5 Famous Vintage Guitars Still Earning Their Keep on the Road

Lead photo by Erlewine Guitars

Like Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat or Jerry Garcia’s custom–built Wolf, there are some vintage guitars that are so closely identified with their legendary owner’s sound and personality that they’ve reached a sort of celebrity status.

Most of the guitars in this league could easily fetch five to six figures at auction, or enjoy a quiet retirement behind a display case in a museum.

But there are some iconic guitars that remain in the hands of the musicians that made them famous. So we wanted to take an opportunity to look at some such instruments that are still going strong, still at home in the studio, and never afraid of the rigors of the road.

Willie Nelson’s “Trigger”

Nelson’s battered and heavily scarred ’69 Martin N–20 is one of the most recognizable guitars on the planet.

Willie Nelson with "Trigger"

Photo by: Michael Ochs / Getty Images.

Nelson purchased it in 1969 after a drunk guy stumbled into his Guild acoustic guitar onstage and destroyed it. The then–struggling singer/songwriter fell in love with the nylon–stringed N–20’s Django Reinhardt–like gypsy tone. It was the new sound Nelson was looking for to jumpstart his career.

Named after Roy Rogers’s horse and closest companion, Trigger, Nelson’s Martin N–20 has become a symbol of his storied career. That's the euphemistic way of saying that it has a lot of wear to show for all of those years of hard work.

The famous hole on Trigger between its bridge and sound hole is the result of over 40 years of hard strumming and guitar pick damage. Like all nylon–stringed guitars, the N–20 didn’t come with a pickguard, since it’s meant to be fingerpicked. Trigger is also covered with countless autographs from fellow musicians and friends.

Trigger and Willie Nelson are inseparable. And after nearly 50 years together, Nelson has said that if Trigger ever goes, he’ll probably hang it up, too.

Neil Young’s “Old Black” and “Hank”

If Willie Nelson’s Trigger is the world’s most recognized guitar, Neil Young’s “Old Black” ’53 Les Paul probably ranks second. It was traded to Young by Buffalo Springfield bandmate Jim Messina in 1968 for a Gretsch 6120. By the time Young got it, the goldtop Gibson had already been painted black, modified, and plenty dinged up.

For Neil Young, it was love at first sight.

He first used Old Black on his 1969 breakout album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. With its crunchy and ragged signature tone, Neil has played that beat–up Les Paul on virtually every album and at every concert for nearly 50 years.

There have been numerous modifications made to Old Black over the years: a Bigsby was added, it’s on its fourth bridge pickup (currently an early '70s Gibson Firebird mini humbucker), the P90 neck pickup had a metal cover added, and the original plastic pickguard was replaced with a metal one that enhances Young’s legendary feedback.

But Old Black isn't the only guitar that Neil is known for. He's also famous for being the current caretaker of Hank Williams Sr.’s 1941 Martin D–28. There are a host of rumors about how it got from Hank to Neil, but it has been one of Young’s main studio and road acoustic guitars for over 30 years.

This is the acoustic Young plays in the Neil Young: Heart of Gold documentary, directed by the late Jonathan Demme.

Neil Young performs "This Old Guitar" with "Hank"

Williams’s old Martin even inspired Young to write “This Old Guitar,” a song on his Prairie Wind album featuring the loving tribute, “The more I play it, the better it sounds / It cries when I leave it alone.”


Bonnie Raitt’s “Brownie”

The queen of sultry, bottleneck blues rock paid $120 for her hybrid Strat back in 1969. It has a ’65 body, a neck from sometime later, and a worn–off, scuffed–up finish that gives her Strat its unique mocha hue. Bonnie Raitt has used “Brownie” at every gig for 48 years and counting.

Bonnie Raitt performs "Me and The Boys" with "Brownie"

Brownie was Raitt’s primary guitar when she launched her solo career in 1970. And although her early career had its ups and downs — she didn’t have a commercial hit until “Runaway” in 1977 — Brownie was right there with her in 1989 with the release of her breakthrough, multi–Grammy award–winning Nick of Time album.

A long–time student of blues legends like Howlin’ Wolf and Mississippi Fred McDowell, Raitt favors open A tuning and says she loves playing slide on her old Strat because it has as much emotion and expression as the human voice.

Raitt became the first female artist Fender worked with to build a signature guitar in the ‘90s, but Raitt sticks by her humble partscaster. Brownie will be on tour with her and James Taylor this summer, supporting Raitt’s 17th studio album, Dig In Deep.

Marty Stuart’s “Clarence”

“Party Marty” Stuart is as famous for his massive collection of country music memorabilia (over 20,000 items!) as he is for his long career of successfully mixing rockabilly and honky tonk with traditional country and roots music.

The most valuable — and visible — piece of his collection is “Clarence,” the original StringBender ’54 Telecaster owned by the late, great Clarence White — a true pioneer of country rock and blazing fast bluegrass flatpicking.

White wanted to emulate a pedal steel guitar on his Tele and challenged his friend Gene Parsons, a multi–talented musician and machinist, to design a mechanism that could raise a string a whole step.

The result was an ingenious apparatus using the shoulder strap button, springs, levers, and parts from an old Fender pedal steel. Although the E and G strings were considered, Parsons and White agreed that the B string was the most practical for bending and getting the sound White was searching for.

White quickly mastered the Parsons/White StringBender (also called the B–Bender) and used it extensively during his career with the country rock version of The Byrds from 1968 until the group dissolved in 1973. Later that year, White was unfortunately struck and killed by a drunk driver. He was only 29.

Stuart, a longtime friend of White’s family, acquired the legendary guitar from White’s widow, Susie, in 1980. He has been recording and touring with Clarence ever since, keeping the memory of its original owner alive for more than 30 years.

Marty Stuart: The Story of Clarence White & The Parsons/White StringBender | Read More ››

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