I’ve been playing the guitar for three quarters of my life now and still recall the time the bug first bit me. In my early teens I would watch Top of the Pops on telly, but I only ever liked the bands with electric guitars. If an artist played a piano or acoustic guitar I’d quickly lose interest, but if they had a low strung Stratocaster or were wailing away on a Les Paul, I’d be glued to the box. Aged about 14, I suddenly got the idea that I could do that, too – but how to get a guitar? My parents used to sit there and if Alice Cooper or the Sweet came on, I’d be straining my ears to listen to the music while my Dad was going, ‘Look at that bloody poof’, or ‘Bloody hell, he’s got nail varnish on!’ So I honestly felt guilty as hell about wanting a guitar, it would have been easier to shut up because I felt they would accuse me of being a ‘bloody poof’ or something similar.
Walking past a junk shop near where I lived, I saw an electric guitar on the wall which was six quid and, as it was nearly Christmas, I figured that’d be a cool present. However, it wasn’t to be, because when we enquired about it, it transpired you needed an amp too and that was way out of the budget. Instead I was bought an acoustic guitar instead though with thick nylon strings and I was away, forget about being a racing driver now, it was all girls and guitars.
I initially had five lessons and was the star pupil as I used to practice for a couple of hours a day, but on the fifth week, I was shown an F chord and even with a week before the next lesson, I couldn’t get it right, so I gave up and never saw the guy again. However, as most rock guitarists will tell you, they can’t read a note of music and don’t need to, so being a guitar player is a cool job – you buy a phallic looking instrument, plug in to a mass of speakers and you don’t even have to study. That really appealed to me back then!
Now, all decent electric guitars are American, it’s always been the case and back in the 1970’s, these things weren’t cheap. As with all imported goods then guitars are actually much cheaper today than they have ever been. The Japanese made ‘copy’ guitars that looked exactly like the original Fenders and Gibsons and were often fine instruments – but they were a fraction of the price. The first guitar of note I bought was one of these, a used Antoria Stratocaster copy which cost £35.00. I was king of the block until a friend down the road bought a CSL Les Paul copy, but it was a start. Bearing in mind a real Stratocaster was probably about £165.00, these sorts of guitars got many people of my age playing and it all coincided with the revolution called punk rock. Suddenly, you didn’t have to have great equipment and expensive guitars. There was a saying that went, ‘One pick up is cool, two pickups are flash, and anymore than that are ridiculous. Of course, that was all bollocks because the first thing any punk band did with their record company advances was to buy the real guitars and amps, book into expensive studios and start living the life of proper rock stars. What such ideas did do was demystify the whole process and workings of the music industry – suddenly anyone could be in a band.
I began playing properly in clubs in 1978; in fact the first gig I got was supporting Sham 69 at the Electric Ballroom. Our band was lucky to have a drummer whose mother was secretary to Sham’s manager and our next gigs were supporting the Angelic Upstarts on their first tour of the UK. Jimmy Pursey, singer with Sham, saw us and offered us a record contract which was with Warner Brothers. One of the first things he did was to give me a Rickenbacker that had belonged to his guitar player. While not exactly the Holy Grail, this guitar was a proper instrument and I used it with a Vox AC30 that Paul Weller had given to me a few weeks earlier after a completely random meeting.
So that’s how it all started. Over the following years I did get to own Fender Stratocasters, Gibsons and all other manner of decent guitars, but bizarrely, the way I started collecting came after I’d actually given up playing which was about 12 years ago. I figured I’d had my shot at stardom and at the age of 28 I got a job. I then got married, had a son and just gave up playing and sold whatever bits and pieces I had left. About 10 years in the wilderness I started feeling like something was missing in my life so I began tinkering around with guitars again until eventually I had a small collection of oddities and slightly rare and desirable guitars. This led to me getting back to playing live and recording again and I started to yearn for better and better instruments.
I bought a 1972 Fender Stratocaster which is a pretty decent guitar but as I got better and had more spare cash, I started to trade up and up. Next I acquired a 1970 Stratocaster which was only two years older but there is a big difference to collectors. Between 1966 and 1971, Fender changed the design of the Stratocaster slightly and these guitars are now known as ‘Hendrix Strats’ because they are the exact same models as Jimi used. Prior to late 1965, Fender was an independent company, but was taken over by CBS, so you have pre-CBS Fenders which are the most collectable. CBS Fenders also have kudos because that’s what Jimi used. Buying a post 1972 Stratocaster is a bit risky because they aren’t that collectable and the design changed again with a fundamental fault, the neck plate, (the bit where the neck joins the body), was changed from four bolts to three, and I’ve always found that the tuning can be affected by playing too hard. The first time I realised that collecting guitars was a good idea was about eight years ago. I bought a 1965 Fender Stratocaster in Denmark St, Central London, for £3000. A couple of years later, I decided to move that on and the shop I bought it from offered me the three grand back. I found out they’d sold it two weeks later for over £4000! This seemed like a great way to buy anything you want, use it for as long as you want and then eventually sell it for a profit. How cool is that?
Over the coming years, I owned many guitars which were extremely desirable. These included a 1969 Gibson SG Special, bought for £1950 and sold for £2400, a 1969 Dan Armstrong Plexiglas, bought for £1300 in Italy and sold to a guy in Berlin for £2200, a 1974 White Gibson Les Paul, bought for £1850, sold for £2700 and any amount of other Les Pauls which I paid anything from £1200 to £3700. Without exception, I made money on
all of them which isn’t a boast; it’s just a niche I have found that I appear to have some sort of talent for. The guitar collecting market has obviously been affected of late by the contracting economy but it is still relatively simple to own a guitar you want and then sell it for a profit at a later date, you just have to know what you are buying and then buy at the right price. To my mother, I am some sort of guitar trading genius. She was always interested in antiques and it always mystified me as to how people could buy an old item and then make money out of it. Nowadays, I buy guitars that I know I will use and I also love to own certain models, but eventually you change your musical style or maybe just your tastes and then you’re off on the lookout for something different. I currently own a 1968 Fender Stratocaster which is painted in the original Olympic White finish. It is a super rare guitar because of the colour. If you change the finish of an old guitar or restore it and replace parts, you lower the value dramatically. Imagine buying a 50 year old car that was full of rust, the wipers didn’t work, the doors didn’t shut properly but you couldn’t change anything because it would affect the value? Guitars are the opposite – the more original parts that are intact the better. The ’68 Strat is the one instrument that I always think I’d never sell, but who knows?
The main guitars I use on stage these days are two Gibson Les Paul Juniors, both made in 1959 and these are also rare because they are finished in a colour called TV Yellow. I believe there were only 500 made in this spec so after 52 years, how many are left? The value of these particular guitars is also determined by other factors. Yellow Les Paul Juniors were used by Keith Richards and Johnny Thunders, both absolute axe hero icons and therefore the value is increased. Depending on who you believe, one of the ones I own was previously Johnny Thunders’ own guitar which I bought in three pieces from a roadie who had been in Paris working with Thunders when Dee Dee Ramone smashed it up after an argument. So that’s an interesting one, it’s been broken severely but it was possibly Thunders guitar which gives it provenance, so the value is being affected by these factors. All this doesn’t bother me, because when I play that guitar it just feels right. I pull the strap over my shoulder, plug it in and it does anything I want it to do. Comparing it to your favourite slippers wouldn’t be an overstatement.
The best guitar in my collection is a 1969/1970 Black Les Paul Custom, which weighs a ton but has the most incredible sound. I’m not a fan of Guns N’ Roses but there is a guitar solo on a song called ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ that has a great tone and I always wondered what effects the guitar player used to get that particular sound. I can tell you now, he didn’t! Plug this guitar into an old valve amp, whack up the distortion and it’s there. When recording, I play the rhythm guitar tracks on one of the Les Paul Juniors, but for all overdubs, guitar solos, power chords and so on, I use this Les Paul so I get two distinct tones but also the power that I want.
Finally, I also own a 1960’s Vox Teardrop guitar, which is exactly like the one Brian Jones used in the Stones, and a 1969 Les Paul ‘Goldtop’ – so called because the top has a gold finish with a sort of sparkly paint. Where the paint has started to fade, you get a greenish hue which is evidence of the arsenic they used in the paint back then.
The latest trend with guitars is “relic-ing” which is a process where you buy a brand new guitar that has been made to look old. The funny thing about this is that you pay a premium for the guitar, when in reality all you need to do is buy any old guitar, drag it around clubs for a few years, get a few scratches on it and you’re away – instant relic appeal. A lot of people buy these relic guitars because they want to look like they’ve been on the road for the last 20 years which is good news for people like me because I have been, and every scratch on my guitar is like a notch in the bedpost, they each have a tale to tell.