Robert Johnson’s Gibson Kalamazoo KG-14
ROBERT Johnson is often called the King of the Delta Blues Musicians. Not everyone agrees (Elijah Wald’s “Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues” is an particularly fascinating and challenging read on this.) Nevertheless, many regard him as the wellspring from which flowed much of what would become the blues, rock’n’roll and from there, rock, soul and pop music.
The legend of Johnson meeting the Devil at a crossroads outside Clarksdale, Mississippi and acquiring an otherworldly musical talent in return for his mortal soul is very well known. Outside the world of those who know and love the blues, however, Johnson’s music – as distinct from versions of his songs by the likes of Cream, the Rolling Stones et al – remains less familiar.
I’d love to be able to tell you I absorbed Johnson’s songs with my mother’s milk, but the truth is that I came to them pretty late. I don’t think his intricate, edgy, rhythmically-complex guitarwork and intense, restless, haunted voice really permeated my consciousness at all until I was 20 or so.
It started with a conversation in a wine bar with a Frenchman named Patrick Tomlinson. Patrick was an odd chap. He lived on a small boat sitting on the mud in Burnham Pound and spoke with a strong French accent. I assume he was French – despite his distinctly English name. Everyone I knew called him “Euroman”.
I was obsessed with Dr Feelgood and their very English, very Canvey Island, take on rhythm and blues at that time and my blues knowledge failed to extend very far beyond the Feelgoods, Eric Clapton, Howlin’ Wolf and maybe Muddy Waters. Every time I saw Patrick, he would urge me to listen to Robert Johnson, insisting it would change forever the way I listened to everything else.
So I listened. I was probably expecting too much. I’m a bit ashamed to say the annoyingly tinny sound of that lone voice and acoustic guitar on a scratchy old 33rpm vinyl album made very little impression.
It would be a while before I listened again – and longer still before I properly came to appreciate the man and his music. By that time, I was immersed in a far wider range of blues music. I’d also lived some more, something which lends a far better perspective from which to listen to the blues, never mind to sing it.
It was also around the time the 29 recordings Johnson made during his brief life were digitally cleaned up, successfully repackaged and re-released in a rather nice two-CD set. All of a sudden the songs and the performances were easier to appreciate. I’d started playing in an acoustic blues duo with my pal Phil Davies. We called ourselves Slim Tim and Lightin’ Phil (I fronted a band called Automatic Slim and Phil was an electrician by trade!) Phil had that cleaned-up album and a strong desire to play some of those songs on his newly-acquired National Reso-Phonic Style O resonator guitar.
We did “Kindhearted Woman” and “Me and the Devil”, still two of my RJ favourites, though these days, I’m inclined to the view that neither quite matches the wistfulness of “Come Into My Kitchen”, the desperate intensity of “Hellhounds on My Trail”, or the frantic pace of “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)”.
Then of course, there was the 1986 Ralph Macchio film, “Crossroads”, a thoroughly entertaining Karate Kid-with-guitars-and-harmonicas piece of nonsense with the Robert Johnson legend at its heart. My boy Owen, himself a budding guitar player by then, lapped it up – though I suspect it was the flash of the leather-clad diabolical Steve Vai’s character that held him in greater thrall!
Anyway, I got there in the end. I came to appreciate the power, the greatness and mastery of those 29 sides, recorded over two sessions in improvised hotel room studios in Dallas and San Antonio in 1936 and 1937. And as I came to play a lot more guitar, I came to appreciate them all the more.
I would usually play this kind of blues on a resonator – I’ve had a cheap one for years and recently spent a small fortune on a genuine National – which finally brings me to the subject of Robert Johnson’s guitar, or guitars, to be more precise.
There are no surviving, authenticated Robert Johnson guitars, so to all intents and purposes, we have to say the opportunity to touch, hold or play “his” guitar is lost. Besides, he is said to have played various instruments down the years, with two serious contenders, namely the instruments in the only two existing, authenticated pictures of Johnson*.
In the full-length studio portrait used on the front of most of the albums, a smartly-suited Johnson is seen holding Gibson Guitar Corporation L-1 flat top acoustic. (Gibson currently markets a modern rendition of this small-bodied guitar as the “Robert Johnson model.”) There is a possibility, however, this guitar – in its day, quite an expensive, prestige instrument – was merely a prop borrowed for the photo session. Could it, I wonder, have been merely a piece of careful image-building – along with the smart suit and beautifully-shined shoes? If they were expensive then, 2020 L1 prices are astronomical – there’s one on the American Reverb website at the time of writing for more than £7,000 ($8,600).
There are suggestions, too, that Johnson had to borrow a guitar for the photo session because his own instrument had been damaged in a fight, or when he was arrested for vagrancy, a common occupational hazard at the time for itinerant musicians. These guys really did walk the walk!
Johnson is also said to have played Stella and Kalamazoo guitars, and at one time, a Stella resonator. There are stories, too, of him showing up not long before his death in 1938, with a National Resonator with a seventh string, though there is some debate how this might have been tuned or what purpose it would have served.
For the purposes of this exercise, though I’ve decided to go with the guitar Johnson is holding in the second photo – the one where he has a cigarette drooping from his mouth – which appears to be a Gibson Kalamazoo KG-14 flat top.
The KG-14 is very likely the guitar on at least some of those Texas hotel recordings – I’m listening to them as I type this. Kalamazoo was Gibson’s budget range, much more appropriate for a hard-up travelling musician. The KG-14 originally sold for just $12.50 – there’s a 1936 example for sale at the time of writing on Reverb for £1,352 ($1,670).
So assuming I shelled out £1,300-odd for this piece of history and making the far, far bigger assumption that this turned out to be Robert Johnson’s actual Kalamazoo, how would I find it? Hard to play, I would think, for a wuss like me! 🙂
The old blues guys tended to favour heavy-gauge strings, not least for volume. (In truth, I’m guessing they strung their guitars with whatever they could get and didn’t worry all that much about it.)
The playing action might not have been all that kind on the player, either. Modern guitars have a truss rod – a metal rod inserted into the wooden neck to stop the tension of the strings bending the neck forward so that the strings aren’t too far off the fingerboard. Many of the cheaper guitars from this period – including some KG-14s – didn’t have a truss rod, so would have had quite a high action. Johnson played a lot of slide, too, so might have preferred it that way anyway.
Johnson’s big, powerful hands and massively long fingers – clearly visible in both pictures – have also to be factored into the equation. Faustian pact or not, the pictures suggest Johnson’s genes blessed him with the kind of hands that could easily cope with a guitar with a bit of “fight” in it. I, on the other hand, am not similarly blessed!
Still, what a thing it would be simply to hold such an instrument, to smell its smells, to tune it to an open chord and play and sing some of Johnson tunes of love, loss and restlessness.
As you did so, you would surely also find yourself imagining the people, the places and the events such an instrument would have witnessed as it plied its trade in those huge hands, accompanying Johnson across the American South, though times of terrible hardship, but also during the very time when one of our most palpable modern legends was forged.
A couple of links, to finish. A few years ago, I wrote a song called “Robert Johnson’s Shoes”. Click here to watch a clip my band, WOLFPACK playing it.
Secondly, an infinitely superior song by my good friend and brilliant master-songsmith Guy Tortora. “Bluesman in a Boneyard”
* AFTER posting this piece today, it was pointed out to me that a third picture of Johnson, apparently owed by and authenticated by his sister, has recently come to light. In it, again, he appears to be playing a KG-14… You can real about it here…