Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar…

Guitar players are famous for attributing success to a unique bond with their instrument. As a result, a man and a piece of wood  become inseparable, and over time, the general public has trouble separating where the guitar ends and the guitarist begins. There are a several iconic guitar and guitarist combinations.

-Stevie Ray Vaughn and his Strat.

Number One (or, ‘First Wife’) was a Fender Stratocaster used by Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. He played it on every one of his studio albums, and in hundreds of concerts. Stevie Ray said he immediately knew there was something special about Number One. He said he didn’t even have to play it—he just knew by the way it looked that it would sound great.  Immediately after getting Number One, he tried to convert it to a left-handed tremolo to imitate his idol, Jimi Hendrix. But the job was botched, and he went to a truck stop desperate for something to cover the damage. All he could find was a “custom” sticker in the parking lot, so he slapped that across the bridge, and added prismatic stickers to spell out his initials, “SRV”. Additional modifications are too numerous to count.

But that’s nothing compared to the legendary abuse that Number One took.   Stories abound about how he would kick it, punch it, ride it like a surfboard, and carry it around by the tremolo bar. And if that wasn’t enough, during shows he’d bounce it off the wall, catch it (or not), and keep on playing.

Number One is currently in the possession of Stevie’s brother, Jimmie Vaughan, although rumors persist that it was buried with Stevie in Dallas.


Angus Young and his Gibson SG.

– Much like a cartoon character wears the same clothes in every episode,  Angus Young is rarely seen in anything but a schoolboy uniform, playing a Gibson SG electric guitar.

Young first discovered the SG at 14, when he bought a used 1967 model. It was very light and had an extremely thin neck that suited his smaller hands (he’s 5’3″). This is odd for Gibson products, and many now believe he learned to play on a factory defect or a stolen custom instrument. That guitar lasted only a year, as the neck warped and rotted.  But it’s been nothing but stock SGs after that.

Young has worked with Gibson extensively to try to re-create the specific elements that made that first SG so special, but to no avail. You can however, play a signature model, which re-creates many components of his current touring guitar.


Bruce Springsteen and his Telecaster

– Bruce Springsteen plays other guitars, and keeps plenty of spares on tour, but the ‘Born to Run’ album cover forever links The Boss to a blackguard, maple-neck Fender Esquire. And he hasn’t fought the perception. Since its debut on BTR in 1975, the guitar has been his virtual co-star, appearing on the covers of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Live 1975-85, Human Touch and Greatest Hits.

Like any legendary instrument, details of its origins are murky. His guitar techs say it’s either a 1953 or ’54 model, or possibly a ’55 due to the v-profile on the neck. It’s been in the shop for more nips and tucks than Joan Rivers, so you’d best go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (where it now resides) to decide for yourself.


Eddie Van Halen and his “Frankenstrat”

– David Lee Roth sent Eddie Van Halen home for bringing a Gibson ES to practice, telling Eddie “you ain’t Roy Orbison, come back with a real guitar”. Eddie tried a Les Paul but it was too heavy, and a Fender Stratocaster sounded too thin. That’s when he got the crazy notion to combine the two. The resulting surgery was a mess, but the butchery was covered by a black pick guard, so no one was the wiser. Well, except for the ‘tone’ knob controlling the volume.

Undeterred, he then used masking techniques to paint the guitar white with random black stripes. It looked pretty awful, but all those modifications produced a the tone known as the ‘brown sound’. The guitar was prominently photographed on the 1979 album Van Halen.

Eddie’s popularity spawned loads of copycat guitars, so he painted the Frankenstrat with red bicycle paint, lost the pick guard, and added a nonfunctional pickup near the neck, next to a fake five-way switch. Other changes included a tremolo shimmied with a 1971 quarter, school bus reflectors on the back, and a smaller pick guard made out of a vinyl record.

And that’s not even half the modifications this poor instrument has endured. But the guitar is now as unique to Eddie as his fingerprint.  A 2008 version of the Frankenstrat now resides in the Smithsonian Institution.


Eric Clapton and his strat

– In the late 60s Eric Clapton was at a career crossroads. On pure impulse, he bought six Fender Stratocasters from a Nashville music store, despite being a devoted Gibson player. He gave one guitar each to friends George Harrison, Pete Townsend, and Steve Winwood, and then used the best components of the remaining three to make a single guitar for himself.

Little did he know that instrument would become his stage and studio guitar for the next 15 years. Clapton nicknamed the guitar ‘Blackie’ and played it on thirteen consecutive solo albums, including ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ and ‘Slowhand’.

Blackie’s last public appearance before retirement was the Live Aid concert for Africa in 1985. In 2004, Clapton auctioned off Blackie and donated the proceeds to the Crossroads Centre, a drug and alcohol rehab clinic on the Caribbean island of Antigua. American music chain Guitar Center purchased Blackie for $959,500, which was a world record at the time. Guitar Center technicians say the instrument is in working order, and if it goes missing, the first place they’ll look is Clapton’s house.


Jimi Hendrix and his strats

Yeah, it is rumored that Jimi preferred the darker tone of Les Pauls right before his death. But Hendrix will forever be remembered for playing reverse-strung, right-handed Fender Stratocasters left-handed.

And note the plural. Jimi isn’t linked to a single guitar because he had this penchant for lighting the damn things on fire during performances. As a result, the few remaining Hendrix Strats are worth a small fortune. In 2008, a guitar Hendrix torched during a London show sold for £280,000 (over $400,00) at auction.


The Beatles and all their guitars

The group changed everything and quickly became icons.  Naturally the instruments they played did as well.

John Lennon is closely tied to his black Rickenbacker 325.  He played it exclusively in the early years, and the three-quarter size guitar is burned in our memory from the Ed Sullivan and Shea Stadium shows.

In late 1965 however, both John and George Harrison bought an Epiphone Casino each because they liked the one Paul McCartney had.  Lennon used it almost exclusively for the rest of his life.  He stripped the paint and swore it made it sound better because it could “breathe”.

And we have to throw one bass guitar on this list, because perhaps no instrument is tied to a single artist as much as the Hofner “violin” bass is to Paul McCartney.  If you see the bass, you automatically think of him.

He wasn’t originally a bass player.  Stu Sutcliff quit the band, and somebody had to play bass.  George was the best real guitar player in the band, and Lennon wouldn’t even consider it, so Paul got “stuck” with it.  He went to buy a bass, supposedly hoping to get a Fender.  Then he saw how much they were.  The Hofner was cheap, lightweight,  and the violin shape worked with his left-handedness.  So one of the most iconic guitars of all time became that way because the player was a tightwad….


B.B. King and Lucille

– No guitarist is more wedded to his instrument than the reigning Monarch of the Blues, B.B. King. As the man himself tells it, in 1949 he was playing a ‘Chitlin Circuit’ dancehall in Arkansas when the heater upended and set the building on fire. In his haste to escape the flames, King left his beloved Gibson semi-hollow electric guitar inside.

Mortified at his potential loss, King ran back into the burning building and retrieved it. The next day he learned the fire was started by two men fighting over a woman named Lucille, so he named the guitar ‘Lucille’ to remember those mad moments when he risked his life to save it.

In 1968 King described Lucille: “it loves to be petted and played with. There’s also a certain way you hold it, the certain noises it makes, the way it excites me … and Lucille don’t want to play anything but the blues … Lucille is real, when I play her it’s almost like hearing words, and of course, naturally I hear cries.”

The Gibson Model ES 355 TDSV should be renamed to honor B.B.King.  Why not just make it official?


Have any other guitar/ guitarist iconic combinations?


9 responses

  1. Shawn Ryan

    UFO’s Michael Schenker and his Flying V Gibson
    Rory Gallagher and his well-worn Strat
    Ted Nugent and his Gibson Byrdland
    Ritchie Blackmore and his Strat (he never destroyed it in concert, always used a cheap knockoff that just looked like a Strat)
    Queen’s Brian May and his homemade guitar

    June 17, 2011 at 9:51 pm

    • S. McDavid

      Chet Atkins. George benson.

      June 18, 2011 at 3:11 pm

  2. Dave

    I dunno, but I played “Number One” once. Held it my hands, with it on my lap, plugged into Stevie’s Marshall Major and a Fender cab outfitted with an EV 15″ speaker. Turned it to 10 and wailed. Boutwell Auditorium, Birmingham, AL the site of SRVs last Bham show.

    June 18, 2011 at 2:44 am

  3. Jerry

    Django and his Selmer-Maccaferri. Charlie Christian and his…Charlie Christian. Eddie Cochran and his Gretsch. Chuck Berry and his 335. Jimmy page and the Gibson 1275.

    June 18, 2011 at 2:15 pm

  4. Dave

    Bo Diddley and his rectangular guitar. Rick Nielsen and his 80-billion guitars, esp his 5-neck and the double neck one that looks just like Rick.

    June 19, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    • That Bo Diddley shoebox was the heaviest guitar I ever lifted (they had it at the R&R Hall of Fame for an exhibit when I got a behind the scenes tour, and they let me touch the stuff!). How they guy functioned with an anvil around his neck every night is a mystery to me!

      June 21, 2011 at 1:31 pm

  5. Nigel Tufnel and his Fender Strat. Still got the old tagger on it. Lot of sustain…you could go for a sandwich, it would still be playing. No, don’t even look at it. That’s enough of that one.

    June 19, 2011 at 5:53 pm

  6. zappadrone

    Jerry Garcia and Tiger

    Trey Anastasio and his ‘Doc

    June 20, 2011 at 11:13 pm

  7. Clark

    Billy Gibbons and “Pearly Gates” (’59 Les Paul)
    Keith Richards and “Micawber” (’53 Tele)

    June 21, 2011 at 2:29 pm

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