Hiroshi Suda has compiled an inventory of the many guitars Chris played. If you can offer corrections or additional info, please use the “Comment” feature at the end of this post, and we’ll add your 2-cents to the descriptions. [Note: Larger photos can be viewed on All Things Chris Whitley Facebook page.] Thanks to Jeffrey Duke Patterson, Dan Whitley, Hiroshi Suda, and other members from the ATCW group for helping to identify the guitars in the photo below.
Danelectro and Silvertone
The Danelectro is an inexpensive guitar originally sold as a Silvertone by [gasp!] Sears & Roebuck. Lest you hold that fact against it, you should know that both the Danelectro and the Silverstone have been played by such esteemed guitarists as Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmy Page (Danelectro especially notable on “Kashmir”) [review of ’59 Original]. No wonder Chris was sanguine about allowing daughter Trixie to scrawl all over his Danelectro!
Gibson Les Paul Guitars
The Gibson Les Paul “family” begins in 1952 with the goldtop Les Paul Model. But then, in 1954, two additional models were introduced: the fancier Custom with the carved top of the original; and its plainer, less expensive cousin, the Junior.
As noted in a Vintage Guitar article, the Junior “was stripped not only of its ornamentation but the carved maple top cap, as well. It had a ‘slab’ mahogany body, unbound fingerboard, dot inlays, and a decal peghead logo. To make it even more affordable, it had only a single dog-eared P-90 pickup rather than the two soapbar-covered single-coils of the original and the Custom.” The Special, introduced in 1955, was a step up from the Junior, providing a bound fingerboard and pearl logo and two pickups.
Adding to the confusion (at least among guitar-know-nothings such as myself), “[I]n late ’59, for no apparent reason, the Les Paul Special became the SG [“solid guitar”] Special. For all practical purposes it was the same guitar, with the same double-cutaway body and the same features except for the lack of the “Les Paul” silkscreen on the peghead and a slightly different pickguard” [Vintage Guitar].
As the All Things Chris Whitley group discussed Chris’ gear, what appear to me to be the same three guitars were variously labeled a “Gibson Les Paul Junior,” “Les Paul TV Special,” “Les Paul Special,” “Les Paul SG,” “Gibson SG,” etc. For more info about and photos of the SG, see here. The guitar Chris called “TV” on set lists is show in the first photo in the table below. The second, which Chris called “JR” (Junior), is shown in the middle photo, and the third, which I believe is the Gibson SG, is show on the right.
[Update based on info provided by Chris McNally, an ATCW group member who purchased the guitar shown in the middle of the row above when Chris sold several of his guitars on eBay in 2000 ….]
What I labeled the Les Paul Special is actually a 1986 Gibson Les Paul Jr. The eBay listing describes the guitar as “a classic. Chris has installed original 1952 P-90s, and Waverly tuners. Chris toured with this guitar during the Terra Incognita Tour (1997).” The guitar has rosewood fingerboards and a stopbar tailpiece, which Gibson’s website describes as “deliver[ing] increased sustain, enhanced harmonic overtones, and improved tuning stability. ” Many thanks to Chris McNally for providing the following photos of this collector’s item:
Either the TV, Junior, or SG were played on a few LWTL (Bordertown, Dust Radio) and many Din [ Ultraglide, , Narcotic Prayer, WPL, Some Candy Talkin’, Can’t Get Off, Din, and Liberation or Death) and Terra (Clear Blue Sky, On Cue, Aerial) tracks. Enjoy the gallery below of various photos showing Chris playing these guitars – and let me know if I’ve misidentified any!
1967 Gibson Melody Maker
Thanks to Hiroshi Suda for clarifying the lineage of this Melody Maker. We first saw it as a green guitar in the “Bordertown” clip from Ohne Filter:
Technically, the Gibson Melody Maker might be included in the Gibson Les Paul guitars discussed above since it is sometimes compared to the Les Paul Junior and Gibson SG. Chris’ guitar, the double-cutaway model introduced in 1961, is probably a late-60s since it features “the pointed ‘horns’, a large white scratch-plate, and white pickup covers instead of black” as introduced in 1966, making it similar to the Gibson SG [Wikipedia].
When the seller posted what Hiroshi figured is this same guitar on eBay in 2003, it was a red guitar that he described as “a wonderful guitar that has been with Chris during the recording of all his Sony CD’s as well as tours of that time period. This guitar has p-90’s, a solid headstock/neck (no cracks or breaks). It plays great and has a nice thick baseball bat neck, Its nicely worn in with weather checking and is adorned with his daughter’s artwork (see “love Trixie” written on the body), she drew on most of Chris’s guitars then including the CD cover for the “Din” CD! The guitar is also ultra light as its aged mahogany.”
Sharp-eyed Hiroshi figured out that this and the green one are the same guitar: “I believe this green-ish Melody Maker was repainted in red color and the neck pickup was replaced by P-90 type (original pickup was a thinner single coil type). Anyway Dan mentioned the guitar was on DIN EP artwork which is the green one [see photo below]. I see the similar 3 screw holes (where the original part was removed) on both green one and red one… they must be same guitar.”
Chris also played this guitar on “Narcotic Prayer” at Khyber Pass. Here, the color is not readily discernible, but if you love that song, you’ll agree that this fact alone makes this guitar PRICELESS!
Duesenberg Starplayer Chris Whitley Signature Model 2003
In 2003, Duesenberg guitars designed a custom guitar for Chris, whom they called “one of the greatest singer/songwriters.” The Chris Whitley Signature model includes “a special transparent red finish, a fretboard with custom Mother-of-Pearl block inlays and a Piezo pickup in the bridge” [Wikipedia].
You can see more photos of Chris with his custom Starplayer on the Duesenberg site. For those wanting more “drool over” photos, check out the slide show of close-ups here. And to hear and to see the guitar in action, find this YouTube video – almost 9 minutes putting the guitar through its paces.
Rick Kelly Custom Guitars
Rick Kelly, owner and luthier of Carmine Street Guitars and a long-time friend since the late 70s, built two custom guitars for Chris: the Kelly Explorer (which Chris is holding in this photo below) and a Jazzmaster-like custom (leaning against the building). Bjorn Johnson has provided the following info:
“[This] guitar is a custom-built piece from Rick Kelly in New York City. He has pictures of it on his website. He builds guitars in his shop called Carmine Street Guitars. The logo you see on the headstock reads “kelly” and is cut out of metal and screwed on. If I’m not mistaken it belongs to someone in New York that got it as a gift from Chris and it is occasionally brought back to Rick for adjustments or set ups. It’s red and Trixie scratched her name and various drawings into it clear through to the primer underneath.”
Hiroshi Suda has provided some info about both custom Kellys:
“Jazzmaster-like custom guitar has a short neck and 3 saddle bridge. These features seem to be taking over Duo-sonic (or Music master) that Chris owned. The Explorer custom guitar also has interesting features: Reverse head stock with Banjo pegs(?), Short neck and the total length of the guitar looks short. I think its “Wraparound bridge” could afford the short body. Or, the Wraparound type bridge was used because the body was short? Both guitar come with P-90 Pickups.“
A cross between a resonator guitar and an electric guitar, the National Resolectric makes a unique sound. As noted in a recent review of the Resolectric Revolver,
“Perhaps the Resolectric could best be described as a hybrid acoustic/electric that combines nearly 100 years of mechanical amplification along with more conventional electric guitar amplification. Taking up a great portion of the guitar’s lower bout is the resonator. Essentially, the resonator is an aluminum speaker that is set into motion by the vibration of the strings: A National Guitar innovation from the 1920’s, and one that’s still made in the U.S.A. to this day.”
Chris owned a National Resolectric R-1.
Fender Duo Sonic – year unknown
Fender Telecaster – model name & year unknown
Many thanks to Anders Halvorsen for the following info about Chris’ National Resophonic guitars. The vintage National “Resophonic 1133” was a pure, acoustic instrument. The pickups in Chris’ Resophonic guitars were added later and are not original.
The National Reso-phonic Student model, as it is called, came with two different model numbers, 1133 and 1033. The difference was the neck: 1133 was a roundneck (CWs guitars) while the 1033 was a squareneck for lapstyle playing. CW owned (at least) two or three of these Reso-phonic guitar: The red one that’s pictured with a very young CW and two black ones with different coverplates. These could be the same, as one of the coverplates is none-original and could have been a replacement.
National Style-O (1939/40 and 2002)
After much confusion and more help from people who know these things, I now understand that Chris played TWO Style Os: a vintage National String Instruments from c. 1939/40 and a new National Resophonic from c. 2002.
Thanks to Hiroshi Suda and Anders Halvorsen, here are the major differences between the two models:
- Head (Slotted on 200x / Flat on 193x)
- Neck (12 fret joint on 200x / 14 fret joint on 193x),
- Position mark (Dot on 200x / Parallelogram on 193x)
- Body Shape and Pattern of the cover plate (raised 4-spoke pinwheel on 200x/no pinwheel on 193x)
Chris used his old Style O extensively on Dirt Floor tracks, including Accordingly, Wild Country, From One Island to Another, Altitude, and Dirt Floor. Re the new Style O, Hiroshi Suda notes, “When I played this guitar at the 2006 NY Tribute, I found “MEDICINE WHEEL” engraved (by Chris, I believe) on the headstock.”
1929 (’31?) National Triolian
Chris’ most recognizable guitar, the National Triolian was featured extensively on promotional materials for Living with the Law. This icon, which he named “Mustard,” is so special that it merits a separate blog post with more pictures and a full discussion of this gem! Find it here.
Martin Acoustic 00-15 (000-15?)
A less well-known guitar, played extensively on the Perfect Day CD, is the Martin acoustic. Chris’ model is a1956 (Chris id-ed on the KMTT 1999-04-14 radio show) 00-15 or 000-15. Based on photos at the Martin website, I’m thinking it might be the 00-15M, but I’m at a loss to explain the two large white dots on the pick guard. Hiroshi further hypothesizes that Chris didn’t bring this guitar with him on tour, but that he played it at some radio shows – i.e. KMTT, KBAC – in 1999, especially on acoustic versions of Firefighter (Little Torch later). You can listen to the full KMTT show here.
Among the tracks recorded using the Martin are Perfect Day, Crystal Ship, and Solid Iron Heart.
Trixie now owns this guitar and plays it on a lot of her songs, e.g., . According to Hiroshi, Trixie did not “inherit” the Martin from her father; rather, she bought it back from someone who had bought it from Chris.
The two photos below show father playing the Martin during the recording of the Perfect Day CD of covers and daughter playing the same guitar, several years later.
Chris seems to have owned several Dobro guitars: at least two metal-body and two wood-body Dobros. The Regal/Dobro metal body differs from National resonator guitars of the same vintage (1930s) in that Regal/Dobro tops and backs were fastened to the sides with a unique rolled method that required no soldering. This “lip” lead to the guitar sometimes being referred to as a “Fiddle Edge”.
According to Jeffrey Duke Patterson, the Dobro shown on the left “appears to be at least a 1935 model, possibly an M-65, as it looks like it has sandblasted etchings. These Dobros were known as “fiddle-side” and sometimes “scuba” Dobros. The top and back had a lip that rolled over to the side, giving it the look of a violin or “fiddle.” The “scuba” nickname refers to the bodies being made of steel or bell brass, but the way the sound holes looked with the steel crosses welded in them reminded players of a deep-sea diving scuba helmet. And though these could be stock, these guitars actually came with a banjo-style tuner. Hiroshi Suda adds that this one has 2 pickups (humbucker or filtertron), and Anders comments that “the peghead is really strange and does not look like a Dobro. The body does, so maybe CW put a new neck on it. I agree re the model ID, although this could be a M-62 – the difference is on the pattern on the back.”
Guitarhq.com notes that the M-65 had a “nickel-plate brass metal body (like a National Style O), ‘singing ladies’ scene sandblasted into the nickel finish, dot fingerboard inlays, bound rosewood fingerboard, round window sound holes, [and] DOBRO inlaid with celluloid into the rosewood peg head veneer.” This model first “appeared in catalogs in 1938 (but may have been available a year earlier), and hence should always have a pick guard (or at least two holes in the body where a pick guard was mounted), and was discontinued in 1940.
Another metal-body Dobro has been identified as the M-35 (possibly 1938/39 to 1941). Guitarhq.com describes this model as having a “sheet metal steel body, walnut sunburst (yellow or orange fades to brown) painted finish, usually segmented “f” holes (but sometimes round window sound holes), dot fingerboard inlays, bound rosewood fingerboard (sometimes unbound), 14 frets clear of the body, painted resonator plate, [and] gold sparkle peg head overlay with “Dobro” peghead decal.” This model also appeared in the late ’30s and was discontinued in 1940. Possibly listed as “Brown” on set lists, Chris played the M-35 on e.g., New Machine [see video here], God Thing and Never.
In contrast to the metal bodies, the wood-bodied Dobro/Regal has a warmer, less metallic (duh!) sound, but also less sustain and volume. One of Chris’ wood-body Dobros is possibly a Regal M-27 (Anders thinks 1934 to 1937). Those who know about such things can determine whether this ID is right by examining the Model 27 description provided on ResoGat.com:
The earliest Model 27 had an unbound stained with perhaps faux wood grain body, the hardware was painted silver and some instruments had painted frets …. The Model 27 was constructed of non-descript hardwood laminate (generally birch or ash). The top of the guitar was finished in Dobros® traditional brown sunburst, with the dark area extending around the outer periphery of the top. The back, sides and neck were finished in a very dark brown, which almost appeared black. The top only was bound in white celluloid, and the fretboards were unbound and most often of rosewood …. Late in production (sometime after 1937), Regal-built Model 27’s were bound both on the top and the back and even the fretboard was bound. Otherwise, their features match those of earlier Model 27s.
Another of Chris’ wood-body Dobros is a relatively new one, year and model unknown. But Anders Halvorsen has noted: “This is not a vintage Dobro/Regal …. The dead giveaway is the white trussrod-cover. The original dobro’s from the 30’s and 40’s did not have (adjustable) trussrods. Not sure about the model number or year, but identifying characteristics include the binding on front, with no binding on neck, Gibson logo(?) on a solid peghead, and 14 frets to the body.” Anders has also explained the “missing soundhole covers”: “They are probably not “missing” as such. Dobro players know that removing the screens will change the sound, improving volume and bass. You can even buy rings with no screens in them to put in (because open holes look “unfinished”). Since both wood bodies had the screens removed, maybe CW liked the sound.”
Chris played a wood-body Dobro on my favorite live acoustic version of New Machine:
1958 Gibson ES-125 (.012 first string; .021 third)
According to gbase.com, the1958 Gibson ES125 has “a maple top with a vintage sunburst finish. The mahogany sides and maple back are stained a dark brown. Both the top and back are bound. The top has dual f holes and a raised celluloid tortoise pickguard. It has a mahogany neck with a rosewood fretboard that has seven dot inlays. A Gibson gold script logo can be found on the headstock. There are 20 frets of which 14 are clear of the body. …. Other features include a single P90 pickup, gold bonnet knob volume and tone controls, a compensated rosewood bridge. a nickel trapeze tailpiece, and three on a plate deluxe Kluson tuners with plastic white buttons.
Jeffrey Duke Patterson notes that “Chris had this guitar a while and used it quite a bit. He loved that it was an archtop f-hole hollow-body, with a really hot, factory P-90 pickup in the neck position. He could really get some good dirt and grind, tone-wise, out of this guitar.” The Gibson ES was played a lot on Terra Incognita (e.g., As Flat As the Earth, Power Down, Weightless, Cool Wooden Crosses, and Automatic).
’95 Bart Reiter five-string banjo
Also known as “The Whyte Laydie,” Chris played on e.g., Ballpeen Hammer, The Model.