Tag Archives: choosing a jazz guitar

The Problem With My Vintage Gibson

I often get asked why I don’t play my Gibson ES175 more often, and in general, not everyone understands why I mostly prefer semi-hollow guitars over archtop, and of course specifically my ES175. The Gibson was my main guitar for more than 10 years,  while I was studying and a few years after. An odd side note to the story is that I later also discovered that it I had in fact not bought it legally.

The Audition

When I did my audition to get into the conservatory in the Hague then I was playing my SRV strat which I had fitted with flatwound 13s at the time.

That guitar had served me really well until then while I had been playing in Copenhagen.

The strat was my first “serious” guitar and I had been more busy trying to learn to play Jazz than looking for what is traditionally considered a Jazz guitar. So I hadn’t really thought that much about it, figuring that it was more about what and how you played than which guitar you used.

The audition was nerve-wracking and actually, I was so nervous that I don’t really remember that much about playing it. Still, I do remember that after the teachers had discussed my performance. I was called into the room again, I was told that I had been accepted and that while what I played really was Jazz, then once I started studying I would have the option to borrow money from the school to get a “real” jazz guitar. Later I asked my main teacher, Peter Nieuwerf, about this, and he told me not to worry about it, explaining that one of the other teachers, Eef Albers, also mostly played a strat. But I did start looking around for an instrument since people kept asking me why I played that kind of guitar.

Finding the Gibson

A few months later, I had been to some shops and tried some different guitars, but mostly being scared by the price of a new Gibson and also not really liking how they felt if I was allowed to try them, so I hadn’t found one that I liked. A friend of mine told me about an ES175 that he had tried at a guitar shop in the Hague.

I went there the same day to try it, and it was a 50s model(not that I could actually tell), and it had some setup issues but was probably a good option. The price was pretty ok, but in hindsight, there might have been a reason for that.

I pretty much don’t know anything about guitars, but the guitar played quite well except for the 1st string buzzing high on the neck. It was in the original case (I think) and it seemed like it had been lying in the case for a LOONG time, which turned out to be true. The owner of the shop assured me he could set it up to fix the fret buzz and that turned out to be true when I came back the following day. It really played like a dream, and actually still does. He insisted that I pay in cash, saying that he didn’t trust foreign students and the shop did not accept credit cards, so I went to the bank to get the money and took my guitar home.

When I showed it to my teachers I was made aware of how lucky I was that the guitar had aged well, the top of these guitars can sometimes over time yield under the pressure of the strings and that can render the guitar unplayable, but this one had aged very well. I actually had two teachers who had experienced that with older Gibson archtops.

I also learned that it was the same type of guitar that Jim Hall used for a long time, even if he changed the pickup in the early 70s and probably also what you hear Wes play on the incredible Jazz Guitar album.

I did the rest of my study on that guitar, a few different albums, and I took it on tours around Europe and a single trip to North Africa, but by that time I also had started getting into more modern Jazz styles which didn’t really agree with the Guitar.

Problems With The Sound

There were two things that started to become a problem, especially with the music I was playing and writing myself for our band Træben:

I could feel that I was lacking sustain when I played which meant I couldn’t do some of the things I wanted to do, and another thing was that while the guitar has a beautiful warm sound, it does have a very pronounced pick attack. To me it felt like I was missing a sort of singing quality in the tone of the guitar, it was pretty percussive. Obviously, I was both coming from listening to rock and blues guitarists who play with overdrive and more sustain and I was at that time mostly listening to people who played with a more modern sound, singing sustain, reverb, and delay, mostly Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ben Monder.

This is difficult to demonstrate even though it is so easy to feel when you play.

If you try to keep notes and have other things moving around it then that effect is pretty much lost comparing the two, and if you are soloing and in your head you hear a long sustained note then it quickly becomes frustrating when the note does not behave like you want it to.

Long notes:

And of course especially if you are playing a long note and then later adding a chord under it while it keeps ringing.

I think it is a pretty clear difference, but I wonder if it is clear how massive it actually feels when you are playing.


A short side note on this, while I was researching stuff for this video, then I came across a few discussions online about “Thunk” which was actually a new concept to me. Apparently, it is the sound of an archtop like this with a pronounced pick attack and very little sustain.  It had a few really good quotes from Christian Miller who also makes videos on his channel the Jazz Guitar Scrapbook:

“Thunk is not a concept. Thunk is a lifestyle.”

“Thunk! Because sustain is for kids”

You can check out Christian’s YT channel here: https://www.youtube.com/@JazzGuitarScrapbook

I guess this is considered the holy grail of Jazz tone by some. Obviously, I don’t really fall in that category, but I am curious about what you think? Another thing tangent is that if you listen to most Jazz guitarists then it is fairly clear that the whole turning down the tone and not having any treble in the sound, is sort of a myth, but I guess that is a topic for another video.

Do I hate P90s?

At the time I first try to get the ES175 to act like the semi-hollow by using reverb and delay,and even overdrive, but THAT was not useful live. Reverb and Delay was also not really getting me anywhere which was when I realized that probably I needed another instrument to get the sound that I wanted.

I have sometimes had the comment that I should consider changing the pickup in the guitar since the single-coil P90 pickups will not give you as much sustain as a more compressed humbucker,

which is probably true. I did become aware that my ES175 did not have the same type of sound as what you hear with a humbucker version, which is pretty clear if you listen to someone like Jonathan Kreisberg or Pat Metheny, or also how Jim Hall’s sound changed when he replaced the pickup in his 175 going from the P90 to a Guild Humbucker,

what you hear in this concert clip:

And here he is with the P90:

Obviously, you can’t really compare these two since they are recorded differently and there is almost 10 years between the two recordings, but I think you can still hear a difference, and also that Jim Hall is actually using the sustain in his playing.

So maybe it IS just mostly about the pickup, but having played the guitar the way it was, and considering the fact that it is an instrument from the 50s then I did not feel that it would be right to change the pickup. That said, I do have the impression that I am not a huge fan of p90s, possibly because of my playing style, because I find that they have too much pick attack, and a very sort of aggressive mid-range. That could also be a part of the reason Jim Hall almost always turned down the tone and the volume on his guitar?

I guess I could use this video as an excuse to get an archtop with a humbucker…

After all: The correct number is n+1, where n is the number of guitars currently owned.

It was Stolen!

I switched to using semi-hollow guitars as my main instrument in 2010, which also fitted much better with the music that I wrote for the 2nd Træben album Push. First the Epiphone Sheraton, and later the Ibanez and the ES335.

A few years later I started making YouTube videos, which I thought was a lot of fun, and therefore still do, and in 2017 I suddenly got an email from a guitarist in Belgium who told me that the guitar I had on the wall behind me in the videos was in fact stolen from him when he was living in Amsterdam in the mid-80s. He could describe it in a way that made it clear that he did indeed know it up close. This was of course a bit of a shock, and I guess whoever stole it had not been able to unload it or dared to unload it and therefore it did not surface until 15 years later in a shop in a different city.

I have later heard stories about that shop in the Hague not being 100% legit or trustworthy, but I didn’t know that when I had just arrived in ’98, and the shop when bankrupt a year or so later. The state of the guitar did really fit with it having been put away in an attic for more than a decade, and making this video, I am realizing that it was funny that I had to pay in cash, but at the time I did not find it super strange that he did not trust foreign students and foreign banking. I was lucky that the previous owner did not want the guitar back, which would also have been pretty complicated since I had bought 18 years before that email.

In this video, I have mostly talked about what I did not like about the guitar, but I actually do use it fairly often, simply because it is an amazing instrument and it plays really well, and there are some things in my work, that calls for an instrument like that, so that is what I bring. Things like more traditional big band stuff or if I have to play things that are more leaning towards swing, and I will probably never sell the guitar, just considering the staggering amount of hours I have spent playing it.  Another guitar that I don’t use all the time is my Epiphone Sheraton which is really an amazing instrument, especially since it was so cheap and easy to upgrade.

The Great $400 Guitar I Used On 5 albums

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The Great $400 Guitar I Used On 5 albums

This is a REALLY cheap guitar and it was my main guitar for quite a long time. I used it on several albums and played all my concerts with it for a few years. That is what this video is about.

It is also about how you can find very solid instruments for very little money and with a few modifications make them sound and play, something that is a good option for a “first” Jazz Guitar, and later in the video, I will talk a bit about guitar prices and quality in general.

Getting Started With Jazz

Most of you guys see me playing semi-hollow guitars in my videos, and that is what I play 99% of the time mostly my Ibanez or my Gibson, but when I started at the conservatory I was playing a Strat (which I had strung up with flatwound 13s, not the most obvious of combinations) and later that year I bought the ES175 that you have probably also seen in some videos.

The story with the Gibson is actually a bit strange, a friend of mine came across it in a shop in the Hague. He couldn’t afford it, so he told me about it and I tried it out and went directly to the bank and took it home. I played the ES175 for my entire education and the first years after my graduation. An odd tangent about this guitar is that a few years ago I found out that it had been stolen 10-15 years before I bought it, but that is another story maybe for another video.

After I graduated from the Royal conservatory, I was listening to a lot of musicians that had a different sound from the more traditional sound of my ES175. Players like Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Ben Monder. After a lot of experimentation with delays and reverbs, I realized that I couldn’t really get the ES175 to do that type of singing sustained mid-focused tone, which is really the semi-hollow thing to me. So I needed to find another guitar and I needed to figure out what it was that I wanted.

2nd hand instruments and trying guitars

When it comes to investing in gear then I am usually very cautious, even if I do have some expensive stuff like Fractal Audio gear and vintage Gibson guitars. I don’t usually just go out and buy an instrument on impulse.

At the time, I didn’t feel comfortable just getting an expensive semi-hollow since I wasn’t 100% sure if that could give me the sound I wanted or that it played like I wanted, in part also because I was aware that I wasn’t 100% sure about what I wanted.

I started checking out what was out there, different models, new and vintage. Looking across Ibanez, Yamaha, Heritage, Epiphone, and Gibson. I realized that the Epiphone Sheraton was a fairly cheap model so that was quickly the type I focused on. But, While I was checking that out I also tried some other types and brands, among other things I remember a Scofield signature Ibanez in a shop, but that was set up so badly and had strings that were as old as Scofield, so I didn’t investigate those any further. Instead, I focused on the Sheraton, mainly because I had seen Kurt Rosenwinkel play one live at the North Sea Jazz Festival a few years earlier, and I really like his tone and especially being able to get more sustain so that I could play chords under a note that kept ringing and really get notes to sing much more.

The Guitar Chooses You

Since I didn’t want to spend too much money, and I had read about the Korean Sheratons being better than the Indonesian-built version, I started searching for second-hand Sheraton models and asked for serial numbers to figure out when and where they were made. I ended up searching for 6 months and trying around 20 of them in shops and for sale privately before I found one that I liked in the Spring of 2008.

For me, this was always important. I have never bought a guitar that I did not first play, and I find that difficult to do, ordering a guitar in a shop like Thomann or Andertons and never trying it before you buy it seems pretty scary, though I guess that is also what you have when you order from a builder, but then there are other differences as well, I’ll talk a bit about that later in the video with discussing the prices of different guitars.

When it comes to choosing a guitar then there is almost a part of it that is also how that specific guitar fits you. It has to have the right vibe and resonate with you, and this one did. I somehow always had that with the guitars I ended up buying. The vibe thing, and I have let quite guitars go on that account as well.

The Guitar – New pickups and electronics

This guitar plays extremely well, I also had it set up by Angelo from Panucci guitars and he certainly adds his own magic, since he is an amazing builder and tech. I loved how it played and I immediately started to use that as my main guitar and did all my gigs on it. It was almost what I wanted it to be, I just need to fix a few things, and realize that they needed fixing (which is half of it)

So about this guitar: It is a 2000 Korean-built Epiphone Sheraton. It is pretty heavy, mainly because it is built largely from mahogany. If you have back problems, then this is not a guitar for you. These guitars also have a very thick finish and the neck is fairly flat and wide, but that also means that it can be set up to play very easily with very low action, very suitable for legato playing. I had 13s put on it and it played so well, obviously still does

What I did realize quite fast was that the guitar needed new pickups. The stock pickups in the instrument were not fantastic. They lacked definition in the lower frequency range and easily sounded undefined and muddy. Now that I had a great playing instrument I was more willing to invest in upgrading the pickups, but I was still careful because I had absolutely no idea about different brands or any real experience with humbuckers, so I read a lot of stuff on the internet about pickups that meant almost nothing to me and I set out to find some 2nd hand pickups. I originally wanted to get Seymour Duncan Seth Lovers, which is also what happens to be the neck pickup on my Ibanez and they are really solid. I had also read about other more boutique brands like Lollar and Bareknuckle, but they were more expensive than the guitar and it didn’t really make sense to buy pickups that were more expensive than the guitar.

That’s another thing that is vastly underrated: Buying 2nd hand gear, You get so much more for the money, and a warranty on a guitar means very little, if it is crap or if the wood did not rest enough and goes bad then you are anyway screwed, though that is really something for VERY cheap guitars.

While I was looking for 2nd hand pickups I came across some Bareknuckle “The Mule” pickups and thinking what the hell, I made a really low bid on them which to my surprise I got them. With these pick-ups, I went to Panucci Guitars and asked Angelo to change all the electronics and the pickups.

This made the guitar sound 10 times as good! Everything became so much clearer and it retained the singing sustain quality. Essentially it was now the guitar that you hear now and at the beginning of the video.

Putting it to use

The guitar went with me to work, quite a lot of studio stuff. I was on a short tour in Africa, where I also had to fly back and without sleep go directly to the studio to record an album.

Don’t EVER do that….

Somewhere in that incredibly long session, there was a take at the end of the day, so after 10 hours of recording, where I literally fell asleep in the middle of a take. I also used the Epiphone on the 2nd Træben Album, Push which features Top Dog, the song we were playing on TV at the beginning of the video. At that time I had switched to using the Fractal Audio AxeFX for pretty much everything, but there is also another very old video on my Channel which is the Sheraton through my AER compact60 amp if you want to hear it amplified in a different way.

I did make one mistake though: Angelo actually offered to make me some pickups instead of the Bareknuckles, but I said no at the time because I was very happy with how much the clarity had improved. In hindsight, I should have taken him up on that. His pickups are really good and would probably improve the sound of the guitar quite a lot. The Bareknuckles are pretty dark for an instrument that is already quite dark sounding, but they still do the job for the type of sound that I mostly use, I did consider changing them though.

Pickups and Cheap Guitars!

This was my main guitar until I got the Ibanez that you know from the YouTube videos in 2012, and that was also the guitar that I took on most of the Træben tours in Europe and the one time we went to Canada.

So My way of easing into Semi-hollow guitars was:

  • Find a cheap but decent model and then
  • Trying a lot of different guitars before choosing one that is a good deal
  • Replacing the wiring and pickups, and have it set up properly.

This was not very expensive, I ended up with a very good instrument for less than 1000 dollars, and it is nice that you can find an instrument and then along the way decide to upgrade it. I could probably get it to sound even better with some slightly brighter pickups, but it is already a very good instrument like this, as you can hear.

I actually also wore down the frets along the way so they were replaced as well, but that was mostly just because I was practicing really a lot, and at that time I had to have frets changed or polished once every year, but again Angelo did a fantastic job and the new frets on it are made to last longer, they are not stainless steel but they are harder than nickel. I’ll link to that type of fretwire in the description, they are pretty amazing and play nicer than steel in my opinion.

Frets: https://www.jescarguitar.com/shop/jescar-fret-wire-47104/

Cheap vs Expensive Guitars

So overall, this was a fun process and adventure where I learned a lot about guitars and pickups because I also had to figure out what I wanted. And for that alone, it can be a great project to undertake.

The Downside to this approach is that it is very time-consuming, so you have to have more time than money or really enjoy checking out guitars and figuring out what you need and want.

As far as I can tell, by now even the cheaper instruments are built extremely well, and you can get pretty amazing quality for very little money leaving a lot of room to upgrade things like pickups or tuning pegs, nut, and all that.

And maybe I have a controversial opinion on this, but to me, this option only really is in competition with the more expensive factory-made instruments. To me, that is the biggest difference, because you can be really lucky and find a factory-made guitar that is great, but the biggest difference with the price is the pickups and the other stuff, not so much the construction of the guitar since they are both factory-made.

Now, most of the time if you go to a handmade instrument then you pay a lot more but you also get an instrument where everything is made to fit together and much more care is taken with the choice of material and really putting it together perfectly. In general, instruments like that are more balanced, play more consistently, and just better. It is in the details, but it is there and you can tell when you play an instrument made with the attention to detail that people like Richard Heeres, Angelo, or Schottmuller, or a place like Collings.

And going to them will give you a great instrument every time where you have to be a bit luckier with something mass-produced.

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