A typical topic that comes up when guitar players get together is talk about all the guitars we've had in our life time. Buying, selling and trading guitars just seems to be the part of the natural process as we travel through styles, fads and innovations in our playing careers. Most players like myself are always searching for the right instrument that matches the musical style and techniques we're into at any given time. I've never considered myself a collector of guitars, in fact most of the time I only needed to have a couple to accomplish my musical goals.
But as I evolved through Rock and Blues in the ‘60's, Jazz and Fusion in the ‘70's and ‘80's I ended up owning quite a few guitars. And like a lot of you, I'm kicking myself now for getting rid of some of them! I actually have never thought that much about or counted the number of guitars I've used until I decided to write this story. I started out by making a list and soon found it was fairly difficult to remember in detail each guitar and the years I played it. But it's been an enjoyable look back. The internet was a huge help as I looked at vintage sites and saw several guitars similar to ones I owned. So far I've remembered about 40 guitars give or take a few. There were probably others but it made me realize that many players I've know over the years must have had a least as many as me and probably a lot more. Goes to show what a unique community we guitarists are. Probably no other musicians go through such vast numbers of instruments like us guitar players as we carry on our relentless search for perfect tone and playability.
When Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles that infamous sunday night in the 1963, a huge generation or guitar players were born. I was one of them. Within weeks, I talked my parents into buying me my first guitar; a $15 Montgomery Ward "Airline" acoustic. From the start, a lot of my 12 year old friends got guitars too, and the race was on to see, as we got older, who could play the coolest stuff and who could get the best guitar. It was obvious after a year or so that my cheap flat-top was not going to cut it. I needed an electric. Some of my friends got “name” guitars like Gibson's but I had to settle for another “Airline” this time a twin pickup thin-line Airline acoustic electric. But I loved it and wound up in my first band playing it at 14 or so. But it eventually became clear that the Airline electric was junk and I scammed my parents into renting me a bright red single-pickup solid body Vox guitar. I have no idea what model it was but it was a step up and my playing began to progress at a good pace. I was in a few bands in Jr. High playing the Vox. I also, somehow, got my hands on an old 12 string acoustic (Silvertone?). But what I really wanted was a Rickenbacker like George had in “Hard Day's Night.” So I sawed the neck off in wood shop at school and glued it to a board shaped like the Rickie 12 string. It worked for about a week until the intense string tension just about tore the neck off.......firewood.
But it was becoming the later ‘60's which brought a huge revolution in music and in modern guitar......Hendrix, Clapton, Bloomfield, Alvin Lee and many more. The latest albums, full of new ideas and sounds, were exploding all around my little West Seattle music scene. So it was time to get serious and loud! I wanted a Gibson and a Fender amp! I didn't even care which kind so I scraped together enough money to buy a unique used Gibson ES-125T thin-line non-cutaway with a single P-90 from a local pawn-shop. Soon I was able to trade the 125 in for another single pick up Gibson, a ES-330T. And with my new Fender Super Reverb, I now had the sound close to many players on my albums. I played in several more bands during High School and was making a name for myself but in early 1969 one particular album came out which spoke very loud and clear to me. It was the “Live Adventures or Mike Bloomfield and Al Cooper.” Bloomfield's playing and the sound of his Les Paul totally knocked me out. So my new mission in life was to play like Mike Bloomfield and do whatever it took to get a Les Paul. I hate to admit that I saw more than one used sunburst Les Paul hanging in pawn shops and music stores around Seattle. But I really wanted a shiny new one. And since Gibson had just started remaking Les Paul's again in 1968, I somehow managed to scape together the $400 and bought a new ‘68 Les Paul gold top. It was a magical and inspiring guitar. I could get almost the exact sound of Bloomfield's LP and I worked very hard on trying to play like him too. Of course if I had only known that those used sunburst LP's I saw had to have been ‘58,‘59 or ‘60 models, I would have bought one in a heart beat. But I was thrilled with the gold top and after graduating from High School, I began playing it a lot professionally as my rock/blues band “Fiddler” became fairly well-know in the Seattle area.
Over the next few years I had a few other guitars come and go. I somehow ended up with a ugly green Telecaster, a Gibson ES-175 (should have kept) and a white Fender Strat. These guitars quickly vanished. When our band went through the typical Folk/Blues phase I bought a Gibson acoustic with a built in pickup. I think they now call it the John Lennon J-160E
. By then I had made the stupid mistake of replacing the pickups in my ‘68 LP from the original P-90's to full size humbuckings. The guitar was never quite the same and I eventually sold it and bought a red sunburst 1971 Les Paul Deluxe
. I immediately swapped the mini humbuckers for full-size versions in this guitar too but with better luck. This became my primary guitar and it stayed with me through my entire career. I think by now it's been re-fretted three times, had at least three different sets of tuners and every kind of the latest-hottest-coolest pickups including a couple of synthesizer hex pickups.
In the early ‘70's I became interested in Jazz and started gathering up every album I could find on the style. Over the next ten years I had a lot of arch-tops coming and going in and out of my possession. All of which I sold or traded off which was a crime when I think about it now. My first jazz guitar, I bought around 1971, was a used cherry sunburst Gibson Barney Kessell from the mid ‘60's. I only kept it a short time because I stumbled into a 1960's Gibson Birdland
which I had to have. The Birdland's short scale makes you feel like superman but in a year or so I realized the small neck had some short comings too so it got traded for something a little bigger.....or should I say a LOT bigger. A beautiful late ‘60's natural Gibson Super 400
. It was great guitar and I even found a well used acoustic sunburst Super 400 that same year. It must have been from the 1950's and I stuck a DeArmond pick-up on it but I don't remember playing it too often. But the blond Super 400 was my main axe as I entered the jazz phase of my career. I started playing around Seattle with most of the top Jazz players. But of course the Fusion area had begun too and I found myself often returning to the Les Paul cranked up doing my “Mahavishnu” impression.
I'm guessing in around 1973 I played a used L-5 in a store and realized that it was the perfect size and played great. So I must have traded both Super 400's in on this perfect two-pickup round-cutaway ‘60's sunburst Gibson L-5
. I played this guitar through the mid ‘70's. And believe it or not, I found an acoustic version of this too. So I added a sunburst acoustic Gibson L-5
to my repritore. I remember this being a really great playing and sounding guitar. It had a wider fingerboard and had a DeArmond pickup attached. This is one guitar I wake up in the middle of the night wishing I had never sold.
Sometime in 1976, prior to moving to Los Angeles to help start GIT, my main electric L-5 was damaged so I had a local luthier remove the bridge pickup and the two controls. He turned the guitar into basically a Wes Montgomery model but finished the top in a clear natural color. I took the guitar to LA with me in 1977 but I don't remember playing it much there before I traded it in on a 1968 red sunburst Gibson Johnny Smith
. Another guitar that haunts me for getting rid of it. But I couldn't manage the feedback issue so it was sacrificed like the others.
When Howard Roberts made the call in ‘77 that the idea of starting a guitar school in Hollywood was becoming a reality I had my car packed within an hour. I had a VW station wagon and filled it with almost everything I owned. This included two Music Man amps, my Les Paul, L-5 and an Ovation electric Balladeer I had acquired while teaching at a local West Seattle music store. The non-cutaway Ovation was a great instrument for several situations as well as something easy to practice on. When I arrived in LA, everyone was playing 335's so I jumped on the bandwagon too and got a pretty nice 1960's Gibson ES-335
. It had a repaired broken headstock so it wasn't too expensive. I don't think I kept it for more than a year or so however.
One of the perks of being a GIT instructor was several companies wanted us to indorse their products. An Ampeg company rep showed up in 1978 with a weird new concept for a guitar synthesizer. They used a Hagstrom Swede
guitar and had each fret and string wired. The string touching the fret made an electrical connection and triggered a synth sound module. The system was called “Patch 2000.” Since I was familiar with guitar synths, (I had one of the first guitar synth setups with a pickup on my Les Paul, a 360 Systems with Oberhiem modules) I told them I would give it a try so they gave me one.
The concept was very intriguing to me and with a few changes (adding a pitch bend lever on the guitar) I started using the system in my LA fusion band. The Hagstrom guitar was OK but to set it up to play well with my new “left hand hammering” technique, it was not great for normal playing. This issue got me thinking about having a special double neck version built so I could have the synth system setup on the top neck and a regular guitar on the bottom. So in 1979 I commissioned luthier Lane Moller to build my double neck. (See write-up about the Moller double neck) The Moller double-neck
was completed in 1980 and it quickly became my new “thing.” I could play a million notes on the specially designed upper fingerboard and could switch to the lower neck for regular guitar playing.
Another indorsement deal came my way in the form of a blond Ibanez George Benson GB-10
. It was a great “working/teaching man's” guitar and I used it for several years but I eventually sold it because I could never quite get my right arm comfortable with the archtop design of the high bridge/strings on the small body.
I acquired a few other instruments during those first years at GIT. I got a nylon-string Ovation Country Artist
which I still play to this day. (It has an interesting story I'll tell you in a minute.) Also a ‘70's Coral Electric Sitar. The sitar was really a fun toy but it had real noisy electronics so I traded it away fairly soon after buying it. Around the same time, Howard Roberts gave me his white Gibson Custom Howard Roberts
to use. It was suppose to be a temporary loan so I could tell him what I thought of it. I ended up keeping it nearly a year. It seemed to be a little brighter and stiffer feeling than a standard HR model.
For a brief period of time I bought a beat up black Gibson Super 400. I guess I still wanted a big arch-top but it just didn't work out so I sold it within a month or two.
By the early 1980's the popularity of the ES-335 gave way to Stratocaster style guitars. When Scott Henderson was a student at GIT, he lived for a while in my house in North Hollywood. Although he was a “student” at the school it was clear from the start that this guy could really play. And the sounds Scott got out of his Strat were amazing. So I worked out a deal with Seattle guitar repair expert Mark Arnquist to build me a Stratocaster type guitar
. He bolted a wider (3/4” nut) Scheckter telecaster neck onto a strat body with some trick pickups and a Kahler bridge. This guitar, along with my LP, double neck and Ovation's were pretty much my tools of choice for the entire decade of the 1980's. And speaking of Ovation's, the company donated a few guitars to GIT and a few instructors as I remember. I ended up with a Ovation thin-line cutaway electric which I gave to Jay Roberts a few years ago. I also got a cutaway version of Ovation's Country Artist nylon string. This guitar replaced my first one which I had traded to Jamie Findlay.
(The story.....) Jamie and I had been playing together as an acoustic duo since the early 1980's. For some reason I traded or sold Jamie my Country Artist. I started playing the new cutaway version I got from Ovation. But then I felt I needed a good steel-string so Jamie told me about a great guitar builder in Port Townsend, Washington named Ron Ho. He built me a beautiful Ron Ho cutaway flat-top
. Just a gorgeous guitar. But when Robben Ford joined our duo around 1984, he needed an acoustic and somehow managed to talk me out of the Ho ... to at least to use indefinately. We had a great time in our acoustic trio with Robben, Jamie and myself. Played several concerts and recorded an album in Seattle, which unfortunately never got released. At some point Jamie got himself a new custom nylon-string and no longer needed the my old Country Artist. The Ovation was a better player than the cutaway version I had so I traded him for the Ron Ho guitar which Robben was using?? Anyway, in all the crazy “musical chair/guitars,” I got back my original nylon-string and still play it today.
While attending the NAMM show in 1989, I found myself playing at the Fender booth with Robben. I didn't bring a guitar with me so I grabbed this funny-looking Les Paul-ish-style guitar sitting on display. (See complete story on the Mike Stevens Fender LJ guitar
) One thing led to another and I ended up with this amazing instrument. It was a prototype built by Fender's custom shop head Mike Stevens. For most of the 1990's and beyond, the Stevens was my primary guitar. I used it in instructional videos and recorded a lot of things with it.
For years I thought it would be cool to have a Telecaster, mainly for recording. So on a whim, sometime around 1998, I grabbed a cheap black Mexican Fender Telecaster
just to mess around with. I was surprised how great it sounded and how comfortable the body shape was. It felt a bit more like my Les Paul than my Strat. When I replaced the pickups with Duncan Antiquity's the guitar really came alive. I liked it so much that I stole the old Scheckter tele neck off my Strat and bolted it on. This is something I wish I had done years before. I always was a little off when playing the strat, not quite comfortable, but the tele felt right at home.
A few years later I bought another, a black Nashville 3-pickup Fender Telecaster
. This guitar sounded great even with the cheap stock pickups. It wasn't long before I moved the Scheckter neck over to this guitar and bought a Warmoth neck (3/4” nut) for my original Telecaster. Eventually I replaced the pickups on the Nashville Tele adding a full-size humbucking to the neck position. I use this guitar all the time even though the 25 1/2” scale is beginning to feel a little long to my aging fingers.
My long friendship and association with Howard Roberts gave me the opportunity to become good friends with his sons who also lived in the Seattle area. After we lost HR in 1992, I stayed in close touch with them especially Jay who had become a monster player in his own right. In the late ‘90's Jay and I and Scott Lindenmuth, a fine local player, formed an acoustic trio. I still had my nylon and steel-string Ovation's but Jay had some beater acoustic that sounded lousy and played worse. So I gave him the steel-string Ovation and bought myself an Ovation Adamas 6591 SMT
that was a very good playing and sounding acoustic/electric. I thought the on-board tuner was an awful insult until I caught myself using it.
I spent most of the 1970's enamored with jazz guitar players and arch-top jazz guitars. But as music styles changed and evolved and the electric side of jazz became popular, I found myself not even owning one after about 1982. But in 2001 or ‘02 I started to feel the urge to have a jazz box again. I started visiting local vintage dealers and music stores getting familiar with a whole new generation of models and arch-top builders. And, of course, I had sticker-shock at the prices some of the old guitars I used to have were going for. Then one of my students showed up at a lesson with a model I had heard a bit about but had never seen. It was a Sadowski Jim Hall. It was amazing. After playing it several times over a few months, I decided to get one. At the time they were fairly difficult to find. They only made a few at a time but I found one in San Diego and purchased it. The Sadowski Jim Hall Artist model is about the size of a Gibson ES-175 and was beautifully made (in Japan) and played great and sounded good too with it's built-in humbucking. I really liked the shorter 24 3/4” scale and played the guitar at several gigs but in a few months was beginning to have doubts whether or not I was truly comfortable with the body size. I remembered the difficulty I had with George Benson model where I just could not get my right arm in a comfortable position. I realized that the Sadowski had the same issue with the height of the neck mounted to the body. This puts the bridge and strings at a height where my arm has to reach up off the body to play and I end up loosing the support. I'm sure most players don't have this issue and it's probably due to me being so used to the feel of Les Paul, Tele and acoustic flat-top bodies. So, the search for the perfect arch-top continued. I sold the Jim Hall and in early 2006, after visiting a few more arch-top dealers, I started to flash back to the old familiar feel of my L-5's and Johnny Smith. The larger body just felt better for my right arm. But I didn't think I wanted the longer scale of the L-5, Then I heard about a Johnny Smith for sale in Seattle. I figured I would like the wider fingerboard and 25” scale as well as the body size which is about the same as an L-5. So I went and checked it out. I knew after 10 seconds of playing it I would have to have it. It's a sunburst 1974 Gibson Johnny Smith
. Soon after I bought it I had it re-fretted by Mike Lull a master guitar/bass expert here in the Northwest. When I got it back from Mike it was about the best playing guitar I have ever owned. I replaced the stock pickup with a Armstrong humbucking which is mounted to the pickguard. These are great pickups because they have two rows of adjustment pole-piece screws so you can get the string balance perfect.
In 2007, the idea came up for me to do a new instructional video about adding jazz ideas to blues guitar playing. I couldn't help remembering the guy who's playing I emulated when I was young; Mike Bloomfield. And the image of him playing his beautiful 1959 sunburst Les Paul has never escaped me either. Owning a flame-top burst has always been something I wanted for over 40 years. It was obvious I wasn't going to be buying a real ‘59, so I decided to check out the new historic reissues of ‘59 Les Paul's. This would also be a great guitar to use on the video. In 2008 I got my hands on a cherry sunburst Gibson Les Paul R9
. It's a whole lot lighter than my old ‘71 Deluxe and plays amazingly well. Except for a change to a Duncan Jazz neck pick-up, I've left the guitar pretty much stock.
This year (2009) I picked up a black 1994 Howard Roberts Fusion
guitar. For many of the gigs I have been doing as of late, I needed something half way between a jazz and rock guitar. Although I had some input to the design, I never owned a HR Fusion. I always liked them but never ended up playing one until now...wish I had gotten one years ago. It's a great "all purpose" guitar and has a pretty decent acoustic archtop sound. I even ended up sticking a Roland synth pickup on it. With the heavy strings (12-52) I use on it, the synth tracks great and it sustains well too.
Back in 1978, Howard Roberts asked if he could drop by my house in North Hollywood so we could talk about a new model guitar Gibson was going to build. HR knew I had a new Ibanez George Benson GB-10 and he told me that the new Gibson model would be a similar size and style instrument. The plan was for Gibson to engineer a new concept in guitars, one that would be a true fusion of styles. It would be called the Howard Roberts Fusion model. Howard wanted to take some measurements off of my Benson so he laid out a big piece of paper on my kitchen table and traced the body shape of the Benson. I think he just wanted to get an idea of the body size and shape of the Ibanez. He told me that his new guitar would be similar to a thin-line ES 175 with two pickups but would have some interesting first-time features. He asked me if I had any ideas for such a guitar and if I had any issues with the Benson. I remember telling him that the one issue I had was the neck angle was mounted too high on the body for me. And that it forced my right arm to reach up off the body to pick the strings. (I even made a balsa arm rest for the Benson that I attached with double-sided tape to make my arm more comfortable.) Howard also told me of an ingenious idea he had for the bridge of the Fusion guitar. The idea was a two-way bridge which, with a lever, could be set to a traditional archtop position. This would put all the weight of the strings only on the top of the guitar. Then with the flip of the lever, the weight would be shifted down though posts onto a solid block of wood running through the middle of the guitar like an ES 335. This unique bridge would give the guitar two complete different sounds, feels and responses...archtop and solidbody. Unfortunately, Gibson, for one reason or another, did not end up engineering the bridge. My guess is it was just too complicated or expensive and maybe even too heavy.
About a year or so later, Howard showed up at the school with the first prototype of the Fusion guitar. It was a beautiful instrument with a nice sunburst flamed maple top. It wasn't long before orientation concert time rolled around at GIT. All of us teachers would usually play a concert for the new incoming students. I had seen and played with Howard many times and loved the iconic image of him sitting on a stool with his original Gibson cherry HR model often smoking a Camel, grinning and wearing the shades. But we were all shocked when Howard walked out to play at the concert with his new Fusion guitar and proceeded to play standing up with a strap!! It actually looked weird to me...I had never even seen HR use a strap before when sitting let alone standing up. But he had great time and sounded better than ever on the new guitar.
Another guitar acquisition in 2009 was another Les Paul. I guess I got caught up in the whole "50th anniversary of the ‘59 Les Paul" excitement and bought one of the new reissues. I originally was planning on getting one of the new Mike Bloomfield models but didn't particularly like the ones I played. I must say they are great guitars and a fine tribute to a great American guitar giant. I eventually had a chanced to get a heritage cherry sunburst 50th anniversary Les Paul R9
. The guitar is gorgeous and weighs under 8 ½ lbs and sounds great too.
So there you have it. All the guitars I've had over the years. I imagine there will be more to come in the future because I'm still searching for the perfect instrument. Of course I know it doesn't exist, but the never-ending hunt is a interesting and fun (and expensive) part of being a modern guitar player.