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The Never-Ending Pursuit of the Holy Grail

Rik Emmett
|
03.15.2011

So, I picked myself up a used CS-356. I admit – I was seduced by the deep ruby flame top, the feel of the '60s neck, and just a little bit more of that "pop" (or maybe it's a Tennessee country "twang?") on the front end of a note. I also detect a bit more of a natural decay than my Les Pauls have (sustain monsters that they are).

I don't know how many other folks experiment around with strings, but I love to try different gauges, to see how the guitar reacts. I know why Gibson chooses the gauges they use when they ship out guitars: the trebles can take a bit more of a gauge size, because of the scale length. But the bass strings don't need to be heavy in order to speak with plenty of depth: the pickups and the guitars themselves are already voiced with warmth and punch.

Flatwound strings are a whole other world, but it's also a great place to visit, because I love the tone I hear on old Joe Pass and Kenny Burrell records. No good for bending full steps, but fantastic for squeak-free sliding and shifting. The action gets velvety and the balance of the strings is wonderfully even, begging for harmony and chord melody and voice-leading.

I'm not kidding when I say the neck and fingerboard "action" seduces me. It feels inviting: my left hand wants to start and try all of that masterful gymnastics and chemistry of Ted Greene. Alas, if I only had his talent and intellect.

Speaking of a silky kind of seduction, one of my favorite recorded guitar tones is on the Eagles' "I Can't Tell You Why" solo. There seems to be some debate as to whether it was Glenn Frey or Don Felder who actually laid it down in the studio – and it's not exactly a virtuoso barn-burner of technique. But the tone?! Like budahh! ... To die for! And it sure sounds like a clean ES guitar to my ears.

On most stages, in a rock band setting, with amp distortion a big part of the sound, there's no doubt in my mind that a Les Paul is the workhorse. But the family of ES guitars maybe provides a bit more flexibility, especially at lower volumes and cleaner settings.

That extra little bit of front-end cut translates from a Larry Carlton (Mr. 335 — the Maestro, surely) approach, to B.B., to Chuck Berry to Alvin Lee... With a few tweaks, you can get to that tone world where Hank Garland, Jimmy Raney, Howard Roberts, Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow did some of their best work. But there's also Clapton (does not get better than this) ...

... Alex Lifeson, Grant Green, Justin Hayward (Moody Blues) — and Eric Johnson's "Cliffs of Dover" was reportedly a 335! That's a lot of guitar history, right there. Small wonder that eclectic guitarists like John Scofield, Lee Ritenour and Ted Quinlan dig the thin/wide-ass ES body.

Although I own and love an ES-345, I noticed in some photos and video from live gigs that the big-ass size of the guitar made me look a bit like a small child whose uncle had lent him his guitar to play. At 5' 8" and shrinking, the size of the Les Paul suits me better. But the pursuit of the elusive Holy Grail of tone: Ahhh, folks – I'm going to see if it comes in the size and shape of a 356.


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