It’s 2:45 AM and I’m working on one of MY guitars. I’m listening to some good delta blues. Windows are open, fan on low, and I’m stuffing a VERY old DiMarzio “neck” PAF humbucker into the bridge of one of my favorite guitars. Why am I up at this hour, why am I putting a pickup in “wrong”, and what does the Captain of a guitar company ship play?
Insomnia is probably the single greatest practical blessing in my life. If I slept and ate and did things like a normal person, you’d probably not be reading this right now because the workshop may not exist. You use the tools you have to build your life, and for those of us with a few quirks they can be tools as well. Context is everything – it’s all about how you look at them against the backdrop of what’s going on. My context was years worth of “day-and-a-halfs” packed into each one to get everything done as it needed to happen. Well, I can do that! My night shifts are a sacred time; dark, quiet, mentally clear, and it’s when I do most of my writing, working out some new chord-melody stuff on the guitar, new instrument designing, research on various things, and some assembly & setup work. I might be up inlaying some turquoise to long jams like the Dead or Coltrane, or channeling ideas into a notebook with incense burning and some chanting softly in the background. Sometimes I mess around with a personal bass or guitar. That’s this morning. This guitar needed something in the bridge position with a bit more character, and I knew what would get me a touch of T out of an LP.
Here’s something to ponder – the pickup doesn’t know where you put it. It only knows how it was voiced and what type it is. It will do its job, picking up the strings vibration and inherent harmonic content and sending that on with its own particular seasoning of frequency peaks & output wherever you put it. Position, instrument, pickups do not know. And the truth is not that you have conformed to some factory spec (unless you’re going for a specific example of a common tone, a by-the-book recipe), but if what comes out of the speaker sounds great to you as YOURS. If it comes out of the speaker, there’s your truth – you can argue what’s right, what’s ridiculous, and what can’t be until the cows come home, jack. If it’s there, there it is. It’s all frequencies and peaks and you can tickle them in more ways than one. Pickup type, strength and position are three ingredients in a whole recipe. Many of the recipes of the basses & guitars I have been building for 20 years have as a main tonal ingredient pickups being put in differently than the designers had in mind. I see them as a starting point; in this case, a humbucker voiced for the neck can be a little brighter in the bridge, a little underwound, and being a big fan of a good hot Telecaster bridge pickup, this is sneaking over into that room of colors from the other direction. Not the same, but a pinch of that bite & upper mid peak is in there. So long as the pole pieces line up you can try ANY pickup in any position of any type of stringed instrument. If it sounds good to you, it IS good. And besides, I have a thing for old, well-used cream DiMarzios – so putting one in a guitar, that’s like putting a ring on it. But what is that on the bench?
I have a few guitars, and some are from my own workshop. I always have prototypes around before I offer them and they go, and I am in the process of making myself a really nice guitar with a hand carved scroll – a special talisman I’ll show another time. But you know, it’s hard to tickle yourself. So my fascination is the work of other luthiers – their work holds the magic factor for me like mine does for other people. And this purpleburst knotty walnut topped chunk of mahogany with the flame maple bound purpleheart pickguard & purpleheart fingerboard is the first build of luthier Roy Toepper. The original pickups were gone when I got it – the Rockfield in the neck, in this guitar, is perfect for the smoky jazz & deep blues I’m into these days. The no-name bridge pickup? Meh. If it’s going to be there, it should bring some color to the party.
Those of you who don’t do what we on this side of the screen do have no idea how daring and all-in a guitar like this is to tackle as a first build, especially back in the day it was done. It has all the hallmarks of a first build on something like this – the neck was left too big and its set-in angle is too shallow. As proof that they all find their home, these are two of the main attributes that make me absolutely love this particular instrument. On my personal guitars as a player (and basses too), I love big, round, chunky necks. And on guitars I’m not a big fan of a big neck angle like you find on most carved tops - I like the Fender style where the neck and body are straight with no back angle. This is between the two - a flaw to one, a defining attractive characteristic to another. This is why watching a YouTube gear pundit pontificate on what the “best way” of anything is or some keyboard commando posting about the “only way” something works is, to me, like watching a monkey jack off at the zoo. Once you remove the specific goal (“…to sound just like SRV” or “…to sound like a Motown-era P bass”) and the context you’re working in that you’re going for this goal THROUGH, “best” becomes completely a matter of taste and opinion; it’s no longer a specific recipe, a formula, a paint-by-numbers. And opinion requires some factual knowledge and experience behind it, or it’s more of a belief. It is possible to have just enough knowledge and experience to believe your opinions are facts; the trick is to keep going until you have enough knowledge and experience with some of the patterns and truths you’ll find by DOING to realize all you truly know is that you really have no explanations at all. Just - ideally, educated - guesses. You’re one grain of sand on an infinite shoreline floating in space with consciousness you can’t explain; calm your ass down about your little perceived truth and just go do something, create something – it’ll be magic to someone and find its home and will serve the world so much better. Then do it again.
When I scored this guitar I got to make the call I get regularly... “Hi! I just picked up one of your instruments and was wondering if you could tell me about it...” A fun call. A good guy. A daring luthier. Who does a Les Paul with a carved knotty walnut top and purplebursts it? Who tries all this crazy binding and inlay into their first build? And who creates such a magical piece that comes alive in my hands? This guy. A kindred spirit. He started building in the ‘90s too, but let me tell you – for all its hallmarks of someone’s early build any luthier could look at closely and see, compared to my first few guitars this thing is the Sistine Chapel. Thank God for learning curves! We certainly don’t all start out in the same place. RT Custom Guitars is in Michigan, Purple Sage has found a home in Texas, and I only hope that magic something a player’s hands feels in the right instrument when they play it, and the intangible vibrations of the soul their heart senses in the fibers of something truly crafted by another, that these are things every client of mine can feel when they pick up their own - born in this little green workshop in the woods. If I'm giving that along with the good tool, I'm thrilled.
Listening to: Professor Longhair live show from 1975; Dr. John The Sun, The Moon & Herbs and In The Right Place; Mississippi Fred McDowell You Gotta Move.