Cage Match: Vintage vs Modern Guitar Designs

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You know what kind of player you are. The one that grew up staring at the Led Zeppelin poster that had Jimmy Page playing that sunburst Les Paul. One day, you knew you would own a Les Paul, and every guitar you owned until then would just fill your time until you acquired the magical talisman taking you to the gates of Kashmir. For this kind of player, only a Les Paul would do, and it has to be sunburst. Of course, there are similar stories of guitar heroes with Teles, Strats, and striped mongrels, but all of these qualify for the label of ‘vintage design.’
Perhaps you are the kind of player that craves new sounds, with new shapes. You like bold guitars that make statements, just like Eddie did in ’78 (people thought his guitar was heresy then). In your mind, vintage-styled guitars make vintage-styled music, and you are too far ahead to look back. You need a guitar that was designed for a modern player from a fresh perspective.
This article is about the continuing battle between technology and tradition, vintage and modern, where electric guitars came from, and where they are going. You made your choice, now rock!

In my day…

This Jaguar features Seymour Duncan Antiquities.
This Jaguar features Seymour Duncan Antiquities.

Let’s face it: most guitar and gear companies make money off of the past. People buy things they are either already familiar with, or see a famous artist with. And along the way, there are some brilliant ideas, like the chunk of a Les Paul, or the magic of the neck and middle pickups of a Strat. Tube amps still sell well, and the vintage pedal market is booming. These designs work today as well as they did 60 years ago, and in the right creative hands, can still produce wonderful music. While Leo and Les didn’t get everything right at the time, they got a lot of it right, and despite a few hiccups, LPs, Strats, Teles and P-Basses can be ordered with essentially the same formulas that made our favorite guitar gods choose them in the first place. And who can blame them? LPs still look cool and many companies are still copying the Fender formula of parts bolted on a wood body. There are no better instruments out there for recreating the sounds of rock’s past than the instruments that actually helped create it. Sure, you can get really close to those sounds on a more modern guitar (and many people do), but the idea of playing older jazz, blues, country and rock on those iconic instruments is what drives a huge part of guitar sales of both used and new instruments. Strats and Teles are always available on the used market in a variety of colors and Fender always comes out with slight tweaks to the formula on their new instruments.

The Billy Morrison Les Paul features Seymour Duncan JB and '59 model pickups.
The Billy Morrison Les Paul features Seymour Duncan JB and ’59 model pickups.

I’m not just talking about the golden age of electric guitars (approx. 1952-1968) either. Guitars from the 70s and 80s might even qualify too, as there is certainly a growing market for the quirky and interesting models from Fender during those periods, not to mention the neon-colored proto-shredsticks produced in Asia in the mid 80s. As years go by, and more guitars are produced, sold, and sold again, and more guitars are considered ‘vintage’ even if they were groundbreaking in their day. Vintage is as much a description as a marketing term, and the classics that many of us grew up with are not going away anytime soon, as long a Fender designs remind us of sun, surf, and sand, and sunburst Les Pauls remind us of, well, Jimmy Page.
Back to the Future

Strandberg guitar featuring True Temperment frets and Seymour Duncan '59, built for virtuoso Allan Holdsworth.
Strandberg guitar featuring True Temperment frets and Seymour Duncan ’59, built for virtuoso Allan Holdsworth.

We can’t stop progress. Although some people restore and rebuild cars from the 1950s, those cars might be completely impractical to drive every day. At some point, people move forward, surrender to the future, and sometimes even say, “Wow, that’s cool!”. Guitars are sort of like that, and we are experiencing a bit of a renaissance in modern guitar design. The internet has allowed a sharing of information, and the created a connection between modern luthiers and their customers. Modern equipment has much higher tolerances, and chances are that some of the more modern guitars could not have been made 60 years ago. While the extended range guitar is not new, musicians today are creating new music on instruments that could only be made using today’s technology. Today, we get to choose from the ultra-modern Strandberg to the always inspired ESP Custom Shop creations. And while traditional tonewoods become more difficult to find every passing year, companies have even looked into carbon fiber and even 3D printing. No, none of these will sound exactly like your Tele, but I think that is the point. Players looking at these modern music makers are looking for new sounds, or a better mousetrap. Some advances are in weight-relief, and some are ergonomics and balance. Some designers of these instruments don’t have the ties to the classics that many players do, and approach the design from a different perspective. Don’t forget, they laughed at Leo Fender back in the 1950s too.

The Composite Electrics Blade was made of carbon fiber, and featured Seymour Duncan pickups.
The Composite Electrics Blade was made of carbon fiber, and featured Seymour Duncan pickups.

Don’t forget that modern guitars don’t always completely throw out the past. Many designs today are built on the same principles- Fender’s bolt-on neck, for example- but put it together in a new way. Washburn’s Parallaxe series combines traditional guitar tonewoods and neck construction with such modern features as extended cutaways and series/parallel switching. The Mayones Regius is an 8-string guitar, using Seymour Duncan 8-String Distortion pickups, and is made for music that your mother and grandmother couldn’t even dream about, unless those dreams included bats and demented clowns.

 But Don’t Worry!

The Washburn Parallaxe series combines vintage and modern designs.
The Washburn Parallaxe series combines vintage and modern designs.

Do you have a modern guitar but want it to sound more vintage? The Seymour Duncan Antiquity line is for you. These special pickups are made the way they used to be made. No really, they are made on the same winder that probably made Jimmy Page’s PAF pickups. The Antiquities even look like old pickups too, with all the wear you’d expect on a vintage pickup. Don’t worry though, the Antiquity line doesn’t stop at humbuckers, as they are made for Strats, Teles, Jazzmasters, Jaguars & basses too.

Have a vintage guitar but want it to sound more modern? A set of active Blackouts will act as a time machine, bring your guitar out of the age where TVs didn’t sit flat against a wall. Don’t forget to save your old electronics though, as restoring it might be the key to a bigger payday when you sell the guitar. Besides, you should keep the Blackouts for yourself.

Do you prefer vintage or modern guitar styles? Have you ever tried to replicate a famous guitar tone?

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