Signature Guitars: Which Camp Are You In?
When is a signature guitar not a signature guitar?
It must be great to be a working, successful musician. Imagine a situation where your latest record is being played everywhere. Fans are chasing you through the supermarket while you deliberate over which breakfast cereal to buy. Your stock could not be higher. Then, you receive a phone call.
“Hi, it’s Fender. We think you’re really cool and want to make a signature guitar to your exacting specifications. To put your name on it. To release it to the world. That ok?”
Signature guitars are nothing new. They offer fans a chance to get a close approximation of what it would be like to play the same equipment as their heroes. There are however, to my mind, two types of signature model. Let’s break it down.
The carbon copy
Carbon copy signatures take the guitars actually played by artists already and tries to recreate them. This is perhaps the most common type of signature model. An artist will tend to favour one or two guitars more than others. You’ll see them in all the press shots holding said guitar. If the band is relatively established, the guitar will already have its own place in the folklore.
These guitars pose a specific challenge to the manufacturer. Superfans will tend to know the most minute details of the instrument in question, from fretboard radius to string gauges. They’ll know, for example, exactly which pickups the artist uses. They’ll know if there are any significant dents or scratches on the guitar (and the stories behind them). And they’ll know if there have been any bodged DIY attempts carried out over the years.
The challenge for the manufacturer lies in how far they take it. How exacting they are when it comes to replicating dings and dints on the body. Often a compromise is reached between getting things accurate and keeping the cost affordable relative to its position on the market.
There are extreme examples, notably Fender’s famous (and very expensive) Dave Gilmour signature model. This article goes into great detail about the original guitar, to give you an idea of the task facing Fender’s design and build teams. This is what they came up with.
Why choose a carbon copy?
Typical users of the carbon copy are true fans of the artist in question. These are the players who will appreciate the way the lacquer on the neck feels different from a vanilla version. They’ll instantly recognise the tones. They’ll doubtless stand in front of the mirror and for a few fleeting seconds assume the relevant rock star poses. And there is, it must be said, absolutely nowt wrong with that.
As an example, Fender’s Flea signature ’61 Jazz Bass is a direct, mirror image of the guitar Flea used on two Red Hot Chilli Pepper albums, as well as countless live shows. The roadworn body is mirrored to match the original, while unique artwork created on the neck plate further enhances the instrument’s uniqueness.
For the Flea fan, this guitar is manna from heaven. Would it find use elsewhere? Perhaps, but the point here is clearly to allow lovers of Flea and his style the chance to get their hands on something close to what the man himself would use.
The artist’s whim
The other side of the coin strips out all the nostalgia and invites the artist to design a guitar from the ground up. As creative people anyway, you can see the appeal here. Over their (and your) playing career certain instruments will have stuck in the mind. Maybe you favour the sound of a certain tone wood. Maybe specific pickups get you in the right tonal ballpark.
The process of creating an artist guitar, as opposed a tribute, is that you’re starting with a blank canvas. A guitar is essentially wood connected together, with some hardware and a paint finish and after that, anything is fair game.
Why choose an artist’s whim?
The benefit of this is that the end user, i.e. you, gets to enjoy the culmination of an artist’s expertise. They’ve spent their lives playing, tweaking and perfecting different guitars, and the signature that bears their name is the result of this.
There are a few decent examples of this type of artist signature guitars. The Epiphone Brent Hinds Flying V takes a fairly standard Flying V, and adds in Brent’s unique Lace humbuckers, along with the gnarly looking silverburst finish. Elsewhere, the Epiphone Lee Malia Explorer adds the Bring Me The Horizon axeman’s unique visual stylings to an explorer body with superb results.
Signature guitars are not for everyone. There’s an understandable feeling among many players that questions why you’d want to play ‘someone else’s guitar’. There’s examples I can think of where an artists has created what is, on paper, a total beast of a guitar, but because I was never a fan of the band in question I wouldn’t consider buying it.
Maybe it’s time to put that feeling to one side. Respect the fact that these signature guitars are built with the blessing of an artist who has dedicated their life to perfecting the art of guitar playing. Maybe, just maybe, they know a thing or two and we could all benefit from listening.