“What the guitar does not produce cannot be supplemented electrically.”– Yasuhiko Iwanade, The Beauty of the Burst
Given a choice, nearly every guitar player we know would prefer to own and play those rare instruments that seem mysteriously endowed with the seductive character and extraordinary resonant vocal qualities we so admire and crave. And who wouldn’t? Well, Rayford maybe…
“Naw, that one sounds too pretty, and I don’t care much for fussy lookin’ guitars. I want a cheap, greasy, dirty little heater with ‘57 dashboard tone, and when I take my break tonight on the main stage at Skanx, I’ll buy one of the lonely girls a pulled pork sandwich plate upgraded to onion rangs with a shot and a beer. I’m all about gratitude… the unbroken circle of life. Proud people and proud things are just too often lackin’ in it.”
Well, sure, even cheaply made beaters from the Harmony-Silvertone era are collectible today, and there’s someone in the world for everybody, but you don’t see many sanctified pro-fessionals making those kinda moves outside north Mississippi or Bay City. No, most of us want to own the quintessential king bee… the baddest of the bad… the royal flush… a timeless testimonial to killer tone that needs no further explanation, although if you’ve got an hour or so, we’ll tell you and anyone else who’ll listen all about it — again and again and again. And these guitars do exist — old ones beyond our reach now, yes, but plenty of new ones, too. Magical guitars are all around us, and they can be found by those who are willing to sift through the pretenders. Are you willin’? How deep does your affliction run? Hunting tone isn’t as easy or comfortable as as squeezing off a 12 bar sologasm. Real work is involved. Mining tone requires a miner’s heart — the kind that drove men during the California goldrush to tunnel 100 feet into the earth with nothing more than a pick axe until they reached an underground stream where they would load sand, gravel and dirt into a windlass to be pushed back above ground and sifted or ground in the Sonoran way with an arrastra in search of a few precious nuggets. Mining tone is inconvenient at best, and never as simple as merely picking the prettiest one at the dance… No, if you’re truly intent on striking gold, you got to squeeze yourself down the Coyote Hole on blind faith with no guarantees that you’ll be rewarded with success. At the risk of stating the obvious, you need to embark on a ToneQuest.
But of course, you have questions. Doubting questions…
“Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.”–Winston Churchill
No argument there, but still, you deserve more than a clever tease to inspire your impending journey… Well, assuming you are capable of buying into the belief that there are indeed magical instruments amongst the seemingly ordinary, and that such magic does not necessarily require four or five decades of mysterious ‘aging’ to emerge in full bloom, we are prepared to enlighten you with factual information to inspire and sustain the energy you’ll require. The Coyote Hole can be a damn lonely place — one best avoided by those who feel safest and most confident running above ground with the herd. Sheeple do not thrive in the Coyote Hole. Know thyself. Baaaaah.
Our own inspiration for this tale was provided by still another lucky strike mining the Internet. Suddenly bereft of our former ‘57 darkback goldtop, which had met its destiny in London (another story – stay tuned), we began trolling eBay for an ‘affordable’ prospect, knowing full well that any such selections are ultimately made without benefit of a hands-on evaluation. If you’re the type that breaks out into a panting sweat at the thought of buying a guitar you’ve never played, please… grow a pair. With the closing of what had been our local source for exceptional instruments at Midtown Music, we, like many players, must be especially willing now to make an even greater leap of faith with the full understanding that without risk, there can be no reward. That’s not an opinion, by the way — it’s fact.
We scoured eBay listings for Historic Les Pauls over a week or two, immediately passing over anything being sold at typical retail prices on the principle that in these economic times, we should be capable of scoring a new, unplayed Historic for no more than a few hundred dollars over dealer cost at most. We didn’t eliminate used models, but new guitars were much more plentiful, as dealers were clearly struggling to generate sales and cash flow, if often at stupidly wishful prices. We gradually assembled a ‘watch list’ of a dozen or so possible acquisitions, and as time passed we found ourselves increasingly intrigued with one 2009 ‘58 VOS Historic in particular, described as new, never played, finished in a ‘Yamano’ Sunrise Teaburst, weighing 8.7 pounds “with a little flame.” It was listed with an opening bid of $2600, no reserve, no Buy It Now price, and had received no bids. We wrote to the seller, who was privately selling the guitar for a dealer, and asked if he would sell the guitar for $2600 and change the auction to a Buy It Now listing prior to our purchase. This allowed us to locate the new Buy It Now listing through the Bing.com site and receive an instant 8% cash back deposit in our PayPal account immediately following our purchase. The buyer agreed, and we scored the ‘58 for $2,392.00 plus $45 shipping – no more than $200 above dealer cost, if that.
The ‘58 arrived in the original box just as it had been shipped to the dealer from the Gibson Custom Shop in October 2009 – absolutely new and unplayed, having been removed from the box only for pictures as described. After looking it over and admiring the unique figure of the grain on the plain top that moves from quarter sawn in the center to flat sawn at the outer edges, the beautiful ‘Sunrise’ teaburst finish, strong cherry back, sides and neck, the perfect Madagascar rosewood fingerboard and the ‘58 neck carve, we tuned the guitar up, played it unplugged for a few minutes and sat back in perplexed awe, slowly raking a pick over the strings while playing full chords. Among the hundreds of Les Pauls we have played and evaluated and the dozens we have acquired, played and reviewed in these pages, this guitar possesses a freakishly intense, vibrant character that can be felt along the entire length of the neck, through the body and right down to the bottom strap button, which vibrates like a tuning fork when the wound strings are played. We’re serious. Plugged in, it’s game over — a full, rich tone emerges with brilliant sustain, complex harmonic depth, and the perfect balance of tight bottom end, fluid upper mids and the kind of thick treble bite so often associated with a great blackguard Telecaster. The 8.7 pound weight is perfect, the ‘58 plays flawlessly, and before we could even consider any potential enhancements as simple as throwing on a set of pure nickel Pyramids, we became consumed with the desire to understand why this guitar, out of all the others that have passed through our hands could clearly be so exceptionally, unimaginably, extraordinarily alive. To further drive home our point, photos of some of the most memorable guitars we have acquired in the past are scattered throughout this edition of the Quest.
After spending more time than we care to admit pouring over our considerable collection of guitar books and bookmarked web sites, we found a plausible and articulate explanation — one that to our knowledge has never been expressed by anyone else so clearly in print. And since it appears in the back of a book valued most for its pictures, we also suspect that the author’s elegant explanation may have even gone unnoticed by many who already own The Beauty of the Burst. With sincere thanks to the publisher, and to Riverhorse for leaving his copy here, we invite you to get comfortable, gather your thoughts, relax and slowly, carefully consider the following words from Yasuhiko Iwanade, and the origin of tone. Indeed, you may wish to read them twice, if not more…
“You can’t study the darkness by flooding it with light.”—Edward Abbey
As it has been claimed by players and enthusiasts for decades, the Sunburst Les Paul has its own dimension of tone. It whispers softly, weeps gently, but it can roar angrily the next second. The Sunburst Les Paul’s pinnacle of fame cannot be measured without its responsiveness to the player’s emotion. The “Sunburst” tone can be described as having two components. The first point, the “double tone,” which is the term used by collectors and the like, means that the notes carry very distinctive upper range sub-harmonics and each note sounds as if it is double layered. The second point is its sustain. In general, the sustain and the tone are treated separately as irrelevant matters. The truth is that they are so closely related that they are not separable. The Sunburst Les Paul is often respectfully called the Stradivarius of electric guitars. The tone, so superior to others, is not created by the pickups alone, but rather, it is created by the whole structure of the guitar with its components influencing each other. In this chapter, we will unravel complex, tangled factors to discover the structure of tone that changed music.
The Tone Structure of the Solid Body Guitar
On acoustic guitars, the string’s vibration causes the top of the guitar to vibrate. The vibration of the top then moves the air which, in turn, makes the sound heard by our ears. Because of this means of sound production, the top of the acoustic guitar, with its physical arrangement of material, thickness, etc. has a vital role in determining the output and the sound character of a given guitar. On the contrary, solid body guitars do not have this vibrating diaphragm. In this case, the vibration of the strings becomes the sound, although it cannot be heard as it lacks enough energy to move enough air. This silent sound, when electrified and amplified, will then become the voice of the electric guitar. In this chapter we will study the structure of the voice of the solid body electric guitar by separating it into two different parts. The first consists of the silent sound (the character of the guitar’s vibration system: neck/body/ strings) that appears as the string vibration pattern. We refer to this as the primary tone. The sound character after the pickup’s involvement is likewise defined as the secondary tone. Although the guitar’s output signal may be affected as it passes through pickups, amps and speakers, they cannot interfere or add overtones if certain frequency bandwidths are missing from the primary tone. In other words, what the guitar does not produce cannot be supplemented electrically.
The Neck as a Tone Filter
We must study the neck and body as separate units since they are very different in how they react to string vibration. The vibration character of the neck is determined by its physical structure and material (mass and rigidity/flexibility). Mahogany was the standard material for Les Paul necks except in the ‘70s. However, the thickness and its shape went through modifications in the three years of sunburst Les Paul production. Also at that time, the fingerboard material was Brazilian rosewood, which is harder and denser than the current industry standard, Indian rosewood. As to the physical structure, the neck can be described as a cantilever. In physics, the term refers to such a structure with a beam supported on only one end. One end of the strings is anchored to the tip of this cantilever. In a long and thin structure such as a guitar neck, the cantilever is particularly sensitive to the force applied at the tip. In that sense, the neck plays an important role as a tone filter. What is interesting here is that the strings are anchored to the neck, which is being moved by the strings’ own energy. As the neck moves, the strings are also moved by its own energy. In other words, the energy transferred to the neck is fed back to the strings. However, the characteristics of neck vibration are different from that of the strings. This is because the mass, rigidity, and flexibility are different between the two. The frequency structure is different and they are out of phase. The vibration fed back to the neck will then collide with the original energy source, the string vibration. When this happens, the slight lapse of phase creates a new pattern of vibration. Some frequency bands are enhanced while others are weakened, and new tone is formed. As long as a note sustains, this feedback loop of string and neck vibration continues, making the tone rich and complex. In this sense, the neck plays an important role as a tone filter. Since the neck is a tone filter, what becomes important is its rigidity. Rigidity is the tendency to resist deformation. In this case, the neck with high rigidity is harder to bend; in other words, it is stiff. When the neck is stiff, it is less likely to be affected by the string vibration. The neck vibrates less, resulting in less interference between the string and neck vibration. As a consequence, the stiffer neck retains more high frequencies. When a string vibrates, lower frequencies have greater energy than the higher frequencies. The higher frequencies tend to get canceled when the string and neck vibration interfere with one another. A neck with higher rigidity with its lower degree of vibration interference has the tendency to retain high frequencies.
What would we get when the string’s tension decreases? Two factors can be extracted here. First is the change in harmonic structure. The tension of the strings has a more significant effect on the upper harmonic structure, which has a lower level of energy. Higher frequencies that may otherwise be suppressed by the tension of the tight strings may be freed up when the tension is relaxed. Even on low notes, high and ultra high harmonics are inherent, and they are the key to the presence of the note. So this factor is quite important. The second factor is increased sustain. A certain amount of tension is needed to hold a vibration, but when it is too strong it prohibits the strings from vibrating. When the tension is decreased the strings have more freedom to vibrate.
The String Vibration & the Harmonic Structure
As we try to define the meaning of “tone,” we must not forget about the length of time involved. We need to recognize “tone” as a word to describe a set of harmonic structures that changes from the creation of a note to the end of its life. Tone is the whole sequence experienced by the human ear, whether it is a split second or several seconds in duration. From the initial ‘attack,’ followed by the release and ending the decay caused by the energy consumption, the harmonic structure of a given note keeps changing. However, this phenomenon does not affect all harmonics uniformly. The interference between the body/neck vibration and the string’s vibration affects the harmonic structure continuously. In other words, on a time axis, different harmonics are born or fade away at different times. What the human ear senses is an aggregate of a harmonic structure on the time axis that is divided in infinitely small segments and lined up in sequence. If we refer to each of these small segments as “static tones,” the aggregate should be called “dynamic tone.” In regular application the word “tone” applies to the latter, and it is the guitar as a structure (neck/body) that controls the tone through string vibration.
How the String Vibration Is Recognized as Sound
The sound of an electric guitar takes the following sequence before it can be sensed by the human ear:
- A note is plucked and the string vibrates.
- The pickup senses the string vibration as an interference in the electromagnetic field. Consequently, electricity is induced.
- The string vibration is converted to an alternating current signal.
- The signal produced in #3 is sent to the amplifier via a cable.
- The-signal is amplified by the amplifier.
- Result of #5 is fed to the speaker and the cone of the speaker moves the air.
- The vibration of the air is sensed by the ears and recognized as sound.
The Maple Top as Inertia Block
Inertia is a tendency of an object to stay still or stay in uniform motion. We know that when something is still it takes energy to move it. This further leads to the fact that a heavy object does not move easily. In guitar application, this theory can be seen on guitars such as the Fender Stratocaster and Alembic guitars and basses. In both applications, a metal block is placed underneath the bridge to gain sustain. In an ordinary situation, string vibration is transmitted to the body and the energy is consumed to make the body vibrate. When the body vibrates, the vibration disturbs the string’s vibration. Although the body gets energy from the string’s vibration, the body does not share all the vibrating characteristics with the strings. In other words, the strings’ and body’s vibration differ in level and phase, so consequently part of the vibration gets cancelled. It is lost energy and the strings stop vibrating sooner. This cancellation effect can be lessened by cutting the loop of vibration feedback with a heavy piece of metal directly beneath the bridge. The inertia created by its mass makes the body less sensitive to the string vibration. The bridge, staying still due to inertia, is hardly influenced by the string vibration. The body disturbs the string vibration less because the body does not receive the string’s energy. In other words, the feedback of string vibration is less. According to this theory, an inertia block gains the sustain by controlling the amount of string vibration energy transmitted to the body. In the case of the Les Paul, the dense maple top plays the role of an inertia block.
The Importance of the Primary Tone
The primary tone, which was born as a “raw” body/ neck/string vibration, will then be transformed to an alternating current signal by the generator: the pickup. The pickup, as it generates the signal, affects the signal as a tone filter since its structure contains resistance, capacitance and inductance. Then that signal is sent through the output jack to the amplifier. Both the pickup and amplifier can have an influence over the balance of the original fundamental and harmonics created by the body/neck/strings structure, and that is why we needed to divide the tone into two categories. Again, what is important here is that the frequency that does not exist in a primary tone cannot be produced later. When it doesn’t exist, no matter how one tries, it cannot be amplified. Zero times 10,000 is still zero. As explained in the beginning of this chapter, what the body and neck does not have, cannot come out as tone.
Excerpted with permission from “The Beauty of the Burst” Yasuhiko Iwanade, author, © 1998 Hal Leonard Corporation www.halleonard.com