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.

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