Swing Guitar

Dedicated to pre-bebop jazz guitar.

Monday, July 07, 2008

New Guitar - Franken-ES-150

Hey guys, I've now graduated from Loyola Law School, and am now preparing for to take the California State Bar Exam (which is like the 9th level of hell). But I do have an update.

Last year I borrowed a mid-90's Gibson Custom Shop Reissue ES-150CC. Although many people have dissed the reissue as not quite as authentic as it might otherwise be, it was the first time that I have felt happy with my electric tone in a long while. I accumulated a trio of Gibson "Charlie Christian" amps - a 1936 EH-150 (10" speaker), a 1930?'s EH-160 (12" speaker AC/DC version), and a 1939 EH-185 (a transitional model actually labeled as a EH-150). Playing the CC pickup equipped guitar through any of those amps was magical, and there were times I felt like I was channeling Charlie.

But then, my friend took it back (although he offered to sell it to me first for $4k, natch). Going back to using a DeArmond guitar mike was really unsatisfying by comparison. The guitar mike was not bad sounding, in fact it sounds great, even on a guitar with bronze strings. However, the CC pickup had a really unique sound, and THAT was the sound that I've always wanted.

In an attempt to chase that sound, I decided to frankenstein an ES-150 using one of the new UK-made "CC Pickups." I had heard good reviews from people on the yahoo CC forum, and especially favorable as compared to the other remakes, such as Lollar, etc. I bought a CC pickup with a B-string notch on ebay, and looked for a guitar to put it in. I found "the Loar" brand guitars and was intrigued. They look just like a 20's Gibson L-5, except for the fact that the sunburst is too modern looking, and they offer a blonde which is was only offered in the late 30's. Anyway, I purchased an LH-500, and it was an small-sounding acoustic archtop that couldn't really hold a candle to my Eastmans. I didn't really care because I was going to be carving a big hole in the top anyway. However, I was really disappointed to learn that CC pickup wasn't going to work on the guitar. Basically, the neck was set too far off of the top, and that made the distance between the top where the pickup would be mounted too far from the strings. CRAP!

I was stuck in limbo, and I tried to offload the guitar. I managed to sell it on ebay, but because of finals and the holidays last christmas, I never shipped the guitar. Good thing the never send payment because he got fed up. I was lucky he only left neutral feedback.

Anyway, everything changed when I saw a listing for this guitar:
Now, this was promising - someone had already done the work for me. I wasn't too concerned with the guitar being a disaster because it had a UK made CC pickup in it, and that was the main tonal component. Hell, the resale on the pickup and the good looking pickguard would likely be enough to make the purchase risk worthwhile. I'm waiting to talk to the seller some more to get the whole back story on the guitar. So far, I know it started out life as a cheapo washburn archtop guitar. Hell, the only thing that is not dead on is the body depth - which is pretty thin. I'll post more details when I get them.

So the guitar arrived last week. It played fine, although it had 11's on it, and the tone was pretty generic - not bad, just not that signature CC tone. After some tweaking, I managed to improve things significantly. I changed the strings to 13 flats - D'Angelico (my flats of choice), which beefed things up. And more significantly, I lowered the pickup height, and bam - there is that tone. The guitar became really inspiring, despite the fact that the action was not a bit uneven and the intonation was pretty off in places - to be expected when moving up from 11's to 13's without setting the guitar up. I did tweak the truss rod, but it needs a proper set up. The only thing left is to play it on a gig to see how it responds at those volume levels, and under fire. I suspect already that the guitar is too bass-y because of the flats - which I suspect were not used in the late 30's-early 40's, but no one seems to have a definitive answer - and that issue will be solved by moving to roundwounds.

Still, it's really good to get that close to the goal without dropping $6k on a vintage guitar. Plus, I still have the CC pickup I bought, so I may eventually frankenstein my own, using a Gibson L48 or L50, or maybe even an L-7 or something.