The Guitars of Woodstock: A Guide to the Festival's Most Iconic Gear

Carlos Santana and his band had just finished an electrifying set at the Woodstock festival, and their amps remained on stage while John Sebastian performed solo for half an hour or so. Then the next act, The Keef Hartley Band, came on. Miller Anderson was the 24-year-old guitarist and singer. "We had to use Santana's equipment," he tells me, recalling events from almost exactly 50 years ago at this Aquarian Exposition, as it was billed on posters.

You'll have heard Joni Mitchell's documentary song "Woodstock" and its famous lyric: "By the time we got to Bethel, we were half a million strong." OK, not quite—but that's how it ought to have gone. The Woodstock festival took place more than 50 miles from Woodstock, on farmland near Bethel, New York, over a long weekend in mid-August 1969. It was called Woodstock simply because it was organized by a company called Woodstock Ventures. Word travelled fast about the final location, especially when it became a free event, and soon the roads around the site were overrun with funseekers.

"We couldn't take our hired equipment to the site because of the traffic chaos, so we had to take what we could by helicopter," Miller continues. "I had my Telecaster, and when I got on to the stage for our set, I plugged into Carlos' amp." It was an early Bob Gallien amp, a GMT 226A. "There was a bank of knobs with nothing written on any of them. No tone, no volume, nothing. So this amp was squealing away as I faced it, trying to figure how to get a sound out of it, fiddling with these unmarked controls—and all this with half a million people at my back."

Miller Anderson (1969). Photo by: Archive Photos / Stringer. Getty Images.

Not a great start for this British band's first-ever gig in the US. They'd flown in from England the previous day to kick off a six-week tour intended to promote their Halfbreed album. There was no such thing as an itinerary, so as they relaxed in the unfamiliar surroundings of a chauffeured limo that took them from JFK to their first stop, Miller asked their host from the record company where they were going. She replied that they were heading to a small town in upstate New York. Miller knew this was a rural location, but not much more. A barn dance, perhaps? He asked if it was a dance.

"By now, she could see the piece of straw hanging out my mouth. She said, 'No, man! It's a festival.' Then I really put my foot in it. I said, 'Are there any other bands playing?' She said, 'What?'" After a brief pause, she explained that The Who, Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and many others were due to appear, that it was shaping up to be a big deal. Miller decided to look out of the window. "I said, 'Oh, really. I didn't know that.'"

On the Saturday of the festival, once Miller got Carlos' weird amp working reasonably well, the Keef Hartley Band hit its stride. He was playing his '64 Olympic White Telecaster, bought a few years earlier from Jim Marshall's shop in west London, since when it had been the recipient of a handmade bridge and new tailpiece.

Miller's Telecaster aside, Fender was not the most popular guitar brand at the festival. A very unscientific and necessarily incomplete analysis of movie footage and stills from the event—some pristine, some murky and blurred—reveals that Gibson guitars were the most plentiful at Woodstock by quite a margin. This is why we need to examine the guitars of Woodstock, an exercise that provides an interesting snapshot of trends in late-'60s guitar fashion: Gibson was in the lead, with Martin in second place, and Fender and Guild joint third.

The Reigning Gibsons at Woodstock

The Les Pauls of John Fogerty, Joe Cocker's Henry McCullough, Jimi Hendrix's Larry Lee

The most-favored Gibson models were SGs, just ahead of Les Pauls. Remember this was 1969, a time when Gibson had only just got around to reintroducing a few original-style Les Paul models following their earlier withdrawal. What we might call vintage snobbery was not yet advanced, and some of the guitarists who chose to play Les Pauls at Woodstock opted for the new stuff.

The year before the festival, 1968, John Fogerty had bought the gorgeous new Custom that he played for some of Creedence Clearwater Revival's set early on Sunday morning. Another fan of the new was Henry McCullough, who used his '68 Goldtop with Joe Cocker, notably for an energized take on "With A Little Help From My Friends."


See around 0:29 for the first glimpse of McCullough's Goldtop Les Paul

But let's not forget a trio of decidedly old-school Pauls on show: Larry Lee's Les Paul Custom with Jimi Hendrix, probably Jimi's own '55 loaned out for the day; Leslie West's single-cut sunburst Junior with Mountain, probably a '58; and Al Wilson's wonderfully battle-scarred Goldtop with Canned Heat, probably a '54.

The SGs of Carlos Santana, Pete Townshend, Jerry Garcia

Carlos Santana was one of the Woodstock SG fans, and his Special was something of a testbed. It looked as if he had moved the original Maestro vibrato to the rear of the body, leaving it there apparently and rather oddly unattached, and then had fitted a new Tune-o-matic bridge in front of a bar tailpiece. His more understandable move had been to swap his SG's original tuners for sturdier Grovers, a common enough mod at the time.


Santana - "Soul Sacrifice," at Woodstock

Santana played one of the standout performances at the festival, and so did The Who, early on Sunday morning.

Pete Townshend, too, played an SG Special, a model he'd been using since late the previous year. The Who had played a dramatic set, with Pete at one point investigating his SG's potential as a weapon to remove from the stage a stoned Abbie Hoffman, who'd decided mid-set that he'd like to make some sort of political announcement through the PA.


Pete Townshend pummeling his SG Special at Woodstock

Toward the end of The Who's performance, on "Naked Eye," Pete and SG were featured in a semi-solo spot. He moved his guitar around, crouched down to play, and then held it aloft. Finally he sent it crunching into the stage a few times. Oddly, the thin-bodied SG seemed to resist, so Pete gave up, left it to feed back for a moment, and then threw it into the crowd. Fortunately, it was quickly retrieved.

Jerry Garcia (1969). Photo by: Archive Photos / Stringer. Getty Images.

Jerry Garcia played an SG Standard with The Grateful Dead on Saturday night, a guitar he used alongside an earlier Standard for most of 1969 and into '70. An SG Standard was also the choice of Barry Melton with Country Joe & The Fish on Sunday evening, and Johnny Winter used one for part of his set, round midnight the same day.

Following Johnny came Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Steve Katz, too, had an SG. Watching the patchy but convincing video evidence today, Steve tells me: "Most of the time with Blood, Sweat & Tears I played a 335. So—I guess I played a red SG Standard at Woodstock. If I wasn't so stoned that night, I probably would have remembered."

Gibson Semi-Hollowbodies: Janis Joplin's John Till, Alvin Lee, Freddie Stone

The ES-335 family was out and about, too. John Till played a 335 with Janis Joplin, but a bigger splash came when Ten Years After took to the stage on Sunday evening. Alvin Lee played his dot-neck cherry 335, which he'd bought in his hometown of Nottingham, England, in 1963 for 45 guineas. Soon he added a Bigsby, and also a Strat rear pickup between the two humbuckers (covers removed), providing what he described as a Gibson that could sound like a Tele whenever he wanted.

Alvin began fixing stickers to the body of the guitar he called Big Red, including a nuclear disarmament "peace" symbol, added at the Fillmore West in San Francisco earlier in 1969. The sight and sound of Alvin and decorated 335 blasting his quartet through a ten-minute "I'm Going Home" in the Woodstock movie (released early in 1970) did wonders for TYA's already growing popularity.


Ten Years After - "I'm Going Home," live at Woodstock

Jorma Kaukonen with the Airplane and Buzzy Feiten with Paul Butterfield each used a 345, and 18-year-old Henry Gross played one, too, with Sha Na Na on Monday—at the decidedly un-musicianly hour of 7:30 am, thanks to the festival's wildly over-running schedule. He'd made attempts to try to improve the guitar, which he never quite got on with. He'd bought it new at Manny's in New York City in 1965, after it became clear that his first choice, a double-bound Rick 360/12, would take too long to arrive.

"My 345 never played good," Henry tells me, "and so I had it with Dan Armstrong at his shop, had the frets dressed down to like a fretless wonder, and then I had them re-fret it. But there was nothing they could do. The thing was, though, the little fucker sounded amazing. Isn't it always the way? The neck was twisted in a way that could not be fixed. But the sound of the pickups in that guitar—gee whiz, man! It sounded like the fattest Tele in the world. It was just great with that Varitone."


Check around 0:06 for the first glimpse of Henry Gross' 345

Henry had bumped into Jimi Hendrix years before Woodstock, through a school acquaintance, Velvert Turner. Later, Sha Na Na got together as a sort of '50s retro act—"like a glee club prank," according to Henry—and they played at Steve Paul's The Scene club in New York City. Jimi came down to see them, and Henry found himself chatting to him in one of the club's tiny dressing rooms.

"He had his guitar case, because everybody would jam there till five, six in the morning after the show," Henry remembers. "We started talking. Now, what is the question you ask a guitar player that would stop you being friends and put you into the category of get-this-geek-away-from-me? Well, I did it. We'd talked for 15 minutes or so, and I said, 'Jimi, what kind of guitar strings do you use?' Believe it or not—and this was how Jimi was—he opened his case and gave me all of the strings in there, every last one he had. I'd got away with it! He hadn't sensed that there was anything wrong with asking him. And I still have those Dan Armstrong Superstrings, .008s on top."

Henry reckons that Jimi helped Sha Na Na get the Woodstock gig, and they were last-minute additions to the bill. Following a long drive from Manhattan and an encounter with Jimi's hooch and Jerry Garcia's sensimilla, Henry made it to the stage and played the Sha Na Na set. Their early morning slot took its toll.


Sly & The Family Stone - "I Want to Take You Higher"

"We were just exhausted. We were up for over a day. Let's just say our band musically was a bit challenged. Even for us, that was a bad gig." It didn't stop him performing some impressive rollovers with his 345 when they tore into "Wipe Out," with Jimi looking on from the side. "Not long after Woodstock, I left the band. There were many reasons, but the biggest one, probably, was that I watched Jimi Hendrix that day. He went on after us, he did 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and all the rest, and I thought man, this guy's making music only he can make. I've got to do that. That's the cleanest way to say how I got out of the band. There was no bad feeling or anything, it just wasn't for me any more."

One of the more unusual Gibsons featured at Woodstock was a Florentine-cut Byrdland played by Freddie Stone with Sly & The Family Stone. This was a rare showing for a single-cut hollowbody Gibson at the festival, but the '60s example that he used nonetheless seemed perfect for Freddie's super-funky grooves.

The Martins of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Joan Baez

Crosby, Stills & Nash played very early on Monday morning, first as an acoustic trio, and then as an electric band with the addition of Neil Young, Greg Reeves, and Dallas Taylor. There's not much visual evidence to help identify exactly what guitars they played, but they certainly helped boost Martin's score in our survey.


Joan Baez - "Joe Hill," live at Woodstock

Other Martin users at Woodstock included Joan Baez playing her small-body 1929 0-45, and Robbie Robertson, playing an early-'50s D-28.

David Crosby played a D-18 for most of the acoustic set, a guitar that rather ambitiously had been converted to a 12-string, and Stephen Stills used what looked like a D-45. Graham Nash did play his Epiphone Texan on "Marrakesh Express," a guitar that for some time had worn a black refinish and fancy twin pickguards, but to tie in with Woodstock's 50th anniversary, Graham recently sold his 1969 D-45 at auction for $162,500, which he says was one of three the band had bought and taken to the festival.

Joan Baez (1978). Photo by: David Redfern / Redferns. Getty Images.
The Gretches and Guilds of Neil Young, Bob Weir, Richie Havens

For CSNY's electric set, Neil Young was absent from most photos and footage, but one short glimpse at the close of "Long Time Gone" showed him with a Gretsch 6120. David Crosby played an unusual custom thinline hollowbody electric 12-string. It had a single rounded cutaway and a very custom-looking neck. There's a possibility the body was from a Guild Duane Eddy that Stephen once had.


Catch Neil Young's Gretsch 6120 around 5:45

Another custom guitar on view was a Guild Studio 402 that Bob Weir used during Grateful Dead's performance. Bob's 402 had fancier appointments than the regular model and non-standard controls ranged around the body edge, seemingly marking it out as a Guild special order. It's possible, though, that the work may have been done for Bob by Alembic, which had just started to assist the Dead in developing and modifying their instruments and equipment. None of this helped the Dead's below-par performance at Woodstock, hampered by delays when their gear derailed one of the wheeled pallets used to move gear around the stage.


Richie Havens - "Freedom," live at Woodstock

Other Guild players at Woodstock, acoustic and electric, included Tom Fogerty and the Bert Sommer/Ira Stone duo. Most striking of the acoustic Guild guitarists was Richie Havens, who opened the festival around 5:00 pm Friday evening.

His Guild D-40, tuned to open D, was a sturdy instrument—which was just as well given the pummeling it received. Richie's percussive style was a revelation and must have sold many Guild guitars following his startling performances in the 1970 Woodstock movie.

The Fenders of Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson, Johnny Winter

Around 9:00 am Monday morning, Jimi Hendrix took to the stage with Gypsy Sun & Rainbows ("for short, it's nothing but a band of gypsies," he explained) as some of the audience began to drift away. School, college, jobs, and households beckoned, even for hippies. Jimi played his '68 maple-board Olympic White Strat, putting him among a small number of fellow Woodstock performers who brought a Fender with them.


Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock

Other Fender-wielding guitarists at Woodstock included Miller Anderson, who we've already met with his Telecaster. Robbie Robertson of The Band was a distinctive Fender freak, a masterful minimalist who favored Teles for his electric work throughout the '60s until he shifted allegiance to Strats in the mid-'70s.

Harvey Mandel often favored a 335, but for stage work with Canned Heat, as at Woodstock, he usually opted for a Strat, a guitar less likely to trouble him with unwanted feedback. Johnny Winter used a Fender Electric XII for part of his set, although he chose to use it set up as a six-string.

Rickenbackers and Outliers

In our rough survey of the guitars put to use at the festival, there are a few outliers beyond the Gibsons and Martins and Guilds and Fenders. John Fogerty played a Rickenbacker 325 (in addition to his Les Paul Custom) with Creedence on Saturday, and early the next morning Paul Kantner used his Rick 360/12 with Jefferson Airplane.


Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner and his Rickenbacker 360/12

"I was fond of not having my 12-string rhythm guitar way out front like a lot of 12-string electric players do, particularly lead players," Paul told me. "I was more content with creating a nice thick sound in combination with the bass and Nicky Hopkins' piano. I liked the combination of the low-end of the 12-string and those instruments, and I strived to make a combination of elements rather than a solo kind of situation."

Melanie strummed a nylon-string Goya G-30 on the largely acoustic Friday bill, and Tim Hardin played a Harmony Sovereign flattop, which the following day he lent to John Sebastian, who played an unannounced solo interlude between Santana and Keef Hartley. Another borrowed acoustic was the Yamaha FG-150 that someone dug out for Country Joe McDonald to support his rousing "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die" performance around Saturday lunchtime.


The Incredible String Band - "The Letter"

The Incredible String Band brought a couple of flattop acoustics with them from Britain to the stage on Saturday evening. Robin Williamson played a dreadnought-shape Levin Super Goliath, made in Sweden. Robin had painted the top with colorful scenes and patterns, and the headstock had an unusual V-shape addition. Mike Heron used a smaller-body acoustic, custom made for him by the UK maker John Bailey.

Another rare acoustic seen at the festival was played by Arlo Guthrie. His main guitars at the time were a Martin D-18 and a couple of Candelas flattops made by the Delgado family in Los Angeles, a six-string and a 12-string. At Woodstock, the film evidence implies Arlo mainly played the Candelas 12.

The End of the Show

"When people ask me about Woodstock now," Henry Gross says, "the easy answer is, 'Oh yes, all the lads got in the cars and drove there and played the show, and oh boy, we met all the pop stars, and wasn't it great!' Isn't that just a nice story? I'm always the miserable guy who has to tell the truth. The truth was, it was a business. It wasn't all about something else."

"Fifty years later," he continues, "and the guy still has no deal 30 days before the show. Fifty years later! Do you think that there may be a pattern there? We've had 50 years to see if we could do this. These days, people are congratulated for how much money they made from an event, rather than for what their cultural contribution was." And were you paid for playing at Woodstock, Henry? "No, we were paid $300—this was for a 12-piece group—and the check bounced."

"The whole festival, really, was a bit of a mess," Miller Anderson reckons. "I think the only person who's been totally honest about that is Pete Townshend—somebody asked him about it, and he said it was a fucking mess. And it was. You couldn't really blame the organizers, or the promoters, because they weren't expecting that amount of people, and they weren't ready for it."

Maybe it just, like, happened, man? "Yes, it was just one of those flukes that happened," Miller agrees. "So, having played at Woodstock, for quite a number of years I didn't feel I played that great, what with that amp I didn't know how to work. But years later, I met Walter Trout at a festival we were both playing on. I was surprised that he even knew me. He said, 'I was at Woodstock, Mill.' I told him he was too young.

"He said, 'I was 15, rolling around in the mud at the front of the stage.' A member of the audience! He said it was sad that The Keef Hartley Band didn't get on the film or album, because he thought we were one of the best bands there. And that he wasn't just saying that because I was standing in front of him. Anyway, for years I'd looked back on it and thought, Ah, Woodstock—what a mess! But slowly and surely I've started to realize that it was probably a real part of history, you know?"


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Ultimate Guitar Book, Fuzz & Feedback, and Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

For help with this piece, Tony Bacon thanks Miller Anderson, Dave Brewis, Walter Carter, Gordon Giltrap, Henry Gross, Mike Heron, Paul Kantner, Steve Katz, Rikard Magnevill, Wolfgang Rostek, and Corrina Seddon.

comments powered by Disqus