An Almost Complete Guide to the Gear of The Last Waltz

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty Images

When Thanksgiving rolls around, that means that it's time for my annual viewing of The Last Waltz, the Scorsese-helmed concert documentary that captured The Band's final show, held on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. The film is, along with Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense, typically considered to be the greatest concert film ever produced and features a pantheon of guest performers spanning a wide swath of North American musical styles.

The Last Waltz documentary poster

There's a lot that can be said of the cinematic and musical legacy of the film and concert, and in fact, we published another story this time last year that explores those themes in more detail.

For me though, whenever I watch a concert movie or dive headlong in the robust library of rock docs on Netflix, I find myself compulsively trying to ID the various instruments and gear that can be seen in all the archive footage and performances. It's a fun if admittedly trivial undertaking, and as I've learned from years of trying to share my real-time observations with friends and family, it's not typically the sort of information that most people find interesting.

But if anyone is going to care, it's going to be you, the readers on Reverb. And so with this amusing November diversion, I present to you today my attempt to name every instrument that appears in the classic movie. There are some I surely missed and others I probably got wrong, and I invite you to weigh in in the comments if you have any additional insight or information. Happy Thanksgiving!

The first performance in The Last Waltz features The Band and their take on "Don't Do It," a Holland-Dozier-Holland tune that was originally recorded by Marvin Gaye. This song was the encore in the original concert but it's slotted as the opening number of film. I should note that in this post, I'm following the sequence of the original 1978 film which was edited and re-ordered from the 1976 performance, and does not include a number of songs that have appeared on albums and special editions over the years.

In this opening sequence, we're introduced to the core cast of instruments used by The Band throughout that Thanksgiving 1976 performance at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.

The Band's Core Rig

Robbie Robertson

A primary criticism of The Last Waltz held by many (Levon Helm included) centers on the fact that Robbie Robertson is given significantly more screentime than any other member. And indeed, Robbie with his Strats are at the very focal point of many shots and songs throughout the night.

His main guitar is a now-famous bronzed Strat that was recently replicated in a limited run by the Fender Master Builder Todd Krause. As Robbie has recounted in several interviews, he bought this '54 Strat from Norm's Rare Guitars in LA and had it dipped in bronze, like you would a pair of baby shoes. This increased the weight of the guitar, and the added metal made the tone a bit sharper.

What appears to be a humbucker pickup at the bridge is actually a just a single-coil moved further back on the body to get it out of the way of Robbie's picking. At different points in the film, Robbie also dons a two-tone sunburst '50s Strat with the same pickup configuration.

Robbie Robertson with his '54 Strat and Rick Danko with his Gibson Ripper bass

As for amps, Robbie is playing a Tweed-era Fender Twin. There are also Music Man HD-series combos on the stage throughout the evening, supposedly serving as a steady backline for various guests players. There's also a visible Peterson strobe tuner next to the Tweed Twin.

Rick Danko

Throughout the entire set, singer, bassist, and fiddler Rick Danko plays a Gibson Ripper bass, a model that was introduced by Gibson in 1973. Danko had a number of Rippers with different mods in the '70s, but this sunburst model appears to carry the original stock Gibson pickups.

The Ripper had a four-position pickup control switch on it, which Danko appears to keep at the third, "in phase—parallel" setting, though it's difficult to eye exactly.

Garth Hudson

As expressed in interview portions in the film, the rest of The Band revered the musical abilities of multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson, and his on-stage arsenal demonstrates the massive range of sounds he brought to the mix.

At the center of his expansive rig sits a Lowrey H25-3 organ said to have had some special mods enabling more dynamic pitch bends. To his right hand side is an RMI KC-1 synth, topped by a Yamaha CS-80 that was apparently a prototype given to him to try out by Yamaha. On the left is a Roland SH-2000 lead synth on top of what appears to be various rackmount mixers and other processors.

Garth Hudson's synth set up

For more info on Garth's setup through the years, you can check out this Band fansite.

Levon Helm

There are two drum sets on stage during The Last Waltz, but the main kit Levon Helm plays throughout the evening is a Gretsch "round badge"-era kit with a sleek black diamond pearl wrap. The snare appears to be something of an antique with a single-tension wood hoop. Levon was known for playing hybrid kits that incorporated various drums, so it's possible that the different drums in the setup came from different places.

The second kit off to the side gets played by Richard Manuel, Ringo Starr and others at different points, but is obscured behind a few amps and other gear through most of the evening, making it a bit trickier to identify.

Richard Manuel

Through most of the concert, Richard Manuel plays a grand piano. It's difficult to spot any information about the piano itself since it's mostly covered through the entire film. On some songs like "Shape I'm In," he plays another keyboard which is not entirely visible but appears to be a clavinet.

Following that first sequence and some exposition from Robbie and director Martin Scorsese, we go through some more Band-only tracks and the first guest spots featuring Ronnie Hawkins, followed by Dr. John. Through this whole section of the film, the rig is more or less the same.

At one point, Garth breaks out a curved soprano Sax of unknown make and model. In fact, there are a number of horn players that appear in the film, but I am not even going to try to guess the particulars of their instruments.

Neil Young with his 1968 D-45

And then comes Neil Young. He's playing his famous 1968 D-45 (which you can tell because of the inlays and binding). Neil used this guitar to record many of his most famous albums, and it can be seen in performances throughout his career.

"The Weight" Soundstage Gear

A couple songs after Neil's appearance, we're whisked away to a soundstage for one of a few performances shot to supplement the primary concert footage. For "The Weight," The Band is joined by The Staple Singers, who had previously covered the song on their 1968 Stax release Soul Folk in Action.

This setup shows Robbie playing a double-neck Gibson EMS-1235 mandolin-guitar combo, while Pop Staples is playing a Telecaster. Rick is playing a fretless Ampeg AMUB-1 bass through an Ampeg amp that looks like a '70s B-15N fliptop, though Rick was also using SBT heads he was given by Ampeg in this period.

The Band - The Last Waltz - The Weight

Levon's drum set is different from that seen on the main concert, but it does appear to be the same snare. This wood-hooped set looks to be one that Levon played and toured with extensively through The Band's run, and was reportedly purchased at a pawn shop in Los Angeles.

Garth's main synth and organ station is set up as well. He and Richard swap between organ and piano duties for this number.

Robbie with a Gibson Style O acoustic and Rick Danko with a fiddle in the green room

Before heading back to the main concert affair, there's a brief interlude in a green room where Robbie plays a Gibson Style O acoustic while Rick Danko follows on the fiddle. The Style O was a curious instrument with a scroll on the upper bout of the body built along the lines of a Gibson mandolin of the same period. This one looks to be from around 1920.

Other Guests and Their Guitars

Cruising through the rest of the setlist, we start to get into the rest of the guest performers. Here's a quick overview of some of the guitars they bring along.

Neil Diamond with an Ovation

After a brief discussion of New York and Tin Pan Alley, Neil Diamond appears for a rendition of "Dry Your Eyes," which he co-wrote with Robbie. In this sequence he's playing an Ovation, which I believe is a Custom Legend based on the inlays and rosette.

Joni Mitchellwith a Martin dreadnought

Joni Mitchell's tune, "Coyote," is an absolute highlight of the film. She's playing a Martin dreadnought which is presumably a D-28, given her history with that model, but it's possible that it's a D-18.

Bob Margolin playing an ES-150 with Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters gives The Last Waltz some serious blues cred, and is joined for his number by longtime guitarist Bob "Steady Rolling" Margolin playing an ES-150 with trapezoid inlays. Bob's an old friend of ours, and you can read more about his experience at the Last Waltz on his website.

Eric Clapton with his Black Stratocaster "Blackie"

Eric Clapton's up next and comes to the stage with none other than "Blackie," his famous number one guitar through this entire era. As you may know, the Black Stratocaster sold in 2004 for $959,500, which set the record for the most expensive guitar ever sold at the time.

Bob Dylan with a '50s Stratocaster
Ronnie Wood with a late-'60s/early-'70s Stratocaster

In the film's final act, Bob Dylan and Ronnie Wood also perform, bothing play Stratocasters. Bob's appears to be a '50s model judging by the finish and headstock, while Ronnie's looks like a newer model from the late '60s or early '70s.

In addition to the performance of "The Weight" mentioned above, the interviews and concert footage that make up the majority of the film are punctuated by two other soundstage-recorded songs.

Levon with a Gibson EM-200 electric mandolin, Garth with an accordion, and Robbie playing a large archtop

One comes in the form of a rendition of "Evangeline" performed with Emmylou Harris. For this set, Levon is playing a Gibson EM-200 electric mandolin with Garth on accordion and Rick on fiddle. Robbie is playing a large archtop with a single pickup. Try as I might, I haven't quite been able to figure out exactly what guitar this is, but it appears to be an Epiphone that started life as an acoustic. The guitar that Emmylou is playing is also not entirely clear, but judging by the small body size and slotted headstock it's probably an antique Washburn or Stella, or possibly a Martin.

The Band - The Last Waltz Credits/Outro

The final soundstage scene serves as the finale for the entire film. Here we see Robbie playing a Gibson harp guitar. Judging by the fixed tailpiece, you can tell that this guitar was built before 1907 and is most likely a Style U (though it could be a Style R) model. In this scene, Rick is playing an Ampeg Baby Bass, Richard is playing an unknown resonator lap steel, and Levon is playing what's likely a Dobro-made resonator mandolin.

Final Stringed Instrument Scorecard:

  • Martin: Neil D-45, Joni's D-28
  • Fender: Robbie's Bronze Strat, Robbie's Sunburst Strat, Pop Staples' Tele, Eric Clapton's Strat, Bob Dylan's Strat, Ronnie Wood's Strat
  • Gibson: Robbie's Style O Acoustic, Robbie’s EMS-1235 Double Neck, Rick's Ripper Bass, Bob Margolin's ES-125, Levon's EM-200 Mandolin
  • Ovation: Neil Diamond's Custom Legend
  • Ampeg: Rick's AMUB-1 and Upright Baby Bass
  • Epiphone: Robbie's Unknown Hollowbody
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