Sunday, August 30, 2009
Don Mock's Stevens LJ Guitar
I am the very lucky recipient of the original Michael Stevens LJ model guitar, Serial Number 1. That’s right ONE! Can’t say if it’s the best one he ever built, cause I have not played any others. But if they are anywhere close to as good as this instrument is, the owners are also very lucky.
Here’s a quick story of how I landed the guitar and how it’s been my faithful main instrument for nearly 20 years. Although I played a lot of big acoustic jazz guitars over the years, I was basically a Les Paul guy. I bought one new in 1968 and have had one ever since. Was never much into Fender’s but did have a Strat type guitar built in the early eighties bowing to the pressure to have the “cool L.A. sound” of the time. I never really played it much live, only on recordings. In 1977 I moved from Seattle to L.A. at the invitation of Howard Roberts to help him start a music school in Hollywood. My many years at GIT, which became Musicians Institute in the mid eighties, gave me the opportunity to meet, teach and play with some of the world’s greatest players. One of them was Robben Ford. We became good friends playing at the school and doing promotional seminars around the country. I also produced his instructional videos and formed an acoustic guitar trio with Jamie Findlay, Robben and myself. We played a bit on the West Coast when ever we could hook up.
By the mid 1980’s I was spending half my time back in Seattle commuting to the school in L.A. every other week. It was at the 1989 N.A.M.M. show that I met and played my future favorite guitar. Robben was there promoting his Robben Ford Artist model for Fender. He was suppose to play several little concerts at the Fender booth. When I ran into him the first morning he grabbed me and said, “Don, can you play some tunes with me at the Fender booth?” He had not prepared anything and did not have anyone to play with. I told him I was happy to do it but did not bring a guitar with me. He said that there would be all kinds of guitars to choose from. That was not very reassuring to me cause I can hardly play a stock Strat cause the knobs are too close to the strings and I whack my hand on them. And I had never had any luck trying to play a Telecaster.
When we reached the Fender booth, there was a little stage set up with lots of amps and several guitar lined up on stands. I began to panic a bit as all I saw was Strats and Teles and feared I would fall on my face trying to play one and maybe even embarrass Robben too. Then I noticed an odd guitar sitting in the corner that looked kind of like a Les Paul with crooked pickups. So in my panic, as a crowd was forming to see us play, I grabbed this guitar and asked what the heck it was. Dan Smith, the Fender Vice President of Marketing, told me it was a prototype for a new Fender line. I strummed one chord on it and quickly told Robben in a relieved tone “This will work, let’s play.” After a tune or two to get our bearings, I kept thinking to myself, “what is the deal with this guitar?” I never like strange guitars when I first play them. Every one I have ever owned I have reworked and changed just about everything to make it play and sound the way I wanted. But here I was playing this strange guitar and loving it exactly the way it was. It had a wider than usual fingerboard which I like, and sounded great and it’s balance and feel were perfect. And because of it I played pretty damn good that day with Robben too! In fact we played several more performances over the weekend at the booth with Robben playing great as usual on his Artist guitar and I continued to play on the “odd guitar with the crooked pickups.” People kept coming up to me when walking around the show asking what that guitar was I was playing. I told them the very little I had been told about it, but it is the best thing I’ve ever just picked up and played.
Finally after one of our last concerts at the booth, Dan Smith introduced me to Michael Stevens. He told me Michael was a guitar designer/builder who was heading up Fender’s Custom Shop. They began to tell me the whole story of the guitar and that is was indeed a prototype for a new Fender line to be built in Japan. The guitar was build by Michael to be the first prototype. A few more were built by the Japanese to further serve as prototypes to test the new design. This particular guitar did not have the Fender logo on the head stock. Michael had put his own logo/name and two letters “LJ” which I did not know until recently what LJ stood for. (check out the story of LJ on the Stevens web site.) Then came the big shock. Dan Smith said, “So Don, how would you like to have this guitar?” I was pretty surprised and thrilled and of course said “Yes”!! They were looking for players to help promote the guitar and said if I would play it, I could have it. Michael and taken note of my style and technique while playing with Robben. He could tell I was a jazz player who picked pretty hard. He offered to take the guitar back to the Custom Shop and do a bit of work on it for me. He said to come and get it at the shop in a few weeks.
I went back to Seattle for a couple of weeks but couldn’t wait to get the guitar. When I returned to L.A. I headed straight to Corona to the Fender Custom Shop. When I arrived, Michael had the guitar all ready to go in a nice custom case. But to my surprise, the guitar looked a bit different. Michael, had given it a makeover with additional inlay on the fingerboard, different knobs and pickguard, giving it more of a jazz guitar look. It looked great! He had also done some work on the electronics adding a coil tap to the bridge pickup. I could not have thanked Michael, Dan and the folks and Fender enough for this amazing instrument. I told them I would do anything I could to help promote the new guitar line. They told me I would be hearing from them as they would need photos and might even send me out to do clinics to spread the word.
The following is a recent excerpt from an email from Michael Stevens regarding the guitar and this story:
“I was so rushed to get this guitar done for the NAMM show, that in order to have an unusual fingerboard I had put only the diagonal line of purfling on the board leaving the fret spaces where normally a marker would be blank. I was trying to have markers on the fancy model different than dots and I did some experiments. The Japanese curly LJ's had a combination dot and round end block . You said no problem I don’t look at the fingerboard much anyway. You had the guitar for some time ?? And called me to say you guessed you did look at the fingerboard more than you thought and kept hitting the wrong fret, could I fix it, just stick on some dots. Just putting a row of dots down the middle looked to me like a band-aid fix of a goof (which it was) but I did not want to admit it that way. Knowing this was going to a Jazz oriented player allowed me to think a bit fancier and move it into a design concept instead of an opps fix. I always called it the Lawrence Welk (Champaign bubbles) Also that is when I decided to make a pick guard more like an old L5. How is the stain holding up ? I had figured after a while you would pick through the lacquer and create a white spot. Also at your request I changed the neck pickup to a Seymour Duncan Jazz/ with a tap. You liked the clarity of the D'Marzzio but said you were used to that old alnico tone, but you raved about the bridge D'Marzzio as a distortion pickup because it did not color the effects you used.” -Michael Stevens 10/04
After I left the shop, I headed to MI for my two-week teaching stint. I walked into my Fusion Guitar Class with the new guitar to lots of whispers and inquisitive looks from the fifty or more students. By the end of the day everyone including the other teachers wanted to check out this beautiful guitar and hear the story about it.
Within a few weeks it was obvious that the LJ was becoming my main guitar. With a little tweaking of the action and experiments with string gauges I got it playing and sounding amazing. And once back home in Seattle, I was able to do some head to head comparisons with my other guitars, mainly my old trusty Les Paul. The LJ simply did everything better. Because of the slightly larger body, the LJ sustains and has a fatter tone than the Paul, especially the jazz tone on the neck pickup which I need much of the time. But I also needed the guitar to rock too and was really surprised at how well it sounded when cranked with distortion on the bridge pickup. And then I hit the push-pull pot to switch to the single coil sound and Wow! A huge fat yet Strat-like bright and smooth tone. And this setting also sounds very cool clean too.
It wasn’t long before the LJ got it’s first shot at recording and it was better than I expected. In fact every instructional book and video I’ve done from then on has featured the LJ. And most of the time, I recorded the guitar straight into my digital recorder direct. One guitar and one cable, that’s it. I recently wrote a book on octaves (Guitar Axis Masterclass Series - Octaves) demonstrating a lot of things in the style of Wes Montgomery. Strumming the octaves with my thumb ala Wes, I got a great sound with the LJ. Wes of course used his famous Gibson L-5 to get his warm and fat tone, but I came pretty close, pretty surprising for a solid-body guitar.
And at about the same time I was recording little “Quick Tip” Blues lessons for the Experience Music Project web site. The LJ came through great getting a gritty blues tone for the demonstrations. I simply plugged straight into my Deluxe, stuck a mic on it and cranked it. Killer tone. Wes one day and Clapton the next. Pretty damn versatile guitar.
I’m not completely sure of the reason why Fender decided not to follow through with the LJ guitar line. After about a year after I received the guitar, I did not hear from Fender again. Here I was with this beautiful guitar and no way to show my appreciation for it by doing PR. My guess is that the Japanese could not replicate the LJ prototype well enough for the costs Fender was hoping for. And Fender was not known for selling high-end expensive instruments. So the project was scrapped. A year later or so, Michael Stevens left Fender to continue his own custom guitar ambitions. I actually lost contact with Michael over the years, not realizing that he was continuing to build not only LJ models but basses and other guitar models back in his Texas shop. All at the highest level. And for years unfortunately, I have told hundreds of people asking about the guitar that I had one of the only ones and did not think they were available. Sorry Michael. A lot of players who checked out my guitar might have ordered one.
Guitar purists will probably think I committed “blasphemy” by adding a synth pickup to the LJ. But here is another aspect of the LJ that excels. I’ve always played a lot guitar synthesizer in my career. I use it live for chords and for doubling lines and melodies. I have had many different guitar synths over the years including a custom-built double neck with wired frets. But I found myself returning to the Roland system because of it’s simplicity and decent tracking. I’ve stuck Roland pickups on just about every guitar I have owned including acoustics but the LJ is by far the best guitar for a controller. Because of it’s solid and larger body, the LJ sustains forever which is a must for synth playing. The strings also respond very even which makes Roland’s tracking better than on any other guitar I’ve played. Almost every day I use the LJ midi’d up to my computer to write music notation and tablature for my books and for recording midi tracks.
And when I play live, I use the LJ through a a couple of Roland’s synths. The synths are sent to a mixer and to my powered P.A. speakers. I plug the guitar direct into a Fender Deluxe which the signal is then sent from the pre-amp out to the mixer. I can add stereo effects at the mixer. I can also bypass the amp to get a huge clean sound from the P.A., or combine the two. For guitar strings I have been using basically the same set for 30 years. 11-14-18-28-38-49 (D’Addario XL). I sometime put on a 11.5 if I’m playing or recording straight-ahead jazz to get a stronger high E string. Other than the synth pickup, I have not done a thing to the LJ. It still even has the original frets, which is surprising since I’ve played it day in and day out for 15 years. It is finally showing signs of fret wear, so I will probably ship the guitar back to Michael for a re-fret job.
Well, that’s the story. Thanks again to Michael for the beautiful guitar. If you are looking for a high quality instrument that is very versatile, check out an LJ. You won’t get serial number 1, but it will be your number one favorite guitar.