#1: Gibson L-4C (1949)
This is the guitar I play the most and I love it. I do most of my electric playing on Gibson ES-175 style guitars and this is essentially an “acoustic” ES-175. In fact the only real difference from a 175 of the same period is the lack of a pickup, electronics and that this has a solid spruce top instead of a laminate. Close your eyes and it’s hard to tell the two apart which is great for me. I practice mostly late at night so I can play this without worrying the neighbors. Even though it’s strung with medium gauge strings (.13 top) and has a medium-high set action, the guitar plays like butter. You sometimes find that with a great old Gibson. The other advantage of practicing on an acoustic is it makes your electric playing so much cleaner and more precise. When it’s just a pick, strings and a box, the sound that comes out is all you! So pleased to find one from the first year of manufacture in such great shape. It was a long search but it was worth it to find the right guitar.
#2: Gibson ‘59 ES-175 VOS reissue (2012)
Guitar nuts often refer to “vintage” guitars with glowing prose and wistful eyes, longing for the days when guitars were made “just right”. Adaptations and improvements aren’t always met with passion and glee. In fact they can be derided for that. 1959 must have been a great year for Gibson. Les Pauls from that year are revered as are ES-335/345 and 355 variants. The classic 175 jazz “box” is another instrument many players believe peaked around that year (though others prefer earlier guitars with P-90 pickups). With this instrument and others in the VOS range, Gibson finally gave into the nicest form of pressure to just: make them like they used to!
I have to admit they certainly got it right with this one. The guitar feels “vintage” as soon as you pick it up. The full but comfortable neck profile, excellent fret work that feels bedded in by years of playing (even though it’s not). And then there’s the sound: rich and warm with just enough top-end to cut through without ever sounding harsh or biting. The action feels soft, elastic and welcoming. It just doesn’t get in the way. It’s also a lot lighter than similarly specced newer instruments (the single pick up ES-165 Herb Ellis springs to mind). In a live setting it just disappears and lets you get the job done which is really all you want in a professional environment. I compared this with a friend’s genuine 1962 ES-175. You could hardly tell them apart except his looked and felt newer! There’s also a 2 pickup version (the two pickup is an ES-175”D” for double) and if you want to sport a Joe Pass or Steve Howe vibe, that’s probably the version for you.
#3: Washburn J-10 (1989)
Along with the ‘59 ES-175 reissue, this is my other favorite jazz guitar. If I’m doing a jazz gig or recording in the US, chances are I’ll use one or the other with some exceptions. I don’t really have a preference although sometimes the extra pickup will swing my decision if I need a little more tonal versatility.
I bought this superb Washburn guitar back in 1990 and it’s stayed with me ever since. I actually traveled to London with the intention of buying a Gibson ES-175 as my first, serious, archtop guitar but the ones I tried didn’t really do it for me. This Washburn did so I bought it. The sound is great: warm, bell-like and fat all in one. I recently used it on a UK tour and the sound received a lot of compliments from some great players. It’s overbuilt like a lot of 80’s production guitars probably inspired by the work of, mostly California based, small custom builders (Rex Bogue and Alembic come to mind). It also looks very pretty and, being only produced in small numbers in 1989 it’s vanishingly rare. Mods include a Gibson Classic ’57 pick-up in the neck position and a 498-T in the bridge. It has a custom white MOP pick-guard and truss rod cover.
#4: PRS SE Hollowbody II Piezo (2020)
I’ve been doing some rethinking of my rig to encompass a wider variation of styles. I’ve let go of a few beautiful but barely played jazz guitars and brought some new instruments into the fold.
This is a brand new PRS Hollowbody SE II Piezo. I’ve made a few cosmetic changes: a Snakewood truss rod cover with an Abalone bird inlay, Rosewood pick-up surrounds, a Cocobolo switch tip and Abalone inlaid control knobs. Apart from that, the guitar is basically stock. The PRS humbucking pick-ups sound superb here so no need to make any changes. The guitar plays great with excellent access to the upper register.
The sound can be thick and warm just like a regular archtop jazz guitar (and less than half the size too!) or with the flick of a switch it can growl like a Gibson ES-330 or an Epiphone Casino.
The icing on the cake is the Piezo pick-up system built into the bridge. With proper amplification, this can allow the PRS to sound uncannily like a plugged-in acoustic guitar.
I’m planning to run this guitar through a twin amp rig. The magnetic pick-up will be fed through either a Carvin Vintage 33 tube amp a Henriksen 112 Jazzamp or, possibly, a 100w Boss Katana Artist Mark II. The Piezo acoustic pick-up will be fed to a dedicated acoustic amp; most probably a Fishman Loudbox Mini. I also think all that sonic versatility will be a boon in the studio for session work.
The guitar is incredibly light and malleable and an absolute joy to play. I’ve called it Mandala after the ritual symbol representing the universe.
#5: Tokai FA235 (2009)
Back in the late 70s and very early 80s when I was still a teenager, I used to play in the Heavy Rock band “Gold”. We were quite popular locally and around certain parts of the UK. Wine Red was a really cool color for Gibson guitars back then and I had an Aria Pro 2 guitar which was a pretty much exact copy of a block-inlay Gibson ES-335 guitar of the era (there was no way I could afford the real thing). That guitar became pretty much synonymous with me and I kept it for over 20 years when it was unfortunately stolen from a studio I’d been working in. I saw the Tokai on Ebay being sold direct from Japan and, I have to be honest, I bought it mostly because I just loved the color. I retrofitted it with Gibson style “Witches’ Hat” control knobs and I also put a nickel Gibson 490-R pickup in the neck position.
The guitar is beautifully made but, to be honest, it doesn’t have the worn-in, smoky feel of a great Gibson jazz guitar. It’s just too clean and precise for that. Where it does excel is as a more general purpose guitar. I have it fitted with, lighter than usual (for me) .11 gauge roundwound strings and I play rock, pop, funk, country and Americana etc. music on it. For those styles it sounds great. I can only imagine what it would sound like in the hands of a truly great, modern style, sweep-picking Rock or Metal guitarist. The only downsides would be feedback because of that big hollow-body and string bending because it’s too light to stay put if you’re playing more extreme stuff. I’d take this on a gig where I didn’t know what was coming next. It’s very versatile and it looks amazing!
#6: Gretsch G400 Synchromatic (1995)
This stunning Gretsch G-400 came to me in 1995 (I think?). The G-400 is specified to come with a solid, pressed, spruce top but this one is definitely hand carved, you can feel the chisel marks under the soundboard. The back and sides are also solid sycamore which is a very tight grained variation of maple. I’m not really a Gretsch guy, I find the designs a bit “Jetsons” for me but when I heard the gorgeous sound of this guitar I just had to have it. The sound is so huge, warm and beautiful, it’s like having a whole orchestra on your lap. One of my friends dubbed the guitar the “humming” Gretsch and that name has stuck ever since. The dealer told me that this was the 1994 Frankfurt Fair demo model so maybe that’s why they upped the specs on this particular guitar. I do remember seeing a catalog entry of a guitar which looked like this one but had these higher specs and cost about five times as much. I think I lucked out with this one!
#7 Loar LH-600 (2009)
This beautiful guitar was gifted to me as a present after I had spotted it on the wall of McCabe’s instrument store in Santa Monica. It’s based, pretty faithfully on an early, Lloyd Loar designed, Gibson L-5 which was, to the best of my knowledge, the first guitar to feature both an archtop construction and also “F” holes for a violin type construction. The idea was to make a guitar which would sound louder and project out over other instruments. It worked! These guitars can get very loud especially if you lay into them. The cost was very reasonable for such a well specified guitar. You can spend a fortune getting something like this hand-built by a specialist. Unfortunately I just don’t play it enough. I know a little of the style these guitars were originally used for but I’m no expert to say the least. Still it’s nice to have an instrument that reflects the earliest vision of a kind of music I’ve learned to grow and love.
Effects: Boss ME-70
I haven’t really used effects very much at all in the last 30 years or so (except for a little amp reverb). I’ve tended to work with a pretty standard jazz tone and used the notes for tonal color rather than electronic devices. That wasn’t always the case though. In my teens I used a pedalboard we put together with the help of my friend and his dad that was so long you almost had to get a bus from one end to the other. I also had a Korg guitar synthesizer on a stand for good measure, cripes!
My approach to using effects was informed by the guitarist Steve Hillage (Gong, Steve Hillage Band, System 7 etc.). From what I could tell, Steve used the same sort of thought process an analog synthesist might use. So a raw guitar tone was akin to a sine wave, a fuzz tone more like a square wave etc. (kind of like the VCO or voltage controlled oscillator part of a synth). Then you could modify the tone with devices similar to a VCF (voltage controlled filter) and that can be anything that sweeps the frequencies of the raw tone so, in its most basic form that’s a wah-wah pedal or a more sophisticated envelope filter. You can get these that sweep different bands: low, medium and high frequencies for a range of tones and options. They can also open out: “Wah” or close in: “Aw”. You can get the filters to open (or close) sharply or softly which can help when you’re trying to approximate the sound of a trumpet or trombone.
Finally there’s the gain section approximate to an VCA or voltage controlled amplifier. A volume pedal gives you this in a most basic form and you can use that with say, overdrive to make the sound of a violin or cello. There are various gain modules and compressors that can do similar things automatically so you don’t need to saw the pedal like crazy.
Recently I got some calls to play some of my old style rock music and I knew I needed some pedals to help me. I’ve got to be honest, I get completely baffled by some of the newer effects devices. It’s like you need a Phd. to work them. I like this Boss system. It has knobs on and it’s easy to work. I can also apply some of the principles above to shape tones the way I used to. I’m actually quite enjoying rocking out but don’t tell anybody I said that.