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Guitars of the Stars

Ah, sweet guitar lust. Remember drooling over an all-white Fender Strat at the guitar store just because that's what Jimi played at Woodstock? How about playing air guitar and imagining a double-neck Gibson SG because Jimmy Page had one? Ever eye a Rick 12-string, thinking "I could sound like Tom Petty imitating Roger McGuinn imitating Ravi Shankar"? Sure you did. So, that raises an obvious question: what do all those rock stars play, anyway? Yeah right, some idiot out there must think that a Fender Jaguar is super-cool instead of super-dorky. But when push comes to shove, what do Peter Frampton and Warren Haynes and all those other self-anointed guitar studs really drag around when they're on stage or in the studio?

On this page I'll try to answer this crucial question, which will determine the fate of nations (but only hostile Muslim nations with suitably wimpy militaries). And I'll use an earth-shatteringly brilliant method to do it: haul out all the CDs I happen to have lying around, then look at the covers and see if I can figure out what all the lead guitarists are playing. Then count 'em up and we're done.

While I was at it, I also did a similar job on the Beatles, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and Pete Townshend, using books instead of record covers. See the bottom of the page. (JA)

Guitars For Everyone: Album Cover Counts

Some notes on methods:

  • I ignored hundreds of discs I have in storage. Tough.
  • My record collection is biased towards the 60s and 70s, and it was more common to show pictures of the band back then anyway, so the results don't really tell you anything about instruments used by modern rock guitarists.
  • I am a sniveling idiot and simply can't tell a lot of models apart, e.g., anything acoustic and any arch-top semi-hollowbody (unless I can read "Epiphone" or "Gretsch" on the headstock). That means that some of the categories are pretty broad.
  • Feeling lazy, I simply ignored guitars that fit into a broad- or medium-sized category but not into a narrow category I actually cared about (e.g., any Les Paul I couldn't narrow down; any Fender I couldn't at least peg as a Strat or Tele; any electric that was just kinda funny looking). So, I may have undercounted (say) Les Pauls and Fenders.
  • Because some guitars are incredibly easy to identify (e.g., you can tell a Firebird or an LP Custom just from the headstock), those models might be overcounted. I think this balances out the preceding bias.
  • If there was no picture or a cruddy, useless picture on the front, I used whatever I could find on the back. But due to my relentless laziness, pictures in the booklet didn't count.
  • Cartoons count, as long as they're diagnostic.
  • If one guy was playing something I recognized and the other wasn't, I counted the guitar I recognized.
  • If I had two clear choices I picked either the lead guitarist's axe or (if I didn't know who that was) the guitar that was farther to the left or top of the CD cover.
  • I completely ignored bass guitars and acoustic instruments like mandolins and violins. I barely can tell a Jazz from a P-Bass anyway.
Here are the results.

Model Count Comments
acoustic (no cut) 25 Shockingly popular considering that I collect "rock" records.
Fender Stratocaster 18 Okay, okay, I admit it: even I have a Strat. Actually, three and 1/2 Strats...
Gibson Les Paul (all models summed) 17 Only the DC is different in a practical way.
  LP Standard 8 Might include a Classic or a Deluxe or two.
  LP Custom 6 I want that headstock inlay tattooed on my forehead.
  LP Special 2 Or maybe a Junior, or Junior Special, or whatever? Carla Olson is weird. And cool.
  LP Double Cutaway 1 I was SO jealous I ran right out and bought one.
Fender Telecaster 11 The guy from Presidents of the United States of America has a thinline.
Gibson ES-335 8 And variations and equally expensive Epiphone (Casino, Riviera, Sheraton, etc). and Gretsch look-alikes.
acoustic (single cut) 4 Why aren't these more popular? What, you can't play lead on an acoustic?
Gibson ES-135 3 And variations and equally expensive Epiphone and Gretsch look-alikes.
Gibson Firebird (reverse) 3 Wayne Kramer?? Mick Ralphs??
Gibson SG 3 Includes dubious Ian Hunter axe.
Rickenbacker 330 2 A very cool instrument, great tone, I'm surprised they're so under-used.
Epiphone Les Paul 12-string 2 Or Gibson or whatever.
National Steel/resonator 2 Dickey Betts and some other guy.
Paul Reed Smith 2 Santana, of course. I can't tell a CE from a Standard from a Custom from a McCarty from, well, a Santana II or III to save my life... but those SE's sure are ugly.
Synthaxe 2 Alan Holdsworth and Futureman from the Flecktones (his "Drumitar" is just a modified Synthaxe).
Fender Jaguar 1 Carl Wilson. Great singer, good guitarist, dorky.
Fender Jazzmaster 1 Chris Stamey is a freak.
Fender Mustang 1 John Davis from Folk Implosion. Not a Jaguar, not a Jazzmaster. Took me forever to figure out.
Gibson Flying V 1 Cover of Chinese Eyes. If it's not a Gibson, it's some kind of a V.
Gretsch Duo Jet 1 Or some other Gretsch Whatever Jet single-cut solid-body.
Rickenbacker 340 1 You know, triple humbuckers.
Rickenbacker 620 1 The chick from Bettie Serveert also plays one. And she rocks.

Notes (stream of consciousness order):

  • The Strat rules. And I'm not too happy about it, because it means there are ten zillion cruddy Strat copies floating around out there, which makes me feel like an idiot even playing my perfectly respectable 70s Strat. Image is everything!
  • No surprise I didn't catch any LP Studios, because (1) they're really a 90s artifact, and (2) if you're a rock star you'll buy a Standard or a Custom anyway.
  • I told you Jaguars aren't cool. And neither are Jazzmasters or Mustangs.
  • Doesn't anybody play a Flying V or an Explorer? Townshend wreaked his greatest havoc with everything but - SG, LP, Rick 330, Rick 360, Strat, Tele, everything. And as for Hendrix, well, see below.
  • I think I missed a couple of Gretsch or Guild or Whatever Les Paul-like solidbodies. They just confused me.
  • Not one of the guitars I spotted was one of your usual Peavey or Jackson or ESP heavy-metal clunker things. I guess that just means I'm not a Kirk Hammett fan.

Guitars Star-By-Star

In this section I'll try to show which guitars were favored by individual rock stars, using counts of photos in coffee table books (and only the good ones, namely, books that fully cover each part of a career). Right now I've got numbers only on a few of the very most important rock acts: the Beatles, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and Pete Townshend. I'd love to have something to say about Clapton and Page, but for reasons I find about as intelligible as the Bush presidency no major book publisher has stepped up and blessed all of our souls by putting out big glossy coffee table books about them.

The Beatles

There are several huge Beatles books, including the relatively recent Anthology, but I picked Mark Lewisohn's meticulous The Complete Beatles Chronicle because it covers both their live and studio work, and truly goes day-by-day. That said, the photos are weak for the late 60s; somehow Lewisohn's earlier Recording Sessions does a better job with that period. Counts are for the post-Stuart Sutcliffe period, i.e., 1961 - 1970.

John Lennon

Model Count Comments
Rickenbacker 325 26 His main axe all through the Beatles' rise to fame.
Epiphone Casino 10 A mainstay for him from 1966 on. The famous "Revolution" Casino that was stripped to produce a natural finish.
acoustic 8 Well, the Beatles did write a lot of acoustic-based songs.
Fender Stratocaster 1 A 1967 experiment.

Paul McCartney

Model Count Comments
Hofner 500/1 bass 38 The "violin" bass, the one instrument most closely associated with the Beatles.
Rickenbacker 4001s bass 4 Actually his main instrument from 1967, and the source of all those wonderful rubbery tones. Export version with dot (instead of triangular) inlays.
acoustic 1 Sure the count would be higher with more studio photos.

George Harrison

Model Count Comments
Gretsch Duo Jet 10 His first "pro" guitar. An evil looking beast.
Gretsch Country Gentleman 8 Kind of like a Gretsch ES-335. Gretsch sure owed this man some favors.
acoustic 8 See, I said they were big on acoustics.
Epiphone Casino 4 George and John got Casinos at the same time, but George didn't stick with his too long.
Gibson SG 3 A 1966 experiment.
Rickenbacker 360/12 2 George started a rage with this chimey instrument in 1965, and famously turned Roger McGuinn on to it.
Fender Jazz Bass 1 John, Paul and George all played guitar and all played bass.
Fender Stratocaster 1 The one he famously gave a psychedelic paint job.
Fender Telecaster 1 Used this for the legendary 1969 rooftop concert.
Fender VI bass 1 A very unusual instrument with six strings and three single-coil pickups.
Gibson Les Paul Standard 1 Another late-period experiment. The Beatles had remarkably little interest in Gibson's best-known instrument.

Jeff Beck

A pretty simple story: Beck was a Les Paul junkie through about 1975 - 76, at which point he became equally devoted to Strats (and Teles, to a degree). The interesting thing is that his dexterity is equally amazing on either instrument - the poor higher fret access (IMHO) of the Paul never seemed to slow him down. Source: Jeff Beck: Crazy Fingers, by Annette Carson.

Model Count Comments
Fender Stratocaster 10 Fender even has a Beck signature model.
Gibson Les Paul Standard 10 Most of his greatest work was done with Pauls.
Fender Telecaster 2 He does play the blues.

Jimi Hendrix

My source here was the wonderfully excessive biography Electric Gypsy.

Model Count Comments
Fender Stratocaster 42 A truly inflammatory love affair.
Fender Precision Bass 2 See, Hendrix preferred playing bass to playing almost any other guitar than a Strat.
Gibson Flying V 2 Jimi did have a sense of humor.
dreadnought acoustic 1 The exception that proves what a devoted electric player he really was.
Epiphone Wiltshire 1 He couldn't afford a Strat at first, so...
Guild Starfire VI 1 Borrowed at a jam session. Beautiful instrument in the ES-335 archtop semi-hollowbody jazz guitar class.

Note: I excluded a section of Electric Gypsy that documented ALL of Hendrix's many guitars, including one weird old axe after another - everything from a Fender Duo-Sonic to a Hofner Club 40. This would really have distorted the counts.
Another note: My strat counts are really conservative because I only count instruments when I can see them from the front. There are many other photos of Hendrix playing what must be Strats, but from the back.

Keith Richards

The man, the legend, the bombed-out alien landscape known as Keith Richard(s). IMHO he's the greatest pure rhythm player in rock, but IWHO he's an impure devil-worshipping rhythm and lead player. How many critics does it take to tell rhythm from lead?
Special Wilson Rebuttal: Hey, I know he only played lead on one record (Beggar's Banquet), but he did such a great job I consider him one of the greats, and curse the day they hired Ron Wood. And my opinions aren't humble, damnit.

Anyway, the sources are:

  • Rip This Joint: The Stories Behind Every Song by Steve Appleford (2000)
  • The Rolling Stones Unseen Archives by Susan Hill (2004)
  • According To The Rolling Stones by Messrs. Jagger, Richards, Watt, and Wood (2003)
Yeah, I needed three different books. Couldn't find enough photos, that's why - who would you rather photograph, Keith Richards or pretty much anyone else? Plus I had to ditch Bill Wyman's book - it pretty much omitted their late period - and the one Keith bio I found, which had hardly any pictures.

Model Count Comments
Fender Telecaster 20 Without question, Richards is rock's highest-profile Tele devotee. But he didn't start playing them until some time in the mid-70s.
Harmony Meteor 5 A single-cut semi-hollowbody he played a lot around 1963 - 1964.
Les Paul Custom 5 He clearly was really into these from the mid-60s to the mid-70s.
Gibson Les Paul TV 4 Jeez, talk about an arcane instrument. Yellow double cut.
dreadnought acoustic 4 At least one of them was a Gibson.
Gibson Les Paul Standard 2 See, he did like Les Pauls.
Ampeg Dan Armstrong 1 Far-out 1969 double-cut with a see-through lucite body. Apparently he played this a lot from '69 - '72.
Gibson Les Paul unknown (dot inlays, binding on body only) 1 I'm put to shame. Help.
Gibson unknown (possibly an RD) 1 One of Gibson's weirdest guitars, RD or not.
Gibson unknown (semi-hollow, single cut, single F-hole) 1 Frustrated. I am FRUSTRATED.
Gretsch Jet? 1 Double-cut solid body, not sure of anything else.
National Steel 1 Wow, like, cool.
Solid-body electric unknown1 In the Strat family, but it has an unusual 4 x 2 tuner arrangement and deep cuts. You know, Keith sure played a lot of weird stuff.

Pete Townshend

Some surprises this time. I always identified Townshend with the devilish SG, but it turns out he played them mostly around 1970. Through 1965 he stuck with Rick 330s and the like; then he turned to Strats and Teles; and through most of the 70s he played LP Standards. What's really interesting is the way the guitar progression matches the band's musical progression: jangly R & B (Rickenbacker), acid rock (Fender), and finally ear-blasting arena rock (Gibson). Source: Anyway Anyhow Anywhere: The Complete Chronicle of The Who 1958-1978, by Andrew Neill and Matthew Kent.

Model Count Comments
Gibson SG 19 The reason Townshend is the SG poster boy.
Rickenbacker 330 (or early 360) 15 Early 360s were like 330s with double bindings.
Gibson Les Paul Standard 8 Well, if it's good enough for Beck and Page...
Fender Stratocaster 7 Well, if it's good enough for Hendrix...
Fender Telecaster 6 Apparently they smashed nicely.
Gibson(?) ES-175 shape 3 Townshend did have a jazz influence.
Gibson(?) ES-335 shape 3 Several instruments, actually.
Gibson(?) SG Double Neck 1 And I thought only Jimmy Page pulled stunts like this...
Rickenbacker 340 1 A 330 with three pickups.
Rickenbacker 360 1 The rounded kind.
Rickenbacker (unidentified*) 1 Someone help me out here.

*A very odd Rick with a standard single-cut semi-hollow body, block fretboard inlays, three pickups, a raised Gibson-style pickguard, two sound holes, and controls arrayed on a curved plate.

Sitting in the Sheraton Gibson, playing my Gibson...

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