MATT DORIA RIFFS WITH SLASH ON HIS NEW SIGNATURE GIBSON AND EPIPHONE FIREBIRD GUITARS.
It’s no secret that Slash is a big fan of the Gibson Les Paul. He’s tracked with them on virtually all of his 13 studio albums, and you’d be hard pressed to find evidence of a live show where he didn’t noodle around on at least a couple of ‘em.
They’re also the axe of choice for his posed shots (see: every time we’ve had him adorn the cover of Australian Guitar), and it’s not hard to see why: the soul-warming mid tones, the ruinous amounts of gain its capable of and that sweet, buttery hum when you rip into a solo on one – it’s a sound as perspicuous to Slash’s playing as his button-rimmed tophat is to his image.
It was 1989 when Slash’s first custom Les Paul docked – a mahogany beauty dolled up in all-black hardware with a thinner neck than the ’59 replicas it was modelled on, the J.T. Riboloff-built piece would remain one-of-a-kind until 1996, when the slick (if somewhat kitschy) Snakepit Les Paul hit the market with a blood red zebra print faceplate and reflective snake inlay on the fretboard.
Its specs were mostly stock standard for the pack, but what makes this guitar particularly special is that it’s considered the rarest of Slash’s signature models. The maestro himself only has one left, after thieves broke into his personal stash and nipped the other three.
There have been 31 variations of Slash’s signature Les Paul released since – 22 bearing Gibson branding and the other nine with Epiphone’s – the most iconic of which being the one plastered on the cover of this very magazine: the unmistakably unique, class-defining Appetite For Destruction model.
Proclaimed by Gibson as “the axe that launched a thousand riffs”, the AFD Les Paul debuted in 2010 with a spec sheet that made the wider guitar community drool en mass. Based on the guitars used to track the 1987 Guns N’ Roses debut of the same name, it features Floyd Rose tremolos, a ’60s-style neck profile and Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pro Slash humbuckers (which were brand new at the time).
Colourways vary, but the obvious choice for most is the staple Appetite Amber finish. The AFD Les Paul has long since remained a staple in Slash’s stash – and Gibson’s repertoire altogether – and there are no signs of that changing anywhere on the horizon.
So with Slash’s unbridled adoration for the Les Paul clear, it came as a bit of a shock when, in 2017, he debuted two Gibson Custom Shop Firebird guitars. Each one of the limited 50 models produced (half in a signed Trans White finish and half in Trans Black) was hand-aged, per Slash’s request, with vintage-accurate checking and wear to the thin nitrocellulose lacquer finish.
“I’ve just always liked the way they looked, really. I’ll be honest – it was all vanity,” Slash laughs. “I’ve been trying to make a Firebird work in the sort of context of the guitar sound that I usually go for, and I’ve never really found it in any of the stock Firebird setups with the humbuckers, the mini humbuckers, the soapbar pickups or any of those single coil kind of pickups. No matter how hard I try, I can never really get it to sound the way I want it to sound.
“So I’ve been doing this with Firebirds behind the scenes for years, and I finally went to Gibson and said, ‘Well, let’s try this: let’s take a mahogany body and put a maple cap on it like you would a Les Paul, and then put my humbuckers in it.’ And so we did that, and it sounded great. I was using one for pretty much the whole Guns N’ Roses tour.”
The guitar’s specs share some expected similarities to the Les Pauls we know Slash for – humbuckers, Les Paul wiring and pickup spacing, plus a solid figured maple cap – but delivers a tone completely unique to the family of Slash originals. It certainly wasn’t designed for the average player in mind, running upwards of $10,000 on the resale market, but the Slash Firebird truly is a work of art. And if you can’t get your hands on one, you can at least appreciate its charm.
Thankfully for us with more realistic budgets, under the more economical Epiphone banner, Slash has introduced a renovated (and less rare) Firebird for 2018.
“The Firebird design has always been attractive to me,” he mused in a recent promotional video. “From a sonic point of view, they’re set up to be very different than the kind of thing that I do with a Les Paul. So I’ve had a lot of trial and error and experimentation with lots of different Firebirds over the years, [and] I finally had a chance to work with Epiphone to do one that was more to my specs.”
First and foremost, those specs include a AAA flame maple top, a Pau Ferro fingerboard with pearl “Trapezoid” inlays (the Gibson version uses solid rosewood), Seymour Duncan “Slash” open coil humbuckers and Sprague “Orange Drop” capacitors, plus an ABR Tune-O-Matic bridge and stopbar tailpiece.
The translucent black finish is a little more simple than its Custom Shop counterpart – and lacks its meticulous hand-aged weathering – but it’s still undeniably beautiful. And the inclusion of Slash’s quintessential Snakepit emblem is a nice little touch.
“The balance is different [and] the neck is longer [than a traditional Firebird],” Slash continued in his runthrough of the guitar, “Relative to the entirely different body shape and a different scale and so on. It has a great humbucker sound, but it has a very unique tone unto itself, just based on the thickness of the wood. It sounds great and it sounds unique, which is really what I’m looking for. I figure if it stands up to me, it’ll stand up to almost anybody.”
It’s not uncommon for Slash’s signature guitars to have both upscale Gibson and more obtainable Epiphone models. “Because they’re so closely tied to Gibson, Epiphone wanted to do a version that would be a little bit less expensive than the Custom Shop version,” he explains of the Firebird update. “But they’re still good guitars, y’know. Epiphone makes a great guitar!”
So aside from the aesthetic details, what’s the difference? “The hardware on the Custom Shop version is a little bit more specific,” Slash explains. “The tailpiece and some of the little bits and pieces are more distinct on the Gibson, but the Epiphone version is pretty much identical outside of that – the pickups are the same, the wood is the same…
“I think there’s some mechanical tooling that’s used to make the Epiphone guitars, whereas in the Custom Shop, everything is totally handmade. So there’s just a lot of subtle differences that show up in the price more than anything else.”