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Shopping With Greg Lake

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"Extension Chords" - 1978


Allen Hester


Greg shops

Caption: Greg Lake tries a white double cutaway Les Paul on for size.

Greg shops

Shopping With Greg Lake - Creem, 1978

At Strings N Things in Memphis, it's not uncommon for a rock star or two to stop in before their concert appearance to say hello and browse around a bit for guitars. Since we built our first custom-designed Les Paul Personal in '72 for Jeff Beck, many people have contacted us in search of their dream guitar. As a result, visiting performers have become friends and regular customers.

One of our most recent visitors, Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake and Palmer was not a total surprise as the film crew that preceded him gave us ample notice of this visit. They were in the process of making a documentary of ELP's tour for the BBC, and their specific purpose at Strings and Things was to capture Greg on film, in one of his favorite pastimes - guitar hunting.

It seems he wanted us to help him find a guitar - specifically, one that had a wide neck - fitting to his finger picking style. "I want a wide, flat-necked guitar that's evenly balanced," he said. "One that isn't all bass - one that has clear highs." (And to a finger-picker like Lake, that's important.) The Moss-man Golden Era (S.L. Mossman & Co., Winfield KS 67156) brought a twinkle to Lake's eye. "Beautiful..." he sighed. "This one has a tone like the older Martins I've played."

Although he came in search of Vintage Acoustic guitars, Lake got into the new white double cutaway Les Paul (one we had customized), with its tortoise shell-bound neck and top. What's unique about this instrument is that the pickups and pull pots are split into single coil pickups which replace having to use a switch. Lake liked this idea because the guitar retains its original appearance by not having a lot of switches cluttering up the design. He asked if we'd bring the guitar to the soundcheck at the Coliseum the following afternoon.

A point of interest for us, that we were to learn later, is that the famous trio act fairly independently of each other. There is a limo for Greg, a limo for Keith and one for Carl. No problems, but they have found, for some business reason, that this is the best method. The division extends itself to road managers and their feelings about instruments. Greg tends to lean heavily on his road manager to act as an adviser [sic] on the instruments he plays and what's new in products that he should know about to keep the ELP sound at a constant peak.

During the soundcheck, Lake played a wide variety of guitars, including the Guild G-41 Jumbo (new); an Epiphone Texan; a Gibson J-45; a Gibson L-4 Archtop (circa 1911); a Martin Archtop (1918) and a pre-war Martin D-28 Herringbone (extremely hard to find with a stiff pricetag to boot). The new Martin 000-28 caught his fancy, and he gave it a try. "Martin still makes a fine guitar," he announced. "Even the new ones sound rich."

He remarked on the balance of the instrument with its consistent volume across its entire frequency range. Lake's style is suited to the Martin. He plays a sort of arpeggio finger style, using drone strings a lot, and muting his melody strings with his left palm. Greg's playing conjures up images of a medieval lute player. It was a refreshing sound to us since most of what we hear around Memphis has strong blues roots and a far cry from Lake's strumming.

After tinkering with the Guild B-50 Acoustic Bass, Lake was full of questions. He liked the unique sound, already picturing it in his studio. One of the highlights of Lake's visit was the expression on his face when the glass showcase was unlocked and the doors pulled open for the old Martin 00-42.

Designed in 1899, this rare classic has solid ivory friction tuning pegs, an abalone inlay around the top and soundhole, ivory bridge pins, and an ebony bridge and snowflake inlay. This relic was not for sale - at any price - even though Lake made it clear that if and when it was... Then he picked up the Mossman Golden Era again, remarking about the twangy bronze strings that give the guitar that particular bright metallic sound. "Oh yes," Lake responded in his best Southern drawl, "the twang is the thang, isn't it?"

Throughout the sound check we couldn't help but be amazed at the compact and efficient manner in which the entire sound system and stage were set up. Everything perfect to the last detail. Standing on stage in Lake's position, one is actually standing on an iron grid, beneath which are a semicircle of monitors completely hidden from view. Lake's various effects are all controlled by a series of "cry-baby" wah wah pedal chassis which do various things, such as fuzz, phasing, echo, etc. His onstage instruments included a Travis Bean Artist, an Alembic 12-String Electric, an Alembic 6-String Electric (custom made with LED indicators in the fret marker dots on the side of the fret board), a 12-String all mahogany Acoustic guitar, and an Alembic 8-String Bass, which sounded fantastic running direct into the P.A. As a matter of fact, all Lake's instruments were run direct, and everything he had on stage sounded crystal clear and strong.

Watching him run through the sound check, it became more apparent the role of Lake's personal road manager in terms of his equipment.

Lake's major concern in the instrument is one that isn't all bass, but offers dome clear highs. That's important to a finger picker because the bass can be too overpowering.

After a few hours of the decision-making process and checking with his road manager, Greg ended up with the Guild B-50 Acoustic Bass. Although his heart still toyed with the idea of the Les Paul double cutaway, his manager had different ideas, appearances and all. As we were leaving, we asked Greg if he had checked out the new Arp Avatar, Arp's polyphonic guitar synthesizer. He turned to his road manager, eyebrows raised; "Avatar?" he queried. The road man shrugged and Lake asked him to look into it.

We finally left the one third of ELP with his new bass to continue his sound check for the evening's concert. "Ya all come back again," we said.

"Sure will," he drawled. "Real nice hospitality 'round here."

When not thinking up ideas for his column, you can find Allen Hester at Strings 'N Things in Memphis.

©1978 Creem Magazine. All rights reserved.