Timbre, tone and Neil Young’s Les Paul (or reasons to be glad you own a hi-fi system)

Timbre, tone and Neil Young’s Les Paul (or reasons to be glad you own a hi-fi system)

About three minutes into the opening track on Neil Young’s album “Psychedelic Pill” there is one of those moments –  the ones that fill you with a warm glow of satisfaction.  Yes, I spent a lot of money on this system, but look at what it just gave me – it’s a „come and listen to this” moment.

The track is “Driftin’ Back”.  The moment?  A special piece of special Neil Young guitar magic.  It’s all about touch, feel and tone (or timbre), oh yes – and playing with Crazy Horse, a band that probably do tight and loose better than almost anyone else.
“Driftin’ Back” (all twenty seven minutes of it) is a classic Neil Young and Crazy Horse tune, half rehearsed, half jammed, verse, chorus, then Crazy Horse holding it (almost) together while Neil Young goes travelling with “old black”, a beaten up and much changed 1953 Les Paul and a Fender valve amplifier.  It’s the tone and touch.  Old black is fitted with a Bigsby tremolo arm and around the three minute point the tone is in a beautiful place.  Somewhere between clean (as in Hank Marvin) and distorted or dirty.  That’s a great place. Clean becomes thick, complex, rich and full of harmonics. Then there’s just a touch of tremolo arm – just enough to drop the pitch and create a magical moment of modulated tonal beauty.

Are sounds beautiful?  Yes; and when you get to hear them properly, you begin to realise how wonderfully complex they are.  This is a piece about one great musician, playing one highly individual instrument.  What about cellos, or pedal steel guitars?  What about pianos?  What about acoustic guitars?  What about brass?  What about cymbals?  What about voices?


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