The SG: Inspirational SG Players and some useful info on the varying design, build and sound.

When you’re gigging every night and that Les Paul is getting heavier and heavier on your strap and your shoulder aches – it’s time to give an SG a go. First marketed in 1961 as the new Les Paul model, and soon after re-named the SG after Les Paul parted company with Gibson; the SG has been around for over 50 years in various incarnations.

My personal favourites are the P90 equipped guitars, either Juniors or Specials. There is something about the P90 and the SG design and construction that just sounds right. With humbuckers they’re still good (Angus Young seems to like them) but to my ears they can sound very bright with too much pickup and not enough guitar in the tone. A good alternative are the Mini Humbucker equipped SG’s that were popular in the Seventies.

Things I like are the access to all of the frets with the unique neck to body construction, the thin sculpted body and the light weight. The thinner body makes for a punchy, biting more mid-rangey push to the tone compared with the heavy bottom end of a Les Paul. Some classic examples of the SG tone are Angus Young (anything/everything) Eric Clapton on Live Cream vol 1 and 2, Ollie Halsall, Pete Townshend Live at Leeds, Derek Trucks, Carlos Santana at Woodstock, and one of my fave’s, Zal Cleminson with The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – check out the definitive SG tone on Snake Bite or Faith Healer.

During the mid Seventies Gibson reduced the angle of the neck joint to almost zero, this makes for a guitar that feels more Fender than Gibson, one thing I’ve noticed is that these guitars seem to be very resonant and sustain well. Possibly because the wood grain is aligned between the body and the neck? They certainly feel different to play than the standard SG with the more pronounced neck pitch.

2011 SG Neck Pitch:

1974 SG Neck Pitch:

On most humbucker equipped guitars the pots are 500Kohm which work well with Les Pauls which generally sound darker than SG’s, for a time Gibson fitted 300Kohm pots on SG’s and they definitely sound warmer and suit the guitar, especially with mini-humbuckers and P90’s. Worth experimenting with if you think your SG is too bright and you want a more “woody” tone.

Top Tip when buying a SG: One common complaint is that some SG’s are neck heavy and don’t balance well, so if you are in the market for one, try a few as they vary in weight and balance.

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Les Paul : Classic Rock Tone and Common LP Quick Fixes

The massive crunchy guitar sound of the intro to TRex’ ‘Twentieth Century Boy’ first made me aware of the great Les Paul guitar tone and it still sounds great today. At the same time in the early Seventies, Mick Ronsons tone on the albums ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ is also a benchmark for that British Glam Guitar sound. The combination of a Les Paul and EL34 valve powered amps is the tone of classic rock all through the Seventies. Think Paul Kossof, Mick Ralphs, Mick Ronson, Jimmy Page, Dicky Betts – it’s a long list so I’ll stop here. Many of these great guitar players used original 1950’s Gibson Les Pauls which were relatively cheap then, but they aren’t so cheap now! Without having to fork out mountains of cash, you can still achieve the great 70’s Les Paul sound. The essential ingredients in the tone are: LP style guitar, lower output vintage-style humbuckers and an EL34 valve amp (non-master volume) with not too much gain.

Pickups

Lets look at pickups first – on a Les Paul I like vintage style output humbuckers rather than high output, by vintage I mean typically a DC resistance reading of between 7 and 8 KOhms. A lower output pickup will have more treble and a clearer bass, the more wire you put into a pickup the lower the resonant peak and consequently, more mid-range and a squashed frequency range.

LP Design

Lets now look at the Les Paul guitar design itself. Mahogany body, a maple cap; typically half an inch thick and a mahogany set-neck. On a Les Paul the neck to body joint is very solid with the non-cutaway side of the body making a lot of contact with the neck. This means more sustain, greater transfer of bass frequencies and a thicker overall tone.

Compare a Les Paul with and SG and you can hear the difference that more wood and more contact between neck and body makes. SG’s fitted with the same pickups as a Les Paul will sound more cutting, less bass, more upper midrange bite and more treble. Not bad but different.

Amplifier

The third element is the amp, if you listen to Paul Kossof’s guitar tone on ‘Alright Now’ there is a lot of clarity and not that much distortion at all. The amp tone is relatively clean with the distortion coming from the power valves rather than overdriving the pre-amp. You can hear each string separately and the sustain is from his fingers and guitar, not from the compression you get with a high output pickup and a high gain amp.

Common LP Quick Fixes

A couple of regular irritations with Les Pauls are strings sticking in the nut and getting the right string angle behind the bridge. The D and G strings are the usual culprits for sticking in the nut, this is because they have the most acute angle as they pass over the nut, the secret is to get the nut cut properly so that the strings pass over at the correct angle and that it is the right depth and width for the string gauge used. Pencil lead in the nut slots also helps.

Some Les Pauls have a deeper carve to the top than others, this means that if the stop bar tailpiece is screwed right down the strings will catch on the back of the bridge before they pass over the saddles. The way round this is to fit the strings so that they wrap over the tailpiece (this is how it was designed to be done originally) This method reduces the angle of the strings behind the bridge with the tailpiece screwed all the way down.

Stratocasters Part 2: classic neck pickup tones from Dave Gilmour and Jimi Hendrix

Following on from the last Strat blog where we looked at the Hank Marvin bridge pickup tone, we thought we’d move to the neck pickup this time:

Dave Gilmour

Dave Gilmour has a reputation for a monster tone. He has used loads of different pedals and effects over the years but always has that immediately identifiable “Gilmour” sound. A few key ingredients (apart from his fingers, touch and phrasing) are a loud clean valve amp and stomp box pedals. This way the tone shaping is achieved with the pedals rather than having a high gain distortion setting on the amp.

He often used, and still uses Hiwatt Amps which have a full tight bass and bright top end with a balanced midrange.This gives a relatively neutral canvas for colouring the sound with overdrives, distortions and modulation / delays. He often uses two overdrives / distortion running into each other. In the Seventes this would often be a Big Muff (fairly dirty and fuzzy) into a Colorsound Overdriver (previous versions known as Power Boost).What this cascading does is add slight compression to the Big Muff and then boost the signal adding upper mid-range. The solo in ‘Time‘ is a good example of this tone.

Probably the best example of Gilmour’s strat neck pickup tone is on ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’, clean with a bit of overdrive/edge, compression, modulation (possibly a Univibe?) and delay.

The first solo in ‘Comfortably Numb‘ is another example, although sometimes he uses the middle pickup; switching to the bridge pickup for the second solo. One solo that sounds very Stratty but isn’t is the solo in ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, this was played on a Les `Paul with P90’s using the neck pickup and recorded straight into the mixing desk with no amp.

Jimi Hendrix

One of my favourite guitar tones is Jimi Hendrix, using the neck pickup on his Strat on ‘The Wind Cries Mary’. It sounds like guitar straight into the amp with the amp turned up loud and the guitar volume backed off. The tone has an almost acoustic guitar quality with the pick scrapes and finger noise all audible. The treble is very clean and clear and the bass sounds three-dimensional.

Both David Gilmour and Jimi Hendrix used 100Watt non-master volume amps which give a strat a really full powerful sound when they are turned up loud. This combination can turn the Strat bridge pickup into an instrument of torture if the treble is not turned down on the amp, however, the neck pickup just loves it. You get tons of clear bass, midrange so punchy that you can feel it and treble that is not ear-piercing.

If you can find one get an old Marshall Superbass 100 watt head, they are similar to the Superlead, apart from a few wiring differences in the inputs. They have less treble (not a bad thing) and slightly less gain. A strat through a Superbass and 4X12 cab is a gorgeous tone with the channels linked and the volumes at half-way; turn it up full and it’s an unbeatable blues tone, if a little loud!

Next time: Moving on to Gibson, The Les Paul.

If you’re a Dave Gilmour fan, I have built a replica ‘Black Strat’ which is for sale at The Little Guitar Shop. There is also a demo video of it on Youtube.

Telecasters: why they are great and tips for achieving your desired Tele tone

I chose to talk about all things Telecaster in my first blog because (for today at least) they are my favourite. I remember as a 15 year old staring at pictures of a blond maple neck Tele in the Bells Musical Instruments mail order catalogue in 1973 (wondering where I would get £200). I ended up with an Avon copy which wasn’t bad but wasn’t a Fender. Status Quo use them, the solo in Stairway is played on a Telecaster, Keith Richards uses them….what’s not to like?I like the old pressed steel bridge rather than the current thick slab bridge, the steel interacts with the magnets in the pickup and gives edge and bite to the tone, it also contacts with the body wood differently and they sustain in a more musical way to my ears.   I also like three brass saddles rather than six individual saddles, with three saddles you get more pressure on the bridge improving sustain.Body wood is important too, a lighter body like swamp ash or pine makes for a warmer spongier attack and more twang. A heavier body like northern ash or heavy mahogany gives more bottom end and a fiercer treble.

A lot of Seventies Tele’s with heavier bodies and lower output pickups sound very jangly and make for a great rhythm tone, especially if they come with the 1meg volume pot. Changing pots to 250K will warm them up a bit. The neck pickup on Tele’s has stayed more or less the same since the 50’s; approximately 8000 turns of 43 gauge wire and Alnico 5 magnets. I adjust the height of mine so that they are as high as possible without the magnets pulling the strings on the bass side, this way you can get the volume balanced with the louder bridge pickup just right.

The original bridge pickups in the Broadcaster (before Fender changed the name to Telecaster) were slightly modified lap steel guitar pickups and had up to 9,200 turns of 43 gauge wire. By 1953 this changed to 42 gauge wire and the number of turns gradually reduced throughout the 1950’s to approximately 8000. The original pickups sound very different to the Sixties and current pickups, they are louder, more biting, have clanging bass tones and a juicy mid-range.

So if you want a clean, jangly Andy Summers tone then a pickup with around 8000 turns of 42 gauge wire like the Fender 60’s pickups will do the job. If you want more of a raucous chewy mid-range with lots of bite and edge, go for a pickup with more turns of 43 gauge wire; 43 gauge is thinner, so you can get more wire on the pickup bobbin which allows you to achieve very high trebles and accentuate the mid-range.

One final tip; if you never use the neck pickup, consider removing it or screwing it right down. One pickup Esquires nearly always sound more “open” than two pickup Tele’s because the strings vibrate more freely without the neck pickup magnets damping the strings vibration, try it, you might be surprised!

Next post: Stratocasters Part 1: Basic Set-up and the Perfect Hank Marvin Tone