It’s always entertaining when American bands embark on world tours. Take for instance Use Your Illusion era Guns N’ Roses. They played the Tokyo Dome three nights in ’92, each to a sold-out crowd of 55,000 (their largest audience since Wembley). Compare that to the measly 16,000 when they played near my home town back in the states. Why does Japan rock so hard?
Now, I have never been to Japan. Nor do I know what the kids over there are into these days (obviously not anime). But I do get the sense that, in general, the people there are hungry for music. Good music. To be honest, I don’t think people from outside the United States are interested in our lyrics or image as much as the actual music. The average person from Japan isn’t going to identify with the “message” of the blues, or grunge, or post-grunge, or post-punk, etc. They might not get every one of Axl’s movie quotes, but damn the riff to Mr. Brownstone is tasty, and that’s what matters. I mean, why else did you think Spinal Tap’s popularly in Japan was so much higher than in the states?
I’m excited that Aerosmith is once again touring Japan. Say what you will, but Tokyo ’02 and Yokohama ’04 were god-tier gigs. A friend of mine just happened to have the former on DVD. Queue 2 hours of disregarding everything and watching Joe Perry switch guitars every ten minutes. The dude has got over 600 guitars! One for every moment, song, feeling, or situation. Whether it is the Telecaster for “What It Takes”, Electric Spanish for “Dream On”, Stratocaster for “Sweet Emotion”, or Les Paul for “Love In An Elevator.”
This eventually got me thinking. The solid body electric guitar has existed for the better half of century. With a long and rich history, the electric guitar has become an integral part of popular culture. It’d be interesting to look at some of the most popular guitars and see just what were those feelings and memories they carried with them.
The Telecaster was the first electric guitar to become widely used. Unlike the Electro Spanish guitars that preceded it, the Telecaster was not semi-acoustic, but rather a full solid body. Designed by Leo Fender in 1949, the Tele put solid bodies on the map and jump-started the Fender line of guitars.
Many of rock’s pioneers have used the Telecaster to achieve greatness. The Beatles’ George Harrison used his signature rosewood Tele during their famous Rooftop Concert. Keith Richards used his signature Tele nicknamed “Micawbre” while with The Rolling Stones. “Slow Hand” Eric Clapton used a Tele as his primary instrument while touring with The Yardbirds. Fellow Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck gave Jimmy Page what later became the “Dragoncaster.” Page would use it to record the solo to Stairway to Heaven during the Zeppelin years. The success of the Telecaster would eventually pave the way for its spiritual successor, the massively popular Fender Stratocaster.
With the advent of the Stratocaster, the enshrinement of the solid body electric guitar into music history was ensured. Strat players exhibited an aura of style like no other. Whether it was David Gilmour’s slow and bluesy solos, Eddie Van Halen’s wicked shredding on his Fat Strat “Frankenstein”, Hank Marvin and the Shadows doing the steps, or the heavy psychedelic riffs from the legendary Jimi Hendrix, the Strat had it all. Pete Townshend puts it best:
“If you didn’t see Jimi Hendrix perform, you’ve just missed it, sorry but you’ve missed it, I missed Charlie Parker so fuck off, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Believe it or not, all this is not completely separate from the world of anime. The Fender Stratocaster, along with the Les Paul and Flying V, make up the three popular electric guitars that are most frequently depicted by artists, cartoonists, and animators. It stands to reason that the most widely used guitars are the most often depicted in cartoons and the like. But I believe there’s more to it than that. As with a lot of subtleties that help with characterization, guitars are often times overlooked. Just like how you can tell a man by the car he drives or the clothes he wears, so can you by the guitar he plays.
This brings us to arguably the most endearing guitar in the history of solid body electrics. The Gibson Les Paul. Designed by jazz guitarist Les Paul, the Gibson Les Paul hit the market in full stride following rival company Fender’s success. The Les Paul featured a single cut-away body and was heavier than the Stratocaster. More importantly, the classic Paul featured two humbucking pickups, resulting in a deeper sound compared to the Stratocaster’s three single coils.
The original Gibson Les Paul sold for roughly $300 back in 1959. Nowadays, a vintage ’59 Les Paul can go for upwards of 5 figures. No longer is it simply a guitar that rocks hard, it has become an icon of rock history. Jimmy Page used a ’59 Paul as his primary instrument when recording with Led Zeppelin while Slash made full use of the Paul’s amazing sustain to create the legato sound indicative of classic Guns N’ Roses.
I always had this feeling. If Strats are the defining symbol of style, Les Pauls are the defining symbol of passion and experience. Its popularity has earned it a spot next to the Strat as one of the three guitars most frequently depicted in cartoons and anime. In the anime BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad, Ryusuke plays Prudence (Lucille in the original Japanese), a Les Paul with four bullet holes in its body. In fact, a major plot point of the show is the origin of Ryusuke’s mysterious guitar. It is hinted that Prudence gets its heavy sound since it carries the weight of the Blues in spirit. BECK is a personal favorite of mine and I quite enjoyed the Engrish rendition of “I’ve Got a Feeling,” which is more than I can say for K-ON!! I for one hope never again to hear the words “light music” and “Les Paul” in the same sentence. Those Marshall amps were never put to good use in that god forsaken tea club.
The Gibson Flying V is arguably the most recognizable of Gibson’s “modernist” line, which included the Explorer and Moderne. These used to be the hipster guitars of the late 50s. Their bodies were designed to look futuristic and they represented a more progressive style of music. Though the latter two did not reach the iconic levels of their Fender and Gibson forefathers, the V remains a popular symbol in our culture.
Many famous guitarists have been sighted using Vs occasionally, including Joe Perry, Zakk Wylde, Paul Stanley, and Eddie Van Halen. However, only some are edgy enough to use it as their primary axe. Perhaps the edgiest of them all is U2 guitarist The Edge. He’s so edgy he doesn’t even play a V, he actually plays an Explorer. One of the Explorer’s most well-known proprietors, The Edge used the guitar for much of the 80s to develop his signature “sound from outer space.”
In comics and animation, the V is the last of the “three.” Generally speaking, if it’s not a Strat or a Paul, it’s probably a V. Several V players stand out in the anime world. In FLCL, Haruko reaches inside Naota’s head to “retrieve” a Flying V from another dimension. Though he never actually “plays” the guitar, the V remains with Naota until the end of the show where he fuses it with Atomsk’s Gibson EB-0 to form a custom double neck. In contrast, Haruko’s axe is not a guitar but a Rickenbacker 4001 Bass. And as we all know, there’s nothing more manly than an eleven-volume humbucking 4-string bass (that can double as a shotgun to boot). In any case, much of FLCL deals with how the main character reaches maturity in his own way. This is hinted at towards the end when Naota loses his V, but gains the Rickenbacker which Haruko leaves behind.
The Legend of Black Heaven also features a V player whose heavy riffs are capable of powering a gigantic space weapon. More Vs, more aliens. Interestingly enough, Black Heaven is sometimes subtitled Hard Rock Save The Space. During its opening sequence we see what appears to be John Sykes shredding on a white Gibson Flying V. In many ways, Sykes is meant to parallel the fictional character Oji Tanaka (or at least, his Gabriel persona). Unlike Naota, Oji is a middle-aged salaryman who used to lead a heavy metal band. The show begins long after the band broke apart, yet Oji is not able to fully accept his new life as portrayed by his unwillingness to throw away his old V. In one of the funniest endings ever, Oji ends up conquering his “past” which takes the form of evil techno. As the D once said, “Techno tried to defile the metal, but techno was proven wrong.”
Last but not least is the Gibson SG. Having debuted in 1961, the SG is the youngest of all those mentioned so far. As the story goes, the SG was originally meant to be part of the Gibson Les Paul line of guitars, but Les Paul himself disliked the shape of the body and requested his name not be associated with it. It was renamed the Gibson SG Solid Body Electric Guitar and has remained that way ever since. The mahogany SG standard has since built up a following that rivals that of even the Les Paul sunburst. In a way, it almost feels as if the SG is the outcast of the Gibson family. As such, a variety of metal and punk acts from the 70s and 80s have used SGs as a channel for their emotions.
History has seen many guitar legends wield the two-horned devil. Though primarily a Les Paul player, Jimmy Page first popularized the double neck by using the Gibson EDS-1275 during live performances of Stairway to Heaven.
Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi was one of the first pioneers of heavy metal. Iommi first started using the SG after his Fender broke during the recording of Sabbath’s first album. His main instrument throughout Ozzy-era was “Monkey”, a 1965 Gibson SG with red finish. Iommi played a custom Jaydee SG fitted with silver cross inlays for the recording of Heaven and Hell and the subsequent Dio-era.
AC/DC lead guitarist Angus Young wouldn’t be caught dead without an SG, having played a variety of Gibson and Jaydee SGs throughout his career. His signature model features lightning bolt inlays.
SGs aren’t as prominent in popular fiction as those that are part of the “three.” However, there are a few examples of SG players in Japanese anime. In Detroit Metal City, death metal front-man Krauser II plays what appears to be an SG. Also, the various punk rock acts found in NANA are seen with a variety of guitars, the SG included.
The guitars mentioned here are only a fraction of the different types that exist today. While I’m no Nigel Tufnel when it comes to guitars, I do appreciate the little intricacies that separate one from the next. This is true in the real world, but also in the world of cartoons and anime. You gotta love it when artists and animators pay close attention to drawing a certain guitar. Even if it is of little relevance to the actual show, those minute details can go a long way in offering another dimension to a character. The next time you see a maid with a guitar, look closely to see if it’s strung upside down with a white body, reverse head-stock, and maple neck. You just never know who might be channeling Hendrix.