Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher’s first signature instrument was the Gibson Golden Axe Explorer, a visually stunning instrument that combined classic explorer looks with an eye-catching golden brown sunburst finish and Kelliher’s signature Lace Sensor Dissonant Aggressor passive humbucker pickups. The Golden Axe is already becoming quite hard to find because these limited edition beasts are very much coveted, not just by Mastodon fans – they achieve the rare feat of crossing over to guitar fans in general – and anyone who gets one tends to hang onto it. The new Bill Kelliher Halcyon Les Paul follows a similar track, kitting out a classic Les Paul design with a few of Kelliher’s own personal touches and in the process creating a guitar that will please all sorts of players, whether they’ve heard of Mastodon or not.
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The Halcyon starts with the classic Les Paul tonewood combination of a mahogany back with a maple top (with Gibson’s Modern Weight Relief), a one-piece bound rosewood fretboard on a mahogany neck, and a Tune-O-Matic bridge and Stop Bar tailpiece. There are 22 frets, a 12” fretboard radius, and classic trapezoid mother of pearl fretboard inlays. The nut is made of a material called Tektoid and it feels very low-resistance, and not as finger-shearing as some previously-used materials. The tuners are Grover Keystones in gold.
The body and neck are surrounded in cream binding which matches the pickup rings and pickguard. There’s a mother of pearl Gibson logo and a silkscreened “Les Paul Model” logo, while a ‘Halcyon’ logo is hot-stamped in gold into the black and white ‘bell’ truss rod cover. The strap buttons are oversized brass models, giving your strap a much more secure fit.
The Lace Dissonnant Aggressor pickups are quite high in output. The neck model measures 13.7k (with a peak frequency of 2380 Hz) while the bridge pickup is 17.8k (1955 Hz peak frequency), and while DC Resistance isn’t a perfect measure of pickup output, your ears will immediately tell you these things are beasts. Each pickup has its own volume and tone controls, with the volumes doubling as push-pull coil splits for each pickup. There’s a three-way pickup selector for choosing between the two humbuckers.
The finish is stunning in person. It’s more gold in the centre than it seems to appear in photos, with a metallic sheen fading gradually and flawlessly into a brown sunburst. Combined with the cream binding and plastic parts it’s a really unique guitar that looks good incredible.
The neck pickup has a clear, sustaining, midrange-heavy voice that almost sounds like you’re playing through a perfectly-voiced fuzz pedal, while the bridge pickup has a thickness and sustain that somehow manage to allow the overtones of complex chords to ring through even when it’s slamming your amp’s input stage with power and causing it to compress. I tuned the low E string down to A for some big “Crack The Skye” style riffs balancing super-low notes with high chord extensions, and the sound was immense and expansive. There’s a warm, chewy upper-midrange character that really comes through with power chords and chunky low notes, and it also imparts a slight vocal character to lead lines.
The single coil modes are very useful, with the bridge pickup in particular sounding great through high gain in single coil mode – very punchy and edgy without quite becoming annoyingly twangy. And it seems to hit that sweet spot where you can use single coil mode for dirty-but-clean tones before slamming into high gear by switching back to humbucker mode. And the neck pickup has a very musical attack and definition when in single coil mode, but is especially effective with a clean sound where it takes on some smokey, bluesy overtones. It doesn’t seem to have quite as much character when you pile on the gain, until you pop it back into humbucker mode where it sounds great.
Here’s a track I whipped up using the Halcyon in the aforementioned ‘Standard with the E dropped to A’ tuning. You’ll hear the bridge in single coil and humbucker modes and the neck in full humbucker mode. This track was a one-take improvisation over a drum loop, and then I went back and added a guitar solo, a Bass VI track and a full drum track. (There’s one little edit where I chopped out two bars of rhythm guitar). The amp is a Hughes & Kettner GrandMeister 36 plugged straight into my recording setup through its speaker-emulating recording output.
This is a killer guitar for anyone who’s looking for a high-powered take on the Les Paul tone and who wants something that looks a little bit exotic but still classic at the same time. The build quality is exceptional, the playability is up there with the best Gibson USA Les Pauls I’ve played, and the tone is the ultimate deal-sealer. That is, unless the looks already sold you.