I once interviewed Mark Karan, guitarist
extraordinaire for Ratdog and Jemimah
Puddleduck, and L.A. session guru and total
gearhound. Mark had a refreshing take on
gear. He told me, "Because I want to actually
use these instruments, I buy pieces that have
what collectors might call ‘issues,’ like non-
original hardware or having been refinished.
To me, it’s the old wood that matters, and as
long as the wood is there, I can find a way
around the issues. When I bought my ’51
Nocaster, I strummed it unplugged and knew
I couldn’t walk out of the store without that
guitar. And that’s one a collector wouldn’t be
caught dead with, simply because somebody
had slapped another type of paint on it."
David Loo’s 1969 Les Paul Custom. Photo by Wallace Marx
You can see the wisdom. Get past the looks
and listen to the tone. Avoid letting a few
mods and perhaps ill-advised "upgrades"
sway you, and ask yourself, "Do I like this
guitar? And what does it matter what the
snobs say?" Mark got what would turn out
to be his number-one touring guitar. If you
remember Stevie Ray Vaughan’s yellow Strat,
you might not know that axe had a swimming-pool route in it from having four humbuckers
installed. I once had a Ventures model Mosrite
I loved, despite the fact that it had a Floyd
Rose and a god-awful leopard paint job.
Sometimes, great guitars get hacked up and
still sound great. But in these days of vintage-correct-or-die sensibilities, we get roped into a
knee-jerk, lock-step march toward restoring—or even over-restoring—all in the name of
authenticity. And, friends, authenticity does
not always equal bitchin’ tone.
It happened to me recently. I work with a
great guy named David Loo. He’s a world-class programmer, a total genius type. One
of those guys who can look at a page full of
code, the kind of stuff that would make most
people go blind, and spot the error among
thousands of strings of digits. David is also
a blues lover. I’m always accessing his iTunes
library over the company network to hear all
the Albert King songs I don’t have. David can
play a lot of these tunes and play them quite
well. He is also a serious gearhound—enough
so that he makes a line of effects pedals that
are unique and off the charts, tonewise. The
man knows what he’s talking about.
We have a guitar room downstairs at work.
Last week, David asked me if I wanted to see
his Les Paul. Love to, I said. We went down
to the room and he pulled out a beat-up case
that was obviously for a Les Paul. My pulse
went from semi-interested to gotta-see-it-now
in a nanosecond. The guitar he pulled out was
indeed a Lester, a 1969, David told me, and I
could see it was a Custom.
Or, the vintage-snob in me said, it once was
a Custom. The axe had survived a classic ’70s
mod job: finish stripped on top, back, and
sides. Unpotted humbuckers with well-warped
plastic surrounds. Non-stock Grovers. And the
biggest ’70s giveaway, a mini-toggle switch
laid between the volume knobs.
Working through my disappointment, I began
telling David what he could do to restore it.
Re-fin. New hardware. Fret job. And plug that
But then I strapped it on and started playing.
And the more I did, the more I started to feel
like I was holding a really
good guitar. Nice
weight, maybe nine pounds. Without the finish
the body felt wonderful and the neck smooth.
The action on the ebony board was el perfecto
and the neck straight with a perfect amount
of relief. Unplugged that LP sang with sweet
like sustain. I couldn’t put it down.
I asked him how much he wanted for it—an
instant attack of G.A.S! Not for sale, David
said with a knowing smile. He has owned this
guitar for 20 years after buying it out of the
paper (remember that?) and in all this time,
it has never had so much as a simple set up.
I loved it, and since he wouldn’t sell it to me,
I told him to never get rid of it—which was
obviously his intention anyway.
So here’s the big point: When you see a guitar
that’s had some surgery, give it a chance
before you turn up your nose. Ask yourself if
you like this guitar. Ask yourself if it plays and
sounds like what you want. Determine your
opinion before you listen to the chat-room
rabble that will always try to talk you into
dumping serious cash for questionable gain.
If the answer is yes, I like it, move to the next
step. Why should I change it? Why should I
immediately restore it? Will I like it more? Will
it be better? Maybe it will be better to the
money people, the guys who appraise and
trade and buy and sell. But how it plays for
you is what matters. David loves his modded
and beat-up Custom and I can see why.
Remember that scene in Spinal Tap
two references in one column) where David
and Nigel are discussing the death of one
of their drummers? "Authorities said...best
leave it...unsolved," one remarks. Maybe that
holds true for some guitars as well. Perhaps
sometimes we should resist the urge to
re-vintage an axe and just leave it alone.
Wallace Marx Jr.
Wallace Marx Jr. is the author of Gibson Amplifiers, 1933–
2008: 75 Years of the Gold Tone. He is a lifelong musician
and has worked in all corners of the music industry. He is
currently working on a history of the Valco Company. He is
a children’s tour guide at the Museum of Making Music, a
struggling surfer, and he once hung out with Joe Strummer.