Taming a Recalcitrant Electric Guitar
Have you ever had an electric guitar that you could tell had real potential but whenever you tried to work it into your existing rig it just seemed to balk? Something just seemed to make it not quite fit in. Sometimes the problem isn't with the guitar but with the player. I discussed learning how to make my first Tele work for me over HERE saying that "each guitar/amp combo needs some fiddling to 'bring the magic.' " The Tele took a couple of weeks to tame. By contrast, this latest example took quite a bit longer. The guitar in question is a Gibson, a Les Paul, specifically a 2018 LP Standard with Burstbucker Pro pickups. I have described the guitar as being quite “Tele-ish,” but the ramifications of that character to operation of the controls slipped by me. You see, I have some other Gibsons already and they all behave fairly similarly in that pretty much all you need to do is back off the tone control on the bridge pickup and you’ve got something useful in both positions. They all have similar classic midrangey Gibson sounds. I had fiddled with 490Ts and other Gibson humbuckers and Seymoour Duncan classic pickups as well so I thought I had an idea of the range of Gibson pickups. The Burstbuckers on the new Standard, however, were a different beast entirely. They were much brighter and more powerful. With a low-gain amp they could be quite pretty but once you plugged them into an amp with any gain at all it was raunch to the max. That can be useful but can also be limiting as well. I tried rolling back the tone control on the bridge pickup as usual but the guitar just seemed to want to scream at every opportunity. Loud, brash, petulant, demanding. Good for really hard rock but not much else.
What I had forgotten was the lesson I learned with the Tele: to get anything except twang out of the Tele I had to moderate the controls. In my Tele article I also said, "The 'magic' with this guitar is obtained by restraint and is embodied by nuance." With this Les Paul, the Burstbucker pickups had so much gain and high-end that backing off the tone by itself still left a raging output that jacked up anything in its path. Backing down on the amp’s volume left me with brightness and clankiness. When using my amp settings for the ES-335 I couldn’t get a sweet tone at all. I was considering replacing the pickups with a pair of Gibson ’57 Classics just to get something I could handle.
But the other day I was in the practice studio working up a mellow song and for some reason I reached for the Les Paul just one more time. The sun was setting outside the studio, trickling golden light in throught the window blinds. I hadn’t turned on the lights inside, so the feeling in the studio was a play of golden light, shadows, and moodiness. This time as I plugged up I took the time to think about the pickups. As usual, I pulled back on the bridge tone control so that it matched the neck. But this time I also reached for the volume controls and tried backing off both of them to about "8" to see if I could tame the beast. Surprise! Glory and trumpets! That little amount made all the difference in the world. The character of the guitar became much rounder and gentler. The amount of distortion from he amp was reduced profoundly. It's something I do with other guitars all the time. Using my amp settings for the ES-335, the sound became really nice and smooth. I could set the LP to hover on the edge of distortion and then use touch sensitivity to lean in from reasonably clean to a smooth burr. And with that minor tweak, the guitar's gentler voice began to emerge.
So, as in the case of the Tele, moderation on the controls yielded moderation in the sound. Nuance carried the day. It just took me a little longer to apply the same lesson to the Les Paul that I had learned on the Tele. I had to use patience and let the guitar tell me how to handle it. What it wanted was for me to match the gain of its pickups to those of my other Gibson guitars to make it fall in line with them in a comperable way. Well, duh!!! I sat back with the moody light of sunset filtering through the window blinds and ran through several softer songs on the Les Paul, relishing the beautiful new voice I had discovered.