Guitar Talk with Paul Languedoc
Few bands have achieved the level of success that Phish has attained. They are one of a select group to have become so popular that even people surrounding the band garnered celebrity status. And while it would be easy to dismiss such fan adulation of those around the band as nothing more than childish infatuation with anything and everything “Phish,” doing so would understate the importance of two individuals whose contributions to the band were integral to its growth. While both might shrug off any responsibility for helping the band achieve such levels of greatness, it is undeniable that Paul Languedoc and Chris Kuroda left an indelible mark on the band, taking both the sound and light aspects of the live show to now legendary heights.
For Paul Languedoc, what began as a casual relationship with a local Vermont musician would take him on a literal and figurative journey that spanned the globe. Along the way, his hand-crafted instruments helped define the band’s sound, and his attention to detail when mixing the band on stage helped make Phish one of the best sounding live acts in the history of rock and roll.
I had the opportunity to speak with Paul Languedoc to discuss his current business, Languedoc Guitars, the free markets and why he’s perfectly happy not making donuts.
Dan Greenhaus: By now most people are probably aware that your relationship with Phish began while you were at Time Guitars in Vermont. But I’m not sure many people know how you originally got involved with making guitars.
Paul Languedoc: I was just interested. I built my first guitar when I was about 18 or so. I had started playing guitars and I was always building things as a kid. So it was really just a natural thing. And when I was in college I was building pianos for a while. When I moved to Burlington, that’s when I started working at Time Guitars.
DG: How long had you been working at Time before you first established your relationship with Trey?
PL: I probably met him in 1984. He came in one day for repair work. And I think he liked the work I did for him.
DG: About how many guitars do you think you had worked on or built before Trey came along and said, “Let’s build one for me?”
PL: While I was at Time, we had built a few hundred over a period of four years or so. But I can’t say I built them all myself. I had built about three or four on my own before Time, and when I got therea couple hundred maybe.
DG: If you can think back to the original guitar you made for Trey, was there anything you were aiming for? I mean, I know Trey had wanted something different from what was available, that would play towards his affinity for a variety of styles. But other than the hollow body aspect, which you had agreed on, was there anything you were working towards that you did or did not achieve?
PL: Hmmm.well, it was a long time ago. It was almost twenty years ago. He pretty much left the design of it up to me. He had some ideas, and I remember he was talking about a hollow body. I made up so drawings and he liked them, and at one point I remember thinking that I was going to make it a semi-hollow body. And he said “Why do you want to do that?” And I said “I don’t know, there’s no reason.” So it just became a real hollow body.
DG: How long did it take to build? I know on the website you say how it takes about 120 or 150 hours or so to build one of the guitars you are selling. Is that comparable to the guitars at the time, or because you were younger and newer at it, the original guitar took much longer?
PL: It took longer. At that particular time, Time Guitars was over and I was working as a cabinet maker, I had just started doing sound for Phish. It was 1987. So it was kind of in between, I can’t remember. It probably took four months start to finish, but that was working after hours. In terms of hours, I wouldn’t know. It’s hard to figure out.
DG: I’ve always been fascinated by the guitar’s versatility, in that it seems equally comfortable being played in a variety of styles, whether jazz or rock or fusion. What do you think it is about your guitars that make them comfortable in such an array of styles?
PL: It’s probably a combination of things, like the interior of the body, the sound cavity, is smaller. That has a lot to do with the resonance of the guitar, as far as the feedback goes. With a larger hollow body, you get a lot of uncontrollable feedback where in these guitars the volume of the air in the guitar is much more controllable.
DG: Was that something you were going for, the smaller sound cavity? Or was that something that just sort of happened as you went along?
PL: I think it was probably an intuitive thing. But you know it’s not a fully acoustic instrument. The top, I generally use curly maple.
DG: Turning to today’s guitars, what do you think differentiates them from the more common guitars, whether Gibsons, Fenders, PRSs or whichever?
PL: Well, there aren’t that many real hollowbodys out there. A few independent makers build them now. I know Gibson has the 335.
DG: That was actually part of my next question which was how your guitars are different from the commonly available hollowbodys like the 335.
PL: Well, a 335 isn’t a real hollow body because there’s a block down the middle. Typically that’s what you find. They put the block there because they’re afraid of feedback. They will feed back, but generally in a controlled way. It takes some manipulation; you have to be a good guitar player. I’m not going to pretend they’re for everybody [his guitars]. Some people probably couldn’t stand them.
DG: Wouldn’t an element of the sustain and feedback that Trey has evoked through the years come from the pedals like the compression or the tube screamers?
PL: Well, he hasn’t used a compression pedal in a few years, and he’s using less and less of the tube screamers. I think a very large percentage of it is the guitar, depending on where you stand in relation to the amp. You’ll see him turn his body, or do certain things with his hand to get the sound he wants.
DG: Let’s talk about the guitar itself for a second.
PL: The neck is bookmatchedthey’re made just like jazz archtop guitars, a Benedetto for instance. Almost exactly like that. The tops are bookmatched and the back is bookmatched solid wood.
DG: On the website you talk about how you prefer “European woods” which you mention are usually intended for cellos. I was curious what it is about those woods that you find most attractive, and how they contrast with a maple or a mahogany?
PL: In terms of the top and back plates, I tend to use a lot of curly maples which are made for cellos. It just seems to be the right density and I know it’s a good wood. And I can buy it locally from a nearby distributor, which I can go to once or twice a year and pick up what I want. In terms of density, it just seems to be right, in terms of quality for what I want to use. You know, I do use other kinds of wood too if it’s
DG: But in general, you stick to the European wood across the models?
PL: Well, not all of them. If it’s a curly maple top for instance, then chances are it’s a piece of European wood for a cello. But I’m not strictly stuck on that.
DG: Are the necks wider than normal?
PL: I think they’re pretty standard. It’s about the same as a Gibson neck, maybe a little wider.
DG: Also, I know the guitars you are making now all have 24 frets as opposed to 22 and I was wondering, not that it’s a hugely important decision or anything, what made you put in the extra frets?
PL: Because it’s two more! (Laughs) I’d like to have two full octaves.
DG: I totally agree. I’ve never been able to figure out why guitars don’t all come with 24 frets.
PL: As a player, it seems to me like you’d want to have the two full octaves.
DG: Can you talk for a second about the electronics?
PL: The pickups are Seymour Duncan 59-PAF. They’re just the right impedance. They’re like the old Les Pauls. I just think they have a real nice balance.
DG: How did you get to those pickups?
PL: I tried several different kinds, and these just have the right magnets and the right number of windings on the coils. If I was going to be making pickups on my own, these are probably what I’d be making. I do modify them a bit, but generally they’re stock pickups. There’s a coil drop switch for both pickups, and then another switch that puts them in series with each other, which is sort of like turning it into one big pickup, which gives you a really fat, warm sound. It’s pretty much what’s available, but if someone wants something else, I’d be happy to do it.
DG: You know, on the site you talk about how you shy away from custom orders.
PL: Some things I can do. I’m still trying to figure some things out. I’m not a hardass! I’m trying to figure out exactly what people are wanting. People tend to want things custom to make it feel like it’s theirs. You know I’ve been working on getting the site up and running, and in the meantime I’ve been building guitars. So I have a bunch of guitars right now that I’d like to sell, so if somebody wants a custom inlay or something like that.I’d rather sell what I have right now and then see what happens.
DG: What do you find to be the most difficult part of making gutairs? You’ve been making guitars for years and you are obviously quite accomplished at it. Is there anything that still gets you frustrated or an aspect of it you haven’t yet perfected?
PL: I don’t usually feel frustrated. The thing with building an instrument or a bunch of instruments is that it’s a series of operations. So you set up and you do one operation, or in my case I do it twelve times, and then you move on to the next thing. And then you move on to the next thing. At times it can be tedious, but by that time, as I said, I’m getting ready to move onto the next thing.
DG: How many people help you?
PL: It’s just me.
DG: Do you find that works to your advantage? I know other guitar makers that have one or two people helping them out.
PL: I don’t know. There’s a big learning curve, even for something as simple as sanding for instance. There’s a skill to it. You can really ruin an instrument if you don’t sand it properly. I’m a little paranoid that way I suppose. I wouldn’t say I’d never hire someone. The other thing is, I’ve been a woodworker for a long time, and I have a lot of friends who started off as woodworkers because they loved being a woodworker, and then they hire a person or a group of people and before you know it they’re managers and not woodworking at all. And I really don’t want to do that. You can have three or four employees, and then all of a sudden you’re a manager. You might as well be making, you know, donuts.
DG: As the band started getting bigger in popularity and moved into bigger rooms, substantial changes had to be made to the sound system. I was curious if any changes were made to Trey’s guitar sound or setup to accommodate the larger rooms.
PL: I don’t know if this answers your question, but as a sound engineer, it’s actually easier to mix in a bigger room because the band matters less and less. The sound coming off the stage doesn’t have as big an impact, and I have much more control over the mix so I don’t have to compete with the band so much.
DG: You know, as I consistently see more and more bands outside of Phish, what I’ve always found is that the sound for other bands, especially rock bands, is considerably more muddy. Whether it be higher levels of distortion or whatever, its always seems to me to be much more of a “wash” of sound over the audience, as opposed to what you’ve been able to accomplish with Phish in terms of emphasizing and outlining the intricacies of each member’s individual contributions. Its really incredible how at a show, one could perfectly hear Page’s keys as pronounced as Fish’s high-hat, as pronounced as Mike’s low end, even though Trey might technically be on top playing lead. How were you able to accomplish that especially after the move to larger rooms when so many other bands end up with that muddy wash?
PL: I can only say that what I always thought as a sound engineer was to try to make sure you can hear every single thing. Rather than mixing the band, I just kind of sat back and listened very carefully to see if I could hear everything. I would think, “What if someone wants to hear what Page is playing, even though Trey is playing lead?” I mean that was my number one thing. I think it’s pretty much exactly what you said, and I think it’s great you said that. That was really my number one thing on my mind pretty much all the time. “Can I hear everything that’s being played right now?”
DG: The Live Phish soundboards really only drive home that point, in that each of the member’s contributions were worth listening to, and worth hearing. Page keys were every bit as important and clear as everyone else’s notes even though Trey was playing lead.
PL: A lot of it came from working with the same band for such a long time. They were very open to making changes or whatever. We had the same goals, and they weren’t fighting each other. Generally they were a pretty easy band to mix.
DG: And as much as Trey is the front man, the whole “egoless” concept worked to the band’s advantage. In other bands, the singer has to be out front or the lead guitar player has to dominate the sound during his solos. I’d imagine in a band such as this, arguments/discussions about that were minimized.
PL: They really didn’t step on each other. It has more to do with them than you might think. It’s about how they leave room for each other.
DG: Are you out mixing Trey’s live shows now?
PL: I was until last fall, but I’ve moved on.
DG: Are you gone for good or is this just time off?
PL: Well, I’m focused on the business right now. I haven’t even thought of whether I want to go back on the road. You know, I’m getting older. It’s a tough life.
DG: How did you come up with the price for the guitars?
PL: It’s a bit of a guess. I’ve just been floating it out there, and I’ve sold a few dozen over the years. People seem willing to pay that much! (Laughs) It’s like how do I come up with this? It’s just kind of a guess and let’s see what happens. You know, I was looking at a couple of the forums and some people were saying stuff like, “Who does he think he is charging that much?” It’s about what other builders are getting. Some builders get twenty or thirty thousand dollars! But I’ll tell you that paying three or four thousand for a nice custom guitar means that the builder is probably making minimum wage, if that. There’s more in expenses than people know about.
DG: What kind of strings do you prefer and come with the guitar?
PL: I use DR hand wound.
PL: Yes, unless someone wants something else.
DG: Seeing as how fans are most familiar with the guitars you’ve made for Trey, how would you say the guitars you are currently making compare to those guitars in terms of their make up, playability and feel? Would you say they are, more or less, the same guitars?
PL: Yes, absolutely. There’s no difference in the construction, measurements, electronics, or quality of materials, except for a few which have some custom inlay work. Actually, the last couple of guitars were ones I just pulled out of the line for him. I think he trusts me about what sounds good.