What is the Coolest Signature Guitar Of All Time(s)?
Before you dive in the comments section, I want you to also think about this: how much does an artist’s association with an instrument company matter to you?
It’s a trickier question than you might think. I realized the other day, for example, that I’ve always considered ESP/LTD guitars “boutique” because I can’t separate them from three of my favorite musicians ever, who I consider elite players: James Hetfield, Ben Weinman, and Page Hamilton. Those guys used ESP, I thought as a kid, so they must be fancy, cool guitars.
But the funny thing is – though I play and love ESPs – not only is the company decidedly not boutique, but the three musicians with whom I identified with their instruments didn’t even play the most “boutique” of ESP’s offerings! Further, for years, people thought James’s defiled “Eet Fuk” Explorer and Ben Weinman’s taped-together LTD were their signatures, but they were literally just playing standard-issue instruments from the company that got fucked up on the road.
When Trivium went full-Metallica for The Crusade and Matt Heafy started playing a white Dean guitar with a similar shape to James’s iconic “Eet Fuk” guitar, I remember thinking “dude totally bit his style.” Which is partly true – but then again, James was just playing an assembly-line instrument made by the company. His “signature” guitar with ESP that sort-of resembles his classic white Explorer didn’t come out until years after Matt Heafy had already switched back to playing Gibsons.
Of course, associating an artist with a particular kind of instrument is nothing new, but the rise of the branded guitar god in the 80s set a new precedent for marketing music gear specifically for youth audiences.
Ad sales and marketing people may have been aware that Jimi Hendrix played a white Stratocaster and Jimmy Page a sunburst Les Paul, but those musicians were around in the Ahmet Ertegun days of the music business, when record companies were still run by businessmen. This is a stark contrast to the scene today, where most people involved in the “business” end of music are actually musicians and artists; people actively involved in the culture.
You may be tired of hearing my bullshit about Frank Zappa, but he gave a great (hilarious) interview in the 80s about this shift (from cigar-chomping businessmen to hippies calling the shots):
My sense is that the rise of MTV played a tremendous role in instrument-artist association, and that those long-haired hippies Zappa was talking about became a branded “hire” in and of themselves. Having a “cool” virtuoso on your company’s roster of endorsees assured that kids would see your products in videos and onstage. It meant kids would “hear” what they sounded like on record. And ideally, it meant they would buy from you.
This Great Shakes commercial from 1966 featured Jimmy Page’s era of the Yardbirds!
There are examples throughout the 80s and onward of commercial associations with music culture – and when metal was at its commercial peak, there was money to be made by doing so. Even non-instrument companies dug in to the heavy metal craze, to the extent that commercials like this:
Were parodied only a few years later in great movies like this:
It’s trendy these days to hate on capitalism, but the hard truth is that “outsider” cultures like heavy metal have very much played a part in business processes, with the instruments themselves playing a leading role. And this is a good thing for keeping the culture alive. As much as Vitamin Water-sponsored punk culture makes me feel weird, companies like Scion AV, Rockstar/Monster Energy, Jagermeister, and every instrument company that endorses artists, put hard $ into an artform that doesn’t generate the $ like it used to. You might prefer gross basement non-conformist-underground music (if that’s actually even truly a thing anymore, since every band wants to be famous and get likes on Facebook), but for me, a healthy/vibrant scene requires both extremes.
MetalGF and I have harked on about this on MetalSucks: heavy metal hasn’t really been an “outsider” culture in the way we like to think it is for a long time, if it ever really was (i.e., even though commercialized instrument culture as described above didn’t apply to Black Sabbath in the 70’s, they played to bigger, more mainstream crowds than the most-commercially-endorsed underground band today ever will). I can hear you getting riled up even now: “forget the 70’s, while we’re at it, dad (Max), Heidi Klum’s Guitar Hero commercial was almost 10 freaking years ago!”
So in celebration of this, I pose to you, MetalSucks readers, What is the coolest signature guitar (or other instrument) of all time? I’ll throw my hat in the ring for this Ace Frehley Washburn guitar, which I had never heard of before I googled “coolest guitar of all time” and did some digging. Just check out that freaking paint job!