Legendary players often have their long-time favourite guitar – the one they used on all the famous stages and recordings. These trusty instruments can develop fame all of their own. Here’s a few which were given pet names by their celebrity owners:
Keith Richards – Micawber
Richards’ famous buttersctotch 50’s Fender Telecaster was a gift from Eric Clapton to mark the Rolling Stones guitarist’s 27th birthday in 1970. The guitar, named by ‘Keef’ after a character from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, was first used on the Stones’ Exile On Mainstreet album and many of their most famous subsequent recordings, uncluding Honky Tonk Woman and Brown Sugar.
Richards replaced the original single-coil neck pickup with a Gibson PAF humbucker, which he installed backwards. The guitar has mostly been used in Richards’ favourite open G tuning, with the bottom string removed to give his signature rhythm sound. At some point he installed a lap-steel single coil pickup in the bridge position and changed the original tuners to locking Sperzels.
Micaweber remains a key instrument in the guitarist’s collection.
Eric Clapton’s ‘Blackie’
Clapton’s most famous Fender Stratocaster, the ‘Blackie’ is actually an amalgam of at least three different instruments – all 1950s Strats, purchased from the same store in Nashville, Tenessee during the 1970s. The body is from a 1956 model, the neck from a ’57. As was Clapton’s preference, the tremolo arm was removed and the bridge screwed down.
‘Slowhand’ retired the Strat at some point during the late 1980’s, having used it on numerous famous recordings and live shows, including his set at Live Aid in 1985.
Clapton sold Blackie at auction in 2004, for a then-record $959,500, to raise funds for the guitar legend’s rehab centre, Crossroads. The buyer, retailer Guitar Center, displays the guitar today in its store in Times Square, New York.
Fender Custom Shop still produce an Eric Clapton signature model based on the original mongrel but with a few modern tweaks, like a notch-filter TBX tone-control. It’s not cheap, but you should get change from $959,500…
Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Frankenstein’
Also known as ‘Frankenstrat’, this is the homegrown mongrel wielded by the rock-innovator as he exploded onto the guitar scene in the late 70s. The body and neck were from Wayne Charvel’s Boogie Body brand. The ash body was classed a ‘second’ as it had a knot in the wood so Van Halen purchased it for the reduced price of $50.
The instrument was oft-changed through the years both cosmetically and functionally, but the key features were the single Gibson PAF pickup (Van Halen routed the body himself) and a single volume control – the simplified wiring necessitated by the guitarist’s lack of electrical knowledge (he simply didn’t know how to wire-up a tone pot). Various necks came and went, and the bridge changed from a 1958 Fender tremolo to a series of Floyd Rose locking versions.
The famous criss-cross finish started life as white tape over black paint, until a coat of red bicycle paint and black and white over-taping gave the guitar its most iconic iteration.
Many tribute and replica models have been produced by Fender, Charvel, Kramer and others – the nearest thing currently on the market, at least cosmetically, is the ‘Stripe’ from Eddie’s own EVH brand.
Brian May’s ‘Red Special’
Ok so ‘Red Special’ might not be the most imaginative name of the bunch (we prefer ‘Old Lady’ or ‘Fireplace’ as it is sometimes affectionately referred to), but Queen guitarist Brian May’s axe is amongst the best known of all, and has one of the most catchy back-stories. Built by the teenage May and his father, Harold, in the early 60s, the neck was famously carved from an old fireplace mantelpiece.
The guitar body is made from oak (from an old table). And is actually more akin to a semi-acoustic than a solid body, glued blocks and veneer creating an acoustic-chambered piece build to encourage feedback, veneer used to give a solid-body appearance. These design quirks, along with May’s filed-down sixpence for a plectrum, have made a significant contribution to his thick’n’creamy signature sound.The tremolo bridge gets wackier still, employing bits of an old knife and some motorbike valve springs…
Like the EVH, there have been many commercially-available versions built over the years, notably by Guild and Burns. Now Brian has his own guitar brand, and offers Red Special-spec guitars of his own. May still uses the original, although also uses several replicas.
BB King – ‘Lucille’
Unlike the others above, ‘Lucille’ was not really ever a single instrument, rather a name the blues legend BB King gave to all his favourites over his long and distinguished career. There was a first, though, named when, at considerable risk, King saved his $30 Gibson L30 archtop from a fire at the wooden-build Arkansas club he had been playing one winter’s night in 1949. He later found out the fire, which claimed two lives, had been started by two men fighting over a lady named Lucille.
Gibson ES guitars became his weapons of choice and, in 1980, Gibson produced the first BB King signature, named the Lucille, and based on the stereo ES335 model. The most notable spec-change from a regular 355 was the omission, at the bluester’s request, of f-holes to reduce feedback. The distinctive black with gold hardware finish has also come to be associated with the artist model.
The first version remained on sale until 1985. There have since been variations and reissues, including an inexpensive version in Gibson’s Epiphone range. The most recent (2016) Gibson Lucille features a 6-way varitone switch, stereo output and slightly overwound (hot) 490R and 490T humbucking pickups, plus a fine-tune TP6 bridge. And still not an f-hole in sight…
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