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.
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.
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.
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