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Guitar Geekery

Hello Troubadourians! I love guitars. I love playing them. I love listening to them. I love looking at them. I love buying them. And I love talking about them. Totally geeking out over guitars is fun and entertaining. One of the highlights of my year is going to the NAMM show and hanging out with guitar geeks just like me. I have a close relationship with the guys from Collings guitars and I generally spend nearly half of my time at the show talking with them about guitars. Obviously, we talk a lot about Collings guitars—what we like about them, how they’ve evolved and changed over time, failed prototypes and successful ones, and, of course, future instruments and new designs. At this year’s show they had a guitar made from a type of wood called Primavera. Primavera is a variety of mahogany that has all of the tonal goodness that we’ve come to expect from mahogany but at one third of the weight. The starting platform was a Collings City Limits Deluxe, essentially their take on a Gibson Les Paul. There are two versions of City Limits in the Collings catalog. A City Limits has body binding on the top and fingerboard, and has body cuts—comfort cuts—on the back to fit the player and add some weight relief. Construction of the body is mahogany with a maple top. The neck is also mahogany with a rosewood fingerboard. Electronics are two humbucking pickups with individual volume and tone controls and a three-way toggle switch in the upper bout for pickup selection. The bridge is an ABR-1 style with a stop bar tailpiece. Pretty standard stuff. In fact, the appointments are very similar to a Les Paul Standard. By contrast, the City Limits Deluxe has double binding on the top and adds single binding on the headstock to the single binding on the fingerboard. The rest of the appointments remain the same. The prototype guitar varied significantly from those appointments. It was essentially based on an early ’50s Les Paul custom in its features and pickups. Gibson Les Paul guitars have a flat back, unbound on a Standard and double bound on a Custom. In stark contrast to a normal City Limits, the prototype had a flat back and double binding. Normally, this construction makes the guitar slightly heavier and was what I expected when I picked it up. Boy was I surprised…

As I stated earlier, the proto was based on an early ’50s Les Paul Custom. Introduced in 1952, Les Paul Standards have always had bodies constructed of mahogany with a maple top; custom models of the same era were constructed from solid mahogany. Prior to 1957, the pickups were P-90s in both the neck and bridge positions for Standards with individual volume and tone controls for each pickup and a three-way toggle for pickup selection. An awkwardly executed trapeze-style bridge tailpiece was used until 1954 when it was replaced by the separate bridge and stop tailpiece we know today. 1954 was significant also in that the Les Paul Custom was introduced that year. The Custom had fancier appointments such as double binding on the top, back, ebony fingerboard, and headstock. The ’54 custom had different pickups too. The P-90 in bridge position remained the same but the pickup in the neck position was replaced by a version of the P-90 that is commonly known as a “staple-top” pickup, so named for the exposed bar-type magnets that resembled staples protruding from the pickup cover. Most significantly, the Custom departed from the mahogany body/maple top construction of the Standard by utilizing a solid mahogany body. This would remain the recipe for the Custom until ’57 when the Standard and Custom were fitted with the new humbucking pickups, and the Custom would get the mahogany/maple body construction of the Standard. It was from the ’54 version of the Les Paul that the prototype City Limits Deluxe drew much of its inspiration for constriction and appointments. The proto, as stated above, had a double bound top and flat back, single binding on the ebony fingerboard, and a single bound headstock. It also had the ABR-1 bridge, stop-bar tailpiece, and the same P-90 and staple-to” pickup combination and control compliment of the ’54 LP. While not obvious just from its appearance, it also had a solid constructed body per the ’54 method. Here is where the surprise came in. The proto’s Primavera body was an exceptionally light and tuneful variant. Expecting the usual heft of a Les Paul Custom, I nearly hit myself in the face with the headstock when I took the guitar off the display wall. This thing was exceptionally light, almost like it was hollow or chambered. The Collings guys assured me that it was indeed fully solid and went on to explain to me the magic of Primavera. From first strum I could tell that this guitar was special beyond its feather-light weight. Just playing it acoustically I could tell that it had a unique tone. Rich and full but without the “bite” on the initial attack that is the hallmark of mahogany/maple construction. Instead, the attack was more rounded and seemed to blend into the bloom of the notes and chords with a smoother transition. The sustain was incredible. This perception was even more pronounced when I plugged it into an amplifier. The tonality was even better than it was acoustically and the notes were full and rounded, you could even call the tone “burnished.” Whether played clean or dirty, the guitar sustained for days and would gradually slide into sweet, controlled feedback when the amp was set for higher gain. I was smitten and decided right then that I had to have one. But with a twist…

The prototype City Limits Deluxe was finished completely in what appeared to be black, an obvious color choice for a LP Custom variant. But it actually was Oxblood, a very dark purple. The Les Paul that Jeff Beck used on Blow by Blow looked black but was actually Oxblood. This discovery inspired the appointments on my guitar. I chose the essential platform as described but substituted humbucking pickups à la Beck’s LP. To make it more classically Collings, I chose a “blacktop” finish where the top is black but the rest if the guitar is dark mahogany. First introduced as a finish option for their awesome mandolins, I’d been hoping to find a guitar that lent itself to that finish since I don’t play mandolin. This was it. Add my custom wide neck and V profile, an ebony fretboard, aged finish, and gold hardware and I’m fully “geeked out.” Fabulous.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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