Hands-On Review:Two great artists deliver their own takes on a classic

Mozart's penny whistle concerto? Never heard of it? That's because it doesn't exist. The penny whistle just wasn't Mozart's axe of choice. If it were, we'd be left with a very different legacy. The same principle applies to all great musicians. That's why it struck me as odd that the same instrument Gibson's edgy, curvy, classic Gibson SG—would be found on two such widely divergent horns of the rock'n'roll animal as The Who and Black Sabbath.

But reflecting further on the guitarists who have driven these bands, Pete Townshend and Tony Iommi, it begins to make a kind of sense. First, both of these guys began as ground breaker—rebels determined to take their music to new lands. The SG was the cutting-edge guitar with a distinctive style and a new cutting tone that lent itself to music with real chutzpah. Second, they were both always convinced that the visual and kinetic elements of a concert are critical to the overall experience. Of course, the Gibson SG is the perfect axe for the showman, somehow as complementary to the proto-gothic visage of Black Sabbath as it was to the Mod aesthetic of the early Who.

Finally, both have proven they're artists with a lot to say and the staying power to say it all. Townshend's been through so many incarnations as a musician, writer, editor, and playwright in various combinations, it's hard to keep track. But the Who has kept cropping up through it all. And who would be surprised to see another manifestation?

Likewise Iommi has been the most distinctive sound and energetic glue behind Black Sabbath, being the only consistent member of the band throughout its many permutations. He also shares Townshend's manic intensity and endless creative drive, having recently finished a solo album. Of course, being such passionately individualistic musicians, each has made the Gibson SG his axe, ideal to play his music.

Click to EnlargeHis g-g-generation
I was almost intimidated to play the signature axe of such a huge rock icon as Pete Townshend, but the feeling passed quickly when I ran my fingers over those hand-polished frets on that silky bound rosewood fingerboard with pearl dots. I plugged into something LARGE and tubular. I cranked the amp, blasted out a few of those famous chords, and understood instantly what Gibson had in mind. This SG is a precise replica of the SG Special Townshend played at the "Who Live at Leeds" concert. Chills ran up my spine. An hour later I was soaked in sweat with a pounding heart and ringing ears. It was easy to replicate Pete's huge, sustaining tone, aided by the compensated adjustable wrap stop bar and the super-tight joint between the mahogany body and neck. The pickups are two black P90 soapbars that generate the cutting grind found on hits like "Magic Bus" and "I Can't Explain" with perfect accuracy. The SG Special neck is solid but sleek and speedy. The chrome Grover tuners kept me in tune, despite my clumsy attempts to replicate that round-the-world thing. (It's harder than it looks!) The red satin finish on this guitar is stunning (I have to suspect it's nicer than the original). They hand rub walnut stain into the mahogany color apply a cherry and finally finish it with a durable satin top coat. It has a Pete Townshend signature decal on the back of the headstock. After I'd run out of Who licks, these fantastic looks helped quell the inexplicable desire to smash the thing through my amp.

Click to EnlargePickups, bloody pickups
Ever notice how when you play a certain guitar it evokes a particular style of playing? Well the Tony Iommi Signature SG transformed my whole personality. Suddenly I was a darker, meaner, more metal kind of woman. Suddenly "I am Iron Man" became a personal message. The obvious source of the transformation was the Tony Iommi signature humbuckers. The original versions of these pickups were hand wound and specially configured by John Birch in England to produce Tony's unmistakable filled-out but edgy sound. Tony approached Gibson to get some more of them made and, after a huge amount of experimentation with magnets, wire, and winding, they finally hit it on the head. It has the highest output of any Gibson pickup and features a massive, single-blade polepiece with the entire assembly sealed in epoxy. It's super hot, but I could really hear the incredible breadth of signal. When I played around with various tone and volume combinations, the signal was always solid and full. Word is, Tony likes these better than his originals.

Features & Specs

Pete Townshend Signature SGTony Iommi Signature SGH
  • Mahogany body and neck
  • Bound rosewood fingerboard with pearl dots
  • Compensated adjustable stopbar bridge (wrap)
  • Two black P90 soapbar pickups
  • Mahogany red satin finish
  • SG special neck style
  • Chrome Grover tuners
  • Pete Townshend signature decal on back of headstock
  • 1-11/16" nut
  • 24" scale
  • Two volume and two tone controls with three-way selector
  • Mahogany body and neck
  • Ebony fingerboard with cross inlay
  • ABR-1 tune-o-matic bridge with stop tailpiece, chrome
  • Tony Iommi Signature humbucking pickups
  • Ebony finish
  • Ultra-thin 1960 neck style
  • Chrome Grover tuners
  • Tony Iommi signature on truss rod cover
  • 1-11/16" nut width
  • 24" scale
  • Two volume and two tone controls with three-way selector