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 dissoluteness. 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 turns 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 decided 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 quickly seemed cheesey and naff, to my ears, the Satellites were a smarter, harder, cooler version. 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 powerhouse drummer Magellan with him. He released two excellent and highly-claimed solo albums, “Love Songs for the Hearing Impaired” and “Buffalo Nickel”, both bursting with songs that are easily 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, 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, or Baird’s sneering Southern slur, the band just wasn’t the same. The Hamsters, on the other hand, were on fire – probably 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, the stuff he did on Warren Zevon’s “Sentimental Hygiene” album, where he joined fellow Georgians REM in the studio.)
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, with a three-way toggle switch giving a choice between the conventional tone knob, a preset treble roll-off or a straight-through bypass mode. And yes, that 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 early on, he trod 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, but mainly to experience the mojo of an instrument that definitely 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 thatif 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 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 and all I knew was that I needed 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 find about SRV, about the Texas club scene that spawned Stevie and about his big brother, Jimmie, 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 how “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, however, why “Live Alive” was maybe not 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 believe that Stevie 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, fascinating 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 enthralled. 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 very first Japanese Squier Strat can be found much earlier in this blog – read it here, along with that the tale the SRV Strat replica I built for Owen as a surprise Christmas present in the months after 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 picture 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 closely 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 white knobs and pickup covers and, bizarrely, a left-handed tremolo bridge and 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, so the story goes. Hennig has spoken several times 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 Hennig 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 was a fine old South Austin institution, its proprietor a constant presence at 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 him 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, the bugger!
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 unmarked paint job – and finally saw the light of day in 199. It’s still part of 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 actually 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).
(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 belonged 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 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! (A music shop in central London is currently 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. 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 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

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 (https://43guitarsandcounting.com/2020/04/26/the-bass-years-part-1/). 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 Strat, though the original 62 did 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 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.
Equally, I think if I had been prepared to drive from Essex to Bristol, I’m pretty sure Luke would have let me play his dad’s Strat. I did consider asking him, but in the end I 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…https://www.facebook.com/ian.fawkes/videos/vb.1614502475/10201098636300763/?type=2&theater

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 https://soundcloud.com/lukecawthra 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
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Taking-No-Prisoners-Gypie-1977-81/dp/B00CH0LS4I

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…

https://youtu.be/RIV–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 rare shot of Wolf playing the Firebird at a festival

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…
https://www.guitarworld.com/news/a-new-photo-of-robert-johnson-the-third-in-existence-has-been-uncovered

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

52 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!” mainly to wind up 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 relived 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!
In the end, I managed to stretch it to 52 guitars, of which I have retained considerably less than half. All the same, I did 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. 🙂


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) 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  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 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: I still have a 12-string neck sitting in Los Angeles and a bridge and a Telemaster body over here. What to do with them? I’ve told Owen he can either use the neck on one of his bodies (he’s a session player and I’m sure he could put add an electric 12 to good use his professional armory) or sell it on. The bridge – well, it only cost me £25 so it can go into my bits box, unless somebody wants it. Might come in handy one day…unless someone out there wants it.
And the body? Weeell…that may yet make an appearance in this blog. Rather like my jones for an electric Xll of some kind, I also have a hankering for a baritone guitar for the studio. That Telemaster body would be ideal, if I can find the right baritone neck. (Anybody got one they don’t want?) 😉

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 (www.rooksyard.co.uk) 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 www.rooksyard.co.uk – 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 being for £200. 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 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. Bizarrely, 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 one showed up on eBay earlier this year, but I have so far been unable to persuade the guy who has it (bought legitimately, apparently, from a secondhand shop), the police, or eBay to reunite me with it. Grrr!

And then, 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

Two more Squiers from Indonesia…

39. Squier Tele Custom w/P90s

THIS guitar caught my eye on eBay after my pal Dave Werewolf bought one of these for himself in 2010 and I sort of fell in love with it. It was a relatively brief infatuation, however.
Made in the same Indonesian factory as my favourite Squier 51s, these Teles are fantastic guitars for the money – with a twist. They have the pickguard and control layout of a 70s Tele Custom (like Cundo’s ’72) but in place of a Tele pickup and a Wide Range humbucker, they have a rather nice pair of “Duncan Design” P90 soapbars. They play well and those soapbars sound really good. The one mod I did was to disconnect one of the volume pots! I gigged this guitar a decent amount, but fickle sod that I am, yes, it ended up back in the pile – and thence back on eBay.

That two volume control thing didn’t really work for me, so I rewired it. I hope I wired it back before I sold it!

My other memory of this guitar relates to one of Owen’s rare visits home for Los Angeles. I came back one day to find the Tele sitting in my room on a stand, a bit of paper tucked in the strings with the message: “I set this up. It now plays good innit!”
It did, too. Boy, I miss having that guy around!

A message from Owen
Stop-gap – the purple Strat. Not a bad little guitar, really…

40. Purple Squier Strat bought in Seattle

FOR the sake of convenience, I’ve lumped this one in with the Squier Tele Custom , though my acquaintance with it was extremely brief. It was bought for one specific purpose and then sold on.
I got it on my first visit to Seattle, Washington State, USA, in 2009, not all that long before I got the Tele Custom above it. I was in the US to catch up with my pals Blues Boss and Mark Riley (more Blindman’s Blues Forum buddies). It was purple, it played OK and it was $80 – back in the days when a pound still got you about $1.50.

Big-head – I’ve never really been a fan of the post-CBS Strat headstock shape, but this guitar did the job

The idea was to find an inexpensive guitar I could play in my motel room and more importantly, when Blues Boss paraded me around a succession of blues jams and gigs in the Pacific North-West (the first one barely an hour after I stepped off the plane at SEATAC International Airport!) Visit Dennis in Seattle and you’re pretty much guaranteed not a second will go to waste!
Not much else to say about this guitar, except that it came back on the plane to the UK with me. I sold it within a month – and turned a half-reasonable profit on the deal! 

Stateside action –  yours truly playing the purple Strat at the Wilde Rover Jam, Kirkland, Washington State, October, 2009

A JV’s Homecoming…

38. 1982 Squier JV 57 Strat

IF you asked me to compile a Top Ten of all my guitars, past and present, this would most DEFINITELY be Top Five material. I’ve known this Strat – or known of it – for the best part of 40 years, even though it’s only actually belonged to me for a decade or so.
These early “JV” Squiers are truly remarkable instruments and highly sought-after these days. Every time I pull it out to play it (something I’ve not done often enough lately, I’d admit) I feel very grateful to actually have it.

Collectible – the elegant decal identifies this as one of the second series of JV Squiers. The first ones – the REALLY valuable ones – have Fender in large letters and “Squier Series” in smaller script.

A bit of background about the JV series…After remaining largely unchanged since the early 70s, Fender’s guitar range underwent a major revamp in the early 80s, with the launch of new models, including the USA-built reissue series (my old 52 reissue Tele and Surf Green 62 reissue Strat are both fine examples). In response to competition from the likes of the Japanese Tokai brand, Fender also launched a whole new “budget” brand of Japanese-built instruments under the Squier name. (Squier was a brand owned by the Fender company from the days when it marketed Squier strings in the late 50s.)
The original JV (Japanese Vintage) series comprised matching 50s and 60s reissues of the Tele, Strat and Precision Bass, plus (I think) a 60s Jazz Bass, all built to an incredibly high spec, based on original Leo Fender-era blueprints and in many ways, more accurate that the USA reissues. They also featured American hardware and pickups.
Unsurprisingly, they were an instant hit for one very obvious reason – they were amazingly good guitars (as were the Tokais) and markedly better than many of the instruments produced by Fender USA from the mid-70s. Rumour has it around this time quite a few famous players started leaving their treasured vintage instruments at home and toured instead with Squiers and Tokais. Ronnie Wood was definitely pictured gigging them on Stones tours in the 80s.
If you’ve been reading this blog from the start, you may remember me falling in love with a gorgeous Fiesta Red JV Squier 62 reissue in the early 80s when they were brand new. Well, the beautiful two-tone sunburst guitar pictured here was the 1957 reissue counterpart of that guitar.

Under the pickguard – the electrics are all original, with the exception of the five-way switch which replaced the original, 1957-issue three-way.

I remember my Burnham buddy Simon Trussell buying this Strat – from Honky Tonk Music in Southend in 1982, he tells me. It was secondhand when he bought it, so the original owner could only have had it a matter of months. Simon’s band, Carmilla Rouge, used to rehearse in the hall behind the New Welcome Sailor pub, just along the road from my house, and I remember him showing it to me. Up to that point, Simon had played a succession of rather iffy home-made guitars (I remember a vaguely Les Paul-shaped one and a sort-of Flying V) so this was his first “proper” guitar. He still had the JV Strat a few years later when I went in the studio with his band to produce a demo for them, though at some point after that, foolishly, he sold it.
What I hadn’t realised was that Simon had actually sold it to a mutual friend, a bass-playing songwriter acquaintance of Howard Bills named John Barry, from Witham. John often used to come out in the van with us on Automatic Slim gigs and was also the original owner of the infamous “Fender Fire Door”, a Tele-shaped guitar Ian Cundy bought from him and still uses for slide guitar.

Fall baby – a pencil mark on the end of the neck shows the neck is dated September 13, 1982.

Fast-forward something like 15 years and John was doing some recording with my pal Pete Crisp at Saint Studios in Burnham. My notoriety as a buyer of guitars was clearly spreading. John phoned to say he had a guitar he wanted to sell to finance a bit of kit for his home studio. Would I be interested? Well, what do you think?
It was Simon’s old JV Squier, a little more beaten-up, minus a couple of knobs, a switch tip, the backplate and a tremolo arm, but otherwise all there, in all its glory. My first reaction was, sorry, I wasn’t interested. It had a maple fingerboard – and I didn’t do maple board Strats. My second thought – after lifting it from the case, was that it was as light as a feather and well and truly felt like a really good, really old vintage Strat! My third thought was JVs were changing hands for serious money – the kind of money I couldn’t justify spending on something I probably wouldn’t use much.

The sunlight picks up the crazing in the original nitro two-tone sunburst finish. A black car bonnet (even a filthy one!) makes a great place to photograph guitars, I’ve found.

I still can’t believe the price John was asking. I won’t name the figure, but it was a lot less than the examples I’d seen on eBay (and a lot less than the two JV Strats my pal John Edmonds subsequently bought, impressed after playing this one). He’s a stubborn old bugger, is John Barry, though and he was insistent he wouldn’t take a penny more. His argument was that it was missing several bits, it had a few marks and dings and he knew how much he needed to make from it. Thanks, John!
A couple cream knobs, a trem arm and a switch tip from eBay (all suitably grubbied-up by me) replaced the missing bits (I never use the backplate on Strats). The frets were very worn and it desperately needed a refret. A visit to the magnificent Martyn Booth’s workshop near Sudbury, an anxious wait of a couple of weeks and a fairly substantial chunk of cash left me with a truly amazing guitar, the equal of any Strat I’d played up to that point.

The JV Squier neslting in the tweed Fender case that came with my Surf Green 63 Reissue.

I ended up playing that Squier Strat at WOLFPACK’s very first gig and just about every subsequent one for the next five years, alongside my Vintage Lemon Drop Les Paul. You can hear the Strat on both the WOLFPACK albums, too.
These days, Simon lives a mere 200 yards up the road from me. He popped round last year to ask me to solder something on one of his guitars and was more or less dumbstuck when I dug the JV Strat out of a case and put it back in his hands. I didn’t let him keep it though… A truly great guitar and a DEFINITE keeper!

The JV in action
Front page news – the JV even once made the front cover of Blues in Britain magazine! A rare shot indeed – I was playing standard-tuned slide when the pic was taken, some I hardly ever do!

One For Greeny…Almost a Les Paul Pt1

37. Vintage “Lemon Drop” Les Paul copy

THIS rather attractive Les Paul copy turned out to be a real surprise – of the pleasant variety. I bought it from a mate on a whim. Then I became really quite attached to it and it ended up seeing me through some of very important years of my musical life.
I got it soon after we started taking WOLFPACK out on the road and along with my lovely old JV Squier Strat (a later entry in this blog), the Lemon Drop ended up getting played at almost every gig WOLFPACK played up and down the country during the first few years of the band’s moderately distinguished run.

Fair copy – the Lemon Drop was faithful to Peter Green’s famous guitar, right down to the odd control knobs. The giveaway, however, was the more pointy bottom horn, presumably to keep Gibson’s lawyers happy.

I’d long sort of fancied the idea of having a Les Paul, but could never really justify the cost, nor did I much relish the prospect of gigging such a glossy, expensive beast, given how hard I was on guitars. Whenever I looked at Les Pauls, the ones I really liked were always the ones that looked as if they’d lived a little (or a lot). Trouble is, they also tended to be the ones from the Gibson Custom Shop that came with the kind of price tags that’d get you a pretty decent used car down the London Road in Southend.
So the look of the Trevor Wilkinson-designed Vintage Lemon Drop, modelled on Peter Green’s famous and much-played 1958 Les Paul, suited me to a tee – and so did the price. The body shape was subtly different, presumably to keep Gibson’s lawyers at bay, but unlike so many Les Paul copies, including Gibson’s own budget-brand Epiphone Lesters, the headstock was more or less the right shape.

Wear and tear – the back of the body and neck both featured some pretty convincing relicing. I’ve seen more fake-looking ageing on £3,000 guitars from the Fender Custom Shop!

It didn’t hurt that it was relatively light, played really well, and actually sounded fantastic – not to thick and heavy, unlike so many Les Pauls. And in the middle position, the pickups had that famous out-of-phase sound Greeny featured on songs such as “Need Your Love So Bad”. It was also reminiscent of Freddie King’s Les Paul tone – and more usefully, the hollow sound Hubert Sumlin had on many of Howlin’ Wolf’s finest recordings.

Constant companion – the Lemon Drop was a constant companion during my WOLFPACK years. I even played it sitting down while recovering from my second hip replacement op!

Inveterate tinkerer that I was, I changed the tuners for a set of Wilkinson tulip buttons like the ones I’d put on the Flying V – I love the way they look on a Gibson headstock. But that was all I changed.

The headstock with its replacement tuners. I know Peter Green’s guitar didn’t have this type of tuner, but I just felt they looked WAY cooler than what it came with!

I’d probably still have the Lemon Drop but for the fact a few years ago, I ended up taking custody of a really nice real Les Paul – part of Dave Werewolf’s amazing guitar collection. When he emigrated to Thailand, my dear old friend Dave was kind enough to agree to me using one very special instrument – a 1972 Les Paul Deluxe Gold Top (converted at some stage to take full-size humbuckers), rather than putting it in the lockup with all the others. It was an amazing guitar – heavy, but everything a good Lester should be.
So, after it had sat unplayed under the bed for a year or so, I reluctantly decided the Lemon Drop was surplus to requirements. Having bought it from a mate, I ended up selling to another mate. I quite like the symmetry of that… Mind you, what he really wanted as soon as he played it, was Dave’s Goldtop – and that definitely wasn’t for sale!

Bargain – the guitar came with a very nice fitted case.
A moment at the end of WOLFPACK’s gig at Newark Blues Festival in 2011. Yes, that is Ian Siegal in the background. He sat in with us for the last number.

Bonus ball: A clip of the Lemon Drop in action with WOLFPACK at Newark Blues Festival… https://youtu.be/ToiRT2WNYhQ Check out the walkabout from about 9 minutes in!!!

A Surprising V

37. Korean Epiphone Flying V

I DON’T think it ever occurred to me I might one day end up playing a Flying V.
I grew up in a musical world where Vs were pretty much the province of the metal end of rock – TOTALLY Nigel Tufnel! Only later did I start to appreciate them in the context of other great players such as Albert King, Hendrix and the brilliant Lonnie Mack.
I spotted this rather nice little guitar dirt cheap on eBay. It was a Korean-made Epiphone – Gibson’s budget brand. It looked really cool and hey, it was £80! It was black – not usually a favourite colour for me, but “none more black” and somehow appropriate for a V – and it had some kind of hot DiMarzio pickup fitted at the bridge. That pickup on its own was probably worth half what I paid for the guitar, I figured.
It played well, sounded good – really good – and unusually, had just the one volume control, Fender style. I later learned that these particular Korean Epiphones were quite sought-after. What wasn’t to like about it? Well, for one thing, it had to be collected from Twickenham, l;iterally in the shadow of the famous rugby ground, and not exactly the easiest place to get to from Essex!
Having twice done battle with the M25, me being me, I quickly decided to give the headstock a bit of a makeover. Someone was selling snide Gibson V truss rod covers on eBay and it occurred to me that if I sanded off the Epi logo, blew the face of the headstock over with gloss black and fitted one of these covers, it would look pretty much like a pukka Gibson. Add a very pretty set of green aged Wilkinson tulip-button tuners – far cooler than the functional generic tuners it came with – and a pair of more period-correct knobs and the look was complete.

Fake… but with a Gibson truss rod cover and a set of green tulip-button tuners, who was to know>

The resulting guitar was as light as a feather, perfectly balanced and surprisingly useable – so long as you stood up. (Flying Vs were truly make for posing with – and never really meant to be played sitting down – even if the originals did have a rubber pad on the bottom edge to stop them slipping off they player’s lap!)
For a couple of years, I gigged it a fair bit before my attention turned elsewhere and the V found itself back in agrowing pile of guitars that didn’t played often enough to justify their retention. In short, it became candidate for eBay during one of my periodic guitar culls.

For some reason, these particular Epi Vs had a more Fender-friendly one volume, one tone control layout, which suited me to a tee.

I didn’t try to pass it off as a genuine Gibson – but I did turn a modest profit, even allowing for the extra bits I bought and the nice, shaped Ritter gigbag I had to buy for it and which, for obvious reasons, wasn’t worth keeping when I sold it.
Very occasionally, I still get a twinge of nostalgia for that Flying V – looking at these pictures is enough to do that. In all honesty, though, it would take a pretty exceptional V to get me reaching for the credit card now. Maybe one of those cool, red 60s-style ones with a Vibrola trem, like Hendrix played? I like to think that at my advanced age, though, I’ve grown out of my compulsive guitar-buying phase, but you never know…

The V in action…
A nice companion for my 91 Firebird

A Fancy for a Firebird…

36. 1991 Gibson Firebird V

I’VE always been a Fender man. Something to do with having been serially obsessed with a succession of Fender players, I think…Richie Blackmore, Wilko Johnson, Gypie Mayo, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sonny Landreth.
It didn’t hurt, either, that the guitarist I’ve spent most time standing alongside on stages near and far- my Automatic Slim compadre Ian Cundy – has been inseparable from his trusty 72 Tele Custom for almost as long as I’ve known him. (He had a Japanese Tele Thinline copy when I first met him.)
Having said that, if ever there were a guitar from “Brand G” to tempt me over to the Dark Side, it was always going to be Gibson’s original “reverse” Firebird – officially the Coolest Guitar on the Planet, as far as I’m concerned. I suppose, in an odd way, it remains, in some ways, the most Fender-like of all the classic Gibsons.
Such a beautiful thing. It’s easy to believe the story (I’m pretty sure it’s true, actually) that when Gibson were after a really cool, contemporary new look for a new guitar in the early 60s, they drafted in the inspired designer who put the tailfins on all those classic late 50s Cadillacs.

The back view clearly shows the neck and the centre of the body are made from a single strip of laminated mahogany

I don’t remember where I first saw one, or who was playing it, but I do recall drooling over pictures of the gorgeous three-pickup Firebird VII played by Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera – all glossy red paint and gleaming gold hardware – and admiring Johnny Winter’s battered old sunburst Firebird V. (That was before Winter he started playing those weird headless guitars.) Long before I bought my Firebird, I was getting a vicarious thrill from leafing through small ads in magazines and auctions on eBay. I should have recognised the signs. My credit card finger starting to twitch.
One fine day in about 2005, I spotted a 1991 sunburst Firebird V on eBay with a ridiculously low starting price. Ridiculously low, but still a lot more than I’d ever paid for a guitar up to that point. I felt I just had to punt a bid on it, never thinking for a minute I’d win it. Turned out I was the only bidder. Shit, I thought. I’m going to have to buy it now! So before the start of my afternoon shift one morning, I headed to North London – Clapton, to be precise, which I took as some kind of omen – to collect it.

Beautiful…I just HAD to have it, didn’t I?

The seller was a spotty lad of about 24, a DJ type (he was actually wearing a baseball cap backwards!) Almost the first thing he said was that he wasn’t prepared to let it go for the auction’s closing price – he wanted at least £50 more. Apparently, his dad had bought him it for his 15th birthday and he felt bad enough about not playing guitar any more – and terrible about letting it go, but he was broke. I could have got really shitty about it, but call me soft-hearted, a sucker for a sob story… I decided it was well worth the extra £50. I didn’t quibble about it and walked out clutching an enormous brown coffin of an oblong Gibson case (the handle was broken). It was actually bigger than any bass case I’d owned in a previous life. If I’m honest, I was in a bit of a daze.
One of the things I loved instantly about the Firebird was that it wasn’t a pristine Gibson “furniture” guitar. It’d been a careless teenager’s plaything and bore the scars to prove it. Nothing major – I even liked the way years of play meant the gaudy Firebird emblem on the pickguard was almost invisibile!. The point was it was sufficiently beaten-up for someone as hard on guitars as me not to worry about, even though it was the most expensive guitar I’d ever bought – my fourth single most valuable possession after the house, the car and my Matchless Chieftain!
It was – still is – a thing of huge beauty, a graceful, elegant instrument, with a through-neck – the neck and the central part of the body one long piece of laminated mahogany. It’s surprisingly light for such a big instrument – did I mention that Firebirds are HUGE? Yep! A good six or seven inches longer than your average common or garden Strat or Tele. That, in itself, takes a bit of getting used to – if only so you don’t clobber your bandmates when you suddenly swing around on stage. It also hangs differently on a strap – you quickly discover everything is at least two frets further to the right than you expected! Then there are the two volume controls and two tones, not to mention a pickup selector seemingly yards away, down on the bottom horn. Anyone who’s ever got to grips with a Firebird is likely tell you the same – it’s a learning curve! But worth it.
I’ve actually done very little to this guitar since, other than admire its graceful lines – and play it quite a lot, of course.

The elegant Firebird headstock, with the Steinberger Gearless tuners
The reverse of the head, showing the new tuners and the screw-holes where the original Klusons were fixed

The one major modification I made early on. I swapped out the distinctive Kluson straight banjo tuners for a set of Steinberger Gearless tuners. I’d been eyeing these in the Stewmac catalogue for some time (just in case one day I bought a Firebird copy with conventional tuners!)*
The Steinbergers are half the weight of the clunky old Klusons, which helped cure the Firebird’s neck-heavy tendancies. They tune incredibly precisely and also preserve the Firebird’s incredibly clean, sexy outline. My decision was vindicated by Gibson itself. About five years later, Gibson started factory-fitting Steinbergers to its regular Firebirds. However, mine has the original Steinbergers you haved to tighten with a spanner to lock the strings – the current ones have a rather ugly T-bar on each machine.
* I’ve long had a bit of a bee in my bonnet about various copies – especially the recent Gibson Studio ‘Birds, with their set necks and conventional tuners. My WOLFPACK colleague Joel Fisk had one for a while and it was a nice guitar, but it just looked WRONG! (For that matter, I never really liked the look of the later “non-reverse” Firebirds Gibson started making the mid-60s. If it ain’t broke etc etc.)
I’ve gigged my lovely old Firebird on and off in every band I’ve been in – not all the time, because in its case, it’s too big to fit in the car whenI’m carrying more than an amp and a couple of guitars to a gig – but pretty often. It’s another one of those guitars, like the Twincaster, that I like to use when playing big high-profile gigs…it’s just so photogenic!

Photogenic… the guitar, if not the owner!

What’s more, it’s definitely one of the guitars I’ll never, ever, sell. If fact, I quite fancy another one – either a white Firebird V or VII, or maybe a single-pickup Firebird l. I might even go for one of those rather fetching blue Epiphone Bonamassa models, which have a proper through-neck and straight-through tuners. I’d even put up with having that guy’s name on the headstock – that’s how cool I think they are! 

I have even been known to tune it up to A and play slide on it!
Good company 1 – stay tuned for a subsequent blog entry about my Flying V adventure
Good Company 2 – the Firebird with my Schecter Ultra”Firewolf” (more of which later in this series) and a Tokai Thunderbird briefly owed by my bass-playing stepson, Rob.

The Twincaster

35. The Tim Aves Twincaster

WARNING: Just the one guitar in this entry, but this tale is something of a saga!
It seemed such a good idea. I spotted this amazing-looking Warmoth twin-neck body on eBay about 15 years ago. This was back in the days when Warmoth was at the zenith of the American guitar parts industry. (Other companies are available now.) Back then, if you were looking to put together a high-end guitar to your own exact specifications, but didn’t possess the necessary woodworking and finishing skills, Warmoth could oblige – at a price. I spent almost as many hours dreamily perusing the neck and body options on the Warmoth website as I did trawling eBay for bargains. While gazing slack-jawed at all the options I’d also dwelled more than once on the super-pricey twin-neck bodies on offer. You could have a twin-neck Strat, half Strat and half Tele, or even a combination of a Strat and a Precision bass. Truly the stuff of guitaistic freakshow fantasy! The starting prices were in the £400 region, depending on how rare/exotic was your choice of timber.
So when I spotted this used, but very clean, Warmoth twin Strat body with a matching tortoiseshell pickguard on eBay for a mere £70, I simply HAD to have it. It was a bargain such a thing of mind-bogglingly great beauty.

Potential – the body before the trem routs were filled and with a paper overlay of the more Squier 51-esque pickguard I originally envisioned

What arrived – still in its original Warmoth shipping box – was indeed, a thing of beauty. The problem then was simple. What the hell to do with it!
The original owner was preumably a bit of a rocker – he’d ordered it with both bridge cavities back-routed to take Floyd Rose tremolos (eeugh!) The upper of the two necks had originally been served by a pair of humbuckers, while the bottom neck had an HSS configuration. (I think I’ve seen a picture somewhere of Ritchie Sambora from Bon Jovi sporting a very similar twin-neck Strat, so the guy may have been a fan – or even played in a tribute band to New Jersey’s second finest.)
A plan began to form…my two main guitars at the time were a Strat and the Hipshot-equipped Squier 51 I used for slide. Why not combine these two favourites in just one guitar? I tend to use a shorter strap for playing slide, so having the slide neck at the top, and the normally-tuned Strat neck below made sense.

Thing of beauty – the Twincaster body after my pal Simon had filled the trem routs

I found a genuine Squier 51 neck for sale on eBay and really lucked out with the second neck – a cheap used Warmouth large-headstock Strat neck. The Strat neck was a leftie, so the mirror-image arrangement meant the tuners didn’t get in the way of each other and hell, it looked neat. Couldn’t have been better, really.

Heads first – the reverse Strat neck worked really well in this configuration, as did the Hipshot Ultralite tuners.

Those horrible Floyd Rose trem back-routs were a problem – solved by my dear old pal Simon Pyke, whose woodworking skills greatly exceed mine. He found a couple of nice bits of hardwood and carved them to fit, so I could screw a Hipshot Trilogy to anchor the top neck and fit a standard vintage-style Strat trem (the only option I’ll countenance!) for the lower one.
The pickguard had a couple of pickup holes that were the wrong shape – I didn’t really want to think what it would cost to have a custom guard made this big. Fortunately, I managed to find a torty Strat pickguard that matched pretty well and cut out a couple of oblongs, with Strat single coil openings in the middle to fit over the original humbucker routs. It looked pretty good – better than I’d hoped. The original plan was to go with this arrangement until I was sure I was happy with the guitar, then order a new guard. In the event, it never bothered me and so I never bothered.

Control layout – one volume, one tone, a selector for each neck and a mini-toggle switch to chose which neck was connected. It even had a “both on” option in case I ever had a chance to play the Twincaster with a second guitarist! Sadly, this never happened.

So… switching. The pickguard had holes for a standard Strat setup – one volume, two tones, plus a single pickup selector, with a mini-toggle switch to choose between necks. I decided I wanted a pickup selector for each neck, so I cut a slot across what would have been the neck pickup tone pot hole and fitted a second three-way Tele switch for the top neck.
I managed to find a set of original Squier 51 pickups on eBay for the upper neck, while the bottom one became home to a set of GFS noiseless pickups – the latter an experiment which didn’t really work out. Luckily I had a set of Fender Texas Specials knocking about in my bits box and they did the job well enough and the cream pickup covers looked great against the red tortoisehell.
Hardware-wise, I bought a secondhand Hipshot Trilogy on eBay (they don’t come up all that often, so that, too, was a stroke of luck) and one of Gotoh’s excellent trems for the bottom neck. Tuners presented a quandary. By rights they should have been Klusons, but they needed to be as light as possible to help the thing balance. I settled on Hipshot Ultralite locking tuners – two sets, one left-handed, one right. They’re really great tuners, as it happens.
It’s an exciting time when a project that’s taken a huge amount of thought, time and trouble (not to mention expense) finally nears completion. It was a good year before I got to this stage and it was nerve-wracking finally to wire in the electrics, string the thing and do a rough set-up. (Getting the Hipshot calibrated to give you the tunings you want is an evening’s work all on its own – two or three hours or tuning, checking, tweaking the various grub screws with an Allen key, tuning again, checking again and so on.)

It all worked first time, which was something. However, nothing had quite prepared me for the shock the first time I actually strapped on this monster! The swamp ash body itself was reasonably light, considering its size, but two necks, five pickups, two bridges and a dozen tuners left it tipping the scales at a weight roughly equivalent to that of a baby elephant! I had to buy one of those special elasticated straps that are supposed to ease the load on the shoulders (it made very little difference), a special stand…and where on earth do you find a case for something like this, FFS?

The answer to that last one is that you don’t. I had to make one. I was rather pleased with the result – especially the luminous green fun-fur I used to line it!
Was it worth all that trouble? Well, it was a fun build, but ultimately, it was more fun to plan and build than to play. I did take it out and play it a fair bit at gigs and jams and there are quite a few pictures of me playing it – not least because it was, undeniably, a photogenic beast. I would often deliberately play it at the more high-profile festival gigs specifically because I knew it would catch the photographers’ eyes! It never failed in that respect.
However, the day came, during one of my guitar culls, when I decided to part with the Twincaster. I guess it probably stook me about £600-£700 in parts and I did wonder if it might be hard to sell for that kind of money. I suspected I might have to break it up and sell it as parts – a sad notion, but something that tends to be the fate of many expensive and specialised custom guitars. They’re often worth more for their parts than as a whole. In the event, though a nice man saw it on eBay, took a shine to it and bought it for a price I was prepared to let it go for.
I hope it made him happy and didn’t hurt his back too much…

PS: Here are a couple of clips of me wrestling with the beast at a jam….
https://youtu.be/j3Q7-NrD7_4
https://youtu.be/37tUaNuQoYg

Fun project – playing slide on the Twincaster with WOFLPACK at the 2013 Hebden Bridge Blues Festival

An Even Odder One…

34. Casio DG 20 synth guitar

THERE’S only one person to blame for the appearance of this, the oddest of all guitar-shaped things in this blog. I name Dr Ika – Georgian neuro-surgeon-cum-guitar player, technical genius and all-round good bloke! Ika’s been a regular at the Hot Hob Jam in Brentwood where we have gone to jam for almost as long as I can remember. However, for me, his most memorable appearance was the evening he showed up at Pam’s Bar (as the jam venue was then known) with this odd-looking plastic thing, and proceeded to play some fair-to-passing Hammond organ parts on it.

Dr Ika with his Casio…

Actually, this was hardly my first encounter with the wonderful world of Casio synthesisers, though. I had one of those dinky little VL Tone mini-keyboards when they came out (and drove all within earshot nuts with the preset “German Folk Tune” it played when in demo mode. I can still hum that bloody tune now!) I remember pecking out a few Depeche Mode tunes and the lick from “Enola Gay” on it before getting bored and consigning it to a drawer somewhere and returning to things with strings!
Back in the days when I worked in Chelmsford town centre in the late 80s, I remember strolling into Dixons and being intrigued to see a DG20 for sale – alongside something that looked like a kid’s plastic saxophone, but made similar noises when you blew into it.

Rear view – the DG 20 ran on half a dozen big torch batteries, which didn’t do a lot for the weight!

Back to Ika and his remarkable organ (!!!). By the time I saw him playing his DG20, in the very late 90s or early 2000s, even, they’d been long discontinued in favour of a more traditional Strat-shaped guitar with some kind of MIDI pickup plus conventional pickups (JJ Cale played one of those as his main electric for years) I’d just about forgotten the DG20 had ever existed, but it doesn’t take much to get me going and Ika’s performance got me jonesing for one.

The pointy end of my DG20

Casio must have been churned out these guitars by the thousand, so they could hardly be described as “rare” in the way some optimistic eBay sellers crack on, presumably to justify ridiculous price tags. (If you should fancy one, there’s a guy here selling one for £425 FFS! I think I paid £60 for mine.)
What was it like? Well, not much like a guitar, to be honest. INCREDIBLY hard to play. The strings were make of black nylon and were all the same thickness and kind of slack. The “fingerboard” – such as it was – was made out of rubber (yes, seriously) with vertical, moulded ribs where you’d expect frets. You strummed the strings and pressed down on the rubber, beneath which switches told the DG20 which notes you wanted to hear. Yes, it did play guitar chords, but it was a horrendous thing to make sense of, requiring flawlessly consistent fingering of the kind I was never going to manage. And of course, you couldn’t bend strings. Well you could, but nothing happened!
It had a built-in speaker (you could also plug into an amp) and a built-in drum box that was every bit as bad as the rhythm units found in the very cheapest and nastiest home organs. As for the sounds, they ranged from the cheesy (organ, plinky guitar, plonky piano) to, well, the even more bizarre and even more cheesy! It ran on six big, fat torch batteries. Oh and it had MIDI. Rumour had it, you could hook it up to some pretty serious synth and rock out…if only you could get the hang of that horrible fingerboard and strings!
Unsurprisingly, I never attempted to play it in public and I ended up selling it a couple of years later – for a profit, I hasten to add. Before that, Owen did, however, get a better handle on it and wrestled manfully with the false-triggering to record some pretty convincing organ parts though a stereo Leslie pedal for at least one track on “Roadtrip”, the Legendary Great Lost Armadillos Album that we spent four years recording, but never finished. Those tracks might yet see the commercial light of day one day – a case of tracking down the relevant hard drive and transferring the stems on to Rooks Yard’s Pro Tools system to mix. In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview of one of the tracks featuring Owen on Casio DG20 organ…
https://soundcloud.com/user-936350189-935113577/the-rockin-armadillos-i-got-my-brand-on-you/s-b5SsuXXewLI
PS: As a bonus, here’s an amusing YouTube clip I found illustrating the wonder that was the DG20… enjoy! https://youtu.be/HLPu871kMVY

Take your pick… the DG20’s array of sounds and cheesy drum patterns…