gritty, bluesy lead tone, as Gary Clark could no doubt tell you. They even sound great with heavy distortion, though – being hollow – they’ll feed back at the drop of the hat if you’re playing above bedroom volume levels. But, whether playing clean or overdriven, I’ve seldom had a problem finding a spot in relation to the amp where I could control the feedback, and I frequently use my Casino to double-track distorted rhythm parts, as it gives a distinctly different sound to my Les Paul. Distorted P90s have a sparkle to them that’s undeniably single coil, but a more balanced sound than Fender-style singles, with greater low end and added volume. That’s what works so well about the Casino for me: occupying something of a tonal halfway house between Strat and Les Paul, it’s fantastic as “glue” within a mix, bridging two sounds that otherwise might be a little disparate. It’s in the mix on virtually every song I record that has electric guitars, often in such a way that you wouldn’t know it’s there.

Casino, in rehearsal at One Cat studio, 2015-ish

That’s mostly it. But there’s a bass to account for, and some miscellanea, in case anyone is still interested (Still? They didn’t care in the first place, says the voice in my head. Probably correctly.)

No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos, part 5

5) Revelator – Gillian Welch (solos by David Rawlings)

I love every note that David Rawlings plays. Every clanking, honking, midrangey note. The man’s a genius.

Rawlings is Gillian Welch‘s lead guitarist, harmony singer and husband. The entity that releases records under the name ‘Gillian Welch’ is actually composed of two people: Welch and Rawlings. When singing together, their voices blend seamlessly; when playing guitar, their two approaches mesh perfectly.

Let’s start by talking guitar sounds (always a favourite place to start for me). Welch plays a Gibson J-50 from the 1950s, a spruce-and-mahogany, slope-shouldered dreadnought with the standard upside-down bridge and an enormous pickguard that looks out of proportion to the body. It’s a classic guitar with a classic tone. Rawlings’ choice of instrument is more idiosyncratic: a 1935 Epiphone Olympic archtop (mahogany back and sides, spruce top). This is not a typical singer-songwriter guitar. It lacks the depth, the roundedness, the woody bottom end, that you’d look for in guitar were you looking to accompany yourself solo. Archtops are thinner, more pinched-sounding, more brittle and louder. They were a response to a particular problem in the pre-amplication era: how to make the guitar audible in a big band. The answer was to incorporate violin-style construction concepts (an arched top, f-holes) to give the guitar more focus in a narrower range, in effect to make it more banjo-like. Now, I’m not a big fan of the banjo sonically, but I love what Rawlings can do with an archtop in the context of Welch’s songs, how the two guitars blend tonally and how Rawlings expertly weaves in and out of Welch’s vocals

This is the essence of being a soloist who plays with a vocalist: knowing when to play and how much to play without taking the listener’s ear away from the singer. David Rawlings walks this line brilliantly. He’s a busy player; he’s not a restrained or minimalist kind of guy. But he plays tastefully. He knows that while every Gillian Welch gig will have a few dozen idiotic guitar fanboys who just want him to play licks (these are the people who’ve sent the prices of second-hand Epiphone Olympics rocketing in the last ten years, because they can’t think of an original idea for themselves), the majority want to hear Gillian sing songs, and so he plays with that end in mind.

So he knows when to play, but how about what to play? I like how little bits of jazz and rock music make their way into his work, how you can always hear in his playing that rock music is where he comes from. When he toured his David Rawlings Machine record a few years ago, he covered Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer. It comes as no surprise that the guy who began the third solo on Revelator by playing a repeated aggressive, obstinate Eb over an A minor chord is a Neil Young fan. The whole song, coiled and twisted with tension as it is, has been building up to this one outburst, and when Rawling hits it it’s like an explosion. Time (The Revelator) is full of little moments like this. In fact, they crop up in all Welch’s albums. But this tiny little snippet of music, just a few seconds long, is my favourite in Welch and Rawlings’ whole body of work.

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David Rawlings – he knows how to rock and roll