As a potential project – the Jimmy Page, “Dragon” Telecaster has some really interesting features to get to grips with. Underneath it all – it’s, supposedly, a straightforward 1959 Tele. A good chance to look into original Fender, “slab body”, vintage specifications. The guitar at first had a blonde, factory paint job and was given to Page by Jeff Beck, in 1966. Page originally attached some circular mirrors and the guitar had a brief, albeit shiny life, before Page stripped the paint finish back to bare ash, and hand painted his distinctive “Dragon” design. He also apparently swapped the original, maple, neck for a non-logoed, after-market neck, with a rosewood, slab fingerboard. The guitar was said to have been destroyed, when a guitar tech decided to “refinish” it as a “gift” for Jimmy- but it’s apparently been recently restored.
I thought about doing a replica “Dragoncaster”, last year when I was looking for suitable projects. In the end – I opted for a Joe Strummer Tele, because, with the the pressure off on the need for a high quality, factory finish – (frankly – it required a good kick round the garden) – I could focus on trying out relicing techniques, and not worry about any finishing mistakes. At the time, I also considered doing a replica of George Harrison’s “Rocky” Stratocaster, Mick Green’s Tele Custom, and Wilko Johnson’s Telecaster – but those remain on the drawing board. I started to think again about a Dragoncaster towards the end of last year, as the Ash Strat and White Jaguar started coming together – but I realised, at the time, that it was going to have to wait until the beginning of this year
In fact there’s some synchronicity here. Early this year, tales began to circulate that Page’s original had been restored. The timing also coincides with Fender releasing a Custom Shop version of the guitar, alongside a special “Artist Series” version. The Custom Shop version costs in the region of £23,000 – but comes hand signed by Jimmy Page, who has also done a bit of the hand painting on all 50 of the limited run. Eek! That’s way too steep for most. In fact – even the Artist Series version at £1300 is too steep for someone with too many guitars, as it is.
And to be honest – I’m not sure I’d like the Fender reissue anyway. Their take on the Joe Strummer Telecaster was, in my view, a poor concept – badly executed. The “relicing” on the guitars looks way too crisp, too contrived. And the inclusion of the Shepard Fairey tribute stickers into the package looks all wrong. Why would you even link the two artists? Joe was all about DIY, “real” politics. Shep Fairey just seems to recycle rebellion into money. (White Man in Hammersmith Palais lyrics – in case you missed them). I’d have to be convinced the new Fenders had more than just a passing resemblance to Jimmy’s original before I’d even consider buying one. Making one – just like Jimmy did his original – sounds much more like the sort of thing I’d do.
Another thing I don’t really like about the new reissue is in the interpretation of the scratchplate. Whatever Page’s original had backing the scratchplate – it aged badly. It almost looks like bacofoil sandwiched behind the, obviously clear, plate. Jimmy himself says in a recent interview that it was all about “spreading and reflecting light” – but whatever foil was used to back the pickguard seems to have dulled and wrinkled so that the effect looks more akin to the kind of shine you get on galvanised metal – ie. None. The Fender reissue seems to use some kind of holographic foil. But the effect now is homogenous, all to even, and lacking personality. I had a look into what I might be able to use for my project – but the only thing I could find locally was some rainbow-type holographic card. The type used for scrapbooking and greetings card making. It’s a big industry – there’s more choice than you’d, at first, imagine – but I’m afraid the “unicorn” and “rainbow” connotations in relation to the product put me right off using that as my alternative. On the other hand – It’d be a challenge, cutting and finishing my own scratchplate.
A few years ago, I studied gilding. Laying metal leaf onto prepared surfaces. It’s a process with history and techniques tracing back thousands of years. One technique, called “Verre Églomisé“, involves laying metal leaf onto a prepared glass surface – often with designs later scratched into the surface of the foil. The leaf is stuck to the glass, usually using gelatine as a transparent glue, or “size”, and the technique can be used to “hand silver” mirrors – by building up silver leaf, and then sealing it behind with an opaque, protective paint. There are a great many different leaf metals available – some of them slightly mottled – but the process provides a protected mirror finish. There are also more modern glues or sizes to consider, and it might be possible to find a sprayable, clear acrylic size which may fit the bill. Gelatine isn’t exactly a vegetarian product and, besides, it can be a bit fiddly to use.
Of course – the pickguards will have to be made from a suitable, clear acrylic, and I’ll have to experiment with sizes and leaf to make sure any process will work on acrylic, as well as look the part. Since the pickguard has to be custom fabricated to include the little extension above the control plate which Jimmy originally included in his custom design – I may get two made – to try out a couple of alternative techniques and choose the best overall result. I hope I can find my own solution to the finish – who knows – perhaps one which fits the bill better than Fender’s re-interpretation. As a problem to be solved – it’s right up my street.
The same is true of the painted design. I studied to be a fine artist, and later worked as a graphic designer. When I was young, I used to copy Cezanne paintings to study his use of colour and texture. You learn so much about how the colours were originally mixed – even how the artist looked at an object and reduced it to a series of brush strokes. And you get to break down the sequence of events which results in a finished work. Copying doesn’t always equate to mere, mindless plagarism. When I was older, and in a bit of a “longhair” stage, I also remember copying Fergus Hall’s “Moon” artwork from the back of King Crimson’s 1975, “A Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson” LP, onto the bedroom wall of my digs in Nottingham. Four times the size of the original artwork. That’s a sixteen foot square mural – (now probably hidden under someone’s bedroom paint job).
You can, as I say, learn a lot from copying artwork, and from studying it, while you do it. Jimmy’s original design looks like a bit of a doodle, and probably evolved as he painted it. My challenge will be to work out how to reproduce the design accurately – and at the same time deduce the order of the process, whilst working out the exact colours used, as well as the type of paints which might work – so that the finishing of the guitar can follow a suitable sequence. The body will have to be grain filled and finished to a good level first – before the design is added and the whole body finally sealed with a protective lacquer. This type of thing is highly satisfying to me, and I’ll be able to use my career skills in digital and analogue graphic production techniques, to try and nail the design accurately. I still have to work out what type of paint and finish to use – but that’s all part of the fun. It’ll work out somehow.
Also – I’ll have to find out more about 1959 Fender Telecasters in particular. I’d like to try and source some high quality, authentic sounding pickups, and also get hold of a vintage style, toploading bridge – a feature which Jimmy used specifically on this guitar. I’ve even got my eye out for a violin bow to complete the overall “look”. Since I’ve built up a small collection of guitars – this project suits, in that I can work on just the body at first. When it’s done, I can look at finishing and fitting a suitable neck when time and budgets allow. Since Page’s guitar doesn’t have a Fender logo on the headstock – I should be able to use one of the vintage spec “Allparts” reproduction necks, and finish it in nice vintage amber nitro. That’s a job for the summer.
In the meanwhile – it’ll be a project I can keep in a dedicated project box, and work on – mostly – on the kitchen table. Out of the way of some of the other, messier, processes which may be involved in some of this year’s other, planned projects. As the weather gets warmer – it’s back to the workshop.