Saturday, November 14, 2009

"I'll take these axes, Ray"

I recently purchased what I expect to be the last electric guitar I ever buy, a "limited edition" Epiphone Les Paul Standard. (Epiphone, which originally sold a line of U.S.-made guitars, is now Gibson's foreign-made "budget" brand.) It's a pretty cool guitar, having a matte cherry finish, gold-color hardware (including Grover tuners), and supposedly hotter-than-normal humbucking pickups. I'm sure an "expert" could tell the difference between my "Epi" and an honest-to-goodness Gibson Les Paul, but to me it plays and sounds like a "real" one; in any case, I appreciate value, and getting 95% of a Les Paul for 25% of the price is a good deal by any measure.

After I bought the "Epi," I took it and my "Classic 60s" Fender "Mexi-Strat" to a local guitar tech for set-ups. He didn't do much to the "Epi" -- just lowered the action a little at the bridge -- but he went full-bore on the Strat, tweaking the truss rod, lowering the action, tuning the bridge, re-working the nut, trimming the excess wire from the pickups (which were replacements, installed before I bought the guitar), replacing the pickup height-adjustment screws with the correct ones, and finally adjusting the height of the pickups. I'm amazed at what all that did for the guitar's playability and sound!

In conversing with the tech, I learned a few things about buying vintage or vintage-replica guitars. Old Fenders had pickups with non-adjustable pole pieces (i.e., magnets) that were set up for heavy-gauge strings -- in particular, wound 3rd or G strings with small cores -- and using light-gauge strings often causes some notes to sound out-of-tune because the magnetic force is too strong for the core of the string being used. The only way to compensate for it is to lower the entire pickup, which then tends to compromise the overall signal going to the amplifier. Old Fenders also tended to have curved fretboards with small radiuses (radii?), inasmuch as few people in those days incorporated string-bending techniques in their playing. (Bending notes on a fretboard with a lot of curve to it evidently tends to "choke" the note.) At any rate, the tech wasn't real big on vintage Fenders or replicas, although I, not being a pro, am willing to sacrifice a little bit of sound for the coolness of the early-60s look of my "Mexi-Strat." The newer Fender "American Standard" Stratocasters may be better suited to playing modern rock and pop music, but I'll keep what I have!

(The caption to this post, in case anyone didn't know, is a reference to the 1980 Belushi/Aykroyd film The Blues Brothers.)