If the Beatles had a decent PA, would they have stopped touring? If Jimi had access to a modelling amp, would he have used it? Phil Harris takes a flyer and puts guitars in the hands of players who would have used them well.
All the thinking about the perfect marriage between person and guitar when putting together last month’s column on Peter Green and his legendary Gibson Les Paul Standard set my mind turning (no, it hasn’t come to a complete halt just yet, and for that I’m grateful). Now, both with my hire company and as a guitar consultant, I’ve played the role of matchmaker between player and gear many, many times over the years. However, there’s always a bit of sigh when I come across something that I know would be absolutely perfect for a particular guitar player, only to realise a nano-second later that they are sadly no longer with us.
Now, I know there’s always been a debate as to what extent a guitar player’s sound (particularly one of the legends) is down to their skill and/or the equipment they use. I can see both sides of the argument, but sometimes history decides to time it so that all the right parts are in place. Take Jimi Hendrix, for example, coming to England in 1966 – the same year the first Marshall 100W stack hit the shops. I’m sure that Hendrix would have made his mark on music regardless of what Jim Marshall had been up to, but the history of guitar playing would have been quite different, wouldn’t it?
A lot of the time, the gear a guitar player uses affects their mental state as much as anything else. When I was auditioning for various bands as a young guitarist, my treasured Les Paul felt to me like a charismatic shield that gave me confidence to express myself. Years later, I acquired a wooden-bodied, single-pickup Steinberger from Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt. It wasn’t the kind of guitar I would normally play, but I’ve always been a big Leslie West fan. When a mate came round the house, I plugged the guitar in and played some bits and pieces, thinking the guitar was really changing both my playing and my sound. When I mentioned this to my friend, who was a music fan but not a musician, he bluntly replied: ‘What are you talking about? You just sound like you always do.’ And I’m pretty sure that, if Stevie Ray Vaughan was still alive and could play a thousand different types of Stratocaster, you’d still be able to tell in the first couple of bars that it was him.
Despite this, if you’ve ever experienced the true joy of finding what you believe is the right guitar, amp or pedal, there’s no scientist on earth who could prove to you that there isn’t something special and magical about the whole thing. I know plenty of guitar players of all levels who act like they were born with a certain instrument in their hands and might well be buried with it, but sometimes it’s good to experiment. Here are a few things from my collection that I would have loved some of the greats to have used…
1968 SHIN-EI UNI-VIBE
Although Paul Kossoff used an actual Leslie on some tracks, I think he would have got more response from this Leslie simulator. The Shin-Ei has more variations and room to experiment, and I’m sure Kossoff would have made a lot of rockin’ hay from the extra options on offer to him.
1955 GIBSON LES PAUL JUNIOR
Mick Ronson had such a stinging attack, and most of the time his sound came from the bridge pickup, so a great Junior like this would have really worked for him. It would have to be a single cutaway, though; I’m sure Mick would have thought a double cutaway was a child’s toy.
1963 GIBSON ES-335
Aged 13, I had the privilege of hearing Hendrix play a right-handed 335 through a Twin Reverb in Selmers in Charing Cross Road. He sounded amazing. While I know you can’t bring people back, I truly believe that if he hadn’t passed away it would have been great to see him start playing a 335 on stage and on record.
1963 FENDER STRAT
The recently-departed Alvin Lee had a Fender pickup in his 335, and he had about the least ‘335-sounding’ 335 you could imagine. I’d have loved to seen him work his magic on an actual vintage Strat. He had such a commanding presence as a player and as a performer that only a fiesta red Strat would have done.
1962 HOFNER COLORAMA
If I could go back in time to the early days of Pink Floyd, I would bring this Hofner Colorama with me and put it in Syd Barrett’s hands. It’s a guitar that begs you to think and play differently – and Syd would be just the man!