Earl Slick on the Origins of Internet-Famous Gumby and Betty Boop Guitars

You may have seen them on forum chains, subreddits like r/cursedguitars or r/ATBGE (that's, "awful taste but great execution"). Perhaps you've spotted them in the Ugly Guitars Facebook Group, or even on our very own Reverb listing. No matter where you find them or how often they pop up, one thing's for sure: They make an impression.

But the question is… why? Why is there a guitar shaped like Gumby? The Pokey bass, well, that makes sense, if only to complete the pair. But then why is Betty Boop here too? Who is responsible for this?

The full trio. Photo by Brawer Guitar Parts.

Brawer Guitar Parts—a long-standing San Francisco guitar store—writes in its Reverb listing that, sometime around 1987, the shop acquired the custom-built Johnson guitars from the great Earl Slick.

Slick—the long-time guitarist for David Bowie, session player for folks like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, solo artist, and, most recently, a filmmaker with his Rock 'n' Roll Guns for Hire: The Story of the Sidemen—has talked to Reverb before. Once, about his movie and again to show off some of his Bowie riffs. He was gracious enough to chat with us once again about these strange cartoon creations.

So, where did they come from?

"You're familiar with NAMM? OK… Back in the day, before we got all our noses clean, we would go to NAMM for whatever it was, three or four days, and do your due diligence for your endorsements and all that, and then you'd roam around. People would just grab you like, 'Hey, look at this' or 'You need to have one of these.' Somehow I ran into the guy that made those things. And under the haze of substance that I was doing, I just thought it was such a brilliant idea," he says.

The Gumby guitar, it turns out, was the first. Already built and displayed at NAMM, it tickled Slick so much that, not only did he acquire it, but he commissioned the Betty Boop guitar too.

They are novelty instruments, without a doubt, but Slick says they were also great players. "I wouldn't have played them if they sucked," he says.

At the time, Slick was one-third of Phantom, Rocker & Slick, a group he formed with former Stray Cats Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker. With that band, he often played the Gumby guitar on stage. "I can't hide from those photos—they're out there," he says.

"That guitar, there's a little switch on the guitar, so you can make the eyeballs light up," Slick says. "We'd be in the middle of a song, and I would get Lee Rocker's attention and I would flip the little eyeball switch and blink at him. He'd crack up in the middle of the song."

The Betty Boop guitar was Slick's own idea. But by a sad turn of events, especially for Ms. Boop, he never played it live.

By that time, Phantom, Rocker & Slick had split up, and Slick had turned his attention to a new band. "It never got past the put-together stage," he says. But the lead singer was around just long enough to cause some damage.

"I can't remember this singer, but during rehearsal one day, he knocked it over and broke the neck of Betty Boop," Slick says. It was so new, Slick could still smell the paint on it. "Those guitars—they were built well—but because of the way they were built [with long necks], I think they may be a little more fragile." Slick got the neck fixed, but sold the guitar soon after.

"It never saw the light of day outside of those rehearsals," Slick says. "But the Gumby sure did. Because those pictures do surface every once in a while—somebody finds it and they'll post it on Facebook and I have to deal with it." (As for this article, well, we gave him fair warning.)

But, finally, what about the Pokey bass?

"I didn't precipitate that one," Slick says. "But obviously if you make a Gumby, you have to make a Pokey, right? They need company, man. Everybody needs a friend."

Slick is selling a cache of gear through Spindrift Guitars on Reverb right now—including a '65 Epiphone Olympic, a 2014 Goldtop Les Paul, and his personal road cases from David Bowie tours.

You can find all three custom-built Johnson guitars—Gumby, Pokey, and Betty Boop—at Brawer Guitar Parts.

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