Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My Dream Guitars (15 Favorites)

A few nights ago I had the pleasure of meeting, and spending a few hours with Gary Dick, founder and owner of Gary's Classic Guitars. For those not familiar with Gary's legendary two page ads in Vintage Guitar Magazine, I would direct you there, and then straight to his website ( to see maybe the most amazing collection of top shelf vintage guitars in the world. Regardless of the aged wonder you seek, Gary most likely has one, and in the best condition available. When Tom Petty pulls his tour bus up to your door, you know you are doing something right.

After spending a couple of hours comparing notes, sharing stories and telling tales of six string worship and fervor, Gary asked me to name my five favorite guitars. I whipped out a short list in pretty fast fashion, but quickly realized that for quite some time I had had a list of dream instruments that would make up my desert isle collection. The guitars I considered personally essential for me is a list that probably would be duplicated by no one. That is part of the beauty of the world of the guitar - everyone has a different outlook, and would choose a different list for themselves, based on myriad factors.

My list is dictated by a wide assortment of factors, such as - favorite players, classic tones, sheer aesthetics, and nostalgia for instruments strummed, picked or played in my personal past. Some would have longer lists, some would land on perhaps one guitar. I am fairly certain though, that no two would be identical.

I somewhat surprised myself with a list that included just one guitar from the last 25 years. I do not consider myself a Luddite, but sure enough, my tastes were for the most part as old as I am. I don't consider this a negative statement about the new, just an appreciation of the classic.

I did not seek a precise order, this is simply the order in which they left my pen - I do, however, think that it may speak to preference to a great degree.

1) 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard - I have never owned a '59. I have played perhaps ten, sold two while in retail, and once owned a fabulous replica that was built for me by a well known luthier. The last 'Burst I held was that belonging to blues rocker Joe Bonamassa. Joe's 'burst is a relative plain-top that is very light, incredibly resonant, and in great condition. The neck is thick - I believe that is one of the biggest reasons for the guitar's amazing tone. A good Les Paul is a very clean sounding instrument. From Page's to The Reverend Billy Gibbons', the classic Les Paul will clean up as nicely as a Telecaster. On a great Les Paul, it is the clean tones, and the amazing separation and clarity that impresses me most of all. There is a world full of great Les Pauls, but once you have felt the resonance of the strings through the back of that fat neck, you will realize why this is perhaps the holy grail of electric guitars.

2) 1968 Gibson Les Paul Standard Gold Top – This model was the first great Les Paul I ever played, and while I had no idea why I liked it so much at the time, I have long since figured out a few things that had me so enamored. The first thing was the guitar’s sheer beauty - the gold top had already by 1979, had begun to turn a cool tint of green on the upper bout where the owner's arm had perspired and worn through the finish. To my eyes this was very cool as it looked so well played. The guitar's P-90 pickups were another alluring feature, though I can't say that I knew exactly what they were at that point in my development. I did notice that that sounded both a little dirtier when played clean, and a little cleaner when played dirty! The fat neck profile also felt better to my hand than did the thin profiles of newer Gibson guitars I had previously played. This guitar had a wonderful chunkiness and grit when playing chords with a bit of overdrive, and a thick, corpulent tone not dissimilar to those I had heard from great guitarists such as Joe Walsh and Leslie West. I may not have exactly known why I dug it, but I sure knew that I dug it. And I still do.

3) 1954 Fender Stratocaster Sunburst - For almost 60 years Fender has been reconfiguring the Stratocaster in a thousand different ways, and they have yet to find a significant improvement in Leo Fender's original design. Leo Fender, George Fullerton, and Freddie Tavares truly got it right the first time, back in 1954. I've played several '54s and each had the magical mojo that comes built into a great Stratocaster. The sexy contours of the body are instantly apparent the minute you first hold a Strat, and that is a feeling that has never changed. To this moment I do not know of a more comfortable guitar. The tones the guitar produces are incredibly varied, and sound like they were made to be molded by whatever sound tools the guitarist chooses to place between the guitar and the speaker it finally sings through. Whether it  is the classic clean tones of Mark Knopfler plucking his way through the Dire Straits classic, Sultans of Swing, or David Gilmour's multi-effect approach to Pink Floyd's catalog, there are a million ways to make the Stratocaster work for you, and many more still to be discovered.

4) 1959 Gibson Les Paul Junior Tobacco Sunburst - My first real guitar teacher played a Les Paul Junior. He could play anything, in any style, and make it sound right. From bop, country, blues, to blazing rock - he nailed the tones and instilled in me the basic truism that it is the player, not the guitar. The guitar's 24.75 inch scale length made it a beauty to play, and once again, my hand was totally comfortable with its baseball bat neck. I have always preferred tone to technique, so the thickness of the necks were never a negative, but a blissfully toneful positive.

5) 1964 Gibson Firebird VII Sunburst - This one is all about the look. Never a comfortable guitar to play, whether you are sitting or standing, the Firebird is, however, a grand looker. Not exactly sexy in the female form of the Les Paul or Strat, the Firebird is handsome - having an almost militaristic elegance and bearing. I first fell in love with Johnny Winter's white Firebird V that he played so brilliantly on his great live record, Johnny Winter And, which saw Winter dueling with a Les Paul toting Rick Derringer. The albino guitarist blazed through the set with an incendiary tone that cut through the mix, and truly made me understand why they called them axes. The Firebird VII has the gold hardware, three mini-humbucking pickups, and the frustrating banjo tuners, but it is a beauty of a beast that is worth the taming.

6) 1964 Rickenbacker 360/12 Fireglo - There are a few 1963 models of this classic, but they are prototypes and promo guitars that went to an elite few, most notably, of course, The Beatles' George Harrison. George's deft use of the electric twelve string got noticed by Byrds founder Roger McGuinn (who favored a 370/12), and McGuinn's use led logically to the new wave chime of Tom Petty, and REM's Peter Buck. It says an awful lot that no other guitar manufacturer has ever come close to the popularity of the Rickenbacker twelve string electric. This another guitar that is notoriously unwieldy (mostly due to a thin neck, and very narrow string spacing), yet nothing approaches its unique jangle. This guitar will have you writing songs immediately, and they will be unlike any you have written before.

7) 1957 Gibson ES-295 Gold - The Scotty Moore model is how this glorious piece of rock-a-billy music magic maker is most commonly referred, and it is as stunningly beautiful as any instrument on the planet. Not satisfied with a gold top, the 295 is gold all over, with a Florentine cutaway, and two sizzling P-90 pickups. No less an expert than that Stray Cat Brian Setzer calls it, "The ultimate rock-a-billy guitar." I think I prefer it for prog-rock, but rockers such as Ted Nugent, Andy Summers, and Yes man Steve Howe have long since proven that the wide body ES series can certainly rock.

8) 1958 Gibson Flying V Korina - I have long been a big fan of the German rockers Rudolf and Michael Schenker, and, as a result, have had a long and lusty affair with the Gibson Flying V. While both of the brothers prefer later models, I am a friend of the korina. I have always found that the Flying V sounds distinctively different than other Gibson solid-body guitars - a brighter and punchier midrange that cuts through dense and distorted mixes better than the girthy tones of a distorted Les Paul. They also have a nice clean tone that I attribute to the thin body. '58 Vs are in very short supply (only 81 were produced), and tend to cost several hundred thousand dollars, but for the average player, Gibson reintroduced korina models in the early 80s that are a bit less pricey, and retain the same tone and vibe.

9) 1959 Fender Esquire Custom Sunburst - This is the one that got away. Early in my guitar playing days, I happened upon this rare version of the Telecaster at a local music store. I believe that I paid the fellow $350 and another $30 for some fresh strings, and a set-up. The same guitar is now valued at just a pinch under $20,000 - but what makes me sad is missing the way the Esquire Custom felt, played, and sounded. It felt like melted butter, as soft and supple as any action I have ever felt, and it sounded absolutely divine. It had a warm, round low end, a distinctive midrange honk, and a bright top end that contained no detectible harshness. I learned more about good tone from that guitar than any other instrument. I could not make it sound bad. many youthful players, I could not afford to own more than one guitar at a time, and the band I was playing with required a tone that necessitated a couple of powerful humbuckers, so back I went to that local music store, and traded that beauty in on another.

10) 1977 Ibanez Artist Sunburst - Not being able to quite afford a new Gibson Les Paul, the cool fellow at the local music store directed me straight to this Japanese guitar. It was beautiful, it sounded good, and it had great action, so I proceeded to hand him back his Fender Esquire Custom (which, to his decency, he took back with some reluctance, asking me if I was sure I wanted to do this trade), and then instructed him to add what was to become the first of probably a thousand guitar modifications. I had them install two DiMarzio Super Distortion humbucking pickups, and I was up and rocking. The Artist, while not the best long range choice I could have made, was a great guitar. I have just remembered that I also had Larry install a phase switch that gave me the option of having the humbuckers out of phase when used together in the middle position - this was my first experience with this hallowed tone (think Gary Moore/Peter Green clean tones), and it is one I have utilized ever since. The Ibanez Artist is still an exceptional value, when one can be found - a great tone machine.

11) 2007 Campbell Nelsonic Transitone - The only relatively new guitar on my list is the result of a collaboration between guitar builder Dean Campbell, and legendary guitarist Bill Nelson (Be Bop Deluxe). The Transitone is a model that Campbell designed that combines a Jetson's like futurism with smart lines that recall some classic guitar designs. The first time I played a Nelsonic Transitone, I thought I had died and gone to guitar heaven. The smooth neck felt amazing - the fret work was perfect, and the action comfortably low. Tonally, I could coax almost any sound I could think of, from jazzy silkiness, to country rock chime, and it rocked fabulously. It somehow managed to satisfy my vintage beginnings, and still feel and sound completely new. A marvelous instrument from a great builder.

12) 1964 Gibson Thunderbird Bass Sunburst - This one is all Pete Way's fault. Pete, of course, played bass and wrote some of legendary British rock band UFO's greatest songs. Way was all fashion and fun, with his bass slung low, down near his knees, and busting out solid and melodic bassline for German guitar whiz Michael Schenker to play over and around. John Entwhistle also played a Thunderbird for many years, most notably perhaps on the band's second rock opera, Quadrophenia. With its long scale neck and two powerful Gibson humbuckers, the Thunderbird is absolutely thunderous. This is a rocker, pure and easy, there will be no jazz, no country played upon this low end weapon. It is, however, a handsome devil.

13) Rickenbacker 4001S Mapleglo - The Rickenbacker 4001S bass is the tone of some of my favorite bassists. Paul McCartney revolutionized rock bass playing when he switched to a Rick from his famous Hofner back in 1965, when The Beatles recorded Rubber Soul. The first tune McCartney recorded with the 4001S was the Motown influenced Drive My Car, and the change in tone is immediate. All of a sudden Paul could utilize the full neck, as opposed to the first few positions that were possible with the shaky intonation of the Hofner. Beyond The Beatles, Rickenbacker basses found their way into the hands of Yes's Chris Squire, Deep Purple's Roger Glover, Geddy Lee of Rush, and the famous chainsaw buzz tone of Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister. When combined with an Ampeg SVT, the 4001S is one of the most recognizable bass tones to be found.

14) 1939 Martin D-45 Natural - A pre-war Martin D-45 is the king of kings in the world of acoustic guitars. It has no true competitors when it comes right down to it. It looks right (Martin's most decorative dreadnaught), it sounds perfect, and it is the most sought after acoustic guitar on the planet. Martin made only 91, so they are extremely rare. I would gladly have a newer edition D-45, but since we're talking absolute favorites here, why not shoot high? If I come across one soon, I'll let you know.

15) Guild F512 Natural - I call this one the Pete Townshend Guild. Pete has been playing his since 1971's Who's Next. Its jumbo body is double bound, and the guitar is as handsome as it is toneful - it is exceptionally clear voiced for an acoustic twelve string (many are a bit muddy in the mids), and they play like a dream.

So, there you have it, a list of guitars that I would consider sufficient were I to be exiled to a desert island. As I said, it's my list, and I'm quite sure that no one else's would be the same. They all are great tone machines, and they are all attractive, but most importantly, they all occupy a place in my heart for all the right reasons.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

John Wetton On Being Raised In Captivity

"Raised In Captivity is really about me growing up, and being born into the post-war England. We still had rationing, and we still had the Victorian morality hanging over us, hung over from the previous century. So everything weren't allowed to do this, you can't do that, and if you did anything wrong, you were beaten - everybody's running scared, I mean, what chance did they have? That is the general theme of Raised In Captivity, except that, the flip side is the joy of freedom for me now. It's just unbelievable to actually come full circle. I went through two life threatening illnesses in the last ten years, so I really do feel blessed, and every day is to be lived to the fullest. I've got no idea where I'll be tomorrow, and no power over yesterday, so now is all I've got - this moment. All I'm able to do is make the most of what I've got. That's the flip side of being Raised In Captivity." John Wetton

John Wetton is making the most of the moment, of that there can be no question, of that, there can be no doubt. Raised In Captivity is Wetton's sixth solo album, and one of nearly sixty albums that he has sung and played upon, including his multi-platinum super-group Asia, prog legends King Crimson, UK, Uriah Heep, Roxy Music, and his recent three album collaboration with Asia/Yes-man Geoff Downes, under the moniker Icon. It's been a storied, and incredibly varied career, and now Wetton has made perhaps his finest record - a recording that seamlessly combines many aspects of his great career.

Raised In Captivity was recorded over a three and a half week period in Los Angeles, with Wetton collaborating with Billy Sherwood, who produced the album, and played the lion's share of the instruments. Sherwood also co-wrote many of the arrangements, and is, in Wetton's estimation, the reason the record sounds so much like a functioning band as opposed to two fellows. The album also features great cameos from some notable luminaries from Wetton's past. King Crimson founder Robert Fripp contributes some heady atmospherics, and his usual intensity to the album's title track, Steve Hackett lays down a melodic solo on Goodbye Elsinore, Uriah Heepster Mick Box brings the rock to New Star Rising, Tony Kaye tickles the ivories on Don't Misunderstand Me, and Eddie Jobson appears as the violin wielding Devil on The Devil and The Opera House.

John had this to say when I asked about their sterling contributions: "The people that played their solos - I had decided all that before I left England. I knew I wanted Steve Hackett to play a melodic solo on Goodbye Elsinore, and there's a song called The Devil and The Opera House, which has Eddie Jobson on it. The instrument I automatically associate with the Devil is the violin, and Eddie said to me, 'Do you want ME to be the Devil?,' and I said, yeah, be my guest - it makes me smile.

"All the people who play on the record sound like they were born to it. I wanted Allan Holdsworth for the solo on The Last Night Of My Life, and Allan said, 'Yeah, I'll do it, but I've a solo album to work out, my first in 11 years, so it won't be my priority.' I said, fine, if you've the time to do it. Two days before the end of recording I called and asked if he had done it, and he said he hadn't. I thought, I'll call Alex Machacek - he'd fit the bill as he's going to be playing in the UK band with me, and he played a great solo. I didn't say anything about Allan Holdsworth, I just said, please play a noble solo."

Steve Morse (Deep Purple, Dixie Dregs, Kansas) is featured on the album's opener, Lost For Words, and he brings to the table his usual collection of speed, melody, and jagged unpredictability that has been his signature for many decades. This solo would be at home anywhere in his discography, and the song is better for his six string musings. The song itself is as close as Wetton comes to his platinum hit making days of the 80s with Asia. The song aches for the era of melodic rock radio, and will more than satisfy any fan seeking a bit of the command the singer/bassist brings to this genre. Billy Sherwood brought this tune to the table, and you can hear the multi-instrumentalist at his best. This record never succumbs to Pro Tools proclivity for sterility.

John had this to say on the album's production, and the record's rockier side:

"It's all very edgy and it's great! I come to California, and it's all helicopters, police sirens, and I'm working with a guy who drinks too much's a bit more rock and roll. Billy Sherwood is a good man. I had a creeping suspicion that he was the guy to do the job. He's very musical, we both work very quickly, and the main thing is that he's a very nice guy - we share a similar sense of humor.

"It does sound live, and I give Billy credit for that. He said on our first meeting that we need to make this sound like a real band, not just the two of us. We didn't analyze every kick drum beat - there have been certain records I've made where we did analyze every detail, every sound, and it sounds like it! It sounds a bit anal, and so kind of clean that it loses some of its core personality.

"If I'd been left to my own devices, I'd be sitting at home with my acoustic guitar and my piano, writing dreary folk songs - if I had given that to my record company, they would have said, 'Very nice, but where's the rock?'"

Rock the record does, especially out of the gate with Lost For Words (a bit of a misnomer, as Wetton is surely not in any way lost for words) and the album's title track, which finds Wetton in top form. His voice sounds fantastic, and his bass playing is aggressive and melodic as ever. He has called the album, "an Anglo-American music document, a true autobiographical journey," which indeed it is. Lyrically the album sees the singer with his heart upon his sleeve and well ready to expose a darker side than one may be used to finding on his albums with Asia:

"It's very much a statement of how I am today. It's a lot more personal than I would get with Asia - the reason being that I can get kind of personal with an Asia record, but I can't drag the guys into the corner that I go to sometimes. Where, with my more personal stuff, you know they don't deserve it, they don't need to go there.

"If I'm acting as a spokesman for the group, I don't believe it should be just my stuff - on a solo album I can do whatever the hell I like, and it is a great barometer of where I am, right now. It's often moody, and it's very honest."

Alongside the broadside rockers sit some of Wetton's most melodic moments, and his most poignant poetry. As I sat and chatted with John, I realized that I saw the man as being quite professorial - he's equal parts bard, troubadour, and rock star. While he is obviously best known for his tremendous ability to craft a three minute piece of pop melody, he cannot avoid his sense of equally impressive harmonic sophistry. His lyrical prowess has also never been in short supply, and he reckons it certainly is on display throughout Raised In Captivity:

"It's verbal dysentery, is what it is," he laughs. "Lyrics to me, are just as important as the music - it is, after all, what I'm saying!"

Amongst the more melodic and poetic to be found is the folkish ballad, Steffi's Ring, a tune that largely features Wetton's voice, acoustic guitar, and the keyboard embellishments of fellow Asia member Geoff Downes. This sounds like Twenty First Century Shakespeare Man. A beautiful, and too brief ( a mere 2:35 - I could have stood at least twice that) ballad that is sure to be a fan favorite.

Goodbye Elsinore is another lovely ballad that starts with just Wetton, and an acoustic guitar. The song then builds from verse to verse, leading to a soaring chorus of harmony expounding the song's title, only to be lifted even further by a perfect solo from ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett.

Throughout the entire recording, Wetton successfully straddles the genres he has embraced over his career and he has succeeded tremendously in giving nod to all, but being a slave to none. Mighty Rivers, which closes the album, is sure to become a modern prog-rock classic - a duet with Anneke Van Giersbergen, formerly of Dutch proggers The Gathering - the song is a bit over five minutes of brutal beauty. Wetton is doing some of the best singing of his career on this cut, and when he and Anneke join together, the result is gorgeous. This cut alone is worth the price of the album. It is truly breathtaking in its majesty. Wetton hits astounding notes for a gentleman of 62 years, in both pitch and duration. If you've ever enjoyed a note of his singing, you need to hear this.

"I'm glad that my voice is still intact! If it goes, I am absolutely screwed," Wetton grins, "I figure that's God's way of telling me that this is what I should be concentrating on.

"I can't see myself ever, you know, Tony, playing golf or anything like that, so I can never see an end to that, in terms of music. There will not be a day when I would say, right - I'm not gonna do that anymore, I can't see that."

Wetton has truly escaped being raised in captivity, having withstood the tortures of an empire, alcoholism, open heart surgery, and carpal tunnel syndrome. He has not merely escaped, but has risen above all this, and made an album as good as any of his career. And while he claims to not be excited by the thought of jumping right out on the road after a busy year of touring with both Asia and UK, I would not be shocked to see him take this one to the stage. As he said, it would be nothing to throw together a band and take it to some select cities to play this record live. The man is a worker, not one to rest on his laurels, perhaps not to rest, period:

"Well, I am still of the opinion that if I am not working on a Saturday night, something is terribly wrong. If I'm not playing on Saturday night, I'm not doing my job. That's the work ethic I've had since I was 16 - I suppose that's why I have always stayed so busy."

That is what being Raised In Captivity will do for you. We're very lucky that that is what it has done for John Wetton. He has not rested, and he has made one of the best records of a career filled with great music.

There are some cuts and cameos I didn't cover here, that I will leave it to you, the reader, to discover.

Raised In Captivity is being released July 1st in Europe, and July 12th in North America, by Frontiers Records.

Thanks to John Wetton, Dustin Hardman of Frontiers Records, and Libby Sokolowski.