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This article was originally published in issue #52
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In spite of the variety of sounds available, there’s no escaping the tonal darkness. This is where Lee Malia’s thumbprint is perhaps most evident on this guitar.
To complement our exclusive interview with Lee Mailia in this issue, Nick Jennison reviews the Epiphone Lee Malia Explorer Custom Artisan Outfit.
“If you think you want a Les Paul, what you actually want is an Explorer.” These words, spoken by my guru Brian, didn’t make a great deal of sense to me at the time. I suppose I should explain. Brian is the type of guy every guitar player needs in their life - a wise, well-heeled player who came of age in the 70s and now runs a small vintage guitar boutique. Someone with that kind of wide-reaching knowledge that only comes from decades and decades of experience.
As ever, he was right. If you’ve never tried an Explorer, you really should. A good Explorer has the kind of tone that you can only get with a frankly enormous bit of wood. They’re fat, warm and punchy like a good Les Paul, but with a snappier transient response. The body shape is also surprisingly comfortable; It’s not neck heavy like an SG, or awkward to sit with like a Flying V, and that sweeping upper wing allows you to hold the whole guitar in pace with just your right elbow, leaving your hands free to get on with making music.
Maybe it’s the look that puts people off? Explorers are for metal, right? The Lee Malia signature Explorer challenges that misconception. Yes, it’s the signature guitar of a very heavy player indeed, but the look and spec are very classy indeed. Like the Lee Malia Les Paul that preceded it, this guitar takes its aesthetic cues from the Les Paul Artisan guitars of the 1970s. The walnut and gold livery isn’t exactly understated, but it’s remarkably attractive (at least, I think so) in a retro kind of way. If you’ve got the confidence to carry it off, it won’t look out of place in almost any musical situation.
Versatility isn’t just skin deep with this guitar though: a carefully chosen pickup configuration offers great tonal variety, although the overall voice is quite dark (both unplugged and amplified). The P90 performs well both clean and dirty with and is a fine choice for throaty lead work. The bridge humbucker, by contrast, is hot and dense sounding. It’s definitely more at home with lots of gain and is decidedly congested with clean and breakup sounds. However the great thing about very hot humbuckers is that they generally retain enough of their power and girth when coil split to be convincing, and this is no exception. Pulling the tone pot introduces a much-needed dose of sparkle and articulation to clean sounds without the anemic mids and lows that so often plague coil splits. The dummy coil in the rear of the guitar goes a long way towards mitigating single-coil hum and is a very welcome addition.
In spite of the variety of sounds available, there’s no escaping the tonal darkness. This is where Lee Malia’s thumbprint is perhaps most evident on this guitar. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Malia prefers the old-school bark of a JCM800 to the dense saturation of (for example) a 5150 or a Dual Rectifier. Perhaps this guitar might be a little murky through a modern high gain head with a thundering low end but paired with a brighter rig it shines. A fine choice for players of most styles, and it looks the business!