Interview: Steve Earle on Vintage Guitars Old and New

In 1986, Steve Earle released his debut full–length Guitar Town, and you could say that’s the city he’s lived in ever since.

Even after selling off a few dozen or so guitars from his collection in the wake of his divorce from country musician Allison Moorer, Earle still owns by his estimate “a little less than 150 now — I haven’t done a strict inventory — and that includes the guitars I have on consignment.”

Earle says that when his collection hit its peak, “I had 235 or 240, including banjos and mandolins.”

For those counting (and if you love guitars, why wouldn’t you count?), that comes to eight axes for every live and studio album Earle has ever recorded, including his outstanding, country–rocking new release, So You Wannabe an Outlaw. Earle will be on the road at least through the end of September in support of the new album.

Long considered one of the most talented singer–songwriters to work in the wide swath of country, rock, blues, and bluegrass, Earle’s quite the literate guy. He’s the author of the 2011 novel I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (released with an album of the same name) and the 2005 play Karla about convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker.

He’s also a poet, short story writer, and political activist who has campaigned against the death penalty and Wall Street greed.

And if Earle wanted to write a book on vintage guitars, you’d best believe he could do it. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of pre–war Martins, for example.

Sad to say, though, he could also include a chapter on all of the guitars he cast off to feed a heroin habit in the 1990s that cost him as much as $1,000 a day.

“I had an absolutely mint, no–binding, no–corrosion 1958 Gretsch 6120,” Earle recalls. “It had everything: the cable, the original literature in the case. And I pawned it for $150 when I was shooting dope.”

Steve Earle's Gretsch 6120 Double Cut

Steve Earle's 2007 Fender Custom Shop Telecaster

Earle lists the Gretsch as one guitar he wish he could have back. Another is the acoustic he played at age 15, a pre–war Martin D–18. “I paid $150 for it, but it’s long gone,” he says. “I traded it straight across for an Alvarez Yari. It was 1970, and I needed a guitar that I could play for five nights a week without any issues.”

Earle can say with pride, though, that he owns several axes from his birth year, 1955.

“For the whole of the new album, I use a 1955 Telecaster, except on ‘Fixin’ to Die,’ where I use a 1955 single–pickup Les Paul Custom. This is very electric record, an electric country record, and I can kind of handle a Tele now. But they used to intimidate me. They’re not forgiving. I only started playing electric when I was in my late 20s.”

The Telecaster is beautiful — a buttercream yellow — and you can hear its distinctive, sinewy twang on the opening of the title track (and see Earle play it in the official music video).

“There something I love about the old Tele; the flat pole–piece pickup, the less tinny sound, and my ’55 has that sound.”

Steve Earle & The Dukes - So You Wannabe An Outlaw (Official Music Video)

There’s one more double–nickel specimen Earle says he’d love to have. “What am I missing? I don’t have a 1955 TV finish Les Paul Special, and I want one. There’s one promised to me, but I can’t afford it, and the owner isn’t selling it just yet. I can’t say whose it is.”

Since he and Moorer split, Earle has also sold off about a dozen amplifiers, recounting, “It was easier to part with amps than guitars.” What he has left is pretty much what you hear on Outlaw: a Vox AC50 and a 1959 Fender Bassman.

He also owns a small Gibson amp and tours with four Peavey Classic 50s. “They are great amps,” he says of the Peaveys. “I’ve only had one fail and that was because I pushed it over on stage.”

On the acoustic side, “I have 0–21 and 00–21 Martins from late 1920s, early ‘30s, and they’re my go–to guitars. But on the new record, I use a D–28. It’s the best guitar I’ve used in the studio. It’s like a B–52.” Note: a B–52 is a strategic bomber plane, not an obscure six-string Martin. “I made a bluegrass record, and you can’t do that with anything but a D–28.”

And as much as Earle loves his Martins, Martin loves him. In 2008, the company made a signature Steve Earle model — an M–21 0000 — which came from Earle’s work with Matt Umanov of Umanov Guitars in New York City. The guitar features an Italian alpine spruce top and East Indian rosewood back and sides. Earle believes 180 were made in all.

Steve Earle's 2011 Martin 0000-21 Madagascar

Steve Earle's 1999 Gibson EDS-1275 Double Neck

Alas, there is one guitar Earle can never, ever have back. “As soon as I could afford it, I bought a 1956 Gibson J–45 for $250. Jerry Jeff Walker gave me $500 and 1965 J–50 in exchange, and that was a lot of money back then.”

And? “Of course, he broke it. On purpose. He would smash guitars. That was his thing.”

So where does all this guitar love and loss leave Earle now? Well, if you want to buy one of his 28 consignment guitars, you can check them out at Carter Vintage Guitars of Nashville.

Be advised, though, that at some point during this interview, Earle decided he was having serious second thoughts about selling his 1969 Ampeg Dan Armstrong guitar. The clear, Plexiglass axe with interchangeable pickups is listed for $3,750 — at least for now.

“Man if they don’t sell it really quick, I’m going to go back and get it.”

At 62, Earle hopefully has lots of mileage and music left in him. What else keeps him going? In part, the pursuit of that one dream guitar.

“The one thing I want to own before I die and it’s going to cost a lot of fucking money — as far as I know, eight were ever made — is a slot head Martin 0021,” he says. “I’ve got a really good pre–war 14–fret model, but they just didn’t make any slot head style. To me, that’s the perfect guitar.”

Lead photo by Chad Batka

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