Rick Richards’ 1973 Dan Armstrong Plexiglass Guitar
THE music I love often seems to arrive from slightly unexpected directions – a case in point being my love of the world’s greatest bar-band, bar none, The Georgia Satellites, which started one fine spring day in, of all places, a distinctly unrock’n’roll little town on the Suffolk coast.
It was the mid-1980s and I was enjoying a leisurely browse in the bargain bins of a lovely little record shop in Southwold. I came away with some interesting vinyl finds, not least a 12-inch mini-album with a mustardy-gold cover. From the black-and-white shot of two fresh-faced young men peering self-consciously at the camera, you might have fancied butter would not melt in their mouths. The one of the left of the picture sports an unruly mass of dark, curly hair, and has a cigarette dangling from his lips, an unusual see-though guitar hanging off his shoulder.
Bargain of the day that day was most definitely the Satellites’ British indie-label debut, “Keep the Faith”. The young men were guitarists Dan Baird and Rick Richards, and the instrument in question was Richards’ ubiquitous Ampeg Dan Armstrong Plexiglass guitar.
Amused and intrigued by a Sats interview I’d read a couple of months before, I thought it was worth shelling out a couple of quid for the record, even though it had just six tracks – too few, in my book for an album, but too many to really be an EP. Just six tunes.
But what tunes!
Frontman Dan Baird defied my initial impression of him as the more straitlaced of the pair, singing in a voice dripping with depraved Southern dissolution. One play of the nascent US hit, “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” was enough to convince you Baird wasn’t a man you’d want your daughter to bring home!
But there was a lot more here than lowdown’n’dirty – a diversity of styles, from jangly pop-rock (more than a hint of fellow Georgians REM, I thought at the time), to country twang. And yes, there was also a decent helping of the marvellous, rentlentless rock’n’roll that would become the Sats’ trademark. At their rockin’ best, the band’s music combined the loose swagger of The Faces and the Stones, the hard, irresistible groove of AC/DC and a cocky tip of the hat to the more raucous end of the country music spectrum – “Keep the Faith” closes with a cracking 100-mph version of George Jones’s “The Race is On”.
I soon eagerly hoovered up their other albums, continuing to be enthralled by Baird’s clever lyrical turn of phrase and filthy Southern delivery. Well, that and an irresistible piledriver groove, driven along by drummer Mauro Magellan and Richards’ rubber-legged Ampeg Plexi bass-toting almost-twin, Rick Price.
The thing that bound it all together, though, was Rick Richards’ clever and ferocious lead guitar work – a kind of bastard son of Chuck Berry and Lowell George.
His trusty 1957 Gibson Les Paul Special supplied the conventional licks, while the Dan Armstrong Plexi was responsible for all those juicy open-G tuned slide licks. To my ears, Rick Richards has always been that magical thing – a player whose solos are full of fire, energy and passion, but which also, cleverly manage go somewhere, with a paucity of aimless noodling.
This was the perfect band to go and see on a Saturday night, the perfect band to have on repeat-play in the car – at one time in the early 90s, a cassette version of “In the Land of Salvation and Sin” was an almost permanent fixture in my car’s tape player. It just played from end to end – then “I Dunno” would kick in and the ride would start over.
A copy of their excellent (and highly-recommended as a starting point) compilation, “Let it Rock” also provided the PA warm-up music for my r’n’b band Automatic Slim’s live show for years.
I’ve already drawn comparisons to the Faces (one of the Sats’ albums was dedicated to “them good ‘ol smilin’ Faces”, while Faces pianoman Ian McLagen featured prominently on at least two albums) and AC/DC, but the other parallel I saw was with that venerable British rock’n’roll institution, Status Quo. But while Quo eventually turned cheesey and naff, to my ears, the Satellites remained a smarter, harder, cooler version of the same idea. And of course, both bands covered John Fogerty’s “Rockin All Over the World”, even if the Sats’ version was merely a segue from another Fogerty tune, “Almost Saturday Night”.
This classic Satellites lineup dissolved in the early 1990s after a great many incredible gigs, a US number 2 hit and a cameo appearance on the soundtrack of the popular movie, “Cocktail” (the Sats’ version of “The Hippy Hippy Shake” recorded in perfect sync with the Swinging Blues Jeans’ original after the filmmakers cut the relevant scene to the original, only to be denied use of the track in the film).
Dan Baird went off to pursue a critically-acclaimed solo career, taking drummer Magellan with him. He released two excellent and highly-acclaimed solo albums, “Love Songs for the Hearing Impaired” and “Buffalo Nickel”, both bursting with songs that are equal in quality to the Satellites’ very best, before forming a regular band with Magellan called Homemade Sin. He announced in 2019 he was retiring from touring.
After a couple of years off the road, Rick Richards found himself back out, leading a new Satellites lineup. At some stage, he parted company with Rick Price, leaving him as the sole original member. It is this band which is still gigging today (occasionally joined by Baird, I gather). I never saw the original lineup in its prime, but did see the lineup fronted by the two Ricks at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire in the late 2000s (supported by my Southend chums The Hamsters). I was, frankly, rather disappointed. Without the relentless thunderous beat of Magellan’s drums, or Baird’s Southern slur, the band just wasn’t the same. The Hamsters, on the other hand, were on fire that night – without a doubt the best gig I ever saw them play. 🙂
These days, the Satellites aside, Richards plays with former Guns’N’Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin in the JuJu Hounds as well as guest appearances on a good few other artists’ albums. (My favourite is quite an oldie now, his contribution to Warren Zevon’s “Sentimental Hygiene” album, where he joined REM in the studio to form the backing band.)
After all these years, Richards has added a few other guitars to his guitar armoury, but he still turns to his see-though old faithful almost every time he slips a bottleneck on his finger…
You can read a rather good 2016 interview with Richards from Vintage Guitar magazine here
Given Richards was always such a distinctive and original player, it’s unsurprising he chose such an unusual guitar as one of his standbys. In its original form, the Ampeg Plexi was made between 1969 and 1971, long enough, nevertheless, for it to find its way into in the hands of some pretty serious players. Rick Richards’ almost-namesake, Keef, famously played one during what was arguably the Rolling Stones’ purplest of patches. Aerosmith’s Joe Perry played one, and so did Tom Petty. Rather later, the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl joined the club. For all that though, whenever I think of Ampeg Plexis it’s The Georgia Satellites I think of first.
The Plexi’s double-cutaway body was carved from a block of polymethyl methacrylate, a tough acrylic plastic marketed in the US as Lucite, or Plexiglass – and in the UK as Perspex. Music equipment firm Ampeg had asked guitar-builder Dan Armstrong to revamp its rather bland guitar and bass range, giving it greater sustain and a more distinctive look. He certainly did that.
Body material aside, other innovations included a 24-fret, two-octave neck – almost unheard of at the time – and a choice of six interchangeable Bill Lawrence pickups, capable of being rapidly swapped over to offer different tonalities and outputs. They were all single-pickup guitars, Fender Esquire-style, with a three-way toggle switch giving a choice between the conventional tone knob, a preset treble roll-off or a straight-through mode that connected the pickup directly to the output Jack. And that distinctive cheesey wood-effect headstock facing and pickguard really was Formica – the very same material many kitchen unit companies used to favour for cabinets and worktops the world over!
Confusingly, Rick Richards refers to his Dan Armstrong as a ’73 – that’s two years after production ended. He says he bought it new and has had it ever since, so maybe it was old shop stock. The pickup in his guitar is the “Rock Treble” option, wound for its output power and brightness, and a toneful beast is most definitely is, plugged directly into Richards’ mighty Marshall amps. The only modification is that that at some stage Richards completely removed the tone switch and mounted the output jack on a metal plate, which also covers the hole where the switch was. My guess is that at some stage, he may have trodden on his lead, yanking the jack plug hard enough to wrench it out of its Formica surround.
Interviewed a couple of years ago for Vintage Guitar, Richards said: ” The Dan Armstrong is my go-to for slide; I’ve had it since they first came out in the ’70s and I still have just the one Rock Treble pickup for it.”
One of the drawbacks of the Plexis – and the relatively small number of other guitars made from this material – is their weight. Perspex may look great, but it’s a dense material. It weighs a ton when you carve a block of it into a guitar body. It’s one of the reasons, I think, why Ampeg stopped making these guitars, although the company has made at least two series of reissues since ending the original production run, in 1999 and 2006.
A few Japanese companies offered copies in the 70s, notably the hugely sought-after Greco brand (I have one of their mid-70s Les Pauls and it’s better than most Gibsons I’ve played). A former workmate of mine, John McLellan, used to have another Japanese Plexi copy with an odd sliding pickup, similar to the one fitted to some wooden-bodied Ampeg guitars. It was a nice instrument, though to me the neck joint always felt alarmingly mobile! By pure coincidence, his son Ross, also a guitarist, took a fancy to an entirely different Japanese Plexi copy, an Electra, which he had for a while before selling on. (Apparently Electra later adopted the much more familiar Westone brand name.)
So how much would I love a go on Richards’ Plexi? Well the answer to that one is fairly obvious. Yes, of course of I would, not least to experience the mojo of an instrument that inspired me a good deal down the years.
These days, when you can find them, original 1960s/70s Plexis sell for serious money… last time I looked online, there was one for sale for more than $6,000. The 1999 and 2006 reissues don’t seem to be all that much cheaper.
On eBay right now, however, you’ll find a fresh run of Chinese-made reissues (check them out here.) I’m not sure whether they are official Ampeg/Dan Armstrong-licensed products. They don’t have the same pickups, the knobs are wrong and there’s only the one strap button in the base of the body. But for about $300 shipped from the People’s Republic, I must admit I’m almost tempted…almost.
I rather suspect though that if I did buy one, sooner or later it would join the long list of guitars you can read about in this blog which seemed a good idea at the time, only to wind up back on eBay after a lengthy, neglectful sojourn under the bed…
As a footnote, Norman’s Rare Guitars in the Los Angeles – a droolsomely fascinating shop that’s a must-visit for any guitar nut – had one for sale at the time when this video was shot. Worth a watch…