The Myth of Excalibur: 5 Famous Records Made with Less Famous Instruments

The hero’s bigger-than-life persona dominates the massive stage. Clutching the mighty weapon that brings hope and joy to so many, he stands tall, sets his feet wide apart, arches his back and tilts his face toward the heavens. At exactly the right moment, he clenches his fist with the pointer and pinky fingers outstretched and thrusts the resulting symbol above his head. The crowd of thousands roars in approval.

Is their adulation directed toward King Arthur, a beloved monarch newly returned from a holy mission and brandishing a sword of righteousness called Excalibur? No. It’s just another night in the life of a rock ‘n’ roll guitar player.

The public’s admiration for rockers extends to their heroes’ chosen axes, and the association of a particular player with a specific style of instrument can last forever. But sometimes reality differs from the legend. In fact, many great artists have made some of their most important contributions to music with the help of instruments that didn’t find a place in the annals of history.

Come gather round, children, and hear my tale. Learn the truth behind five of the most influential guitar players and their less-than-iconic instruments.

Billy Gibbons

Dean Z

Dean Z

Working with the other boys in ZZ Top, Billy Gibbons has carved out a sound that’s blues-based, jazz-influenced and all rock ‘n’ roll. Fans associate his thick, slinky and squeaky sound with his legendary Gibson Les Paul, nicknamed “Pearly Gates,” and with the other Les Pauls he picks up.

While Gibbons is definitely a fan of Les Pauls, the band’s most influential and successful album, Eliminator, was recorded without a single Gibson. For that genre-altering combination of heavy blues and disco, Gibbons armed himself with a pair of Dean guitars built in Chicago.

Attempting to break into the higher-end market, Dean had created two one-off guitars for Gibbons, each with a single DiMarzio Super Distortion pickup. Gibbons made no secret of his connection with the brand. He performed with fur-covered Dean Z guitars in ZZ Top’s legendary music videos of the era.

Slash

Kris Derrig ’59 Les Paul copy

Kris Derrig ’59 Les Paul copy

When fans think of Slash, four identifying characteristics come to mind: his towering top hat, luxuriant curls, precariously dangling cigarette and classic Gibson Les Paul. Slash has endorsed Gibson guitars, and his use of the instruments has become legendary.

His finest hour no doubt comes on the Appetite For Destruction album, which finds him throwing down bluesy, but hard-rocking guitar solos dripping with a juicy, elastic tone. It propelled Slash and his bandmates into the spotlight, and he brought along his Gibson Les Paul guitar.

Except … it wasn’t really a Gibson Les Paul. The guitar Slash wielded to crank out those legendary solos is a ’59 Les Paul copy built by luthier Kris Derrig, and purchased for him by the band’s manager. Derrig’s model, renowned for its amazing tone, remains in Slash’s collection today.

Keith Richards

Gibson Les Paul Standard

Gibson Les Paul Standard

The hard-living and straight-shooting guitarist Keith Richards qualifies as one of the greatest riff-makers and rhythm guitarists of all time – and his lead playing ain’t too shabby, either. His iconic guitar? A vintage ‘50s Fender Telecaster with only five strings, tuned to open G. The image of a buzzed Richards, his Telecaster hanging low, has become as infamous as his gritty tone.

While Keith Richards has in fact played a Telecaster for ages, many of the iconic Rolling Stones songs, generally spanning the years 1964 to ‘73, were recorded and performed live with several guitars that one might consider the opposites of a Telecaster.

Arguably the Stones’ most famous song, “Satisfaction,” contains one of Richards’ legendary riffs. That thick and fuzzy sound practically invented the entire idea of a riff – and he didn’t play it on a Telecaster. He used a Gibson Les Paul Standard, a guitar Richards played in the band’s early years. Note: it seems that some sources indicate that Keith actually used a Firebird on the record. Either way it was certainly not a Tele.

Not long after, he began playing an Epiphone ES-335 copy, and then a Gibson ES-330. A number of Les Paul Customs also earned places in his arsenal, along with some original Ampeg Dan Armstrong plexiglass guitars. Pretty much all of those guitars are big and thick sounding – much different from a Tele! Keith played those guitars until switching to a Fender Telecasters as his main axe after 1973.

Paul McCartney

Fender Esquire

Fender Esquire

As bassist for the truly mythological Beatles, Paul McCartney reinvented the instrument and altered the course of rock history. It’s hard to sum up McCartney’s musical highlights because he had so many. Buried among them, as though they never happened, are the stories of McCartney’s several explosive guitar solos. They’re among the most intense in the band’s repertoire.

Indeed, McCartney had always been an ace guitarist. He demonstrated his skills by expertly finger-picking an acoustic guitar on the ballad “Yesterday.” Not long after, McCartney decided to step out of his bass-playing box.

Alternating between a Fender Esquire and Epiphone Casino as his weapon, McCartney laid down the blazing guitar solos on “Taxman,” “Good Morning Good Morning” and “Helter Skelter.” He contributed two-measure guitar wails to the triple guitar solo outro of Abbey Road’s “The End.”

Yet, many remember him as merely the young, droopy-eyed mop top clutching a Hofner violin-style bass. The liner notes fail to give him credit for his solos or guitar playing, leaving only interviews and recollections as evidence of his contributions.

Jimmy Page

Fender Telecaster

Fender Telecaster

Jimmy Page, one of the most revered guitar players of all time, inspires aficionados to scrutinize every solo he ever laid down. Yet the instrument he’s best known for playing, a Gibson Les Paul Standard, may not have been his true Excalibur.

While Page did use a Les Paul in the mid- to late 1970s, he played the iconic riffs and incendiary solos of Led Zeppelin’s breakout first and second albums almost entirely on a Fender Telecaster.

Page’s 1959 Telecaster, given to him by former bandmate Jeff Beck, was stripped, painted in a psychedelic color scheme and christened “The Dragon" Tele. Page used the guitar on the band’s first two albums, and even after switching to Gibson Les Pauls as his main axe, Page unearthed the “The Dragon” to lay down what may be his most legendary guitar solo ever: the outro solo to “Stairway To Heaven.”

Page may have added to the popularity of the Gibson Les Paul Standard, but the Fender Telecaster helped make the man’s playing legendary.

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