The holiest of relics?

Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 “Woodstock” Fender Stratocaster

IT’S an eerie experience, quite unsettling in fact, to stand in the middle of this cavernous, futuristic hall in Seattle and gaze down upon a rare and precious holy relic, literally close enough to touch. A mere six inches of air and half an inch of (presumably armoured) Perspex separate you from the object of veneration.

Not the Turin Shroud, not a splinter from the True Cross, nor the bones of a revered saint, but one of the most famous and most valuable guitars in the world. The experience (no pun intended) is all the more surreal because, as you peer through the Perspex at Jimi Hendrix’s white 1968 Fender Stratocaster, you hear the sound of that same guitar – awash in a sea of electronic vibrato, punctuated by violent tremolo arm swoops and dives – echoing around the hall. Look up and it’s impossible to miss a giant, be-tasselled Jimi brought back to life on the 40-foot video wall before you.

Jimi playing on a giant veideo wall above where the Strat was displayed.

Hendrix is playing – what else? – his iconoclastic version of the American national anthem to an enraptured Woodstock crowd…four minutes of melody, noise – and if you believe some pundits – searing anti-Vietnam war commentary.

British music journalist Charles Shaar Murray, author of a fascinating and thought-provoking book on Hendrix,  put it this way: “One man with one guitar said more in three and a half minutes about that peculiarly disgusting war and its reverberations than all the novels, memoirs and movies put together.” (Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Postwar Pop

In the clip below, Hendrix, typically, had a more straightforward take on his August 18, 1969 performance…or was he merely toying good-humouredly with TV chat show host Dick Cavitt?

Political statement or not, the guitar on which Hendrix performed his controversial rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a special object. Apart from anything else, its sale at auction in 1991 precipitated a whole new megabucks market in vintage guitars with celebrity connections. Before that, instruments previously played or owned by music legends had held a certain cachet and often attracted substantial price tags, but none had commanded the sort of price Hendrix’s Woodstock Strat did that day at Sotherby’s in London.

Italian TV presenter promoter and music writer Gabriele Ansaloni, aka “Red Ronnie”, paid £198,000 (allowing for inflation, about £380,000 today), a sum considered astronomical at the time.  Since then, the vintage guitar world has never been quite the same again.

The Strat ended up, via at least two subsequent sales, in the Experience Music Project museum in Hendrix’s Pacific West Coast home town. Ten years ago, around the time I last visited, it was said to be worth between $1 million and $2 million. Its current value is probably three or four times that.

It started life as a pretty bog-standard white 1968 large-headstock, maple-neck Strat – serial number 240981. Sometimes referred to as “Izabella” (after one of the tunes Hendrix played on it at Woodstock, it is often said), the guitar is the centerpiece of a vast collection of musical memorabilia linked to Seattle and America’s Pacific North-West region in what is now known as the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP for short). The museum is home to a hoard of memorabilia related to the many musicians who hailed from the area – from instrumental band the Ventures to grunge heroes Kurt Cobain, Nirvana and and Pearl Jam. The Hendrix display is the jewel its crown. Along with the Izabella Strat, you can see all manner of “Jimiabilia”, including the remnants of a Sunburst Stratocaster the guitarist smashed in mid-concert, several amps, effects pedals, stage clothes and any number of wonderful old photos.

Yours Truly by a giant version of Hendrix’s hand-painted Motrery Strat at the EMP in Seattle in 2010

It’s a fascinating place to visit, an absolute must-see if you ever visit the Emerald City.

In the days when Jimi acquired Izabella, nobody, it seems, kept detailed records of where his guitars came from, or what happened to them – not helped by the fact Hendrix was in the habit of giving away instruments from time to time. What we do know is that Izabella was one of a pair of 1968 Strats Jimi played in the period leading up to Woodstock. As far as can be told from live photos, the white guitar doesn’t seem to have been played much until the festival, Hendrix generally favouring a older white Strat (with a rosewood fingerboard) and a black maple-board one.

Hendrix playing the guitar at Woodstock

After Woodstock, however, stage photos suggest Izabella did get more stage time – it’s not unusual for musicians to heavily favour a particular instrument for a while, only quickly then to move on to a new favourite. Pictures from gigs in the months before his death in September 1970 definitely show him playing a white maple-board Strat. This guitar seems to have a mark of some kind on the lower edge of the body, which wasn’t visible in the Woodstock footage, nor on the guitar now on show in Seattle.  Either this was an entirely different instrument, or the mark was removed when the Strat was cleaned up for an exhibition in London in 1990, commemorating 50 years of Fender electric guitars.

By then, the guitar was owned by Hendrix’s drummer Mitch Mitchell. He agreed to loan it for the exhibition, then presumably, prompted by the interest it sparked, decided to put it up for sale.

MItch Mitchell with the Strat at the time when it was put up for auction. Below is the letter of provenance he wrote, vouching for its bona fides:

“The white Fender Stratocaster guitar belonging to Jimi Hendrix came to be mine in September 1970 in the following circumstances:
Jimi Hendrix was always breaking his guitars and getting new ones but this particular white Fender Stratocaster serial number 240981 was a particular favourite of his. He used it at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969 playing the now famous “Star Spangled Banner” on this guitar. I had given him a drum kit as a present some time before and I said to him “I’ll have that guitar before you break it up” (I do not think that he would in fact have broken this particular guitar). He said, as was his way “You got it” and he then gave me the guitar. In retrospect I think it was by way of a gift as my daughter had just been born a few days previously. I think this was one of the last gigs ever played by us.
Jimi Hendrix bought the guitar from Manny’s in New York in 1968. As it was one of his favourites, it was used all the time at both live concerts and recording sessions. A picture of it can also be seen inside the Rainbow Bridge Album Cover and on countless posters and in most books written about Jimi Hendrix.
This guitar has never been out of my possession since it was given to me and it has remained in my possession until I delivered it to Sotheby’s in London for sale by auction.”

The job of getting the Strat ready for display and subsequent sale fell to an acquaintance of mine, the British author and journalist Neville Marten. I know Nev from his days as a regular in the house band at the Chelmsford blues jam where we used to go in the 1990s. He worked as a repairman for both Gibson and Fender in the 1970s, but by the early 1990s, was the editor of Guitarist magazine in the heyday of this fine publication and so he wrote at some length about his role in bringing the white Strat back to the world, first in his own magazine and later in a 2008 piece for the Musicradar website.

Hands-on- Neville Marten

In the Musicradar article, he says: “Mitch Mitchell brought in a guitar case and nonchalantly opened it. The Stratocaster had been in the drummer’s possession since Jimi’s death in 1970 and this was the first time it had seen the light of day. Just glimpsing the thing was a ‘Spinal Tap’ moment of epic proportions. Mitch said it needed looking at because the frets had tarnished, the strings were rusty and he had decided to put it up for auction.

“The nut had been switched around in its slot to accommodate Jimi’s left-handed setup, it had a separate maple fingerboard (something Fender did for a short time in the late 60s), cigarette burns were evident on the headstock (Jimi would secure his cigarette under the sixth string, and when he went off on an extended solo it would burn down to the stub) and there was staining from his shirt on the creamy-white finish.

“The strings were indeed rusty and the frets had gone a bit green. Taking the guitar to my workbench, I checked the neck for straightness and it needed a slight tweak of the truss rod. That done, I cut off the strings and threw them in the bin. Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing? Today they alone would probably be worth £50,000 with Jimi’s DNA all over them!

“Having cleaned the whole guitar and polished the frets the next step was to restring it and set the action. It was weird to realise that the last person to do this might well have been Hendrix himself, as there are well-known photos of him doing it backstage before a gig.

“It didn’t need a lot more doing to it, but I tweaked the saddle heights, made minor intonation and pickup adjustments and that was it. I did plug it in to an amp, but as I am right-handed and it was strung upside-down, a quick ‘Little Wing’ was out of the question, so I simply played a few notes to check the electrics worked.”

In Nev’s original Guitarist piece, he speculated it might make £100,000 under the hammer. Prior to publication, he showed the article to Fender which – incredibly, with hindsight – suggested he should reduce his estimate to £10,000, arguing the original figure was completely unthinkable.*

* In 1968, the list price for a Fender Stratocaster (with none of the huge present-day choice of models – the only options involved the finish, maple vs rosewood fingerboards and whether it came with or without a tremolo bridge) was $264.50 (£111.00). A standard black Fender Original Hardshell Case was $57.50 (£24.12) extra . To put this in context, this amounted to roughly two weeks wages for an average American in 1968.

In the event, Nev’s  original estimate was indeed wildly out – and not in the way Fender expected. The guitar sold at Sotheby’s on April 25, 1990 for £198,000 ($344,000 at 1968 exchange rates) generating headlines around the world. It set a new record and launched onto the public consciousness the notion that the provenance of  “celebrity” guitars could add hugely to their value.

Since then, several other Hendrix guitars have appeared on the market….

*Earlier this year, Rolling Stone magazine published an account of one such instrument being brought to the team on an American TV show called Pawn Stars, which appraises valuable items brought before its experts.

The one that got away – the Pawn Stars guitar.

“A customer comes in with a 1963 Fender Stratocaster he claims was played by Hendrix and asks for $750,000 for it. [Show host] Rick Harrison gets expert Jesse Amoroso to take a look, and he confirms that the guitar is indeed one of Hendrix’s, by comparing it to photos previously taken of the axe, as well as identifying the serial number. It’s without a doubt legitimate, and he goes on to say that the guitar could fetch anywhere between $750,000 and $1 million.

“Naturally, Rick Harrison doesn’t give up that kind of money just willy-nilly and starts negotiations at $450,000. Unfortunately for the Pawn Stars crew, the customer holds steadfast at $750,000, and the two just can’t come to an agreement, resulting in the guitar slipping through Rick’s fingers. It’s a common ending for some of the higher-profile items that come into the store – such as a contract signed by The Beatles that could’ve been sold for a million bucks that also went by without a deal being made”

*Then there was a 1965 Strat Hendrix set ablaze with lighter fluid on stage at London’s Finsbury Astoria on March 31st, 1967. Collector Daniel Boucher paid $560,000 for it in 2008, though there has since been some debate as to whether this was the guitar in footage and photos of that destructive gig – some say it doesn’t look quite the same.

*In 2010, probably the very last guitar Hendrix ever bought sold for $187,500. He got the 1970 sunburst Stratocaster from Manny’s Musical Instruments in New York on July 14th, 1970, while recording in his then brand-new Electric Lady Studios – he played it at the studio’s opening party in August, 1970 and on what would be the posthumously-released  album, “The Cry of Love.”  Tragically, just two months after buying it, Hendrix would be dead.

The guitar Hedrix torched at Monterey Pop

*In 2012, the black 1966 Strat Hendrix burned at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival sold for £237,000 ($312,500), though speculation ahead of the sale had put the likely price at as much as £1 million. In common with some other Hendrix guitars, the Monterey Strat had almost ended up in bits, rather than being merely scorched. Apparently, Hendrix had planned to smash the guitar, while playing Wild Thing, but The Who’s Pete Townshend upstaged him, smashing his own guitar first. So Hendrix doused his guitar in lighter fluid and flicked a match at it instead.

Gift – the pre-CBS Strat Hendrix gave his brother, Leon

*2015 brought another Hendrix guitar under the hammer, an early 1960s Stratocaster he had given to his brother Leon in 1968 in Seattle to help him start a band. Almost 50 years later, Leon Hendrix decided to put it up for auction. It sold for $385,917.

Frank Zappa with the guitar Hendrix gave him after breaking it on stage.

* Dweezil Zappa, Frank Zappa’s son owns a Hendrix Strat, given to his late father at the Miami Pop Festival, after Hendrix broke the neck on stage. Zappa senior put it on the wall at home for a time, then had a new neck made. He played it with a variety of different pickups and electronics for several years, also lending it to the succession of stellar guitarists who passed through his band. Eventually Frank stopped using it – Deezil was amazed to find it discarded under the stairs in his dad’s house! He then returned it to a playable state with another new neck. Unlike many of the other Hendrix guitars which have emerged over the years, this one is most categorically NOT for sale!

Here he tells its story to Norman Harris, of Norman’s Rare Guitars in Tarzana, California:

For all this, however, to a great many Hendrix fans, the white Izabella Strat will always be THE Hendrix Strat – the original icon. Down the years, Fender has issued several guitars inspired by it, some closer the original than others. All other considerations aside, Jimi played right-handed Strats, upside-down and strung left-handed – most guitarists would simply be unable to pick up such an instrument and play it!

The first attempt to square the circle was the official 1997 Jimi Hendrix Strat . It was basically a left-handed Izabella copy, with the nut flipped and the strings put on upside-down so it could to be played as a conventional right-handed guitar.  Hendrix played guitar practically every day of his life, so very easily took in his stride things such as having the controls on the top bout of the guitar and the tremolo arm emerging from the top of the bridge instead of the bottom. More conventional right-handers, I suspect, will have struggled with this “authentic” version Fender created for them!

Cue the current Hendrix tribute model, the Jimi Hendrix Voodoo Child Strat (available in only – what else? – Olympic White!) which offers an interesting take on the guitar Hendrix played. It combines a right-handed body, controls and trem with a left-handed, reversed-headstock neck, and a pickguard with the treble pickup slanted the opposite way to that on a normal Strat.

Compromise – the Fender Jimi Hendrix Voodoo Child Strat offers the reversed headstock and flipped treble pickup of Hendrix’s original with a conventional body.

There are good, practical reasons why Fender chose to emulate these particular features. On the Fender headstock, the low E string tuner is usually closest to the top nut, giving the low E the shortest length of string between bridge saddle and tuner, while the top E tuner is furthest away. If you flip the guitar over and string it left-handed, it means the low E now has the longest run and the high E the shortest. This makes the high E looser and easier to bend, while the low E has a bit more snap to it – I know this to be true – one of my Strats has a left-handed neck.

Slanting the bridge pickup the opposite way to a normal Strat – as effectively was the case on Hendrix’s flipped-over Strats – is said to make the high strings a bit more resonant and zingy, though personally, I’ve never put this to the test. Still, it’s probably considered another ingredient for some players chasing that elusive Hendrix sound. I do wonder, however, why Fender didn’t also fit a left-handed tremolo, with the bar fixed at the top of the bridge, (as the great Stevie Ray Vaughan did with his famous “Number One” Strat.) If you fancied playing one of these curious modern Hendrix hybrids, the USA-made “Voodoo Child” (sic) Strat currently retails for about £3,300 – or you can buy a similar, more affordable Mexican-built version for a shade under £1,000.

So, no shortage of options for the player looking to soak up some of the Hendrix vibe…but what could possibly match the sensation of actually lifting the lid of that glass casket in Seattle, taking out the original Izabella Strat, plugging it into a big old Marshall stack and hitting a typical Hendrix 6/9th chord or two?

Well, if as fine a player as my pal Nev Marten was too much in awe of holding such a mythical instrument to attempt to play it, I don’t think I would presume to do so either.

Presumptuous? Kenny Wayne Shepherd playing Izabella on US TV

(It didn’t, however, stop American blues-rocker Kenny Wayne Shepherd borrowing Izabella – even going so far as to have her re-strung right-handed – to play on a special Hendrix-themed Late Night With Jimmy Fallon Show in New York City in 2010. )

Sacrilege, some might say! Me, I’ll just settle for the memory of standing open-mouthed over that perspex case, gazing down in awe…

Adventures of a much-travelled “‘burst”…

Peter Green’s 1959 “Lemon Drop” Gibson Les Paul

I WAS in the middle of writing about Rick Richards’ Dan Armstong Plexi when I heard Peter Green had died…
My first thought – beyond obvious sadness at the passing of such a great musician and a fine and interesting human being – was that I should abandon my piece about Rick’s guitar and write about the instrument I already had next on the list after that. Unsurprisingly, Green’s distinctive and rather wonderful-sounding faded sunburst Les Paul was on my Fantasy Fretboards list. I would have written about it sooner, but for the fact I’d recently written about another legendary “Holy Grail”-era “‘burst” – the one  belonging to Green’s predecessor in the Bluesbreakers. (I try hard not to repeat myself if I can help it.)
So Rick Richards duly covered, here I am contemplating this rather beautiful and unbelievably valuable slab of mahogany and pale yellow maple, only the fourth guitar so far in this series, I think, whose whereabouts are well documented and only the second whose celebrated owner I’ve actually met.

Night to remember – Peter Green with yours truly, August 2003

Me, my lad Owen and our pal Dave Werewolf spent about three-quarters of an hour in the company of the great man in August 2003, when he came to Southend to play a charity gig at Club Riga, a much-missed venue at the Cricketers pub with a scratch band calling itself the Firehouse Blues Band.
Owen, Dave and myself had played Riga countless times with various bands and knew the guys who ran it pretty well, so we managed to wangle our way in before the gig to watch the soundcheck. A little while later, we found Greeny sitting alone, nursing an orange juice in a corner the saloon bar next door. He seemed was perfectly happy for us to join him – in fact, I got the feeling he appreciated the company.
Dave is a few years younger than Green, but hails from roughly the same part of East London, so it was fascinating to hear the pair reminiscing about common haunts and characters from the 1960s. It even turned out the big sister of one of Dave’s mates had been Green’s girlfriend for a while…small world and all that.            
So long as he was talking about people, places and events from decades ago, Green was perfectly lucid, with what appeared to be more or less total recall. When we tried to talk about music, the recent past, and the gig he was about the play, and he was a lot vaguer. Still, it was a genuine pleasure to spend time in the company of a true legend. He even signed the headstock of one of my Strats..

Squier MIJ Stratocaster in shoreline gold. Autographed on headstock by Peter Green Serial no 0035346

Watching Green on stage later that night was an interesting experience. This was during the Splinter Group period, when guitarist Nigel Watson acted as Green’s musical “minder”, a relationship subsequently called into question by some who alleged exploitation. I have no idea what have happened out of the spotlight, but what we saw on stage that night gave no inkling of anything amiss.  What we did see was a man still with greatness in his fingertips – but who often seemed to struggle to summon it. We witnessed genuine flashes of genius, clear traces of the man BB King once lauded as the best white blues guitarist he’d heard, but they were brief and transient.  Watson was clearly incredibly adept at “shadowing” Green’s playing, then singing and fading himself in as Green would fade out – he was uncannily good at it.
So that’s my Peter Green story. The story of his beautiful 1959 Gibson Les Paul is a lot longer and considerably more complicated. The Les Paul is often referred to as a “Lemon Drop” because of the way the brown and red in its sunburst finish faded over the years, leaving just the yellow colour underneath – photos of Green playing with John Mayall and in Fleetwood Mac clearly show much more of the original colour in evidence.

An incredibly boyish-looking Green in the studio

Green has said in interviews that he bought the guitar from Selmer’s music shop in London’s Charing Cross Road some time in 1965. By this time, he had taken over temporarily from Eric Clapton in Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. (Clapton would later return for a spell, finally leaving to form Cream in 1966, at which point Green stepped in again, famously playing the Lemon Drop  all over Mayall’s “A Hard Road” album.)
He told Ground Guitar: “I stumbled across one [a Les Paul Standard] when I was looking for something more powerful than my Harmony Meteor. I went into Selmer’s in Charing Cross Road and tried one. It was only £110 and it sounded lovely and the colour was really good.
“The neck was like a tree trunk – like the tree trunk was sliced down the middle and half of it was used for your guitar neck! It was very different from Eric’s, which was slim: Very fast action. I’ve never seen another guitar with such an old-fashioned neck.”

The much-played Lemon Drop today – practically none of the red/brown edge colour has lasted, though the reversed neck pickup is still in place. The odd knobs were one of Gary Moore’s later additions

Somewhat perversely, considering the guitar’s iconic status, he added: “If I had my time again, I wouldn’t sell my Harmony Meteor. I’d progress on that because the sound was so lovely at the Mayall audition.” 
Nevertheless, the Lemon Drop is the guitar we hear on all those classic Green/Bluesbreakers tracks, notably on “The Stumble”, Green’s artful riposte to Clapton’s own Freddie King instrumental, “Hideaway”, where the guitar’s famously distinctive hollow, “out-of-phase” tone can clearly be heard.

Constant companion – Green with the Lemon Drop

Green’s sound on the album is especially interesting. It closely mimics the tone used by Freddie King on many of legendary Texan’s classic early 60s instrumental cuts, including those covered by the Bluesbreakers. King also played a Les Paul, but it was usually one with single-coil P90 “soapbar” pickups.  Whether Green achieved his sound by accident or design is debatable, though, as he always maintained that his own Les Paul ended up sounding that way purely by chance.
He said: “The pickups were strong, but I took one of them off. I copied Eric. I heard him play one night, and he was on the treble pickup all night long. It sounded so good, I thought I’d take my bass pickup off altogether [and] try and wait for the same luck! As if it was luck…it takes a lot of genuine practice and worry to get a sound like that!
“I put it back on the wrong way around, so that the poles—the pickup screws—were facing in the opposite direction. People would say to me, ‘You got that special out-of-phase sound.’  I don’t know what out-of-phase is. Phase for what? Phase—it sounds like a good name for a group!”

There are, however, two other stories about the way the guitar came to have that sound. One revolves around an account Green gave at one stage about him taking the Les Paul back to the shop where he bought it because the neck pickup didn’t seem to be working properly.  The shop’s repairman then rewired the pickup and in doing so, somehow reversed the phase of the coil, or so the story goes. Alternatively, others maintain it sounded that way because the neck pickup was inadvertently wired antiphase at the factory. There is some evidence to support this. Joe Bonamassa, who owns a ridiculous number of vintage guitars and has an obsessive mind for details, has been quoted as saying a similar age Les Paul in his collection was made with a similar “defect”.
Who knows? What matters is that if you listen to those records, the guitar sounds great!

Green’s tenure with the Bluesbreakers ended in July 1967, when he left the band with Mick Fleetwood to form Fleetwood Mac. Although Green is sometimes seen in pictures and on TV playing other guitars with Mac, the Lemon Drop was definitely his main instrument on all four albums he made with the band, “Fleetwood Mac” (1968), “Mr. Wonderful” (1968), “Then Play On” (1969), and “Fleetwood Mac in Chicago“ (1969).
In 1970, with Green’s drug use adding to his growing mental health problems, he left Fleetwood Mac and as he became increasingly reclusive and uninterested in material possessions, he offered the Lemon Drop to a gifted young Irish guitarist he’d befriended after seeing him in a band called Skid Row, opening for Mac in London.
When Green returned to the music world many years later, he never went back to Les Pauls, instead favouring Fender Strats and Teles. In interviews, his thoughts on the Lemon Drop appear inconsistent, contradictory even.
In one, he said he regretted parting with the guitar, explaining: “Actually, buying a Les Paul is one of my biggest regrets. I should have left that to Eric Clapton. I sort of overshadowed his breakthrough. But my Les Paul was a fabulous guitar. I wish I could get it back today. When you’ve got something really perfect, you don’t realize it at the time.”
In another interview though, he said: “I never had a magic one [Les Paul]. Mine wasn’t magical. It might have looked similar to others from a distance, but it was an old-fashioned one with a funny-shaped neck—a kind of semicircle neck. It just barely worked.”

New lease of life – Gary Moore playing the Les Paul with Collosseum II

So the Lemon Drop passed on to Gary Moore, who had it until the early 2000s. Moore recalled: “He [Green] called me up and asked me if I wanted to buy it, and I said ‘well, there’s no way I’d be able to afford a guitar like this’.
“He said ‘if you sell your main guitar, and whatever you get for that, give it to me, it would be like swapping guitars’. It wasn’t a money thing, he just wanted it to have a good home. I said, ‘well, if you ever want it back, you can have it’, and he said – ‘well, I’ll never ask you for it’.”
The Lemon Drop was Moore’s main guitar until the late 70s. It can be heard on his first two solo albums, as well as on songs he recorded with Thin Lizzy and Colosseum II. He also played it on his 1979 hit, “Parisienne Walkways”. Indeed, the super-long, sustained note in the middle of the song’s solo went on to become guitarists’ shorthand for classic Les Paul-into-a-loud-Marshall-amp sustain.

Surely inspired by this, in “This is Spinal Tap” (my all-time favourite movie, Nigel Tufnel holds an (unplugged) 1959 Les Paul to his ear and says: “The sustain…listen to it…it’s famous for its sustain…I mean, you could, just hold it….[sings] Aaaaaaaaaaaaaa…You could go and have a bite [sings] aaaaaaaaa…you’d still be hearin’ that one!”

The look and the voice are pure Jeff Back, but the gag about his 1959 Les Paul’s sustain surely owes a lot to Gary Moore and the Lemon Drop!

 The Lemon Drop also appears on two tracks on Moore’s hugely-successful back-to-the blues album, “Still Got the Blues”, though not on the famous title track. That, apparently, was another “Golden Age” Les Paul Moore bought in 1989. You can, however, clearly hear the Lemon Drop on “Midnight Blues” and significantly, on his cover of Green’s old Mac song, “Stop Messin’ Around”. On the latter, Moore is clearly paying tribute to the guitar’s previous owner, in both tone and style, something he does even more markedly on this live rendition of Duster Bennett’s “Jumpin at Shadows”

Ever practical and clearly no great respecter of vintage guitar collector purist thinking, Moore modified the Lemon Drop in a few ways. According to guitar collector Phil Harris who, at one point, took care of the guitar, Moore had the bridge and tuners replaced with more serviceable modern units, along with the original plastic jackplate, which was replaced with a metal one, Moore also replaced the original bridge pickup control knobs with 60s-style reflector knobs.  

Asked why, Moore was said to have replied: “I’m fucking playing it, not collecting it. I find it easier to set the bottom knobs because they are slightly taller than the top knobs.”
The exact reason why Moore decided to part with the Lemon Drop was never confirmed definitely, though he was widely rumoured to have had money problems in the early 2000s. What is clear is that the sale provoked a huge amount of controversy and no small amount of anger among Green fans and in the vintage guitar community. When the sale became public, Moore made his annoyance clear, reportedly saying: “I don’t really want to talk about that because it was supposed to be a very discreet sale and now it’s all over the firkin’ web. I’m really unhappy because I didn’t want to part with it in the first place. It’s like having your trousers pulled down in public!”

Up close and plugged in – guitarist and collector Phil Harris demoed the Lemon Drop for Guitar Interactive in 2013

Whatever the background, Classic Rock magazine reported in a 2006 issue that vintage dealer Phil Winfield of Maverick Music, had bought the guitar from Moore, allegedly for about $1 million. After that, it seemsto have changed hands a few times before ending up with its third big-name musician owner, Kirk Hammett of Metallica. The price tag was never confirmed, but Winfield had been advertising the guitar on his website for $2 million.

New owner – Metallica’s Kirk Hammett uses the Les Paul on “Whisky In the Jar”

Which brings us to the Lemon Drop’s current – and clearly very proud – owner. For an old blues fan like me, it’s a bit difficult to reconcile an instrument made famous by a player known for his taste and delicacy of touch with the grinding, tuned-down heavy rock of Metallica. For all that, it’s heartening to head the reverence with which Hammett (in reality, only four years my junior!) clearly treats this beautiful old guitar – though again, it’s not reverence of the cosseted, locked-in-a-bank-vault variety.
Hammett has regularly gigged the guitar – notably when Metallica play its Grammy-winning hit version the Irish folk tune “Whisky in the Jar”. The Metallica version was inspired by Thin Lizzy’s 1972 take on the tune, which ironically, featured neither Gary Moore, nor the Lemon Drop.
Hammett also played it in February 2020, when Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood hosted “ Mick Fleetwood & Friends Celebrate the Music of Peter Green and the Early Years of Fleetwood Mac” at the London Palladium, sharing the stage with a host of stars to play “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown)” alongside ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Jonny Lang, Andy Fairweather-Lowe and another ex-Mac guitarist, the hugely-under-rated Rick Vito.

“Homecoming” – Kirk Hammett joins a star-studded cast on stage at the February 2020 Peter Green tribute show. L-R: Ricky Peterson (keys) Dave Bronze (bass), Rick Vito, Billy Gibbons, Kirk Hammett, Jonny Lang and Andy Fairweather-Lowe (guitars) and Mick Fleetwood and Zak Starkey (drums).

Hammett clearly enjoyed the experience. He told Guitar World: “It was a homecoming for Greeny [the guitar] and I felt like I was just along for the ride. The guitar was driving, and I was there observing the scenery as it went by.”

A short while before the show Hammett finally got the chance to meet Green and reunite him with his old Les Paul. He recalled: “That was kinda funny. I showed Greeny and he said, ‘That’s not my guitar. My guitar had a lot more red in it!’ But he was willing to hold Greeny and take pictures with me and Greeny, and that was significant for me because it was the first time he had come into contact with that guitar since the early 70s. 
“It was another full-circle experience. Greeny left him for almost 50 years and gained all this notoriety, being involved in all this classic music. And then when I came over, Greeny came back into the hands of Peter Green [if just for a moment]. It was really touching.”

It has become customary for me to close these blog posts by speculating on how I would feel about strapping on the instrument in question – and even if it is something I would even want to do.
The answer in this case, is an emphatic “yes”.
After years of playing Strats and Teles, it took me a long time to come around to Gibson guitars in general and Les Pauls in particular. As a committed Fender player for many years, I always found Gibsons very alien – they hang differently, the shorter scale and slacker string tension means they play differently and the big, powerful humbucking pickups typically found on Les Pauls sound and respond very differently, too.
Over the past decade, however, I have definitely warmed to “brand G”. It started when, on impulse, I bought a Firebird, an instrument I had long coveted since I regarded at probably the coolest-looking guitars on the planet.

My Vintage Lemon Drop

I followed that up with a cheap Far-Eastern Vintage-brand Les Paul copy – yes, actually a tribute to the very guitar which is the subject of this post. Trevor Wilkinson’s Vintage VS100 is a great guitar for the money. Better, in my opinion, than many of those made by Gibson’s own Far Eastern brand, Epiphone. It’s not identical in outline to a Les Paul – the sharp point on the lower horn is an instant giveaway – but the headstock shape is much closer than the Epis.
From a distance, with its weathered finish – complete with tarnished hardware – mine looked pretty convincing, and more to the point, it played well and in the middle position, the pickups sounded very like the original Peter Green guitar. I played my Lemon Drop for several years with my band, WOLFPACK, only letting it go when I was lucky enough to secure the long-term loan of a rather lovely 1972 Les Paul Goldtop.
If I ever I look at “proper” expensive Gibson Les Pauls in shops – my friend John Priest’s amazing Peach Guitars emporium has a whole room of brand new £4,000-plus Les Pauls – most of them do nothing for me. The only ones I like the look of are the ones on which the finish has been artificially aged and dinged, leaving them looking remarkably like Peter Green’s battle-scarred, faded ’59 Lemon Drop. A lovely thing to own, though of course, lacking the mojo of the real thing.
So, yes please, Mr Hammett…whenever you’re ready!  😉

RIP Peter Green: Oct 29 1946–July 25 2020

FOOTNOTE: By pure coincidence, this guitar appeared for sale the day before I was finally planning to post this blog. It’s the original prototype from a limited run of official Gibson Custom Shop copies of Peter Green’s guitar, each of which would originally have sold for the price of a pretty decent secondhand car – and since they rarely crop up on the used market, are now fetching silly prices.

This prototype is currently being sold by British dealer Richard Henry Guitars for the estate of collector Melvyn Franks, a man who definitely knew a bit about Greeny’s Lemon Drop – he was the previous owner of the original guitar, immediately before its sale to Kirk Hammett.
The Custom Shop guitar is described as “brand new, unplayed with original case, factory-fitted strings, all paperwork, full documentation and hand-written provenance from Rick Gembar, Senior Vice President of The Gibson Custom Historic & Art Dept and Melvyn Franks himself”.
How much are they asking for it?
“Price on application”, the advert says, which is generally shorthand for “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it”!

A Clear Favourite…

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!

Bad boys!

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”.

They were, too!

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”.

To experience a flavor of the full power and glory of Georgia Satellites in their prime, watch this wonderful concert video from the 1989 Roskilde Festival, in Denmark. Watch it all and wonder!

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).

KIcking ass – Rick Richards in action in his prime

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…

Rick Richards with his 2016 guitar lineup, including the Plexi. Picture: Vintage Guitar

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.

A rather fine example of an original Plexi.

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!

See-through… the Plexi was a clear winner with a host of famous guitarists

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.)

Fair copy – Ross McLellan’s Electra Plexi had a pair of humbuckers and a Gibson-style bridge, but still captured a lot of the vibe.
Back view – Ross McLellan’s Electra Plexi

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.

Not a faithful recreation – the current Chinese reissues look like a good $300 worth

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…

Stevie’s Pride and Joy…

Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Number One” 1959/61/62 Fender Stratocaster

1989 was a big year in my guitar obsessive ‘s timeline.  It was the year I found another compelling reason to buy a Stratocaster… and the year I actually bought one.
I’m a bit ashamed to say I came so very late to music of the brilliant and unique Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. Aside from a vague recollection of a cool-looking guy in a hat playing some interesting, bluesy guitar on Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, I hadn’t heard as much as a note from those golden fingers until the end of 1987. By that time, Stevie was four albums and thousands of gigs into a career which, tragically, was already more than half over.
Autumn 1987 found me on the road with Automatic Slim, opening shows across southern England for the British r’n’b band, Dr Feelgood – still fronted by Lee Brilleaux, but with Gordon Russell on guitar by that stage. I remember a big, empty old venue perched on the cliffs in Folkstone, Kent, where I stood listening to the music on the PA, waiting for the doors to open and Slim to go out and play. A song came on – “Texas Flood” I think – and I astonished by the sheer power, intensity and tone of the guitar-playing. The sound guy told me who the player was. I instantly knew I HAD to hear more.
Next day, I bought “Live Alive” on vinyl (CDs were just coming in, but I still had a record player) and began a journey of discovery along a magical blues highway which would eventually take me all the way to Austin, Texas.

I devoured everything I could read, watch and listen to about SRV, about the Texas club scene that spawned Stevie and about his big brother, Jimmie, about the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the host of other amazing blues musicians to be heard in Austin’s exotic-sounding venues. I quickly learned, too, of Stevie’s substance-driven demons and that “Live Alive” was pieced together from live recordings made when he and the band were at their very lowest ebb and patched up with overdubs in  a substance-fuddled haze. “Live Alive” still sounded pretty good to me – to my ears, even if he played better sober, Stevie could still play powerful, convincing blues, pretty much irrespective of his state of sobriety. Countless live bootlegs tend to bear this out…

A great shot of Stevie playing slide on Number One early in his career

As I continued to hoover up Stevie’s back-catalogue, I came to understand why “Live Alive” wasn’t really his best work. In contrast, “Texas Flood” was as fine a debut LP as any bluesman ever issued, while the two studio albums that followed tore up the rules governing the way modern blues-rock should be played.
I came to think that Stevie truly had it all. The chops, insightful blues knowledge, the showmanship, the clothes, the hats, the boots, even more important, the gear. He played a ton of rare, battle-scarred old guitars and plugged into a veritable wall of exotic, customised vintage valve amps, usually turned up to ten.
By the time SRV’s fourth studio album, “In Step”, came out in 1989, I was completely in his thrall. So was my boy Owen, then aged nine and learning the guitar. There was never any question what kind of guitar I would be buying to sit next to my Telecaster…

Stevie with “Scotch” – the inspiration for my first Strat purchase

The story of my first Strat, a Japanese Squier, can be found much earlier in this blog – read it here, along with the tale of the #1 replica I built for Owen as a surprise Christmas present in the months following Stevie’s death.
My Squier Strat cost me £200 brand new from Guitar Village in Chadwell Heath, a purchase definitely inspired by the guitar Stevie is playing on the cover of “Live Alive” – apparently an early view of the 1961 Strat Stevie christened “Scotch” because of the way the original (Olympic White, presumably) nitrocellulose finish had tarnished to a rather pleasing butterscotch colour.
Here’s an odd thought: When the “Live Alive” cover picture was taken, Stevie’s 1961 Strat would have been 26 years old. In 2020, my long-gone Japanese “Scotch” (wherever it is) is actually older… I wonder where that guitar is now – and how much the finish on it has tarnished and darkened over the years. What are the chances the current owner calls it “Scotch”? 🙂
For all that, I quickly discovered Stevie was far more often associated with an entirely different Strat… It  was a battle-scarred, one-of-a-kind, Frankenstein’s monster hybrid of late 1950s and early 1960s parts, its original Sunburst finish largely worn off by years of hard gigging. It sported a black pickguard, contrasting dirty white knobs and pickup covers and, bizarrely, a left-handed tremolo bridge. Stevie variously referred to it as “Number One”, or his “First Wife.

A classic shot of Number One

Stevie bought Number One in Ray Hennig’s legendary Heart of Texas Music in South Austin in 1973, the day after Grammy-winning songwriter Christopher Cross traded it for a Les Paul. Hennig has spoken of that day and of telling him: “Damn, Stevie, that’s the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever traded for.”  
Evidently, Stevie thought differently – Hennig says he thought it had the neck he’d been searching for years. You can hear him telling the tale here in a 2017 interview.

Unsurprisingly, the first time I travelled to Austin, in 1997, Heart of Texas Music was one of the places for which I made a beeline. I’ve been back several times down the years and still have the black Astatic harmonica mic Ray Hennig himself sold me there in the mid-1990s. Ray’s shop was a fine old South Austin institution, its proprietor a constant presence behind the counter. Heart of Texas was still going strong last time I was on South Lamar, in 2005, though I gather its future is now less sure. Sadly, Ray Hennig died earlier this year and I’ve read that the area where the shop stands is now likely to be redeveloped as part of the apparently unstoppable reinvention that has been rolling over the Texas state capital for the past 30 years.
That old Strat served Stevie unbelievably well. It can be heard on just about every album he recorded. He was prone to refer to it as a ’59, but the truth, it seems, is it was a mongrel. Rene Martinez, SRV’s guitar tech for the last five years of the guitarist’s life, explained in a MusicRadar interview: “Number One was a ’62 Strat, but Stevie was fond of calling it a 1959 model.
“The reason why he called it a ’59 was because of some wiring in it – the back of the pickups said ‘1959.’ So the pickups were a ’59, but the body of the guitar was a ’62. My attitude was, ‘Hey, it’s your guitar, you can call it whatever you want.
“The action on it was pretty high. The guitar was pretty beat up, even then, showing a lot of wear and tear. He had had somebody install a left-handed tremolo system, even though he was a right-handed player. I would imagine it was to emulate Hendrix, but I never really asked him. But that’s what he had done. Maybe he liked the way it moved.”

Ace tech – Rene Martinex with SRV

Evidently, keeping Number One on the road entailed constant work, partly because by then, the guitar was getting on in years, but mainly because SRV strung so heavy and played so hard
Martinez told the interviewer: “He started with a .013 and ended with a .060. They were big, yes, but that wasn’t the only thing; it was the action, the height of the strings. I used to adjust the screws down at the bridge to raise the height, and I would run out of thread – I couldn’t make the strings any higher.
“The term ‘repair’ can mean a lot of things. I refretted it and I put in a bone nut, or an ivory nut. I refretted the guitar maybe once a year, and I replaced the ivory nut probably as many times. You can’t use the same nut once you refret the guitar – the action would be too low.
“The last time I refretted it, I told him it would be the last time. He asked me why and I told him that I had to plane to fingerboard every time I put new frets in. He would really dig in; he not only wore the frets out, but he would wear out some of the wood as well. After a while, the fingerboard was getting thin and I told him I’d have to put a new one on. We decided to replace the neck and keep the original until I had time to made that repair.”
Presciently, the neck Martinez put on in the interim – from SRV’s other old standby, “Scotch” – was smashed in a freak accident in New Jersey just a few weeks before Stevie’s death.
Martinez recalls: “We were doing a co-headlining tour with Joe Cocker. For that show at the Garden State Arts Center, we were on first. The venue had these acoustic baffles for when orchestras would play, and they were monsters, maybe 20 or 30 feet tall and six or eight feet wide.
“They were all leaning against the wall and they were tied up, and at the end of the show, as we were changing sets for Joe Cocker, the stagehands were pulling the curtains and one of these huge baffles came crashing down on my workstation, where the guitars were set up.
“The guitars were basically holding the baffle up. It took a bunch of us to lift the thing off the guitars, and of course, the first guitar I checked on was Number One. Well, the neck had been broken – it looked like a Steinberger…the headstock was basically dangling.”

As a quick fix, Martinez got Fender to send him a new neck – Stevie had been working with the company for some time on a signature model, based on his famous guitar. The suggestion is that it was one of these necks he played through the last few shows before August 27, 1990, the fateful night when SRV lost his life in a helicopter crash in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin.

The broken neck

At some stage after the accident, Martinez fixed the original neck and put it back on Number One – so the neck seen on the guitar whenever it goes on show now is the original.
Steve’s brother, Jimmie, has Number One and some of his other guitars. He donated Lenny, the 1965 Strat bought for Stevie by his wife in 1980, to a charity auction. The giant American Guitar Center chain bought Lenny – I’ve actually seen that guitar on display in the window of the Guitar Center on Sunset Strip in LA. It wasn’t there last time I was in LA, in January, but that’s the closest I’ve come to any of Stevie’s stuff. 

On display – Number One in one of its exhibition appearances
Beaten up – Number One’s headstock
Tough player – this shot shows just how high Stevie lived his string action.

Number One was put on show for the first time since Stevie’s death in 2012, in Austin, as part of the Bullock State History Museum’s exhibition, “Texas Music Road Trip”. It was taken out again for the touring exhibition, “Pride & Joy: The Texas Blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan” in 2017.
I’m sorry to say I missed the latter exhibition when it moved to downtown LA, with Number One  very much its centrepiece. Owen did go along, though. He took photos and then rubbed my nose in it!
Almost 30 years since Stevie last played Number One, it remains one of the most distinctive and most-copied guitars ever made. Any time you see a Sunburst, rosewood-board Strat sporting a black pickguard and white control knobs and pickup covers, you can be pretty sure there’s a decent bit of SRV in its DNA.
Then there are the “replicas” – guitars lovingly crafted by fans in tribute to their hero, a good few cynical commercial cash-ins and various incarnations from Fender guitar company itself.

Tribute – the production Fender SRV Signature model

Fender was working on a production SRV signature model before Stevie’s death. That guitar sported the original’s fat baseball-bat neck and the gold hardware and engraved pickguard of the latter-day Number One – but with an incongruously pristine paint job – and finally saw the light of day in 1999. It’s still in the company’s product range, retailing the in the UK for a shade under £2,000, or £1,200 on the secondhand market. If you can hack the big handful of a neck (I like mine rather slimmer), they’re pretty decent guitars.
In 2004, the Fender Custom Shop’s master-builder John Cruz produced a vastly expensive, limited-edition model. It was a lot truer to the original, in terms of hardware and relicing – right down to the cigarette burn on the headstock. Only 30 were made and they originally retailed (with a fancy leather gig bag, a replica of SRV’s famous “musical note” strap and a stencilled flightcase, no less) for $10,000.
(I actually held one of these rare beasts in my hands one dark and rainy night in a venue car park in North Yorkshire – it belongs to my friend, Californian guitarist Lightnin’ Willie. I was talking about the guitar after his show and he asked: “Hey, you wanna see it?” Willie just pulled it out of its leather bag and handed it to me – out there in the car park, as the rain came absolutely tipping down!)
When launched, they sold in the UK for around £8,000 but even at this price, they sold like hot cakes. They’re worth a LOT more these days – you could easily buy a genuine 1961 Strat for a good deal less! (At the time of writing, a music shop in central London is offering one on Reverb for £39,999!)

Pricey option – the Fender Custom Shop’s limited-edition John Cruz Number One replica. This one is currently being offered for sale for
an eye-watering £39,999!

Last year, Fender produced yet another take on Number One, the “Fender Custom Shop Stevie Ray Vaughan SRV Limited Edition Stratocaster Relic”, lightly reliced, but with a nitro finish Fender promises will wear down more quickly and convincingly than the original Fender SRV Signature. It sells for somewhere between £4,000 and £5,000, a hefty slice of change, but about par for the course for guitars from the Custom Shop these days.

The most recent Custom Shop take on Number One

Official Fenders aside, you’ll find any number of other copies out there, some very good and some pretty awful. Just after Stevie died, I built one myself as a Christmas present for Owen, ten years old at the time. 30 years on, he still has it and I’m proud to say he sometimes still plays it, albeit in modified form. I was delighted when it was one of the guitars he took on the road when the band he was playing for opened shows in football stadiums across North America three years ago for the Who! The full story of that guitar is here

One I made earlier – the Number One replica I built for Owen in 1990.

These days, Owen builds amazing high-end relic guitars, both for his own use and to order for paying customers. I was greatly amused when, a couple of years ago, someone commissioned him to build a Number One (as part of a twofer order with a Clapton Blackie).

Close…Owen’s take on Number One

So, in the unlikely event that I were to bump into Jimmie Vaughan and he were to put Number One into my hands, how would I feel?
Awed, obviously. Terrified of dropping it…well, maybe not – having seen the way Stevie abused Number One on Stage (check out the way he treats it on “Third Stone from the Sun”  in the “Live at the El Morcambo” DVD!) it seems this guitar is truly indestructible!

The main thing, though, is that I’d probably find it pretty much unplayable. Those massive strings, that tall action…Stevie, though not an especially big man, had vastly strong hands.
My old Southend buddy Barry Martin (you may remember him better as Snail’s Pace Slim, guitarist with blues-rock trio the Hamsters) was a radio DJ in Austin in the late 70s and early 80s and remembers seeing Stevie play the clubs. He told me: “When I was there, Stevie was playing bars and was referred to as ‘Jimmie’s brother’.
“I was lucky to have an ‘in’ as I knew the Mike Tolleson, the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ lawyer, and Alexis Korner put me in touch with his old friend Chesley Milliken, who was managing Stevie.
“Chesley told me he was looking for a major record deal, but it was all the new MTV and Duran Duran at the time, and I was sceptical about a bloke doing Hendrix and Blues standards breaking through into the big time!”

Austin memories – Barry Martin

Barry clearly remembers the first time he saw Stevie play – he was sitting at a table about six feet from the stage: “There were about 30 people in there. Fuck, he could tear it up! For the encore, he sat on the edge of the stage in front of me and did Little Wing.
“He showed me his gear one evening at Antone’s. He was very proud of the fact that his amps
[Blackface Fender Vibroverbs] had the serial numbers 0005 and 0006 (I think those were the numbers, but he was chuffed they were consecutive! ).
“He said that he had the reverb and tones all the way up, and increased the volume from 8 in the first set to 10 in the second each night. He used a wah and a tube screamer and that was about it.
“He invited me to jam the next week, but his strings were so heavy (and I wasn’t really playing in those days), so I politely refused.
“It would’ve been well embarrassing!”

And if a player as fine as Barry Martin fought shy of taking on Number One,  I truly don’t think it would be something for me to contemplate. If ever there was a player whose sound was truly in his hands and his hands alone, it was Stevie.

RIP Stevie Ray Vaughan, October 3, 1954 – August 27, 1990

If you fancy taking a really close look at Number 1, this video, shot when the Fender Custom Shop borrowed the guitar for examination to make its limited edition SRV Strats as accurate as possible gives you just such a chance…

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

Touched by the hand of “God”…

Eric Clapton’s “Beano” Album Gibson Les Paul Standard

AS claims to legendary status go, the story of Clapton’s “Beano Burst” Les Paul puts it right up there with the best of them. Right up there…
The instrument Clapton played on “John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton” (aka “the Beano album”) is credited with setting a benchmark for guitar tone for years afterwards. It helped to cement Clapton’s status as an almost literal deity among guitarists – around the time of the album’s release in 1966 the phrase “Clapton is God” was definitely to be found spray-painted on walls across London.
Then, in 1966, even as the sound of this beautiful instrument was still making major waves across the world, the guitar itself disappeared, never to be seen again* –  stolen from a rehearsal room as Clapton,  Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce worked to put together the nascent Cream.
An instrument that changed the music world, made its owner’s reputation, then vanished into thin air – truly the stuff upon which legends are built!

Clapton on the cover of the Mayall album famous for his playing, his sound…and his reading matter!

The first thing to know about this guitar is that although it is often referred to as a 1960 Les Paul, speculation remains as to whether it was really a 1959 or 1960 model. It’s impossible to know for sure from the available photos. Clapton never bothered to make a note of the serial number, but he talked about it having a very slim neck, making it more likely to have been made in 1960, when slimmer necks were the norm.  Either way, it was definitely built during what is now regarded as the supreme “golden age” of classic, collectible (and insanely valuable) Les Pauls – the last two years of production before Gibson stopped making them.

Clapton in the studio during the album sessions – the exposed white and black bobbins on the pickups are clearly visible.

One identifier is that at some stage, Clapton removed the chromed metal covers from the pickups, leaving the coils exposed. On the “Beano” guitar, the exposed plastic bobbins on the bridge pickup are black, while the neck pickup’s bobbins are white.  It’s the stuff of nightmares for the purist vintage guitar collector – but a sensible and practical move for an innovative working guitarist in search of better tone.
Ironically, though, by the time these classic “golden era” Les Paul Standards rolled out of the old Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, hardly anyone was buying them. The original single-cutaway Les Paul, a thick slab of mahogany, capped with a carved maple top, had remained broadly unchanged since the first models left of the factory in 1952. Cosmetics, hardware and electronics had slowly evolved, but by 1960, the Les Paul was considered heavy, old-fashioned and un-hip in a world where Fender increasingly  ruled the roost.

Innovator – Les Paul

In an effort to win back market share, Gibson ordered a complete redesign and came up with a lighter, more streamlined “Les Paul model”. The resulting guitar proved popular with thousands of players down the years, but failed to impress the man whose name it bore.  Jazz guitarist and innovator Les Paul (born Lester Polsfuss – that’s why Les Pauls are sometimes referred to as “Lesters”) had been key in the design, development and promotion of  the original Les Paul in the early 1950s. But he wasn’t even consulted about the new design. He seems to have taken a strong dislike to it, criticising its construction as unsound and its pointy horns for making it uncomfortable to play. So he refused to lend it his name – even foregoing the $5-a-guitar royalty Gibson was contracted to pay him for life!
That’s one story, anyway. Another is that at the time, Paul was in the midst of a divorce from wife and erstwhile musical partner, Mary Ford, and asked for his name to be removed, so his royalty wouldn’t be counted as an asset in the divorce settlement
The truth is anyone’s guess, but he was clearly sticking to the first version in this interview…–WfCGMg

Early (and now very rare and valuable) examples of the new guitar were sold with Paul’s name engraved on the truss rod cover before Gibson re-tooled and remarketed the guitar as the more prosaic SG (Solid Guitar) – a grossly unimaginative name for what was, by any measure, a fine instrument.
Personally, I’ve never got on with SGs. That small, light body never looked or felt right hanging on a strap on my body – which unfortunately, is neither small, nor light! However, SG players have made some truly great music down the years – from Matt Murphy and Pete Townsend, to Tony Iommi and Angus Young, to Paul Weller – not forgetting, of course, Mr Clapton himself!

Pioneer – Mike Bloomfield with his Les Paul Standard

Returning to the original Les Paul design, though, it took barely five years for the fashion pendulum to swing back again. By the mid-60s, “classic” Les Pauls were at the cutting edge, in the hands of players such as Chicago-based Butterfield Blues Band guitarist Mike Bloomfield and our Eric.
It took two or three years, but eventually, in 1968, Gibson cottoned on and started making Lesters again. Since then, the classic Les Paul has never been out of production…and Les Paul’s royalties resumed, albeit at a renegotiated rate.
The mid-60s… what a time to be alive and to be a musician in swinging London!
Andy Summers, who finally made it big in the 70s with The Police, was a jobbing guitarist on the London circuit in 1965-6 and sometimes gigged alongside Clapton. In his rather good memoir, “One Train Later”, Summers recalls Clapton paying £80 for the “Beano” Les Paul in 1965. It was one of two Les Paul Standards in Lew Davis’s guitar shop on Charing Cross Road – a central London thoroughfare where at one time, a dozen or more music shops could be found. Summers, a long-standing Telecaster player, bought  the other Les Paul and used it for a while. After the “Beano” guitar was stolen, he ended up lending it to Clapton, who played it in the early days of Cream, including on “Spoonful” and “I Feel Free” on the “Fresh Cream” album. After a period stashed under his bed, Summers eventually sold the guitar to Clapton.

Doppelganger – Clapton with the Les Paul he borrowed from Andy Summers

Listening now to the dozen tracks which make up the “Beano” album (I’m doing so as I write), it’s hard to fully appreciate the full impact Clapton’s playing – and the sound of that Les Paul – had on the mid-60s listener. The power, passion and originality of his playing remains little short of outstanding, but since it has had such a strong influence what came after it, it’s easy now to hear it as rather less remarkable.
But imagine hearing it for the first time without the filter of 50 years’ worth of imitators. Clapton’s “Beano” chops are immaculate. His vibrato is strong and controlled, his string-bending accurate and his note choice tasteful and hard to fault, blending the styles of heroes as diverse as all three Kings (Freddie, Albert and BB), Otis Rush. Hubert Sumlin and Buddy Guy. There are many of fans who think Clapton’s playing – certainly his blues playing – was never as good as this.

Classic – the back cover of “John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton”

The sound of that old Les Paul, plugged straight into one of the early Marshall amplifiers, a 35-watt JTM-45 combo with a pair of KT66 power valves driving two 12-inch Celestion speakers, is unmistakable. The humbucking pickups on that Les Paul Standard were powerful – less so than many modern pickups, but still with enough clout to force the amp to overdrive in a very musical way when it was turned up loud.
All through the 1950s and early 1960s, amp designers had striven to design amplifiers that were loud, but didn’t distort – think Hank Marvin’s famous Vox AC30 Shadows tone. But the young 60s blues guys wanted dirt! The Chicago blues records they listened to featured guitarists plugged into small amps turned right up. Whether the Chicago guys did it deliberately to get a particular sound, or simply because small amps were all they had and they had to turn up to be heard is debatable. 
Equally debatable is whether Clapton used a Dallas Arbiter Rangemaster treble boost pedal on the “Beano” album to push the amp even harder. To my ears, the sound you hear on that album is a guitar, a cable and amp being run hard, nothing more, nothing less…Clapton’s guitar parts were clearly recorded LOUD!
Being a Fender amp nut, I’ve never been much of a one for Marshall amps, but there is definitely something special about plugging a Gibson guitar with humbuckers into a good Marshall amp and winding up the wick – whether your neighbours agree is a different matter!

Winning combination – a modern Les Paul Standard reissue with a classic JTM45 Marshall combo

Another factor in the sound on the record is Clapton’s judicious use of the guitar’s tone controls. A Les Paul Standard has two pickups, each with a volume and a tone control. The tone control works by progressively short-circuiting part of the signal from the pickups to ground via a small electronic component called a capacitor, which only allows certain, lower frequencies to pass through. Clapton’s famous “woman” tone comes from selecting the neck pickup and winding off about three-quarters of the tone. Those who know about vintage guitars say this only works properly with guitars wired the way late 50s Gibsons were. They used a particular type of capacitor, known (because of its stripes) as a “bumblebee” and not found on most modern Gibsons. So if you want your Les Paul to sound truly authentic, you need to reach for the soldering iron!
*Quite a few reports of the stolen “Beano” Les Paul’s  whereabouts have surfaced over the years, further  adding to the guitar’s mythical status. None, however, has ever been authenticated.
The fact Clapton borrowed and later bought Andy Summers’s very similar Standard after his was stolen has led to some confusion and misidentification of that particular instrument, which also seems to have been lost some time in the late 1960s after suffering a headstock break.

Close, but no cigar – Bernie Marsden with his original 1959 Les Paul Standard 9-1914 ‘The Beast’ and the 2013 Gibson Custom Collector’s Choice Number 8 ‘The Beast’ Replica

Another instrument sometimes claimed to be the missing “Beano” Les Paul is the Standard owned by former Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden and known as “the Beast”. It’s a very similar instrument. In a magazine interview a couple of years ago, Marsden said: “I was told, back in 1974, that there was a Clapton connection with my guitar, but I knew it couldn’t be the one.
“The Beano Les Paul was stolen, and was a ’60, according to Eric. The Beast is a ’59, and had never had the pickup covers removed. It’s got a fatter neck, so wouldn’t  be a ’60. So it wasn’t  the ‘Beano’ Les Paul, but it did have that Clapton connection. But it’s always been a strange rumor. Whenever I play something off the ‘Bluesbreakers’ album, people always say that sounds like Eric Clapton’s guitar.”

Joe Bonamassa reading Beano comic in tribute to Clapton

More intriguing still are the reports from 2017 that American blues-rocker and uber-gearhead Joe Bonamassa was claiming he knew who had the “Beano” Les Paul. Bonamassa has refused to disclose who has the guitar, beyond saying he knows it’s with a private collector.
He told Guitarist magazine: “It’s a ’59, not a ’60. It’s got double-white [humbucker] in the front and it’s got a double-black [in the bridge].
“It has a pretty plain top and it is in a collection on the East Coast of America. That’s all I can tell you -and that’s all I will say. It still exists and I haven’t seen it, but I have it on good authority from people who have. And it’s got the little ‘fingerprint’ by the pots and they can trace it back.”
“I don’t know if Clapton would even want it back at this point. Truth be told, would he even recognize it 50 years on? I guess so. Maybe it’d be different if he’d scratched his name on the back of the headstock or had recorded the serial number.”
Bonamassa’s an incredibly able and dexterous player, but remains a controversial figure, especially in the blues world whose rockier fringes he inhabits. Many find his playing overblown and note-heavy, and the hype surrounding his promotional bandwagon vulgar and rather distasteful. Having said that, there’s no doubt he knows a great deal about old guitars. He has a vast collection of vintage guitars, including any number of old Les Pauls. He also has the contacts and the money to delve into such mysteries as the riddle of the missing “Beano” guitar.  What would he have to gain by lying about something as fundamental as this? It’s certainly an appealing thought that this important instrument might show up one day…

Recreation – a modern Gibson Custom Shop “Beano” Les Paul” reissue. Clapton paid £80 for his guitar. One of these will set you back about £6,000!

In common with most mere mortals, I’ve never played a real “golden age” Les Paul – Clapton’s or otherwise. Aside from a brief dalliance with a rather tasty Les Paul Special in the late 1990s, I’ve never actually owned a real Gibson Les Paul of any vintage – though I have had custody of a couple of nice Goldtops, a 69 and a 72, belonging to a dear friend. By all accounts, the highly-sought-after Japanese “lawsuit” Greco Les Paul copy I bought in California last year is pretty close to the real thing. It’s certainly a damned good guitar – the equal of any Les Paul I’ve played and I’m happy to settle for that.
If, however. the “Beano” Les Paul were suddenly to show up on my doorstep, it would be a hell of a find at all sorts of levels. Never mind the intimidating notion of laying hands on an instrument  worth the equivalent of a large house in the country, imagine having the chance to plug it into an old Marshall, turn up the volume and rattle through “Hideaway” (or my indifferent version of it, anyway) or hit those ringing minor notes at the start of the solo in the middle of “All Your Love”

Yep. I think that’d do me! 🙂

Good enough for me – my Greco Les Paul Standard

Howlin’ Over The Fretboard

Howlin’ Wolf’s Sunburst Gibson Firebird V

CHESTER Arthur Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf, was the biggest, baddest, scariest bluesman ever to stalk a stage. OK, so that’s just what I think – but what are blogs all about if it’s not opinions?
Down the years, those of us who love the blues have seen an enormous cast of truly great blues performers come and, sadly, go – great artists with the power to move the listener, to bring joy to the heart, a tear to the eye and in some cases, send a shiver down the spine.
Wolf was most definitely in the latter category….

Composed – an unusually sedate shot of Wolf with the Firebird over his shoulder

I was born a few years too late to have seen Wolf play in person – I even wrote a song about it called “Never Saw Chester”. I know many people, though, who did have that pleasure – and believe you me, I am DEEPLY envious of every last one of them!
Standing  6ft 7ins tall in his size 14 stockinged feet, Wolf wasn’t joking when he referred to himself as “Three-Hundred Pounds of Heavenly Joy”. He was a commanding, sometimes malign presence on stage, a scowling, exuberant giant, one minute exuding a real air of menace, the next cracking a wicked grin or an evil leer.
He was no means the world’s greatest musician and admitted as much in one of the few serious, full-length  interviews on record.* Instead, he regarded himself “an entertainer”.
*Down Beat Magazine, December 1967 – thanks to Keith Rowley for passing the mag to me.
The Wolf was that all right. Prone to prowl the stage like an angry beast or crawl around on all fours imitating the creature for which he was named – he would sometimes tuck a towel into the back of his waistband to give himself a “tail”. I remember another of my heroes, Dr Feelgood’s Lee Brilleaux, telling me he once saw Wolf climb ten feet up a theatre’s stage curtains, then slide back down, all the time furiously blowing harp. (Romford Odeon, where Lee remembered it happening was probably never the same again.)
Wolf was an effective and distinctive harmonica player, his signature tone and style learned first-hand from one of the greats, Sonny Boy Williamson II, who was married for a while to Wolf’s sister.
And  what a voice! The pioneering producer and recording engineer Sam Phillips – the man who first brought Elvis Presley into the studio – also recorded Wolf at Sun Studios in the early 50s. He described Wolf’s voice as “the sound of a man’s soul”. It was a voice unmatched in the entire pantheon of the blues for its depth, range, versatility or its sheer ability to make you feel it. Listen, for instance, to the brooding, menacing “Evil”, where Wolf manages to sound like entirely different people in the verses and the choruses – for years I thought it really was two singers! No other singer could spit an angry line with such venom, make you smile with a piece of lyrical nonsense, or stand the hair up on the back of your neck with that trademark howl (rendered all the more otherworldly by Phillips’s patented Sun Studios echo).

The phenomenal performer that was Howlin’ Wolf…young white girls screaming must have been something of a novelty for him, though!

For all his remarkable talent, it’s fair to say Wolf was, at best, an indifferent guitar player – no match for his brilliant long-time right-hand man Hubert Sumlin. If you look at footage of Wolf’s live performances, his guitars often appear as much a prop as an instrument. Nevertheless, the thought of touching – never mind owning or playing – one of Wolf’s guitars is quite compelling, plenty enough to warrant Wolf’s Firebird’s inclusion in this “Fantasy Fretboards” list.
Wolf played a ton of guitars during his career. There were the basic acoustics on which he learned the rudiments from none other than the great Charley Patton, and the basic instrument with which he plied his trade around the Delta in the 1930s. The legendary doomed genius Robert Johnson – who was actually a year Wolf’s junior – was a sometime companion, as was the late, great Son House, famously berated for his drunkenness in one of the surviving 1960s films showing the animated Wolf. He later switched to what would have been one of the very earliest hollowbody guitars to be fitted with a pickup – he told Down Beat he played “an electric guitar” before he was conscripted into the US Army in 1940.

Epiphone – Sandy Guy Schoenfeld’s images with this guitar have almost become iconic

One of Wolf’s most recognisable guitars from his later years was the 1965 Epiphone Casino he had for  Sandy Guy Schoenfeld’s famous photo session – the one in which he wore a very distinctive checked shirt. Pictures from that set found their way on to a good number of album covers down the years.

Livewire – Wolf playing the 63 Strat at Silvio’s

Then there’s the white 1963 Fender Stratocaster Wolf is seen playing in an electrifying series of pictures taken by celebrated blues photographer Raeburn Flerlage at one of the band’s many shows in Silvio’s nightclub in Chicago. I think these images – more than any I’ve seen – capture the energy and excitement of Wolf as a performer, bandleader and, yes, all-round entertainer…I even have a T-shirt bearing one of his images!
Unlike so many of Wolf’s guitars, the current whereabouts of this white 63 Strat is well documented. A fascinating article in a 2016 edition of Vintage Guitar magazine traced it to a guitarist and collector named Tom Guerra. He describes the Strat as he bought it in 2000 as “pretty beat up”, adding: “It reeked of tobacco and liquor – basically, it smelled like a saloon.”

Another one of Raeburn Flerlage’s fine Silvio’s shots, alongside a detail of battle-scars on the Strat’s lower horn

Guerra was intrigued by an impression on the pickguard left by the removal of the words “Lil Bill”. He then discovered the guitar had once belonged a blues DJ and performer called Alex ‘Lil’ Bill’ Wallace, a Chicago contemporary of Wolf. Traced to a nursing home in Greenville, Mississippi, Wallace told Guerra Wolf sold the Strat to him in 1965 and it had been his regular gigging guitar until he sold it in about 1970. This was borne out by no less an authority than Hubert Sumlin, who confirmed Wolf had known Wallace well and this was, indeed, the guitar Wolf played in those Silvio’s pictures (which also show Sumlin playing in the band.)

Survivor – the 1963 Strat now owned by Tom Guerra, in one of Vintage Guitar’s pictures.

It’s tempting to pick that Strat as my Howlin’ Wolf guitar of choice, but my ultimate choice is rather more elusive. All things considered, I’m going with the vibrola tremolo-equipped sunburst Gibson Firebird V Wolf plays in a number of clips apparently filmed at after-hours jams during the Folk Blues Festival series.

A 1960s Firebird V similar to the one Wolf played

I’ve long had a real thing for Firebirds. Johnny Winter is one reason for this, but just as much is down to the outright sexiness of the classic Gibson “reverse” Firebird design, dreamed up by the man who put the tailfins on all those late 60s Cadillacs. And  of course, there’s also that Folk Blues Festival footage of Wolf playing one…In  that footage, the seated Wolf doesn’t so much play the Firebird as hold it while he sings and blows harp, playing the odd run behind the soloists. It’s a wonderful-looking instrument and unlike so many of Wolf’s other guitars, the man’s enormous frame doesn’t make the Firebird look like a toy. (If you’ve read the blog post about my own sunburst Firebird V, you’ll know how much bigger than your average electric guitar Firebirds really are.)
The original “reverse” Firebirds all had a through-neck (the neck and the central part of the body were made of the same length of wood) and were produced between 1963 and 1965. They came in several models, depending on the hardware, trim and the number of pickups.

Wolf performing “Meet Me In The Bottom” with the Firebird

The Firebird I had a single pickup, an unbound neck with dot fret markers and a simple combined bridge/tailpiece, like a Les Paul Special, while the Firebird III was similar, but with two pickups and an optional Vibrola tremolo. The Firebird V (the model Wolf played) was similar to the III, but had a bound neck with block inlays and a tune-o-matic bridge with a Maestro “Lyre” tremolo, while the top-of-the-line Firebird VII offered similar fayre, but with a third pickup and (rather gaudy, in my view) gold hardware.

The Down Beat front cover with Wolf playing the Firebird.

I often wondered if the Firebird in those Folk Blues Festival clips might been put into Wolf’s hands for the filming by an opportunistic Gibson promo man, mindful that the cameras were rolling. I’d never seen any pictures or footage of him playing one in front of an audience, but I’m happy to say that same copy of Down Beat finally killed off that theory – there is Wolf on the cover, playing the Firebird at a gig!

A couple of rare shots of Wolf playing the Firebird.

I wonder what became of that fine old Gibson guitar…no amount of Google searches or asking around has so far shed any light on it for me.
If you can do so, please feel free to leave a comment underneath this post.

Me and my own Firebird V – l love it!

Musings on Muddy…

“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.

The Tele on the cover of a live album Muddy recorded with the Rolling Stones

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.”

Distinctive – the Fender amp knobs were probably added to make it easier to see their settings.

 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!”

Sideman – Bob Margolin on stage with Muddy

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.

This one was mine – my Mexican “Muddyfied” 60s Tele

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.

On show – the Tele on display in the Met in New York

Finally, here’re a fine clip of Muddy playing the Tele on stage when he headlined the 1981 Chicago Bluesfest…

In Robert Johnson’s Shoes…

Robert Johnson’s Gibson Kalamazoo KG-14

The only other authenticated picture* of Robert Johnson. He is holding a Kalamazoo LG-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.

The famous “suit” shot – taken in Memphis – appears on the cover of the cleaned-up, remastered two-CD set

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!

A Gibson L1 in a museum in the Delta. It could even be the one in the famous studio shot, but there’s no way of knowing.

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*.

A 1937 Gibson L1 – it could be yours for a shade over £7,000!

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).

Likely contender – a 1930s Gibson Kalamazoo LG-14

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.

Reissue – a modern Gibson L1 “Robert Johnson Model”. It has his name inlaid between the top two frets.

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…

That Special Bond…

ALL musical instruments are special. The truth, however, is what is truly special about them is the thing that happens when a human being uses that instrument to express themselves, to share something from within themselves, something that excites a strong emotion – joy, anger, sorrow.
To me, there is no instrument quite so special as a guitar…the sense of connection you feel when you cradle it, put your hand around the neck, pick the strings, feel the vibrations and hear its sound. Often this will instantly create a very special, intensely personal bond between flesh and blood, heart and mind and wood and metal.
It’s something I have experienced so many times. You may have already read about this in my account of the 50-plus guitars I’ve owned down the years. Equally, you may have come across stories of mine where I really liked the look – sometimes even just the idea of a particular instrument – only to be disappointed when I found I experienced no such connection with it in my hands. More than once I remember writing something along the lines of: “…but it never really spoke to me”. Those are the guitars I didn’t keep!

An alleged Robert Johnson guitar (undocumented) in a blues museum in the Delta

This special bond between player and instrument is the thing that led me down the “Fantasy Fretboards” route…the notion that the mere act of putting your hands on an object once touched by greatness might grant you some insight – that by osmosis, it might even transfer a tiny portion of a famous person’s unique mojo.
These days, the word “relic” has a very specific meaning in the context of guitars – brand new instruments deliberately “distressed” to make them look old and well-used. It’s been “a thing” for about 20 years or so and remains controversial in some quarters. Well, each of the guitars I’m looking at here could be regarded as a “relic” in its genuine, religious sense – an item rendered impossibly special by association with a person who themselves is an object of reverence.

Holy relic – the reverence afforded to Jimi Hendrix’s smashed-up Strat bodies in the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle is reminiscent of fragments of the True Cross revered in medieval times

Most guitars in this list will, indeed, be old and very valuable. At least one is lost and probably no longer exists.
The truth is, if I did ever get my hands on any of these instruments – I’ve been close to a couple, but not actually touched them – there’s a good chance in some cases, I’d probably hate the way they felt or played. All the same, I’d dearly love to take that chance. 🙂
And so to the list… I’ve said ten guitars, but it could end up as more than ten, it could be fewer. We’ll just have to wait and see. In the hope of whetting your appetite, here are the first five I’m planning to look at:
1. Robert Johnson’s guitar (whatever it really was!)
2. Muddy Waters’ red 1958 Telecaster
3. Howlin Wolf’s Firebird V
4. Eric Clapton’s “Beano Album” Les Paul
5. Gypie Mayo’s Fiesta Red ’62 Strat

Footnote: Writing these particular blogs is proving rather more time-consuming than the original “43 Guitars…” series, so I’m afraid but I’m no longer promising daily entries – I’m aiming for about three a week.

Mojo – Elvis Presley’s Gibson J200 in the museum at Graceland

59 Guitars in…So What Next?

NOT long after the start of the great 2020  coronavirus lockdown, I decided to keep myself amused by writing the “43 Guitars…and Counting!” blog, initially on Facebook, and later, in expanded, updated form, on WordPress.
The idea was to list every single guitar I’d owned since 1978 – but also to tell their stories and explain how I came to get each one (and in many cases, why I sold them again soon afterwards!) That’s quite a lot of guitars – and quite a lot of stories, all of which I hoped might be of interest to someone, somewhere.
I’ve been a major gearhead (not in the Jeremy Clarkson sense – for the uninformed, it’s common muso-speak for an equipment obsessive) for more or less as long as I’ve aspired to be a musician, so it was always going to be a bit of an epic task.
I called it “43 Guitars…and Counting!” as a nod to my pal, the excellent Norfolk guitarist and all-round good chap Ron Sayer. Around the same time, Ron started a video blog on Facebook called “42 Guitars”. There are two major differences though: He still has the 42 guitars and basses and has owned even more; secondly, he’s not only talking about them, but using his considerable fretboard  gifts to demonstrate each one on video. (No danger of me doing that, you’ll be relieved to hear!)

I probably couldn’t have done this without the vast number of pictures I’ve hoarded down the years on my hard drive – from fuzzy black-and white images, scanned and blown up from scratched old contact sheets, to pin-sharp hi-resolution shots from my current Samsung smart phone.
Down the years, my archive has proved really useful for all sorts of things – not least recording serial numbers and distinguishing marks which might come in handy in the event of a guitar, amp or whatever getting stolen.
All those photos were certainly invaluable when I started looking back on my guitar collection a couple of months ago. Without photos to prompt my memory, I don’t reckon I would have remembered roughly  a third of the instruments which found their way into the blog…there were even a couple which even now, I have only the  vaguest recollection of ever owning!
Well so far I’ve managed to stretch it to 59 guitars, of which I have retained considerably less than half. All the same, it was inevitable I’d eventually run out of guitars to write about, leaving me to look at on ways to keep the blog going…

43 Amps?
Maybe not that many, though I’ve had quite a lot down the years, including some quite rather interesting, desirable and unusual pieces. However, they’re somehow just not as personal or interesting as guitars.

43 Pedals?
Yes, I’ve had many more than that – probably still do, now I think about it. A couple of people did suggest this, but to be honest, I can’t help feeling the appeal of that would have been pretty minimal outside a very particular cohort of extreme nerdiness.
So how to fill the next few days of enforced idleness?

The answer, my friends, with apologies to the makers of a certain TV programme from a few years back…

FANTASY FRETBOARDS… 10 Guitars I’d Love to Play

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s opening chapter. 🙂

Shooting from the hip…

59. Custom “Squier 52 Hipshot Special”

IF you’ve been with me from the start, you’ll know all about my fondness for one of the quirkiest (and in my opinion, the very best) designs to come from the Fender stable this century, the Squier 51.

When I first clapped eyes on this marvellously affordable Indonesian Strat-meets-Tele in 2004, it was love at first sight. Within a week, I was unpacking a new blonde 51 – a genuine novelty for me, since I very rarely buy brand new guitars.

When I first saw pictures of the 51, my first thought was that it would be perfect for slide. I was right. Almost two decades on, my original £110 Indonesian treasure – with a couple of key modifications and a set of 13-guage strings – is still my go-to guitar for slide.

Family portrait – the 51 I built, with my original 52 below it. I made both pickguards – the one of my new guitar being a bit longer to cover the ends of the bridge pickup cavity.
And yes, I do have a bit of a thing about tortoiseshell!

The Squier 51 was pretty popular with the guitar-modding community in the mid-2000s. It was cheap and cheerful and all the important components were solid,reasonable quality. Some people didn’t like the stock Indonesian pickups, tuners and bridges and immediately swapped them out, but personally, I really like the original pickups, certainly for slide. For practical reasons, though, I did change the tuners and the bridge.

First I fitted a Hipshot Trilogy multiple tuning bridge (it cost more than I paid new for the entire guitar!) The Trilogy – now sadly, discontinued – allows quick access to a range of tunings and, to a slide player, is worth its not inconsiderable weight in gold. (For more information about the Trilogy, see the post about my original 51.) I also changed the tuners for Wilkinson’s excellent EZ-Lok units and added low-friction string trees – all in the name of better tuning stability.

Back to back – my original Squier 51 and, the one I made.

Where the original Squier 51 might be said to fall short is that its body is 5mm thinner than a standard Strat’s. I suspect it was originally something to do with the heavy basswood used by the Cort factory where they were built. The original 51s are all weighty instruments.How much heavier would they have been with a full-depth body of the same wood?

Thick and thin – the original Squier 51 body, right is thinner than a standard Strat body.

 I’d often wondered what a 51 with a full-depth Strat body might be like. If I’d had £500-odd to spare, I could’ve found out. A few years after the original Squier 51 was discontinued, Fender Japan brought out its own version, the Pawn Shop 51, with a full-thickness body – and unlike the Squier version, a proper hardtail, string-through bridge. It goes to show how happy I was with my original Squier, though, that I never had the urge to as much as try a Japanese Pawn Shop 51.

Fender’s own 51 – the Pawn Shop 51. Oddly, I’ve never played one, although at one stage I bought a secondhand example of its thinline rosewood-board sister, the Pawn Shop 72. It was beautifully made, but ended up back on eBay within a month to fund an unmissable vintage amp purchase. Read all about it here)

 In mid-2022, quite some time into the guitar-building bug, I decided to create a Squier 51 with a full-sized body. I’d put together several pretty reasonable guitars using Booboo Guitars’ affordable factory reject bodies and was pleased to find a nice, light (less than 2kgs, my benchmark for Strat and Tele bodies) back-routed twin-humbucker alder Strat body for an insanely reasonable price.

It was close to what I needed, but had a Strat tremolo rout and the wings of the humbucker rout were a tad wider than the Tele bridgeplate. The good news, though, was that the enormous Squier 51 pickguard would hide a multitude of sins, allowing me to hack out a decent lump of matching timber from which to fashion a plug for the tremolo rout. The resulting crater wasn’t pretty, but who (apart from you, looking at the pics in this blog) was ever going to see it?

Raw material – the body as it appeared on the Booboo Guitars website.

One stray control pot hole needed filling and I was pleased at how invisibly I managed this. I had to take the body to my Burnham guitar builder friend Steve Edwards for a little bit of routing and tidying up and he had a nice black backplate that matched the control cavity plate I’d already made. He even offered to rout the back, so the cover would sit flush to the body. Nice one Steve!

I originally planned to steal the neck from one of my other Squier 51s, but a couple of weeks scouring eBay and Facebook Marketplace yielded a really nice 2005 Indonesian Squier Standard series Telecaster neck for a reasonable price. (Squier necks – even bog-standard ones – are getting quite expensive these days!)

Just the job – the original Squier 51 neck I planned to fit and, below, the Tele neck I ended up using.

The previous owner had sanded off the Squier headstock decal and replaced it with a dodgy-looking Fender decal in entirely the wrong place. That DEFINITELY had to go! In its place, I opted for the original plain black Squier logo. But where the original 51s never had model name on the head, I designed a “Squier 51 Hipshot Special” decal to print on my trusty inkjet printer.  While I was at it, I also created a pukka-looking “Crafted in Indonesia” decal for the back of the head, based on my original 51’s decal.

Decals aplenty – the sheet of headstock logos I printed off on my inkjet machine. It took me a couple of tries to find the correct quality printer paper. Not all decal papers are equal! Below: The finished headstock.

Then I sprayed the head with several protective layers of clear nitro. Unfortunately, the finish on the headstock was lighter than the rest of the neck. I’m not sure whether the original lacquer had a slight tint , or if the intervening 16 years had darkened the finish, but the previous owner’s efforts to sand off the Squier decal had left the headstock lighter and a bit on the blotchy side. Fortunately it was and exceptionally hot summer. A couple of weeks out in the sunshine did wonders for darkening up the nitro finish!

My original plan was to finish the body with Tru-Oil over an acrylic paint, aiming for something close to the dark blonde finish on my original 51. However, after a couple of weeks of painting, sanding it off, trying again I had to admit defeat. The resulting colour was a lurid and uneven yellow, a look charitably described as “interesting”! Back to the drawing board…

Not-so mellow yellow – the original acrylic finish was lurid and rather streaky. It had to go. The top picture also shows the crater I excavated to get the wood I used to plug the trem cavity.

I’d last considered spraying nitro on guitar body a couple years before when I put together my baritone Telemaster, but ruled it out because it was winter and I lacked a suitably heated, ventilated and dust-free indoor space. The bari was the first time I’d used Tru-Oil and it was so successful, I’d then used it on my next two projects.

August 2022 presented a perfect opportunity finally to have a crack at nitro. After a couple of days immersed in endless “how to spray nitro” videos on YouTube – there are very few things you can’t learn to do by Googling up the appropriate “how to” video – I was good to go.

My spray booth – rough and ready, but it worked well.

I built a rather Heath-Robinson-looking spray booth (thin ply screwed onto the sides of my trusty Black and Decker workbench, with a tarpaulin curtain over the open end) in the porch at the rear of my house, then set to with spraycans of nitro from the redoubtable Northwest Guitars. First off was a white primer, followed by a shade called “Vintage White”, a slight off-white that instantly recalls vintage Strats from the early 60s.

Surface preparation I’d learned, was the key to a good finish, so after several days of sanding with various grades of paper, I decided I was ready for spraying. Goggles and a decent face mask are a must, since nitrocellulose paint is evil stuff and best kept out of the eyes and the lungs!

Compared to the fortnight-long, one-coat-a-day Tru-Oil application regime I was used to, spraying was a fairly quick process, the trick being to build up repeated thin coats over a few hours, so the paint doesn’t have a chance to run. The next part is where you need extreme patience – the long, frustrating wait while the paint “cures”. I was advised to leave it a fortnight before attempting to rub it down and buff it, so I waited until I returned from holiday.

All buffed up and ready to go!

After “flatting” the finish with progressively fine, soggy wet and dry paper, I was pretty pleased with the results. It looked rather better than I’d expected and after some vigorous buffing by hand with T-Cut, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. However – there always has to be a but, doesn’t there? – my first attempt at spraying nitro did teach me three important lessons:

1. I should have grain-filled the bits where end-grain was on show – the foream contour and belly-cut in the finished guitar were still showing a bit of grain, in contrast to the other super-smooth flat surfaces;

2. I should’ve invested in a third can of Vintage White and a second can of clearcoat. As soon as I started sanding, I discovered the finish was REALLY thin around the edges of the horns and cutaways. I ended up with a bit of white primer showing through in these areas. Great if you’re going for a “relic” look; not so great, otherwise.

3.  l DEFINITELY shouldn’t have dropped the bloody thing on the concrete outside after all that effort to get a perfect finish!  As I went to fit the bridge and bridge pickup, discovered I needed to rout out a bit more wood to accommodate the pickup. I took the body outside, did the business with the router, then turned the body over to tip out the surplus wood and sawdust. That was the point at which I managed to DROP the damned thing! The unhappy landing scuffed up and dented the finish on both horns and added a couple of other scrapes where the body bounced on the paving slabs. Grrr!


What now? Leave it as it is and pass it off as a fairly implausible relic; patch it up as best I could; partly strip it, fill and sand the damaged bit; or strip it right back and buy  more paint to refinish it? At the time, I was just too angry to decide!

Once I’d calmed down, I went for the middle option, using a pot of supposedly matching brush-on touch-up paint. Sadly, it proved impossible to patch it up invisibly. In the end, I did the best I could, buffed it up and called it a done deal.  It’s not perfect, but the finish looks fine from a distance and a couple of months and a few gigs later, it feels a lot less of a disaster than it did at the time.

Disaster – one of the scars from the body’s fall onto the concrete

At least the bridge and bridge pickup fitted now… The Hipshot bridge wasn’t just any old Trilogy. It was a very special one-off I’d been itching to use ever since the day, probably a decade earlier. I’d found it on eBay. It was the Telecaster version with the Hipshot Trilogy’s levers and cams mounted on a Tele-style bridgeplate This itself was an interesting proposition.  I quite fancied using a Tele bridge with some kind of bladed Tele humbucker – if it was good enough for the Strats Sonny Landreth played it wass good enough for me!

Hipshot bridges are usually all black, but this one was a special order with a chrome-plated baseplate and bridge saddles. I’ve never seen another one like it. The original owner told me he’d played “Keef” in a Rolling Stones tribute band and ordered it so he could play the same guitar in the various tunings the Human Riff might use during a show.

My limited budget prevented me getting the Dimarzio Fast Track Tele pickup Sonny uses, After a ton of Googling around, I bought a medium-power Warman Peacemaker humbucker. This company’s stuff has a solid reputation and this proved a decent choice. For the neck pickup, I dipped into my big bag old Strat pickup sets from various Squier Strats I’d had over the years. I simply chose the one whose magnet looked most like the one in my original Squier 51’s and had a similar output. A bit unscientific, I know, but I got pretty close to the original without having to spend a penny.

The rear-mounted control cavity – plenty of room for two pots and a switch!

One of the other quirky aspects of the original Squier 51 is that is has a rotary pickup selector on the control plate where the tone knob would be on a Telecaster. One of the mods I do to my 51s is to squeeze a mini-pot between the other two controls as a tone control. That was the easy bit. Finding the right switch and working out how to wire the damned thing was rather harder.

The original Squier 51 humbucker also has a coil tap (operated by a push-pull switch on the volume knob) but coil taps are not something I like much. The original plan had been to use a four-way rotary switch (easier to find, it turned out, than the three-way variant) with the extra position giving a tapped single coil. After many frustrating hours with a meter and test leads, I was still none the wiser, so I sprung for a three-way, followed a standard Squier circuit diagram I found online and – bingo – it worked!

Mock-up – the process of creating a template for the pickguard was very much trial and error!

The pickguard – one of the most distinctive aspects of Squier 51s has to be that 51-P-Bass-style guard, extending right up the top horn – was relatively easy. I had a spare, white, 51 pickguard in my bits box and used this as a guide. The final shape had to be modified and extended to fit around the Hipshot’s bridgeplate and cover the original bridge pickup cavity’s “wings”. A combination of trial, error, cardboard and Prit Stick eventually produced a final cutting template. In recent times, I’ve become fairly obsessed with tortoiseshell, so torty I would be – nothing looks smarter on a guitar, in my opinion. I already had a large sheet of four-ply (black-white-black-torty) material earlier in the year and had already made a guard for my original 2004 Squier 51, so that made my choice even simpler.

Work in progress – cutting the pickguard. Below: the finished item.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been making my own guards from plastic modelling card or the pickguard material you can buy everywhere online. As I’ve gone along I’ve got rather better at it. The arrival of my little Dremel multi-tool last year made a big difference. I use its cutting wheels to get the rough shape and then fine tune the outline, using sanding wheels. I even worked out a way of putting a 45-dgree bevel on the edges, though having recently also bought a proper palm router, I’ll probably end up using that for future projects as it gives a smoother, more consistent result.

I happened to have a spare chromed steel control plate in my bits box, super-handy, since proper Squier 51 plates are hard to come by. (They might look similar to the ones used on 51 P-Basses, but they’re a slightly different size and shape.)

The control plate, with the extra, middle hold for the tone pot.

And so to the exciting bit – neck meets body; strings go on. Suddenly, it stops being a collection of parts and becomes a guitar. A bit of tweaking of the truss rod and a small shim to adjust the neck angle for the high string action I like for slide and it was done…more or less. Originally, the nut was cut too low, so to avoid excessive fret buzz, the action in the middle of the neck ended up rather too high. The answer was gently to ease out the nut (it was a relief when it popped out intact) and put a thin plastic shim underneath. With the nut a shade higher, I was able to remove the shim from the neck join, change the neck angle and slacken off the truss rod. As a result, the action is now perfect! 🙂

Neck-on – I found an original Squier neckplate on eBay for £5. The damage to the finish by the strap button looks hideous, but is effectively invisible with the strap on.

It’s strung with a nice set of Newtone Michael Messer Electric Slide strings, gauge 15-56. I use heavy strings for slide anyway, but this is the heaviest set I’ve used so far, since this guitar is meant for the slacker open D and G tunings – my other Hipshot-loaded 51 is set up with 13-52s for E and A tunings.

How did it work out after all that effort? Pretty good, actually. It tips the scales at 7lbs 12 oz. Not bad, considering the mass of metalwork in that Hipshot bridge. My original Squier 51, despite its thinner body, is a whole pound heavier!

I’m inclined to feel my £110 Indonesian Squier still has a slight edge, but I suspect that’s largely down to familiarity born of being played over the course of almost two decades and 1,000-plus gigs. It’s an old friend, but all the same, I think my new one more or less holds its own alongside it.

A Supro Reborn…

58. Supro twin-pickup “USA prototype”

THE Supro/Valco guitars of the late 1950s and early 1960s are truly fascinating – so much so, they are probably worth a blog of their own. For this post, though, I’m focusing on the Supro pictured above, which came in to my possession early in 2022.

Happy landings – the Supro on my doorstep when I arrived back from Nashville in January.

Quirky would be a good description for many of the older Supro guitars, especially the lap steels, with their odd-looking, string-through pickups. These pickups have been in huge demand ever since Ry Cooder installed one into a 60s Strat, paired with a vintage Guyatone “Gold Foil” pickup, to create the original  “Coodercaster”. These days, recreations of these funky old pickups are available from several companies, notably Lollar and Mojotone, making the quest for the Cooder tone – at least in terms of hardware – a little easier. A huge amount of it, of course, is in the hands.

The master and his Casters – the great Ry Cooder with his two favourite “Coodercasters”

Supro/Valco was originally a budget brand for the guitar-maker National Resonator – best known these days for its fabulous acoustic resonator guitars (read about mine here), but it’s a name also associated with a variety of electric instruments, not least the distinctly odd fiberglass-bodied National Map and Airline models favoured by the White Stripes’ Jack White. Supro also built amplifiers from the 1930s to the 1950s, including, apparently, the first combo amp to feature built-in reverb. Supro amps have always been pretty well regarded – Jimmy Page used one on many of his Led Zep recordings. The name vanished off the musical map in 1968, reappearing after it was acquired by Absara Audio, the parent company of high-end effects pedal manufacturer Pigtronix.

Fresh amp ranges – mostly retro-flavoured – soon appeared and pretty good they were, too, – followed in the late 2010s by some tasty-looking guitars. The subject of this blog appears to have been an early prototype for one of these guitar ranges.

Stylish – the Supro at it arrived with Owen. The snazzy metal switch plate and the original knobs ended up on a one-of-a-kind Telecaster he built himself a little later.

My lad Owen hooked up with Supro’s artist relations people in the mid-2010s when he was working as a session guitarist in Los Angeles. He filmed the odd amp demo for them and was a bit of a brand ambassador for a while. In return, he got a small amp, a few pedals and a couple of Supro guitars, one black, with a single, rather fancy-looking Gold Foil mini-humbucker pickup and this two-pickup sunburst instrument. (The whole artist endorsement thing is just so much bigger in the US than it is in Britain, so players of Owen’s calibre often come by nice pieces like these.)

Working instrument – Owen’s black Supro as it arrived and, right, in the twin-pickup format with which he toured it. The Supro bridge pickup was eventually replaced with a more conventional humbucker,

Both shared the same attractive single-cutaway shape, with bevelled edges to the body and a really attractive headstock – all loosely based on a fairly obscure model from the late 50s. For such a compact guitar, I was quite surprised to discover it has the full 251/2” Fender scale length, with a Gibson-style tune-o-matic bridge and an attractive chromed tailpiece that hooks around the end of the body.

Island girls – the three Indonesian production models, the Jamesport, the Westbury and the Hampton.

They were clearly forerunners to the Indonesian-built “Island” series – the single-pickup Jamesport, the twin-pickup Westbury and the three-pickup Hampton. Also broadly from the same mould, came reissues of David Bowie’s 1961 Dualtone (played and featured on the sleeve of his 2003 single, New Killer Star) and the 1957 Ozark, famous as Jimi Hendrix’s first electric guitar, reportedly bought for him by his dad in 1959. The Ozark is an especially interesting beast, since it sports a similar string-through pickup to the lap steels.

Famous users – David Bowie with his 961 Dualtone and the reissued Supro Ozark, inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s purported first guitar..

I first saw Owen’s Supros when I visited the USA in early 2019. He’d not long had them and I instantly fell in love with their quirky looks and the fact they were so well-made, with an especially hand-friendly black satin finish on the backs of both necks. Owen ended up touring quire regularly with the black one, usually for slide guitar, sporting heavy strings and a variety of pickups and tunings, while the sunburst guitar had spent quite some time languishing in a scruffy gig bag, minus its electrics.

Black in action – almost the first time Owen used his Supro Jamesport (still sporting just the one pickup) on stage in New York City with Tal Wilkenfeld in March 2019.

Fast-forward a few years to my most recent 2022 trip to Owen’s current home in Nashville, when he very generously agreed the sunburst Supro could come back over the pond with me. Fortunately, he still had the original bridge and the Gold Foil pickup from the black one, plus a spare Lollar Gold Foil pickup. They also made the trip home.

Having seen pictures of the lap steel pickup on the Ozark, and knowing I had a spare guitar with a similar Lollar pickup, a plan began to form…why not to kit out the Supro as a one-of-a-kind Coodercaster? The donor guitar (No 43 in this blog) is a lovely thing, but hadn’t been earning its keep, largely because the pickup combination wasn’t quite right. (Look out for a future update when I finally get around to reviving this one with a pair of P90s!)

Raw material – the Supro, safely back in the UK, albeit with a broken D-string tuner tip

All I needed to complete the project was some tuners (one of the original Supro plastic tuner buttons didn’t survive the transatlantic journey in the overhead locker), a pair of pots, a pair of knobs and a jack socket…and a nice, custom-cut pickguard to finish it off.
A set of Wilkinson’s excellent Ex-Lok tuners in plain, three-a-side vintage Kluson format and a suitable sheet of tortoiseshell 3-ply pickguard material (of late, I’ve become fairly obsessed with torty!) got me started.

The pickguard took longer than anything else about this project. First I had to come up with a suitable design – the outline when through a dozen iterations before I came up with the shape I cut with my newly-acquired Dremel multi-tool.  This was only the second pickguard I’d made from scratch (no pun intended) and all things considered, it turned out pretty well. (I actually ended up making two, since the first one wasn’t quite right, but we’ll gloss over that!) From the same material, I cut a nice truss-rod cover to replace the one missing from the headstock.

An early computer mock-up of the pickguard. I would change shape a few times yet!

Part of my overall design was a nod to the original Valco lapsteel, in which the pickup was mounted on a large, oval chromed plate, something the Lollar version lacked. Not being any kind of metalworker, I opted for a contrasting oval of grey pearl pickguard material the same shape as the Valco’s steel plate. A rather elegant solution, I thought.

Evolution – the bare body with various paper and cardboard mock-up pickgards and, right, the final design I cut from to sheets of plastic, one black pearloid, the other red tortoiseshell.

The body – mahogany on this USA prototype, rather than basswood of the production versions – needed a bit of chiselling out to accommodate the Gold Foil pickup. The lap steel pickup was designed to sit flush on the body, with some wood removed to accommodate protruding polepieces, but in practice, it needed shimming up with small bits of plastic card.  The volume and tone knobs on the original guitars were rather funky plastic jobs resembling the controls from a 40s valve radio set. They were not dissimilar, though, to the knobs fitted to early 60s Fender brownface amps, so guess where I looked for these… The rest of the electronics came for my usual source, Northwest Guitars.

Work in progress – the first version of the pickguard I cut. I later decided it would look better with one that followed the body shape rather more closely.

Once screwed together and strung up, a fatal flaw quickly became apparent. The through-string nature of the lap steel pickup, combined with the tallish tune-o-matic bridge made it impossible to set up the guitar high enough for slide. If you set it low to clear the steel cover across the top (part of the pickup’s magnetic field, I think), it was too low to comfortably play slide; any higher, and the strings buzzed against the cover! The best-laid plans and all that…

Pickup selection – the Lollar lap steel unit, the Supro mini that replaced it and the Lollar Gold Foil that sits in the neck position.

So out came the Lollar, to be replaced by the guitar’s original, rather attractive gold foil mini-humbucker. I’m not quite sure why Owen took it out in the first place – he’s an inveterate tinkerer with a very clear idea of the kind of sound he’s after – but I’m not complaining. It sounds really good and transformed the guitar into something very useable, as well as being unique and a real head-turner. (It’s been one of my two main guitars for slide on the past dozen or so Leavin’ Trunk gigs).

Heads I win – the finished headstock with the tortoiseshell truss rod cover and flipped over to show the “Prototype USA” designation of the back.

I’m pretty pleased with the way it turned out. It plays well, sounds terrific – and as you can see, boy, does it look cool!

When Less is More Pt 3

57. Faking a Firebird

AT the start of this extended essay about single-pickup guitars, I mentioned Gibson’s very coolest single-pickup guitar, the “reverse-body” Firebird I. I also lamented the fact Firebird Is are almost unobtainable without a greater outlay than I have made on a single guitar in my entire life.

I still wanted one, though. And fired up by the success of my Esquire build, I was soon starting asking: What next? I kept finding myself looking at Firebird-shaped bodies on eBay and wondering what I might do with one. One of the things I love about putting together guitars (I’m still not sure if bolting together instruments from modified pre-fabricated parts constitutes proper guitar-building) is working through the many what-ifs and technical challenges of these projects.

Singles club – the Firebird I with the Esquire I built before it

I kept coming back to listings on eBay by a company called Luthiers’ Warehouse, (now called Luthier Crafts), offering Firebird bodies in something called “Uruguayan mahogany”. I had two reservations, however: One practical and one in my mind.

All LW’s Firebird bodies were routed to take at least two P90 single-coil pickups, a Gibson-style tune-o-matic bridge and a stop tailpiece. My Firebird I needed to have to have a single mini-humbucker and a one-piece wraparound bridge.

Raw materials 1 – the body as it arrived from Luthier’s Warehouse, routed for two P90s and a separate bridge and tail[piece.

As big a stumbling block to me was the fact the resulting guitar would have a Fender-style bolt-on neck, rather than the complex through-neck construction that’s one of the things that makes Firebirds so very special. The unique sustaining properties of single-pickup guitars (see Part 1) is fascinating and maybe a tiny bit controversial, but so is the effect of a through-neck – an extension of nine laminated strips of hardwood running all the way through the body and up to the headstock.

As the proud owner of a genuine vintage through-neck Gibson Firebird V, I’m sorry to say I’m a bit of a through-neck snob, scoffing at Tokai, Epiphone and Gibson Studio Firebirds, with their bolt-on, or glued-in necks.

Eventually, I sprung for a slight factory second body from LW, plus the cheapest blank “paddlehead” Strat-style neck I could find. (I figured if my attempts to fashion a reverse Firebird headstock from the paddle went awry, I wouldn’t have wasted all that much money. And if it turned out OK, it would have been well worth taking a punt.) The body cost me £70; the neck a princely £32!

I did ask Luthier’s Workshop if it could supply a body with the routs I wanted, but sadly, it couldn’t. This was during the Delta covid spike, when the workshop was short-staffed and not able to produce one-offs, so I ordered a standard body and turned my mind to ways I might modify it to the spec in my head. As I say, I do like the challenge or a slightly out-of-the-way project.

Alongside my Gibson, the body was roughly the right size and shape, though the back was a plain, chunky slab, lacking the front’s neat, Firebird-esque raised centre section carve. Other un-Firebirdlike characteristics included a side rout for an output jack and a 5mm-deep rout to sink the bridge into the body. Bizarre, especially since the neck pocket was WAY too shallow! What were they thinking? With the bridge set so high into the body, the fingerboard would sit unplayably high.

Bad fit – the neck in the neck pocket before Steve routed it to the correct depth

While I waited for the body to arrive, I’d ordered my mega-cheap neck. I wasn’t expecting much, but what the postie brought was actually okay. The fingerboard was dry as bone and the frets needed a LOT of work, but it was straight, the truss rod worked and the nut was reasonably well cut. More importantly, the oblong paddle headstock was big enough – just – to cut a Firebird headstock, though, of course, it didn’t pitch back like a Gibson one.

Raw materials 2 – the neck started life with a paddlehead like these

I found a template online but, at that point, I bottled it, turning to my Burnham friend Steve Edwards, who has years of proper, grown-up guitar-building experience – not to mention a workshop full of power tools!

Steady hand – Steve cutting the headstock on his band saw

In exchange for a few cans of cider, Steve shaped the headstock, drilled out the tuner holes and routed the neck pocket to a more appropriate depth.

Evolution – the headstock from paddle to completed Firebird head.

I did ask if he might be able to carve out the back of the body to emulate the rear raised section on a Firebird, but since the control cavity had already been routed, this was impossible without a lot of faffing about. What he did do, though, was carve a nice belly-cut (which I later extended with a palm sander, while also thinning down the top bout to a more Firebird-like contour).

After a bit of badgering, Luthier’s Warehouse agreed to supply a couple of offcuts of “Uruguayan mahogany” which roughly matched the body, so I could make filler pieces for the unwanted pickup cavity and bridge routs. I was pretty pleased with the results – they are not exactly seamless, but you have to stare quite hard at the finished guitar to spot where the cavities were.

Filling 1 – the neck pickup cavity was filled with a roughly matching piece of “Uruguayan mahogany”
Filling 2 – I used a round plug of wood to fill the incorrect jack socket well. Not a perfect match but acceptable once filled and oiled.

The body took a fair bit of sanding – I also decided to sand away part of the body around the neck join to make it a bit less chunky, using recessed steel ferrules rather than a neckplate.

Low-profile – I shaved away the body behind the neck pocket and opted for ferrules rather than a neckplate

For the finish, again I opted for Tru-Oil, though first I had to darken the pale maple of the neck with wood stain to get it closer to the colour of the body. I also masked off the raised centre section of the body on the front and stained that area darker to give the guitar a bit more of a through-neck look.

Stain 1 – wood dye was the answer to darkening the maple neck to something closer to mahogany
Stain 2 – Tru-Oil worked a treat on the body timber

Hardware was relatively easy to find, though the tuners could have been a bit tricky. My Firebird snobbery dictated they had to be straight-through tuners like those on an original Firebird, leaving that graceful headstock outline unencumbered. Reverse Firebirds originally came with big, clunky, Kluson banjo tuners – great heavy lumps of steel which never held tuning all that well and contributed to the notorious neck-dive for which ‘Birds are infamous.

For these reasons, I’d replaced the Klusons on my ’91 Gibson long ago, using a pricey, but excellent, but expensive set of Steinberger Gearless tuners (£120 from Stewmac, in 2005.) A couple of years after I modded my ’91, Gibson wised up and from about 2007 until well into the 2010s, fitted similar locking Steinbergers to its production Firebirds…great minds and all that!

Old and new – the Steinberger tuners Gibson fitted to its factory guitars were slightly different to the tuners I put on my 91 Firebird. Mine have a knurled wheel on the end with two flats to take a spanner so you can tighten them hard. The newer ones have a rather clunky-looking T-piece so you can do it by hand, which is effective, but nowhere near as elegant, in my opinion.

Sadly, at some stage in recent times, this type of tuner seems to have since been discontinued by Steinberger – Gibson still lists them on its website, but they seem to be permanently out of stock.

Fortunately for me, during the 2010s, Gibson lost the plot a bit, introducing all manner of weird, whacky models and pointless modifications to classic guitars which were just fine as they were. One such “improvement” was adding Steinberger tuners to some Les Pauls and SGs. Unsurprisingly, they never caught on – they looked totally wrong and were removed by many owners. One such guitarist’s misfortune worked in my favour. I found a set of T-piece tuners, removed from a Les Paul by the owner, He was grateful to be shot of them for £60. Result! I would have preferred the older-style tuners, but I’m not complaining.

Head start – the Steinberger gearless tuners started life on a Les Paul Modern, but look far better on my headstock!

Both the bridge and the pickup came from that favourite guitar parts standby, Wilkinson. Both the Wilkinson wraparound bridge and the Firebird mini-humbucker (£25 each, give or take) proved well up to standard and worked out just fine. Finding a chromed metal pickup surround for a sensible price proved a lot harder – again, the online guitar modders’ network came up trumps. There are hundreds of guitar groups on Facebook and they are often a real godsend for the likes of me. 🙂

Hardware – the pickguard I made from 2mm plastic card with the Wilkinson bridge and pickup

For the pickguard, the truss rod cover and the raised section of the headstock, I turned to another old standby, plastic modeller’s card – a throwback to my days of building and modding Airfix models as a teenager – white for the pickguard (traced from the one on my ’91) and black for the other two. It was really handy having a real Firebird around the house – I simply unscrewed them and traced round them as templates!

It all came together relatively well, despite the usual restless, impatient period of more than a fortnight while there was nothing much to do except applying a daily coat of Tru-Oil, rubbing down with fine wire wool every two or three coats.

While that was going on, I’d fitted the tuners to the neck and, anxious to find out how this cheap Strat neck might play, I removed the neck from one of my Strats, bolted on the Firebird neck and strung it up. It took a bit of jiggling and a small amount of shimming, but it actually played pretty well. Looked cool, too. I was almost tempted to leave it on the Strat and get another neck for the Firebird…

Trial run – the Firebird neck mounted on a Strat body. Looks great, doesn’t it?

The electrics – CTS pots, jack socket and tone capacitor – came courtesy of another of my go-to traders, Northwest Guitars, which carries a very good stock of guitar parts at quite reasonable prices. (I also got the Wilkinson hardware there.) Another job I was able to carry out while waiting for the body oil to cure was to make up the wiring loom, with a piece of cardboard marked and punched to hold the components in their correct positions.

Ready to go – the wiring loom on its cardboard former

Finally finished and strung up at the end of January 2022, the end result looked impressive. (I later added a Firebird decal to the pickguard and a hooky vinyl Gibson logo on the headstock – controversial to some, but I just thought it looked better with them on. Nobody’s ever going to mistake this for the real thing, but it makes me happy!)

It plays OK and sounds reasonably good. I’ve even gigged it a couple of times. On stage, it worked OK, but if I’m honest, never really inspired me in the way the Esquire did, r my original Firebird does. (The Esquire is still my go-to guitar for playing around the house because it plays so well.) All the same, building the Firebird was a very worthwhile learning curve.

Face value – my Firebird I alongside my 1995 Gibson Firebird V

Several guitars into the building craze, I’m firmly addicted. In fact, it has more or less cured me of the urge to buy guitars (for now, anyway!) Where I used to find myself scouring the online marketplaces for guitars, these days, the things I’m looking at online tend to be routers, pillar drills, spindle sanders and all the kit “proper” guitar builders use – builders who know what they’re doing. All I need now is a workshop and a couple of grand to equip it!

Side by side – my Firebird I alongside my 1995 Gibson

For some time now, I’ve been threatening to screw some guitar hangers to the lounge wall for decorative purposes. When I finally get around to it, I have a feeling this Firebird, along with my pretty, orange fake Gretsch, will end up hanging there, offering greater delight the eyes than to the ears or the fingers. 🙂

In action. – yours truly playing the guitar at a gig.

When Less is More Pt 2

56. Building my Esquire

I’D decided to build myself an Esquire, rather than buying one. The baritone guitar had been my first attempt at finishing a body with a proprietary substance called Tru-Oil. It had been an experiment – a very successful one, which served to whet my appetite for more.

This time – again in the spirit of experimentation – I decided to try applying the Tru-Oil over a white stain, aiming for an approximation of the famous 50s Fender “white blonde” finish used on the “Mary Kay” Stratocasters made in 1957. It was a look I’d always liked, even if I wasn’t quite so keen on the gold hardware that usually went with it.

White blond writ large – a 1957 “Mary Kay” Strat.

I decided to pair this 50s-inspired finish with a 1960s-style rosewood-board neck – for no other reason than that my three other Telecasters all had maple boards. I decided to continue the late 1960s vibe with a version of the Fender “transition” logo adopted after CBS bought out Fender in 1965. The larger, gold-edged Fender name (apparently intended to make the company brand more visible on TV) first appeared on Strats in 1965, but came late to the Esquire. It was only used between 1967 and 1969. None of my other guitars had such a logo, so I went for it. Extreme nerdiness, I know, but hey, only a guitar nerd would sit down and write 3,000-odd words about a guitar – or for that matter, take the time to read them, as you have done!

I had been super-impressed with the Telemaster body I used for the baritone guitar. Made by the British company, Guitarbuild, it was almost as stunning as the truly gorgeous figured Guitarbuild one-piece ash Strat body I bought a couple of years earlier but never used. Guitarbuild bodies are great quality, accurately cut from really good timbers and are highly recommended. Testament to the rigour of its quality control is the fact that Guitarbuild sells its factory rejects – bodies and necks where the router has slipped, something else has gone wrong, or a hidden defect in the wood has come to light – on a parallel website called Booboo Guitars.

Unlike their Guitarbuild counterparts, Booboo bodies aren’t nicely shaped and sanded, ready for finishing – evidently some are rejected at a much earlier stage in the production process than others, so still need quite a bit of sanding and filling. What they still are, though, is decent bits of wood – and very inexpensive!

I found a lovely lightweight alder Tele body on the Booboo site that I thought would fit the bill. The only defects were a small natural crack in the wood of the neck pocket and a few tiny indented knots on the back. Oh, and  the well for the output jack hadn’t been routed out. I gambled the neck pocket crack wasn’t structural (it was easily remedied with a bit of wood glue) and hit the “buy” button.

The body, as it arrived from Booboo Guitars
Defects – the body was rejected by Guitarbuild over the defects highlighed by the pencil marks. The rough, unfinished state of the body can be seen in the edges of the body cavities in the middle pic.

That was the good news. The not-so-good news was it wasn’t a standard Tele body. It was the right shape and the right thickness – quite a few aftermarket bodies aren’t – and the neck pocket was neatly routed to correct Fender dimensions. However, it was a “La Cabronita” body, routed to take two Gretsch humbuckers, a hardtail Strat bridge and a rear-mounted volume control – no tone control – and toggle pickup selector.

Variation on a theme – a Fender Cabronita Tele

The Cabronita Tele has become a bit of a thing over the past few years. It originated in the Fender Custom Shop, where builder Mike Eldred (you’ll be hearing more about him later) started crafting upmarket one-off Teles that blended Fender and Gretsch characteristics (contrary to what you’ll read in some places Fender doesn’t actually own Gretsch, but it has a very close business relationship with the company). The result was a stripped-down hybrid, initially designed to appeal to the rockabilly market, but which has since achieved pretty wide acceptance. Billy Gibbons often plays guitars based on the Cabronita. (The name, I gather, is Spanish slang for “little bastard”, reflecting the hybrid nature of the guitar.)

My first thought was that none of this would present a problem. This was a nicely-figured, lightweight (less than 2kgs) and resonant bit of wood. The neck pickup rout would be hidden by the Esquire pickguard and the back-routed control cavity could be covered with a plate and, in case, would be out of sight on the back. I could still fit a Tele control plate on the front to make it look like an Esquire.

WRONG! As soon as I offered up a standard Tele bridge, pickguard and control plate, it was clear things didn’t quite line up! Evidently, the Cabronita was subtly different to a normal Tele. The control cavity sat about 10mm further back, the bridge pickup cavity was far too shallow for a Tele pickup, and the holes for the strings to thread through to the bridge a shade too further forward than on a normal Tele.

Mismatch – lining up standard Tele components on the Cabronita body showed a bit of work would be needed to make my Esquire work!

So the choice was to keep what was otherwise a very nice body, the perfect weight and adapt it – or sell it and buy a more standard Tele body. It was close, but the quality of the timber swung it. The clincher was when my Burnham friend Steve Edwards, a seriously skilled guitar-builder with a workshop full of the necessary gear, agreed to do some routing for me in exchange for a few tins of his favourite cider.

Re-routed – the body after it came back from Steve’s workshop

Steve did a grand job, extending the control cavity, routing out the bridge pickup cavity to take a Tele pickup and creating a well in the edge of the body for the output jack. Thanks Steve!

The bridge mounting holes were in the wrong place and lining the string holes up meant mounting the bridge about 5mm further forward, but I gambled on there being enough movement in the saddle screws to make the guitar intonate correctly. (There was – just – though I did also have to shave about 5mm off the back end of the pickguard to allow it to fit.)

A few dabs of wood filler took care of the old screw holes and those pesky little knots on the back. Once the glue in the neck pocket crack had dried, it was clearly was going nowhere!

As I mentioned earlier, the Booboo bodies need a lot more preparation than their Guitarbuild cousins. It took a few days of sanding before I was anything like happy. Even now, in certain lights, you can see that the finished guitar could probably have done with a bit more work, but that’s me…I’m an impatient guy!

My online researches suggested white acrylic paint (less than a tenner on Amazon) would be as good as anything to give me a whiter colour under the Tru-Oil. I very gingerly rubbed the paint into the body with a cloth, applying several layers, then rubbing them down with fine wet and dry paper and wire wool. I was aiming to lighten the wood’s natural sandy brown colour, but not completely obscure the grain. (It quickly dawned on me that Fender “white blonde” finishes were usually applied, not to alder, but to swamp ash, which is much more highly-figured, allowing the grain to show through strongly.)

Whiteout – the body with its white stain, prior to oiling

Even with an alder body, however, the result was pretty good – a tad streaky perhaps, with a bit more wood showing at the edges than I wanted – but it was ok for a first effort. I think the finished body, after the application of the obligatory 15 daily coats of the magic Tru-Oil looks rather interesting – a mildly-distressed take on Fender white blonde. (If I do another one, I’ll probably dilute the paint and brush it on thinly in layers, rather than rubbing it in.)

Work in progress – the body after four coats of Tru-Oil…
…and after 15 coats. The pencil marks in the pickup cavity helped me to keep count of them!

So, the neck. The received wisdom in some quarters is that you have to spend a lot of money to get a good, useable neck. However, my experience has been that you can find a perfectly good neck on eBay for less than £100. A couple of years ago, I found an absolutely beautiful secondhand Squier Cabronita neck on there for another project. (No 45 – the Slimcaster). It’s just a shame all the Squier Cabronita necks have maple boards!

Bargain – the chunky rosewood-board neck I found on eBay. The attractive abalone dot-markers were an unexpected bonus.

I looked at a LOT of necks online before though, before shelling out the princely sum of £85 for a brand new one (doubtless Chinese). It was nicely made, a fair bit chunkier than my 52 AVRI, with a 9 ½” radius board, not the 7” vintage radius. It had the correct heel and headstock dimensions and arrived reasonably well fretted, with a well-seated, uncut plastic nut. There was a tiny defect in the finish near the heel, but that and a few sharp fret ends was all I could find wrong with it. The head was exactly the right shape (not always the case) and drilled to accept my favourite kind of tuners – I always feel Fender’s elegant Tele headstock doesn’t look right with anything other than vintage Kluson-style tuners.

A thorough fret polish and a generous application of lemon oil to the fingerboard (which may or may not be rosewood, but certainly looks right) and it came up a treat. Add that beautiful black and gold Fender transition logo, courtesy of my clever mate Glen, and a few thin coats of nitro sprayed on the face of the head to protect the decal and it was ready for the tuners. My number one choice for a guitar like this would have been the Kluson Deluxe lookalike versions from Wilkinson’s simple but effective Ez-Lok range. They have two holes drilled through them at right angles. You thread the string through one hole, then through the other, pull it tight and magically, the string locks pretty much solid. Sadly, reasons I can’t fathom, they’re impossible to find these days – and Lord knows, I’ve tried hard enough! You can buy all the other styles of Ez-Lok tuners, but for some reason, not the ones I wanted for my Esquire. If anyone knows why Wilkinson discontinued this particular model I’d love to know. I even wrote to Trevor Wilkinson about it, but never got a reply. Grrr!

In place of the Wilkos, I used a cheap set of Chinese Kaish-brand locking Kluson-style machines – the ones with a little wheel on the back which locks the string – on Wish. A few months earlier, on a whim, frustrated by not being able to find any Wilkinsons, I’d ordered a couple of sets from Wish on spec. Can anything that costs £18 a set – shipped all the way from the PRC – really be any good? Well, so far, so good…

The finished headstock, with its “transition” logo. The Chinese locking tuners look pukka from the front, but maybe a bit odd from the back. They worked OK, but they weren’t brilliant and were rather heavy, prompting my featherlight-bodied Esquire to neck-dive! I subsequently managed to find a set of hand-to come by Wilkinson Ez-Lok turners and fitted them instead. Problem solved!

The ferrules for the tuners were rather a tight fit, as they often are. I needed to use an old luthier’s trick I picked up on YouTube…heating up the steel with a soldering iron before pressing them in. It softens up the wood a bit and works a treat. (Works for string ferrules, too!)

Trick of the trade – using a hot soldering iron to ease the tuner ferrules into their holes

I then cut the top nut for the strings, using razor saws, needle files and folded abrasive paper to create the necessary slots. It’s a process which, ideally, requires a more patience than I have – otherwise you can end up removing too much plastic or bone, making the slots too deep. On this occasion, I’m glad to say I managed to restrain myself and it turned out all right. Thinking about it, my impatience to get it done was probably tempered by the knowledge I wasn’t in too much of a hurry – the body was going to take a fortnight to finish, allowing for the daily coats of Tru-Oil to dry and harden!

The bridge was my favorite online store, Northwest Guitars’, take on Wilkinson’s compensated vintage-style Tele bridge – exactly the same thing and probably made in the same Chinese factory, but cheaper. My original choice of pickup was a supposedly high-output Broadcaster-style unit, hand-wound by a British company called Toltec. I was really excited to hear this pickup. It was beautifully made and came highly recommended by a few guys on the Facebook guitar forums. To be fair, it wasn’t all that expensive, but I was very disappointed when I finally put together the guitar, wired it in and plugged it in. It sounded rather thin and weedy-sounding. Not at all what I wanted.

Disappointing – the original Broadcaster pickup looked the part, but just didn’t sound right

Admittedly, I’d been spoiled for the last couple of years by a wonderful set of Seymour Duncan Custom Shop 53 taps I fitted to my beloved 1982 53 AVRI Tele. It was the first Fender six-string I ever bought and is now a veteran of 3,000-odd gigs  (No 6 in this blog). They were very expensive American hand-wound pickups and has transformed my trusty old Tele from a good guitar to a truly great one. A tough act to follow… It took a bit of searching online and a LOT of asking around, but eventually, I found a chap on Facebook with a spare Duncan 53 tap bridge pickup he was prepared to sell me for sensible money. It was just what I needed.

The pickup was hooked up to a really nice pre-assembled Bloodstone Guitarworks custom wiring harness, with a tone-switching option known at the “Eldred mod”. The circuit was developed by the Fender Custom Shop’s Mike Eldred (remember, I mentioned him earlier?) to give the Esquire a third useable tone. The Eldred mod uses a three-way Tele switch to offer the two traditional Esquire tone options (bridge pickup with and without the tone control in circuit) plus a third, slightly honky tone that’s supposed to sound a bit like a cocked wah-wah pedal. It’s an interesting sound, certainly far more useable than the original bassy option Fender offered in the 1950s.

The pre-soldered Bloodstone Guitarworks “Eldred mod” wiring harnewss was a work of art

I could have figured out the circuit and made one up myself, but Bloodstone was offering a neatly-soldered, pre-assembled harness, made using premium components for not much more than I would have paid for the bits. I’d  have been daft not to use it.

Foiled again – the control cavity and .inset, pickup cavity, both lined with adhesive copper foil

I screened the rear control cavity and the pickup route with self-adhesive copper foil – brilliant stuff, though if, like me, you cut your fingers on the sharp edges pushing it in you’ll probably swear as much as I did! I also used it to screen the smart backplate I cut from black plastic card.

Cover-up – the backplate I made from black plastic card.

Add a pair of strap buttons, a nice shiny control plate and few other finishing touches and there it was…another really nice guitar, and one of which I’m already immensely fond. It plays well, is beautifully light and resonant and looks pretty much the way I hoped it would.

The finished article – my very own one-off Esquire

More to the point, it sounds fantastic. Hit an open A chord and it rings forever…well almost. Proof positive that there is DEFINITELY something in all that scientific stuff I mentioned in part one.

So now…where can I get my hands on a Firebird I

Back view – the finished guitar

When Less is More…

56. Pt 1 – Esquires and the allure of the single-pickup guitar.

THE more I looked at pictures of classic Esquires, Les Paul Juniors – and above all, the super-cool Gibson Firebird I – the more I found myself coming round to the idea there was definitely something irresistibly  desirable about the elegant simplicity of a single-pickup guitar.

To be honest, I’ve had a bit of a thing about single-pickup guitars for some time, although until I built myself an Esquire just recently, I’d never actually owned one.

Part of the attraction is definitely their pure, minimal coolness. I’ve always had a soft spot for amplifiers sporting only the necessary minimum compliment of knobs – you can keep your modern, multi-channel Marshalls and Mesa-Boogies. Give me a good, old-fashioned Fender, Marshall or Vox amp with basic controls any day!

The holy trinity – an early 60s Gibson Firebird I, late 50s Gibson Les Paul Junior and a 50s Fender Esquire

The highly subjective notion of cool aside though, there is a compelling, logical reason why single-pickup guitars really do sound better. It’s not mere mumbo jumbo. The science bears it out. Sort of.

It’s probably a slight oversimplification, but an electric guitar relies on the vibration of its steel strings to disrupt a magnetic field created by a coil of wire wrapped around a magnet. This generates a tiny electrical current, which goes off to the amplifier to be expanded into the noisy stuff we all know and love. Even my neighbours, late at night…honestly!

Almost all guitar pickups contain magnets, and all magnets exert a pull on anything made from steel – including the strings. If you set your pickups too close to the strings, the notes won’t ring cleanly because the magnets in the pickups are “grabbing” the steel strings and inhibiting their vibration. It’s a subtle phenomenon, but completely observable in high-output pickups with big, fat, powerful magnets.

By logical extension, it’s obvious that having just the one pickup under the strings means just one magnet and thus less magnetism killing those magic vibrations. So, all other things being equal, a single-pickup guitar wll be more resonant, since its strings will sustain longer and louder.

High time, I thought, to put all this science to the test.

I could have bought the stunning custom-colour Firebird I of my dreams (in theory at least, if I’d been prepared to sell the car and buy a pushbike). Sadly, this, the most basic iteration of the coolest-looking Gibson guitar of all time is a pretty rare bird. Translated into bank manager-speak, that equates to bloody expensive.

Object of desire – a stunning Firebird I from the early 1960s

With no regular production Firebird I currently on the Gibson catalogue, the choice is between vintage pieces from the early 60s (cost: both arms and both legs); gorgeous one-offs, crafted by the Gibson Custom Shop (cost: almost as many limbs); or the rare – but reputedly rather good – Joe Bonamassa Signature Firebird I, issued in small numbers a couple of years ago under Gibson’s “budget” brand, Epiphone. Unlike all most all Epi ‘Birds, the JB Sig is very close to the classic 1960s Firebird. It even has through-neck construction and the Firebird’s distinctive straight-through Kluson banjo tuners, something even some Gibson Custom Shop Firebirds lack. On the negative side, the JB Sig is really hard to find and if you locate one, still costs a decent lump of change for what, at the end of the day, is still an Epiphone, not a Gibson.

Rare ‘bird – the Epiphone Joe Bonamassa sig Firebird i is a gorgeous thing, but expensive and hard to find.

So not a Firebird then… A single pickup Les Paul Junior? Well, maybe…my guitar wizard of a son, Owen, has a real beaut – a fearsomely roadworn genuine 1958-vintage Junior, which he loves. (There’s definitely something a bit unsettling about your son playing a guitar made in the year you were born!)

Elegantly simple – a brace of Les Paul Juniors, one single and one double-cutaway.

Once upon a time, for a brief period, I did actually have a double-cutaway Les Paul Special (the same thing, but with two pickups – No 13 in this blog.) But beautiful though it was, I never really got on with my old cherry-red Special.

So an Esquire it would be then…

The single-pickup Esquire was actually Leo Fender’s very first production Spanish (ie: non-lapsteel) guitar. The early Esquires appeared on the market in 1950, a few months ahead of his twin-pickup guitar – the one which would become the Telecaster.  (Leo Fender initially christened his twin-pickup instrument the Broadcaster, but Gretsch had a drum kit called a Broadkaster and threatened to sue, forcing the name change.)

A stunning 1952 Esquire

The advent of the Broadcaster/Telecaster prompted Fender to stop making Esquires later in 1950. Just 60 or so Esquires were built before production halted, though the single-pickup model was restored to the range in early 1951, mindful presumably, that some might players not be able to stump up the price of its twin-pickup brother. (In 1950, the Broadcaster/Telecaster retailed for $169.95, plus $39.95 for a hard case. The Esquire was $149.96 plus case – this at a time when $150 was rather more than two weeks’ wages for the average American.) Fender then built and sold Esquires solidly until 1969,

The Esquire shared the Tele’s spanky bridgeplate-mounted pickup (itself an evolved version of the unit Fender used in its lap-steel guitars in the 40s). Although it only had the one pickup, The Esquire still had a selector switch, in this case offering alternative tonalities rather than the Tele pickup selections. Traditionally, the middle position on an Esquire, gave you the same sound as a Tele on the bridge pickup, complete with the tone control. The back position bypassed the tone control, for a slightly brighter, louder sound. The front position routed the sound through a capacitor circuit, designed to give a dull, bassy sound. The idea, in the days before every band had a bass guitarist, was that the guitarist could help out with basslines, if required.

The original Esquire – give or take a few upgrades – was in constant production for the best part of 20 years, there are quite a lot of vintage Esquires out there. They are, however, sometimes hard to spot. If you look closely at the headstocks of famous musicians’ old Fenders, you will sometimes see that they started life as Esquires, only later acquiring a neck pickup and conventional switching. That’s probably the way the ever-practical Leo Fender intended it, since all Tele and Esquire bodies were identical and routed to accept two pickups.

Boss guitar – Springsteen with his Esquire on the cover of “Born to Run”

Bruce Springsteen’s trademark guitar – the one on the iconic “Born to Run” album cover – is a case in point. It says “Esquire” on the headstock, but it has two pickups (though apparently the neck pickup isn’t connected). He bought the much-travelled 1950s guitar early in his career and has been quoted saying it’s a Tele with an Esquire neck, though experts who have examined it believe the neck and left the factory attached to the neck and the neck pickup was a later addition.

Jeff Beck played a much- battered 1954 Esquire throughout his pioneering spell with The Yardbirds. At one stage he traded it with pickup guru Seymour Duncan for humbucker-laden Tele, but later got it back – it currently resides in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.

Jeff Beck with the Esquire he bought from John Maus of the Walker Brothers

In an interview, he recalled: “Fender had just started making Teles with rosewood necks, but I wanted one with an original maple neck. Thankfully, we’d gone on tour with The Walker Brothers, and John Maus [The Walker Brothers singer and guitarist] had a maple-neck Tele. He wanted about seventy-five pounds for it, which was only ten pounds cheaper than the new ones in the shops, but he wouldn’t budge. So I dug out the money, bought the guitar from him and I never regretted it. That maple-neck Esquire was on ‘I’m A Man,’ ‘Over Under Sideways Down’, ’Shapes Of Things’ and numerous others.” 

Affordable – a Far Eastern Squier Classic Vibe Esquire

Fender’s Far Eastern budget brand, Squier, has long been the company’s favourite channel for innovation – it was Squier, for instance, that first revived the long-discontinued Fender Bass VI baritone guitar. So it was no surprise that when the Esquire finally reappeared on the market in the 1980s, it bore the Squier name on the head. Those early born-again Esquires were made in Japan and now quite collectible in their own right. These days, Squier’s main manufacturing is in China and Indonesia – I think I’m right in saying the only Fender-branded Esquires in the current catalogue are the Mexican-made Brad Paisley Signature model and super-pricey one-offs from the Fender Custom Shop.

Secret weapon – the new Brad Paisley Esquire actually has a neck pickup hidden under the pickguard

Thanks to Squier, however, you can currently buy a pretty decent Esquire as part of the Chinese Classic Vibe series. My dear old pal Howard Bills has one and months after buying it, is still singing its praises!

That might have been an option for me, but for the fact that since the first lockdown, I’ve been bitten by the guitar-building bug. I put together a rather pretty orange Gretsch lookalike in the spring of 2020, almost built an electric 12-string, loosely based on the classic 60s Fender Electric XII (now there’s a guitar I’d love to see revived by Squier!) and then made a really good 28” scale baritone guitar, based on a Telemaster body. (You can read about these instruments in blog posts 53, 54 and 55 above.)

And so I embarked an yet another adventure into the wonderful world of guitar-building.

Short run – in 2020 Fender issued a 70th anniversary Esquire. However, it’s currently hard to buy a new Esquire with Fender on the headstock

The lowdown on baritones…

55. Tim Aves 28”-scale Telemaster Baritone

THERE was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed wherever you looked, you would see baritone guitars. The increased visibility of these instruments – like ordinary six-strings, but with a longer-than-usual scale, more heavily strung and tuned a good bit lower – is down to two things, I reckon.

Over the past 20 years or so, an increasing number of dropped and lowered tunings have been used in rock music. When run through brutally-overdriven amps, this creates a huge, fat sound wall of sound for chording. Some players use seven-string guitars with an extra, low B-string, while others simply put heavier strings on their ordinary guitars and tune them down a tone or two. Using a baritone is an obvious, logical next step. The other reason for this rash of long-scale guitars relates, I suspect, to the popularity of roots-Americana music, which, in turn, often harks back to the rock’n’roll and country of the 1950s and 60s. The original Danelectro, Gretsch and Fender baritone guitars of the time can be heard all over those old records – from Duane Eddy and Shadows instrumentals, to classic mainstream country hits.

Early version – the 30″ baritone version of the Danelecro U2

I remember loving that unmistakable twangy “rubber band” sound on Steve Earle’s early work. The wonderful “Guitartown” – the song and the whole album – is a case in point. Meanwhile, across the aisle in the blues section, Jimmie Vaughan can be heard playing a Dano baritone on several Fabulous Thunderbirds recordings, as well as the live version of little brother Stevie Ray’s Lovestruck Baby”.

Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan on a magazine cover with a Danelectro twin-neck. You can clearly the the bottom baritone neck is a lot longer than the standard scale length.

The drawback of simply tuning down a standard 24¾” or 25½”-scale Gibson or Fender is that the lower the note, the slacker the strings and the more they rattle and bang on the frets. The obvious answer is heavier string gauges and a longer scale-length – the distance between the top nut on at the pointy end and the bridge saddles on the body.

Jimmie Vaughan playing a vintage Danelectro baritone in the video for the Fabulous Thundetbirds’ Hit, Tuff Enuff.

Baritone scale-lengths vary from the 27” of Fender and Squier’s recent Telecaster and Telemaster renditions and many of the more rock-oriented baris, to the generous 30” scale of the original Fender Bass VI and the older Danelectros.

An original early 60s Fender Bass VI

Fender fanatic that I am, I’d long been intrigued by the Fender Bass VI, a peculiar, vaguely Jazzmaster-shaped instrument, with a tremolo bridge and a neck roughly the same width as a standard guitar, cramming those thick strings rather too close together for comfort. It was first launched in 1961 and remained in limited production until 1975. Plenty of famous players used the Bass VI, including actual bass players, such as the Shadows’ Jet Harris and Cream’s Jack Bruce, as well as many a guitarist looking for a bit of low-pitched twang. The Bass VI made a comeback in 2013, via Fender’s budget brand, Squier, which started making a more affordable version of the Bass VI in China. Squier has been towards the front of the field, releasing a number of affordable baritones in varying scale lengths. A couple of them were 30”-scale Jazzmasters, put out as part of the limited-edition “Vintage Modified” series, which have gone on to become hugely collectible and incredibly expensive for Indonesian-made Squiers. Prices are now well in excess of the £1,000 mark.

I’m always on the lookout for instruments to add to the equipment list at our recording studio, Rooks Yard – especially things musicians might not routinely own, but which come in handy to add an extra, unusual texture to tracks recorded with us. On that basis, I’ve acquired a boxful of percussion instruments, a bass guitar, and accordion, plus the acoustic and electric 12-strings featured earlier in this series of blogs. I’d often considered adding a baritone guitar – all the more so after I almost built an electric 12-string last year for the studio. I’d already bought a neck and a very nice unfinished alder Telemaster body (made by the excellent, British Guitarbuild company) when I found a really good used Revelation electric 12 for sale at a price I couldn’t refuse. (No 54 in this blog.)

The unfinished Guitarbuild body. with the hardware temporarilty attached.

I’d gone for a Telemaster body – a Jazzmaster-shaped body, routed to accept a Telecaster neck, bridge and hardware – for the 12-string, because it was roughly what Fender had used for its own Electric Xl. It would also balance the extra heft of a long 12-string headstock, l thought. Equally, what better body also to use for a baritone guitar with a longer neck?

Key components – the unfinished Guitarbuild body with the baritone neck. To my relief, the neck was a perfect fit!

I was lucky to find my baritone neck secondhand, via a very helpful chap on a Facebook guitar forum. For a quite reasonable sum, I got an unbranded 24-fret rosewood-board neck, complete with a decent set of Gotoh tuners. The seller told me he’d originally paid a luthier to fit and set up the neck on a Telecaster body, but ended up putting the original neck back on, since he wasn’t using the baritone enough.

Minimal – the headstock

I’ve no idea if the neck’s minimal, stripped-down headstock – there’s barely room for the six tuners – was originally that shape; whether it was a re-shaped Tele head; or had started life as one of those blank canvass “paddle” headstocks, but it does the job rather stylishly. The less wood you have up that end, the better the guitar balances. Whatever is the case, it has a bit of a back-angle to it, obviating the need for string trees. The other great thing was the width at the nut was perfect. On the face of it, at 45mm it’s considerably wider that your average Tele’s 40mm nut, but in this context, not only very comfortable, but perfect for a baritone. You can play chords on it like a regular guitar, but you can also fret individual strings without feeling cramped. It wasn’t perfect – a couple of rather sharp fret-ends needed filing down and smoothing off and the truss-rod cover opening on the headstock was crude and unattractive – but it was more than good enough. Better still, the square Tele-style heel fitted snugly into the neck pocket on the Telemaster body. It’s always a relief when you’re marrying up an unrelated neck and body and that happens without the need for any adjustment!
There are practically no pickups specifically designed for six-string bass, but after a bit of thought, I took the easy option. The body was already routed for a Telecaster bridge and pickups, so that was what I went with – a Wilkinson traditional Fender-style “ashtray” three-saddle bridge, but with staggered brass saddles for improved intonation. I had an old Seymour Duncan Tele bridge pickup in the bits box, so in that went. Not a clue what model it is – it’s a bit gutless and may well end up getting replaced at some stage, though the prevailing view seems to be that you don’t really need “hot” pickups in a baritone; presumably that’s because there’s so much metal vibrating over them in those big old strings.
I almost went for a stock Tele pickup for the neck position, but had a yen for a Danelectro-style lipstick-tube. These days, you can buy Lippies scaled down to fit a Strat pickup cavity – only a shade wider than that for a Tele neck pickup anyway. I managed to find a rather attractive chromed surround in which to mount it, so there was no need to find or make what would have been a decidedly non-standard pickguard.

Getting there – the body with about eight coats of Tu-Oil on it.

The body itself was sanded to a decent standard – these Guitarbuild bodies are truly excellent and I would heartily recommend them to anyone building their own Fender-style guitar. My original plan had been to have a go at a traditional Fender-style nitrocellulose finish, probably Sonic or Daphne blue. A couple of specialist retailers, notably Northwest Guitars (I use them quite a lot for supplies these days) sell Fender-correct custom colour nitro paint in handy spray cans, so that seemed a way to go. Just one snag: Nitro is pretty difficult (not to mention moderately evil) to spray successfully if you don’t have a warm, dry, dust-free and well-ventilated indoor space. I have sprayed the odd bit outdoors in the garden in the past, but in mid-January during the coldest UK winter in ten years? Nope!
Instead, I turned to the brown bottle of pure magic that is Tru-Oil, a choice which turned out to be something of a revelation. Tru-Oil is a polymerized Linseed oil, specially formulated to dry fast to a tough finish. It’s marketed primarily to the shooting fraternity to protect the finish of their precious gun stocks, but plenty of guitar builders swear by it. I did a LOT of reading and watched even more Youtube videos before decided to go with Tru-Oil. Now, having done it once, I have absolutely no regrets.

Sheen – the body about halfway through the finishing process.

It took a long time – more than a fortnight – to finish the body, rubbing on one coat a day, then rubbing down with fine wire wool every two or three coats. That, I had read was the way to build up a really deep, lustrous shine. It was a tedious slog, but as you can see from the pics, well worth the effort – not least because it was all done in my nice, heated conservatory without killing myself with noxious fumes!

Glossy – the finished body after 14 coats of Tru-Oil

It slightly darkened the three-piece alder body to a rather nice, slightly orangey hue and brought out the grain a treat. Result! I’ll DEFINITELY be using Tru-Oil again. In fact, my next project will involve an experiment with Tru-Oil over a stain to colour the wood. Watch this space!

The untidy truss-rod access channel – and the cover I made for it.

After something like 14 or 15 daily coats, I let the finish harden for a couple of days. While I was waiting, I made up a nice little truss-rod cover from black plastic card – the stuff I originally used for the pickup rings, pickguard and trust-rod cover on my fake Gretsch (No 53 in this blog).

It was then finally time to bolt the thing together, wire up the electrics and string it up. I’ve said it before, it’s always an exciting time when you finally bring all the elements together and turn them into an actual instrument…will the result live up to expectations? This time, I’m happy to report that it worked out really well. Strung up with a beefy set of D’Adario 14-86 strings and tuned B-B (in other words, like a standard guitar, but a fourth down) it took surprisingly little setting up to make my baritone playable. (All credit to the luthier who originally cut the nut and set up the truss rod – necks seldom go on so easily straight out of the box.) The pickups needed winding out closer to the strings than I’d expected, but ended up sounding pretty good, though I still might replace the bridge unit at some stage. It’s a bit on the weak side, but it’ll do for now.

Next question: What to play on it? Well, you can play chords, but they tend to be a bit muddy and indistinct with all those low frequencies clattering around. Partial chords higher up the neck are fine and those twangy reverb and tremolo-laden “rubber-band” sounds from the Nashville classics sound tremendous. I ended up dropping the tuning down to A – that’s a full fifth down from a standard tuned guitar – for a song I had been working on and concluded it felt and sounded even better down there. You can hear my baritone on the Garageband demo of that song here…

Demo suite…using the baritone on my Train Song demo.

Once the latest lockdown is finally over and the guitar is in residence at the studio – we’ll soon be able to start having musicians in to record again – it’ll be interesting to see and hear what other players do with it. Every one of them, I expect, will have a slightly different take on it – and that’s part of the fun!

A genuine Revelation…

54. Revelation RJT60-12 Electric 12-string

I’VE been on the lookout for an electric 12-string for our studio, Rooks Yard for some time now. Aside from playing the jangly bits in “Stairway to Heaven” and sundry Byrds and Beatles tunes, 12-strings are incredibly useful in the studio for all sorts of semi-hidden jobs, such as thickening up tracks, adding a different sound to riffs and adding a sense of “otherness” that merely using a chorus effect never quite achieves. For similar reasons, we bought a cheap acoustic 12 last year for the studio and it’s been used a few times, usually quite subtly.
Having just finished my fake Gretsch hollowbody (No 53) the original plan was to build an electric 12, based loosely on the classic mid-60s Fender Electric XII that has featured on so many classic tracks down the years. (Interesting fact: Jimmy Page didn’t play his Gibson 6/12 doubleneck on the studio version of “Stairway to Heaven” – it was a Fender XII.)

Three 12s…the guitar on the left is an original 60s Fender Electric Xll, is the middle is the PhotoShop mockup I did of the guitar I planned to build, while the one of the right is the Revelation RJT60-12.

It actually got rather further than the planning stage… I’d bought a neck, a body and a bridge, though the components were on opposite sides of the Atlantic! I’d found an American guy on eBay selling very reasonably-priced 12-string necks, modelled on the Fender Xll, with its distinctive “hockey-stick” headstock, but made to fit a Telecaster body. I bought one and had it sent to my boy Owen in Los Angeles, where it was to wait until I next visited (sadly, an unknown quantity, given the current, restrictions on transatlantic travel.)
Instead of a Tele body, it occurred to me the neck might work better and balance more comfortably on a Jazzmaster-style body – the original Fender XII had an offset Jazzmaster-style body, so the hunt was on for a “Telemaster” body.  Telemasters – guitars with a Jazzmaster-shaped body, routed to accept a Tele neck and pickups – have become a bit of a “thing” in recent times – even Fender and its Far Eastern sister brand, Squier, make them these days. So do quite a few of the companies who make necks and bodies for prospective builders like yours truly, who lack the necessary woodworking skills or equipment.
The excellent British company, Guitarbuild made the body I found for mine. It was a good price, secondhand on eBay and turned out to be unused, unmarked and made from a couple of very nice bits of alder. I also bought a hardtail Strat 12-string bridge, a clever thing, with six strings anchored through the body, hardtail-style, and the rest hooked through holes in the back bridge plate.
All I needed then was two sets of Kluson-style tuners – one left-handed and one right – some pickups…and a trip to California to collect the neck. I’d also started looking at what else I’d need to finish the guitar, such as tuners and a pickguard. In the process of working it out I went as far as to mock up they guitar I was planning, using PhotoShop.
The original 60s Fender Electric XII sported pair of odd-looking split pickups, not dissimilar to those fitted to Precision basses. The American Curtis Novak company  makes very fine modern versions of these rare pickups – Fender even uses them in its recent and rather pricey Electric XII reissue – but they’re too expensive for my limited budget.

Authentic, but expensive – the Curtis Novak Electric Xll pickups

I was still pondering on the kind of pickup I could afford when an opportunity dropped into my lap, in the shape of the subject of this blog. I spotted it for sale on Facebook for a price too good to miss. Better still, the chap selling it lived five minutes off the route I drive almost every weekend to visit my girlfriend. Had to be done!

Fantastic bargain – my Revelation RJT60-12

Said visit was an enjoyable affair. The guy selling it, Big Ray, is a veteran local muso and we soon discovered countless mutual friends as well as a shared love of all things guitar and amp-related. What was supposed to be a quick, socially-distanced in-and-out, ended up as a protracted and very companionable guitar chat before I handed over the sponds and walked out of his house bearing a very shiny, just-like-new electric 12-string.
My marvelously indulgent girlfriend was a bit taken aback when I rocked up toting yet another guitar, but, bless her, took it in her stride. She even smiled and sang along indulgently when I spent much of the evening serenading her with sundry 12-string ditties – from the Byrds and the Beatles to the theme from that God-awful TV soap, Crossroads!
So is the Revelation Xll any good? The short answer is most definitely YES! Brand new, these guitars sell for about £300. At that price they’re great value for money. At the price Big Ray let me have this one, bless him, it was a stunning bargain.

Rear view of the Revelation

After doing a bit of homework, I learned the Revelation brand was originally owned by the German company Hohner (you know – harmonicas, accordions etc) in the 90s. Brit pickup guru Alan Entwistle was involved in the design of the series and when Hohner ditched Revelation, Entwistle took up the brand name and used it in 2010 to launch a new line of great quality budget Far East-built guitars, including this Jazzmaster-shaped 12-string.

Jazz influence – the Revelation alongside my Jazzmaster

The offset body is almost identical to a Jazzmaster’s – in this case, finished in a very fetching sunburst – and fitted with a rather handsome neck with a large, straight headstock holding a dozen Kluson vintage-style tuners.  The head isn’t quite as elegant as Fender’s hockey-stick, but it’s a tad more compact and reminiscent of the heads Fender used on the Japanese 12-string Strats it made a few years ago. It’s quite a classy neck, with neat edge-binding and block inlays. More to the point, it’s REALLY easy to play, even for someone like me, who has fingers like a pack of oversized chipolatas! It’s nice and wide at the nut, which means it feels a bit of a handful when you put your hand around it. However, the extra width definitely makes sense as soon as you start playing chords and arpeggios across it, as the string spacing is not dissimilar to that on a Strat or Tele.

The oddest thing about it is the bridge. The saddles are very similar to the one I bought for my project guitar, with 12 individual, intonatable saddles and six of the strings loading from the rear of the guitar and six through the back of the bridge plate. Weirdly though, the saddles are attached to a Strat-type tremolo unit. There was no arm for it and the trem been blocked off so it won’t move (presumably at the factory). But why fit a trem at all to a guitar like this? 12-strings are notoriously a pain to keep in tune at the best of times. You’d have to be pretty brave – or incredibly foolhardy – to gig a 12-string with a floating trem system!

Oddity – the Revelation’s weird 12-string trem bridge

My first thought was it must have been because Revelation used the same body for six and 12-string variants and so was stuck with a tremolo rout. This, however, was disproved when my pal Richard Tuckey showed up at Rooks Yard a couple of weeks after I bought my guitar to record a few overdubs on his mum, Suzy Quatro’s new album with his own baby blue Revelation Xll. Richard’s guitar has no trem rout, sporting instead, a Gibson-style stop-tailpiece and tune-o-matic bridge. Curiouser and curiouser…

No trem – a blue Revelation Xll like the one Richard Tuckey brought to our studio.

Having pondered long and hard upon the best pickups for my 12-string project, I’d settled on either P90s and Filtertrons. The Revelation answered that question, sporting a pair of Entwistle-designed P90s which sound as good as the guitar looks. These soapbars really fit in with the jangly 12-string vibe. The guitar is topped of with a toggle pickup selector switch on the lower bout (roughly where you’d expect one on a Jazzmaster) plus a four-way rotary tone selector on the top bout. The latter was a bit of a mystery, but in practice, it’s a waste of space. Maybe it works better on the 6-string variants, but on the Xll, tonally, it starts at “bright” before covering the full range from dull and quiet, to even duller and even quieter!

The Entwistle soapbar pickups sound fantastic.

Mind you, that’s just about the only thing I can find wrong with what is a marvellous guitar. It now lives in the control room at Rooks Yard, where I have no doubt at all it will make itself a LOT of friends over the next couple of years!

Studio guitar – the Revelation is in its element at Rooks Yard.

FOOTNOTE: The neck pretty soon fo7nd a buyer out in LA, aNd the body? Weeell…you need look no further than what is likely to be the next entry in this blog.

Another new one…

53. Fake Chinese Gretsch hollowbody

IT didn’t take long for me to answer the question posed at the top of my blog on Guitar No 50: “The last guitar I’ll ever bring home?”
The answer, of course, was an emphatic “No”. Fine instrument though it is, it was fairly inevitable my Greco Les Paul wasn’t destined to be the last guitar I would bring home.
The Covid-19 lockdown has been responsible for a good deal of creativity, one way and another. In my case, it prompted me to write this blog and provoked a fresh burst of songwriting and home recording activity. Early on in the lockdown, I was convinced I had succumbed to the dreaded lurgi (later, rather embarrassingly, diagnosed as a case of seasonal hayfever!) and I went into isolation. For a lot of this time, I was hunched over my iPad, demoing new songs on Garageband, some of which, hopefully, will see the light of day at some stage.
As I ran out of song ideas and guitars from my collection to write about in this blog, the lockdown opened the door for the guitar bug to bite once again. I blame my pal guitarist, songwriter and producer Richard Tuckey. He drew my attention to a guy on Facebook who was selling half-finished guitar, apparently mainly bankrupt stock from a Chinese guitar company called Pango. Among the guitars on the Alan George Guitars page was a half-built black Gretsch-style hollowbody neck and body, priced at a measly £65. He only had one left – and it was orange. Yes ORANGE! The colour – is there any other colour for a fat-bodied Gretsch? – along with the fact it had the word, “Gretsch” on the headstock and looked the part – was the clincher. All my life, I realised, I’d wanted a big, fat Gretsch hollowbody – I’d just never know that to be the case until that very moment. 🙂

The neck and body, as it arrived from Alan George
Raw material – I had to cut off the end of the fingerboard to fit the nut.

So began a fresh adventure along a road never before travelled. Never before had I owned a hollowbody guitar, let alone tried to put one together. The neck and body so cheaply won, the challenge then was to turn them into a playable, useable guitar for less than £200. A couple of days later, a rather dull and dusty orange guitar-shaped thing landed on my doorstep – the body, intriguingly, stuffed with Chinese newspaper (a cheap way to keep the paint out of the body cavity during spraying I guess). It was decently-made, though the finish was far from perfect, the fingerboard tinder-dry and the frets dangerously rough, their ends sharper than a box of cutlery. Oh and there was no nut. Just as well I like a challenge!

Chinese whispers – it arrived with newspaper jammed inside the body

My first move was to look for cheap and useable hardware. This yielded one box of treasures, courtesy of my pal, London guitarist and keen guitar modder Mike Dearing. A socially-distanced rendezvous at a petrol station in South Woodham brought me a box of goodies, including a set of tuners, a bridge, a set of Gretsch Dynasonic pickups and a single cheap (probably Artec) Filtertron knock-off.

The neck masked off ready for me to work on the frets. In the background is the box of bits, mostly supplied by Mike Dearing
The body and neck masked off to protect the finish

Back to eBay I was searching a cheap trapeze tailpiece and lucked out with a mint, unused Bigsby tremolo tailpiece dirt cheap. My guitar-builder pal James Payze kindly donated a second Filtertron copy (thanks, James!) and I was on my way.

Shiny – the newly polished frets.

It took me a couple of tries to get the width nut right, though eventually I managed to fit and cut one and do a pretty decent job on the frets. They’re now nice and smooth and shiny. And yes, you can run your hand up the neck without drawing blood! I’m actually rather proud of my efforts here. The first time I put strings on revealed flaws in my plans… Although a hollowbody, the guitar has a small block running front to back of the body in the area under the bridge, which made it possible to fit studs for a fixed bridge, rather than the floating variety found on many Gretsches. With the Bigsby fitted, I marked out the location of the bridge studs and persuaded a kind soul with a pillar drill (he answered a Facebook appeal) to do the necessary.

The bridge studs with the original roller bridge I got for the guitar – a good, solid unit, but the string spacing was too narrow.

Disaster! The studs seemed to be in the wrong place! Story of my life… I’m practically incapable of cutting anything straight, so annoyed though I was, I wasn’t completely surprised at this apparent miscalculation.Back I went to a floating bridge, which I fitted  before stringing up the guitar. Annoyingly, the alignment and string spacing was still all wrong, using the original, Gibson-spaced bridge. In the end, I had to bite the bullet and buy a proper Gretsch-style bridge, with saddles threaded onto a bar, so the string spacing is infinitely adjustable. It broke my original budget, but solved the problem of string spacing and also, indirectly, the alignment problem. It turned out the original stud holes were in roughly the right place after all – it was the Bigsby tailpiece that was mounted off-centre. Doh!

The bridge, pickups and Bigsby all in place

I was very pleased to find I was able to mount the new adjustable bridge on the studs and with a bit of tweaking, produce a reasonably playable guitar. One of the scariest parts came next – drilling six holes in that big, fat body to take the controls and output jack. I studied any number of photos of real Gretsches to get the rough locations. (I was hardly helped by the fact the body shape and position of the f-holes didn’t quite seem to correspond exactly to any actual Gretsch model I could find – it was all guesswork really.)
I’d gone for the classic Gretsch four-knob layout (usually pickup selector toggle master volume and tone, plus individual pickup volumes). I loved the look of all those lovely chromed metal “G” arrow knobs and had found some reasonable cheap knock-offs on eBay. In the end I went for a single volume and tone set-up – keeping the other two as unwired dummies, with the option to change that in future.

The wiring harness, ready to be fed in through the holes in the body.

I was tempted to use the Dynasonic pickups, but they were way too small for the mounting holes on the body. Sure they will come in handy for a future project. So the cheapo Filtertron copies seemed the best option. The ones I had were made to fit in standard humbucker mounting rings, which are a couple of millimetres too short to cover the holes in the body – one of the lessons I learned early on was that almost nothing about Gretsches conforms to standard Gibson/Fender dimensions!

All my own work – pickup mounting rings, pickguard and truss rod cover, all made from 2mm plastic card

In my early teens, I was a keen builder of model kits and I recalled a product called “plastic card”, used to fabricate parts from scratch. I found a model-making website selling sheets of black 2mm plastic card I thought would be perfect to make masking rings to sit under the mountings and cover the gaps. A bit of work with the circular saw attachment on my cheapo multi-tool gizmo and I ended up with a pair of rings – oh, and a pickguard and a truss rod cover (both cut, using templates downloaded from the web.)
The time came to wire the thing up. I made up the harness in advance, gingerly pulling the relevant pots, switch and jack socket through the holes in the body, using bits of string taped to them. (Sounds easy. It’s not! It’s maddenly-fiddly and time-consuming!)
So to the crunch – stringing up and plugging it in. The neck pickup sounded pretty good – full, fat and plummy. The bridge pickup was barely there… Turns out the colour-coding on the four wires leading from these two, apparently similar pickups (marked “neck” and “bridge”) was completely different… grrr! A bit of unstringing, disassembling and resoldering got the bridge pickup working, but when it was, it sounded as good as the bridge one. These pickups may be cheap (typical retail price about £25) but they are by no means nasty. Filtertrons or TV Joneses they may not be (they lack a bit of those units’ zingy brightness, so I’m told), but they’re plenty good enough for my low-price lockdown project.
Next stop was a trip to our studio ( so I could plug into an amp and play loud with impunity.

Looker – the finished guitar with my Deluxe Reverb

The Verdict: For a guitar which cost me a little bit more than my £200 budget, but not much more, it’s actually pretty good. It looks amazing. Putting a Bigsby on almost any guitar will do that. The £85 I spent on my Bigsby – the single most expensive part in the project – was money well spent. It plays reasonably well, though I’m still tinkering with the setup. I think I may have one proud fret, as the top E buzzes a bit, but only at the 5th fret. I also suspect I still need to find the best strings for such a quirky instrument. I’m currently using a cheap set of 11s, but have some better ones on the way… tempted to try flatwounds, too.
It sounds good. This is my first actual hollowbody and there’s enormous fun to be had playing such a guitar loud enough for it to be on the edge of feedback – the point where you feel the air coming out of the f-holes and it starts to sing of its own accord! The body is at least twice as thick as I’m used to and that also feels just plain weird when it’s strapped on – I’m still experimenting a strap length that works for me.

Ordinarily,  by now, of course, I’d have tried it out at a gig, or at the very least, touted it around half a dozen local jams, with the corresponding YouTube videos posted on here. However, in these weirdly unusual times, I have yet to use it in anger. I can’t wait to do so!

Close but no cigar – my guitar alongside a genuine Gretsch 5120, the nearest model I could find to it.

Studio Guitars Pt2 – One More Bass

52. SX “Fecker Jizz Bass

THIS blog started with basses, so it seems apt that my current tally of all the guitars I’ve owed over the past 40-odd years should end with a bass, too – albeit one I’ve never actually played in anger.
I’ve lost count of the number of recordings sessions I’ve worked on where the band has come in and laid down the basic rhythm tracks and the bass player and drummer have gone home. The rest of them are busily tracking or mixing, and they decide the original bassline doesn’t quite fit. So they’re stuck, right?
That’s why we decided we needed a “house” bass to hang on the wall. It looks pretty and also gets pulled down and used a lot more than you might think. In fact, I don’t think we’re had a session in there in the past year where somebody hasn’t been temtped to pull it off the wall and play it. It’s pretty – and it plays and sounds as good as it looks.
The plan was to track down a good, serviceable Squier we could upgrade with better pickups and hardware, or failing that, find something reputable but inexpensive, like one of the highly-regarded Far Eastern SX Fender copies I kept reading about on the forums. (My pal Claire Black has a beautiful SX Precision which she often plays in preference to her 70s USA P-Bass.)
I found a red SX Jazz on eBay in Braintree, did the deal and arranged to collect it. The seller lived in a flat above a scruffy-looking parade of shops on a council estate. To get there, you were faced by a back yard patrolled by an utterly terrifying rottweiler or doberman. (I’m not sure of the exact breed, but it was one of those ridiculously ferocious beasts people buy to boost their macho credentials because they’re not allowed to have guns. I’ve never been keen on dogs – the big ones terrify me; the smaller ones are just plain annoying!) Keeping my distance from the slavering jaws of Tyson, Killer, Rambo or whatever it was called, I briskly handed the required tenners over the gate with one hand, accepting the bass (in a bin bag!) with the other and beating a hasty retreat!
It cost me £70 and it was a total waste of money! The body and the electrics were OK, but the truss rod refused to tighten, leaving the action the best part of half an inch off the board at the 12th fret. Amazingly, I managed to sell the neck for pennies as a fixer-upper and then tried get a bit of the value back on the body. I sold it on eBay for £45, which I thought was a reasonable result. I posted it off via Hermes, but it never arrived and I had to refund the guy’s money. Hermes managed to track the package to a depot in Birmingham, where it promptly “disappeared”.
I paid for insurance on it, so come on, guys, pay up! This is the point at which Hermes pointed to a clause in the small print where it says musical instruments aren’t covered. I still wonder if I’d described it as a lump of wood with a few bits of metal screwed to it, rather than a “bass guitar body” whether Hermes would have paid up… Sometimes you learn the hard way – Hermes are cheap, but I’ll NEVER, ever send anything with them again!

Head start – the SX Jazz came with a blank headstock
Sibling – another JIzz Bass. This one was a Squier I upgraded for my pal and Automatic Slim bandmate Howard J Bills. This one pastiches a mid-60s “transition” logo, as opposed to the blue SX’s 70s-style one

But I digress…I’ve mentioned before that when my pal Dave Werewolf emigrated to Thailand a few years ago, he appointed me custodian of the Aladdin’s cave of a secret lockup where he still has an unfeasible number of nice guitars, amps and sundry musical gear. (He sells the odd one now and again, so stay tuned!)
I remembered that he’d treated himself a few years ago to a really nice, unbranded Jazz bass. He bought one and Chris Barrow, his bass playing musical partner-in-crime over about six fine bands and four decades, had bought one, too. It was one of the very first SX guitars to be imported to the UK. It was Lake Placid Blue, gorgeous, it played well and recorded even better.
( Dave tells me he bought it from the legendary guitar finisher Clive Brown, who with a friend was having them built in China along with some nice Strat copies. Brown had a lot of input in the spec and paid particular attention to the colours. Dave saw the bass up in Redcar when Brown was refinishing one his 1967 Tele and decided he had to have one, as they were a steal for the money. While he was at it, he also walked away with a nice gold Strat, though I’ve no idea what happened to that!)
Originally unbranded, it now sports a spare “Fecker Jizz Bass” decal I’d had made by my mate Glen, when I revamped a Squier Jazz for Howard Bills a few years back.
Werewolf was more than happy to sell it to me for a very reasonable sum…so ladies and gentlemen, here it is in all its glory…like the 12-string, it’s already seen sterling service on more than one session.

Fan club – Mojo Preachers guitarist Andy Walker was one of many Rooks Yard clients who couldn’t resist trying the Fecker, much to the evident distress of bassist Trev Turley!

Studio guitars Pt 1

51. Aria AW35 12-string acoustic

HARDLY the most exciting or desirable of guitars, but as this list finally winds towards a conclusion, it’s certainly worthy of inclusion. Both this instrument and the one which follows are mine, thoughI didn’t buy them to play myself (but of course, I have!)
This cheap and cheerful Aria 12-string acoustic hangs on the wall in the control room at Rooks Yard, the recording studio myself and my pal Pete Crisp run on a farm just outside Southminster, Essex.
Check us out at – and pay us a visit when the lockdown’s over. We pride ourselves on doing a really good job – oh, and all the fantastic guitars listed here (or the 20-odd of them I still have, anyway) are available – given a bit of notice – to record with. 
One of the things I learned a very long time ago from my time working in the studio is that you never quite know when you’re going to need an acoustic guitar. It might be to thicken up a rhythm track, add an extra part, or just contribute a fresh texture to the mix. I also usually keep my rather nice cedar-top Simon & Patrick SP6 acoustic (No 30 in this series) at the studio for just this purpose and it can already been heard on two or three of the albums we’ve produced in the past year or so.
A 12-string is a different matter. A whole new flavour, so I decided we needed one for the studio. (Any excuse to buy a guitar!) I’ve also long been rather intrigued by the sound of the electric 12-string, so don’t be suprised one day to find one of them hanging on our wall as well!
This Aria wasn’t expensive. Certainly cheap enough to buy sight-unseen on eBay and not worry too much about. When it arrived, the strings were awful – black with filth and rust – but fitted with a new set of strings, it’s not actually a bad guitar. The neck is wide, which, if you’re an electric player, feels a bit odd when you put your hand around it, though the wider spacing it allows is no bad thing on a 12-string. It means those of us accustomed to 6-string spacing have half a chance of getting our fingers in the right places! And it sounds, well…like a 12 string!
One of these days, if I’m feeling especially brave, I might just put a pickup in the soundhole and take it out on the odd solo gig. Until then, though, it’s all yours when you record at Rooks Yard! 

A lot of tuning….but that’s 12-strings for you. 🙂

The Last Guitar I’ll Ever Bring Home?

50. 1976 Greco “Lawsuit” Les Paul

IT’S a strange thing, you know. The older I’ve grown, the more I’ve come to enjoy playing Les Pauls.
For years and years, I just didn’t get on with them, for a variety of reasons – the weight, the thick sound of those humbuckers, the shorter scale length, the fact you had more than one volume control to worry about. All that – and the general vibe. They even hang differently on a strap.
It often puzzled me, early on, why so many committed Fender players also dallied with Lesters. Now I know. A longish spell gigging that Vintage Lemon Drop, then the arrival in my life of Dave Werewolf’s amazing 72 Goldtop was part of it. The main thing, however, was this amazing guitar. In its day, it would have been considered a cheap Japanese copy – albeit one of the better ones. Nowadays Greco Les Pauls, especially their older ones like this, are thought of as rare, highly-sought-after vintage collector’s instruments in their own right.

Figuring – you’d pay a LOT of money for a Gibson with a top this beautiful

During the mid-1970s, the American guitar industry’s two big players (not unlike British car makers of the time, I suppose) sort of lost the plot. Some of the instruments they produced were perfectly fine, but a lot of them fitted somewhere on the spectrum between indifferent and bloody awful – yet they remained expensive!
This left an opening for clever Far Eastern manufacturers (in the 70s, that usually meant Japanese) to step in and fill a gap in the market. Companies such as Ibanez, Greco, Burney, Orville and a little later, Tokai and Fenix, were soon making guitars that looked, played and sounded as good as – often better – than the American designs they emulated…and for a lot less money. Gibson and Fender didn’t like it one little bit. They starting legal action, with varying degrees of success – hence the term “lawsuit guitars”. That’s why you’ll often find the more recent perfect Fender copies from such companies sporting ugly, mis-shapen headstocks. It’s quite simply so they don’t get sued. It also prompted both the big companies to fight back, launching their own Japanese-built alternatives – Epiphone and Squier – which, in turn, resulted in some very fine “official” copies. Fortunately, it also forced the American factories to up their games.

Battle-scars – the Greco is far from perfect, which makes it perfect for me!

I came across this amazing instrument on one of my visits to my lad Owen and his family in Los Angeles. There’s a wonderful shop in Santa Monica called Truetone. It’s packed full of amazing vintage and high-end guitars and is often chisen as a setting when famous guitarists are interviewed for film and TV documentaries. (The owner, David Jenkins, is a friend of Owen’s – he was at Owen and Becky’s wedding, along with a fascinating cast of characters from the LA music scene of the later 2000s, but that’s another story!)
We were in Truetone last April and Owen pulled the Greco off the wall, delaring: “You should buy this: It’s the best Les Paul in the shop!”
It was a bit beaten-up (no problem for me with that, as you know), but it looked fantastic – the bookmatched maple top was beautifully figured and the years had faded the shriller tones from the red in the sunburst. It had just one thing wrong with it. It desperately needed a refret. The frets were very worn – a couple also had deep and rather inconvenient grooves where, clearly, something hard had slammed the strings into them. Despite Owen’s enthusiastic recommenation – and the impressive plugged in cdemo which followed – I didn’t buy it there and then, but as I often do, I pondered on it. (Obsessed about it, more like.)

Head start – the headstock is the right shape

The day I was due to fly home, I changed my mind and I gave Owen the necessary cash (it wasn’t cheap, but is was affordable) along with instructions to get it for me and haveit re-fretted. He suggested Truetone’s own repair guy and I was happy to leave it there for him.
In the event, the refret didn’t get done – the guy was insanely busy, so when I visited Owen again in January, 2020, I finally brought the Greco home to Essex.
I gave it to my friend, brilliant repairman and guitar-builder James Payze, who had already some done some work on my stepson Rob’s basses. James made a superb job of it. (There must be something in the Suffolk water over Sudbury way on the Suffolk border – three of the best repair guys I know live within a five-mile radius!)

Before – the dented frets
After – the stunning fret-job James Payze did for me. The pickups on these mid-70s Grecos are exceptional and worth money on their own.

The fantastic guitar I now have has completely cured me of any temptation I might have to spend megabucks on a “proper” Les Paul. This Greco is about as “proper” as they get! It plays brilliantly and sounds completely amazing – not the loudest Lester I’ve played, but a beautifully-balanced sound that records a treat and makes any amp sing – and it has a TON of mojo!
I feel truly blessed. Finally, I don’t need any more guitars.
Do I???

Seduced by a National…

49. National Resophonic “Black Rust” Duolian 12-fret

I FELL in love with this guitar last summer as I sat outside a cafe, just around the corner from Modena Cathedral drinking a rather fine Italian latte (as you do). I was waiting for my girlfriend to return from an adventure in a nearby clothes shop and leafing through Facebook guitar ads when I spotted it.
The sunlit piazzas of Northern Italy may be a world away from the Northamptonshire village where this stunning National steel guitar was sitting, but the pictures alone were enough to get me all hot under the collar from a distance!

Black Rust – I fell in love with the finish!

It’s not one of those flashy brass-bodied, palm-tree-engraved, nickel-plated jobs much beloved of Mr Knopfler and his acolytes, but finely crafted from thin steel and finished in a kind of grey, speckly paint-job that, apparently, is called “Black Rust”. From a distance, it looks really old and battered…not unlike the one a poncho-clad Stevie Ray Vaughan is pictured playing, head down, on the front of the “In Step” album.

Not quite, but close!

The price was right. Very right. These are classic, hand-built American guitars and it was never going to be cheap – this is easily the most expensive guitar I’ve ever bought. But I have a rule of thumb with musical gear: Is it cheap enough that I could sell it again and not lose out if I don’t like it, or need the money?
In this case, the answer was a big, fat yes! The National was a mere couple of years old, the seller having personally imported it from the USA in the original case (a work of art in itself) and had not only all the purchase and import documentation, but the original, heavily-padded National shipping box.

I really liked the simple, no-nonsense slotted headstock, with the National name stamped into it
Even the case is a work of art!
Attention to detail – the National badge on the case must have been embroidered into the vinyl before it was cut and glued to the case.

The thing about resonator guitars is that they are designed to be louder, acoustically, than a traditional wooden-bodied acoustic. By the 1920s, the sound of traditional guitars was no longer cutting through in the noisy dancehalls and juke joints of the day and guitar-makers tried various ways to make louder guitars. Doubling up the number of strings to make 12-string guitars was one innovation with the same aim in mind.
Passing the strings over a wooden bridge sitting on a thin metal resonator cone – rather like a speaker cone – was another way, with three main variants, each of which has a slightly different and distinctive tone. There’s the Dobro-type, favoured by country and bluegrass players, in which the cone of the speaker faces outwards, with the bridge sitting on a metal “spider”, structure, spanning the edges of the cone.
There is the tricone, where three smaller metal cones are set in the body, facing inwards, with the bridge and strings sitting on a T-shaped bar connected to the middle of the three cones.
Then there is this type of reso, where the strings pass over a bridge sitting on a wooden disc (called a biscuit) in the middle of an inverted spun-aluminium cone. In each case the cone amplifies the vibrations from the strings. For what is still, essentially, an acoustic guitar, these metal-bodied Nationals are LOUD – ask my neighbours!

Acoustic lineup – the National, with my Vintage reso and my Simon and Patrick acoustic

However, nowadays, even National loud isn’t loud enough for most gigging purposes. The majority of modern players either point a mic at the cone, or use a pickup of some kind. The clincher here was that this National was fitted with £300 worth of Highlander pickup – reputedly the only system that really works properly. (It works incredibly well.)
Messages flew between Northern Italy and Northants that week and when Sian and I got home at the weekend, guess where I was headed. tapered brass slide in hand? As soon as I played it, I knew I had to have it!
I’d been pretty happy with my heavily-modified £260 Chinese Vintage ( No 29 in this series). It sounded OK and did the job well enough. But NOTHING sounds quite like a real National! It’s a magical thing on which to play slide guitar – and just as wonderful to pass over to somebody else while you sit in front of them listen to what it really sounds like!

Moody shot – my three acoustics

I’ve gigged the National a few times now, recorded with it, too, as well as playing it in recent front-room lockdown live-streams, and I’m just as smitten as I was last July. I can’t wait for the lockdown to be over so I can take it out and gig it again.
It was expensive, but it’s bloody fabulous! Money well spent… 

In action – gigging the National last summer

A Very Special Strat…

48. OTB Custom Guitars Sherwood Green Strat

QUITE simply the best guitar I’ve ever played. And it’s mine.
It’s a bit of a gamble when you commission a custom guitar from scratch (not that it’s something I’d ever done before). The principle is much the same as when you put one together yourself, though. You can generally guess how a guitar will turn out, but without strings, even a finished guitar is essentially a dead thing. It’s not until you actually put strings on it and tune them, that you can ever be entirely sure how the various elements will come together. On this occasion, the gamble paid off quite handsomely.
Even allowing for the fact Owen built this for me for free (a quid pro quo, I like to think, for all the guitars and other things I’ve built for him down the years) it was still a gamble. I had to commit a sizeable chunk of cash up front for materials and parts – considerably more than I originally bargained for, too, thanks the June 2016 Brexit vote which happened in the middle of the ordering process. I reckon the consequent crash of the pound cost me an extra £200 minimum. Grrr! Thanks, Boris, Nigel et al!

Not a Fender – I opted for a 60s-style “spaghetti” logo rather than Owen’s own design.

I know I’m biased, but Owen builds seriously GREAT guitars! He started off making guitars for his own use, to the exact spec he needed as a session player on the Los Angeles studio scene. Word soon got out about how good they were and soon people started asking him to build the odd high-end Strat or Tele for them. He’s now put together about a dozen – including some to order for a very high-end LA guitar store. My Sherwood Green ’62 was, I think, OTBCG number 4 or 5. Usually they carry Owen’s own classy-looking OTB logo, but mine has a Fender decal on the head (my request).
For years, I’d fancied a Sherwood Green Strat. It’s a relatively rare metallic finish among all the Candy Apple Reds and Lake Placid Blues and when Owen offered to build me my ultimate Strat, there was never any doubt about what colour it would be. (Well, a Gold one might have been nice…maybe that’ll be the next one he builds for me!)

Dark beauty – the roasted maple neck in all its super-resonant glory

He visited us back in the UK early in 2016 and that was we when we settled on the basic spec. Lightweight alder body, roasted maple neck with a nice, thick rosewood slab board and a compound radius, medium jumbo frets, Callaham hardware (the best!) and a nice set of Klein ’62 pickups.

The Klein 62 pickups in this guitar sound incredible.

Klein makes Owen’s Strat pickup of choice and I can vouch for his endorsement. They sound great. The company makes an authentic replica – right down to the gauge of wire, the number of winds and the precise metallurgy of the magnets – of every year of Strat pickup made by Fender from 1954 to 1969. I’d had a great set of ’63s in my Surf Green Strat for some time and loved the sound of them. The ’62s are similar, possibly a tiny bit brighter. The other thing is that because they are authentic replicas, the middle pickup isn’t reverse-wound, as is the case with the majority of modern Strat pickup sets. You don’t get the hum-bucking effect you get on reverse-wound sets in switch positions 2 and 4, but the up-side is that the “out-of-phase” sounds are WAY stronger.
I decided I wanted the Strat to look like a guitar which had been around the block a few times (as, indeed, have I), so I sent over a set of pics of the body of my moderately worn Surf Green Strat to show the way a guitar I had personally played for 25-plus years looked. The resulting wear and tear on the thin-coat nitro finish was pretty convincing – I particularly love the crazing.

Unintentional wear – the Strat’s time with me has been hard on the thin nitro finish

(Unfortunately, it’s rather more dinged and dented now. Confession time: The marks on the top edge are down to stupidity, rather than gig-abuse. I gig with a wireless system, with a transmitter in a pouch on the strap and a lead attached, running down to the jack socket. Lazy sod that I am, I’ve long been in the habit of stuffing whichever guitar I’m playing back into the gig bag with the strap still attached – not a problem with most, harder guitar finishes. Sadly, the soft, thin-coat nitro on my green Strat hasn’t fared well from a couple of years’ regular abrasion against the metal of the jack on the tranny lead. You live and learn. )

Back view – my – Surf Green Strat has a very similar wear pattern as a result of 30-odd years on the road with me!

I simply can’t tell you how good this guitar is, though. It’s light, resonant, the neck is insanely comfortable, the trem stays in tune, and each of five pickup positions has a great and very distinct sound to it. Klein pickups are expensive – especially at current exchange rates – but they are truly fantastic ! Every single player who’s picked up this guitar has fallen in love with it – I’ve grown accustomed to having to wrest it from people who find it just as un-put-downable as I do!
I currently own four Strats. Each is precious to me guitar in its own way, but this is most definitely THE ONE!
If you want and OTB of your own, Look Owen up on Facebook, Twitter or Instragram and send him a message. He’ll be delighted to talk guitars with you! 
Here’s a little clip of yours truly playing the Strat with WOLFPACK…enjoy!

My four current Strats – 1983 JV Squier 57 reissue; OTB Sherwood Green; “Hubert”, my 80s USA 62 reissue; and my bitsa Strat with the left-handed neck (Numbers 38, 48, 10 and 24 respectively in this blog if you want to read their full stories.)
In action – this Strat is my Number1 choice of gigging guitar.

An Offset Flirtation…

47. Squier J Mascis Jazzmaster

FUNNY, really. Considering what a Fender nut I am, I’d managed to steer clear of the company’s offset-bodied twins, the Jazzmaster and the short-scale Jaguar for the majority of my love affair with brand “F”. I’d literally never so much as picked one up and strummed a single chord, so focused was I on Strats (and Teles and the players who used them, I suppose).
About three years ago, that changed. I can’t really remember why, but I found myself increasingly fascinated by the idea of a Jazzmaster and started researching them.
The consensus of opinion on forums and in the many reviews I read was that the way more expensive US-made Jazzmasters were good, but there wasn’t all that much difference, quality-wise, between the relatively expensive Japanese and Mexican Fenders and the Chinese Squiers.

Traditional – but modified. The J Mascis JM’s trem unit sits closer to the bridge than a standard one, but has the classic control layout.

The other thing I kept reading was that the best value Jazzmaster of them all was the Squier J. Mascis Signature Model. I vaguely knew who J Mascis was, but hadn’t spent much time listening to Dinosaur Jr, but I did know from a couple of interviews I’d read that he was a smart, interesting guy and a serious gearhead, in a lo-fi kind of way.

J Mascis’ signature…as if you’d guess that was what the squiggle was!

One of the many good things people said about this particular model was that it wasn’t prone to that common Jazzmaster fault which means to the design of the original bridge has a habit of popping E strings off the side if you played hard. The JM model had a Gibson-style bridge and had the tremolo unit moved forward half an inch, increasing the break-angle over the bridge saddles and making it harder for the strings to pop out. Simple, but effective.
You could have it in any colour you liked, so long as it was Olympic White, I learned, and so long as you didn’t mind a gold-finished, 50s-style anodised ally pickguard (which I rather liked the look of, actually.) Something else I learned was that unlike some modern, more rock-oriented takes on the Jazzmaster, this guitar retained the original vintage-style wiring – complete with a “rhythm circuit” with slider switch, separate sideways-on volume and tone controls for the neck pickup. Oh and apparently, the pickups weren’t actually “proper” Jazzmaster pickups (something to do with the type of magnets and the way they were wound), but more akin to Gibson P90 soapbars. Hmmm…
It turned out to be really hard to find a local shop with a Jazzmaster of any kind I could try – their loss! If I’d found one I liked, I’d probably have bought it on the spot. Fortunately, my pal Mick King had a Squier JM JM and was more than happy to bring it down from Steeple, drink my coffee and put up with my awful playing so I could try it. I was pretty much instantly smitten (not with Mick, with the guitar!) and that was it. Off to eBay I went, where after a week or so, I found this rather fine example for a shade under £300. Bargain!

Clean lines – to a Strat and Tele man, the unencumbered back of the Jazzmaster body looks slightly odd!

And a bargain it definitely was. It’s a beautifully-made guitar (a couple easily-fixed sharp fret-ends aside), nicely-finished, well-balanced and great-sounding. Those pickups might not be “authentic”, but they are fantastic! The neck pickup has as much plummy fullness as you could wish for, with just a right hint of Stratty “quack” and the bridge pickup is edgy without being overly brittle or sharp. The killer sound, though, is the in-between position, which has a jangle to it little short of magical and for lead playing, does that Freddie King/Humbert Sumlin hollowed-out thing. I love it. And the strangely anachronistic “rhythm circuit” works just fine and has proved surprisingly useful.
The trem gets a bit of getting used to – it handles very differentlu to a Strat trem – but has a sound and an action all its own. I particularly like the nice, long arm, though I did have to put it in a vice and put a slight kind in the short end to stop it flopping around in the trem unit.
The other thing I hadn’t realised was that Jazzmasters are actually considerably bigger than a Strat of a Tele – a good four inches longer. I could only find one of my gig bags which would fit it – and even then it was a tight squeeze. Still, being a trifle on the large size myself, big guitars have never been a problem for me. 🙂
To say I was pleased with this guitar is something of an understatement. I’d probably still be playing to the exclusion of everything else, had something even more amazing not come my way in May, 2016…
What was it? Well, you’ll have to wait for tomorrow to learn that…

Good catch – my JM JM

Built To Do A Job…

45 Fecker “Slimcaster” Tele

YOU’VE already read half the story of this guitar, bound up as it is in that of the very first Fender guitar I ever bought – my 1982 butterscotch 52 reissue Telecaster (No 6). When I decided to restore that old Tele to something approaching its original splendour, it presented me with a problem: What to play for the couple of slide numbers I do at Automatic Slim’s half-dozen or so annual reunion gigs?
Not so much of a a problem, you’d think, given that I do have the odd guitar about the place, including several set up specifically for slide. But this is me we’re talking about! First choice, from a pure playing point of view, would be my blonde Squier 51, but as anyone who has seen me play guitar with ‘Slim will attest, I tend to chuck my guitar about a fair bit and I wasn’t confident the tuning levers on the Squier’s Hipshot bridge would stay where they were supposed to be and not leave me in some peculiar random tuning.
I was used to a Tele, so a Tele I had to be. The neck and body both came from eBay. The neck was from a Squier Cabronita Tele – one of the very nicest sub-£100 necks I’ve ever found anywhere. A tad on the skinny side, maybe, but beautifully finished – not a sharp fret-end in sight. The previous owner had sanded the face of the headstock and put on a really nice 50s Fender decal – in ENTIRELY the wrong place! It had to go. In its place I put a nice custom “Fecker Slimcaster” decal made by my mate, Glen.

Headshot – the Cabronita neck with its “Slimcaster” decal

I had a couple of gos at finding the right body before I came across the Fender Mexico one you see here. It was clear why it was so relatively cheap. It had originally been white (I think) but the owner had decided to strip it and paint it red, then black, then started to strip it yet again – at which point, I think he must have lost the will to live! I had planned to strip the resulting random, multicoloured finish back to the wood, but the more I looked at it, the more I decided I liked it. So I just blew a few coats of nitro over it and left it at that. I don’t know about you, but I really like the resulting finish. It’s unique and has a certain funky charm.

The body, with it’s paint-job of many colours!
Back view – I’ve grown to love the finish

I bought a set of Wilkinson (that man again) EzLok Kluson lookalike tuners and a nice black-white-black pickguard with a humbucker rout that complimented the body perfectly. The rest of the hardware was all stripped directly from my old Tele and bolted on. If you look at the 6-saddle bridge plate you can still see 35 years’ worth of rust by the saddles!
I’m as happy now with this guitar as I was the day I first put it together – having gigged it with Slim for a couple of years, it does the job quite admirably. Suffice it to say, it’s another keeper!

Old and new – the Slimcaster with the Tele it replaced for Slim gigs
The Slimcaster in action with Automatic Slim
Ready to rock – Isaac’s guitar

46. Isaac’s “Micawber Tele

DURING his younger years, my stepson, Isaac, was fairly obsessed with the Rolling Stones, and Keith Richard, in particular – though he was never cut out to perform on stage and never has. (His big brothers, had both been out gigging with me by the time they were 13 or 14. )
But he did teach himself to play guitar, though, and he’s quite a good player in his own discreet way, so during my busiest “building-guitars-from-bits” phase, I decided to try to encourage him by making a Telecaster reminscent of Keith Richards’ “Micawber”.
I had a spare Squier 51 neck left over from the black, modded 51 I’d built a while before (No 26) and married it with an unfinished body from the GFS website. The pickups and some of the hardware came from there, too, while the tuners and bridge were both Wilkinson items.
It turned out quite well, I think, and Isaac was very pleased with it. The best part of 20 years on, he still has it, I think.

The finished item – the lonely-looking Fender decal was a spare I had knocking around in the bits box

Almost a Firebird…

44. Schecter Ultra “Firewolf”

THIS one arrived at my door as a byproduct of my ongoing obsession with Firebirds, but also because Rob had become interested in Thunderbird basses. He did have one, briefly – a Tokai copy anyway. It was OK, but not great. He took it in a part-exchange when he sold his old faithful G&L ASAT bass, but moved it on again a few months later.
I was watching Eddie and the Hot Rods playing at the very final Lee Brilleaux Memorial Concert on Canvey, intrigued, not so much by the band, who I’ve seen countless times, but by the really cool, vaguely Thunderbird-style bass Dipster Dean was playing. I’d never seen one quite like it, an strange sort of set-neck cross between a Firebird and a Telecaster, with a raised centre section like a Firebird and an interesting headstock.
A bit of research revealed it to be a Schecter Ultra – and joy of joys, they also made a guitar version! A few famous people play them apparently – Robert Smith from the Cure even has his own signature model. Off I headed for eBay, where a few weeks later I turned up this sunburst beauty. Sold to the fat bloke with his tongue hanging out!

As it landed – the Ultra with its original pickguard, knobs and pickups.

When it arrived (for that matter, when it left the Schecter factory) it already had strong Firebird overtones, but I decided I could improve on that. First move was to lose the horrible full-sized humbuckers, which not only looked ugly, but sounded terrible – way too middly for my taste. I found a nice man in the US on a forum who had a pair of mid-90s Gibson Firebird mini-humbuckers he was prepared to part with for £70 plus shipping. With a bit of jiggery-pokery involving two sets of mounting rings, I managed to get them to fit.
I switched the knobs for a pair of plastic ones like those on my Firebird and bought a white Firebird pickguard – WAY too big for the Ultra, of course. Everything about the original reverse Firebird is oversized! I had to cut it down to fit, tucked under the raised central section of the body and it turned out really well. I also designed and made up a rather nifty decal to go on the pickguard, where Gibson usually put their Firebird/Thunderbird motif. It was a stylised wolf, surrounded by flames – hence the name, “Firewolf”.

Firewolf – the pickguard with its unique logo

It’s not a Firebird, but it plays well, Those pickups sound terrific and I think it looks really cool! I’ve gigged it a fair bit with the band, too, usually tuned to open A for slide, something to which it seems well suited.
I’ve found it to be a very practical alternative to its Gibson big brother – small enough to fit into a regular gig bag and not worth enough for me to worry too much about taking it out to the kind of slightly iffy places I occasionally find myself playing. 

Split head – the Ultra’s unusual and distinctive 2+4 headstock
Three of a kind (ish!) – the Firewolf alongside Rob’s Tokai Thunderbird and my 91 Firebird V

43…and onwards!

43. R&B “Ian Siegal” guitar

Unique – I’ve never seen another guitar quite like this one!

A VERY special instrument this – as befits Guitar Number 43 (still a good few to come, by the way!) Inspired by a friend who is one of the most gifted artists I know, built by another incredibly talented chum and facilitated by the amazing generosity of third dear old pal.
I’ve known Dennis Dudley (aka Blues Boss) for the best part of two decades – we both used to post on an online international blues forum called the Blindman’s Blues Forum, where I ended up making friends all over the world. Dennis lives in Seattle, Washington State, USA, where he’s something of a big wheel on the local blues scene. Not a musician himself, he is nevertheless one of the movers and shakers the Washington State Blues Society who knows the local artists and all the local blues venues. To say he’s keen, loyal and enthusiastic supporter of the musicians he admires is a vast understatement!

Blues enthusiast and super-fan – Dennis “Blues Boss” Dudley on my radio show during his visit to the UK

Dennis came to the UK in the mid-2000s, spoke on my radio show and stayed with me in Burnham for a couple of days. On two occasions towards the end of the 2000s, I repaid the compliment and visited the Pacific North West and each time, Dennis was a wonderful host and tour guide. (He even managed to swing us guest tickets to see Taj Mahal in an intimate local jazz club. Truly a night to remember!)
Dennis also introduced me Mark Riley, a tremendous guitar player who lives in Tacoma, a thoroughly good guy and builder of fantastic guitars under the R&B brand. (His customers include the great Sonny Landreth, who has a couple of Mark’s distinctive “Map” guitars, including an incredible resonator.)

Master craftsman and master musician – Mark Riley with a gorgeous (and slightly scaled-down) white single-pickup R&B Firebird he built

It was me who first introduced Dennis to the music of that amazing talent Ian Siegal. It happened long before I met Dennis in person and he quickly became a huge fan – so much so that he ended up booking and tour-managing a string of Pacific North West dates for Ian, clocking up a couple of thousand miles of driving in the process! Mark and his band provided the backing on those gigs.
In the middle of 2011, Dennis contacted me to say he and Mark were making a guitar as a gift for Ian. Would I be prepared to help out by taking delivery of said guitar and then publicly presenting it to Ian at an opportune moment? Both WOLFPACK and Ian were due to play Newark Blues Festival in September, so that was the obvious place to do it. And yes, of course I was willing to help!

Stunning – the reverse side of the R&B guitar

The guitar duly arrived at my house. It was a stunner. Beautiful mahogany neck and body, tortoiseshell scratch plate with a matching headstock facing, incorporating the R&B logo. Evidently, Ian had spent some time on the road with Mark enthusing about the ferocious-sounding pickups Supro used to fit to their old lap steel guitars. Ry Cooder famously fitted one to his “Coodercaster” and Ian would later wind up with something similar in a Tele. This guitar sported one of Jason Lollar’s replicas of the Supro lap steel pickup at the bridge plus a Tele pick up at the neck. It was an idiosyncratic guitar, the shape unique, but vaguely reminiscent of the old Silvertones Ian favoured at the time, definitely a work of art and a labour of love – crowned by an engraved brass plaque on the back of the headstock.

Familiar, yet distinctive – the R&B headstock

September came along and I duly presented it to a suitably gobsmacked Ian during of his set on the main stage at Newark. A couple of months later, I got a message from Dennis. Ian had contacted him to say the guitar was absolutely beautiful, but he really wasn’t getting on with it and didn’t think he’d be able to put it to much use. Rather than see it go to waste, Ian very graciously suggested that I might like it instead! Wow!
So the guitar returned to Burnham. I was delighted.

The plaque on the back of the headstock

First thing I did was to string it with a set of my favourite 13-56 Newtones – this instrument was always going to be about slide guitar – and take it out. I played it quite a few times at jams and on plenty of WOLFPACK gigs, but as with so many of my guitars, eventually, it went back under the bed, relegated by my old faithful Squier 51 with the Hipshot bridge.
There was something about that lap steel pickup that didn’t work all that well with the Tele pickup. I ended up removing the neck pick up altogether, an arrangement that worked rather better, but if I’m perfectly honest I haven’t used this guitar as much as I ought to have done in the intervening years. That’s the trouble with so many guitar players. No matter what gets put in front of us, we unerringly seem to return to the familiar.Having said that, I do dig it out from time to time. Most recently, when I started writing this blog I tuned it up and – as is sometimes the case – it instantly gave me a song. It’s called the “Lockdown Boogie” and you can hear the demo I recorded on Mark’s R&B here. You can probably guess what it’s about…

The R&B with the Mojotone Gold Foil offered up on the pickguard. It’s too nice a guitar for me to risk spoiling myself, so it’ll soon be off to a local luthier for installation!

While I was recording with the R&B, I took a notion to fill that empty front pick up slot. On the advice of two people who know about these things (Mr Siegal, and Owen) I ordered a Mojotone gold foil pickup, which arrived in early May. I haven’t fitted it yet, but I’m hoping it will site nicely with the Lollar pickup – after all, that’s the combination Ry Cooder uses on the Coodercaster. Watch this space for confirmation!

Yours truly playing with R&B with WOLFPACK a few years ago.

An Italia Flirtation…

42. Italia Mondial

IT’S hard to know what to say about this guitar which isn’t instantly said by the pictures. I saw a photo of one in a magazine and fell in love with it there and then!
Clever chap, Trevor Wilkinson who designed this and all the other eye-catchingly retro guitars in the Italia range. (He is also the man behind a load of rather nifty aftermarket guitar hardware and, of course the Vintage Lemon Drop Les Paul copy which was a regular standby of mine for quite a few years – see No 37.)
His Italia designs succeeded in capturing the essence of great, weird and funky old guitars from the past by makers such as National, Airline, Silvertone et cetera in a range of modern, playable, usable and affordable instruments. (Which is more than can be said for a lot of the old guitars which inspired them.)
The Mondiale’s body was wood, the same as most guitars, but was encased in a plastic jacket reminiscent of the old plastic bodied National “Map” guitars much beloved of Jack White, he of the White Stripes, among others. The two controls on the top bout recall that old red and white classic, too.
Two humbuckers, plus an acoustic pickup under the wooden jazz guitar-style bridge got the noise out to the amp – it occurred to me that I might be able to use this for the acoustic gigs of which I am perpetually promising myself to do more.
In practice, this guitar truly was all about the looks. It played OK, but not amazingly well. It sounded OK, but not amazing – and the acoustic pick up was, frankly, a bit of a dead loss.
It was the kind of guitar that’s great to hang on the wall and look at – I sort of wish I still had it for that reason alone – but it was never going to be a solid, gigging instrument. Not entirely surprisingly, it didn’t stay with me in Burnham for very long.
To borrow a fishing analogy, having caught it there, I soon threw it back into theBay.

Fancy – but it was all about the look.

An Intruiging Hybrid…

41. Surf Green Fender Japan Pawn Shop 72

I REFERRED obliquely to this undeniably pretty piece of Fender Japannery in my lengthy screed about Squier 51s (No 17). The familial relationship is plain to see.
There was no doubt about it. This was a fancified Squier 51, but with a strong tip of the hat to the Fenders of the early 1970s.
Unlike the Squier 51, it had a full-depth Strat body, but with a Thinline-style f-hole. (Still not sure whether this looks right or just plain wierd!) The ’72 sported a through-strung hardtail Strat bridge, a generic humbucker at the bridge, a recreation of Seth Lover’s Wide Range humbucker at the neck and a rosewood-board neck. As well as the infamous three-bolt neck fixing, it has the neck-tilt mechanism and “bullet” truss road adjustment found on Strats and the more high-end Teles from 1972 onwards. I have to say, however, the neck fit was a million times better than most 70s American Fenders I’ve played!

Handsome hybrid – the ’72 featured the Squier 51 layout and a rather attractive three-ply version of the pickguard, but with two humbuckers. The f-hole and recreation of Seth Lover’s Wide-Range humbucker in the neck position recall the second series Tele Thinlines of the 70s.

Unlike its stablemate, the Pawn Shop 51, this guitar came in some attractive finishes, including Surf Green, a perfect match for my 62 Reissue, “Hubert”. I simply had to have one, I decided, as soon as I saw a picture.

Fender Japan guitars are, almost without exception, excellent instruments, but cheap they’re not and they tend to hold their prices in the secondhand market, too.
I spent two or three years stalking Pawn Shop ’72s on eBay, waiting for a nice Surf Green one to come up at the right price. Eventually, in very early 2015, I did find one. It was a long and tortuous drive along the south coast from my (soon-to-be ex)-girlfriend’s flat to Folkestone to pick it up…then the car broke down on the way home.
It might have been an omen. For one thing, my regular assignations in Brighton (not to mention opportunities to peruse the labyrinthine, guitar-lined rooms of GAK, just off the Laines) were coming to an end. More to the point, for all its prettyness, the Pawn Shop ’72 never really spoke to me the way so many other guitars have down the years. I took it to a few jams, but that was about it.

Seventies pedigree -The Pawn Shop ’72 had a lot in common with a lot of 1970s Fenders, but was actually rather better-made!
PS: The early 80s “Rivera design” Deluxe Reverb II it’s leaning against was one of two Deluxe Reverbs I had stolen in June, 2015. The really old, really valuable Silverface 72 Deluxe has never surfaced. The Rivera design one showed up on eBay earlier this year and l ended up getting it back, after l agreed to pat a small sum to the guy who had it (bought legitimately, apparently, from a secondhand shop).

A couple of months after getting it, I had the chance to buy an amazingly clean, great-sounding 72 Deluxe Reverb from a mate for an irresistible price. Suddenly I needed funds. This was one of three guitars I sold to pay for the amp.
Not that it did me a lot of good… To this day, it’s hard to look at pictures of that Pawnshop 72 without thinking about the way that lovely old Deluxe Reverb was stolen from outside my house six weeks after I bought it, along with a heap of other cherished gear…though fortunately, no guitars.

Siblings – the ’72 alongside my original Hipshot-equipped Squier 51
Surfin’ birds – the ’72 alongside my Surf Green USA ’62 Reissue Strat