Some people have been surprised at the guitar I have been playing lately… a Dean Michael Shenker Retro V. Definitely a change in look, to say the least, but generally liked by most who have seen it. However, some people ask about the much more conservative Les Paul I played mainly for the last several years. Well, that’s a rather sad story.
For a long time, my main guitar has always been my white Epiphone Les Paul Custom I named “Isis.” She came to me as a gift from an old friend several years ago, and I named her after the Egyption goddess usually portrayed as wearing a white gown with brilliant gold trim and jewelry. It was a dream guitar for me… a white Les Paul Custom. I won’t get into the Gibson vs. Epiphone debate here, other than to say when you have a Gibson, you’re more or less going to leave it alone and play it as is. Isis underwent many modifications that one would probably not do to a $4,000 Gibson. Those mods made this Epiphone feel and play better to me than any Gibson I’ve picked up in years.
Fitted with custom Seymour Duncan pickups… a JB and a ’59 that MJ at S.D. made for me with white spools and gold pole pieces to accent the color scheme of the guitar, it sounded as good as any Gibson could as well. The mods didn’t end there. I got brave and scalloped the frets from the 12th up.
I got hooked on that feel playing around with a Ritchie Blackmore model Strat I found in a music store in Stockholm back in the late ’90’s. You don’t see those around much over here. I didn’t do a bad job of scalloping, either. I did it to a couple other old guitars, first… one being the Washburn Mercury I bought in that store. I went to work on it with some sandpaper I bought on the way back to where I was staying at my friend, Cam’s place. I later did it to a nice B.C. Rich Mockingbird I played for a while. So I was confident by the time I decided to do Isis.
I replaced all the pots with Seymour Duncan’s (made by Bourns, with the SD logo on them)… wired the tone controls to be coil taps, and Guitar Dr. Bob McCluskey sanded down the back of the neck for me, making it silky smooth. I had him do that after seeing what he did to a Les Paul belonging to the guitarist of local Vegas band, Kil Jaden.
I accented the gold even more with gold pickup rings and gold knobs with pearl tops I found on Ebay. I fell in love with the look of Steve Vai’s white and gold Jem (named “Flo”) with the pearloid pickguard, so I found one for the Les Paul. I ended up taking it off after a couple years when it started going yellow. About a year ago, I replaced the white and gold SD ’59 pickup with a covered SD Seth Lover neck pickup. I kept the gold ring around it, and I reversed it, a la Gary Moore, so the screws were toward the bridge.
That’s how Isis was as of the evening of December 14 last year, when I pulled a double… playing with Godmother of Soul at Vamp’d, and then running over to the Cheyenne Saloon to fill in with Tarah Grace and the Magnetics. In my haste at the Cheyenne, I was careless setting up my stand that was holding Isis and the V. It collapsed, sending the V face down on the stage, which did nothing but knock it out of tune and give it it’s first little knick between the fins. Isis didn’t fare as well. She turned and fell right down on the back of the 13-degree angled headstock… and most guitar players reading this far in are wincing right now because they know what that results in.
It was a clean break along the seams where the headstock is fitted into the neck. There is a chip missing that exposes the truss rod, and I couldn’t find it… but she seems to be repairable. It will take a while, though, with finances… so for now, Isis is retired, and the V is now my main guitar.
I have never really been known to play very many radically shaped guitars except for the B.C. Rich Mockingbird for a short while. I love the Mockingbird shape, but the high fret access wasn’t very good because of the narrow space between the bottom horn and the neck.
I always love how V’s looked… on other people. I had a bad experience the first time I tried playing a V, which was during my formidable years when I did a gig with no backup guitar. I can’t remember which band I was in (Vygyl?), but it was at the old Main Gate nightclub up on Craig Road near Nellis. This was back in the day when the Main Gate’s main competition was the legendary Moby Grape. I only got to play the Grape a couple times opposed to several at the Gate, but I spent a lot of time in both hanging around with bands like Little Sister, Scarlett Creed, Mayhem, and Dave Simms, among others. There were only a handful of prominent bands back then, including Fair Warning and Tarafire, neither of which I knew personally, but both ironically featured a legendary local singer I would eventually have the honor to play with for the last few years, Tarah Grace.
So the much less prominent band I was in long before that was part of a three-band-showcase. When I broke a string on my Carvin, someone handed me a V to play the rest of the set. It was beautiful, but was set up for more of a rhythm player. Thick strings and high action, and was very uncomfortable because I wore my guitars quite high back then, and the shape didn’t allow my arm to rest the way I was used to. It was a nightmare. So as a result, the V became a guitar I enjoyed watching OTHER people play, and wondered how they could.
Michael Schenker has been one of my favorite players since I first heard UFO and the Michael Schenker Group back in the ’80’s. He has played nothing but V’s since his early days in the Scorpions. His brother, Rudolph from the Scorps gave Michael his old V, and he never went back to his early Les Paul (there is an early Scorps video showing a very young Michael playing the LP). He began using his black and white “yin and yang” scheme in the early 80’s after he started MSG.
The first time I saw that black and white scheme, I loved it. As a young Kenpo student, the yin and yang was a powerful image in my life. The guitar, with it’s half black, half white sceme with contrasting pickguards on each side, was perfect (Dean now offers the guitar with an actual yin and yang in the middle of the guitar… awesome). But I just did not picture myself with a V, and at the time I was endorsing Carvin and had one of their V’s (shaped more like the Randy Rhoads Jackson). But for some reason, even that really nice Carvin still felt uncomfortable to me.
Working at Guitar Center last year, we got one of Michael’s signature Dean V’s in the store, and I decided to give it a fresh set of strings and a setup after it had been slimed by a few customers. With a wide, flat neck and very lightweight, it was incredibly comfortable, even with the shape. With my rather stubby fingers, it was easier for me to play than my Les Paul. I spent a lot of down time, which we had a lot of in that store… playing that V, and it was feeling better and better to me.
I decided to trade some old gear, including a goth Epi Les Paul I rarely played, and ordered one directly from Dean. It took a while to get, as they had a huge run on them with Michael on tour and were in production to catch up with demand.
I still feels a little different to me on stage at times, having played a Les Paul for so long, but I’m getting used to it. I grew to understand why a lot of V-style-guitar players, including Michael, tend to tuck the lower fin inside the right leg. It puts the guitar in prime position for soloing without needing any bend in the wrist, and allows it to hang a little lower while still being comfortable to play with demanding technique like sweeps and wide stretches. To me, it looks cool because it’s reminiscent of The Rifleman with Chuck Connors, who rapidly fired his rifle from his hip (my favorite intro of all time…)
As a kid, that was about the coolest thing I ever seen. I’ve wanted an old Winchester 30/30 ever since.
As for my new V, I had some concern over playing it in a less-heavy band than people are used to seeing me in… It certainly looks different, and it probably wouldn’t really go over for a country gig, but with the way it feels and plays for me, I’ll use it primarily whenever I can. I still have my black Strat and my Jay Turser SG (JT50) for certain situations and as backups, and the Turser plays awesome enough that it will probably share a lot of time with the Schenker, until I eventually get Isis fixed. Nothing will ever completely replace Isis… she will be back someday.