Artist Spotlight, TNAG Connoisseur

Conversation with Julian Lage on the Collings 470 JL Signature

Connoisseur featured a six-part series where we chatted with phenomenal jazz guitarist Julian Lage about guitars and gear; recording, writing, and arranging; practice tips, and other topics. First up: his Collings 470 JL signature model.

One of the brightest stars of jazz guitar, Julian Lage is beloved for his ability to stay pure to jazz traditions when desired, while incorporating a broad range of popular American guitar music from the 1950s to today to blast through existing stylistic and sonic boundaries, in the process creating new ones that are all his own. At just 33 years of age, he already boasts an impressive catalog as collaborator, soloist, and bandleader, and his latest album with the Julian Lage Trio, Squint (his Blue Note debut) will be out in June. All that, and he’s also simply a great hang, and a fun and inspiring conversationalist.

Your new 470 JL signature model electric from Collings is already garnering a lot of excitement in guitar circles. What was it like working with the Collings people again, and what kind of thinking went into creating the guitar? 

They’re great. They’re so cool. I had the privilege of working with Bill on this acoustic guitar we made some years ago [the OM1A-JL], so that was the impulse for us kind of going from friends and acquaintances to really partners on a project. It was such a good project, and I think it was really challenging. I remember Bill spoke about it and said it was really hard, and why it was really hard was I was coming to them with a sense of saying, ‘Maybe there’s something to guitars that aren’t totally efficient all the time, to acoustics. Maybe there’s something to guitars that are a little more vulnerable and aren’t intended to last a long time, but while they do last they have a vibrancy.’ And Bill was so fantastic, ’cos—I presume you knew Bill… 

He was a charismatic personality, right? And he, I think, found it very compelling for whatever reason that here I was coming to a person who had really perfected and refined so many elements of the architecture of guitars, how they functioned and their efficiency and reliability, and I was kind of saying, ‘Yeah, but does it sound cool?’ [Laughs]. 

And I wasn’t saying it didn’t sound cool, I was just saying there’s something to be said for guitars that have inconsistencies, and what are those and how do we achieve them intentionally. Let’s not write it off as, ‘it’s just vibe,’ or ‘it’s patina,’ or ‘so-and-so played that, and that’s why it sounds better.’ 

And Bill on such a fundamental level got it. Because this was right after [Collings’s more affordable] Waterloo line had been introduced. And he was like, ‘Yeah, that was my point with Waterloo: here are these guitars that are simpler in structure, we don’t beat a dead horse when we make them, and each one has its own voice, but they’re alive and they’re great.’ 

And I said, ‘I think that’s what I’m most attracted to in your collection right now, and I have to say that those qualities that you pinpointed, those also exist in some of the greatest Martins, frankly.’ You know, when you play these ones that have had neck re-sets, and have cracks in them, and they have been over-sprayed or under-sprayed or whatever it is, and they have this thing that the Waterloo has, so it’s not just relegated to these cheaper guitars. And he said, ‘You’re right, we’re sitting on these revelations with the Waterloo that could absolutely swing back and inform the OMs and the OOOs and things like that.’ 

So we built that guitar going back and forth, and it was great. We found a sweet spot that he was happy with and I was happy with. And then, years went by and I was thinking I wanted to play a Collings electric, but I was so enamored with Telecasters. And when I would talk to him about electrics, we all had the same notion that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ If you want to play Teles, go play Teles, you know? [Laughs]. So let’s not mess with it. 

They’re already out there, for sure, and the world’s not short of good Telecasters. 

They’re there, and that’s great. But there’s always this hovering question of, is there a guitar in the world, electronically, that exists but that maybe—seen through the lens of skilled luthiers—that would be improved somehow, at least in my and their assessment.  

And the question really was put forward by Aaron Huff, who is, you know, the main builder over there, and he said, ‘Let’s not worry about the body, let’s not worry about the neck. Let’s only talk pickups. And let’s build a guitar from the pickups out, because that’s like the heartbeat of these electric instruments, and our job could be to fashion an acoustic instrument that on its own has the property of those pickups, and when combined with those pickups becomes something greater than the sum of its parts.’  

That seems like a very intelligent approach to the task, although it’s likely the opposite approach taken by most builders. 

Yeah. But it’s sort of logical, right? So, we had a unique thing going on because the Gretsch Duo Jet with the Dynasonics was already part of my scope and the Collings people also loved them. And we thought, you know, nothing against Gretsch, because those guitars totally fall under the category of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ but for the sake of this experiment it’s really cool, because those pickups did find themselves in Guilds, and Martins, and a lot of other cool instruments. I think those pickups are a foundation. And even if you see photos of early Les Paul himself playing early Les Pauls, there’s a photo or two where he has a Dynasonic clearly shoved in a P-90 casing on a goldtop.  

So, we thought, ‘This is a pickup that everyone who cares enough about this stuff stumbles on at some point. So why shouldn’t we not have a hand at it?’ We set about with some various experiments, and it very quickly became clear that our friend Ron Ellis had to be a part of it.  

Ron knows his stuff, yeah. [Laughs] He’s a brilliant man, and a dear man, and he became part of the conversation early on. And we just said, ‘What’s the deal with these pickups? Why do they work, and what doesn’t work?’ I sent him my Duo Jet and he took that pickup apart, and you know that classic story of reverse-engineering and putting it back together. 

So, long story short, the punchline to all of that was the realization that the semi-hollow construction was part of it, but there needed to be, in our assessment—purely for our needs and not a diss of any kind of what exists already—we wanted a refinement of the block that goes inside. So we tried everything: no block, having the block here, and what Aaron and Clint Watson, who are in charge along with one of my closest buddies, Mark Althans, they worked on this and Clint and Aaron made something called a trestle block inside, which is a really cool advancement. It’s like having a piece of wood in the cavity of the guitar, but rather than having a two-by-four stuck to what’s essentially a salad bowl, they found a way to build a block that has these trestles that run from end to end, so they provide a certain kind of rigidity to the whole guitar, right? 

 And also their density, what they’re made of, and their proximity to this plywood top that they made for the I-30, I believe, that’s one of the best Collings electrics, in my opinion. It just all kind of came into focus that these elements would give you at least a modified if not an advanced version of what we had been looking for, as far as translating acoustic energy to these pickups. 

That was one thing that was huge, and then the Ron Ellis story, I mean, to this moment is still evolving. We just made one change to the pickups that… I’m awaiting arrival of them, but I’m very excited to hear them. Basically, it just kind of clarifies the Dynasonic thing and puts it maybe from being a replica, or a really good version of the Dynasonic, into maybe its own category of pickup. 

There’s a handful of people making good modern replicas of Dynasonics other than Gretsch, and some of them might be very good in their own way, but I would say none of them quite hit the mark of—or do the same thing as—the vintage ones, you know? 

I totally agree.

There’s something just a little bit harsh with some of the new ones, and the originals are not harsh at all, but they’re punchy and bright, with a mellow body to them… 

You nailed it. That’s absolutely true, even more so than, I think, old Tele pickups, old Strat pickups, the best pickup makers always get into proximity of what’s good about the old pickups. But I think that harshness, there’s something… I’ve got a friend, there were these interviews with Chet Atkins talking about Dynasonics at the time, and it kind of sounded like he hated them. And it’s kind of like what you just said, it’s just that they were harsh. 

And you see why this became a Filter’Tron from the Gretsch perspective, and from the Gibson perspective it became, with P-90s, presumably it was exactly like what these new replicas are like, it’s just that we’re playing them now 60, 70 years later. Maybe they had issues that had to be combatted in other ways. 

Presumably once you and Collings and Ron Ellis dialed in that pickup, you had to consider how it interacted with the entire package, too. 

Yeah. I think the relationship of the Dynasonic to the material of the bridge is way more important than with Teles or Strats or Les Pauls. Like, with a rolling brass saddle and an old Dynasonic it’s great; modern individual brass saddle and a Dynasonic is super harsh and bright and unbearable. The nylon individual saddle is closer to a rolling brass saddle, but it’s still tight. 

I think the Dynasonic is almost like playing into a stethoscope: it’s so clear, whether you like it or not. And I think that with the improvements that Ron recently made we’re all freaking out, because I think he calibrated that stethoscope quality so it’s not so dependent on every part, and I think it just had to do with the diameter and certain placement issues and things of the magnets, the pole pieces, so I’m really excited for this next evolution. 

That’s exciting, and it seems there’s already a lot of excitement about this guitar from a wide range of players. I’m sure it will do well, and should transcend the bounds of people who are just trying to sound like you, necessarily. 

Oh, absolutely. That’s my feeling. I think it’s, there’s been this movement—for totally obvious, wonderful reasons—to, you know, Stratotone Jupiters and somewhat older chamber-bodied guitars with gold-foil pickups. You see players evolve, singer-songwriters playing with them and they sound great. Somehow, I think this guitar is kind of like a modern, refined version of that. That same short-scale, hollow, glowing, non-Fender non-Gibson energy. 

It’s a really good distillation of what makes those guitars great. Obviously, it’s a more expensive guitar, but it’s not intended to exist only as a ‘Julian jazz guitar’. I’ve seen glimpses of that, and I go, ‘Oh, how exciting!’

I think they’re going to do well, and we all know Collings’s consistency and quality.

Yeah, it’s the real deal. I wrote and recorded most of the new album on my 470 JL and it was great, it just sounded like ‘me.’ I’m excited for them to ship out and for people to start playing them.

Thanks for the chat, Julian!

Watch for our next five conversations over the coming weeks.


Keep an eye on the Carter Vintage Incoming Collings page to see when we've got 470 JLs on the way!


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