Red for the blues

Gypie Mayo’s Fiesta Red 1961/2 Stratocaster

Red line – the Strat after the respray Photo: Christoffer Frances

SOMETIMES I seem to end up obsessing about a particular instrument. It’s happened a few times – no bad thing, I suppose, as it’s all grist to the mill of this blog. And never more was it so than my obsession with this particular Fiesta Red Fender Strat.
It’s no exaggeration to say that great old Essex rhythm and blues band Dr Feelgood changed my life.
All through the mid-70s I had pretty much your bog-standard teenage rock fan tastes – Deep Purple, Led Zep, Bad Co, Quo…oh and Hawkwind.
Was there a teenage boy in the land around that time who didn’t see Hawkwind play at least once?
On February 20, 1975, that changed. I was 16 and a half and halfway through my first year of A-levels. My Damascene conversion came just after 5.15pm on a Thursday afternoon. Home from college, I sat down to my tea and a music programme called “The Geordie Scene” on the telly. It was usually a good watch, but that week’s featured act was simply the most amazing, exciting and different rock’n’roll band I’d ever seen. Dr Feelgood’s TV debut that afternoon really made its mark – on me and a hell of a lot of other impressionable young men. It was all my friends at college were talking about the next day – that and the fact this band was coming to our local touring venue a few days later. My 45-year-old recollection puts me at that gig, though looking through the band’s 1975 tour schedule online, I clearly wasn’t there. The Feelgoods visited Cambridge Corn Exchange in February 1975, as part of the Naughty Rhythms package tour. The show I saw was the Feelgoods headlining over opener GT Moore and the Reggae Guitars. The tour schedule tells me it was October 23. The very next day, I went out and I bought the freshly-minted “Malpractice” album. A harmonica followed a few days later – entirely the wrong kind of harmonica, it turned out. It took me weeks to figure out why sucking and blowing on the thing didn’t produce anything even remotely like Mr Brilleaux’s efforts on the record! From that point on, though, for years to come, Dr Feelgood were absolutely my favourite band and Lee Brilleaux my hero.
Wilko Johnson was a brilliant songwriter and a quite unique guitar stylist.

Firey – Gypie on stage with Lee Brilleaux and the band. Photo: Christoffer Frances

No doubt about it. However, the five years his successor, Gypie Mayo, spent with the Feelgoods are still my favourite period of the band’s history. Like many Feelgoods fans, I’d been confused and upset by news of Wilko’s departure, but thrilled to hear Gypie Mayo’s ferocious guitar work screaming out on his debut single, “She’s a Windup”. It would be a few months before I saw him in action – first on a BBC “In Concert” TV broadcast, sporting a red Gibson ES335, then later, live at Essex University, Colchester, with THAT Strat.
That whole “anyone can play in a band” DIY-punk ethic was the thing that got me playing music, but there’s no doubt it was Dr Feelgood who got me interested in blues music. Lee Brilleaux was the reason I started playing harmonica and the reason I first put a slide on my finger. But it was Gypie’s powerful, incendiary and endlessly-inventive guitar-playing that really made me want a guitar – more specifically, a Fiesta Red Rosewood-fingerboard Stratocaster. It was a fabulous-looking thing. The sounds he coaxed from it were quite incredible, but so then, was his sheer virtuosity.
I’ve already spoken elsewhere in this blog about the red early 80s JV Squier Strat I desperately wanted, but couldn’t afford ( Well, that was definitely all Gypie’s fault!
From the outset, it was clear the new guy could more than adequately cover the Wilko material – not exactly copying Wilko’s parts, but finding a way to adapt them to his own style. It took him a while – the gig recorded at the Paddocks, Canvey Island, in June 1977, finds him still feeling his way into some of those familiar tunes, still finding ways best to complement Figure and Sparko’s years-old rhythm section partnership.

Blackout – Gypie playing the Strat before he had it refinished in Fiesta Red Photo: Christoffer Frances

His first album with the band, “Be Seeing You” is a fun listen, not least for the energy Gypie brings to the party, along with a scratchy, more American funkiness that was never in Wilko’s repertoire. The follow-up, “Private Practice”, truly brought Gypie into his own as a writer and a supremely inventive guitar-player, channelling the pure blues of Peter Green, the smart, economical soul-funk of Steve Cropper, a nod here to Freddie King and BB, a wink there, to his early hero, Hank B Marvin (not for nothing was that Strat red!)
By the time the band got to the “Let It Roll” album, Gypie’s playing had reached a point of inventiveness and power which put him right up there with his hero Peter Green.  If the sensuous fills and solos on “Shotgun Blues” transformed a standard 12-bar blues into something quite special, then the version on the “On the Job”  live album takes the song to fresh heights.
I could rhapsodise all day about Gypie’s playing. Instead, I’ll say just one more thing…I recently treated myself to “Taking no Prisoners”, the excellent 4-CDs-plus-a-DVD compilation containing everything he recorded with the Feelgoods between 1977 and 1981. I’m re-hearing cherished track after cherished track as I write. (In some cases, it’s the first time I’ve heard these songs since consigning my vinyl to the loft at the end of the last century.) After more than three decades as a pretty indifferent guitar player myself, every time I listen now, I constantly find myself astonished anew by this man’s playing.
In 2013, when Gypie died, tragically young, at the age of 62, many of the obituary-writers described him as a hugely-underestimated player. With the benefit of hindsight and this archive of wonderful recordings, I truly believe Gypie is definitely up there among the very finest guitar players this country has ever produced.
I had to good fortune to meet Gypie a few times, all of them after he left the Feelgoods. While dear old Lee Brilleaux was off the road, bravely fighting cancer in the early 1990s, manager Chris Fenwick and roadie Dean Kennedy reopened the Oysterfleet, a ramshackle old weatherboard pub on Canvey, as the Dr Feelgood Music Bar. The bar’s regular weekly Monday night jam sessions create a wonderful, vibrant community of musicians famous and obscure, with Figure, Sparko, Gypie and other members of the Feelgood “family” often joining whoever happened to show up to jam.

Killer combination – the Strat in Luke’s studio. One AC30 was Gypie’s, the other belongs to a friend. Photo: Luke Cawthra

I remember watching Gypie channelling his inner Hank in what he dubbed the “Five O’Clock Shadows” – and blast out classics from the Feelgood canon with my friend, Kent-based singer Gary Miller, on vocals. Like me, Gary was a huge Brilleaux fan – he would later tour with Gypie, Figure and Sparko as The Practice.
I used to take my son and stepson, then aged 13 and 14 and budding players, to the jam. They got to play with Figure and Sparko and to watch Gypie in action at extremely close quarters. These guys were all incredibly nurturing and supportive to my youngsters, something I’ll always remember with gratitude.  Gypie was especially generous with his time and attention and very encouraging of my boy Owen’s efforts on the guitar.
He would often speak of his son, Luke, who would have been about the same age and also learning the guitar. It was a huge pleasure then, when Gypie’s partner, Jenny Carruthers, kindly offered to put me in touch with Luke Cawthra (Gypie was born John Phillip Cawthra) for help with this piece. Luke inherited Gypie’s red Strat and his 1961 Gibson 335.
His first revelation was that he had been told the guitar wasn’t actually a ’62, but a ’61. The serial number says otherwise, but the dates on the end of the neck and in the body cavity may well tell a different story. Any guitar made up of 1961-dated parts could very well have ended up being finished in 1962 with a 1962 serial number on the neckplate – these things are seldom definitive.

Another one of Christoffer Frances’ terrific pics of Gypie with the Feelgoods.

Luke said: “I think he thought it was a ’62 until he had it checked over at Vintage and Rare Guitars in Bath. I do use it a fair bit, but mainly for recording. It resides up at my studio and is used on a lot of recordings. People go nuts when they see it!
“When dad got it, it was black, but had been refinished already – it most likely started off as a sunburst. There is footage of dad playing it before he had it refinished to red. I’m pretty sure Dad had it refinished red, due to his love of Hank!”
When Gypie joined the Feelgoods, he was playing his Gibson 335 – that’s guitar you’ll see him playing on “She’s a Wind Up” on Top of the Pops, and on footage of those early gigs with the band.
Luke says: “As I understand it, the band were keen on him using a Fender, as the humbucker sound wasn’t right for certain things. I don’t think Dad was particularly keen on Fenders at that time, as he’d always played Gibsons mainly.
“The band bought the guitar for Dad. They bought an old one ‘cos they were cheap(ish) secondhand in ’77/78. They went to see this guitar at some bloke’s house and Dad liked it, so they bought it for him. He never looked back really.
“Although he liked all sorts of guitars, he always favoured his Strat live. It’s an incredible guitar. It’s feather-light, pretty battered and the decal on the headstock have a bit missing.

Wear – gouges in the fingerboard at the top end. Photo: Luke Cawthra

“It’s got two naturally-worn areas where my hand fits just like Dad’s when you play a B or A major (F shape, not barre). I guess the Feelgoods did a lot of that!”
By the time Gypie bought the Strat in the late 70s, a previous owner had already replaced the original Kluson tuners with a set of modern machines – the make isn’t clear but they look like Schallers.

Missing – Luke says part of the “spaghetti logo on the Strat came adrift while Gype was re-stringing in the humid Far East. Photo: Luke Cawthra

Of the partly-missing “spaghetti” logo on the headstock, Luke says: “Dad was restringing mid tour in Singapore on a particularly humid night and a part of the decal came off as he was threading the string through the peg!”
Some time after leaving the Feelgoods, Gypie was recruited by another famous band – with some even bigger boots to fill. That supreme 1960s guitar triumvirate – Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page – had all had a turn in the lead guitar slot in the Yardbirds, but it was a job to which Gypie was more than equal.
On the one occasion I saw him with the Yardbirds, in an intimate Essex pub venue – Owen and I played an acoustic support slot – Gypie was positively on fire. I’ve seen a lot of those old 60s bands who are still gigging with one of two original members and sadly, most of them are pretty lame. This band was in an entirely different class  – vibrant, powerful and very exciting to watch – Gypie channelling his illustrious predecessors with consummate ease and then adding touches which were uniquely his own.

Gypie playing with the Yardbirds at the Retreat, Bocking, Essex. That night, he was absolutely on fire!

To my disappointment, by that time, Gypie had “retired” his 62 Strat in favour of a Candy Apple Red Japanese Fender Strat, though the original 62 did, evidently see some service with the Yardbirds.
The 62 Strat has been refretted several times, and the work has worn away the board somewhat. Luke says: “When you’re up the dusty end on either E string, you can fall off the board! Dad stopped gigging it around mid-late 90s as he was worried about it getting nicked on various Yardbirds tours. Fender kitted him out with a Japanese reissue which his partner, Jenny, has. That was his main guitar until he died. “The ’61 was refretted in about 2011. It was desperately in need of it and plays much better now than it did when I was growing up and playing it in the 90s, though I always loved playing it when I was starting out. It sounded and looked so cool to me!
“The guitar had all the pickups changed throughout the Feelgoods years. In those days, if a pickup went, the roadie would just throw it away and put a new one in. They were much less precious about vintage pickups etc back then! So it had a mixture of quite crappy pickups, really…certainly not handwound, scatterwound pickups with aged magnets etc etc!

Road-worn – the back of Gypie’s Strat Photo: Luke Cawthra

“I think two of them were Japanese ceramic ones a roadie put in there in the late 70s, when they were touring out East . These stayed in there until Dad went with the Yardbirds to the states. Upon arrival, [pickup-maker] Seymour Duncan met them and when he saw Dad’s Strat he got excited. He realised the pickups were a Frankenstein mixture of stuff and insisted on sorting some out that were period correct. I think he took the guitar back to his workshop and wound some that night ready for the studio the next day! They are in there now and they sound superb! “

Classic wear and tear – the celluloid material used in early 60s pickguards almost always cracks under this particular screw. Photo: Luke Cawthra
Wear – a close-up or the wear on the wood on the back of the body. Photo: Luke Cawthra

Gypie’s old red 335 still gets the odd live outing. Luke, who runs a studio in Bristol, teaches guitar, writes and records his own terrific original music – check it out on his Soundcloud page – also plays in a number of local bands and often uses the 335 with the Hucklebuck, a jump-blues outfit.
Luke says: “That guitar was on ‘She’s a Wind Up’. I very nervously reversed the polarity of one of the original PAFs to get the Greeny thing. It’s a magic guitar also!”
Luke says the Strat’s body, the neck, scratchplate, knobs and possibly the switch are all original, adding: “That’s it I think! A mate of mine who hates the idea of relicing says: ‘Battle scars should be earned’. That’s definitely the case with this guitar. It has been played so much.
“It’s so resonant – it’s the best Strat I’ve ever heard! I don’t actually play Strats myself these days, but I love them in the right hands and this one is such a great thing to have at the studio, especially through a good [Vox] AC30 [amp]…it’s a killer sound!”
Listening to all those great old Feelgoods tracks, it’s hard to argue with Luke’s assessment.
A few years ago, I actually got to share a stage with Gypie just the once. It was a scratch gig with members of Alias, his old band from the Harlow days – jamming through a few blues standards. They needed a singer and drummer for a one-off gig. Me and my WOLFPACK bandmate Paul Lester, jumped at the chance . Alias’s bass player John Culleton (Gypie was living at his house at the time he joined the Feelgoods and John drove him to Canvey to audition) roped us in. That gig, in a now sadly-defunct venue called The Square in the Essex new town and was truly a night to remember – not least because Gypie (playing his Japanese Strat) absolutely insisted I had to play guitar, too. No pressure then! There’s even a video of the show, if you can bring yourself to watch it.
Of all the guitars I’ve written about so far in this series, this is the first time I can honestly say I’ve been in the same room with the instrument I’m writing about. I watched Gypie play it with the Feelgoods, and countless times at those Feelgood Bar jams – if only I’d plucked up the courage to ask, Gypie would probably have let me have a go on it, though I was way too much in awe of him to be so presumptuous.
If l was prepared to drive from Essex to Bristol, l know Luke would let me play his dad’s Strat…after reading this piece, he did even offer.

As you can imagine, I did consider it. I was sorely tempted, but in the end decided, in common with all the other legendary instruments in this blog, Gypie’s guitar ought to remain strictly a Fantasy Fretboard… 🙂

PS: I thought you might like to see this cracking clip of Gypie on the top his game with the Feelgoods…

I am incredibly grateful to Luke Cawthra for the time and trouble he took answering my questions and for sorting out pictures of Gypie’s Strat . Check out Luke’s music here and check out his jump-blues band, The Hucklebuck.
Thanks also to my new Swedish friend, Christoffer Frances, for sharing some terrific pictures of Gypie playing the guitar

Soundtrack – the excellent Dr Feelgood compilation featuring all Gypie’s work with the band. Buy it here

Published by 43guitarsandcounting

I'm a musician, studio owner, writer and former specialist broadcaster of far too many years experience. I started writing and posting this daily blog on Facebook at the beginning of the Lockdown for something to do and it took me something like 19 days to run out of guitars to talk about!

One thought on “Red for the blues

  1. Great story about a classic guitar, Mk2 Feelgood was my favourite era. The 1981 South Bank Show has some classic Gypie stuff too.


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