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Boulder’s Electric Blues: Defined by the Les Paul/Marshall Combo

The Iconic Sunburst Gibson Les Paul: The Guitar that Defined and Defines Electric Blues

Electric Blues Rock and Electric Country Rock are largely defined by the tone of the iconic Gibson Les Paul played through a Marshall Stack of amplifier and speakers. From Leslie West of Mountain playing Mississippi Queen to Eric Clapton to the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones, the tone of the Gibson/Marshall combo defines an musical era and a musical genre. The tone makes the music and the music makes the tone. There is a reason that this synergistic combination is repeated and played by so many of our favorites. In addition to being the visual definition of “cool,” the combination produces a fat warm sound that is an integral part of electric blues.

 

The magical combo and the resulting magical sound does not require volume to present its elegance. The magic sound can be realized without needing to turn the volume up. Just as a Stradivarius violin sounds like a Stradivarius even when played softly, a Les Paul through a Marshall stack carries its sound with it even at low volume settings.  Also key! (pun intended) to the sound is playing with excellent vibrato.  That refers to the “quivering sound” produced by shaking the hand and fingers which are on the neck. Clapton is one of the finest examples of brilliant vibrato. The weight of the guitar facilitates the technique. The weight of the guitar and neck allows the player to use the various finger/hand techniques to produce the vibrato more easily. The left hand can be “shaken” while the guitar holds still. Modern electric blues guitar has at its foundation Sir Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion at its heart. “Momentum” is the magic word. Momentum provides the key to Aladdin’s cave of electric blues.

While blues can certainly be played in the zero-gravity of outer space, it is more challenging. As the finger is shaken on the string and neck, the neck does not “hold still” as it does on earth. So sadly, space does NOT rock! Playing on the moon however CAN rock! So I conclude that the moon is not made of green cheese. Instead it is made of Blues Cheese! Or perhaps of String Cheese!

The classic Marshall “stack” refers to a “head,” or amplifier, powered by vacuum tubes. These glass-envelope beauties take the tiny electric signal from the guitar and amplifies it many times. That amplified signal is then pumped into EIGHT twelve inch speakers in two cabinets. The resulting “stack” towers about six feet in the air. Each speaker cabinet weighs in at 40 pounds. Even that weight contributes to the sonically superb sound from the speaker-amp combo. The combination literally sings! Of course the Fender Stratocaster has earned its own place in guitar history. This is perhaps best exemplified by Jeff Beck. Clapton also played the Strat to great advantage. That combo presents a sound which is perhaps more musical, sweeter, without the grit of the  LP Les Paul.

Fender Stratocaster Through a Marshall Stack

Visually exciting and sonically without equal the music created on this combination has been an integral part of the soundtrack of our lives.

The combination of a Les Paul guitar played through a Marshall stack has become the sound in rock music (not to denigrate the roll and sound of the Fender Stratocaster played through a Marshall Stack), due to several key factors:

Growl and Crunch: The Les Paul’s dual humbucker pickups produce a thick, fat powerful tone with a pronounced midrange that gives it a characteristic growl. When plugged into a Marshall amplifier, known for its aggressive and punchy sound, the resulting crunch is unmistakable. This crunch is crucial for rock and blues, providing a gritty, raw edge that cuts through a mix.

Sustain: The solid mahogany body and set-neck construction of the Les Paul contribute to its impressive sustain. The Marshall amplifier, particularly when driven to high volumes, enhances this sustain with its tube-driven circuitry, allowing notes to ring out longer and with more fullness. The Marshall Magic is present even at low volumes! Mine was never turned above “3” on the volume control. While immortalized in Spinal Tap as going up to volume “11,” in fact the dial only goes to “10.” I found that “3” was LOUD for a living room guitar player. Even at that low setting, the crunch, growl and sustain were realized without sacrifice.

The basic building blocks of this amazing heart-warming tone consist of, in part, the weight of the guitar body, the tubes instead of “solid state,” or transistor, amplification and the total square inches of speaker cones. The speakers cabinets in the Stack consist of eight speakers, each 12 inches, 30 centimeters in diameter. That’s 900 square inches, or over six square feet of speaker pushing air, making music. That’s like a single speaker two feet by three feet in size with a massive magnet. The electric signal feeds the magnet which in turn moves the speaker cone. The  famous crunch and growl is in part the result of so much speaker surface area pushing that much air to make the sound. The tubes, technically, and unlike transistors, are physically incapable of producing non-harmonic distortion. The “overtones,” or distortion, is “in tune” with the fundamental note being played. That makes the harsh tones of transistors simply not a part of what the tubes produce and amplify. It is like having multi-part harmony with either everyone singing in tune, or with everyone singing in different keys and singing notes that are not even in those “wrong” scales. Random noise is replaced by perfect harmony. This in turn enhances sustain and enhances the “singing” effect of the amplified notes.

Speaker Surface Area: Marshall stacks typically feature multiple 12-inch speakers, often in a 4×12 cabinet configuration. This large speaker surface area moves a lot of air, producing a robust and resonant sound. The combination of eight speakers working together provides depth and fullness, which is essential for the massive sound associated with rock music.

Weight of the Guitar: The Les Paul is known for its solid, heavy construction. This weight adds to the guitar’s sustain and resonance, giving each note a rich, full-bodied character. The heft of the guitar also adds to its physical presence, making it a favorite for rock performers who want a substantial instrument. While not always easy or comfortable, the weight, as explained, is a vital component in the tone and a vital component in playing the best vibrato.

Famous Artists:
Eric Clapton: Before switching to Strats, Clapton was known for playing a Les Paul through a Marshall stack during his time with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. This setup was instrumental in creating the “Beano” album, which is a cornerstone of electric blues.
Duane Allman: As part of the Allman Brothers Band, Duane Allman’s use of a Les Paul through a Marshall stack helped define the sound of Southern rock and electric blues, with his slide guitar work being particularly notable.
Jimmy Page: Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page often used a Les Paul through a Marshall stack to achieve his legendary sound, characterized by powerful riffs and soaring solos.
Slash: The Guns N’ Roses guitarist is known for his Les Paul and Marshall combination, which delivers his signature sound with rich, harmonic-laden sustain and a crunchy bite.
Joe Perry: Aerosmith’s lead guitarist also famously uses this setup, contributing to the band’s classic rock sound with powerful, blues-infused rock tones.

The combination of the Les Paul guitar and the Marshall stack amplifier is celebrated for its ability to deliver a robust, crunchy, and sustaining tone that has become synonymous with rock music. This iconic pairing has been crucial in shaping the sound of electric blues and rock guitar, making it a go-to setup for many legendary guitarists.

Now go and play!

Lenny Lensworth Frieling

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