Friday, December 5, 2014

Vintage Gibson ES-175 Restoration

Our favorite local Italian luthier, Luca Quacquarella, was recently commissioned with this vintage Gibson ES-175 restoration.
gibson es-175 restoration

This guitar, which dates back to 1964, was the property of one of the local hotels in Singapore and had been languishing in a damp basement storeroom, unplayed and neglected, for a few decades. Someone had even pasted a couple of hotel baggage stickers on the back, just in case the ownership of the guitar would ever be in doubt.

The nitrocellulose finish had clouded with the passage of time and the seam on the lower bout of the guitar had split due to water damage. The Hofner tailpiece, that someone had used to replace the original ES-175 'zig-zag' trapeze tailpiece, had also severely corroded.
gibson es-175 restoration
Hotel baggage stickers

Although how anyone could possibly damage an ES-175 tailpiece to the point where it had to be replaced, we'll probably never know. Remember that this was a guitar used by the hotel lobby band and not subject to the rigors of outrageous stage antics or heavy usage. My guess is that someone took a fancy to the original tailpiece and swapped it out for the Hofner tailpiece when no one was looking.

Luca's first task was to remove all the hardware and electronics, labelling everything to facilitate their re-installation later. The pickups that came with the guitar had the rectangular black stickers with Patent No. 2737842 on the underside, and very large diameter volume and tone potentiometers, true to the period that this guitar was from.

gibson es-175 restorationInterestingly, Patent No. 2737842 was not the patent designation for the humbucking pickups but was actually the patent number for Gibson's trapeze tailpiece bridge!

As you can see in the pic on the right, the lower seam had completely split and was lifting away slightly.

After Luca glued the seams together, he needed to match the deep brown color of the original finish on the sides. Mixing dark brown nitrocellulose lacquer with a smidgen of black, he managed to perfectly match the original finish.

gibson es-175 restoration
Relic'ing and check lines added!
To match the checking of the original finish, Luca added artificial check lines to the new, pristine lacquer. A good knowledge and understanding of the grain and directional patterns of how lacquer would naturally check is definitely required here.

Although the precise technique that he used to artificially create the checked lacquer lines is something that he does not seem to want to talk about. A trade secret shall remain a trade secret!

gibson es-175 restoration
Once the repair had been completed, the entire guitar was gently wet-sanded to bring back some of the original shine of the lacquer on the headstock, back of the neck, and the body of the guitar.

But according to Luca, he was careful not to make it too shiny, lest it look too new and fake.

To complete the repair and restoration, an after-market ES-175 tailpiece and pickguard were special-ordered to replace the Hofner tailpiece and the original celluloid pickguard. Celluloid starts to de-gas after a few decades and this pickguard was already warped and starting to disintegrate. in Germany, by the way, makes an excellent after-market ES-175 zig-zag tailpiece!

Looks like this 1964 Gibson ES-175 is ready for another 50 years of music!
gibson ES-175 restoration

Be sure to also check out my earlier interview with Luca Quacquarella

Friday, November 21, 2014

Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Part 5 | The Big Rewire

In this fifth and final installment of Refinishing My Les Paul BFG, I decided to let my good buddy Arnold San Juan put his remarkable skill with a soldering gun to good use and do a complete rewiring of my guitar.
rewiring les paul bfg
Arnold San Juan

A sound recordist and mixer in the film industry -- twiddling knobs and faders of various persuasions -- Arnold is also remarkably adept at guitar electronics and building effects pedals. And his skill with a soldering iron has left many local electronics gurus slack-jawed in awe, he'll be the first to admit.

Jokes aside, this guy really is one of the best.

The Les Paul BFG comes with one of the strangest electronics configurations of any Les Paul model. With a P90 in the neck and a Burstbucker 3 in the bridge, both pickups have separate volume controls but a shared tone control. In place of where the neck pickup tone control would be, Gibson elected to situate the 3-way pickup selector switch.

And this is the main reason why I so wanted my Les Paul BFG rewired. Where the selector switch would normally be on a conventional Les Paul, Gibson, in all their unfathomable wisdom, chose to add an on-off 'killswitch'. Flipping the killswitch on and off rapidly creates an auditory version of a flashing strobelight, pulsing in rhythm to the music. Or out of rhythm, depending on who's playing.

I found the killswitch to be about as useful as a piece of gum stuck under my shoe.

During the first couple of gigs with the Les Paul BFG, I found myself instinctively flipping the killswitch when I really intended to change pickup positions. The first time it happened, the guitar went dead silent and I actually panicked for a microsecond before I flipped the killswitch back to the 'on' position.

I'd made up my mind. Someday I was going to rewire this thing to regular -- some might say boring -- old Les Paul specs.

My other good buddy Sherman (who regular readers will remember as a recurring figure on The Guitar Column) suggested that I get a new set of CTS 500k audio taper potentiometers -- 'long shaft' he emphasized, with a wink and a nudge -- and a pair of Russian .022 mf paper-in-oil capacitors.
cts pots and paper-in-oil capacitors
CTS pots, Russian PIO caps and selector switch ring

It was all pretty much Greek to me, but shopping for parts I went. But I did know to also get the cool, cream plastic ring that said 'Rhythm' and 'Treble' on it for the selector switch.

And a custom-made pickguard by MojoAxe.

Sherman turned me on to MojoAxe, mentioning that they produced the most material-accurate plastic parts that even vintage Les Paul owners would turn to when they needed to get a spare pickguard or control cavity cover. MojoAxe also makes a well-intonated wrap-around replacement tailpiece for old and reissue Les Pauls.

And since the Les Paul BFG had a P90 soapbar in the neck and a humbucker in the bridge, MojoAxe would also be able to cut a custom pickguard for me.

Dealing with Dan at MojoAxe was an absolute pleasure. He asked for the measurement between the neck and bridge pickup and had the pickguard cut and mailed out the following day along with an aged nickel mounting bracket and screws. He even sent me the picture you see here before mailing it out.
mojoaxe les paul pickguard
Custom pickguard by MojoAxe

But back to the wiring. And a couple of potential problems.

The first thing we noticed when Arnold removed the original Gibson potentiometers and the 3-way selector switch was how much larger the hole drilled for the switch was. Remember that on the Les Paul BFG, the selector switch is located where the tone pot for the neck would normally be on a regular Les Paul.

I was a little worried because the tone control for the neck pickup was going to be re-situated there and that the hole would be too large to hold the pot in place. Fortunately, the metal washer that held the nut for the tone pot was wide enough to cover the hole entirely.
les paul bfg
Note larger hole where the pickup selector used to be

The second thing we noticed was the unusually long pickup selector switch used on the BFG. Unlike the usual Switchcraft switch used by Gibson, this switch was a good 1/2" or so longer. Again I was worried that the switch would be too long for the cavity where the killswitch originally was.

Fortunately again, the plastic selector switch cavity cover fit over nicely, but in full contact with the square base of the switch. No problems there.

And did I mention that the Les Paul BFGs come with these cool clear acrylic covers for both the pickup selector and main control cavity?

The original killswitch came mounted on a nice, sturdy countersunk metal barrel that held the switch very solidly in place. After all, if one was to go ape with the killswitch all the way through a show, it had better be solid.

This metal barrel also fit the 3-way selector beautifully, but because of its slightly larger diameter, Arnold had to file and enlarge the hole of the plastic Rhythm-Treble selector switch ring. The cream plastic ring is purely cosmetic, I know, but I felt that the guitar would look incomplete without it.

On the advice of Sherman, I picked up a pair of .022mf Russian-made NOS (new-old-stock) paper-in-oil capacitors. Military-grade, and indeed, designed for military use, these caps are all the buzz on
paper-in-oil capacitors
Russian-made Paper-In-Oil .022 capacitors
Les Paul forums for their sweet tonal properties. They weren't that cheap but a definite improvement nonetheless, on the matte-orange .022 ceramic caps that came with the guitar. And as you can see in the pic, Arnold very thoughtfully applied rubber heat-shrink insulation to each leg of both capacitors.

If you're interested in these Russian vintage capacitors, the part number and description for them is K40Y-9 PIO (paper-in-oil).  They come with a dark silver body and have just a +/-10% tolerance variance.

Arnold then asked me if I wanted my guitar wired in the 'modern' style or with traditional  50's wiring. These things always give me a case of option anxiety.

Consulting the Oracle Of All Things Gibson (the entity also known as our good buddy Sherman), he recommended going with the 50's wiring for more twang and clarity -- muddy-sounding Les Pauls, he said, usually came with the so-called 'modern' wiring. And with the P90 in the neck position, traditional 50's wiring would bring out the bright single-coil qualities of that pickup even more.

It's nice to have friends who know stuff!
les paul 50s wiring
Les Paul traditional 50's wiring. Very neat work!

Arnold proffered a practical solution to my conundrum and said that he would wire the guitar with 'modern' wiring, and then switch to 50's wiring to compare. Apparently, it was just a matter of moving one of the legs of the capacitors to a different lug on the potentiometer.

'Night and day' is probably the best way I could describe the difference between the two wiring schemes. The modern wiring sounded like how you would expect a Les Paul to sound -- fat and creamy, with the notes in a chord just melding together. If you were playing heavy-rock or metal, the modern wiring would probably be more suitable.

The traditional 50's wiring brought out a lot more clarity and and brightness. You could hear each of the notes in a chord, even through a distortion pedal. Single notes popped more, and had more definition with richer overtones. You could hear the string as you played.
Finishing touches

Another thing I noticed was that the volume and tone pots seemed more responsive. Playing through a Chandler Tube Driver with the gain up three-quarters (which is a ton of gain), I immediately noticed that rolling back the volume controls on the guitar to 3 or 4 cleaned up the sound considerably.  Also, rolling the tone controls back, even to zero, didn't make the sound muddy or woofy. And the combination of using the neck P90 pickup and rolling the tone control back to 4 or 5 put me squarely in Grant Green-Wes Montgomery territory.

I was convinced -- 50's wiring it is then.

Great job, Arnold.


So, after about a month and a half of working on my Les Paul BFG project, we have reached the point where the guitar is probably more traditional Les Paul than BFG!

The guitar is light, probably from having all that wood shaved off the top, resonant, and a joy to play.
les paul bfg
Done... finally!

No surprise that it has taken on a different personality from its previous incarnation. And it is loud acoustically. A lot louder than it was before.

Sherman probably said it best, "I don't remember your guitar sounding this good."

Pretty cool, coming from someone who used to sing in a club band every Monday and Thursday night for years with me playing this very same guitar!

And if you haven't already, be sure to read Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Part 1, 2, 3 and 4 and my Interview with luthier Luca Quacquarella.

gibson les paul flametopAlso, be sure to visit for the best in Les Paul parts.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Part 4 | The Final Reveal!

gibson les paul bfg trans gold
A last look at the gold top
This installment of Refinishing My Les Paul BFG will finally reveal the completely resprayed guitar top in vermillion nitrocellulose lacquer!

According to Luca Quaquarella, the luthier who did the refinishing job -- and who was also featured in his very own interview in my last post -- the most difficult part of this project was sanding the top of the BFG completely smooth.

He sanded the top entirely by hand and had to ensure that the curvature of the arched maple top stayed true to Les Paul specs. His biggest concern was making sure that there were no flat spots that would ruin the curvature and symmetry of the arch.

In his own words, he sanded off "a hell of a lot of wood!"

After he mixed the right proportions of red and orange nitrocellulose, Luca applied many coats to the top, wet sanding between each coat. Bear in mind that only pure nitrocellulose lacquer was used.

Gibson now uses a nitrocellulose that has a good amount of plasticizer mixed in to give an impeccably shiny surface. Pure nitrocellulose will 'sink' into the pores and surface imperfections, so no matter how many coats you use, the same type of mirror-like nitro-mixed-with-plasticizer shine can never be fully achieved.
gibson les paul bfg refinished
Applying the first few coats of nitro

I wanted to keep the back of the BFG in its semi-raw state. I felt that sanding it smooth and filling in the pores of the mahogany back would affect the sound of the instrument too much and suck some of the liveliness out of it. If you read my Larry Corsa article from a while back, he talks about the very same thing, and I'm totally with him on this.

And after all, it is a beautiful one piece mahogany back that is simply gorgeous to touch!

I also didn't want the neck refinished for the same reason but I did ask Luca to roll the edges along the entire length of the fingerboard on both the treble and bass sides. Rolling the fingerboard dulls that sharp 90 degree angle of the edge of the fingerboard so that it feels slightly rounded to the touch.

Again, true to the spirit of the Barely Finished Guitar concept, Gibson had left out this very important step.

As far as guitars, I can get used to almost anything. Set me up with minimal fingerboard relief, get the string height medium-low and the intonation in the ballpark, and the guitar is pretty much ready
gibson les paul bfg refinished
to go as far as I'm concerned.

And if the frets don't draw blood, it's a bonus.

Playing the BFG consistently for a long time made me forget how rough the edge of the fingerboard actually is. But when I play one of my other better made Gibsons, and then come back to the BFG, this is when I start noticing how the edge of the fingerboard feels like a piece of firewood.

"The Gibson Firewood. A Few Steps Beyond Aged-Relic. It's Firewood!"  

Perhaps not the best marketing campaign for a new Les Paul model.

gibson les paul bfg refinished
Gotta love that flame top!
Luca also thoroughly cleaned and oiled the fingerboard and the back of the neck removing a lot of built-up crud from the fingerboard. He also took a razor blade to that hard-to-clean-spot right next to each fret.

And according to Luca, there was a lot of crud!

During my younger days, I would take all the strings off my guitar every six or seven months, and give the fingerboard a good scrub with a stiff toothbrush and lemon oil to remove every bit of crud. Those days are over. Life is just too short.

Stay tuned to Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Part 5 where we will get a cool custom pickguard by MojoAxe installed, as well as a complete rewiring done to do away with that dang killswitch!
les paul bfg refinished

And if you haven't already read the earlier installments, catch up on Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Luthier Spotlight | Luca Quacquarella

Born in Milano, Italy, 36-year old luthier Luca Quacquarella is a man on a mission -- to spread the gospel of fine guitar repair.

And if there's anyone that could raise a guitar from the dead, it's this guy.

Classically trained in violin, cello and doublebass luthiery and repair, Luca arrived in Singapore in 2011 while on a holiday and sightseeing trip. Curious about the local guitar repair shops here, he paid a random visit to one and struck up a conversation with the owner.

And the rest, as they say, is history.
guitar luthier
Luthier Luca Quacquarella

If you have been following my posts on Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Parts 1, 2, and 3, it gives me great pleasure to present this interview with the man behind that project.

The Guitar Column:  Thanks for taking the time out to do this interview with us, Luca.

Luca Quacquarella:  Thanks for the opportunity to work on your guitar, to spray and to do it in a cool color.

TGC:  At which point in your life did you discover that you had a passion for luthiery? Tell us about your luthiery apprenticeship in Italy.

LQ:  After I finished my studies in university -- I studied sociology, mass media and public relations -- I realized that it was not for me. At the same time I was studying, I started to play bass and drums.

It was just a coincidence, but one day while I was on the internet, I found this luthiery school in Milano, which was a four-year course. For the first two years they taught you how to build parts of the guitar, then over the next two years you learned how to build and put together all the parts.

It was not too expensive, in fact it was quite cheap, but it was far from my hometown so I needed to find a job to support myself.

But the school was fulltime -- you had to bring home pieces of a project and keep working on it -- so I couldn't work to make money to survive, so I had to give up. I was a bit depressed. Because, now what?

Luckily I found, not far from my hometown, a German luthier, Felix Habel. This guy graduated from a school in Cremona..

TGC:  Cremona is where those Stradivarius and Guarnerius violins came from.

LQ:  Yes. This is one of the most famous luthiery schools in the world. But to join this school, you have to speak Italian, but there are students from all around the world -- Chinese, Japanese. It is a secondary school -- you had to study all the normal subjects on top of luthiery.

I approached this guy who had graduated from this school and he had opened his own shop to build violins and violas.  I asked him, "What if you teach me?"

I told him my story, what I'd like to do. Luckily I had my very old guitar, a Framus, my father's guitar from the 1950's, in bad condition. So I asked him if I could come and I would work on my guitar. From that moment, I stayed with this guy for almost three years. I didn't pay him, but he also didn't pay me.

He had many orders for custom violins and a few projects to build electric double basses. I started with simple stuff but eventually went on to build six or seven electric double basses from scratch. I also built resophonic guitars.

TGC:  How did you find the materials to build resophonic guitars, the cones and the metal parts?

LQ:  The metal parts you could buy and all the woods we used were from Germany. But even in Italy now, you can still find good wood.

guitar luthierTGC:  How much of your classical building technique do you apply to your current repairing of guitars?

LQ:  A lot!

TGC:  For example?

LQ:  One little example. The nut of any string instrument, I follow how it should be done, exactly like how you would do it on a violin.

How the string must sit properly in the nut; how deep, how far the top of each string should be above the nut. The string should move nicely in the nut. It's a little thing but very, very important.

TGC:  What is your opinion on current guitar manufacturers, for example Gibson and Fender? What is your opinion on the quality of the guitars that they are making?

LQ:  It's mass production. The first thing I can see, under a little light, is how they put a guitar together. They don't pay attention to a lot of details. It's not too small -- if you have a little knowledge of the guitar, you will notice. Sometimes it's bad.

TGC:  How about the quality of the woods you see on the modern instruments? What is your opinion of the types or grades of wood that they are using?

LQ:  One thing I always tell people is that if you buy a solid color guitar, you can forget about the guitar having nice wood underneath!

These big factories, they have stocks of wood so huge -- they buy tons and tons -- so there is no chance that they will be using old wood. I mean, my bass that I built is 40 year old mahogany. You can still find old wood, but you need to go and search.

TGC:  We are not exactly talking about a visit to the lumberyard here?

LQ:  No, no. We look in woodworker's shops, where they build tables, chairs.

TGC: After all this talk of woods, how much does the pickup affect the guitars tone? If a guitar has lousy woods, but if you put a great pickup on it, will it help make the guitar sound better?

LQ:  This is tricky..

The guitar sounds better not just because of the wood and the pickups. It's the flow of the guitar. It happens sometimes that you have a cheap guitar, but when you play it, it sounds good. To answer your question, it's 50/50.

The pickup is important and the wood is important. The density of the wood changes the tone.

TGC:  How about the guitar's finish? Do you think guitars should be finished in nitrocellulose lacquer all the time?

LQ:  All the time, nitro for sure. Spraying nitro is not too easy. Spraying a poly finish is easy. Spraying nitro may take double your time.

TGC:  We are talking about seven coats of nitro to get a smooth finish similar to a thick coat of polyurethane?

LQ:  Usually with nitro, ten coats is considered a thin coat. It depends on how you set your spray gun, but usually it's ten.

TGC:  Tell us about the line of guitars that your company is coming out with very soon. What type of models can we expect and what are some of the different options you offer?

LQ:  Basically, I'm an old school guy, I like old school stuff.

For now, because it's more easy to do, we plan to do guitars in the Fender style. Classic but more modern. For sure we'll change the shape of the headstock. But most importantly, we'll take care of the little details.

TGC:  And the finishes will be all nitrocellulose as well?

LQ:  All nitro. I can use only nitro.

TGC:  Do your customers get to choose the type of guitar pickups they want, choose different types of wood, different neck shapes?

LQ:  Neck shape, of course, it's the most important. The wood you can choose, and you will get to choose pickups also. If you come to me and you are not sure what pickups you want, I will try and help you. I have an idea on how to demonstrate different types of pickups on the same guitar.

TGC:  Luca, thanks a lot for doing this interview!

LQ:  Thanks for interviewing me!

For repair consultations,you can reach Luca Quacquarella through his company's main website at:

Friday, November 7, 2014

Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Part 3

In Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Part 2, Luca Quacquarella, our friendly local Italian luthier had stripped the thin gold finish and sanded down the top of the guitar to the bare wood.

Gone were the BFG's bumps, ridges and 'scales'.

Also gone was the weird little groove that used to reside where a pickguard normally would attach to the body with a screw -- something that exists on no other Gibson Les Paul. I've always speculated that the groove was intentionally put there to prevent a would-be forger from using the BFG as a base for a counterfeit vintage Les Paul.

Mucho dinero for a couple of weeks work.

The next step was for Luca to mix red and orange colors of nitrocellulose lacquer to come up with a convincing vermillion. Vermillion is a tricky color to achieve. Too much orange or too much red and the scale can tip either way.

After some experimentation, Luca sent me these pictures which show the first coat of nitrocellulose lacquer he had applied.

Not too shabby!

Spraying the lacquer, fine sanding and then spraying again, several times over, he was able to build a nice intense gloss that also accented the grain and figure of the maple top.

After about a week, and after Luca had let the nitrocellulose dry thoroughly -- a process slowed by Singapore's 90% humidity -- the guitar was ready to have all its hardware put back on.

BFG's come with the bridge humbucker screwed directly into the body. I never liked the sound of a pickup mounted directly to body -- it gives the guitar a hard, very harsh sound. It's subtle but you can definitely hear it as well as feel it. Humbuckers need to be spring mounted in order to 'breathe' and sound natural.

I'd also been having problems with the bridge pickup suddenly coming loose -- the pickup screws were not holding properly to the body -- with the springs underneath forcing the pickup up and into strings while I was playing. It happened once at a gig and I had break out the phillips screwdriver mid-song to screw the pickup in deeper into the body.

Not something that I would like to repeat doing.

I needed to get an original Gibson pickup mounting ring, an item which all the music stores in my location were plum out of. Fortunately, a friend of mine managed to procure one for me from a music store in Tokyo while on a business trip there.

I'd read on Les Paul forums that the mounting 'ears' on the BFG Burstbuckers were not threaded. Instead, the mounting screws went right through the holes in the mounting ears freely. Two springs
provided the necessary tension to support the pickup and the ends of the screw threads screwed right to the body. As you can imagine, if the mounting ears were indeed unthreaded, it would have been impossible to mount the pickup to the mounting ring.

Fortunately, Luca didn't find this anomaly on my BFG's Burstbucker, so he managed to install the mounting ring and the pickup in the conventional manner without any problems.

Stay tuned to Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Part 4

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Part 2

In our first installment of Refinishing My Les Paul BFG, I mentioned looking for a luthier skilled in refinishing guitars in nitrocellulose.

Nitrocellulose lacquer is used on higher-end instruments. It not only looks good but also allows the wood to breathe, resonate and age naturally. But it is also a highly toxic substance that is actually banned in certain states in the US, as well as in some countries in Europe. If you're planning on using this stuff, a good respirator is a necessity.

My good buddy Sherman had been raving about the skills of an Italian luthier based here in Singapore and he had been sending me pictures of his repair and restoration work. Some of the repair pics were quite graphic -- cracked bodies and snapped off headstocks expertly glued back together and then refinished so that little evidence of the repair remained. And the man behind these extraordinary repairs? Luca Quacquarella.

As I was to learn later, Luca had gone to luthiery school in Italy where he had studied classical instrument building and repair -- violins, cellos, double basses and the like -- and was later employed for several years by a prominent custom instrument builder.

Sherman and I visited Luca's workshop about a month ago, guitar cases in hand -- me with my BFG and him with his Gibson R8 Les Paul which he had brought along for some minor touchups.

Meeting Luca for the first time, I was struck by his obvious passion for guitars and musical instruments. A very genial guy, he eagerly showed us around his shop. And being the know-it-alls that myself and Sherman are, he also patiently listened to us blabber about wood grain, hide glue and boutique pickup winders.

Luca showed us his works in progress: a crushed antique violin that someone had sat on, a sunburst 1964 Gibson ES175 in need of complete restoration and refinish, and a Gretsch Duo-Jet that was about to receive a not-so-subtle champagne pink sparkle finish. I knew there and then that I had found the guy who could do justice to my Les Paul BFG.

I explained to him what I wanted -- to have the BFG's top sanded down smooth and refinished in nitrocellulose lacquer.

Luca explained to me that he could sand the top smooth without a problem but also that he would be taking a fair amount of wood off the guitar in the process.

Without any prompting, he also noticed the flame figure in the top of the guitar where my picking had worn through the finish. Things were looking promising!

Because of his huge backlog of repairs, it took him a couple of weeks before he could get to my guitar, with the first major task being to sand the top absolutely smooth. The sanding had to be done by hand as a sanding machine would have left flat spots in the arched top.

And the pictures he sent me of the sanded down, bare wood top nearly made me fall out of my chair!

Go ahead and click on the pics for a closer look!

If you read Part 1 of Refinishing My Les Paul BFG, I mentioned that I was betting (and hoping) that there would be a flame top under the paint work. My more rational side however, reasoned that Gibson would never hide a beautiful figured maple top under an opaque finish.

Well, this was one time when I didn't want to question Gibson's reason or logic.

Lo and behold, in all its bookmatched glory, was a beautiful natural flame top. Not too exaggerated as to be garish looking, but not too subtle as to go unnoticed. And I really got a kick out of that chevron bookmatch.

To the woodshop guy at Gibson, who deigned this nice maple top fit to be hidden under the crappy paint job of a Barely Finished Guitar, I thank you!

Luca gave me time to think about the color of the finish that I wanted on the guitar and told me to send him pictures of guitars in that color once I had made up my mind. I could tell by the look on his face that he had had one too many instances of customers changing their minds.

And with transparent finishes, once the base color is applied, it becomes awfully difficult to remove. We're talking about sanding everything down to the bare wood and starting over. I suggested to Luca that he should charge the customer for each change, based on labor and time spent each time. I was kind of surprised that he hadn't even considered it.

My initial thought was to go with a natural finish similar to Tom Scholz's Les Paul, which happened to have a similar pickup configuration as the BFG, with a P90 in the neck and humbucker in the bridge. Luca said it would be easy to do, but I could tell that he would enjoy this project more if I gave him a challenge.

I really liked the transparent vermillion used on Gibson's newest incarnation of the Slash signature model. Vermillion, I knew, wasn't going to be an easy color to match -- it could go either too red, or too orange. It was like walking a tightrope, as far getting the perfect balance.

And Luca's response once I sent him the pictures? "The color is nice. I will try."

Stay tuned for Refinishing My Les Paul BFG Part 3

Monday, November 3, 2014

Refinishing My Les Paul BFG

This is my Trans Gold Gibson Les Paul BFG that I bought in January 2008.

The Les Paul BFG series, BFG standing for Barely Finished Guitar (a more apt acronym I have yet to come across) was one of those guitars Gibson produced that would make you stop in your tracks. Like a fingerprint, each rough-hewn top was unique and one couldn't help but be drawn in by those three-dimensional bumps and ridges. It was a strange combination of being repulsive and beautiful at the same time.

And I sure wasn't crazy about the ones in the color Gibson dubbed 'Trans Black'. It reminded me of something altogether reptilian. Snakes alive!

If you read my earlier article on How To Choose A Guitar That's Right For You, I talked about how some instruments just seem to scream, "Take Me!", the moment you start playing them. The first Les Paul BFG I played was one of those instruments.

This story all began with my visiting the local music store one day for some strings.

Ryan, one of the sales guys at the store ushered me into the store's humidity-controlled 'expensive guitar room' with the promise of something wonderful that he had just discovered.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when he put this goldtop BFG in my hands. The raw-finished mahogany neck appeared dried out, with streaks of white in the wood grain, and there was a very noticeable burr mark at the heel which wasn't sanded down properly.

Barely Finished Guitar. No kidding.

Plugging it into a Peavey JSX head and 4x12 cabinet, Ryan dialed in a gainy, but not overly saturated tone on the Crunch channel with the bottom-end beefed up courtesy of the Resonance control.

Let me just say that the combination of this guitar and this amp had me at 'hello'. Or maybe it was more like a very enthusiastic "Hey, how ya doing? Come here often?"

Single notes screamed with liquid sustain, like balls of mercury colliding in mid-air, while riffs on the lower strings seemed to leap out of the amp like rampaging stallions in heat.

And I was just there to buy some strings and a patch cable. Honest!

After a couple of days of soul-searching about whether I really needed another guitar -- you know, the usual self-talk with the inevitable rationalization at the end -- I decided to go get it.

But when I got to the store the Gold BFG was gone, replaced with a Trans Red one. The Trans Red unfortunately, sounded anemic through the same JSX amplifier and it had a nut that was cut too low, causing a couple of the open strings to buzz. I wasn't surprised really, that the Gold BFG was snapped up so quickly. It was a great guitar with vibe in all the right places.

Since they didn't have another BFG at this store, I hightailed it for the store's other outlet, hoping that I would luck out and find one that had at least 80% of the mojo the goldtop had.

The other store had a Gold Les Paul BFG displayed right next to its Trans Black reptilian sibling. Since I have a fear of snakes -- black ones, in particular -- I gingerly reached for the Gold BFG, being careful not to arouse the Trans Black one from its apparent slumber.

There was way too much neck relief on this guitar and any attempt at playing anything else other than blues licks felt like a plod through thick mud. Gibson, in their enlightenment and keeping to the true spirit of a Barely Finished Guitar, chose to not supply a truss rod cover on the BFG's, which meant that I could access the truss rod directly with the supplied truss rod adjustment tool. A full turn later and the neck was straight as an arrow, with about .007" relief at the 7th fret.

Magic number 7. Works every time.

I noticed that this particular guitar had a cleaner finish than the other Gold top. No burr marks anywhere on the neck that I would need to sand down later, and it had a one piece mahogany back to boot. Looked promising.

Locating a Peavey JSX combo amp, I put the guitar through its paces.

I won't lie. This guitar didn't have the same "Take me!" vibe of the other guitar, but it had a lot that I could work with. I thought it had more of a vintage tone instead of the searing modern sound of the other Gold BFG.

Could it have been the amp? Maybe.

But the Peavey JSX combo I was playing through was not that far moved from the head and cab version. The combo version was pushing 2x12 speakers, so much of the difference that I was hearing was coming more from the guitar.

Long story short, I sprung for it.

Having played the guitar for a couple of years at a lot of gigs, I managed to wear the thin gold finish off with my picking hand -- the good sized patch of bare wood you can see in the picture. And the more the wood was exposed, the more I noticed the flame maple top peeking through from underneath.

I'd put my BFG back in the case after I got my Gibson Firebirds, but when I took it out again recently to show a friend, and having not seen the guitar in a while, I was really struck by the figure of the exposed flame maple.

I decided I needed to refinish the guitar in a transparent nitrocellulose finish to expose what I hoped would be an amazing flame top. I realized that doing so could be a bit of a gamble as the flame might only be isolated to that area. After all, why would Gibson hide an amazing looking flame top under an opaque finish.

At worst, sanding down the top to the bare wood could reveal one or more large knots staring back like horrendous, unseeing eyes!
Might be a nice flame top hiding under there!

At any rate, I needed to locate a good luthier that could do what needed to be done.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Refinishing My Les Paul BFG

Friday, July 18, 2014

Johnny Winter | 1944 - 2014

This article is dedicated to Johnny Winter who passed away on July 16, 2014 at age 70.

"I never took lessons like to learn how to read music or where to put my fingers. I would just ask these guys to show me whatever they thought I ought to know."

"I would just learn how to play a record note-for-note. I just took what I heard and assimilated it, and I guess it would come out part mine and part everybody else's. There's nobody that really plays original. You can't. You can find some of everybody's licks in almost everybody's playing, but I tried to make it my own after I got the basic things down."

"I'd listen to those blues records like Bobby Bland and Otis Rush, and I wondered, how could they push those strings, how could they do this? I used a second for the third, a first for the second and an A tenor banjo string for the first. That was really cool!"

"(My parents) thought that all musicians were either drunks, dope addicts, or sexual perverts of some kind. And I said, "It don't have to be that way, though." Of course, they were right."

"Everybody thought I was crazy. Nobody wanted to hear that stuff. I was almost embarrassed to play it. I used to shut my door, and people would come by and say, "What is that music, man? You don't really like that stuff!" I didn't find one other friend that liked blues until I was about 23 or 24."

On playing with BB King for the first time: "One night, when I was about 18, I went down there. We were the only white people in a club of about 1500 people. BB was playing and I wanted to show off, man, so bad. And so finally I went up on a break and asked him if I could. BB thought I was crazy. He said, "Can I see a union card?"

On his guitars: "Firebirds. I love Firebirds. I like real high action. I had it pretty high before I played slide, because I played hard. Just for pushing strings it's important for it to be high. When I have low action I can't get my finger under the string to push it as well. (String gauges are) .009, .011, .016, .024, .032, .042. The brand doesn't matter."

On his amps and amp settings: "Everything on all the way, and all treble and no bass. We're using a stack of 100-watt Marshalls. One head and two bottoms, and one head and two bottoms of the Ampeg SVTs."

On his younger brother's different musical tastes: "Edgar was never into blues. He couldn't stand it. He plays his John Coltrane and Dave Brubeck records for me and says, "Now isn't that great?" And then I'll say, "But what is that stuff you're playing for me, man? I don't feel it -- I mean, there's feeling in it, but it just sounds like a bunch of notes. As to Edgar's jazz, it's fun to listen to but I wouldn't want to live there."

"Every second that I wasn't doing something else that I had to do, I was playing guitar. It was just an obsession. I guess I played at least six or eight hours a day from the time I started until I was fifteen. Then when I started playing in groups, I didn't practice unless we were having band practice. (These days) I'll go a couple of weeks and never even touch my guitar. Of course, when I start back, it definitely takes a week or so to get back in shape. It's hard making myself practice 'cause there's not much that I'm interested in learning. But pretty much it's just practicing for a reason. We play so much on tour, that usually when I get off the road I don't want to see my guitar for a while anyway."

On his use of a thumbpick: "Since I started out playing Chet Atkins' style, I used a thumbpick. Really, a flat pick would have been a lot better, but I've just been doing it so long, it'd just be too hard to switch. I bought a hundred of them a couple of years ago because I had so much trouble finding them, and a few months after that, Gibson quit making them. I still got about fifty left, but I'm going to have to quit playing the guitar when I run out, unless I can talk Gibson into making me some more."

On his right hand technique: "I don't really think about it. When I started out with the Chet Atkins' stuff I was using those metal fingerpicks, and they just got in the way, so I quit using them. But on my blues stuff, I'm still using my finger some, mostly the first and second finger with the thumb."

"I've had my slide for years. I was using test tubes and playing with the back of my wristwatch and everything imaginable. (I went) to a plumbing supply place, got a 12-foot long piece of conduit pipe, cut it into pieces and rounded out one side. When I got it, it was dull, gray and real rough. Then I just played and wore that off, and it became kind of shiny black. And then I played it for a little while longer and wore that off, and now it's kind of silver. Crust just sort of built up inside. Rust and dirt and sweat and everything. I love it! I don't even have any backup slides."

On his different slide tunings: "Open A and open E. Sometimes I play slide in regular tuning, but not too often."

On Jimi Hendrix and the tremelo bar: "Jimi Hendrix could use it so good! And people would put him down for using it, but man, it was a whole different dimension when he used it.  Even when his guitar was horribly out of tune, he could play so cool, you'd hardly ever know it. He had a way of bending the strings just enough to where it could sound in tune, even though it was horribly out of tune.If I'd pick it up and play a chord on his guitar, it would sound ungodly."

"We learn more things on the bandstand than we would practicing. After I learned how to play guitar I never have liked to practice that much."

On recording versus playing live: "I get off on turning people on. It's hard for me to put everything into it when I know there's nobody there."

"So many people just buy a guitar because the decided, "I want to be a rock and roll star. I'm going to learn how to play this son of a bitch." And after they get a few runs down they think, "Okay, it's time for me to be a star." You know, I was really ready to play for fifty bucks a week, if that's what it took. The basic drive and main thing was that I really liked what I was doing. You've got to have that first, or you can't make it."

Friday, February 28, 2014

Paco de Lucia | Memorable Quotes

This article is dedicated to the great Paco de Lucia, who left us all too soon at age 66 on February 25th 2014.

"In Andalucia, when I play, the audience at some times, will say 'Ole' all at once. If they don't say 'Ole', it means that you have played like shit."

"I'm very glad to be here, to try to further my music. I play guitar not for me, but for flamenco."
Paco de Lucia
Paco de Lucia (Pic source: wikipedia)

"I don't want to be a star, or a rich man. I am working for my village, for my country, for my music, for the tradition of the art form, and I want to make the music better, always better."

"In my music, we are very simple. In the phrygian mode, there are simple scales and harmonies with heavy emotion and tradition."

"I cannot see ahead two meters, you know? I live for the moment, the second. To make the future is to live every day, every second."

"There are two kinds of flamencos, the old, traditional flamenco and the new, young kind. The old ones cannot accept the change, and they say their way is pure. But pure remains for me to play what I feel at the moment, always with respect for the roots. It's not a problem for me whether they accept it or not. It's something I forgot a long time ago."

"It's something strange, but I never used to think of myself as playing music. I was living a special kind of life, flamenco."

"I never listened to other kinds of music, only flamenco. My philosophy of life was around flamenco only. I looked at it not so much as music, but more as a kind of life, a way of living."

"Thinking is the worst thing in improvisation. You need only feeling. Forget everything. Try to fly."

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Ordering A Killer KG-Stallion From Ishibashi Japan

I ordered a Killer KG-Stallion from Ishibashi recently, my third guitar purchase from this Japanese online store.

But why a Killer you might ask? Well, here's a little background.

I saw Japanese metal band Loudness play a concert in Singapore in 1989. To be honest, I wasn't really a fan of their music -- something about the razor-like guitar tones and mispronounced English lyrics made me cringe a little bit. And who knew what they were singing about in Japanese? No offence meant to Japanese readers of The Guitar Column.

But despite his less than dulcet tones, I could hear that their guitarist, Akira Takasaki, was a decent player in the Van Halen/Randy Rhoads tradition.

But I underestimated Takasaki-san.

For a good 2 hours, as the band belted out many of their past hits and played every song from their Soldier Of Fortune album, Takasaki was an exhilarating showman and consummate virtuoso. He had obviously been working on his shred chops and was alternate picking and sweeping with the best of them, every note as clear as a bell. Add to that his unique overhand tapping technique and I realized that he had stepped out of the shadow of Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads.

Throughout the show, Takasaki's tone was warm, rich and singing, with just the right amount of bite for those crushing riffs. I realized then and there that this was the 'brown sound' that Eddie Van Halen had been talking about in all the guitar magazines for years. Here it was, up close and personal.

Standing in front of his Marshall half-stacks, Takasaki brandished one of the weirdest looking guitars that I had seen up to that point. Bright orange, two humbuckers, single volume and tone controls, the ubiquitous Floyd Rose trem, and a shape that looked like it stepped right out of Japanese Anime. And what was with that 5-plus-1 tuner arrangement?
killer kg stallion
Killer KG-Stallion OS

I guess I never shook the impression that Takasaki's orange Killer guitar made on me that evening. As I played, owned and experimented with various Ibanezes, Fenders, Gibsons, Suhrs and Tylers over the years, Takasaki's Killer never came to the forefront of my consciousness as a 'must-own' guitar.

You might say that it was lying dormant in the back of my mind all these years. All it needed was a trigger.

That trigger came in the form of lunch at an Indian vegetarian restaurant 2 weeks ago, with my ol' buddy Eric. I've known Eric since 1991 when we were both crazy about shred guitar and home 4-track recording -- the whole Ibanez JEM into an ADA MP1 and ADA MicroCab cabinet simulator era. We also found that a Boss Metal Zone into the ADA MicroCab worked just as well, if not better, but that is a story for another day.  

At lunch, Eric told me about a reissue Ibanez RG550 that was going for below a 1000 bucks at our local music store. I was curious so we headed down to the store, but not before Eric stated, in his usual matter-of-fact manner that the guitar 'had no vibe.' Meaning that I should not get my hopes up, expecting that slinky, super-low action, vintage RG550 feel of decades ago.

My response was 'let's go check it out anyway.'

What greeted me at the store was indeed a blast from the past. Decked out in nearly luminous, day-glow Road Flare Red, this made in Japan reissue RG550 seemed to whisper 'hello' in a sultry voice as I picked it up. We put it through its paces for nearly an hour and I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed getting those stratospheric harmonic pull-ups on the Ibanez Edge tremelo. A vintage-style Edge trem I should point out, and none of that Zero Point nonsense.

A little online research revealed that this was not the overpriced 20th Anniversary RG550 that Ibanez released in 2007, but a Japanese market-only reissue 550. It's always interesting when made-for-Japan-only guitars occasionally slip through the cracks and float to our shores.

So what does all of this have to do with our Killer KG-Stallion order? Be patient, I'm getting there.
killer stallion
Killer KG Stallion

I've always bought guitars to bring them out to play at gigs. But somehow, I couldn't see myself playing a Road Flare Red RG550. But bouncing around the web looking up the reissue RG550 revealed a Killer KG-Stallion OS. That's 'Orange Sunshine' in case you were wondering.

For those of who know me, a Gibson SG looks like a glorified ukulele on my person. The RG550 would have looked tiny -- I'm not exactly 6 feet tall and 80kg anymore. The Stallion, on the other hand, looked large enough, a bit like my Firebirds, but without the somewhat oversized, be-careful-or-you'll-hit-it-against-a-wall headstock.

According to the Killer website, the KG-Stallion OS is a discontinued model -- the word 'discontinued' always gets me going, for various reasons -- and features an ash body, one-piece maple neck, single volume control, three-way pickup selector, Killer LQ-500 pickup in the neck position and a Killer Dyna-Bite in the bridge. The bridge is an Original Floyd Rose tremelo.

I've never owned a guitar with an original Floyd Rose trem before, although I've had extensive experience with the Ibanez Edge and Jackson licensed locking trems. For a while, I even endured breaking many brand-new, still-shiny strings that snapped off at the ball-end when I owned a guitar with a Kahler tremelo.
killer starrion
Killer Stallion or Starrion?

I've always felt the Ibanez Edge to be the ultimate vibrato locking system, but after a few days with the Floyd Rose I can see why it is still being used by so many guitar manufacturers today, especially on their high end models.

There's something about the Floyd Rose that somehow feels more solid and reassuring than even the Ibanez Edge. To put it simply, the Edge feels like it was made out of lighter, cast metal whereas the Floyd feels like it was milled out of a solid steel block.

And I really dig those Killer pickups. They remind me of the old DiMarzio PAFs, medium output and very warm sounding with an even frequency response. Apparently, the LQ-500 and Dyna-Bite are designed to Takasaki's specifications and are made in Germany. I wonder if there is any affiliation to Schaller in this regard.

Since I was getting the Killer guitar used from Ishibashi's U-Box, the previous owner had even thoughtfully installed a push-pull switch on the the volume pot to coil-tap both pickups simultaneously. He had also graced the guitar with a cigarette burn at the headstock between the 5th and 6th string tuners. I'm not complaining as it adds some street cred to the guitar as well as knocking down the price considerably. Other than a few minor dings and a bit of paint chipping on the longer lower horn of the guitar -- a common malady amongst Killer guitars it seems -- I received the guitar in near perfect condition, thoroughly packed in more bubble wrap than I've seen used on a single item.
killer stallion neck bolts
Killer Stallion - note unusual neck bolt arrangement

And thanks to Japan's EMS and Singapore's SpeedPost, the guitar was at my doorstep within 3 days of my order!

The techs at Ishibashi had also set the guitar up perfectly with .009 to .042 strings, with the trussrod adjusted so that the neck is nearly perfectly straight with low action. Saves me the trouble of having to pop the neck off to adjust the trussrod. All I had to do was readjust the Floyd so that the baseplate sat perfectly parallel to the body and voila, string-slacking divebombs, major 3rd harmonic up-pulls and wang bar flutters for days

A funny note, although this particular model is listed as 'Starrion' on many websites -- the name invoking, perhaps, images of Transformers robots and Gundam Mobile Suits -- 'Starrion' is actually a mispronunciation of 'Stallion'!

Killer guitar indeed. Things have a funny way of coming full-circle.

Read my earlier post about ordering a Gibson Firebird from Ishibashi

Killer KG-Stallion OS on website


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