Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01

Guitar wars

Good one by Jon Pareles, who (full disclosure!) has written numerous times about my own band, in a most complimentary fashion, bless his heart. Anyways, this is a much-too-brief review of what looks to be a fascinating book on one of history’s most epic eternal struggles: between Les Pauls and Strats.

Clarence Leo Fender was a perpetually rumpled, unassuming, self-taught radio repairman, an intuitive engineer and non-musician who decided to build guitars and amplifiers. “His enjoyment of the instrument,” Port writes, “stemmed from the precise pattern of harmonics produced by its strings. Where others heard music, Leo Fender heard physics.”

Lester Polsfuss, a.k.a. Les Paul, was a world-class guitarist and self-promoting showman who was also a technological visionary, fascinated by electronics and studio production. “Les Paul wrestled with the knowledge that even being a virtuoso on the guitar would not bring the fame he craved,” Port writes. “Les now began to see his guitar playing as one element in a larger project: a whole new sound that would combine his brilliant musicianship, the pure electric guitar tone he wanted, and radical new recording techniques he envisioned.”

In the mid-1940s, Fender turned his radio repair shop into the Fender Electric Instrument Company, manufacturing steel guitars and amplifiers. Both he and Paul had been thinking about a solid-body electric guitar.

Les Paul built one for himself in 1940 out of a 4-by-4 plank and an existing guitar neck. He called it “the Log,” performed with it (adding the sides of a guitar body) and brought it to the Gibson company in the early 1940s as a potential product. “After Les left,” Port writes, “the managers chortled among themselves about that crazy guitar player who wanted Gibson to build a broomstick with pickups on it.”

In 1943 Fender and a collaborator put pickups on a solid oak plank and shaped it like a narrow little guitar. They built only one rough model, but for years they rented it out steadily to local musicians who loved the amplified sound. It was, Port writes, “a misfit stepchild of a guitar that extended creative expression past what any other standard model allowed.”

At Les Paul’s studio, Fender, Paul, and a designer and meticulous custom-instrument craftsman named Paul Bigsby brainstormed a solid-body guitar, consulting with musicians. One was the country music star Merle Travis, a Bigsby client. Travis dared the designer to build him a thin, solid-body electric, sketching it in detail. Bigsby built it in 1948.

Fender studied it, but knew it was too luxurious. He came up with something simpler, eliminating fine woodworking and its sculptural glued-on neck; his neck was bolted on and easily replaceable, for a guitar that could be manufactured, affordable and practical. “This was the leap from classical design to modernism; from the age of walnut to the age of celluloid; from the America of brick-and-iron cities to the America of stucco-and-glass suburbs,” Port writes.

And from true artistry and masterful, exacting craftsmanship to cheap, mass-produced junk. Ahem.

Okay, okay, okay; yes, my bias is showing. Although I’ve owned plenty of Fenders over the years—and even loved a handful of ’em—I’ll always be a Gibson guy deep down. But there’s a big fat caveat that comes with that admission: back when I was just starting out as a player, I desperately wanted to be a Master Of The Stratocaster like my one-time idol Jimi Hendrix. But despite years of studious effort I never pulled it off. Hell, I never got close.

There are lots of guys out there who could/can make a battered old Fender produce truly astounding tone quality and depth: Stevie Vaughan, his brother Jimmy, Ritchie Blackmore, my old friend Eddie Angel, Duke Robillard, Danny Gatton, just to name a small sampling. I am assuredly NOT one of them. I still wish I could do it; nothing can rock some good old Texas blues like a Strat, and a Tele can romp and stomp like nobody’s business through trad country and rockabilly.

But I dunno, I just can’t seem to get to feeling at home with a Strat at all. Not quite so much with Teles; I am a LOT more comfortable with one of them around my neck, for whatever that’s worth. That said though, nothing has ever felt anything like as deliciously right to me as a Gibson, from the first moment I ever strapped one on. Be it a Les Paul or the old Frankensteinian hybrid of a ’41 L-7 with a ’36 Super 400 neck, mated with some ’53 or ’54 P90s I played for a few years back in the 90s*, gimme a Gibson and I’m good to go.

Well, except for the SG and the Explorer/Flying V; those things SUCK. The SG is actually a decent, well-built guitar, most of ’em. But they’re headstock-heavy, out of balance, and I never could get used to that. The Explorers and Flying V’s were just complete junk; they were intentional throwaways, conceived from the first as a way of making use of inferior wood that had been rejected as unacceptable for the higher-end Les Pauls and Firebirds.

I do very much enjoy me some skilled, solid Fender-benders like the ones mentioned above, and I still wish I could have stood among ’em myself. I can tell the sound of a Strat from a mile away; nothing else sounds at all like it. But after 40 years of intermittent failed attempts—and especially now that Viking’s Disease has brought my playing days to a screeching, painful halt—it just ain’t happening, to my miserable chagrin.

*That guitar was a rolling abortion, a collector’s nightmare, but whoever did the surgery knew what he was about. The battered old thing played and sounded like an absolute dream. No Fender I ever did have, even the finest among ’em, was fit to even sit on a guitar stand on the same stage with it.

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