Gibson Custom Shop Inspired By Elliot Easton SG

In a world where guitars are being churned out by the millions, there are only a handful of truly iconic 6-strings. Somewhere near the top of that hallowed heap of lust-inducing axes is the Gibson SG. This devil-horned slab of mahogany is a tried-and-true tone machine that has proven its mettle in the hands of players as diverse as stomping schoolboy Angus Young, joyous gospel shouter Sister Rosetta Tharpe, treble connoisseur John Cippolina, and tone perv Frank Zappa.

“By the late ’60s, the guitar of choice for suburban rockers like me was the SG Standard or Special,” says former Cars and current New Cars guitarist Elliot Easton, whose signature and appointments adorn the Inspired By Elliot Easton Gibson SG from the Gibson Custom Shop ($7,047 retail/ $4,599 street). “It seemed like 70 percent of the guitarists in the Woodstock film played SGs, and we all wanted one. Plus, Jerry Garcia’s tone on Live/Dead was, if you’ll pardon the expression, to die for. I finally got a ’69 or ’70 SG Special around ’74, and I played it right up through the early days of the Cars. In 1980, I found a mint ’63 SG Special at Strings and Things in Memphis, and, two years later, I got a ’65 SG Standard with the ‘horseshoe’ Bigsby—just like the ones Mick Taylor, John Cippolina, Jerry Garcia, and Barry Melton had. But the inspiration behind my signature model was to basically design a two-pickup version
of an early ’60s, three-pickup SG/Les Paul Custom. Those guitars were possibly the sexiest solidbodies that Gibson or anyone else ever produced.”

I had the good fortune to gig extensively with an Inspired By Elliot Easton SG for many months, and having had a ton of trigger time with my Gibson SG Standard over the years, I was eager to compare and contrast the different appointments of this classic solidbody. First off, I can honestly say I’ve never been complimented so much on the looks of a guitar as when I played the Easton SG. Players and non-players alike were floored by its eye-popping Pelham blue finish (the guitar is also available in classic white), which is accentuated by the bounty of nickel hardware—most notably on the Gibson Deluxe Vibrola tailpiece that sports a wild engraving of a Greg Brady-approved “Tiki man,” rather than the ornate lyre found on the original guitars.

On the construction side of things, the Easton gets an A plus. And it should, as any slop on a guitar in this Daddy Warbucks price range would be unforgivable. The neck and headstock binding are top-notch, the wiring in the control cavity is clean (and, yes, the capacitors are the vintage-approved “tropical fish” type), and the frets are perfectly milled and sport a low, rather speedy profile. The frets are way bigger than what you would find on a “fretless wonder,” but nowhere near a jumbo fret. The solid mahogany neck—which has a nut width of 1 11/16"—is shaped after a ’63 ES-335. The pickups are Gibson ’57 Classic humbuckers—which sport alnico II magnets, and are designed to be faithful replicas of Gibson’s classic, late-’50s PAFs.

Having played a stop tailpiece/Tune-o-matic-equipped Standard for so long, the Easton’s Deluxe Vibrola system felt a little bizarre under my picking hand at first, due to its bouncy feel. The folded metal design of this slightly Rube Goldberg contraption (which replaced the truly Rube-approved, side-to-side vibrato that was discontinued around 1963) isn’t really up for any severe whammy action. It doesn’t stay in tune very well, and its range of motion is pretty limited. At best, I found it only occasionally useful for adding a subtle ripple to chords. But after a few weeks, I just took the damn bar off!

The Vibrola does, however, give the Easton SG a voice that is way different than a standard stop tailpiece. Acoustically, the Easton sounds open and floral—it’s not as grounded or as focused as my SG Standard. Through a 50-watt plexi Marshall or a Fender Deluxe Reverb, the Easton gives off the old-school Clapton/Cream stank big time, as it produces overtones that a fixed-bridge SG simply can’t deliver. Overall, I found the Easton’s sounds to be sumptuous. The ebony fretboard provides a lovely snap to the notes, and by zoning in on different combinations of the Volume and Tone controls, I was afforded a panorama of sound that went from supple and dark to biting and mean, and all with a beautifully formed treble and midrange response that makes you want to hang on every note. Also available in right-hand drive, the Easton SG is expensive, but it’s a wonderful, lovingly executed celebration of a classic solidbody that is loaded with immense sonic character, and a way-cool look to boot.

Elliot Easton on His Inspired SG

“I’ve always felt that more people play SG Standards simply because they don’t care for the crowded picking area on the three-pickup SG Customs,” says Easton. “When the single-cutaway, ‘black beauty’ Les Paul Custom first got humbuckers in 1957, it was a three-pickup guitar. Shortly after, it was offered as a two-pickup model, and, over the last 50 years, the two-pickup version of the “black beauty” has proven to be the more popular configuration by far. Yet, in 1961 when the original, single-cutaway Les Paul was discontinued, it was replaced by the
double-cutaway SG/Les Paul Standard, Junior, Special, and the gleaming white SG/Les Paul Custom, which went back to having three pickups. But, unlike the black beauty, it was never offered as a two-pickup model. This was an oversight that I’ve addressed with my signature model.”

Easton had other considerations when it came to his ”Inspired By” model, as well—namely, tone.

“I believe that SG tone doesn’t get any better than Eric Clapton’s sound on Cream’s Disraeli Gears,” he says, referring to Slowhand’s famous psychedelicized SG he used on much of the record. “And although Clapton removed the Vibrola’s cover to show off the artwork, the long trapeze tailpiece was left on the guitar. I happen to think that setup—as opposed to a stop tailpiece—yields a bit less sustain, but gives you clearer note separation, and a more distinctive sound. But, honestly, I never touch the actual vibrato bar. I don’t even breathe on it! It’s there strictly because I like the tone and string tension more than with a stop tailpiece. Players would often pull off the Vibrola, and install a stop tailpiece in the quest for endless sustain, but I feel sustain is an over-emphasized and overrated quality in a guitar.

“Also, I find that for playing in a five-piece band with keyboards and another guitarist, the SG’s bridge pickup has a razor-like sharpness that cuts through the mix without being overly glassy. One would assume that, because of its maple cap, the Les Paul would be the brighter guitar, but that’s not the case. An SG has a lot of high end, but not the spiky unpleasant kind. It’s sharp, but also very sweet. Listen to Clapton on “Strange Brew” for a great example of what I’m talking about.

“With the Cars’ music, I need a very versatile guitar to go from clean and jangly to screaming solos and thick power chords. And these days, I find the SG to be a more comfortable guitar to play standing up for two hours in concert as opposed to a Les Paul. I also love the access to the high frets, and how it inspires me to explore that upper range of the guitar. But, most importantly, I really wanted this guitar to have that groovy ’60s vibe that’s so near and dear to my heart. I’ve played a lot of guitars over the years, but SGs always brought me back to those golden days of the late ’60s guitar heroes—as well as the endless weekend jams in the playrooms and basements of whoever’s parents weren’t around to tell us to turn down. To this day, SGs make me feel good for so many reasons—some musical, some visceral. They just make me happy, and what better reason can there be for choosing a guitar?”