Mark Lucas | Guitarist | Live | Session | Arranger

KEISEL VADER 6X

 

I've been interested in a headless guitar for a while. The ergonomics, the modernity, the open-ness has appealed to me for years. It was Mick Goodrick who sparked this interest; then, Allan Holdsworth.

Ned Steinberger was the original designer of the headless guitar and bass, and it was quite popular when they first came out in the mid to late 80's.The design was so compelling that it reached across a lot of musical genres, from synth-pop, to progressive jazz. The original Steinbergers had a composite neck of graphite and carbon fiber that produced a very even and clean sound.

Unfortunately, Steinberger became a victim of their own success, in that they were not prepared for the incredible demand, which far outstripped their supply sourcing. In 1987, the Newburgh, NY plant was closed after Gibson bought the company. 

Over the years since then, there have been various incarnations produced by other companies. There is an organization called Headless USA that restores original Steinberger instruments. The restorations are magnificently done, however they're very expensive; often, 3-4 times their original selling price.

Keisel Guitars is the former Carvin Guitar Company, with Carvin making amps and PA systems. Located in Escondido, CA, they've been in business since 1946. Their manufacturing process, in my opinion, is literally second to none. Since they are their own retailer, they produce guitars and basses with quality and value far in excess of the price. 

In 2015, they came out with their 'headless' model, the VADER. Unlike the Steinbergers, it's a neck-through design. And their options list is pretty much 'the sky is the limit'. It takes around 8-10 weeks from the initial build spec, to have the guitar delivered.

My particular model has a mahogany neck and body, a california walnut top, stainless steel jumbo frets, a tung oil finished neck, and a satin matte finish. The bridge is a collaborative design by Hipshot and Keisel, and it operates on ball bearings instead of a knife edge. The pickups are designed by Keisel.

I really can't say enough about the Vader. It's a very big and wide sounding guitar; adept at covering pretty much any musical genre; and the build quality is absolutely perfect.

 

THE FULL RANGE OF TONE

 

The first 'boutique' pedal I bought was a Fulltone Full-Drive 2 Mosfet OD; actually, it was a gift, in November of 2007. I still have it and use it, as it is a supremely versatile and reliable pedal. I have used a few others(it would be imprudent to name them), but have always returned to the FD2. The second Fulltone was bought in 2013, the OCD. Somewhat different in tonality than the FD2, it has a lot more headroom, and is more 'British' sounding. It took a while for me to learn how to use this one, but it's as equally compelling as the FD2. 

Fulltone is one of the few products that never fail. Mike Fuller is a brilliant designer, and I am so happy to be able to use Fulltone pedals.

 

MORE RUMINATIONS ON THE ERNIE BALL MUSIC MAN CUTLASS

 

One sound that has been very attractive to me since I lived in Boston is a 60's Strat with a rosewood fingerboard.

Unlike a maple board, rosewood has a punchy, tight response. Notes seem to jump off the board quicker; more transients, and in some ways, more overtones. More muscular, in essence.

I've played and/or demoed most of the Music Man guitars on the nstuffmusic youtube channel. The overriding thing about them is quality. They're set up perfectly right out of the case. Fit and finish is exemplary. Sterling Ball once said that the difference between a good guitar and a great guitar is 100 details. One of the most compelling details is the fretwork. There really aren't many US companies doing this level of work. And it shows over the long term. I've played a lot more expensive instruments that did not have this excellence present. Every note played is even without anomalies, regardless of how it s set up. It took me a bit of trial and error to get it where I like a guitar to be. I've done one neck adjustment and removed one spring from the tremolo, which originally had 3. I use .09-.42 Ernie Ball Slinkys instead of the .10-.46 set it came with. I've done a bit of pickup adjustments, as I like the neck and middle single coils to be adjusted down, a lot; particularly, the neck pickup, which carries a lot of harmonic information, being close to the end of the board. The bridge pickup is adjusted up a bit, but not a lot. I have the trem set up to float, but just a bit. The pickups and their accompanying silent circuit and buffered output jack all contribute to a multiplicity of tones and range, which are astounding. I use the neck pickup a lot for a more modern jazz sound, and the range of the tone control is not to be underestimated. Very useful and powerful.

I have 3 guitars with stainless steel frets, and I really can't say enough about them. There are discussions about how they sound brighter than nickel silver, and whilst true, its not an unpleasant brightness, to my ear. The fact that stainless just does not wear out more than compensates for the tonal differences. The compensated nut also makes a huge difference in how 'in tune' the guitar plays. It's not a heavy guitar weight-wise. I had it on a scale, at 7.4 pounds. The playability, with a rounded neck pocket makes a lot of other guitars feel clunky by comparison.

I really appreciate the fact that Music Man is one of the last US companies, one that provides all of their workers and staff with a living wage, consistently produces extraordinary guitars and strings, and has totally professional customer service.

 

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE........

 

Ce plus que ca change, ce plus que ca meme chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. An old French saying.

What I'm referring to in this inquiry is guitar equipment, as a metaphor. When I first started playing gigs professionally, I had one guitar, one cable, and one amp. Then as time went on, to fill the needs of the different types of music I was playing, I got a chorus pedal; then a flanger; then an overdrive and/or distortion box. Then along came Mesa Boogie, which did away with the overdrive pedals. Around 1992, I started to use a volume pedal. I've used one since then. It is truly an indispensable part of my guitar/amp connection. For a while, I used Fender and Vox amps, adding an overdrive pedal to the chain, as the amps themselves are great 'platforms' to build a sound on, but not really great for amp overdrive unless they're really cranked up. I've tried a lot of different boxes; Fulltone, Xotic, J Rockett, etc. And the pedalboard became more 'involved' shall we say. More wires, a more efficient power supply. Now I find that, almost 30 years on, I am back to a very simple pedalboard. The difference being the quality of the cable and the power supply. But essentially, it's a tuner, a volume pedal, a wah pedal, and 2 time delay pedals which are routed to the FX loop of the amps. This setup is remarkably similar to what I started out with; it's just that the pedals are better along with the aforementioned cables and power. A big round trip.

The first amp overdrive that did it for me was out of a Mesa Boogie Mark2. And it still does, if you can find an original Boogie.

The same with guitars. A really good maple fretboard strat (JOHN SUHR ANTIQUE CLASSIC); a really good SG (GIBSON VOS 1961 SG);and a rosewood board 3 single-coil strat(ERNIE BALL CUTLASS). Around 1985, the first two guitars became a part of my sound. The third one came a bit later. And although it seems I've played every other guitar under the sun, I come back to these ones.

I first used Ernie Ball strings in 1985. I still use those, to this day.

We age, we change. Our youth disappears, never to return; and I wonder if we ever really understand these things until they are gone from us. Something remains; a spirit, an outlook, an attitude toward life, a discipline built over years of habit. These are necessary and good. Someone once said that simplicity is often it's own form of elegance. I believe that to be true, now more than ever.

The Japanese spirit of Wabi-Sabi exemplifies this simplicity without calling too much attention to it. It leaves things unanswered, for us to fill in.

 

RETURNING

 

I find myself returning to recordings I listened to years ago. One example is In Passing, by Mick Goodrick; an ECM release from 1979, with Eddie Gomez, John Surman, and Jack DeJohnette. A musical colleague introduced this to me in 1984, a few months before I moved to Boston. The clarity of their playing as an ensemble is astounding. Air, space, the unbelievable quality of ECM, and the looseness of the compositions still inspire me. Mick is the rare Guitarist who is a true original. No one sounds like him, but according to him, no one sounds like anybody else. I had the privilege of studying with him for a short time. And his knowledge still resonates for me. I bought his book, The Advancing Guitarist, in 1988, from the International Reading Room; it was an independent bookstore in Harvard Square. This is, in my opinion, one of the most important books I've studied from.

 

ERNIE BALL MUSIC MAN CUTLASS

 

The EBMM Cutlass represents a refinement of the 'S' type guitar, almost to a point of a re-think. To me, this is one of the top 2 60's genre strat guitars I've played; the other being a real 1965 Fender Strat. 

The pickups are Music Man single coils, with a 'silent circuit' that removes 90% of the 60 cycle hum. While I don't think they are overwound, they are the most 'full and present' pickups I've played through in a production guitar. There is also an active buffer on the output jack that allows for full treble response, regardless of pickup volume. The bridge is an original Music Man design that works flawlessly, in combination with locking tuning gears. I'm a big fan of stainless steel frets; the Cutlass has them, perfectly leveled and crowned.

Ernie Ball is one of the last family owned companies in the US. Their quality and usability comes through in everything they produce.

I think the Cutlass has the potential to re-imagine what a 60's type S guitar is capable of.

 

THE GIBSON SG

 

The first SG I owned was an SG Special in 1985, when I lived in Boston. I was attracted to it's midrange tonality, although I didn't really know why, at least , in the way I understand it now. The second one was a black SG Special, that I ran through a Marshall Silver Jubilee 2x12 combo. This particular combination was tonal nirvana for me. I could get everything I needed from this; blues, a great classic rock sound, and believe it or not, a respectable modern jazz fusion sound. Unfortunately, the Marshall literally ate tubes, and the SG suffered at the hands of a rather unscrupulous repairman.  I didn't play another one until 2007, when I bought an SG Classic with P90 pickups. A really great guitar with a big fat 50's neck. Again, another sloppy repair job resulted in me getting rid of it. I now own what I consider to be the quintessential SG; a cherry red V.O.S. form the Gibson Custom Shop. The V.O.S. guitars are significantly different than a production model Gibson. They are made one at a time; the bodies are one piece of mahogany, as opposed to 2 or 3 piece laminates. A one piece body just sounds better and gets better with age, as the vibration of the wood is in one direction. I also like the finish, which has a worn-in quality to it; not a relic finish, but a very subtle patina. The neck is more of a 60's type of shape; not as fat as a 50's. And like all SG's, they are light. As much as I love the sound of a Les Paul, I really don't like the weight of them.

On to the really compelling reason I like SG's. I consider them to be the solid body version(sonically), of an archtop. That probably sounds sacreligous to an arch-top lover, and equally so to a rock player. Why I say this is that to my ear, The SG is the closest thing to the midrange thickness that archtops have, generally speaking, without the feedback. And it can cover all kinds of ground. I've heard Michael Landau and Robben Ford play SG's. And of course, Duane Allman. These 3 are so much more than the categories they get labeled in. Particularly Duane. I read in an interview that one of his favorite recordings was Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. Carlos Santana played an SG back in the 60's. And the torch is being carried now by Derek Trucks, in my opinion, the logical extension of Duane Allman.

Unlike an LP, I feel an SG just sits better in a mix. I did a recording recently with a well-known jazz saxophonist and everyone who played on this thought I was playing an archtop. I was going straight through a Mesa Boogie TransAtlantic 30 1x12 with just a touch of reverb.

So, just some ruminations from the past into the present. Let me know your thoughts.

 

MORE RECORDINGS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE

 

AS IT IS by The Peter Erskine Trio; ARC by Jimmy Haslip; 39 STEPS by John Abercrombie; NEFERTITI by Miles Davis; THE TOKYO CONCERT by Bill Evans

 

RECORDINGS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE

 

One of the first recordings my parents bought for me was THE GREATEST HITS OF WES MONTGOMERY--I think I was 8; this was a year before Wes passed away. I knew nothing about jazz music or jazz guitar, but I was drawn to Wes' sound. He was, arguably, the pre-eminent jazz guitarist of the day. What is still striking is his lyrical and melodic content. And the music was a perfect vehicle for his lyricism. Pop music with arrangements by Don Sebesky, and a rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Grady Tate, and Ron Carter. This was my first exposure to 'jazz' guitar.

I listened to all kinds of music when I was growing up; Motown, the Rolling Stones, the pop music on the radio. I really did not listen to any jazz music until I went to college, instead, concentrating on classical guitar. I think it was my 3rd year of college when a roommate turned me on to SEVEN STEPS TO HEAVEN, by Miles Davis, which changed my life, forever. But once again, I was drawn to the lyrical content before really having any idea as to what or why they were playing what they were playing.

COURT AND SPARK, THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS, HEJIRA by Joni Mitchell were important, and still are. In fact, anything that Joni Mitchell ever recorded is important to me.

Before I left home to move to Boston, Mass, in 1984, a musical colleague turned me on to IN PASSING, by Mick Goodrick. A classic ECM recording with Eddie Gomez, John Surman and Jack DeJohnette.

TAKE 10 by Paul Desmond with Jim Hall; SOLO CONCERT by Ralph Towner; OUT OF THE WOODS BY Oregon;STANDARDS VOL 1 & 2 by Keith Jarrett; ADAM'S APPLE by Wayne Shorter; LONG TO BE LOOSE by Wayne Krantz.

More to come in another post.

 

CHARLIE BANACOS-A PRIVILEGED EXPERIENCE

 
I started studying with Charlie in 1991, when I was living in Newburyport, Massachusetts--I was on his waiting list for about a year and a half, when the call from his secretary came that there was an opening on Tuesday at 8/30am--It took all of 15 seconds to say yes!!!!!; so I would make the trip down to his studio in Beverly--It had the weight of meeting a guru, but a funny one---I used to call Charlie the missing Marx brother as he was really funny and at times just goofy, but in a very real way---He used to kid me about the fact that I recopied his lessons with a fountain pen(mr mont blanc!!!) There was no pretense about him--and when it came to music, there was absolutely NO MESSING AROUND--you had to work or you could not study with him---No exceptions---He could play everything literally from Bud Powell on up, but I think Bill Evans was his favorite, if there was such a thing---And he had a way of giving you exactly what you needed to work on at that time in your development---Uncanny, very intuitive---I've kept all of his lessons and studied with him from 1991-5, then took a break beacause it was a really busy time with a lot of gigs---But if a student cancelled and there was an opening, he'd have me come in----When I left Boston, I did not get to see him often, hardly at all---I would return for a weekend to 'get away' but it was really an excuse to see if he could fit me in; and it was the same as on the first day I started with him--He was always positive, encouraging, an incredible player, funny, warm and genuine to the core---Charlie was the kind of person no one could buy, one of a kind--- When I learned that he was ill with cancer in 2008, I was not sure as to how far it had progressed---A few days later, the word came that he passed away, and was devastated---Actually, it was a rather strange feeling, because a part of me understood that the lessons he gave me would last for the rest of my life, so I didn't feel like he was gone, at least in a metaphorical sense,but it was terribly saddening to never see him again in person---More than that, I came to realize how grateful I was to have had the honor, the privilege to have him take me on as a student---and am eternally grateful, even more so now---
 

A TIME FORGOTTEN? JONI MITCHELL, MILES DAVIS, PICASSO

 
Joni, Miles and Picasso are my patron saints. The thread that runs from them into my musical, personal and spiritual life is truly intoxicating, like a fine cognac; layers of art and inspiration. Song to a Seagull, one of Joni's early recordings, weaves a story of late 60's Greenwich Village; innocent, authentic, and utterly compelling. Kind of Blue, THE modal masterpiece, hits me on any number of levels. It's pure jazz, it's chamber music, it's NYC cool, in the truest sense. Joni and Miles were for real, not a creation for the masses. The reason why this music isn't heard or expanded upon is the culture we now live in doesn't support it. It's a largely artificial and digital age. It's interesting to note that guitarists Robben Ford and Michael Landau,& saxophonist Wayne Shorter worked with both Miles and Joni. Joni is also a painter who was largely influenced by Picasso. And Miles' music is timeless, like Picasso's art. Over time, I've come to understand the influence they have left on me, when I was younger, and more so now, that I am older. One of my favorite recordings is Joni's MILES OF AISLES; recorded live in 1974 with Tom Scott and the LA Express with guitarist Robben Ford. This is a must listen for any guitarist in terms of how to play behind a singer. Seriously, I hear so many guitarists who do not know how to play underneath a singer, especially a female vocalist. Joni and Miles brought out the absolute best in any musician they worked with. They had the magic touch, the Midas touch, if you will. There is nothing left to say or improve on KIND OF BLUE, SKETCHES OF SPAIN, ESP, or anything else that Miles recorded. There is nothing left to improve on BLUE, COURT AND SPARK, THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS, HEJIRA, or anything Joni did. There is nothing left to say about Picasso's GUERNICA. I remember a sunny March afternoon, walking in Paris to go to No5 Rue de Thorigny, to the Picasso Museum. And being left speechless, like a sword split me in half. I remember seeing the 'We Want Miles' tour and having that same speechlessness. Likewise with Joni's 'Refuge of the Roads' show. That there is nothing left to say is to say there is everything to learn; a timeless well to drink from.
 

Strats/Teles & The 'Cumulative Effect'

 
From time to time, I do get asked "what makes a guitar play great?" I've had the opportunity to watch and learn from some really, really good luthiers/repairmen--I would answer that it is the 'cumulative effect'--And what I mean by that is taking into account every component of the instrument--In my experience, the first thing is a neck that is properly adjusted and frets that are properly leveled, dressed, and re-crowned--A guitar simply will not reach its' full potential without this critical step--Even a guitar that does not have all the other elements(quality of wood, pickups, hardware)will play significantly better with the proper fretwork and a neck that has little to no relief in it--Along with that, it's impossible to discount a nut that is free of pinching and cut close to the first fret-- As to neck and body wood, wood that is cured and dried out simply sounds better and will improve with age--And as much mythology has gone on about finishes, I prefer a nitrocellulose finish--It's light, it breathes, and develops a beautiful patina over time-- Tuners, bridges, saddles have to be functional first--They all affect the resonant properties of a guitar-- Being a Tele/Strat fanatic of sorts, I love single coil pickups--They can go from fundamental overtones to a thicker sound easier than the other way around-- On to the playability factor--As much as I hear from some players that a heavier gauge string and relief in the neck make for better 'tone', I find it to be objectively without merit(aside from the fact that some players simply like a heavier string)-- I have found that a neck with almost no relief(bow)in it is a better way to go, because the guitar is not fighting itself--When it's 'even', the string vibrates more effectively--I have used a .09-.42 gauge string set for over 25 years, and have never felt like 'tone' was lacking--In fact, I think that playing the guitar, of and in itself, is hard enough work; I'm not interested in making it more challenging, at least from that end--