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.


  • At 2:42 PM, Blogger -Tim, the other lindy chef said…

    Awesome. So when are you taking the exam??

  • At 3:01 PM, Blogger Jonathan Stout said…

    tues, wed, and thurs of the last week in july - i.e. right before Camp Hollywood. I will walk out thursday afternoon and then go play that night at CH. Nuts, huh?

  • At 10:56 AM, Blogger Roland Czili - fingerstyle said…

    Why don't you have a luthier put the CC pickup on an Eastman? Do they have the necks set too far back in the body, too? Or it would still cost too much... damn, that old Gibby ES-150 was just a cheapo laminated top anyway, anything should sound better with a CC pickup. ;-)

  • At 12:45 PM, Blogger Jonathan Stout said…

    Yeah, the Eastman appeared to have the same problem. Also, the original ES-150 was NOT a laminate top, it was an L-50 w/ a flat back, but an otherwise arched carved top.

    If the Eastman had worked out, I would have put it in the 17" 810C, in hopes that the guitar would still have enough acoustic volume that I could play rhythm without having to switch guitars during a song with an electric solo in it. But, alas, no dice.

    Personally, I was really, really hoping the Loar would work out. Oh, and I find that playing a non-cut is better for me, even on electric, because of the notes you have easy access to with a cutaway sound somewhat anachronistic in the swing context. They are notes that CC and company just didn't use, and I have heard myself play things and the high notes take me out of the period. Oh well.

  • At 2:46 PM, Blogger Roland Czili - fingerstyle said…

    I stand corrected about the ES-150's top! I hear ya about cutaways on acoustics - they look cool from the front, but I never felt they really help accessing higher notes, not that I would want to do that often anyway. I hope you'll find an archtop that's close enough to the 150 and is able to take the Christian pickup... what about an old Gretsch New Yorker? They are solid spruce top acoustic archtops going for not that much, are they too low end? Old Harmony?... Just trying to come up with ideas.

  • At 1:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Why has this blog devolved into a sort of silly "Here's the stuff I own"?
    JS, I love ya buddy, but having 3 30s tube amps and the very guitar played by CC ain't gonna get you to play as well as Tal Farlow or as swingin as Wes. Good luck searching for that perfect sound. The time you spend on ebay I'll be playing along and copping django licks.

  • At 7:08 PM, Blogger Jonathan Stout said…

    I don't really appreciate being called out for writing about what happens to be going in my guitar playing life. I'll write some more lessons when I have some real time.

    Moreover, "having 3 30s tube amps and the very guitar played by CC ain't gonna get you to play as well as Tal Farlow or as swingin as Wes." What the hell? Do you even read this thing. Why would I ever want to play like Wes or Tal? There's a million people who want to sound like those guys, and I'm not one of them.

    I understand the whole tone is in the gear vs. tone is in your hands thing and I don't want to get into that debate. Suffice it to say that when my tone is right, the ideas that happen to come out of my head and manifest through my fingers happen to be more of what I want to be playing. I'm sure someone else out there is having a bitch of time getting that CC tone, and I figured I'd share my experience in getting closer.

    I'm glad you hear you "love" me, but I'm just kind of pissed that you'd bother to complain. I've never bothered to just write about stuff I own for the sake of itself, but rather about writing about it in the context of sharing with others trying to play pre-bop jazz guitar my lessons about what works and what works best.

    Do you know how many people have emailed me about whether I was successful in installing a CC pickup in my Loar? A bunch, because they want to know if they can do the same. It was pretty useful to them to know that it wasn't going to work.

    Anyway, there'll be some more lesson stuff eventually.

  • At 2:21 AM, Anonymous HH said…

    I have enjoyed everything I have seen here and love the two CD's as well.

    The discussion of equipment and technique is excellent, and I really enjoy the lessons/breakdowns of various songs.... keep it up -- it is appreciated.

    Law school too ... any wisdom on balance music/school/life ?


  • At 10:59 AM, Anonymous MontereyJacques said…

    Hey Jonathan!

    I love the website! Thanks for your comments about the Loar and the CC pickup. I was planning the same sort of thing - now I know it won't work.

    I've been thinking about boogering an L-50 with a CC pickup, but I worry the vintage police will kill me. But, ultimately, it's all about having a useful guitar...

    I'm having really good luck with my DeArmond Rhythm Chief 1000 (red face). Not quite Charlie, but definitely cool!

    Check out my new gutiar at: http://gearcaravan.blogspot.com/2008/07/1928-gibson-l-5-master-model-85755.html

    Thanks again!


  • At 1:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hey man, good choice in gear! And yes, I'd say having 3 vintage amps + an ES-150 could very well make one sound a lot like good 'ole Charlie! The tone from those old CC equipped ES-150's is divine! Look at what Barney Kessel did... took his ES-350 and routed it for a CC pickup because he was so inspired by Charlie.

  • At 7:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    interesting blog, unfortunately many of those youtube vids have been removed, concerning the washburn guitar - i wondered why someone who owns a few vintage amps and guitars bothers with a 200 USD guitar to install that CC pickup.

  • At 3:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    That washburn seems to be the HB15 non cutaway.
    I tried at a store and it was fantastic, exactly that 75rpm-sound from old times.
    Tried epis, ibanez after it and could not get that sound again.
    Kicking myself for not having bought it and instead getting an Epi Joe Pass...

  • At 11:30 PM, Anonymous Aaron said…

    I used to have a Washburn HB 15 but sadly I had to get rid of it. It had a warped neck and the cost to fix it was more than the guitar was worth (at least more than I was willing to pay). It had a great sound and image. After all, how many "reasonably priced" guitar makers make non-cutaway jazzboxes? Not many! Now I have an Electa (rebadged Harmony) see it here http://harmonyguitars.com/ProductLine.asp?pl=newline&pid=4817E0B8020CAF4A7899DE1B628D83145E85342E0098C5FC
    It's real good. I am getting a floating single coil for it to get a tad closer to that classic vintage sound!

  • At 4:14 PM, Blogger oh said…

    Can you adjust the height on a CC pickup? How?

  • At 2:29 AM, Blogger Leetlebluecanary said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 4:39 PM, Blogger Rich Daigle said…

    Please keep updating I just found you!...I've been chasing CC tone too. I just landed a an Eh-150 amp and a Recording King (Gibson Factory) CC model and I'm nearly in heaven. I say nearly because the amp has a few issues, the first being that it's not like any of the 2 available schematics online and would love to pick your brain about it.
    Rich D

  • At 2:51 AM, Blogger Jones Henry said…

    Good quality info. Lucky to me I came to your website not on purpose, but now I have bookmarked it. Moon Jams

  • At 12:44 AM, Blogger Revend Worn said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 12:15 PM, Blogger tony said…

    I'm enjoying your posts and am very interested in learning more
    Keep it up
    I appreciate your post


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