Lee Roy Parnell blew into the national music scene like a warm wind from his native Texas with the 1990 debut album that bore his name. Eight more full-length discs down the line, he’s established as one of the most determinedly iconoclastic performers to emerge from Nashville’s music industry — unflinchingly eclectic in his embrace of blues, rock, country, jazz and anything else he chooses to dip into from his wide palette of influences. With a truly deep love of blues, he’s also an acclaimed wizard of slide guitar with an affinity for the Gibson Les Paul that goes back to hearing the Allman Brothers’ debut album as a kid on a ranch southeast of Fort Worth.
Truth is, it’s more than an affinity. Parnell and the Gibson Les Paul model seem inseparable, and his lush notes and deft six-string wizardry have marked him as a master of the instrument.
Now the Gibson Custom Shop and Parnell are celebrating his nearly life-long love affair with the Les Paul with the Lee Roy Parnell Signature ’57 Les Paul Goldtop. “This is my dream guitar,” Parnell explains. “ It isn’t based on my old ’56 Gold Top, although we took measurements from that instrument and worked from there. I have the prototype and it’s the main guitar I’m playing right now. It’s just a great guitar for real working players.”
Parnell says it took eight months alone to develop the pickups – the first humbuckers designed by single coil pickup guru Ron Ellis. Parnell and Ellis traveled between Nashville and California, testing Alnico products with various magnetic values, windings of different thicknesses, even Philips head screws of different composition.
“We went to crazy places to get the screws that would help produce the right tone,” Parnell says. “The original humbucking pickup wasn’t made to be louder or have more output than the P-90. It was designed to cancel hum. Imagine a whole band with single coils trying to play in the honky-tonks and the studios of the ’50s, with the primitive wiring and jerry rigging. Humbuckers made that situation manageable. So we kept the classic model for the humbucker – not the versions made for higher output for playing hard rock and metal – in mind. We developed a sweet sounding pickup with a lot of presence that produces three great qualities – a good tone on the fundamental strike, a little compression, and then harmonic richness. The pickups on this guitar are fantastic.”
Parnell also explains that his Signature Les Paul has shallower pickup cavities than are typical in even most of the model’s classic vintage instruments. “I really wanted to hear the wood through the pickups,” he attests. And Parnell personally selected many of the mahogany slabs that became the guitars’ bodies.
One of the coolest innovations is in the design of the body itself. Although the instrument’s face looks exactly like a Les Paul Standard from the front, the cutaway beneath the neck is shaved back toward the player at an angle that provides easier access to the high frets.
“There’s a seven-percent angle in the horn of the cutaway,” says Parnell. “So you have all this room by the heel that you didn’t have before, which makes it easier to reach even the highest frets. We also took just a little bit of the heel at the joint down a bit, just to make the reach to the high frets even a little easier and to really get the benefit of that seven percent angle.” Weighing in at about 8.5 pounds, for Les Paul players who play a lot of lead or wield a slide, it’s an ideal instrument.
Parnell and the Custom Shop also gave his Goldtop a distinctive look. The instrument has no pickguard. The neck is finished in satin for a fast feel and a distinctive black “stinger” is painted at the back of the headstock. And the classic reissue nitrocellulose Goldtop color has been slightly darkened by adding a faded tobacco finish to Parnell’s specification. The nickel hardware also sports a gently aged patina and his signature is engraved in the truss-rod cover. The artist says the initial run will number approximately 150 instruments.
Parnell set out for on the path toward this idealized version of his favorite Gibson in the ’60s, when he inherited a hollowbody Harmony guitar from his father, a rancher who played swing with his neighbors. When he fell under the spell of the Allman Brothers a few years later, Parnell bought his first Gibson Les Paul, a ’56 Goldtop that he still owns and plays, and started to use a slide.
From Duane Allman, Parnell worked backwards and forwards, investigating the playing of classic bluesmen like Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins, while at the same time working – first as a sideman for Kinky Friedman and then with his own band as and a songwriter – on forging a distinctive style.
Parnell plays slide with a thick glass slider (a stand-in for Allman’s coricidin bottle) and his penchant for open tunings means you’ll never see him with just one Gibson Les Paul on a gig.
“I find open tunings much more free for slide,” Parnell says. “When I’m playing pentatonic blues things or other kinds of music, I just tune to standard. What’s great about open tunings is it’s almost like playing piano. You have all these wonderful voicings and sympathetic strings, and it’s easy to come up with something unique, which gives you the upper hand as an artist.”
His preferred open tunings are E (E-B-E-G#-B-D, A (E-A-E-A-C#-A) and G (D-G-D-G-B-D), and typically he brings at least three guitars – including, of course, his Lee Roy Parnell Signature ’57 Les Paul Goldtop – to shows so he’s always got a guitar with the correct tuning at hand. “But it’s hard to pick up anything else but my signature model,” he says, “because I’m such a fan of that guitar.”