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6 Legendary Guitars/RIP Les Paul

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[It is with sadness that we report Les Paul's death today, at the age of 94. I had the pleasure of meeting Les a couple times when I was playing guitar with Pat Martino. Pat and Les were good friends, and the three of us had drinks once when Les had his standing gig at a small, now defunct jazz club across the street from Lincoln Center. That night, I asked Les if he really loved the guitar named after him, and he said dryly, "It pays the rent."In honor of Les, I thought we'd rerun this post, which, curiously, went up earlier this week. Goodbye Les, we'll all miss your music making...]

Each guitar on this list helped define either a genre, a sound, or in some cases, a career. Think of it as an introduction to some of the most popular guitars in the world. For the companion post on 5 Legendary Keyboards, click here.

1. Gibson Les Paul

Design: In the early "˜50s, Gibson president Ted McCarty approached jazz phenomenon Les Paul and asked if the guitarist would lend his name to a new guitar, then in design stages. Paul agreed, and also lent some minor advice along the lines of color schemes. In 1952, one of the world's most famous guitars of all-time was unveiled. Except for a period of time in the mid "˜60s, it's been in production ever since.

[caption id="attachment_31639" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Les Paul with his LesPaul"][/caption]

Look/Feel/Sound: The signature sound of the Les Paul is warm and full, with lots of sustain. In fact, the instrument's sustain is so well known, it was used as a joke in This Is Spinal Tap. Nigel Tufnel is showing mockumentarian Marty DiBergi his guitar collection and holds up a Les Paul Standard, showing off the sustain without actually playing a note. While there are many different models and styles, with slightly different pickup configurations and cut-aways, all Les Paul's, like all Gibson's in general, feature top-mounted strings, rather than through the guitar body, as seen in competitor Fender's designs.

Guitarists who helped make it a legend: Les Paul, of course, but just about every important guitarist over the last half century has recorded with one. The most famous devotee is probably Jimmy Page, who, when he wasn't playing his trusty double neck, was generally armed with one. Coupled with his Marshall stack amplifiers and sometimes a cello bow, Page was able to pull even more sustain out of the instrument.

Hear it in action:

2. Gibson Flying V

Design: Orville Gibson, a mandolin maker from Kalamazoo, MI, founded Gibson way back in the late 1800s. But the Gibson Flying V didn't hit the market until three quarters of a century later, in 1958, and was a flying flop that Ted McCarty, Gibson's then-president, immediately discontinued.

[caption id="attachment_31154" align="alignleft" width="299" caption="Albert King"]Albert King[/caption]

Look/Feel/Sound: In 1955, Gibson introduced its classic double-coil "humbucking" pickup, which was incorporated onto this odd, V-shaped guitar, clearly ahead of its time. Between the mahogany body and the double-coil pickup, the Flying V quickly became known for its powerful sound.

Guitarists who helped make it a legend: Bluesman Albert King got a hold of the Flying V in '58 and never let go. But it wasn't until Dave Davies started using one in the "˜60s that Gibson decided to reissue the guitar in 1967. Other famous guitarists who helped popularize the instrument include Hendrix, Billy Gibbons, Rudolph and Michael Schenker, Kirk Hammett, and Eddie Van Halen.

3. Fender Telecaster

Design: Another Leo Fender creation, the Telecaster hit the market in 1949 and has been going strong ever since. It is considered the very first solid-body guitar to make a significant impact on the music scene. It was also the first solid-body guitar mass-produced on an assembly line.

[caption id="attachment_31159" align="alignleft" width="211" caption="Keith Richards"]KEITHR[/caption]

Look/Feel/Sound: Like the Fender Strat, the Telecaster (aka Tele), is known for it's bright, rich tone. It has two single-coil pickups, as opposed to the Strat's traditional three. One of the most famous solos ever recorded with the Tele is Jimmy Page's "Stairway to Heaven" solo.

Guitarists who helped make it a legend: The Father of Chicago Blues, Muddy Waters, was an early signature user, as were many other blues players such as Roy Buchanan and Albert Collins, who was sometimes called "The Master of the Telecaster." The Clash's Joe Strummer was rarely seen without one, and it was a favorite of Andy Summers, as well as Keith Richards.

Hear it in action:

4. Fender Stratocaster

Design: Fender first put out the "Strat," the brilliant work of Leo Fender, George Fullerton and Freddie Tavares, in 1954.

Look/Feel/Sound: The Strat features a double-cutaway, sleek, contoured body, often referred to by Fender as a "Comfort Contour Body." Those three single-coil pickups in the middle of the body further define not only the look of the Strat, but the famous sound, which is clean, crisp, and twangy.

[caption id="attachment_31145" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Buddy Holly"]BuddyHolly_EdSullivan_OhBoy[/caption]

Guitarists who helped make it a legend: While it's hard to find a well-known guitarist who hasn't recorded or owned a Strat, there are definitely certain musicians who relied heavily on the guitar during their careers. Early on in the guitar's history, Buddy Holly helped turn the instrument into a familiar icon, using it almost exclusively in the late "˜50s, and most notably on his Ed Sullivan performance in 1958.

In the "˜60s, it was Jimi Hendrix who really helped push the guitar to legendary status. Because Hendrix was left-handed, yet generally used a right-handed Stratocaster flipped upside-down and strung left-handed, he got a bit of a different tone out of the instrument because the pickups were reversed. This gave a brighter punch to the lower strings, and warmer tone to the higher strings. Since his death, Fender has released many Hendrix "tribute" Strats, both left-handed versions, and right-handed versions, in attempt to try and recreate the Hendrix Stratocaster sound.

Hear it in action:

5. Gibson SG

Design: In 1961, Gibson added some horns to the cutaways of the Les Paul and slimmed down the body. The result was a really cool looking solid body (or SG) that Les Paul didn't like at all. So he made Gibson take his name off the instrument, and like that the SG was born. It's been in production in one form or another ever since.

[caption id="attachment_31166" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Angus Young"]Angus Young[/caption]

Look/Feel/Sound: Gibson advertised the SG as having the "fastest neck in the world", because the neck profile was slender. This, combined with the thinner body, means less sustain than the Les Paul, but the SG still packs quite a punch. It's like Gibson's answer to the Fender Strat, only with a slightly warmer tone.

Guitarists who helped make it a legend: Another long list here, including George Harrison, Tony Iommi, Elliot Easton, The Edge, Dave Grohl, and Frank Zappa. But perhaps the most famous is Angus Young, of AC/DC fame, who was rarely seen with anything but the SG. Gibson even produced an Angus Young Signature SG model.

6. Gibson Explorer

Design: For one brief year, between 1958 and 1959, Gibson put out one of the most unusual looking guitars to leave a major imprint on the scene, ever. Thing is, at first it was an exploratory flop, way ahead of its time. When other guitar manufacturers brought out Explorer knock-offs in the "˜70s, Gibson re-issued the once-futuristic looking guitar, and it became an instant favorite of heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden, and glam metal rockers like Mötley Crüe.

[caption id="attachment_31165" align="alignleft" width="248" caption="James Hetfield"]James Hetfield[/caption]

Look/Feel/Sound: Obviously the look is unique. The same can't really be said about this guitar's sound, which is rather average. Although, in the early "˜80s, when metal bands were using them nearly to a fault, Gibson introduced an Explorer with high-output, "Dirty Fingers" humbucker pickups. This made an already "˜loud' design, a really loud instrument. So loud, you would expect a Spinal Tap joke about how the guitar went to 14, four louder than 10.

Guitarists who helped make it a legend: Again, we're talking loud bands here, so James Hetfield, Eddie Van Halen, and Dave Murray, for sure. But some others have helped bring the Explorer to center stage, including: The Edge, and bands like ZZ Top and Cheap Trick.

[If you're wondering why songs weren't used as examples in this post, mental_floss is no longer able to offer excerpts from copyrighted music. We apologize.]

Check out past On Music posts here >>

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5 Legendary Keyboards (and the Songs They Made Famous)
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[This post was originally published on August 4th, 2008]

These days, there's no distinguishing one keyboard from the next because all they really do is act as computer trigger devices. But in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the early 90s, keyboards and their manufacturers were known for signature sounds. Here are five of my favorites:

1. The Mellotron

Though not nearly as famous as the others on this little list, the Mellotron is perhaps the coolest keyboard ever invented. Like our modern-day keyboard controllers that trigger computer samples, the Mellotron was really nothing more than a sample trigger-er, too. But because it was invented in the early 60s, the samples were actual tape loops! By depressing a key, a keyboardist was putting a tape of, say, a choir, or a violin section into motion on that particular pitch. So each of the 35 keys had its own, distinct, 8-second tape loop ready to play in the belly of the keyboard. Mellotrons never really caught on, though, because they were a) always breaking down, and b) the tapes, just like cassette tapes, lost their edge over time. Imagine playing an 8-second cassette tape over and over in a loop for hours on end. Think about how quickly scratches and hiss would take over.

But it was and still is one of the most musical of all early keyboards. Its sound is unmistakable, heard here on the two very famous excerpts below.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" by the Beatles. (The opening flute quartet is classic Mellotron at its best.)

"Nights in White Satin" by the Moody Blues. (Those lush strings aren't real! Well, technically they are, but as sampled and played back on the Mellotron.)

Be sure to check out "And You and I" by Yes, as well as "The Rain Song" by Led Zeppelin for more great Mellotron.

2. The Hammond Organ

HammondB3.jpgOriginally intended for churches, the Hammond line of organs, invented by Laurens Hammond in 1934 and manufactured by his Hammond Organ Company, became very popular in the 60s and 70s with rock and blues bands, especially the Hammond B3, pictured here. Whether you know the Hammond or not, you definitely know its legendary sound. Check out the examples I've picked here and revel in that "a-ha moment."

"Amsterdam," by Coldplay "“ One of my favorite songs by Coldplay. Listen how the Hammond coming in under the piano just opens the whole song up and takes it to another level.

Ah, yes: "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum. Can you imagine how different the song would feel if the chord progression and tune were plucked out on, say, a piano?

The Hammond completely defines this great Steve Winwood song, "Gimme Some Lovin":

3. The Minimoog

Minimoog.JPGA lot has been written about Bob Moog and his Moog Music empire. One cool fact, which often gets forgotten, is that the Minimoog is actually monophonic, which means it can only play one note at a time. You can't even play a simple C major chord on the Minimoog, let alone accompany yourself with the left hand plucking out a bass line on the lower part of the 44-key synth. It's also one of the first keyboards to feature the now ubiquitous modulation and pitch-bend wheels.

One of my favorite examples of the classic Minimoog is the following solo in Pink Floyd's song "Shine on You Crazy Diamond."

4. The Synclavier

synclavier.jpgAlong with the Fairlight synthesizer, the Synclavier, made by New England Digital in 1975, was one of the very first keyboards that allowed musicians to sample sounds and store them in on-board computers. In fact, if you're an old fart like me, you might remember Stevie Wonder showing off this very sampling ability on his Synclavier in an episode of The Cosby Show (the one where the kids get into a car accident with him).

One really amazing thing about the Synclavier, other than its ability to sample the human voice or anything within a microphone's range, was its amazingly high sticker price. Costing upwards of a quarter of a million dollars (much less than the price of my parent's 3-bedroom apartment in Center City Philadelphia purchased around the same time), some Synclaviers even fetched closer to half-a-million.

Other noteworthy facts about the Synclavier: It was created at Dartmouth College by the team of: Sydney Alonso, who developed the hardware designs, Cameron Jones, who developed the software, and Dartmouth faculty member and composer Jon Appleton, a musical advisor to the project.
Other than the Cosby episode, which I can't find on YouTube, if you'd like to hear the Synclavier in action, check out one of the most famous samples in music history below (the gong at the beginning of "Beat It," by Michael Jackson):

5. The Fender Rhodes

rhodes.jpgAll I have to say is: the theme song from Taxi, and you should instantly know the sound of the Fender Rhodes. Ubiquitous throughout the 70s and 80s in dozens of maudlin ballads (which we'll sample momentarily), the Rhodes is named for its inventor, Harold Rhodes, who was a piano teacher before joining the Army Air Corps during WWII. It was there that he was asked to provide musical therapy, bedside, for the wounded and wound up inventing a small keyboard using aluminum pipes from the wings of B-17 bombers.

The pipes created such a pleasing sound, and Rhodes' therapy sessions became so well-known, he received the Medal of Honor after the war. Soon he was manufacturing a larger version, and, over time, new, improved versions. Eventually, the Rhodes was bought out by Fender, which is why people forever call it the Fender Rhodes.

In addition to the below clips, the Rhodes can be heard up and down Chick Corea's Light as a Feather, Miles Davis' In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, as well as on most of Weather Report's albums and Herbie Hancock's, too. It was a jazz-fusion staple for a couple decades there.

"Just the Way You Are" by Billy Joel

"Angela (Theme from 'Taxi')" by Bob James

Ed note: The gorgeous Stevie Wonder keyboard pic (on the homepage) is by Al Satterwhite, via kalamu.

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Shazam, Shlemiel, Shlimazel
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I've used Shazam on and off over the years to I.D. songs I either forgot the names of or just never knew. But the real test of any music recognition software is whether or not it can tell me what's playing on a classical music station. This is where you really need the app to come through because, let's face it, it could be 30 minutes or more before the piece ends and the radio announcer comes back on to tell you. Sadly, every time I've tried, the app has come up empty. I've even tested it with well-known pieces, like Barber's Adagio for Strings. Instead of coming back with at least "The theme from Platoon," Shazam says the piece is "unrecognized." What would Samuel Barber say?

Deciphering classical music presents a lot of challenges. For starters, recordings are indistinguishable when you're talking about a 12-second sample size. For example, there are more than 200 recordings of Beethoven's 5th Symphony! Not quite like learning the beat of a B52s song, is it?

Tempi vary wildly from recording to recording and, as I understand it, it's the tempo/beat mapping that Shazam is really working off of. But technology will improve, rest assured. The Shazams of the future will surely be able to not only distinguish between Mozart's Requiem and Berlioz's Requiem, but the hundreds of recordings of each. Until then, well, I guess the beat goes on...

Have any funny or interesting experiences with music recognition software? Let us know in the comments below.

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