William Shakespeare had his quill pen. The Bandit had his Trans Am. Evel Knievel had his leather jumpsuit. Sometimes a particular item can aid in making someone epic. The same can be said of blues artists and their instruments. Many talented performers would surely be as good with any instrument in their loving hands. However, just the right, specific instrument can help transform them to the status of legend.
We started to think about the great blues guitarists that have favored a particular instrument. Although most professional musicians have a bevy of instruments at their disposal, a select few have developed a more intimate relationship with their respective axes. Here is our list of the most iconic blues guitars, synonymous with their players, in the history of the genre.
10. Robert Johnson – Kalamazoo Model KG-14
The “King of the Delta Blues” played many guitars in his travels as an itinerant blues man. According to Johnny Shines, Honeyboy Edwards, Robert Lockwood, Jr., and others, he favored acoustic guitars that would hold up under the rigors of the road. Stella was one of the most popular brands of the time, and one that Johnson frequently played. In the famous studio portrait, where he is dressed in a suit, he is holding a Gibson L-1 Flat Top. However, it was probably either loaned to him by someone he knew, or a studio prop, furnished by the photography shop in Beale Street in Memphis, where the photo was taken. The only other authenticated photo of Johnson, with the cigarette dangling from his lips, has him holding a Kalamazoo Model KG-14. Kalamazoo was a budget brand guitar, offered by Gibson, during the Great Depression, and cost around $12.50 at the time. It is this guitar that Johnson is thought to have played during his historic, Texas recording sessions in 1936 and 1937.
9. Buddy Guy – The Polka Dot Strat
Guy has often remarked, “When I left Louisiana in 1957, I told my mother I was going to Chicago, gonna make a lot of money, and come back and buy her a polka dot Cadillac. Then later she had a stroke, so I never did get a chance to give her that car. Those polka dots on my guitar are for her.” Some 20 years ago, he went to the Fender company with his request, and they designed the now famous, Polka Dot Stratocaster. Guy owns 4 of these, including the original, specifically made for him at the Fender Custom Shop. The company has since marketed the Buddy Guy Signature Model Standard Stratocaster, polka dots and all.
8. Albert King – “Lucy”
Although he began his musical career as a drummer for artists such as Jimmy Reed, and Homesick James, King became a paradigmatic blues guitarist. Being left handed, he played upside down, bending the strings with big, powerful hands and pounding his very soul into the instrument. His guitar of choice, from the outset, was the Gibson Flying V. He loved the V for its eye-catching, unique look and style. Not a popular model at the time, he started out playing an original, 1958, Korina model, which he dubbed, “Lucy,” after comedic great, Lucille Ball. Either stolen, or lost in a game of craps, the original 58 was replaced by a 1966 model, which was a gift to King from the Gibson company. It was the 1966 model he played on the historic recording, “Born Under a Bad Sign.” In 1972, luthier, Dan Erlewine, created a true, left-handed V out of a piece of 125-year-old black walnut. With King’s name inlaid in the fretboard, and “Lucy” on the headstock, this became King’s main instrument. A third “Lucy” was made in 1980 by Radley Prokopow, and King played these two, custom built Vs until his death in 1992.
7. Bo Diddley – “Twang Machine”
Better known to the world as Bo Diddley, Elias Bates’ first instrument was a homemade, one string, diddley bow. He fashioned it himself, using wire, broom handle and a cigar box. Once his professional career began, he obviously moved up into the world of recognized guitars, including a Gibson L5. It was during one of his early gigs that Diddley, jumping around on stage, awkwardly landed and injured himself in a rather, shall we say, delicate area. It was at that moment he decided that he needed a smaller, less restrictive guitar. Using the memory of his first instrument, he went to the Gretsch guitar company and helped them design the G6138. The rectangular, semi-hollow body instrument was christened “The Twang Machine.” Although it was the main instrument throughout the rest of his life, Diddley also played other similarly shaped guitars, made for him by other manufacturers.
6. Rory Gallagher – “Ex-Sunburst”
Irish born guitar slinger, Rory Gallagher, happened upon the find of his lifetime early on in his career. In August, 1963, he saw a 1961 Fender Sunburst Stratocaster in a local music store. Although brand new, it was being sold as a used instrument, since the show band guitarist who ordered it, wanted it in red. Fender’s shipping error became Gallagher’s boon, when he purchased, what is thought to be the first Strat in Ireland, for just shy of £100. During the course of his career, he heavily modified the instrument for his personal taste. It was, at one time, stolen and found abandoned in a rain-filled ditch. The neck had to be removed and dried out several times due to Gallagher’s profuse sweating on stage. Compounded by his rare, and highly acidic blood type, which acted like paint stripper, the prized guitar, which he never named, became battle scarred, with most of the varnish and original Sunburst pattern gone. Because of its appearance, fans began calling the guitar, the “Ex-Sunburst.” After his death in 1995, the guitar was retired by his brother, Donal. It was brought out of retirement in 2011, for use by Joe Bonamassa, at two shows in London. In 2015, Fender began production of the Rory Gallagher Signature Stratocaster.
5. Billy Gibbons – “Mistress Pearly Gates”
In 1966, at the age of 17, ZZ Top frontman, Billy Gibbons fell in love. It was with the Gibson Sunburst Les Paul that Eric Clapton was holding in a picture on an album sleeve, whilst a member of John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. Two years later, Gibbons and some friends loaned a classic 1939 Packard automobile to an aspiring actress to drive from Houston to Hollywood for a screen test. Not thinking the car would even make it out of Texas, they were shocked to find out that she had made it all the way to the coast, and got the part. Thinking the car must have been watched over by God, they nicknamed it, “Pearly Gates.” She sold the car, sent them the money, and with his $250 share, Gibbons purchased a mint condition, 1959 Gibson Sunburst Les Paul from a local rancher and former country musician. Bestowing the divine name, “Pearly Gates,” on the guitar, he has played her on every single album from, ZZ Top’s First Album, in 1971, to today. 48 years later, Gibbons has kept Pearly 100 percent factory stock, right down to the original frets. Although he has been offered as much as $5 million, there is no divorce in the foreseeable future.
4. Eric Clapton – “Blackie”
Of the hundreds of guitars that blues-rock legend, Eric Clapton, has owned over the years, his favorite was one that he had a hand in designing. Around 1970, he made the switch from Gibson guitars to the Fender Stratocaster. He started with a 1956, two-tone Sunburst design, which he named, “Brownie.” Purchased for $400 in London, this was the guitar he played on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. That same year, he struck a deal with the owner of Sho-Bud Guitar Shop in Nashville, Tennessee. Paying between $200 and $300 each, he purchased six 1950’s Strats, gifting one each to George Harrison, Pete Townsend and Steve Winwood. He then took the best parts of the remaining 3 guitars to Nashville luthier, Ted Newman Jones, who put the ’56 and ’57 parts together into one beautiful, black instrument. Once again, this guitar was named after its color and dubbed, “Blackie.” This became his mainstay instrument for many years, used to record such hits as, “Cocaine,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Farther Up the Road,” and “Wonderful Tonight.” Blackie was put into semi-retirement in 1988 when Clapton began playing his own Signature Model Stratocaster. In 2004, she was sold at auction to benefit Clapton’s Crossroads Centre, in Antigua. At the time of the auction, she raised a record-setting, $959,500.
3. Roy Buchanan – “Nancy”
Although he never gained what most people would consider, “true stardom,” Roy Buchanan remains a legend in the music world. A virtuoso guitarist, he began first on a lap steel guitar, and eventually made the shift to a more traditional axe. Buchanan was not only an influential artist in his style, but was also a pioneer in the, “Telecaster Sound.” Whether he was playing blues, rockabilly, country or rock and roll, his go-to guitar was a 1953 Fender Telecaster, (Serial #2324), that he affectionately named, “Nancy.” He had said that he saw a man walking down the street with her in 1969, and chased him down. Depending on the story he either traded a purple Telecaster or a Gibson Les Paul for her. She is a butterscotch, “Black-Guard” Tele and like all of her ilk, is a bare bones, blue collar, workhorse. The kind of guitar favored by not only Buchanan, but by Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, Steve Cropper, Jeff Beck, and many others. The major difference with Buchanan and Nancy was the tone that they achieved together. Rumors persist of a “magic pickup,” that would never give up an ohm reading, yet gave Nancy a voice that has yet to be duplicated.
2. Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Number One”
Several guitarists, including BB King and Albert King, played many different guitars that all had the same name. Some, like Stevie Ray Vaughan, named each of their guitars. Primarily a fan of the Fender Stratocaster, Vaughan had several, with names like Red, Yellow, Scotch, and Lenny. There was one, however, for which he held the most fondness. Often referred to as his, “first wife,” it was the guitar known as, “Number One,” that was his main performing instrument. She came to Vaughan from an Austin, Texas music store in 1974, already well worn, allegedly being previously owned by Christopher Cross. She is made up of 1959 pickups, a 1963 body and a 1962 curved rosewood neck. The tremolo bar is upside down, so that Stevie could more easily replicate Jimi Hendrix’ style. She is also sports the letters, SRV on the pick guard and a telltale cigarette burn in the headstock, presumably from leaving a lit one tucked under the strings for a bit too long. Vaughan used this guitar on all 5 of his studio albums as well as the album, Family Style, with his brother Jimmie. In 1992, Fender released a Stevie Ray Vaughan Signature Model based on Number One.
1. BB King – “Lucille”
Recognized as one of the most influential blues musicians of all time, BB King was a career guitarist for nearly 70 years. He learned his first 3 chords from a local minister in Mississippi, and around the age of 12 got his first guitar. In 1949, King was playing a dance hall in Twist, Arkansas. The night was cold, and the hall was being heated by barrels which were half full of kerosene. During his performance a fight broke out, knocking over one of the barrels, and setting the building ablaze. As the crowd ran for their lives, King realized he had left his beloved Gibson L-30 guitar inside. Without thought, he ran back in to save the instrument that was, for all intents and purposes, his living. At that time, the value of the L-30 was under $40, but King almost lost his life to retrieve it. It was the next morning that he found out the two men were fighting over a woman, named Lucille, who worked at the club. The legend was set. That particular guitar, and every subsequent guitar that King ever owned, was named, “Lucille.” Why would he name every single one of his guitars, “Lucille,” you ask? As he said, “to remind me never to do a thing like that again.” King played several Gibson models throughout his career, including the ES-5, ES-125, ES-175, ES-335, and, of course, the one that most fans associate with “The King of the Blues,” the ES-355. In the early 1980s, Gibson released the BB King Signature Model, and in 2005 made a limited run of the 80th Birthday Model, Lucille. Lucille’s voice was as prevalent on King’s recordings as his own, and paid homage to her in 1968 with both a song, and an album bearing her name.