Artist launches guitar innovation in Aspen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN, Colorado – Les Paul and Erich Stone have some differences in their background. Where Paul is a legendary musician – and still active, playing a weekly New York City gig at the age of 94 – Stone can barely strum a guitar. Paul has a deep history with music technology, pioneering not only the solid-body electric guitar that made rock ‘n’ roll possible, but also multi-track recording and delay effects. Stone’s career has been as an artist.
The two also have some small things in common. Both trace their family histories through Milwaukee, home to both Paul and to Stone’s parents. Both changed their name from similar-sounding Germanic names: Paul was born Lester William Polfuss; Stone originally went by Erich Papenfus.
And now, Stone aims to join Paul in revolutionizing the guitar. Stone has taken a handful of guitars – including Gibson’s signature model, known as the Les Paul – and modified them by replacing the metal frets with quartz crystals. Over the past year, at Jazz Aspen Snowmass festivals in Snowmass Village and in Sonoma, Calif., he has put his instruments in the hands of numerous guitarists, including Shelby Lynne, Lyle Lovett and the guitarists from Ziggy Marley’s and Chris Isaak’s bands. The feedback, he says, has been metaphorically deafening.
“A lot of the guitarists have said, the best way to describe it is as ‘hi-definition guitar,'” said the 46-year-old Stone. “You try to overload it on feedback, and it doesn’t go over the top. It’s mellow, versus harsh and screechy.
“It’s kind of like breaking the sound barrier: No one thought it could be done – till they did it. We’re hearing notes nobody’s ever heard before.”
Ross Lawson, a musician and a guitar repairman with 16 years’ experience at Drum City Guitarland in Wheat Ridge, has tested each of the guitars Stone has made. He came away impressed with the difference the frets make.
“There are unique advantages: depth of the note, clarity, a more energized sound,” he said. “You wouldn’t think so, but it’s a really surprising difference.” A Fender Stratocaster that began, in Lawson’s estimation, as a good guitar, “became a great one.”
Stone has gotten numerous comments from New Agers who chalk up the sound to the mystical power of crystals. He doesn’t discount that entirely, but he also notes that there is plenty of science behind his innovation. He has become well-versed in the subjects of magnetic fields, the relationship between mass and energy, and something known as “the Les Paul drop-off” – the tendency of notes played on Les Paul guitars to drop in volume dramatically, rather than gradually.
“This takes away that effect. It will sustain a lot longer,” said Stone of his frets.
Stone, a Golden resident who worked the last five years at Red Lobster, has yet to convince the U.S. Patent Office of the breakthrough he has achieved. His application for a patent based on appearance was rejected two weeks ago; he is rewriting the application for a scientific patent, based on the clarity, sustainability and power of the sound made by his guitars.
Like penicillin, the microwave and Post-It notes, the discovery of stone frets was accidental. Trying to come up with money for visits to Inessa, his girlfriend in Russia, and inspired by the striped guitar Eddie Van Halen used in the video for Van Halen’s “Jump,” Stone thought he would decorate some guitars. After some early and unsatisfying experiments with gun images, he was ready to drop the idea. Then Inessa raised the idea of using glass as a material.
“She said glass, and I immediately thought quartz,” Stone said.
Absent from his thoughts were the effects on the tone. “I wasn’t even thinking about the sound. I just didn’t want to make it any worse,” he said. “Inessa told me it would change the sound, and I said, ‘Oh … yeah …'”
It didn’t take long to get sound on his mind. Two years ago Stone customized his first guitar, an off-the-rack $900 Fender Stratocaster – the first electric guitar he ever touched.
“I got one fret in, played a few notes on one string, and I knew,” he said. “I got the rest of the frets in and thought, ‘OK, what’s going on here?'”
Stone isn’t rushing his invention to the market. For one thing, he has five instruments completed: “It’s not like I have a truckload of guitars to sell,” he said. He wants to spread the word first through musicians, who, he hopes, will bring the buzz to guitar manufacturers.
Part of his plan is to use Aspen as a staging ground. A frequent visitor to the area – he has a brother who lives in Old Snowmass – Stone has had a backstage area at Jazz Aspen Snowmass festivals where artists can try his guitars. He hopes to establish headquarters in Aspen, a place he figures is relatively easy to get his guitar into hands of prominent players.
Stone believes his innovation will last longer than the Baha Men and their 2000 hit, “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
“The nature of the music industry is, everyone wants an edge. And this is an edge,” he said. “There will be the Fender style, the Gibson style, and whatever we come up with, which is a whole new thing. I’m marketing it as the 21st-century guitar.”
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