Aah, the Les Paul. Is there anything cooler than slinging one down around your knees, slumping over like Slash and reeling off sleazy rock riff after sleazy rock riff? Well, yeah. Not having to put down your beloved axe to pick up a wimpy acoustic to play the ballad is cooler. Not being tied to one of those acoustic guitar stands for the songs when you need to play acoustic and electric parts is cooler. Now, Gibson and Epiphone are well aware of how to make a cool thing cooler – just witness the Gibson Tony Iommi SG or the Epiphone Goth 1958 Explorer for proof. So it should be no surprise that they’ve figured out the least obtrusive way yet to cram acoustic sounds (via a Shadow NanoMag pickup) into an otherwise all-electric Les Paul in the form of the Les Paul Standard Ultra-II.
Ooh, another Gibson Jimmy Page Les Paul, and I still haven’t fulfilled my promise to myself to become rich enough to buy all the previous ones. I’ll get to the Gibson press release in a second, but first let’s reflect on one of the greatest guitars I’ve never played:
Ok, enough of this japery. Here’s the press release about the new Jimmy Page model. I’ll meet you again after the press release for my commentary.
Every musician knows that late ’50s Sunburst Les Paul Standards are hard enough to come by as it is. Obtaining a pristine and exemplary ‘59 ‘Burst and modifying it for heightened performance and vastly expanded tonal options? Unheard of… unless, of course, you’re Jimmy Page.
That’s exactly what the legendary Led Zeppelin guitarist, perhaps the world’s most iconic Les Paul player, did with his own ‘59 Les Paul Standard, and now, thanks to the extreme efforts of Gibson’s Custom Shop and the intimate cooperation of Jimmy Page himself–the artist’s hallowed “Number Two” Les Paul is available to mere mortals, in the form of the Custom Shop Jimmy Page “Number Two” Les Paul.
Produced in strictly limited numbers, with two levels of aging, this guitar captures the look, feel, sound, and versatility of one of the greatest artist-owned Les Pauls of all time, and it is likely to disappear from authorized Gibson dealers in record time.
The 1959 Les Paul that has come to be known as “Number Two” was purchased by Page in 1973 after trying for some time to acquire an exceptional second Les Paul.
This was several years after having acquired his other legendary Les Paul–”Number One”, a ‘59 ‘Burst with shaved-down neck profile and no serial number–from Joe Walsh. “Number Two” was essentially all original when he acquired it. Jimmy did have some modifications done to the neck shape so that it would more nearly match the feel of his “Number One”. The neck is certainly slim but not to such extremes as the now-ultra-slim neck on “Number One”. It had a strong, beautiful sunburst finish with a red element that had faded to a dusky amber-brown, along with a clear serial number dating it to 1959. Page played this Les Paul frequently through his days with Led Zeppelin, and in the early ’80s decided to make it an even more versatile instrument.
Page also added that he wanted to “explore the full range of what the two humbuckers have to offer”. He designed a switching system for coil splitting, series/parallel, and phase-reverse options for both pickups, and employed a skilled electronics technician to devise a working schematic and make his sonic vision a reality.
The result comprised a push/pull pot on each of the guitar’s four standard controls, plus two push-button switches hidden beneath the pickguard, all mounted on a ‘59 Les Paul Standard that is otherwise a superb example of the breed, both in tone and playability.
The Custom Shop Jimmy Page “Number Two” Les Paul was recreated with intense, inch-by-inch examination of Page’s original guitar, inside and out. The process of getting it right involved the production of a number of hand-built prototypes, each of which was checked and critiqued in detail by Page himself. Approval of the final iteration was only offered after the legendary artist had intricately examined and extensively played this last prototype in his London home, after which it was given the thumbs-up, worthy of being the template for the Custom Shop Jimmy Page “Number Two” Les Paul.
Only 325 examples will be produced in total: The first 25 instruments are to be aged by vintage-reproduction master Tom Murphy then inspected, played and hand signed and numbered by Jimmy Page personally. An additional 100 guitars will be given the extensive aging treatment and 200 will be finished to Gibson’s VOS specs.
Got that? Cool, huh? Now, these guitars certainly aren’t cheap – the aged/signed version is $25,882; the aged version is $15,294 and the VOS version is $11,176. Be that as it may, I think it’s really cool that Gibson and Page are teaming up to do these reproductions of his iconic axes, and that they’re doing it right. Would I pay that much for one? Well, no, because once upon a time I didn’t even MAKE $25,882 in a year. But it would have been all too easy to just throw the Page custom wiring into an existing model and be done with it. At least Gibson’s going to the effort to get this stuff exact – even though I might have to trudge down to my local Cash 4 Kidneys to afford one.
What do you think? Can you put the cost aside and geek out over this new axe, or is that hefty price tag just too much of a hurdle?
When Gibson debuted the Robot Guitar in December 2007, it was quite the revelation. Sure, Steinberger’s Trans-Trem allowed you to shift the guitar’s whole tuning up or down by a semitone. The Stringmaster Automatic Tuner tuned your guitar for you, provided you placed it on each tuning key one at a time. But the closest anyone got to the functionality of the Robot Guitar was the Performer system by TransPerformance, and the cost of having it installed in your guitar you could pretty much buy two Robot Guitars in their SG, Flying V or Explorer guises. The Robot Guitar wasn’t even as expensive as many guitars in the Gibson catalog. But you wouldn’t expect the company that popularised the humbucker and invented the Flying V to sit back and rest on its laurels. Nope, Gibson went back to the lab and created the Dark Fire.
JUMP IN THE FIRE
To call the Dark Fire an update of the Robot Guitar is like saying that when Luke Skywalker learned to use the force he picked up a few cool tricks. One way to approach the Dark Fire is to imagine that the popular, stripped down Les Paul BFG model ran into Kristanna Loken’s T-X character in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, got it on, and 9 months later had a baby. The Dark Fire shares the BFG’s pickup layout of a P-90 pickup in the neck position and a humbucker at the bridge – here we have a P-90h for the former and a Burstbucker 3 for the latter – and it has the T-X’s ability to morph while remaining a seductively attractive yet altogether deadly killing machine.
Common to the Robot Guitar and the Dark Fire are the control layout (twin volumes and twin tones, with the bridge pickup’s tone control replaced by the Master Control Knob or MCK, the steering wheel of the whole shebang), but the MCK has been redesigned to give you more information (including a cool mode that shows you which pickup selections are active), and the brain itself is a little smarter and faster. Tuning seems to happen in about a third of the time of the Robot Guitar, making it just that little more likely that with some careful control manipulation and an opportune moment, you just might be able to change tunings between sections a song.
Changes compared to the Robot Guitar include an ergonomic neck shape with asymmetrical carving (which reminds me a little of perhaps a wider version of the Ernie Ball Music Man Axis, formerly the Edward Van Halen model), and a redesigned tune-o-matic piezo bridge with locking studs. Not only does this assist with sustain by securing the bridge more firmly to the surface of the guitar, it also helps with the tuning accuracy – tremendously important when you buy a guitar largely based on its ability to change between a few dozen tunings. By the way, Gibson points out that players who bought the original Robot will be offered an opportunity to upgrade their Robot’s self-tuning technology to the new and improved self-tuning technology found on the Dark Fire, with an upgrade kit to be made available at a price significantly lower than its standard retail price.
The frets are shaped with a PLEK system, a computer-controlled device which scans and dresses the frets under actual playing conditions, strung and tuned to pitch. (Other companies with PLEK systems include G&L, Duesenberg, Lakland, Warwick, Martin & Co, Suhr, and Heritage Guitar Inc). Now, as a connoisseur of fine fretwork my standards can be pretty strict, possibly bordering on the obsessive, and the fret job on the Dark Fire is beyond perfect for comfort, playability and buzzlessness. Yeah, I just invented a word. The Dark Fire inspires you to be inventive, y’see. There’s also a new frictionless faux bone nut, which is crucial for ensuring that the strings don’t get bound up at the nut and slip at an inopportune moment, sending your tuning to hell and requiring you to try to retune mid-song. The motorised Powerhead tuners are of the locking variety, further ensuring tuning accuracy. They’re also upgraded compared to those on the Robot Guitar, helping to speed up tuning changes.
So what else does the Dark Fire offer that the Robot Guitar doesn’t? Well, my only real concern with the Robot Guitar was that you were limited to three pickup combinations: neck humbucker, middle humbucker, or both. But by using what Gibson calls Chameleon Tone Technology the Robot Guitar offers over 20 separate pickup coil combinations via six low-noize relay switches. These selections, accessed via the MCK, are Gibson (straight Les Paul sound), Texas Blues (neck and bridge single coils), Funky (out of phase quack and pluck), Twang (think clean single coils), Acoustic (emulated acoustic guitar), L5 (vintage jazz tone with softer treble and thicker low mids), Solid Rock and Metal. These pickup combinations are fed through optimized traditional volume and tone controls and then through a studio grade 4-band parametric equalizer/preamplifier for further tone shaping. On top of that you can blend an actual acoustic sound, achieved via the piezo pickups in the bridge, and splittable to a different amp to the straight sound through the Robot Interface Pack (RIP). The blending is achieved by twisting a potentiometer which doubles as the tip of the pickup selector switch. Genius. Using this pot you can go from 100% acoustic sound to 100% electric sound, or anywhere in between. Oh, did I mention that when using the RIP you can send each string to a separate audio channel via a hex output, reminiscent of the revolutionary but overlooked Gibson HD.6X-PRO guitar system? No? Well I should have cos it’s kind of important, as is the fact that Dark Fire is bundled with Ableton Live recording software and Guitar Rig 3 amp emulation software.
There are lots of other great features – strap locks, Neutrik connector, cool carbon design touches echoed on the pickups, pickguard and inlays. Put it all together and you have a monster. A dark, firey monster.
LET IT RIP
The Chameleon and RIP features are so damn cool that you can spend a few hours playing around with them before you even think of trying out all the tunings. The Dark Fire picks up where the Robot Guitar’s 7 available tunings left off, then laughs derisively at the Robot Guitar as it ups the ante to a whopping 18 tunings in total across three banks (blue, green and red), with space for your own custom tunings. One of my favourite metal tunings, CGCGCE, isn’t there so it’s easy enough to dial in and save. Speaking of metal, the red tuning bank is where doom merchants are most likely to reside, as it is home to brutal low tunings such as B and C. Grrr.
The range of sound is also quite astounding. On its own the Dark Fire sounds a little, well, dark and moody, thanks in large part to the chambered mahogany body. Think Jerry Cantrell’s tone on Alice In Chains’ ‘Would?’ The Texas Blues mode sounds just as you would think and hope – tune down to Eb for authenticity. Funky sounds great with my old optical compressor pedal, and is also a surprisingly sprightly blues tone. Twang is great for clean baritone tunings as well as ringing double stops and oblique bends. Acoustic can be blended with the actual acoustic sound for some serious spacious jangle. L5 is great for jazz as intended, but is also a super lead tone that will get you somewhere in the vicinity of James Hetfield’s solo tone from ‘Nothing Else Matters’ when you pile on the gain. Solid Rock is killer with some mild distortion over palm-muted power chords, and extra super killer when you add a flanger pedal. Finally Metal is huge, powerful and demonic, reminding me of a cross between the output of aggressive active pickups and the attack and warmth of top-shelf passives.
OUT OF THE DARKNESS AND INTO THE LIGHT
So what we have here is not only a guitar that tunes itself. Factor in each tuning and you have 18 guitars that tune themselves. Throw in the 8 Chameleon modes and you have 144 guitars that tune themselves. Add pickup selections for each mode and that’s, what, 432 sounds? My math sucks. Then add the acoustic sound to any of those modes and you have… more sound options than you can possibly get through in any given set. Yet the MCK is so intuitive that it never quite seems as daunting as that. Whether the Dark Fire is for you comes down to this simple question: Do you think you can handle this much creativity on tap, or do you prefer to be reigned in by parameters such as only having one tuning, and three pickup settings?
If you’re here in Australia, support your local guitar shop! There have been a lot of killer Gibson deals in stores lately!
Here’s a little bonus. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to shoot a video demo of the Dark Fire while I had it for review, but who better to tell you about it than Aljon Go from Gibson and Tonefreq?
This review is also in the August 2009 edition of Mixdown Magazine.
Here’s a 1958 Les Paul that was owned by Gary Moore from 1991 to 1994. For a mere $295,000 it can be yours. This isn’t ‘the’ famous Gary Moore/Peter Green Les Paul but it’s still provenancy as all get-out.
According to the eBay listing:
This guitar is considered to be the Holy Grail to many guitar enthusiasts, collectors and musicians. Sunburst Les Pauls were and are played by the most iconic rock stars of any era. Billy Gibsons, Jimmy Page, Joe Perry, Duane Allman, Ace Frehley, Jeff Beck, Paul Kossoff, Joe Walsh, Gary Richrath, Steve Lukather, Gary Moore, Michael Boomfield, Peter Green, Gary Rossington, Ed King, Slash, Edward Van Halen, Eric Clapton, Rick Nielsen and many many others. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to own a vintage Les Paul that has a history that is traceable back to the 1960′s AND was owned by Gary Moore. This guitar is in spectacular condition and has made appearances in numerous magazines and books. The color is fantastic and the top has a very pleasant mild flame. Guitar plays and sounds fabulous. I personally dealt with Gary Moore’s management and tech to acquire this guitar for a collector in 1994 and the experience of working with Mr. Moore’s staff was a great pleasure.
This Les Paul was used for all of Gary Moore’s “After Hours” CD photo shoot. It was used for Gary’s 8X10 B&W glossy photos. It was used in two Gary Moore videos: “Cold Day in Hell.” and Since I Met You Baby.” This guitar has been featured in NUMEROUS books and magazines. (ie: “The Electric Guitar, an illustrated history.” Pages 93 and 147.)