This Gibson Les Paul Goldtop is a real survivor of the ’60 rock festival area. It has been played by Canned Heat's Alan Wilson, during the Monterey International Pop Music Festival 1967 (even if he plays a Fender Jaguar in the clip presented in the film), Woodstock Music & Art Fair, 1969 (where the guitar is featured in the film), Texas International Pop Festival, 1969, …
According to Bob Walters Alan’s main choice and probably the only electric guitar he owned was his 1954 Les Paul. This was an interesting choice due to several reasons. His guitar was not a factory stock model, but had the potential to be what he wanted. The 54 model, did not as play well as later models of the time since the period stock tuning keys did not keep the instrument in tune as well as later, sealed worm gear type Grover tuners.
The stock tuners on Alan’s guitar were replaced sometime prior to Woodstock with modern Grover tuners. In addition the pick guard and bracket were also removed to provide room for Alan’s finger picking style. As with his modified harmonicas, both of these modifications made his guitar a more playable instrument to suit his particular needs. Vintage purists today would scoff at any attempts to upgrade a guitar such as this, but Alan wanted a playable instrument, not a showpiece.
The 54 model had a combination bridge / stop tail piece that provided both string support and intonation in one unit. It also featured P-90 single coil pickups. Both of these features were keys to Alan’s tone. Although Alan could have afforded or even borrowed any guitar he wanted, he chose the 54 Les Paul for the following reasons. The P-90s have a construction whereby multiple windings are wound around a magnet to form a large single coil. The result is a pure tone but is susceptible to outside noise or interference. It can also distort the tone slightly if played or strummed hard. On the other hand, humbucker pickups have a construction whereby two coils are wound in opposite directions of each other and the magnets of each pickup have opposite polarity. Both pickups are then connected together in series. This construction then allows all common mode signals (noise) to be cancelled out. However a side effect is that some of the signal, (music) is also lost due to phase cancellation in the pickup. This results in a quieter, more powerful signal with less music spectrum than a single coil. Alan’s preference was clearly a single coil pickup vs. a humbucker.
The combination of a bridge / stop tail piece attracted Alan as well. The strings were required to run through the bridge toward the bottom of the guitar, then wrap around over the top of the bridge and onto the fret board. This resulted in better mechanical coupling of the strings to the body and increased sustain. The downside to this design is that intonation was less than perfect and was compensated using the string height adjustment screws, and the rear mounted set screws.
This less than perfect bridge design did not hinder or affect Alan’s tone, in fact it enhanced it. The over the top bridge design placed the strings directly on top of the wider bridge surface area, and over a short period of time, since the bridge was a softer metal, the strings would wear grooves into the bridge, and cause oxidation. It is this wear that would give the strings a slightly longer ring /buzz, when played on this particular bridge design. This sound appealed very much to Alan as it was similar to a damped tamboura or sitar.
Here are some examples of Alan’s tone:
Woodstock Boogie. This live clip taken during the famous, 3 day 1969 Woodstock Festival features great close-ups of Alan’s guitar, and his technique for creating his distinctive tone filled with harmonics. Alan’s intro illustrates several examples of the distinctive buzz / sustain of his notes unique to this 54 Les Paul. In this clip you can also hear how the tone is purposely driven into distortion by strumming the guitar harder. Wonderful harmonics and overtones are created when Alan does this. Watch and listen how he starts the boogie at 1:25. This is another example of Alan’s simple yet effective genius using drone techniques to create the Boogie. Nota also that already at that time the guitar had a lot of wear, which is recognisable still today.
As the guitar was probably the only one Alan had, it is all over this period as can be seen here:
The Naked Zoo (1970)
The Beat Club (1970): Canned Heat - Let's Work Together
Canned Heat - Going Up The Country
The guitar has aged and is beaten up today. This is partly due to the use (abuse) of the guitar after Alan’s premature death. Indeed the guitar continued to be played by Bob Hite until his death in 1981. After that the guitar remained with Canned Heat’s drummer Adolfo "Fito" de la Parra until 2007. The guitar underwent other changes. So the STP "sticker" between the pickups is gone and the bridge has again been modified. Nevertheless the sound remains untouched.
It is difficult to date correctly the guitar, but the body is a 1953-1954 Goldtop guitar with the P-90 pickup’s. The trapeze-bridge was removed and the screws were removed and filled. This can still be seen clearly today. As stated previously the tuners were changed as were the frets. The serial number on the headstock is no original Gibson number and has been probably put on the guitar to track it.
In 2007 the guitar was acquired from Adolfo "Fito" de la Parra, by Walter de Paduwa a Belgian radio DJ, musician and rock'n'roll historian best known for his association with Canned Heat. He continued to give life to the guitar by taking it around in Blues events he organised in Belgium. We will try to keep up with that tradition!