“The Hoss” – Muddy Waters’ red 57 Telecaster
MUDDY Waters was an inspired and inspirational performer, a magical entertainer with a sparkle in his eye, a laugh in his voice and that rare, indefinable quality, stage presence. He was also a true musical pioneer.
The 1940s and 50s witnessed a huge exodus from the American South, as thousands of poor, black, rural workers headed north in search a better life free from prejudice, the Jim Crow laws and a grossly unfair sharecropping farming system which doomed them to poverty and servitude.
With them, they brought the folk music of the Delta – and a sizeable part of its culture. (When Muddy Waters sings of having his “mojo working”, being a “Hoochie Coochie Man” or having a “John the Conqueror Root” or a “mojo hand” he’s referring directly to superstitions which arrived on Southern US shores via the slave ships from Africa.)
McKinley Morganfield (he apparently acquired the name, Muddy Waters, from his fondness for playing in puddles as a small boy – it’s funny how these things sometimes stick) was in the vanguard of the musicians who introduced the electric guitar to the folk-blues from the Mississippi Delta. Muddy was, by no means, alone in doing do, but he was definitely one of the first.
What he also did, crucially, was effectively to invent the modern, guitar-led rock band – one or two electric guitars, bass, drums, piano (plus, in his case, harmonica). It’s not too much of a stretch to say that this, in turn, shaped the very sound of most modern popular music.
Over the course of a career every bit as successful and influential as it was long, Muddy Waters played quite a few guitars, but no instrument was more associated with him than his red rosewood-fingerboard Telecaster, known as “The Hoss”. It was a constant companion from the late 1950s until his death in 1983 and unlike Robert Johnson’s instruments, there is no shortage of pictures or film clips of this guitar in its famous owner’s hands.
How and why it he changed it down the years is less well documented, though “Steady Rollin'” Bob Margolin, guitar player in Muddy’s band between 1973 and 1980, was kind enough to shed a little light on it when I approached him via Facebook.
The guitar started life in 1957 or 1958 as a standard blonde, maple-fingerboard Tele. Margolin says Muddy told him he changed the neck in 1961, because Fender had started offering replacement necks. He explains: “He told me he changed the neck in ’61. Fender had started making replacement necks that were slightly wider. Muddy had large hands.”
The neck he had fitted appears to have been made for the more upmarket edgebound Custom Telecaster – that’s what the decal on the headstock says. It was also refinished around the same time in Candy Apple Red, though Bob Margolin says he has no idea why Muddy had it repainted.
Somewhere down the line, the guitar also gained a very distinctive pair of Fender amplifier knobs instead of the original knurled metal ones. Margolin says: ” I didn’t ask him why he changed the knobs but it’s a good idea. Telecaster knobs are heavy metal and they don’t stay securely on the guitar. The amp knobs have numbers on them that you can see – much more useful. I’ve done that on my own Tele.”
Along the way, somewhat later, it also gained a brass, six-saddle bridge, in place of the original three-saddle “ashtray” bridge.
Why Muddy called it “the Hoss” is also not fully documented. Save for a brief flirtation with the oddly-shaped Guild Thunderbird (the result, apparently of a commercial endorsement deal) the red Tele was Muddy’s main workhorse for most of his later working life. Margolin has his own thoughts. He explained: “hoss” was a word Muddy also sometimes used to refer to a certain crucial part of the male anatomy!”
When Muddy first toured Europe as part of a “folk-blues” package it was with a number of more traditional artists who were closer to what European audiences were expecting. It’s easy to see how Muddy, with his hard-edged urban blues and screaming, keening Telecaster was a shock to the system. The next time he crossed the pond, he brought an acoustic guitar – only to be confronted by disappointed fans who, by that time, had caught up with the tough, electric sound of Chicago’s South Side. He must have felt he just couldn’t win!
In his earlier years, Muddy seems to have played slide in an open G tuning – arguably the most popular traditional country blues tuning. In later life, he seems mostly to have used standard E-A-D-G-B-E tuning, even for slide. It was this, combined with the biting tone of the Telecaster’s bridge pickup that became Muddy’s signature sound, oft imitated, but never equalled.
(I’ve seen many players attempt to emulate it. Jimmie Vaughan did a decent job, as does Britain’s very own Ian Siegal and Sweden’s Ronni Boysen, the brilliant guitarist who now plays with Muddy’s eldest son, Larry “Mud” Morganfield whenever he tours Europe. If you love Muddy’s music, go and see Mud. The physical resemblance is uncanny, his voice is very close, and the musicians who back him are a first-rate recreation of the classic Muddy Waters Blues Band of the 60s.)
Along with his great rival and Chess Records labelmate, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy ruled the roost on the Chicago blues scene in the 50s and early 60s. Just as British pop fans in the early 60s favoured either the Beatles or the Stones, I like to think many blues lovers now tend to favour one or the other. There were distinct differences. Muddy was a supreme entertainer, his songs lighter and more humorous, that infectious twinkle in his eye making him a rather more accessible. In contrast, the Wolf was a darker proposition – a huge bear of a man whose brooding presence, while equally magnetic, carried a very real air of menace. Anyone who knows me will know that I love Muddy’s music, but remain most emphatically on the Wolf side of the equation!
Even so, I also find Muddy, his music and his performances irresistible and quite compelling – I was listening last night to his early recordings as I started writing this blog post. The chance to lay hands on that famous red Telecaster is not one I would miss for the world – not that it’s ever likely to happen.
The closest I’ve come was a rather pretty Candy Apple Red 60s-style Mexican Tele I bought in the mid 2000s (Number 14 in this blog, if you care to look). Of course, it wound up with sporting a pair of Fender amp knobs! Why on earth wouldn’t it? All other considerations aside, my Tele wasn’t dissimilar to the “official” Fender Muddy Waters Telecaster the company was marketing at the time, and was made in the same Mexican factory.
The “official” signature model also bore a reproduction of Muddy’s signature stamped into the steel of the neckplate and a “Custom Telecaster” decal on the headstock, as did the original.
When Muddy died, “the Hoss” found its way into the hands of Waters’ latter-day manager Scott Cameron, who was also the executor of the singer’s will. Finally, after Cameron’s death, his widow passed it on to Waters’ family in 2017, along with a second guitar commissioned as a gift for Muddy by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.
Muddy had finally been posthumously inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 (as were Chess Records boss Leonard Chess and Chess labelmate Bo Diddley that year). When his family got the guitar back, they loaned it to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. It was later at one stage lent to Metropolitan Museum in New York City for an exhibition, though its current whereabouts are unclear.
Wherever it is, this is one guitar I’d dearly love the chance to play – though it’s a nailed-on certainly I would never, ever do its wonderful, uniquely charismatic owner anything approaching justice.
Finally, here’re a fine clip of Muddy playing the Tele on stage when he headlined the 1981 Chicago Bluesfest…