"A Perfectly Good Guitar": 3 Guitarists Describe Their Favorite Instrument

Editor's note: Author Chuck Holley recently reached out to us to let us know about his new book, A Perfectly Good Guitar. It's a collection that brings together memories and descriptions from 46 different players about their personal favorite instruments. It struck us as something everyone in the Reverb community might be interested in reading, and we invited Mr. Holley to submit a few excerpts for our blog.

For more information, be sure to check out the book’s website. You can buy the entire book here.

I have always liked photography, music, and a good story. Those three things came together on a summer evening in 2007 at Island Park in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Puddin’ Truck, a local band, was playing at The Beach House on a Saturday night. I stayed until the end, chatting with the band after their set as I finished my beer. Rick Oltman, a guitarist, was packing up his rig when I struck up a conversation.

"You sounded good tonight, but I couldn’t help but notice the wear on your guitar," I said. "What happened?"

What followed was an account of his experiences beginning with the day he purchased the guitar.

"A Perfectly Good Guitar" - Chuck Holley

Rick was eighteen years old in 1969, living in Waterloo, Iowa. With his parents’ permission, he withdrew four hundred dollars from his savings account and boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Minnesota. He was in search of a guitar.

He purchased a 1969 Gibson Les Paul with a Kustom amp head from B Sharp Music in Minneapolis for $444.44. The guitar was nearly stolen at the bus terminal as Rick waited to return home . . . the first time, but not the last, that there would be a story he could tell about his guitar.

A few weeks later, I thought about my conversation with Rick. There are lots of things to which people assign value. A memento, a reminder of another time, can hold value, real or perceived. That includes guitars. There must be other players with their own stories. All I had to do was ask.

I began an eight-year search, looking for professional guitarists willing to recall how they acquired that one special instrument and why it grew in importance to them. I spoke with dozens of players, approaching some at gigs or via email, either directly or through management and a few by referral.

Through a series of coincidences, Bill Frisell recalls how the passing of a friend led to ownership of an axe made from wood recovered from the loft of a favorite film director. Songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and founding member of Los Lobos, Louie Perez remembers the early days of the band playing Mexican music on regional Mexican instruments such as his eight-string jarana.

In vivid detail, Marty Stuart tells how he acquired a very important instrument; the 1954 Telecaster once owned by Clarence White. It’s equipped with the first string-bender, which was so important to the sound of The Byrds and later helped define Stuart’s sound. Louisiana player, Dave Malone, formerly of The Radiators, believes the 1956 Tele in his collection was meant to be there. He lost it three times and got it back three times.

The result is a book which profiles 46 working musicians recounting tales of everything from expensive axes and pawnshop discoveries to homemade creations and catalog guitars. Some stories will make you laugh while others are rather poignant.

Dave Alvin and His '34 National Resonator

Roots rocker Dave Alvin didn’t find his 1934 National Steel Body resonator in a pawn shop. Instead, it was waiting for him in a more unlikely setting.

"Most great things in life come your way when you don’t go looking for them. A tribal art show isn’t the kind of place where you’d normally look for a 1934 National Steel Body Resonator guitar. So, in a way, it made total sense that it would be there.

Dave Alvin with his 1934 National Steel Body resonator

I started accumulating guitars when I was in the Blasters. When I started my solo career, this little need called "money" popped up. I wasn’t generating as much money as I was making in either the Blasters or X, so I had to a sell a bunch of guitars.

When I started making money again in the early ’90s, I decided I’m not gonna buy guitars because I’ll just have to sell them. What I wanted were a couple of great acoustics and a couple of great electrics. I had always wanted a great National Steel, but I didn’t go out of my way to look for it.

. . . I’m not really a guitar collector. One thing I do collect is antique Native American art. Specifically, Southwest stuff — Navajo rugs, Pueblo pottery, Hopi kachina dolls. In 2001, I was at an art show in LA that specializes in tribal art. I was just walking around and I spotted this 1934 National Steel Resonator Duolian guitar in one of the booths. I made a beeline for it and I asked the guy if I could look at it.

We were talking about the guitar and going back and forth as guys do. Finally, he looks at me and says, "You’re one of the Alvins, aren’t you?"

I said, ‘Yeah.’

’I got high with your brother a few years back.’

I said, ‘Well, then, do you want to sell the guitar?’

He said ‘$1,500 and it’s yours.’

Dave Alvin's 1934 National Steel Body resonator

This is a great guitar. I’ve used it on a couple of albums, but I tend not to record with it that much. I haven’t written a song that’s a showcase for it yet. But I just made a record with my brother, Phil, called Common Ground and it’s all over that thing.

My friend Greg Leisz played it one day, and he looked at me and said, ‘You’re not good enough to have this guitar.’ He’s probably right."

Bill Kirchen on His First Telecaster

Bill Kirchen, alum of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, the pioneering country-rock band, wasn’t actively looking for a Telecaster when he came upon an opportunity.

"I had discovered country music — specifically, the Bakersfield twang. I loved Buck Owens, and I knew his guitar player was Don Rich. I loved Merle Haggard, and his guitar player then was Roy Nichols. And I loved the rockabilly I heard by Ricky Nelson, and the guitar player on those records was James Burton.

Bill Kirchen with his 1950s Fender Telecaster

At the time, I had a Gibson SG. But when I realized they all played Telecasters, I knew I wanted a Tele.

The Commander Cody band had broken up. George Frayne had gone off to teach art at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. And I moved from Ann Arbor to San Francisco to see what I could do.

I wasn’t making much money. I couldn’t make a living right off the bat playing music, so I got a job as a motorcycle messenger to get by. There would be three or four of us messengers sitting on the bench, waiting for the next run. I got to talking with this guy about guitars. I think Pete Townshend had just come through town playing, and smashing up, a Gibson SG. This guy wanted to get a Gibson and he had a Tele. I had a Gibson and wanted to get a Tele. So I said, ‘Man, let’s trade.’

We traded across the board. This was about 1968.

Shortly after I traded for the Tele, I convinced the Commander Cody band to come out West. George Frayne was tired of teaching, and I talked everybody into moving to California. The rest is history.

I cut ‘Hot Rod Lincoln,’ a top ten hit for Commander Cody, on that Telecaster. I used it on all the Cody albums, and I was playing the Tele probably on 99% of the live shows I did.

I’ve only recently taken it off the road. It used to be a sunburst. Now you’d be hard-pressed to find any of the sunburst on the front.

Bill Kirchen's 1950s Fender Telecaster

It’s like the story of the guy who has had the same axe in his family. He says, ‘Yeah, I’ve had this axe for seven generations. It’s had three new heads and five new handles!’ I’m like that. The only thing left of my Telecaster is the stick of the neck, the body of the plank, and a decal that says ‘Fender.’ The only metal that’s left is the six-string ferrules that the strings go through.

Other than that, everything on that guitar — every wire, every fret, every knob, every screw, every pot — has been replaced many, many times. I eventually changed everything on it, but only if I needed to. There’s a hole on the Tele that’s almost a quarter-inch deep, just below the bridge plate, from where I’ve rested my pinky finger for decades.

Now bear in mind, the guitar was probably from the ’50s, but it looked brand new when I got it. We could never figure out if it was a factory refinish. But everything about it, the serial number and the pickup, it all pointed to being from the ’50s.

Once I got the Tele, that was the last day job I ever had that wasn’t about music."

Waddy Wachtel and His Les Paul

Los Angeles-based rock session player, Waddy Wachtel, recalls a deal he made with Stephen Stills in 1968.

Shortly after moving with his band to Los Angeles from New York, Waddy met David Crosby. Crosby later introduced him to Stills. It was not long before Crosby, Stills and Nash was formed.

Waddy Wachtel with his 1960 Sunburst Les Paul

"Our band was soon sharing rehearsal rooms with CSN. Although Neil Young was not officially in the band, he was there a lot.

Stills and Young had filled the walls of that room with guitars. There must have been 50 guitars there, and a lot of them were Les Pauls.

At the time, I was playing a beautiful Gibson Super 400, but what I really wanted was another Les Paul.

I asked Stephen if he would sell one of his Les Pauls. ‘Let’s trade rehearsal rooms tonight,’ he said, ‘and you pick the one you want.’

I spent the night in that room and came out with a 1960 Sunburst Les Paul. I gave Stephen $350 for it, and that was the best deal ever. Of all the Les Pauls I played, it had the brightest sound. It’s one of the most valuable, most coveted guitars. I broke the neck on mine so many times that it had to be replaced, but even with the replacement neck, it’s still very valuable.

To me, most Les Pauls feel like a baseball bat. They have a very thick neck. But the neck on my 1960 Les Paul is shaved down. The fret board on top is like glass. You can move like crazy all over it. It’s very narrow from the back of the neck to the fret board. The 1960 models are the only ones with necks like that. I don’t know if they are all like that, but mine is. It’s perfect for me.

That was my go-to guitar. It’s played on more hit records than any other guitar I’ve used. I used it on ‘It’s So Easy’ by Linda Ronstadt and on ‘Edge of Seventeen’ by Stevie Nicks. It’s the one on ‘Oh Sherrie’ by Steve Perry. Anything you hear on Warren Zevon’s records is that Les Paul. I took it on the road with the Everly Brothers, Carole King, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, and Keith Richards.

One night I was playing my gig at The Joint in Los Angeles and the neck started going out. So I decided I had to retire it. Now I only record with it at home. I use it on movie tracks or if someone sends me a track to record on at home. But if it leaves the house, the insurance is cancelled.

Waddy Wachtel's 1960 Sunburst Les Paul

Years ago, I was in the studio with Keith Richards. He picks up my Les Paul and starts playing it. He says, ‘Hey Wads, now I see why you always drag this fuckin’ thing around. This guitar is incredible. It has the best neck.’

If you remember when the Stones were on Ed Sullivan, Keith was playing a sunburst Les Paul with a Bigsby on it. So I’m looking at him holding my Les Paul, and I said, ‘Keith, what happened to your sunburst Les Paul?’

’I have no idea,’ he said.

’Wouldn’t it be funny,’ I asked, ‘if somehow Steve Stills wound up getting yours and I bought it from him and that guitar you’re playing turned out to be your original sunburst Les Paul?’

We were never able to trace it back to Keith because Stephen could not remember where he got it. Who knows? It could be the same one.

Excerpts from A Perfectly Good Guitar, by Chuck Holley and published the University of Texas Press.
© 2017 University of Texas Press and Chuck Holley.

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