Gibson HD.6X-Pro

It’s no secret that Gibson’s HD.6X-Pro—also known as the Digital Les Paul (DLP for short)—had a long birthing. While its signature feature of being able to send each string to a separate output is not a new idea, integrating the guitar with a digital network designed to carry those signals—as well as making a divided pickup that actually sounds good without further processing—brings something new to the party.

First off, this is a Les Paul. It looks, plays, feels, and sounds like one. It also has standard electronics (two magnetic pickups, dual Volume and Tone controls) and a mono output (Classic Mode), so you can ignore the added capabilities, and use the DLP as a standard guitar. This is a crucial feature, as the big question mark with an “electronic” guitar is what happens if the batteries die, or if someone rolls a half-stack over a proprietary cable? With the DLP, you just plug into the mono out and keep playing.

But there’s also an RJ-45 connector, the same “telephone connector on steroids” used for Ethernet. This is the central nervous system of a network whose data travels on a standard CAT-5 or CAT-6 Ethernet cable you can pick up at any electronics store. This network carries the guitar’s individual string outputs, the Classic Mode (mono) output, and the output from a 1/8" mic jack mounted on the guitar’s jackplate; and it also receives a stereo signal to the guitar that terminates in another 1/8" jack. If you’re using a headset mic and in-ear monitors, you’re golden—they can plug right into the guitar.

The other end of the CAT-5 cable connects to a breakout box, powered by a +48-volt adapter that offers plenty of headroom. The box has six output jacks—one for each string—as well as two jacks that do double duty. One outputs a mix of strings 1-3 or the Classic Mode, and the other outputs a mix of strings 4-6 or the signal from the mic. Note that you can’t use the string groups and the individual outs at the same time.

Those are the basics, but you don’t uncover the DLP’s true power until you exploit those individual outs. In fact, the DLP has become the centerpiece of the band EV2, consisting of yours truly and Brian Hardgroove from Public Enemy. It’s just the two of us, and the reason we can get away with it is the DLP.

There are lots of ways to use the DLP, but in our setup, I send the six individual outs to an audio interface hooked up to a laptop. Each output is routed to a channel within Sonar Producer Edition (this recording software is bundled with the DLP). Each of the bottom three strings goes through IK Multimedia AmpliTube 2 plug-ins that provide octave-divider effects. All six strings go to an aux bus, which feeds a chorus and a compressor. Because I play with my fingers and a thumbpick, I can articulate bass lines and play rhythm parts. With just these elements, the sound is pretty big. It’s like the bass sound from NIN with Andy Summers on rhythm guitar. The final touch is running the Classic Mode output through a DigiTech GNX3000. Add these lead/delay/distortion sounds to the bass and rhythm sounds, and, as Hardgroove says, “It’s one guitarist who sounds like ten.”

Of course, taming the DLP wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I first tried using the two string groups, but a single octave divider couldn’t track the bottom three strings properly. Then, I tried individual stompboxes for the three strings, but that was way too much gear and wires. I also didn’t want to use a computer onstage as part of a hard-rock act, but I realized I’d never be able to take full advantage of the DLP without getting a laptop involved. I put together a pedalboard for the computer based around the Furman SPB-8C, but the DLP network is inherently clunky for use with a computer. You’d think you could just plug the CAT5 cable into an Ethernet port, but I had to hook up an audio interface (the E-Mu 1616m) with six inputs, and then cut six custom cables (using the Planet Waves Cable Station) to connect the breakout box’s audio outputs to the computer interface’s audio inputs. It’s somewhat circuitous, but I hear rumors that Gibson is working on a USB interface, which would be welcome.

Finally, there was the issue of optimizing the computer for live use—which is not trivial. And what about amps? I usually run a direct out from my processors into the venue’s mixer, but Hardgroove felt the DLP needed the power of a full-blown guitar- and bass-amp setup. As luck would have it, during one rehearsal I plugged into the Bose L1 Personal Amplification System, and I was shocked when I turned the volume up. The system became a monster amp with totally controllable feedback. One channel carries the clean bass and rhythm sounds, while the other carries the output from the GNX3000’s amp sounds. And I don’t have to mic the L1, either—it has direct outs that can feed the venue’s main mixer, and those outs include the sound of the feedback. Laugh all you want—you won’t if you hear it.

I’ve been using the DLP live for several months—including a major festival gig at the 2007 Santa Fe Muzik Fest—and it provides a level of power I’ve never experienced before with guitar. Period. Turning it on isn’t like turning on an amp, it’s like winding up the engines on a 747. Several guitarists have commented that it’s the biggest guitar sound they’ve ever heard, but there’s another important element: Because the guitar provides a full band sound, Hardgroove and I can improvise like crazy, and turn the music around on a dime. I don’t have to worry about a bassist or keyboardist following along. The freedom I feel from using the DLP isn’t just about the sound, but about the music. This is music we couldn’t make in any other way.

At $4,999 retail ($3,999 street), the DLP is pricey, and, yes, it takes work to tame the beast. But it has changed my musical life. This is an amazing instrument with huge potential. Hmmm. Surround sound? Maybe next year!