Oh. My. F*in. God. (Guitarist's Dream) (long)

So - I have started to play in a Mid-Life Crisis Band - too much fun, great drummer, wonderful bassist - life is Good.

We play our first gig - great turnout, really well received - again, life is Good. I live close to NYC and I have a friend in town who owns a recording studio in NYC - he has produced records for David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Cindy Lauper, The Cure and a bunch of other bands. I am pleased to report that he thought we were great - very cool. He then offers great feedback - “You need to get a new amp - that amp isn’t cutting it for you”. (I play a MESA/Boogie - a great, top of the line amp, but kind of a “Jack of all Trades, Master of none” kind of amp - sounds good in all kinds of settings, and very reliable, but not as definitive as, say a vintage Vox, Marshall or Fender amp.) I decide to take his coaching seriously - jeez, wouldn’t you?

So I write to a friend from business school who lives in TN and has an amp collection of over 200 vintage British amps (!). I also write to my friend who I played with for a bit who is much younger than me and decide to take a stab at going pro and is currently on tour with his band in the UK and being considered to be aired on MTV (again - !). Both offer a bunch of suggestions regarding amps I should consider. My pro friend also recommend I call Ultra Sound practice studios - they also sell amps, and you can rent a practice room (sound proof, of course) and try out the amps at a reasonable volume and really check 'em out. I call and make an appointment for today…

So I call my friend the record producer - “look, you don’t like my amp - YOU come down and listen with me” - he is my “ears” to help me audition a bunch of amps - he agrees.

We show up. I was thinking - I show up, the guy puts me and my buddy in a room with a ton of amps, loans me a guitar, points out about 5 minutes’ worth of difference between amp types and leaves me to check 'em out.


The guy, Gene, knows more about amps that I knew was possible. We spend the first 45 minutes with him asking me questions about my playing and him lecturing us about how to think about amps (my producer friend is taking notes because he needs to know this stuff when producing bands!).

Then - he says “okay - so you want to try out a few amps?” Of course I say yes. He said “okay, you want to try a Les Paul and a Strat” (I actually wanted to try a Strat and Les Paul Special with P90 pickups, but he didn’t have one around) so I said “yeah - sure, that’d be great.”

So what did he bring out?
Are you ready? You are going to shit.

A '59 Les Paul Sunburst and a '61 Fiesta Red Custom Color, Slab Board Strat, both in mint condition. I just about shit. The most amazing playing experience I have ever had. Both were amazing and sounded and played great. I got to play two of the most desirable, important guitars ever produced - easily over $200,000 worth of guitars - but more importantly, they sounded amazing and played liked a dream. As we were trying the various amps, he says “so, you want to know the secret of Clapton’s ‘woman tone’?” I say “um, yes please” and he says “the cheap-ass caps they used when wiring the tone control - although they were cheap they were perfect for the guitar.” He switches to the neck pickup of the '59 Les Paul (did I mention I was play a motherfucking '59 Les Paul 'burst?!?) and rolls the tone off completely. I play the lead from Sunshine of Your Love - amazing, singing, warm, violin-like. He then hands me a much newer Les Paul and does the same thing - neck pickup, tone rolled off. Dead. Mud. Awful. It was so obvious - the difference between screw-top Gallo and Bordeaux.

So I got to check out some great amps with the greatest guitars ever made (he would disagree - he went to great lengths to explain why the '56 Strat is the best year for Strats - I appreciated the education, but was too busy drooling to voice an opinion).

As for the amps - there were a lot that were great. The one that stood out to me was a handmade amp called a Komet. Costs about $3600 - yeah, I kinda got a stomach ache, too. But it did sound amazing. Would it be all that bad if I sold my kids? Really?

All in all - one of the most amazing music experiences ever…

You owe me a new computer chair.

I shat.

Well between you guys and me, that’s three folks who have had to change underwear after this…

One other story? So he pulls out the '59 'Burst and the first thing I check for - what any guitar weenie would check for - is the degree and quality of the maple flame on the top of the guitar.

What’s the first thing he says? “Yeah, notice that there is no flame on the guitar (true - beautiful, matched maple grain, but no flaming, per se, with a wonderful aged sunburst). You may not know this, but non-flamed 'bursts actually sound better than the flamed ones. Know why? (of course I don’t know why!!) Because the flaming is a result of a disease in the wood, which not only imparts this beautiful flames, but it changes the tonal characteristics of the wood, making it less resonant. I have a flamed one too (of course he does!!) and have played dozens of these things (who hasn’t?), and to my ears, the non-flamed ones have sounded consistently better.” Then he goes on to say he likes that, because he doesn’t have to pay as much to acquire the non-flamed, better sounding LP’s - yeah, only $150 - $200,000 instead of $300,000.

I have no idea if this is true, but it made for a great story, and everything else he told us about he backed up with clear demonstrations, and he clearly knew his stuff about guitars and amps, so I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt…

I know virtually nothing about guitars, but before I opened this thread I guessed “he got to play some classic Les Paul guitar”



You must have very, very, very good in a previous life.
Lucky bastard.

Awesome story, WordMan! Thank you for sharing!

Well, I hate to be the “on the other hand” opinion* guy, but I’ve always doubted the ability of the average player, much less the average listener, to discern the differences in guitars/pickups/amps.

Certainly there are differences: single coil-pickups sound different from double-coil, a Marshall has a distinctive sound, etc. But the difference between a '56 Strat and a '57 Strat? How much of the difference in what you hear is because the guy told you there was a difference? Or because you knew you were holding an instrument worth $100K?

Maybe I’m just out-of-touch with my inner guitar geek, but I’m much more interested in what you have to say musically than in the instrument you’re playing.

My partner is currently shopping for an acoustic steel-string. I can sure hear the difference between a $500 and a $1500 guitar, but above that it gets chancy. Maybe it’s the age-related (and rock-music related) hearing loss.

But, all that said, I’m happy for ya, WordMan!

*No I dont. I like to be the “on the other hand” guy.

NoCoolUserName - part of me hears what you’re saying, but you’re missing the point.

The average player?! Hey, more power to them, but fuck the average player.

My point is:

  • Have you seen a bunch of other movies, but grooved over The Philadelphia Story or To Catch a Thief or North by Northwest?

  • Have you loved a bunch of art, but somehow understand the Cathedral Series by Monet?

  • Have you loved a lot of music, but for some reason, you get the Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach?

Look - I am not trying to be hyperbolic here. We, as humans, have very few chances to recognize history in the making - and frankly, we constantly expend time and energy placing bets as to what will be the historic moment/event/thing/art that will endure hundreds of years from now. Did anyone know that Sophocles would be The Man of Greek playwrites? Van Gogh sold, I think, 1 painting during his lifetime. On the other hand, pretty much everybody recognizes that Michael Jordan redefined the sport of basketball and the concept of a world sports celebrity. The point? Sometimes we commoners get when history is being made and sometimes we don’t.

This is a 1959 Les Paul Sunburst - the guitar used by Peter Green and Eric Clapton to redefine British blues, the guitar used by Jimmy Page to invent Led Zeppelin/heavy metal, the guitar used by Joe Perry, Slash, Billy Gibbons and anyone else who can get one to completely rethink the vocabulary of music. Who the fuck cares whether Joe Shmoe gets it?!?!?

Do I know for sure that a '59 Les Paul 'Burst will endure a hundred years from now to be the Stradivarius of guitars? Hell, no. (and by the way, the main reason Strad’s are regarded more highly than Amati’s and Guarnieris are due to the hype generated by a few violin dealers from about 150 years ago…). My point is - '58-60 Les Pauls are certainly thought of that highly now, and are one of the few instruments that could approximate the same long term reputation as a Strad from a few hundred years ago. And, dammit, I got to play one through a bunch of amps. And you know what? I got it. For this particular guitar for this particular player, I am telling you that as a someone who has invested over 25 years in guitars - this guitar lived up to the hype. Period. It stunned me.

Deal with it. And enjoy the fact that sometimes the legend is based on fact. I would never have guessed it before this - but I get it now. Who gives a flying fuck if some average player can’t tell the difference…

Dude, I wasn’t trying to rain on your parade. I’ve never played any of those fine instruments and maybe I’d pee my pants (not on the guitar, one hopes) if I did.

On the other hand (there, I’m doing it again) I just get irritated at collectors who pay a bunch for something because some collector will pay more for it later because it’s a collector’s item. Personal gripe.

I remember a Guitar Player Magazine ad for Mesa/Boogie, where the text read in part:

That’s the attitude I like.

Speaking of movies that just grab ya…

I got your point, I was just making a different one. And making conversation–but not meaning to spoil anyone’s enjoyment.

Loved your story about the guitars but don’t leave us hanging…tell us more about the Komet. What else did you compare it to? Vox? HiWatt? Marshalls?

Come on!!!


I thought Clapton played a phsycadelic painted SG when he came up with the “woman” tone? I was also under the impression that Page used a tele on the first led zep LP and a Les Paul more on the road?

I have to weigh in on this thread.

I love acoustic guitars, and have been chasing them since I was 17. There is nothing like playing a fine quality guitar that has the vibe. It is hard to explain what that means to…well, for example, my wife. But to ‘average players’? I probably am one; most of us are.

Anyway, as for acoustics, no matter how nice these new Collings, and Breedloves, Loudens, and Santa Cruz guitars are, they just don’t hold a candle to a great old vintage guitar. Period. Yes, they are good guitars. They may even grow to be great guitars some day, but they are not in the same league with the old ones at this point in history. Why? Aye, there’s the rub.

Was the wood they could get back in the 30’s better? Is it the way that wood has aged over these many years? Is it the craftsmanship of the makers? Is it the way the guitar has been played over the years? Does a guitar gain tone more by being played and played and played? Or is it…something more akin to… magic? Don’t get me wrong, all old guitars are not good, but the good old ones are something special, and there is no mistaking it when you play one of the good ones.

I have a totally beat Gibson J-45 from about 1943. I is scratched, scarred, bashed, scuffed, weather-checked, and generally roder hard and put away wet. I worked my way to that guitar through a succession of J-45s, none of which came close to this one in tone and feel. I don’t care much about what year it is, and I couldn’t care less about mint condition stuff, but let me tell you, when I first picked up this guitar, I couldn’t figure out why anyone would ever have sold it. Amazing tone, beautiful neck, incredible fretboard. Sonically able to give you soft, hardly audible, and yet creamy tones, and also able to kick out fat wonky blues when you get down one it–superb dynamic range.

And I’m not even going to talk about my Martins.

That said, I have to admit I am skeptical about vintage slab guitars which were made by the hundreds, maybe even thousands, the design of which, quite rightly, hasn’t changed in 50 years. They are bolted together fer chrissakes, [ok, not a Les Paul] and the damn things were mass produced. What is it about the plastic, wires, knobs, and such of 1955 that imparts such tone? Okay, I have played some very cool old solid body guitars–not a '59 LP, I admit, but I have played a '54 Strat hard tail, a '57 Strat with a trem, a '56 Tele, and a late '50’s LP Jr, [that was a killer] but, I have to say that in the end, I am unmoved. A slab is a slab. Some have more personality and vibe than others, but I’ll save my 100k for my retirement thank you very much.

And don’t get me started on amps.

Wow - many issues and questions to discuss - I will address them in no particular order…
MarkD - although Clapton played the SG and a 335 in addition to LP’s during his Cream days, the Woman Tone is normally associated with an LP Standard. I Googled “Clapton woman tone guitar” and the first hit I got was off the Vintage Guitar site, which, while reviewing a stomp box called the Woman Tone fuzz box, says:

Hope that addresses that.

As for Jimmy Page - yep, you’re right - he used a Tele and a small Fender combo to record certainly the first Zep album and maybe the second. But as I said in an earlier thread (which I can’t find - it was started by Big Bad Voodoo Lou and had to do with choosing a guitar - I searched the SDMB, but no dice), Page couldn’t use the Tele/Fender combo in large venues and get the same volume and tone, so he moved to the LP/Marshall rig, which then became legendarily associated with him…

Cholo - thanks for asking. I tried a TON of stuff - vintage and boutique. The vintage stuff was wonderful - I quickly moved to EL34-based amps (Fender amps typically use 6L6 tubes; Vox’s use EL84’s and Marshall’s use EL34’s - I have never owned a Marshall, but the tone of them sounded best to my ears).

Here’s the deal regarding amps (just learning myself as I contemplate spending way too much money on one): The vintage ones have the definitive tone, but are: A) unreliable - they honestly weren’t built to last, with some parts that are essential to the tone already wearing out, like some caps and resistors, which are hard if not impossible to replace without losing, or at least compromising the tone; b) not rugged - a lot has been learned about how to “rugged-ize” amps since then; c) super expensive - everybody wants one and the prices are going up. Bottom line? Fun to play, but I wasn’t seriously considering buying one…

Now, boutique amps - there’s a whole world of cults, opinions, and aficionados here, too. I had no flippin’ clue. Every guitar-playing, amp-loving Baby-Boomer has started their own boutique amp company, it seems. The Holy Grail of boutique amps are two: The Dumble and the Trainwreck. Each of these amps, when you can find one, sell for $20,000 or more - I am NOT kidding. What most boutique amps do is replicate the vintage amps’ tone (some boutiques target Fender, some Vox, some Marshall, as you might imagine), but with more durable parts, rugged construction and some newer features. The Dumble features a Master Volume - you can turn up your volume control to overdrive the amp, then use the Master Volume to lower the actual volume coming out - it is, like, the only amp that the top players (SRV, Eric Johnson, Robben Ford, etc.) felt has an MV that didn’t completely screw up the tone. The Trainwreck is more simple - the designer, Ken Fischer, is legendary for simplifying amp circuits so nothing can detract from the tone being produced. I played through a Trainwreck the other night - it was truly amazing (yeah, the '59 LP helped a bit, right?). An A chord had the harmonic richness of a full horn section - it rang and moved like a big warm sheet of sound, musically rich and pleasing to the ears - you can hear symphonies in the overtones. Beautiful.

So the Komet - well, I also tried Bruno’s, Two Rock’s, Dr. Z, a Blockhead and a few others (I did not try an Allesandro, Budda or Bogner - I may if I go back). The Komet had the tightest bass, the richest mids, and the least “ice-picky” highs. Each bandwidth was crisp and creamy - all the good harmonics rang out and the strident, painful ones weren’t there. I couldn’t say that about the other amps. The Komet is based on the Trainwreck - Fischer apparently as Chronic Fatigue and can’t build amps anymore, but licensed his design to the Komet boys. Frankly - and I may be speaking blasphemy for saying this - but I preferred the Komet to the Trainwreck I played. The bottom was a little tighter and harmonically rich. By the way, even though the Komet can use any tubes, I had EL34’s in it - but even then, it wasn’t a full Marshall tone - it wasn’t that dark and purely overdriven; there was a little Fender sparkle on the top, too…I liked that hybrid tone profile, I guess.

NoCoolUserName - thanks for the clarification and I hear you. Some folks seem to drive up the prices simply for investment purposes. Or they kinda play, but can never really use the good stuff to its potential, but they like the thought of having one (AND like the investment aspect). Not much you can do. What I took exception to were your statements such as:


It sounded like you were attempting to put me in the category of a dilletante who can’t play but wants the right stuff to seem cool - that’s what I took exception to. Am I a good enough player to know the difference between various guitars? Oh, hell yes. I have picked up a '63 Strat and known immediately that the pickups were set at the wrong height relative to the strings because the twang sounded wrong. I can immediately tell if a guitar has humbucking or single coil pickups on a recording and can usually tell the make and model (sure, some records are so over-produced or the guitar so effects-laden that the basic tone is buried, but for the most part I can do this). I can tell the difference between someone getting an overdriven tone by combining a vintage or vintage-style pickup with an overdriven amp, vs. someone using super distorted, overwound pickups and fuzz boxes. Am I saying I am some guitar/rock god? No way - any decent player can do these things - the point I am trying to make is that I have been doing this for a while, and like anyone who practices their craft for a while, the subtleties stand out. Can your average person understand brush technique the same way one artist can when evaluating another artist? Of course not - and while I ain’t Jeff Beck, I have been doing this a lot longer, with a lot more focus, than most. For people like me, I can tell the difference - and that '59 LP was the Shit. I could go into detail why, regarding the neck, weight and feel, the pickups and their articulate responsiveness, but trust me - it was all there. (minor note: Eric Johnson, one of the most respected players out there, claims he can hear the difference depending on the type of batteries he uses in an effects pedal. Do I believe him? Who knows?!? He certainly has the chops and the credibility to make the claim, but jeez…).

mailman - regarding your Gibson - makes perfect sense to me, as I just tried to articulate. Sounds like you know your acoustics, and knew immediately that that was The One. As for not knowing about “slab” guitars - meaning Fender-style bolt-on neck, solid-body electrics, you really sound like an acoustic guy who hasn’t invested the time to compare and contrast electrics. The differences between pickup types - are they staggered pole or non-staggered, hand wound (and therefore likely overwound and unique) or machine wound? - alone can have staggering impact on tone. But you make two points - one is that you can’t see how “slab” guitars can vary, and that you can’t see how they vary enough to make a vintage one worth $100,000 more than a new one. Well, they can vary dramatically - either you perceive that or you don’t. You don’t. I do. That’s cool. Is a vintage Strat worth more? I have played a '63 and a '61 and loved them - I am happy, however with my '93 with Bill Lawrence replacement L280S pickups - it approximates the vintage tone, but my Strat has larger frets and cast (as opposed to stamped) bridge pieces which make it easier for me to play. Also, I beat the shit out of my guitars, so I am always afraid of owning valuable guitars anyway…

My way more than $.02 - thanks for your patience…

Enjoyed your story WordMan. Your monniker is well deserved.

Can you answer something for me though, a question from someone who knows nothing about guitars… Since the '59 Burst is so awesome, why aren’t they replicating it’s characteristics in present day models? Or is that like asking why they aren’t still churning out Cobra GT 500s?

Lieu - thanks for the compliment. It was a fun time.

As for your question - a '59’s characteristics are being replicated now. For a long time, Gibson had really lost their way - it took a while for rock to get bluesy and harder, and for people to hear how those old LP’s were perfectly suited for that music. By then, Gibson had modified the design and just didn’t “get it” in terms of what made the older ones so great. Being bought out by a corporation in the '80s didn’t help quality control, either.

The only guitars that really captured that LP essence in the late 70’s early '80s were the occasional magic Gibson or the “lawsuit” guitars made in Japan - there, they took their replication seriously and really broke the old guitars down to copy every aspect of their design. You can still get 'em for less than $1,000 today - I know, I bought 2 and they rock!

Now, Gibson has Historic, Heritage, blah blah blah reissues - which cost thousands and can be very very good. Paul Reed Smith and countless others make variations on the original designs that come close but have purposeful differences - also very expensive.

So yeah, you can replicate it - but it ain’t cheap, for the most part…

WordMan, I bookmarked that thread for my own further reference, and I still can’t thank you enough for the good advice. Here you go:


The real question: Did any of the amps you looked at go to 11?


BBVLou - I knew you’d have my back, sir - thanks for the link and the kind words…I am expecting you to keep us posted with what you end up getting…

N9IWP - I was wondering when someone would reference Mr. Tufnel…

I am going back to Ultra Sound today - wish me luck. I am really on the horns of a dilemma - that one amp, the Komet, was the best sounding amp I have every heard - but it is flippin’ expensive and demands that you come to it. By that I mean that is has no Master Volume control, so the only way it sounds great is when it is super LOUD - and at 60 watts, it is way too louder for anything smaller than a 1,000+ seat theatre. I don’t play that type of venue.

So I have to go today to see if getting an Air Brake (kind of like a master volume, but you put it between the amp and the speaker to attenuate the volume) significantly changes the tone of the amp, or if I have to go to the Dark Side and get an amp with a Master Volume control that isn’t a $20,000 Dumble amp.

It’s like - if you just want to have a reasonably powerful, very reliable, economic car, get a Honda, right? But a sports car purist will say - “oh, but a Ferrari embraces the truest spirit of driving” and sure enough, you can get a high from driving a red Ferrari on back roads that will never be available to you in the Honda. But if you have to take the kids to school regularly and get groceries, the Ferrari simply will not be practical enough. So I am looking for…oh…the Lexus, I guess of amps. More performance-oriented than a Honda, a bit more able to capture the true essence of a great amp, but with the reliability and flexibility I need. And I have to go to the Ferrari dealership to test drive the Lexus - but I will be strong…

I didn’t shat, but then, I’m a violinist and bassist. And my bass hardware isn’t worth crowing over.

Howeer, I did have a similar experience to yours, WordMan, when buying my last violin. The dealer let me play a few instruments that were [well, copies of] Guarneris but didn’t tell me the prices. One had an amazingly warm G-string that I was swooning over, but the other took some work to actually get a good tone. Turned out the second one was worth about $35,000 and the other only about $1,700. Unfortunately the one with the nice sound was probably going to be sold, so I couldn’t have it. I ended up buying one that he claimed was on a level with $8-10,000 instruments but not as much. I had my doubts, but so far I haven’t been disappointed.