Mr. X - a former music store employee discusses Gibson Les Pauls
This is a different kind of interview for Dinosaur Rock Guitar. This is not a "name" guitarist. Mr. X is a unknown player who's been working as a guitar player and teacher for over 30 years.
I have personally known Mr. X for over 20 years. He taught me 99% of what I know, believe and preach about guitars and tone. I find this subject fascinating, and present this interview as a sort of a Buyer Beware Public Service Announcement.
You may not like what you read here. You may think what Mr. X has to say is bullshit. On the other hand, it may confirm things you already knew or suspected. As with all information you see on the Internet, you're free to ignore it. So, as Morpheus said to Neo: This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.... Remember, all I'm offering is the truth, nothing more.... Follow me....
12/26/02 Interview conducted by Dinosaur David B.
DRG: As a guitar player and teacher with over thirty years of experience, your students often ask you about what kinds of guitars they should buy.
Mr. X: Every day. I teach in the school systems, so it comes up on a daily basis.
DRG: But you also taught privately for many many years — not in classrooms.
Mr. X: Yes, and I still teach privately in the schools (too).
DRG: So beginners, and even non-beginners come to you for advice about guitars.
Mr. X: That's right. And when they're not old enough to buy them themselves, their moms ask me.
DRG: And back in the early to mid 90s, you also worked in a local music store?
Mr. X: Yeah. At the time, there were two music stores in my area that were the hot spots for local hot shots to go. So pick any well-known band from that time — they were all coming through on tour — they would hit these two music stores. One was a big store, and the other was sort of a "mom & pop" style store, and I worked at that one. My job was giving lessons to whoever came in the door. Mostly college aged kids, but some high school too. And in between students, I made it a point to play every instrument — being the guitar freak that I am. So we never had any less than 40 Les Pauls and 40 Strats on the wall at any given time. Most of them were vintage.
DRG: Before we get too far along, let's state right up front you've owned many Gibsons yourself . . .
Mr. X: Yeah, I've had seven Les Pauls and I still have a 1955 (See above) — a black beauty — if you can still say black beauty politically correctly. And I have a Heritage from the first or second year the Kalamazoo factory became their own entity.
Editor's note: To the know-it-all knuckleheads — yes, we know humbuckers came later — the guitar above is a modded 1955 Les Paul Custom. It was modded to accommodate humbuckers, and the neck binding was removed, but it is a 1955, with a mahogany neck and body — no maple top, and ebony board. And it sounds amazing.
DRG: And you had the Doubleneck for a while too
Mr. X: Yeah, the 6 string/12 string from the late 70s era.
DRG: And lets also mention — for anyone who doesn't already know — that I own a Gibson Les Paul and a Gibson Custom Shop SG myself.
Mr. X: So we are basically fans of good Gibson guitars.
DRG: Correct. And we're absolutely not suggesting that all Gibsons suck, or anything like that.
Mr. X: Right. When push comes to shove, I still reach for my Les Paul first.
DRG: But what we are going to talk about is quality issues within the context of Gibson Les Pauls. Because when you worked in the store, you got to see and play all of the high end and low end Gibsons. Plus, you got to talk with the Gibson representative on a regular basis. So, you were giving lessons, and when you weren't, you were sitting there playing Les Pauls. What did you play?
Mr. X: I got to play each Paul that came in. I'd probably play 50 a week in the store, then play more in other stores on the weekends. I played all my students guitars. I was playing in bands, playing every Paul I could get my hands on. That's how I found my 55 Custom years ago. It belonged to a guy who I was in a band with. He decided he was going to build a custom Schecter, which was a popular thing to do at the time. And I had been drooling over his 55 Custom that just sounded marvelous. So he sold it to me and built his Schecter. And of course, the Schecter didn't sound anywhere near as good as that Les Paul, so he wanted it back. And I told him: NO WAY! That wasn't the deal. Besides, I had sold five other guitars to buy that guitar. He was really pissed. And it split the band up, too (laughs). But I wasn't giving up that Paul. I've probably played 2000-3000 Les Pauls in 30 years and that 55 is one of the best I've heard. And it's still my number one guitar.
DRG: So how did you evaluate all of these Les Pauls?
Mr. X: When you've been playing as long as I have, you can tell a lot about a Paul before you ever plug it in. A pickup will give you a frequency response in a zone that is pleasing. But acoustically, the guitar ought to have that signature before you plug it in. So I'd start off playing any Gibson that came in acoustically.
DRG: And what were you listening for acoustically?
Mr. X: Sustain. Fullness of tone in the three ranges — high, medium, and low. And overall smoothness, rather than one frequency that sticks out in a pronounced or unpleasant way. You're listening for roundness of tone. You don't want (the tone) to disappear into bass frequencies, or go into that ratty high-end scritch tone. (Editor's note: this is a solid approach to take when checking out any guitar.) And you can tell pretty quick. And even with a light gage string — something I learned from you — with your 9-36s — or even 8s — it doesn't matter. A good guitar supports them. Even though a guitar that's not so good can benefit from 10s or heavier strings. Those strings can help a bad guitar. That's why a lot of guys are playing bad guitars and don't know it. The heavier strings save them.
DRG: But if you get a good sounding guitar to start with, you can get away with light strings and still get great, fat tone.
Mr. X: Easily. That was proven to me again and again. And I would have argued against that (before seeing it for myself) because people in-the-know would say: you need more mass. Look at Gary Moore, using those 11-52s, Robin Trower, those guys who got those huge sounds using heavy strings.
DRG: And for the last almost twenty years, it's been Stevie Ray Vaughan getting everyone onto 11s and 12s.
Mr. X: Yep. And pretty much any guitar that intonates correctly with a correct fretscale — you can get usable tones with those heavy strings on it. But why would you want to live with that and blow your hands out in ten years? Especially if your over thirty. You're gonna start feeling it on a damp day if you're playing two or four hours a day. I'm 46, and I've logged many thousands of hours on these hands, and they're not showing a lot of damage. (Editor's note: Mr. X plays 9-46 gage strings.)
DRG: So getting back to the Gibsons . . .
Mr. X: I saw a disconcertingly wide range of quality on the Les Pauls. I played them from the 50s, I own a 55, I sold you your 54 (Editor's note: mine was also modded with humbuckers), I played a 58. I played them from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. I played all the signature series Pauls that came out through the mid 90s. And the quality range was just shocking.
DRG: And these were the low end Les Pauls all the way up though the most pricey models?
Mr. X: Yeah, and at that time the most expensive new ones you could get were around $6500, and it was like the Ace Frehley model and a few others.
DRG: Was there any correlation between how much it cost and the quality of the instrument?
Mr. X: None whatsoever. You couldn't correlate the two. In fact, as Gibson put more money into the finish and into their marketing for the signature series, it became a formula for disaster (for the unsuspecting buyer). It's American marketing 101. The more you advertise a product, the more recognizable it becomes, the more people buy it. It has nothing to do with the quality of the product.
So anyway, playing these Les Pauls, the things I would notice: The really heavy, heavy Pauls had a lot of bright top end — generally — there are always exceptions but I'd say in most cases. And a booming low end. With no warm midrange in between. That'd be OK for grunge, or some other styles, but not the kind of thick warm tones we like for heavy rock and metal. Generally, you need a medium weight guitar for that kind of tone. But if what you've got is too heavy, you get less warm, buttery midrange tone and you'll be fighting that stabbing high end, and the booming low end. If you try out 300 or 600 guitars, generally speaking, you'll find I'm right 90% of the time.
And I didn't know what was going on at first, so I started talking to the Gibson rep. He said that as Gibson changed ownership and management over the years, each new management would come in and make a run of decent ones — the demand would go up, they'd realize they we're gonna run out of good woods, and they'd go back to doing things purely based on economics.
For example, I'd ask the rep: So what's in the construction of this early 70s Les Paul Standard tobacco burst? What's it made out of? And he said that when CMI or whoever owned Gibson at that time were running low on good mahogany, so they made a "sandwich" body. Instead of a one piece mahogany body, you'd get a laminate body of two thin slabs of mahogany which is cheaper than one thicker slab. The sound changed there. There's a piece of maple in between to make a stripe. Then the neck is maple rather than mahogany to cut costs, so the sound changes again. They'd make all these changes to the guitars without telling the public, and price would keep going up. (Editor's note: There is much more information available these days. These changes are pretty well documented now in books like The Gibson Les Paul Book: A Complete History of Les Paul Guitars by Tony Bacon. There is also a great deal of info on the Internet. What is not usually mentioned is how these changes adversely effected the tone of the guitars.)
Fingerboards changed too. They started out with Brazilian rosewood, but eventually that got scarce and expensive, so a lot of companies switched to Indian rosewood, which is cheaper, more brittle, and less oily, so it has less warmth. You can tell that on the rosewood Strats too. The quality of the Gibson inlay work went up and down, all through those years. From horrible to acceptable. They found they could make the inlays thinner and save money because their routing blades wouldn't get as dull if they didn't cut as deep. So (because they were so thin) the inlays all started looking gray in certain years instead of looking white.
So anyway, I'd ask the rep, what about this one or that one? What about the 80s Les Pauls? And he'd say: Well, they went from nitrocellulose lacquer to polyurethane clear coats because it they couldn't shoot nitro anymore because it was illegal. And because the urethane is cheaper. It's a one-step finish. Nitro has to be buffed out in many coats. So the sound would change again on most guitars. Now, I've seen polyurethane guitars that get it done, but on a Paul, you can hear the difference a lot of times.
DRG: And the difference is . . .
Mr. X: The polyurethane is a harder finish. So you may get a little more sustain because it's resisting absorption. Your string will sustain longer, but resonance decreases. Sustain is not resonance. It's not even frequency response. It's just dumb sustain. So the urethane made a difference.
The Gibson electronics also got really cheesy on and off, and it was kind of a hit or miss thing. Even though the pickups were machine wound, you'd think they'd get some uniformity, but they didn't. You couldn't find consistency from one Les Paul to the next. You'd have bad sounding finishes next to good sounding finishes. Bad fretscales coming of the line right next to good fretscales. Fret jobs with frets that popped out of the board every spring when the humidity changed. I don't think they started super gluing them in until the 90s, and even then, it's best to epoxy them in.
So I ask the rep again: What's going on here? Is it me, or are these guitars all over the place in quality? But I already knew the answer because I had talked to master luthier who had worked for Clapton and Hendrix in NY when he was younger — he's worked for C.F. Martin as a certified repairman. This is the smartest luthier I have ever seen — a true scientist of the subject — extremely well respected in the area. He set me straight. He said that a Les Paul that's very heavy is made out of cheap, African mahogany as opposed to rainforest Honduras mahogany. Honduras mahogany is light and spongy. The African stuff is heavy and dense. Now, there are going to be anomalies where there's some giant mahogany tree in Africa, and at the top of that tree, there's going to be a slab of board that's light weight, and medium density, and it's going to sound like that nice spongy Honduran mahogany. But the wood at the lower part of that African tree is going to be heavy and dense — compressed by the weight of the heavier mahogany pushing down on it.
DRG: We should also point out, though, that because of these consistency issues, you can't go by any sweeping generalization or blanket statement on Les Pauls. There are years or even decades that have reputations for being fantastic or terrible. The 50s Les Pauls are supposed to be wonderful . . .
Mr. X: Not so. Not all of them. This luthier friend we just mentioned has worked on dozen of them and he said there are 50s Pauls that are dogs. And a lot of them are owned by people who want them for the investment, and collectability, but don't know the difference tonally. Just because you spend the big bucks doesn't mean you're getting a good sounding guitar.
DRG: And the 70s Les Pauls are supposed to be horrible.
Mr. X: Not all of them. John Sykes' black custom is a 1978 — and a "second" at that. It sounds great. We had a mutual friend who had a 1980 Custom, and it was one of the good ones. It had a one piece mahogany body, and a mahogany neck.
DRG: So at the time you worked in the store, seeing them every day, playing them every day — how many Les Pauls actually gave you a hard-on?
Mr. X: Well, I'll give you the bottom-line story. A student of mine came to me for help in buying a guitar. He's a very well-off adult — vice president of a software company. He said: I'll buy any Les Paul in the place, but I want one like what you play. I want one that speaks across all frequencies. I don't care what it looks like. So the store owner's eyeballs turn to dollar signs and said to me: Hey, sell him the Jimmy Page — it's $5500. And I said: No, I'm gonna sell him the best Les Paul in the place. And I'll make it up to you because I send all my students to you for guitars anyway.
So we sat down, and five hours later we had played 44 Les Pauls, ranging in year from 1968 through 70s 80s up to 1996. We played the Ace Frehley that was hanging on the wall. We played the Joe Perry, the Jimmy Page, we had a quilt top and two or three other expensive ones. And when we were done, the absolute best-sounding guitar was a used, $400 Les Paul Studio made in the 90s. Mahogany neck and body, maple cap. No fancy top. Just a plain burgundy finish. Someone had put in two pickups with ceramic magnets in it. It had the cheap Klusons that slip and the Nashville bridge. But the guitar sang when you played it acoustically with 9s on it. Endless sustain. That full, rich lower midrange that you feel below the belt. This guitar had it all! It was light weight. It was cheap. The fretscale was accurate — I played if for a couple of hours. So my friend bought it. But he wasn't a tone hound, and ultimately it wasn't enough of a trophy guitar for him. He sold it later and it changed hands a few more times — each time going to one of my students. And invariably, these students didn't know what they had. So I'm the only one how knew how good that guitar was!
DRG: Well, what you also have said all along is that you have been able to find good Gibsons in all price ranges.
Mr. X: Absolutely.
DRG: You had a lot of used Pauls in the store, but you also had the brand new ones coming in all the time. What was the quality of the workmanship on those?
Mr. X: The finishes were urethane, but they were beautiful-looking finishes. I'll give them an "A" on their finishes. Inlay work had improved somewhat without being as thin or as fudged up with filler. Fretwork was a disaster. Some of the frets were lifting. Most of the frets were not crowned evenly so when you run your hand down the neck it felt like it would cut your fingers. All the frets were different shapes as opposed to being uniform. You couldn't get any kind of feel — you had to memorize where the bad frets were. So fret-wise, I'd give it an "F" across the board for those new Gibsons coming in in the early 90s.
DRG: And it didn't matter how expensive the guitar was.
Mr. X: Certainly not. The Frehley, the Jimmy Page, and the other pricey models had poorly done electronics. Scratchy sounding pickups in the Page. The Ace had DiMarzios and a killer top, clean inlay with the lightning bolts, but it also had the heavy, cheap African mahogany body. And the fretwork on both was deplorable. The only constant they had was that everything looked great. The look of the guitar is everything to Gibson.
DRG: And let's mention, you fell victim to that pitfall yourself. You bought a very nice looking quilt top. Tell me about that guitar. Was it a 1980?
Mr. X: It was an 82. It was owned by one of the guys in a major rock band who's name begins with an A and who's logo uses wings. He was the replacement guitarist for one of the original guitarists who had his own "project" at the time. Anyway, I got this quilt top that was the most beautiful guitar that I've ever seen on this earth, and I've seen Ed Roman's website. Visually, this guitar ranked with the Vic DePra collection of vintage bursts. And I bought it for $1200 back then which is probably like twice that now.
DRG: This wasn't even a reissue either, like a 58, 59, or 60 reissue.
Mr. X: No, it was just a "Standard" with a quilt top (shown below). So I bought it without listening to it or even playing it, because it looked so good. It was like leaving the bar with a girl who looks like a 10 when your drunk, and finding out she's a 2 the next morning! And when I started playing the guitar on stage, I realized it weighed eleven to twelve pounds and was all high and low end. So I started going through pickups trying to save it. But all my regular pickups failed me. Gibsons with ceramic magnets — couldn't get the warm tone. A custom wound pickup from my luthier — couldn't get it. Acoustically, the guitar just wasn't producing (the tone I wanted). That quilt top was so hard. And the mahogany was probably the African stuff — too heavy. And also, I couldn't get it to intonate correctly — ever! Turns out, the third fret was set in the wrong place. The nut was set in the wrong place. And then, as some Gibsons tend to do, it started running sharp at fret fifteen — which Gibson won't admit to — but if you measure it out with a strobe tuner, you can see it going sharp. So the guitar was a complete nightmare and a total dog. And yet it had been hand-picked and made for this rock star. I sold it for what I paid for it and learned my lesson.
Buyer Beware! This beautiful guitar was a dog!
DRG: So what else did you learn from the Gibson rep?
Mr. X: I learned that the Gibson rep certainly knew the difference between the good ones and the lousy ones. Now he couldn't quite admit this in so many words, but he confirmed it through his actions. A lot of Gibsons came to the store in the mail, but every time the rep came to supply the store he would bring three to six Les Pauls with him. He'd say: I picked these out. And I'd play each of them, and they'd all be very good. They would all be between seven and eight and a half pounds. Each one would have slightly different fret work, but all uniformly crowned. The rep was hand-picking these guitars. Either from a pool that Gibson was making specifically as demos for their salesmen, or he was pulling them off the line himself. These weren't the dogs that were coming in to the store on a regular basis.
And those three to six good Pauls he brought in would be sold or spoken for before the rep ever left the store. They never went up on the wall. The owner would say, I've got one sold to a guy who plays harmonica for a famous British guitarist who used to be in a band named after a rich dairy product found on top of milk. Or the guys who worked in the store would buy them. But those guitars went fast and they were being sold by the rep for extra cash on the side. Say the particular model he brought in typically went for $1500. The rep would give you a "special deal" on the one he hand-picked: $2000.
And the store employees would snatch them up because they were always looking for good guitars. But at that time, I didn't need one because I had the 55 Custom and I'd bought a Heritage out of frustration with Gibson. The Kalamazoo Heritage was hand made out of Honduras mahogany. They were lighter weight guitars, the pickups were wound correctly. Heritage was an exception. There was uniform fretscale, uniform wood quality, uniform inlay and uniform tone in every Heritage I played. I asked them for a custom job and they were back ordered. They were honest with me. They said: Look, it's going to be nine months before we can get to you cause there's just a few of us working here. Here I was calling from a music store that was a Heritage dealer, and they said: sorry, we won't rush the process, because we would be compromising the quality. And I was angry as hell! (laughs) But now I realize I was being foolish. They were doing it right! It's Gibson that lets the quality drop whenever they get back ordered.
DRG: So haw many did the rep have to go through to find one of these good Les Pauls he brought into the store. What did he tell you it was? One out of how many?
Mr. X: Well, because he couldn't admit it outright, the way it worked was we'd "agree" on how many it was. I used to tell him I had a strong impression that if I could find one in fifty, I was doing very well and felt lucky. Because there were a lot of weeks — this music store sold at least ten Les Pauls a week — so I was seeing hundreds of Pauls. And I'd find one or two a month that were good. And the rep concurred with me. But only a small number of people know what a good Les Paul is, and the rest are willing to settle for a reasonable facsimile.
DRG: So let's do the math. The one Les Paul in fifty that you and the rep agreed upon is 2% that are very good or better. Out of the remaining 98%, how many of those are mediocre, average-sounding guitars, and how many are total dogs?
Mr. X: It's about half and half. (I.e. 49% are average 49% are lousy) The other story I heard from the rep was that certain name players — let's call them "Joe" and "Brad" — would go down to the Gibson shop, and the guys at Gibson hated it when they came down.
DRG: Why was that?
Mr. X: The rep said that anytime players would come down and get fussy about picking out guitars, the Gibson people hated it. And Joe and Brad were driving them nuts because they knew what they were looking for. They needed guitars that were commensurate with the best guitars in the world. They would be talking about the tone quality of the woods, the weight of the Les Pauls, the balance, the frequency response — and those were all things that Gibson didn't want to hear.
DRG: And it didn't matter that these guys would be great ambassadors for the Les Paul? Wouldn't they want to build a good one for these guys?
Mr. X: No, because the Gibson name is bigger than any one player. The guitarist from the band named after a heavy dirigible hates the signature model they made for him.
But I've heard now from some of my friends in the old store that Gibson has been returning to some of the old ways — nitrocellulose finishes, lighter mahogany, better quality . . .
DRG: That's the Gibson Custom Shop. My SG is from the Gibson custom shop. It supposedly has eight coats of nitro on it. The fret work is pretty good. But the price was ridiculous for an SG. And the Custom Shop Les Pauls — start at around $5000 and go up to double that for certain models made by certain luthiers. These guitars are better made than the standard Gibsons coming off the line. But the quality of workmanship is not any better than the standard workmanship of any other good small shop like Hamer, Heritage, or even a custom shop like Jacksons who are selling well made guitars for less than half the Gibson price. Again, you pay a big premium for the Gibson name.
Mr. X: I'll give you one more Gibson story that gets me angry. Gibson says to the mom and pop store: You have to give us a preorder of $14K or you can't have a Gibson franchise. So mom and pop raise the money. Six months later Guitar Center comes to town and Gibson says to mom and pop: We're going to start sending you less guitars, because these guys are nation wide. They've got more orders. We need to feed those orders. Remember that deal we made with you — it's null and void.
DRG: So what's the bottom line here? What should we take away from this discussion? How does the average player find a good sounding Les Paul.
Mr. X: Ignore the finish, close your eyes, and trust what your ears tell you. If you're just starting out or don't know what to listen for, find someone who knows tone and have them go with you and play the guitar for you. Buy them lunch, or a case of beer or whatever it takes. Most of what's on the wall for sale are the dogs. Any good Paul or Strat that came through our store — one of us five or six of us employees grabbed it! The store owners don't know the difference. They know what Gibson knows — that a pretty finish sells a guitar quicker than tone. When someone wanted a good sounding guitar, the owners sent them to me. If I couldn't find them one immediately, I'd tell them to give it a couple of weeks. That's the other thing I tell people: if you're hot to buy a guitar right now, you're gonna get burned. Wait for the right one. Be patient and play a lot of them. You just did the math — you may have to play 50 or 100 to find a real good one. Most people don't have the patience for that. But if you only play ten or 20 in a store, and they all sound about the same, there probably isn't a good one in that batch, because the real good ones will stand out noticeably from the rest. Buyer beware!
DRG: All I'll add to that is that if you do find a good one, for God's sake, hang on to it!
We at the Dinosaur Rock Guitar would like to thank Mr. X for taking the time to answer our questions. Copyright ©2002 All rights reserved.