Jol Dantzig's Esoterica Electrica: When Uncool Becomes Cool
Grading the hip factor of rig components for those who cannot remember the past.
Who hasn’t heard the expression “cool kids” to describe disenfranchised youths who couldn’t care less about playing basketball or swinging a bat other than to break something? Of course, this moniker has been co-opted by the so-called popular people who tread the well-worn path of “normal” behavior: sports teams, after-school clubs, and the like. I’m referring to the days when sunglasses at night and black clothing were feared, and tattoos were for sailors, bikers, and prison inmates. Ever since Fonzie jumped the shark, however, the line between cool and clone has blurred.
You have to work hard at keeping current with what’s cool and what’s not today, but a sure bet is that it wasn’t cool yesterday. Your dream guitar may become hopelessly out of step in a minute as the throwaways of yesterday live again. The poet Anne Sexton famously said: “One can’t build little white picket fences to keep the nightmares out.” And so it goes with our guitar gear. Following are a few items that inexplicably have risen from the dead.
T-top pickups. For those who still prefer humbucking equipped axes, the PAF pickup has been the Lord God of tone for a long time. The T-top superseded these rare pickups during the guitar boom of the 1960s. The nickname refers to a molded letter “T” on the bobbins, which was presumably to identify the proper orientation of the coils during assembly. These pickups sounded worse than the PAF, so, in the 1970s, smart guitarists ripped them out of instruments and replaced them. The T-top is almost exclusively responsible for the aftermarket pickup industry as guitar players sought a cure. Today, however, pedals love the thin, sad sound of a T-top.
Curly cords. If you can’t get your Les Paul to sound like it has T-tops in it, buy a curly cord. Once an icon of the Woodstock-era backline, these capacitance-laden devices will ensure that your signal is in need of a Fuzz Face just to make it to the stack with enough oomph to wave your bellbottoms. Once again, pedals love it. The best thing about a curly cord is that it reminds you of your grandparents’ telephone.
3-bolt necks. After CBS bought Fender in 1965, one of the milestones on their march to ruin the brand was the introduction of the 3-bolt neck. Reducing the number of screws holding the neck to the body may seem counterintuitive, but apparently this is something that people are talking about revisiting. Fewer screws mean lighter weight, right?
Every little bit adds up during a two-hour set in the bedroom. If they used glue it could be lighter still. The ability to micro-tune your guitar by shifting the neck is a bonus.
Mini switches. These tiny distractions are making a quiet comeback disguised as push-pull pots. Pioneered by Alembic and turned into high art by B.C. Rich, the mini switch was once a staple of the DIY crowd. Rumored to actually do something useful, they provide any number of pointless, fake, single-coil sounds that only you can hear. If you’re a guitar-repair specialist, you know this is a profit center because you’ll be paid to remove them after being paid to put them in.
Ripped jeans. Of course, jeans aren’t really musical instruments, but if the pedal and the amp can be an extension of your guitar, why not ripped jeans? They provide ventilation and show a sexy bit of skin, which is as essential as monitors and fog in a live performance. Make sure they’ve got the right tightness at the ankle for this week’s fashion.
Shaved heads. Guys, jump on this if you suspect your thinning hair is becoming a liability. Take advantage of the one time in modern history that bald heads are cooler than hair. This again isn’t gear, but you will thank me.
Beards. Essential for the authenticity audiences yearn for. Even Jimmy Page wrote more of his heartfelt material while sporting a beard. Once the domain of old men, the beard is de rigueur for the sensitive artist today. Add a hat and you’re gold, Ponyboy.
There’s a lot more of this than I have room for, and I’m testing the publisher’s patience, so I’ll leave you with this. Not long ago, shiny guitars with bowling ball finishes and elaborate inlays were lust-worthy icons of young rock. Then, seemingly overnight, the forgotten gear of the 1960s started hogging the spotlight. It reminds me of the 1980s all over again—except with hats instead of hairspray. All hail Elvis Costello.