Let me put this right out on the table: I loathe gear snobs, so-called cork sniffers who can only play the most rare or expensive guitars, amps, and so forth. Sure, I've got some nice stuff, but I've also got some pretty mundane gear that I love just as much and play just as often. That being said, not too long ago I came across mention of the Agile guitar brand while poking around online. These are Les Paul styled guitars manufactured in South Korea and distributed exclusively in the U.S. by Rondo Music out of New Hampshire. They can only be ordered online through Rondo's website or on Ebay. Loyal users of Agiles (they have a group of followers who might be called fanatical) often make the claim that these guitars rival their own more expensive instruments, including real Gibson Les Pauls. Now this was pretty provocative for me, being a Gibson Les Paul guy myself. Could it possibly be true? It’s not like you can go down to the local Guitar Center and check one out (though I have heard of used ones being spotted for sale in GC on occasion). The lowest price Agile LP style guitar, which is called the 2000, is about $200. There’s another model in the $300 range called the 3010SE, which has some improved features. Then there’s the 3100M, the 3001, and the 3101M, which are pretty much top of the line at $400, except for a neck through model that goes for $500. After obsessing over the Rondo website my curiosity finally got the best of me and I decided to pull the trigger on a 3010SE P-90 with a root beer flamed top. I didn’t currently have a guitar with P-90’s, and worst case scenario, how bad could it be? Well, shortly after, in precisely four days, the guitar came by way of UPS. My initial reaction was pretty much “Wow!” It was certainly much more guitar than I expected to get for 300 bucks. Lo and behold, just as I had read so many times, the Agile looked, felt, and played like an instrument of significantly greater expense. Nothing felt cheap or chintzy on this guitar, right down to the Grover tuners, Graph Tech nut, graphite saddles, 2” thick Mahogany body, fully bound body, neck, and headstock, real maple top with a gorgeous flame, ebony fingerboard with abalone inlays, and quality electronics. The P-90’s sounded absolutely killer! Needless to say, I was sold on Agile. I immediately ordered a 3101M, which is a top of the line model with humbuckers, a thicker maple cap, and stainless steel frets. Forget where the thing is made; forget that it's not a big name brand; forget that nobody famous plays or endorses them. None of that matters, because let me tell you, when you actually see it, hold it in your hands, and play the thing, it is all but impossible to come to any other conclusion than that the Agile 3101M is a serious guitar. If you can't make great sounds come out of one of these, then maybe the real issue is that you need to practice more. For the price it is a ridiculous value. I don’t feel it’s fair to compare the Agile with my Custom Shop Les Paul Historic, or with my Fender American Strats for that matter, because these are really different kinds of instruments. The Agile really stands on its own as its own unique thing, which is a high quality, very beautiful and elegant musical instrument worthy of every respect. It inspires me to play, which is the real test of any guitar as far as I am concerned. All of the guitar tracks on the Warrior Nation song “Helltrain” were recorded using the Agile 3101M. The signal path for the two rhythm guitars was an Ibanez TS9→ 65 Amps London head→ 65 Amps cab with Celestion G12H30→ Shure SM57 → Golden Age Pre73→ Apogee Duet→ Logic. The signal path for the lead guitar was direct into the Golden Age Pre73→ Apogee Duet→ Logic. I recorded these lead guitar parts off the cuff with the intention of re-recoding them using the 65 Amps. However, I like the improvised and spontaneous feel of them so much that I actually left them as is. -John
I suppose that it may be a case of me being late to the party, but relatively recently I’ve discovered a guitarist named Guthrie Govan who is as inspiring to me as Van Halen and Vai were so many years ago. Listening to this man play is an absolute joy. He is emotional, melodic, quirky, spontaneous, and possesses a ridiculous level of technical ability. Despite Govan’s terrifying technical prowess, he is by no means merely another shredder. What I find myself most struck by in his playing is a profound sense of depth and a most keen intelligence. Despite having played guitar for three decades, this man does things with the instrument which I didn’t know were possible. Govan may instantiate the culmination and pinnacle of all technical/virtuosic guitar playing from Dejango, to Hendrix, Holdsworth, Van Halen, Vai, Malmsteen, and many others. Twenty five years ago he would have inspired me to double my efforts on the instrument, though now he just makes me want to quit altogether. Such genius and command is utterly unapproachable by a mere mortal. Listening to Guthrie one is forced to the inevitable and unavoidable conclusion, “I will never be that good, period, end of story.” Nonetheless, I am sincerely glad that he exists. Through his playing I hear the guitar through fresh ears and remember why as a young man I fell hopelessly in love with the instrument. I honestly cannot imagine someone going much further on the electric guitar in terms of total facility and complete freedom of expression. Guthrie may indeed be the ceiling of the art form.
Lately I’ve been listening to some of Eddie Van Halen’s isolated guitar tracks posted on YouTube. This man’s art is more precious to me than I can possibly explain. It is part of my deeper psyche, imbedded within the very heart of me, in my memories, sentiments, emotions, and feelings. While his guitar playing is deeply rooted in heavy blues such as Eric Clapton and Cream, Eddie simultaneously created his own novel language on the instrument in terms of technique, tone, and unique phrasing. He caused a paradigm shift, with one being able to say that there is clearly a pre (before VH) and post (after VH) era in regards to rock guitar. Though the two-handed technique has typically been singled out as the most distinctive feature of his playing, I have come to recognize, with the passage of time and benefit of perspective, that it constitutes just one amongst many instantly recognizable features of the Eddie Van Halen sound. No less characteristic of his playing is his intricate and nuanced rhythm work, his swing, his masterful blues licks, his phenomenal “brown” tone, his dynamics, the sound of the MXR Phase-90 and echoplex, his melodic sense, and his brilliant compositional skill. But something else more, above and beyond these intellectually analyzable things, clings to all of his best work, something intangible and relatively rare, and that is the sound of absolute joy that can be heard on the recordings. Through Eddie’s ecstatic guitar playing one may hear the “singing” of a singularly radiant soul.
While Van Halen certainly wasn’t the sole musical inspiration of my youth, you could say that they were probably the greater part. Even though their music itself was mind-blowing and inspiring, Van Halen meant much more than just music to me. They represented an entire culture, fashion, style, an attitude, a way of approaching life (a life philosophy), the worldly wit of David Lee Roth, musical virtuosity, and power. As a kid growing up in the boonies of upstate New York, Southern California as seen on television and in the movies seemed to be a magical place. It seemed always sunny and warm, was upbeat and vibrant, and was the epicenter of youth culture. Surf culture, dirt bikes, skate boards, movies, and heavy metal music all came out of that fairy tale place. For me Van Halen absolutely epitomized all of this. The music is orgiastic, the eternal “yeah” to life of which Nietzsche spoke as well as Goethe’s positive striving depicted in Faust. It is an absolute expression of confidence, joy, power, and youthful exuberance. There is a sense of flight in their music. This is what Van Halen meant to me and still means to me. To this day I still hold Eddie Van Halen to be a true musical genius.
The delivery of Van Halen's lyrics through the persona of David Lee Roth, with his baritone stoner voice, projected and celebrated witty bohemian idiocy, intoxication, partying, being a cad, and being a drop out. Yet there was an ironic intelligence behind that facade, a playfulness and self-awareness which made it not dumb at all, but rather clever and knowing. This underlying drift of feigned silliness was combined with the ridiculously over-achieving, deadly serious, virtuoso musicianship of Eddie Van Halen. The combination was a potent contradiction indeed.
Most all of the bands I listened to in the 80’s were just pale imitations of Van Halen. The only way to get around the inexorable pull of Van Halen seemed to be a return to the templates of either Sabbath (SoundGarden, et al) or Zeppelin (Kingdom Come, Badlands, et al). Between Van Halen and their many outright imitators there remained a massive, unbridgeable gulf. Van Halen was so innovative, so talented, and so professional, that everyone else, even the best of the other groups, seemed like 3rd stringers, like mere garage bands compared to them. Eddie Van Halen himself in particular stood absolutely apart. In just the same way that Schwarzenegger ruled as the undisputed king of the bodybuilding world, Eddie Van Halen ruled the world of rock guitar. There was Eddie Van Halen and there was everybody else.
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