A friend of mine asked me to help her find a good Les Paul guitar recently. It was to be a gift for her boyfriend, and as he was an experienced player, it had to be a good one. It was also something of a replacement. Apparently, he had an extremely nice version of one years ago, and so the goal was to try and get something that would be like that one. Maybe better. Sounding like a fun adventure, I agreed, and we began scouring the internet to look for a guitar.
Now, guitars are very tempremental instruments. It’s not just the woods used, or the parts, but how it all comes together. How they complement each other. On paper, almost every guitar is great. But in a guitar playing reality, many are not. So setting out to find a good one requires one of two things a) luck, or b) playing a bunch to find one.
If we were shooting blind, with no guitar to compare to, this would have been an easy task. But as we had a model name, a picture, a color, and stories of how awesome this old guitar was, we had a lot to stack up against.
Les Pauls are funny instruments. First, they are heavy. Heavier than your typical strat. But the secret to a good guitar, is less moisture in the wood. Moisture equals a dead sound. Less moisture means more acoustic resonance. Less moisture also means a lighter guitar. If you have two identical models of the same guitar and one is lighter, the lighter one almost always sounds better. If it doesn’t, there is probably some other issue at hand.
But Gibson, the manufacturer of the Les Paul, has done some odd things to Les Pauls over the years, namely, in using different techniques to make them lighter, other than reducing moisture content. For some models and years, they simply drilled holes in the body. You can’t see this, as a Les Paul has at least two parts of wood to the body, one being the actual body wood, and the other, a thin piece of carved wood that you see as it’s top. For other years and models, they skeletonized the body, ‘chambering’ it, so that all that is left of the thickest part of the body is almost just it’s edges. This results in a resonant guitar, but not with the same amount of sustain, as a solid body guitar. It can also result in an odd sounding feedback, compared to a more solid version. And then there are the woods, different types of body wood has been used to reduce weight, or different tops, and then, due to problems obtaining the typical fretboard woods, different choices there as well. All of which effect sustain, weight, resonance, playability, and the overall value of the guitar down the line.
Beginning our quest, we were able to find a good looking one locally, so I went by to play it. While it was not a bad Les Paul, it was not a good one. And for $1400, you don’t really want a passable one.
Option two arrived in the form of one found online. It looked good, but we couldn’t play it as it was 1000 miles from us. So we took a risk and told the salesman the situation, and asked if he, as an experienced guitar player would play it, and tell us if it’s one of the better ones he has. Putting trust into a person trying to sell an instrument probably depends just as much on the ethics of the person you are trusting as much as the amount of other guitars he has available. He came back to us and said the guitar was nothing to write home about, but he did have one that was very good, around the same price, but the color wasn’t what we were really looking for. And comparably, the price for the model was a little high.
Fortunately, my friend’s diligent searching of web stock found us another local one to check out. The color was good, the price was good, and it was from a local dealer that, if her boyfriend didn’t like the guitar, they would take it back. So we went in to play it. Within a few seconds, it was apparent this was a good guitar. Broken in nicely and easy to play, good sustain to the notes. I plugged it into an amp, sounded great.
So I went picking through the rest of the stock the store had, found a few marginal ones, and one very good one. Brought it over, it’s a bit more in price than the one we came in for. I began comparing the two. And here you have the classic debacle of quality instruments. One has great quality, and an acceptable price. The other has a teensy more versatility, and a much higher price. And then you realize that, you have fucked yourself, just a little, by seeing the 1% better one. Any guitar player would love either of these, both are excellent, but you know one is a little bit better. And so you start to try and break down the price difference, and… well just stop because the price difference is ridiculous. And so you put rationale in front of some other kind of rationale, and realize yes, this one you came for is the one that you will get because it’s awesome, and yes there are better ones in the world but it’s not worth it.
Probably the funniest thing about guitars, is out of years of playing different ones; great guitars, bad guitars… that by percentage, how many supposedly great models are marginal in quality. And accordingly, how much great music has probably been made on marginal examples of those instruments.
It’s a weird process that occurs when we begin to research something we want to buy. I’ve heard a theory that our evolved sense of what was food acquisition; IE hunting, takes over when we search for something. And when we learn something is better, we hone in on it. Perhaps there is a bit of insecurity as well that comes in to play; as money is wages, and wages are our times, and we want to be valuable, and if we cannot get more money per hour, than at least we can maximize what we get for the money, so we look for deals, educate ourselves, to give a hunting advantage.
And being in this process, I find myself learning more about Les Pauls than I ever wanted to know. As a guitar player, I play to write songs. Songs about the problems in the world. Songs about love. Songs about how I wish for more for those around me than what a lot of people are willing to allow themselves. In the absolute sense, cut and dry, I don’t give a shit if my guitar was made in 1970 or 1991, or if it was made when they were bought by a huge company or at the old factory they originated in.
And coming to that conclusion has political ramifications, because as an artist I want to shut down the rational and spec-sheet reading part of myself, just get a tool and get the song down, but maybe I know that one company pays a living wage to it’s employees and the cheaper guitar comes from a factory that might dump it’s waste into a river, in a community that doesn’t have the money to clean it up, because the company was given a tax break as incentive to move there, and so no real income is showing up yet to offset the true cost of their operation on the land around it. And to fuck that up, that even as bad as that is, that the job around all those chemicals may be the only choice those folks have for work right now.
I wish I didn’t have to make any of these choices. I wish suitable tools would just appear when needed, disappear when not, and that be that. And it’s sounds like an amazing dream. Until I realize that the context in which these things are built in is what I really want to have no part of. The weather was colder, so maybe the wood didn’t dry out. Or sales were down, so the wood got to sit longer. Or the neck has a different wood because the rainforests are getting depleted and they had to figure a way not to fuck the earth up, or go to jail, yet still somehow, produce guitars.
And then I realize; why should it be easy to decide? That tree took effort to grow, the workers took effort to go to work, the company took effort to get it here, the sales team took effort to try and sell it, it took effort to obtain the money, so why shouldn’t a similar amount of effort go into deciding which process to support, and ultimately, which guitar to make these songs on?
And then I realize, it’s precisely because I care about these things that the decision becomes hard. And some little part of me, becomes a little jealous, just a little, of the guy who can go online and select the guitar by model name, and color, and click; it’s at his doorstep a few days later.
I wonder if he values it. I wonder if he understands what makes it great, or what makes it poor. I wonder if he understands what he worked for. I wonder if he understands the process he just navigated so quickly. And I wonder, if the reward, or the product he received, is the same to him through his process as it is to me and mine. Something to think about.
In the end, she bought the Les Paul we went in for, and her boyfriend loved it.