Over the years I have gigged and recorded with a fair number of guitars, most of which I thought were the best in the world at the time. Much as you cherish and try to look after them though things happen – they get stolen, damaged or simply worn out and eventually have to be replaced. Those that do survive are hard to part with and usually wind up hanging on the wall.
| My first recordings were made using an English dance band guitar – a Scarth – something of an oddity with maple back and sides, arched top, round soundhole and tailpiece. It came my way for a fiver in the back streets of Guildford in the early sixties. With frequent adjustments and running repairs it played nicely in the main and lasted up until ‘Another Monday’. That one earned its keep on ‘John Renbourn’, two albums with Dorris Henderson as well as the first tracks with Bert Jansch.
In the mid sixties my guitar idol was Davey Graham. Davey had an LP out called ‘The Guitar Player’ and he was holding a Gibson on the cover. I heard through the grapevine that an American serviceman on an airbase had one for sale and I had to have it. It was a J-50, nearly the same as Davey’s and that was it for the old Scarth – musical considerations overruled by blind fanaticism. I found out later that Davey wasn’t playing his by choice, he had owned a very nice Martin, gone to a party and come away with the Gibson, possibly without realising it! However, for me, it was a transformation. From ‘Another Monday’ right through into Pentangle it did the job – both acoustic and amplified. The J-50 has lasted well, only one major repair as I recall. The back was smashed, courtesy of an airline – guitars into Airlines do not go as I’ve learned to my cost over the years. It is now resting down in the south of France in the care of my old friend Remy Froissart.
Trying to turn an acoustic guitar into an electric guitar only works in a limited way – feedback is the main problem, but it is possible to get a good and rather individual sound. When Pentangle started to play in bigger venues the DeArmond set-up proved to be impracticable and I began using a semi-acoustic Gibson 335 – one of the old dot necks. It was a very nice guitar, good for fingerstyle as well as lead lines. At the height of Pentangle’s popularity, someone in the management had the idea of billing us as an ‘all acoustic ‘ band. Why? I don’t know, since I was using the same type of guitar that Freddie King was renowned for. The 335 began making appearances on my own recordings, mainly for overdubs but also solo for a Bach Saraband on ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’.
The 335 had a relatively short run. It was stolen out of the equipment van in Liverpool – a dependable place for getting separated from your gear in the late sixties. I was sickened, but bucked up enough to look for another – of course, by then, dot-neck Gibsons had become ‘vintage’ collectibles and that was that.
The J-50 was my main guitar on the solo Transatlantic records up to ‘The Hermit’, by which time it was ready for a re-fret and a rest. The recording studio can be a cruel judge of things that go unnoticed on the road.I picked up a Guild D-55 which I liked very much. It was already played-in, (another point in favour of a used instrument), which meant that I didn’t have to wait to hear how it was going to open up. A few modifications took place, like taking the varnish off the table and slimming the neck down slightly to play along the length of the fingerboard easily and that was it. I used the Guild on ‘The Black Balloon’ and for touring and recording with Stefan Grossman.
|When I was working with Stefan Grossman, playing the Guild, which by that stage was showing signs of road fatigue, Stefan discovered a guitar maker named Nick Kukich whose workmanship really impressed him. Stefan is the most discerning guy I know when it comes to guitars and he certainly liked Nick’s instruments. The story that I heard was that Nick started out in Chicago and based his designs on old Martins that he had worked on. He started the Franklin company as a one man concern.
The model I have is called a Franklin OM after the Martin OM or orchestra model – the first guitar, I believe, with 14 frets to the body rather than 12. The back and sides are Brazilian rosewood and the top is spruce. The neck is a little wider than standard for a steel string – but not as wide as a classical – which I find helps with the fingering, particularly around the lower frets.
From the point of view of workmanship, Nick’s guitars must have something really special – other makers have picked it up, full of the joys of Spring, only to lower it slowly down in brooding silence! From my point of view, I love the overall balance. It is not loud but it projects well due to its clarity. The sound is rather dark, but you can play all over the fingerboard and the response is clean and even. A lot of music I like revolves around the interplay of the parts – lines that need to be distinct. A simple keyboard piece, for example, can involve a lot of shifts on the guitar. Overall response is what is needed and the Franklin OM has that.
Close to the Franklin in design, but quite different in character is another OM, made by Ralph Bown of York (UK). Also made with a rosewood back and sides and spruce top, Ralph made this one for me in 1985, and again the string spacing is wider than standard. The sound is bright with a quick response. It ‘speaks well’ as the expression goes – although not always of me. Ralph’s OM has done it’s share of recording and travelling too. It makes an appearance on the cover of ‘Keeper of the Vine’ a Shanachie compilation of tracks with Stefan Grossman.In 2008 Ralph made me a cutaway. Well he didn’t actually make it for me he just made it then called me up to say if I wanted another of his guitars one was finished and to get down there fast before it went elsewhere. So it was sight unseen. How’s that for an act of faith. It has proved the best all-rounder ever and provided sterling service to the cause.
In 2010 the Martin Company honoured me by bringing out my own signature model. It’s a gem. The specs sheet tells a lot, but not all. The playability and sound are in the hyperbole class. I’m one lucky plunker.