gibson.com: Why Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray Loves Her Les Paul Custom and ES-335
original publish date: 10 aug 2009
by Ted Drozdowski, gibson.com
Amy Ray’s best known for her acoustic guitar work with Indigo Girls, but since the mid-’90s, when the band started incorporating electric guitar into their stage and studio performances with the album Swamp Ophelia, she’s plugged in more and more.
At that point she began wielding her dark cherry 1968 Les Paul Custom during shows. And in 2001, when she launched her solo career with the seriously rocking punk- and Southern-boogie infused Stag, she cranked her sound up to 11 with the addition of a battle scarred 1966 ES-335 hot-rodded with a Bigsby vibrato arm and a third pickup, a five way selector switch, and switches a previous owner had installed to flip the pickups in and out of phase.
When that guitar snaps a string during a performance with her all electric solo outfit, she’s got a battered, single-humbucker Melody Maker of uncertain vintage to take up the slack.
“Somebody really carved up the wood on the Melody Maker somewhere along the line,” she says by phone from her band’s van en route to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival from her Georgia home base. “I can’t really tell what year it is, but it’s old and really dependable. I know exactly what it’s going to sound like every time I pick it up, no matter where I am.”
What Ray digs about her ES-335 is its versatility. “With the third pickup, it’s got so many tones it’s unbelievable. I run my guitars through a Princeton Reverb and a Hi-Watt Lead 30 live, so I can get clean ringing tones and massive distortion.” She also steps on a Fulltone distortion pedal and a Durham Sex Drive booster when she wants to make a sonic point.
“At home I’ve got a Gibson Lancer amplifier that’s older and too fragile for the road, so I use that for recording,” she notes.
Ray’s love of electric guitars began when the Indigo Girls were still a club act. “Although we played acoustic guitars, we played at a lot of clubs that were either punk-rock and alternative-rock clubs when we were starting out, and most of our friends were playing in loud electric guitar bands,” Ray relates.
“Emily [Saliers, her Indigo Girls partner] and I also grew up listening to the Clash, Blondie, the B-52s… And for me Neil Young is a real hero. His tone really defines the meaning of a lot of his songs.”
The singer-guitarist started her own band as a side project eight years ago when she had a group of songs built up that seemed too gnarly for the Indigo Girls’ acoustic guitars and celestial harmonies.
“I’m mostly a rhythm player,” Ray continues. “I can play a rhythm that’ll really express what the emotions of a song are about. When it comes to playing electric guitar solos, I’m really just learning, but I love it when it all falls into place, and Neil Young is an inspiration for me there, too, because his solos are so simple and direct, but sound so full of meaning.”
Typically Ray uses the bridge and center pickups of her go-to guitar, the ES-335, with the center humbucker dialed down a little to reduce its bass-heavy output. “What I love about that guitar is the huge variety of tones I can get,” she says.
“Sound can be really atmospheric on its own terms, and help you put ideas across. Sometimes when I’m writing songs on the acoustic guitar and hit a roadblock I’ll switch to the electric, and sometimes I’ll write songs on the electric guitar that I’ll ultimately play on the acoustic. But for me what’s great about the electric is the ability to take my music to a place where the sound can take on a life of its own.”