Last week a friend of mine bought himself a Gibson Les Paul Standard, pretty much like the one in this photo. It’s a sunburst Jimmy Page-ish beauty that is about to define a time in his life he’ll never forget. He’s been playing for awhile, but so far has only been playing guitars that have been given to him. Most of these, as he puts it, “left something to be desired.”
But the guitar is such an addictive and magical instrument that even a bad one has her charms, if you know what I mean. If you don’t…well, you don’t. Once you play a great one though, you are forever hooked. In fact, at least 70% of my male friends pluck away on the guitar. What is that all about? Why so many?
First, of course, they started playing guitar for sex. You know, sex, drugs and rock and roll. After all, Guitar Gods get all the girls. Am I right? Well, at least the girls who don’t prefer the singer.
Then there’s me. I first started to play guitar when I was 13 and it had nothing to do with sex. That came later.
For me, I was chasing something more ethereal — that otherworldly space that assumes control of you like a drug when you’re creating sound. A separate reality. A sensual, orgasmic realm of sustained creative delight. An indulgent meditation. A space of the deep heart.
So much for sex at the launch of puberty — but it was what it was for me. It was intensely magical and remains so to this day.
How Do I Love Thee?
She’s a 1977 custom with that tune o matic bridge. As you can see in the photo to the left, I still have her. I’m still am in love with her and we still make beautiful music together. I plug this baby into an amp, computer or stereo and we just move into some strange and wonderful world, disappearing in clouds of sound and feeling together. This is a daily meditation which has kept me relatively sane for 30 years.
I have no idea how I managed to save the money to buy this guitar from Long and McQuade on 4th Avenue in Vancouver back in 1979, but I still clearly remember the moment the sales clerk pulled her down from behind the counter and handed her to me. It was a moment every Buddhist should fear…a moment of absolute attachment.
Like the First Time
None of my other guitars ever felt like this. She felt smooth and polished; she was heavy and ready for serious action. That heaviness, that weight, is one of the first things you notice about this guitar. She’s solid. No wonder those crazy rockers would smash things with a Les Paul like this.
She is defiantly, as well as definitely, an axe. As a rock and roll machine, she has no equal, and as a jazz guitar she comes from a long tradition of greats. (Yes, a Fender Strat is on the list too, but she’s my mistress and deserving of another story.)
My Les Paul’s action is like cream. Her strings are taut, nicely parallel to the fret board and easy to push. Cheap guitars have lousy action while my guitar has the action the gods’ love. Never mind the song she sings; she’s a thing of beauty in herself. She is nothing but rich passionate potential you hold in your hands every time you put that strap around your shoulders. What music she creates is up to the musician, but she forms no obstacle to a musician’s passion.
Red, Red Wine
My Les Paul Custom was designed upon the original 1954-57 Gibson Gold Top. As you can see, my baby is a deep red wine, though many in this series were completely black…the Black Beauties. Her fret board is ebony with mother of pearl inlay and her neck is mahogany. I have lovingly held that neck in my left hand thousand of times and she has never let me down.
The years have gone by and my dreams of rock and roll stardom with them, but not my love of the playing. I play off and on every week, mostly on my own, seldom with others…and that may be because of the meditation aspect of the playing or some quirk in my nature.
You see, ever since I started playing this guitar I never tried to emulate any of the greats like Jimmy Page or play other people’s songs. I just improvised everything, all the time. My early years were made up of a lot of Indian raga, out of tune, strange-sounding stuff that has long since morphed into the Blues arena.
Every time I pick up my guitar, I’m looking for something new, exploring. It’s a dynamic meditation, not a repeat of a past performance. Which means, of course, at parties when people say “play us a tune”, they want a Bob Dylan song not some Michael Hedges type thing. (I can learn songs, but I forget them just as fast.) So because I don’t play much at parties, that’s why I missed the whole guitar+adulation=sex thing.
On the occasion that I do play with others, I generally have an absolutely rockin’ good time. I have found ecstasy in collective music making and am beginning to think it’s time to get a band together.
Anyway, here’s a one minute sample: a sweet piece of me playing the Les Paul just to give you an idea. I dedicate it to Life As A Human and Jimmy Page.
Guitar Gods (Hey, Jimmy)
Speaking of Jimmy Page, I do have my inspirations, of course. Drawing my list from the pantheon of Guitar Gods is overwhelming and there are too many to list. (Ok, small list here…Jimmy Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Steve Howe and…I’m not going to name more as I’m seriously dating myself…)
I do, however, want to talk about my favorite guitarist of all time (past, present and future), the guy whose music I grew up with and who has defined the soundtrack of my life. While his music is now legend, he’s still out there today, playing as a master. He is, of course, Jimmy Page.
Why Page? Maybe because I started to listen to Led Zeppelin so young and Page’s sound got hardwired into my head. I don’t know, but I can’t help but damn near melt every time I hear some Zep tune like “Tea for One” from Presence or “Achilles Last Stand” and “Babe I’m Going to Leave You” and “Stairway to Heaven” of course. I prefer the Madison Square Gardens live version best.
Whole Lotta Love
Jimmy is not technically perfect, but what he does is directly stream pain, love, fear, joy, despair, anger, weeping and experience through his instrument. All of that in the greatest tradition of the Blues. It’s as though his guitar is an instrument of addiction.
I trust his playing completely and can feel the rich Blues current, rock power and classical electricity rip through my veins every time. I am torn and placed in that otherworldly space every time I hear this music.
I suppose one of the things I like about Page’s playing is the way he can take a simple riff and create such “big” songs. Just listen to “Whole Lotta Love.” How simple is that? Yet it’s a classic.
Even though Page’s solos can move off into strange territory as he experiments with violin bows and other enhancements, he maintains his melodic integrity wherever the solos wander. This is not so prevalent among guitarists, many of whom can fall victim to indulgence.
I find jazz musicians love to wander, and often they make it work for the listener to keep up with them. In that work, the emotional impact is lost…at least for me. But then, I am a rock and roll child and I want to feel the beauty and the pain, the heat and the rush. I want the pull of melody and the heart-pounding rhythm of sex. It’s an orientation thing. (I, of course, indulge and wander all over the place when I play because I’m not half the guitarist Jimmy is.)
You’ll see and hear what I’m talking about if you watch this clip of Led Zeppelin. And since this is about loving guitar, here’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You”.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have tons of respect for all sorts of musicians and can totally appreciate the dance of the jazz guitarist as well. For instance check out the Pat Metheney video post here which is also amazing. Gil Namur found this clip by Metheny. By the way, Gil’s another awesome guitarist. But you can see the difference between these clips can’t you?
She’s All I Need
So my friend Karl got his Les Paul last week and he’s so in love with it.
“It should be all I ever need,” he says, rubbing the fret board and casting his eyes over every inch of her body. He is set for years of love. And while many men take up guitar to get sex, what they often find is the guitar herself and what she brings becomes the thing itself and no longer the means.
So rock on, Karl, and enjoy your new love. She’ll love you back ten fold for all the attention you give her. There’s nothing in the world like it.
Les Paul Standard and Jimmy Page, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Les Paul Custom, by Chris Holt