A Guide to Chris Whitley’s Gear 1: Electric Guitars


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, Anders Halversen, Andi Lechner, and other members from the ATCW group for helping to identify the guitars in the photo below.

Some of Chris’s guitar collection: Top (l to r): 1 – partial image of G-707, guitar synth; 2 – 1968 Fender Duosonic; 3 – Charango (Andean lute); 4 – National Triolian; 5 – Gibson Les Paul Jr (actually a modified Les Paul TV?); 6 -’52 or ’53 Gibson Les Paul (originally a goldtop)
Bottom (l to r): 1 – 1950s Martin 00-15; 2 – Bart Reiter 5-string banjo; 3 – National Resophonic 1133; 4 – Valco/National Res-O-Glas Bass 85 (1962 or ’63); 5 – Gibson Melody Maker ; 6 – Sunburst Gibson Les Paul Jr. ; 7 – 193x National Style O; 8 – Fender Jazz Bass

This post will focus on only the electric guitars in Chris’s collection.  Chris’s acoustic guitars are discussed here.

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.

Gibson Les Paul Special - TV
Gibson Les Paul Special – TV

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.

Les Paul TV (Photo from Guitar March 1997)
Les Paul TV (Photo from Guitar March 1997)

Les Paul Special
Gibson Les Paul Jr. (photo from eBay listing)

Gibson SG (Photo Credit: John Custer)
Gibson SG (Photo Credit: John Custer)

[Update based on info provided by Chris McNally, an ATCW group member who purchased the guitar 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:

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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!

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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:

Gibson Melodymaker

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’s 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 [sic it’s] 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.”

Trxiie on Din CD161

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!

Khyber Narcotic snapshot of Melody Maker

Duesenberg Starplayer Chris Whitley Signature Model 2003

Duesenberg Starplayer Chris Whitley Signature Model 2003
Photo Credit: Duesenberg Guitars

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

Chris with his custom Kellys (photo possibly also by Jerry Whitley - and certainly the original for the poster/ad below)
Chris with his custom Kellys (photo possibly also by Jerry Whitley – and certainly the original for the poster/ad below)

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 guitars come with P-90 Pickups.

cwkelly
Poster/ad Chris with his custom Kelly Explorer
with Rick Kelly Carmine Street Guitars 1994 photo by Jerry Whitley
with Rick Kelly of Carmine Street Guitars 1994 (Photo by Jerry Whitley)

Rick Kelly custom-built Explorer
Rick Kelly custom-built Explorer

 

National Resolectric

1991 National Resolectric R-1
1991 National Resolectric R-1

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. You might be interested to know that an R-1 of similar vintage but in red sold for over $80,000 at a Christie’s auction.  Of course, context matters:  It was owned by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd!  A look-alike with serial number 001 was listed at $2,000 on Reverb.

Fender Guitars

Fender Duo Sonic:  Hiroshi has provided this info from the eBay listing in which Chris sold several guitars:  “This 1968 Fender Duo-Sonic has a 1965 neck, and was custom designed by Trixie Whitley.  Chris wrote Living Fender Duo Sonic or Musicmaker- year unknownwith the Law, Can’t Get Off, Ultraglide, and Narcotic Prayer on this guitar. He toured with it from 93-94 and also used it in the recording of DIN OF ECSTASY.”

 

Fender Telecaster:  Also from that eBay listing:  “This 1978 Telecaster has a 1968 neck, and was bought in Belgium in the mid-80Fender Telecaster - model name & year unknown‘s. Chris wrote Kick the Stones, Phone Call from Leavenworth, and Clear Blue Sky on this guitar. He also used it in the recording of DIN OF ECSTASY.

Valco/National Res-O-Glas Bass

I have never seen a photo of Chris holding or playing this guitar, but it’s in the photo of Chris’s guitar collection so ….

Anders Halvorsen has provided the following info about this rare bird:  “Correctly identifed as a National short-scale Res-O-Glas bass [although] it had the same scale length as a guitar, this series of guitars and basses were often refered to as map shaped due to the fact that the body looked like the US map.  Chris’s bass is probably a 1962 or 1963 model; production started in 1962 and in 1963 it got a smaller body and a different shape on the upper, bass side horn.”

A 1961 model (see photo) was listed for sale on reverb, and Vintage Guitar reviewed the guitar noting some of its oddities:  “Factor in other oddball Valco doodads like “Gumby-shaped” headstocks, control knobs on the bass side of the body instead of the usual treble side, and built-into-the-bridge Silversound pickups, and you’ve got one of the strangest aggregations in the history of American electric stringed instruments.”  Overall, Vintage Guitar concluded “Too odd for their own time, the “why” of their marketing story may never be fully explained. They may command a bit of attention due to their goofy looks nowadays, but that’s about it. As for a decent bass sound… fergeddaboudit.”

Valco National Res-O-Glas Bass (reverb.com)

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5 thoughts on “A Guide to Chris Whitley’s Gear 1: Electric Guitars

  1. Thanks so much for this website. I was wondering if anyone knows where Chris got his slide, I’ve been looking for years and no one seems to make them. It’s the one that is full length but is only a slide on one side and open on the other so you can flip it around and use your finger when you don’t want to play slide without taking it off. Thanks again.

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    1. Wow, that was my question exactly. I noticed that slide he used, as well, and have never seen the like anywhere else. Of course, it is not out of the question that it is custom made. I would love to know more about his choices in effects and amplification, as well, beyond the pickups he put on his Resos. He has tracks with a lot of really effectively controlled feedback, for instance. How did he get those sounds? “Clear Blue Sky” comes to mind, but there are other more than a few other examples, as well.

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