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.
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..
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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 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!”
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.
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.
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.
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”!