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 for all you guitar buffs...

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Number of posts : 66
Location : bay area, California
Registration date : 2008-12-09

PostSubject: for all you guitar buffs...   Wed Feb 24, 2010 8:14 am

Here's an article I wrote (with lots of photos if you go to Gryphon's facebook page) about the replica of James Williamson's famed "Leopard Lady" Les Paul Custom that my friend and band mate Brian Michael is building for James.!/note.php?note_id=354156821070&id=1462264379&ref=mf

Gryphon Luthier Brian Michael builds guitar for rock 'n' roll hall of famer James Williamson!

Through a mind boggling series of events that all began here at Gryphon Stringed Instruments, I have been lucky enough to not only witness the musical rebirth of one of my all time favorite guitarists and songwriters, James Williamson, but I've also begun working as his guitar technician when Iggy Pop & The Stooges are on tour. Before the tragic and untimely death of Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton in early 2009 (shortly after which James decided to get back into his role of Stooges mark II guitarist), I wrote an article about his rekindled interest in music for The Fretboard Journal. When James returned to the stage for his first public gig in 35 years last September, he was backed by Careless Hearts, the band I share with Gryphon luthier Brian Michael and three other local musicians (that performance at San Jose's Blank Club is set to be released in late March by the UK label Easy Action Records). Brian Michael has also worked on a number of James’ instruments along the way, and he is in the process of completing a working replica of James’ 1969 Gibson Les Paul Custom, which James used on practically every recorded electric guitar note of career.

James Williamson played guitar on only two officially released albums (as well as one track on an album he produced and an uncountable number of unofficial and semi-official releases) during the incredibly brief “phase one” of his career. However, those two officially released albums (Iggy & The Stooges 1973 “Raw Power” and Iggy Pop & James Williamson’s 1975 “Kill City") are among the most influential rock n roll records of all time, and are considered by most to be the birth of punk rock. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was often quoted as saying “Raw Power” was his favorite record ever made. While never commercially successful in their day. the cult of the Stooges has risen, phoenix like, to the point where not only have the songs been used in countless movies, commercials and the like, but the band is now headlining stages worldwide.

Ironically, it was acoustic instruments that introduced James to Gryphon; he was shopping for a dreadnought when him and I met. In addition, James has an interest in playing Hawaiian slide guitar, slack key, ukulele, and acoustic blues all of which has aligned him into becoming a friend of Gryphon. When I asked James about his interest in acoustic music, it goes way back to those early days of brash rock n roll. Not only fandom for Bob Dylan, but also practicality; “In the place we were staying in London while recording Raw Power, we couldn’t make much noise. So I was writing those songs on my B-25.” The B-25 he mentions is a late ‘60’s small bodied Gibson B-25 which is currently on display Cleveland’s Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Museum (James and the Stooges were finally inducted to the hall of fame in 2010) James adds, “also, with an acoustic guitar one can hear the notes and chords more clearly.” A borrowed Martin D-28 was heard on the intro to Raw Power track “Gimme Danger”.

When James & I travelled to Sao Paulo, Brazil last November to perform his first gig with the reunited Stooges, it was nerve rattling to say the least carrying around the iconic Les Paul Custom through airports, cars and vans. Luckily, the guitar made it home safely, and an alternate idea was hatched in replacing this special sounding guitar. Enter the guitar building skills of Brian Michael.

During this time, Brian approached James with the idea of a Brian Michael built replica, to which James agreed.

“I had never built an actual Les Paul”, Brian stated. “Ever since I was a kid it was my dream guitar. I have gotten into building other sorts of guitars in my own design. I knew there was nothing impossible about it, so I jumped right in.”

When James’ guitar was built, Gibson was at the threshold of introducing changes that have not been popular with historical Les Paul fanatics, such as a three piece “sandwich” style body, reinforcement volute on the headstock and three piece top. James guitar was built in 1969, which was the final year for a one piece neck (a three piece neck was introduced in 1970). When it came time to begin the replica, at first a 3 piece top, and sandwich body was planned. However, when the wood was selected, it was decided to go in the direction of a late 50’s Les Paul- two piece top, one piece body and long neck tenon.

Along the way, James picked out the wood and approved the neck profile. “He basically wanted it to feel like his old one.” Brian said. “I had his actual guitar while I was carving the neck and top and used calipers to get it close.”

Using the original guitar as a template, Brian got to work hand carving the body and neck.

When asked what the biggest challenge was in building the guitar, Brian stated the binding proved to be the most time consuming, with its multiple layers that trace the top of the guitar. Other aspects proved to be a bit easier than expected. “I thought the top carve would be more difficult, but in working with Steve Saperstein I felt more comfortable with the idea of a carved top.” “everything went well, but the binding took a lot of concentration”.

As the original guitar is very unique sounding plugged in, great care was taken in deciding what pickups will go into the guitar. First off, James found some Gibson “T-tops” (named after the embossed “t” on the top of the plastic bobbin) on ebay, from the same year as his original. The DC resistance was very close to those in his original guitar. At the same time, Brian approached pickup guru Jason Lollar about working his magic in recreating the pickups. Brian adds, “We sent him James’ ‘69 Les Paul to reverse engineer the pickups, and they sound fabulous”. While the original guitar is a righteous, brash beast of an instrument, Brian found that the bridge pickup is very underwound; 7.25k. Vintage Les Paul pickups (and Gibson humbuckers in general) typically measure over 8K, and many modern makers uses pickups over 10K.

All of the work on the guitar with the exception of final assembly and setup has been performed by Brian, and at the time of this writing the lacquer finish is being sprayed by Addam Stark in Santa Cruz, CA.

For the artist's finishing touch, Brian explains the headstock logo chosen for the guitar: “since my last name is Michael, I didn’t want to put a Gibson logo on the headstock. I figured if I go through all the time and effort, I’d like my own name on the headstock if James was into it. I took my last name and put it into the Gibson logo font, and cut it in pearl”.

Brian closes by saying: “I’m looking forward to him strumming it! It has been a very fun project and I greatly respect James as a musician so that makes it even more rewarding.”

by Derek See

Read more about Brian Michael at
read more about Careless Hearts at
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Number of posts : 720
Location : Burke, VA
Registration date : 2007-02-26

PostSubject: Re: for all you guitar buffs...   Thu Feb 25, 2010 6:17 am

Thank you very much for the story. You lucky son of a bitch.
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Number of posts : 184
Location : Belfast
Registration date : 2007-09-11

PostSubject: Re: for all you guitar buffs...   Tue Mar 09, 2010 4:02 pm

Thanks for this Derek. Great pics on Brian's flickr.
what a lovely flame top!!
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Number of posts : 242
Registration date : 2007-12-06

PostSubject: Re: for all you guitar buffs...   Tue Mar 09, 2010 5:13 pm

Another cool thing is that the serial number is "stooges".
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Number of posts : 249
Age : 35
Location : macon, GA
Registration date : 2009-08-06

PostSubject: Re: for all you guitar buffs...   Wed Mar 10, 2010 4:51 am

Absolutely GORGEOUS!
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Number of posts : 184
Location : Belfast
Registration date : 2007-09-11

PostSubject: Re: for all you guitar buffs...   Wed Mar 10, 2010 4:06 pm

popmansam wrote:
Another cool thing is that the serial number is "stooges".

Yeah , I liked the 'straight james' on the truss rod cover.
nice touch
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