I love traveling. It gives me time to get away from the pressures at work and do some writing for myself, which means I write about gear; or in this case, people and their gear…
A couple of weeks ago, my wife called me up at work and asked me if I’d like to go to see Styx play at the San Jose Civic Auditorium. Having not been to a concert in a long time, and not ever having seen Styx live, plus having a the rare chance to go on a date with my wife, I of course agreed.
Styx performed most of their classics, with the exception of some Dennis DeYoung tunes. But personally, I didn’t miss them much because I was more into their rock-flavored, guitar-driven material and much less so their pop material, even though it was their pop stuff that drove much of their success. As such, I of course was endeared to the guitar playing of James Young and Tommy Shaw.
Before I go on, one thing that was cool in the show was that both JY and Tommy Shaw didn’t activate their effects themselves. They’d be playing along, then suddenly Tommy would cut into a lead, and voila! He’d have some boost/overdrive and delay. I was thinking to myself, Damn! That would be cool to have someone do that for me so I could just play and entertain! Of course, that requires a very high degree of coordination with your sound tech. I remember reading about this in an interview with Tommy Shaw years ago, but until I experienced it for myself, I didn’t realize how cool that would be. Anyway, I digress…
One thing I like to do when I see my favorite guitarists is keep track of the guitars they play. James Young was easy. He only plays Strats, and only the colors change and fretboards. And though I love his tone, there’s not much variety. On the other hand, Tommy Shaw plays a few different guitars.
First up was a 1998 R9 Les Paul. Looked like a Tea Burst which endears me to him even more, since I have an R8 Tea Burst. As an aside, according to an article I read, Tommy doesn’t play vintage guitars because he says he’s rough on his axes, so he tends to play newer guitars. From what I could tell, his guitars were nice and shiny, so that may hold true.
The next Les Paul he played was definitely a Standard but in Silver Burst. Don’t know the exact make on that one, but it sure did sound nice.
Next was a Taylor solid body. It looked like a Les Paul from a distance, but on closer inspection, had only two knobs and a trem. Really nice-looking and nice sounding axe.
Tommy also sported a black ES-335 that he played in several songs. That actually surprised me because he got a real heavy sound with it. I was very impressed with this guitar because it hadn’t occurred to me that an ES-335 would sound good in a straight-ahead rock setting. But he played it on one of my favorite Styx tunes, “Crystal Ball.” The sustain that he was getting on that guitar was fabulous! Granted, having some delay applied certainly helped, but it was clear that he was getting a lot of sustain from the guitar itself.
He played a couple of Taylor acoustics as well, a 6-string and 12-string. To be honest, I thought his acoustic tone was horrid. But that’s been my experience whenever I see Taylors used on-stage, plugged in. At least for me, their electronics seem to produce way too much midrange, and they sound flat and lifeless to me. The 12-string sounded better and richer due to having twice as many strings, but the 6-string was a bit annoying to me. That could also be the sound system. Who knows? But I suspect it’s the guitar’s electronics. I’ve seen several acoustic players such as Michael Hedges, James Taylor, and even Joe Bonamassa that have great acoustic tone plugged in, so hearing Tommy Shaw with less than stellar acoustic tone was a bit disappointing.
But back to his electrics…
Tommy used his Les Pauls predominantly in the concert – though he also rocked the 335 quite a bit as well. No, he’s not the fastest player in the world, but he could make his guitars absolutely sing. It was classic Les Paul tone!
Here’s cell phone vid taken from the concert (it’s the finale) in Scottsdale back in January, so it’s fairly recent. Here, Tommy rocks the 335: