When Less Is More

A list of some of my favorite unplugged performances

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Do you remember when in the ’90s many music artists suddenly seemed to realize they could deliver more intimate performances by sitting down on stage with their bands and largely replacing electric with acoustic instruments? Unplugged albums quickly became en vogue. They also helped revive flagging careers of some artists, such as Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart. Undoubtedly, the television series MTV Unplugged fueled this trend.

To perform music that originally was written for electric instruments in a stripped down fashion required a good degree of craftsmanship. Gone were many of the sound effects behind which artists had been able to “hide.” While as is oftentimes the case with fashionable trends the unplugged wave may have been a bit overdone, the concept has generally appealed to me as a hobby guitarist. Following are five of my favorite unplugged performances.

I also would have loved to include the fantastic version of Hotel California by the Eagles from their great Hell Freezes Over album. But this band is very protective of their music, and even if you’re lucky enough to find a specific song you want on YouTube, oftentimes the clips are taken down, and before you know it, you have a dead link – not fun!

Billy Idol/White Wedding (VH-1 Storyteller, 2002)

Billy Idol may have been a fashion punk who became known for playing commercial music that didn’t have anything to do anything with punk. But in my opinion, he surely knew how to write tunes with catchy melodies that rocked. Undoubtedly, a major role in all of it played his guitarist Steve Stevens, who co-wrote various of Idol’s biggest hits, such as Rebel Yell, Eyes Without A Face and Flesh For Fantasy. Plus, Stevens is a hell of a guitarist, which this clip of White Wedding nice illustrates, one of the best unplugged performances I’ve seen. He continues to perform and tour with Idol to this day.

Eric Clapton/Layla (Unplugged, 1992)

To successfully strip down an iconic rock song like Layla, which in its original features fantastic guitar interplay by Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, is a formidable task. Clapton didn’t only do that, but gave the tune an entirely new character on his 1992 Unplugged album. In my opinion, the result is one of the best rock cover versions, similar to Joe Cocker’s rendition of With A Little Help From Friends by The Beatles.

Rod Stewart/Maggie May (Unplugged…And Seated, 1993)

Sometimes one may forget that Rod Stewart in his early days was a top-notch rock artist. I’ve always loved Maggie Mae, which he co-wrote with British guitarist and composer Martin Quittenton. The tune was originally recorded for Stewart’s third solo album Every Picture Tells A Story, released in May 1971. At the time, Stewart was still with The Faces. In fact, all of the band’s members played on the album. Notably, Ronnie Wood was also part of Unplugged…And Seated, Stewart’s excellent unplugged album from 1993, from which this clip is taken.

Nirvana/The Man Who Sold The World (MTV Unplugged In New York, 1993)

Nirvana’s unplugged version of The Man Who Sold The World is one of the most haunting covers of the David Bowie song I know. It was part of the band’s MTV Unplugged In New York album, which was recorded on November 18, 1993 – about four and a half months prior to Curt Cobain’s death. His almost painful singing, along with guitars that sound are out of tune, give this performance a somewhat creepy feel. It shows an artist who at the time was in the brutal throes of drug addiction and depression.

Neil Young/Like A Hurricane (Unplugged, 1993)

Like A Hurricane is one of my favorite rock tunes by Neil Young. Naturally, I was curious how he would handle an unplugged version of a song that in its initial recording is dominated by heavily distorted grunge-like electric guitar. In my opinion, Young’s performance with just an organ and a harmonica takes it to another level. The church-like sound of the organ combined with Young’s signature quavering voice induces chills and literally blows me away. Check it out yourself.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

The Hardware: Gibson Les Paul

Just like the Fender Stratocaster, Gibson’s Les Paul is one of the defining electric guitars

As Jim, who writes the excellent Music Enthusiast blog, pointed out a couple of weeks ago after I had published my post about the Fender Stratocaster, I could just as well have called the Gibson Les Paul the model that embodies the electric guitar. I couldn’t agree more; in fact, I had planned all along to do a post on the Les Paul as well, so let’s get to it!

Obviously, the legendary guitar is closely associated with American guitarist, songwriter and inventor Les Paul. The origins of the electric guitar that would bear his name date back to 1940 when Paul built the so-called “Log” at the Epiphone guitar factory. The crude instrument, which consisted of a 4″ × 4″ chunk of pine wood with strings and a pickup, was one of the first solid-body electric guitars. To improve the look, Paul took the wings of an Epiphone archtop body and added them to the pine body.

Les Paul Log

When Paul offered his idea to the Gibson Guitar Corporation in 1941, they initially turned him down. That changed when rival Fender started marketing their Esquire model in 1950, a solid-body electric guitar that later turned into the Broadcaster and eventually the Telecaster.

After Gibson Guitar president Ted McCarty realized the enthusiasm about the Esquire and the Broadcaster, he asked Paul to become a consultant to the company. In 1951, Paul, McCarty and his team started developing a solid-body. While apparently there are differing recollections who contributed what, the result was the first Gibson Les Paul, introduced in 1952. Paul used it for the first time in public in June that year during a live performance at the Paramount Theatre in New York.

Gibson Les Paul 1952

The initial Les Paul featured a mahogany body and neck, two P-90 single coil pickus and a one-piece, trapeze-style bridge/tailpiece with strings fitted under a steel stop-bar. In 1953, a second Les Paul model called the Les Paul Custom was introduced. A more important development happened in 1957, when Gibson introduced humbucker pickups on the Les Pauls. According to Wikipedia, a humbucker is a double-coil pick-up to cancel out the interference picked up by single-coil pickups, i.e., bucking the hum.

While the Les Paul models were formidable instruments, they were pretty heavy, which is why initially they weren’t widely embraced by guitarists. As a result, in 1961, Gibson introduced the Gibson SG, a lighter solid-body guitar that became the company’s best-selling model of all time. The company also stopped producing the traditional Les Paul.

Gibson SG 1961

Initially, Gibson launched the SG as the new Gibson Les Paul. But since the model had been developed without Paul’s knowledge and he was unhappy with the design, he requested that his name be removed from the headstock. Gibson agreed and Paul remained as a consultant with the company. Personally, I’ve always found the SG is a really cool looking guitar.

Ironically, a few years after production had been discontinued, Les Paul models started to become en vogue when guitarists like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton discovered and began using them. Other guitarists followed, such as Mike Bloomfield from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. Again reacting to popularity trends, Gibson reintroduced the Les Paul single cutaway guitar in July 1968. While there have been some tweaks over the years, the model remains in production to this day.

As indicated above, many guitarists have used Les Pauls. Following is a list of some of them.

Duane Allman

The legendary session musician and lead guitarist of the Allman Brothers Band has used various Les Paul models. Here’s a great clip of the band’s epic live performance of Whipping Post at the Fillmore East in 1970. I believe Allman was playing a 1957 Les Paul Goldtop.

Eric Clapton

While Clapton is better known for Fender Stratocaster guitars, he has also used Gibson models, including a 1960 sunburst Les Paul and a 1957 goldtop Les Paul Custom. In 2010, Gibson announced the Clapton 1960 Les Paul Standard signature model, also known as the “Beano Burst.” Here’s a clip of Clapton playing his 1960 Les Paul.

Jimmy Page

Page has used various Les Paul models, including from 1959 and 1973. He also owned a modified 1960 Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty,” which was stolen in 1970 and has never been found. Gibson has produced three Jimmy Page signature models. In this clip from Led Zeppelin’s live performance of We’re Gonna Groove at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1970, Page can be seen using a Les Paul.

Slash

Slash has used many different Les Paul models including his own custom shop Les Paul. Altogether, he has collaborated with Gibson on eight signature models. Here’s a clip of a 1988 Guns N’ Roses’ live performance of Sweet Child O’ Mine, featuring Slash on a Les Paul.

Joe Perry

The Aerosmith lead guitarist has used many Gibson guitar models, including various Les Pauls. Gibson has released two Joe Perry signature Les Pauls, the first in 1996, the second in 2004. The latter is known as the Boneyard Les Paul. In the following clip of a live performance of Toys In the Attic, Perry is playing the Boneyard.

Gary Moore

Moore played a Les Paul Standard. There were also two Gibson Gary Moore signature Les Pauls. Here’s the blues rocker and his Les Paul in action live with Walking By Myself.

Pete Townshend

Among other Gibson models, The Who guitarist used various customized Les Pauls from 1973 to 1979. In 2005, Gibson introduced three Townshend signature Les Paul Deluxe guitars, based on his heavily customized “#1” Wine Red 1976 Les Paul Deluxe, “#3” Gold top 1976, and “#9” Cherry Sunburst 1976. Here is a great clip of a 1978 live performance of Won’t Get Fooled Again, in which Townshend plays one of his customized Les Pauls. Based on the date, this must have been one of the last performances of Keith Moon, who died in September that year.

Of course, this post would not be complete without a clip of the maestro himself, Les Paul. Not only does it show Paul perform one of his biggest hit singles, How High the Moon (1951), but he also demonstrates one of his inventions called “Les Paulverizer.” According to Wikipedia, the little device attached to his guitar allowed Paul to access pre-recorded layers of songs during live performance so he could replicate his recorded sound on stage.

Sources: Wikipedia, Premier Guitar, YouTube

Clips & Pix: George Harrison & Friends/ While My Guitar Gently Weeps

The Concert for Bangladesh was the first music event of such magnitude to raise money for a cause

Great clip from the historic concert held in New York’s Madison Square Garden on August 1st, 1971, mainly featuring George Harrison and Eric Clapton. Ringo Starr (drums), Jesse Ed Davids (guitar), Klaus Voormann (bass) and I believe Leon Russell (piano) can also briefly be seen. Billy Preston cannot be spotted, but his roaring Hammond can clearly be heard!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

The Hardware: Fender Stratocaster

Perhaps no other model embodies the electric guitar more than the Fender Stratocaster

To me the Fender Stratocaster is the Porsche 911 of electric guitars. Similar to the iconic German sports car, the Strat was designed decades ago but its basic shape has remained unchanged.

The Stratocaster was developed by the founder of the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company (“Fender”) Leo Fender, guitarist and adviser Bill Carson and company associates George Fullerton and Freddie Tavares. It was Tavares who came up with the two-horned body shape, similar to the Precision Bass Fender had launched in 1951.

Stratocaster Headstock

Introduced in 1954, the Strat became Fender’s third defining model after the Telecaster and the Precision Bass. While Les Paul built the first solid-body guitar, it was Leo Fender who started mass-producing the first such guitar in 1948, the Fender Broadcaster. A few years later, it was renamed the Telecaster and introduced in 1951. The Telecaster gained quick popularity among country and early rock & roll guitarists.

It is quite amazing that to this day, more than 60 years later, the Telecaster, Precision Bass and Stratocaster continue to be manufactured. By the way, it was Fender’s head of sales Don Randall who came up with the name Stratocaster.

Stratocaster Comfort Contours

The Strat featured several innovations. It was the first electric guitar with three pickups; the Telecaster had two. The Strat’s rounded edges and deep body and forearm contours were another first. The so-called “Comfort Contour Body” was another contrast to the Telecaster with its squared-off body that dug into the player’s body and picking-hand forearm.

The new shape, which has been attributed to guitarist Rex Gallion, made the instrument more comfortable to play. Gallion reportedly once asked Leo Fender, “Why not get away from a body that is always digging into your ribs?” The new shape also looked pretty cool – there was simply no other guitar like it!

Stratocaster Tremolo System.JPG

Another key innovative feature of the Strat was its spring tension tremolo system. Leo Fender came up with the design after scraping the initial vibrato system due to poor performance. In the new design the whole bridge moved with the strings rather than having the strings move over rollers with the bridge remaining stationary. The spring tension tremolo system allowed the pitch to vary by at least three half steps.

The tremolo system turned out to be hugely impactful. For example, without this feature, Hank Marvin, lead guitarist of The Shadows, could not have created his signature sound on Apache and many of the band’s other songs. And more than a decade later, Jimi Hendrix’s epic performance of Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock would not have been possible without his guitar’s vibrato bar.

Stratocaster Close-Up

Despite all of its novel features, the Strat was not an overnight sensation. Many guitarists considered it gimmicky. The early rock & rollers largely relied of flat-top acoustic or big, hollow-body electric guitars by Gibson and Gretsch. Leo Fender and his staff continued tweaking the Stratocaster until 1957 when they finally had improved it to the form that largely has remained unchanged to this day.

The Strat is a versatile guitar that has been used in many music genres, including blues, country, soul, rock, punk, heavy metal and jazz. Following are some of the influential musicians who have played the Strat.

Buddy Holly was the first “Strat hero.” According to Fender’s official website, Holly purchased his first Strat in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas in 1955, with money he had borrowed from his brother Larry. He helped popularize the guitar with his 1957 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Peggy Sue also happens to be one of my favorite tunes from that era.

Hank Marvin reportedly was the first U.K. owner of a Strat. His initial preference for the guitar was based the wrong assumption that his favorite guitarist James Burton, who played with Ricky Nelson at the time, was using that model. “We loved the sound he and Buddy Holly had,” Marvin told Vintage Guitar Magazine in 2006. “We just assumed that James would be using the same, because it seemed to be the top model…That’s how I got my Strat. And it was a beautiful guitar, [Fiesta Red] with a birdseye maple neck and gold-plated hardware.”

Like Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix helped popularize the Strat, especially his favorite white-finish version, the guitar he used at Woodstock. Two years earlier, at Monterey Pop Festival, Hendrix also proved you can set a Stratocaster on fire – don’t try this at home!

Eric Clapton became a Strat enthusiast in 1967, after originally having played Gibson guitars. The guitar he used to record Layla was a second-hand 1956 sunburst-finish Strat he had purchased in London in May 1967, which he nicknamed “Brownie.” Clapton’s other main Fender guitar, “Blackie,” was assembled from three different Strats. He used it until the mid-80s. In 1988, Fender introduced the Eric Clapton Stratocaster, the first model in the company’s signature series. Here is Clapton with It’s Too Late, together with Derek & The Dominos.

Rory Gallagher was well known for his battered 1961 sunburst Stratocaster, which he described as “a part of my physical make-up.” Since 1997, Fender’s Custom Shop has built the Rory Gallagher Signature Stratocaster, an exact replica of the Irish blues rocker’s instrument. Here is a clip of a 1977 live performance of Tattoo’d Lady.

Mark Knopfler, another big Strat enthusiast, has been using this Fender model throughout his career. Together with his fingerstyle playing, he created his own signature sound. Sultans of Swing is one of the finest examples. In an interview with Guitar World last year, Knopfler commented on the role his Strat played for the song. “I thought it [the National Steel guitar he used to write the tune] was dull, but as soon as I bought my first Strat in 1977, the whole thing changed, though the lyrics remained the same. It just came alive as soon as I played it on that ’61 Strat.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan is another great guitarist who is closely associated with the Strat. In January 1992, Fender introduced the Stevie Ray Vaughan Stratocaster, a signature model based on his favorite guitar, “Number One.” Here is a clip of Pride And Joy, together with Double Trouble.

David Gilmour is considered to be one of the more influential Stratocaster players since the instrument’s invention, according to Wikipedia. He has played the Strat during his time with Pink Floyd and as a solo artist. Here is a clip of Comfortably Numb, which includes an epic Strat solo.

Buddy Guy has played a Strat throughout his career. There has been a Buddy Guy Signature Stratocaster since the early 1990s. Here’s a clip of one of my favorite Guy tunes, Whiskey, Beer & Wine. It rocks like a Hendrix reincarnation!

Bonnie Raitt has owned a Stratocaster since 1969 and told Guitar Player she hasn’t missed one concert with that guitar since then. She also owns various Bonnie Raitt signature Strats. Here is a clip of Gypsy In Me from her last album.

In 1965, poor health made Leo Fender sell the company to CBS. While Fender significantly grew over the next 20 years, there was a lack of commitment and true understanding of musicianship at CBS. In 1981, it brought in new management to “re-invent” Fender. Eventually, CBS sold the company in 1985 to a group of Fender employees and investors. That transaction started a turnaround of the company and may well be reason why it’s still alive today and hopefully will be around for many years to come.

Sources: Wikipedia; Jeff Owens: The History of the Fender Stratocaster: The 1950s, Fender website; Mental Floss; Guitar Player; Vintage Guitar Magazine; Guitar World; YouTube