The Hold Steady’s Steve Selvidge, our reader of the month, and PG editors vote on first albums that changed the game and stand the test of time.
Q: In your opinion, what is the best debut album by a band?
Photo by Kelly Shee
The Hold Steady
A: I'd have to go with Van Halen. It's always hard to rate music when so many people's favorites are tied up with memories and personal musical tastes. There have been a lot of “game-changer" debuts. To me, the best serve as an artist's Statement of Intent. Everything that follows from there is set up on that first album. You could point to debuts from both the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin as examples, and many more.
Van Halen's debut certainly did this and more. As a debut, it's a perfect album. All killer no filler, as they say. The mix of sunny Southern California hooks and groundbreaking riffs has never been equaled. But for me, it's just the simple fact that Van Halen changed so much upon its release and afterward. This is obviously a very guitar-centric opinion, but I can't think of another album that created such a monumental shift in the way the guitar was played, promoted, and even manufactured. The legacy of all of that is still very evident to this day.
Current obsession: Lonnie Johnson. I was always familiar with his earlier acoustic recordings, but I only recently discovered the later period when he was playing electric guitar. I'd actually heard him on electric for a while but was unaware it was him! One of my favorite records is a solo album by the great pianist Otis Spann. It's all solo piano and voice, save for one song that has a beautifully sympathetic electric-guitar accompaniment.
Photo by Russell Lee
I was always so seduced by the tone and phrasing of this guitar, but there were no credits to let me know who it was. Many, many years later I stumbled upon a YouTube video of Lonnie Johnson playing a Kay Value Leader guitar and singing “Another Night to Cry," and it was like finding the Rosetta Stone. There he was! I knew for sure it was him. That was the magic guitar player on that Otis Spann album. Now I'm trying to find as many albums of his from this period as I can. I also bought a one-pickup Kay Value Leader just like his. I don't sound at all like Lonnie, but it's still a lot of fun to play.
Reader of the Month
A: Chicago Transit Authority. Up until that release, there were no bands like Chicago. It was an unheard of for the time—a double album, incredibly well recorded, and every song stands up over 50 years later.
Current Obsession: The session players known as the Wrecking Crew. I knew many of the songs they played on but didn't realize it was the same core of amazing musicians that played the music on those hits. When I happened upon the excellent documentary by Denny Tedesco, Tommy Tedesco's son, I was in awe and it sent me down the rabbit hole of finding and listening to as much music the Wrecking Crew performed on as possible. There will (probably) never be another group of session musicians like the Wrecking Crew again and I want to ensure I take the time to truly enjoy the hundreds, if not thousands, of songs they performed on.
A: A ridiculously difficult question when 20 albums come to mind almost immediately, but I can't not go with Van Halen. Why? It awakened the world to EVH's genius, was a complete rewriting of what a guitar and human are capable of, and introduced us to arguably one of the greatest rock frontmen of all time. Just as important, Van Halen cooked up 11 tracks that remain as fresh and mind-blowingly amazing as they did at first listen.
Current Obsession:Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President. I didn't know much at all about 39's deep ties and friendships with so many legend-level influencers in music, but I now like him even more. Highly recommended!
A: So many albums flash through my head but the one that really sticks with me is Pat Metheny's Bright Size Life. Metheny brought a Midwest sensibility to jazz, which proved that not every chord needs to have a seventh in it and triads can be melodic as hell. Not to mention that this record introduced the world to Jaco Pastorius (his self-titled album wouldn't be out for another seven months).
Current Obsession: The beauty and musical simplicity of a trio is fascinating to me and I've been immersing myself in what that format is capable of. Considering Chick Corea's recent passing, I went back and dived into Now He Sings, Now He Sobs with new ears. The freedom is astounding and inspiring and fulfilling. Other groups that are getting major rotation are Joshua Redman's Elastic Band, Delvon Lamarr's Organ Trio, and anything with Paul Motian.
A 1979 Gibson Les Paul Custom gets caught in the collectability zeitgeist.
In the vast galaxy of used and vintage Gibson Les Paul models, no star is rising quite like that of the Les Paul Custom. The eternally slick variant—which debuted in its original Black Beauty form in 1954—has been in a certain vogue over the past several years, and prices on used and vintage examples have gone up. For context, average Reverb sale prices on used or vintage Gibson Les Paul Customs increased about 10 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 and have risen nearly 30 percent since 2017. This pattern plays out with Epiphones as well, where Les Paul Custom models have gone up by about 24 percent over the past four years. Comparatively, prices on all used and vintage Gibson Les Paul Standards remained more or less flat over this same time span.
Within this general rising tide of Les Paul Custom popularity and value, today's focal model, the silverburst Les Paul Custom, has seen an even more pronounced jump. These guitars were produced by Gibson starting in 1978 in very limited numbers and underwent a few spec changes before being discontinued in the mid-'80s. Sale prices on this specific group of guitars surged 28 percent in 2020 over 2019, with a 52 percent increase in prices since 2017. Just a few years ago, original silverburst Customs were selling comfortably in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. Today, we're seeing the best examples go for more than double that.
The basic configuration of the single-cutaway Les Paul has remained no nonsense for more than 60 years, with two pickups, four dials, a 3-way toggle, and a Tune-o-matic bridge at its core.
While there are always a variety of drivers behind such a jump in the pricing of a vintage collectible guitar, an artist or stylistic association is certainly part of the equation. Customs claim a certain reputation as metal guitars—think Metallica, Mastodon, and Zakk Wylde—and while plenty of classic-rock titans have employed them over the years, it could be that there are more metal and hard-rock fans getting into the vintage market than in previous periods, driving up prices. For this group, a dapper Les Paul Custom makes a lot more sense as a guitar splurge than something like a sunburst or goldtop Standard.
With no belt rash or other notable dings or scrapes on the back of its mahogany body, this guitar was handled with care. Note the well-defined back binding and lack of chipping along the edges, too.
This column's featured guitar is an original 1979 in very good vintage condition, listed on Reverb by Nationwide Guitars of Cumberland, Maryland, at $8,999 as we go to press. It sports the specs typical of its year and model: a 3-piece maple top with a mahogany body, a medium C-shape maple neck, an ebony fretboard with white binding, a bone nut, mother-of-peal block inlays, a Tune-o-matic bridge, a pair of humbuckers, a 3-way pickup selector, and a black version of the usual Les Paul dual volume and tone controls. Note that the finish shows some greening, which is typical of vintage silverbursts.
True to its roots, this Custom sports a larger headstock, which identifies it as a product of the era when Gibson was owned by the Norlin Corporation.
In the case of this month's silverburst, we can confidently point to the 2020 launch of a Custom Shop reissue of Adam Jones of Tool's trusty '79 as the culprit. This sort of high-profile reissue often has the effect of spurring collector interest in its vintage counterpart, and this can be even more of a factor when the new reissues are sold at prices that are similar to or higher than the originals, which is the case with this model. The Adam Jones 1979 Les Paul Custom VOS was also teased for a long while before going into production, creating more sustained silverburst hype, and this publicity was only amplified by news of a batch of these guitars being stolen this past November. While our guitar has some of the aforementioned finish greening in its center silver section, it's retained its original silverburst glow better than many of its brethren, which is appealing to collectors and players alike.
This motorized tuner promises to tune your guitar for you—is it too good to be true? The PG Band Industries Roadie 3 review.
Tons of instrument flexibility and tuning presets. Convenient built-in metronome.
Not for bass. Doesn’t display note names.
Band Industries Roadie 3
Ease of Use:
The third incarnation of Band Industries’ “automatic instrument tuner” physically interfaces with individual tuning machines and turns them to the desired pitch via its encased motor—which has impressive torque. It reportedly supplies enough juice to tune 150 strings on a single charge, and its TFT LCD screen leads you through a large menu of instrument options (guitar, banjo, ukulele, mandolin, and virtually anything else with guitar-style tuning machines—except bass) and more than a hundred preset tunings.
The palm-sized tuner detects notes pretty quickly, both vibrates and emits an audio alert once a string is in tune, and then automatically readies itself for the next string and pitch in the chosen tuning sequence. Cool! But is it a faster, more convenient way of tuning? Not necessarily. That said, it could be a helpful piece of gear for beginners and/or players exploring alternate tunings. However, given that Roadie 3 doesn’t display the current note name—instead it displays the frequency of the current pitch, something many seasoned players don’t know in Hz, even for their favorite tunings—it can be a bit confusing to use, especially since it can struggle to attain the desired pitch if the string isn’t already within a couple of steps of the target frequency. Further, I’m not certain what to chalk this up to—perhaps tuner and/or headstock mass?—but Roadie 3 had difficulty detecting my parlor guitar’s 1st string. In sum, I wouldn’t call Roadie 3 an ideal primary tuner, but this petite, hands-off gadget with built-in extras could still be a welcome addition to your accessory collection.
Test Gear: Gibson SG, Larrivee P-1, Les Stansell tenor uke