I wrote part I of this series after a delicious, spicy meal at a tiny, hidden Vietnamese restaurant. The place was located in an otherwise bland suburban strip mall in Canada. Rejuvenated by this meal, it dawned on me that universal truth and meaning as well as inspiration can be obtained through that which is authentic. This premise applies to music, books, film, food and many other things including instruments.
The idea was to follow it up with a post about guitars while announcing my first ever signature guitar, which was being worked on. I didn’t expect it to take more than a year. There are many reasons for the delay, which I’ll explain in a moment. But first, the good news: the guitar is finally available. Introducing the Heritage “Alex Skolnick” Signature guitar.
I’m not asking you to buy one. Of course, I’m happy if you do, but I’m writing about it because this guitar relates to the concept of ‘authenticity.’
Since the early 90’s, a guitar I was once photographed in an ad for, the Ibanez 540P has been incorrectly listed as the “Alex Skolnick model.” This also happens on occasion with the the Ibanez 540S, the razor thin red guitar which I was most associated with back then. You can still find these instruments listed this way on-line and in stores. These were great guitars for me at the time and I don’t mind the association, except that it’s misleading.
My first and only official signature model is the new Heritage. This guitar is modeled after the Les Paul. Like Les himself, it feels ‘classy,’ and isn’t susceptible to becoming ‘dated’ or stuck in one style or time period.
This guitar, unlike a lot of others out there, doesn’t come adorned in flames, skulls, camouflage or confederate flags. There are no strippers or Hooters waitresses moonlighting as models for it and no other gimmicks, bells or whistles attached. Who needs them when you have authenticity?
Playing it, there is a sense that it is indestructible. Other guitars don’t hold up well to the rigors of touring and travel or even seasonal changes. They warp, twist, tighten become too stiff or too loose and lose that quality that initially attracted you to them.
I’ve used this Heritage in recording sessions where it has a sound that stands up to the best vintage instruments. Even one of the most brilliant and stubborn producers I’ve worked with (who shall remain nameless) agreed. After ‘A/B’ing it with the vintage Black Beauty Les Paul Custom purchased from Carlos Santana in the 70’s, which he’d wanted me to play, this Heritage ended up being used for the session. It was a close call but we won.
I own a few vintage guitars and my favorite, if I had to pick one, is the first ‘archtop’ I ever bought, a blonde 1976 Gibson L5, which I purchased in 1997. It looks just like the one Wes Montgomery is holding on the cover of “Full House,” which was recorded live in my hometown of Berkeley, Ca. At four thousand dollars, it was the most I’ve ever spent on a guitar (it’s now worth twice that). But I made myself a promise that if I didn’t get my jazz guitar playing to a professional level once and for all, that I’d force myself to sell it. So far it feels like I’ve made good on my deal, which is a good thing because I could never sell it.
For the most part, guitars like this just aren’t made anymore, except by Heritage. In fact, it’s possible that this L5 was built in the same plant where Heritage operates, the former Gibson plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The full story can be found on the Heritage Guitars Wikipedia page
Heritage is a tiny company at odds with most major guitar companies in the US who, in an effort to expand their markets while cutting costs, have suffered a disturbing decline in craftsmanship. It used to be that you could pick up a brand new Gibson Les Paul, Fender Stratocaster or other institution like model of guitar and though they’d all feel a little different, they were guaranteed to be of great quality. Nowadays, its more common for these instruments to be of a lower standard than their own imitations of years past.
For example, I recently played an old Ibanez Les Paul knock off from the 70’s and it was better then the new Gibson Les Pauls I tried off the rack in Guitar Center. Besides the Gibson logo and body shape, I didn’t recognize any of the quality associated with the great Les Paul (the man and the guitar). They were priced much higher than Heritage guitars, which feel authentic and have the standards that used to be applied to Les Pauls, Strats and other classics. For these and other reasons, I’ve chosen to officially endorse Heritage Guitars.
Heritage is run by about a half dozen nice small town, midwest folks who build great guitars. They don’t spend money on large marketing dept or artist relations to compete with the big guitar companies within the realm of advertising and brand development as they rely upon word of mouth and boutique guitar stores selling these one at a time.
In this way, they don’t want to emulate the supposed music industry “savvy” of a lot of those other corporations. Interestingly, most Heritage artists are, like jazz legend Kenny Burrell, heroes of mine that don’t tour much and are well past retirement age but really know the difference when picking out recording and touring gear. I see myself as a link to these guys and today’s players so spreading the word about Heritage is a natural for me.
Heritage’s commitment to first rate craftsmanship is unyielding, something you have to tip your hat to. Maintaining this integrity while keeping the company running efficiently has not been easy. Since they put 99% of the energy into building handmade guitars they are at times a bit understaffed and overwhelmed when it comes to marketing and publicity. But from my perspective, I really appreciate the effort and the challenge I see for Heritage is a lot like the one I see for myself: to stay authentic while competing in an environment of lower standards.
As of right now, there has been minimal publicity about the instrument. The Heritage Guitars website has info on the signature guitar, but it takes a private detective to find it. However, Heritage is revamping itself with a new website which should take care of it. I can sympathize with them that it’s a constant struggle to want to focus most energy into building great gear and still make time for marketing meetings and web designer.
This guitar is, like many Heritage models, built “after” an order is placed. In this way, everything they make is custom shop hand-made quality. And the guitar is so great that it’s more than worth the wait just to own one. It does take a bit of time once you order it, in fact, I’ve been waiting months for my long awaited second instrument and really need it for the tour I’m on right now, playing for half a million people from now till January. But I suppose, like any rare jewel, these guitars are hard to come by, even for the guy whose name is embedded on the headstock.
You won’t find it in the catalogs of Guitar Center, Sam Ash and Musicians Friend.
There are specialized Heritage dealers who you can order it from, the largest being Wolfe Guitars .
Meanwhile, I’ve been offered full page ads, big pay checks, high profile clinics, tour sponsorship, life size displays and dozens of instruments by some of the biggest electric guitar companies out there. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this as a youth drooling over guitars in music magazines and catalogs. But I’ve turned them all down to go with a company that has survived a challenging economic and commercial climate and hung on to its bootstraps and as if by a high E string.
I’m sticking to my principles on this one and placing my bet on the underdog. I’ve been called crazy and realize that may be true. But whatever the outcome, the way I see it, authenticity always wins out in the end.