There are many curious things out there in the world, all of them worth seeing and hearing about. Pieces of sculpture and art that stand forever to be seen and worshipped. Architecture to shape the way we live. Photography to capture the singular most important moments in the instance of human life. Yet there are also curiosities in the world that are ephemeral, bound to disappear before anyone gets to see them and live them. Eccentric men and women, artists and musicians who radiate personality and skill. People who exist for an instant within the context of human history and the history of the world. People who we feel like we should remember precisely because of their character, artful lifestyle and philosophy, and yet are lost to time and memory, so they can never be experienced again. A privilege and a shame.
Thankfully for the future generations, these people tend to alter even the physical world around them. The resulting changes are monuments to who they were. Looking at the things they leave behind gives us a second to understand who they were and why they did the things they did. For legendary guitar players, these items are often their favorite instrument. I wanted to pay homage to some of the most skillful, some of the most influential and interesting players to have ever been. I have decided to do so by looking at some of the most unique guitars that have ever existed on the surface of the world.
Gene Simmons – Axe Bass
KISS is a band that deserves a lot of credit. Their music is most of the time very enjoyable, but their biggest asset was their brand, their presentation and their look. Their music is incredible, but it stands second to the iconic personality this band built around themselves. So no surprises here when one of the most iconic guitars (I have) ever seen was owned by a member of the band: Gene Simmons. He was the bass player for the band, in addition to the vocals, and his (quite literal) axe is just as iconic as he himself is.
Gene Simmons thought of the idea as part of his demon character. He wanted to make it more iconic and added on the axe to make the fire breathing, blood spitting stage personality of his even more extreme. It worked. It worked so well that here I am sitting exactly 40 years after the idea was conceived, and marvelling at the axe bass guitar. The guy was a genius, in terms of image of course.
This axe bass, and the unique band that it was part of, is the reason you see so many glam metal bands around the world. The first and the best at what they did (arguably) these men paved a path for a whole culture of black and white make up wearing, grotesque music loving musicians. Whether you see them spoofed in Japanese anime, or emulated by modern bands, you will always have to remember that the first band to have an actual axe as its bass guitar was KISS.
Rick Nielsen – Five Neck Hamer
You have heard of Cheap Trick. You might think you may have not, but I can assure you, you have heard of Cheap Trick. Maybe you are just too young to know that you have heard them? Whatever it is, you have heard them. I want you to want me, Surrender, Ain’t that a shame are all songs you will hear today and will still get you moving, You might not know who is singing it, but you have heard the songs. Lucky you, now you know: Cheap Trick is the band that wrote these songs.
Well, the guy with one of the most ridiculous and yet iconic instruments ever was part of this band. His name is Rick Nielsen and he has a guitar with five necks. If you are asking why would anyone want that back breaking monstrosity, you are asking the wrong question. What you should be wondering, why not? You see at the time there had been a rise in popularity for two neck guitars. Their flexibility and presentation was a favorite among fans. I mean a two neck guitar is cool to look at no matter what, right? Well, this appreciation of excess soon out grew itself and Rick Nielsen got an idea.
Whenever touring this guitar player would have 5 guitars always ready. A 12 string guitar, a fretless guitar, a Stratocaster, a Junior and a Hamer. Whenever he was performing he would drop one guitar off at a certain point, pick up the other and keep playing. Eventually this became a tiring routine. So he got an idea to come up with something even more tiring – combine all five guitars into one! The result? He had one huge, heavy, five neck guitar which he did not have to keep putting on and off of his shoulder. The guitar quickly became a fan favorite and soon, became iconic, both of the love of excess and the love of a show.
Bo Diddley – Twang Machine
Bo Diddley is a name every rock and roll artist, fan and enthusiast should know. If you don’t, shame on you, sit down and learn. Why? Because he is the reason Rock and Roll exists in the first place. He is the first blues musician to start performing in the high speed, noisy guitar riffs and chords that would soon blow up and take over the taste of the world; He caused all of the icons that you worship today to want to be like, making him the icon to the icons. The primary influence for the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and The Clash making him pretty much the common ancestor to every rock and roller. Pop Rock, Hard Rock and Punk are basically his children. So shame on you for not knowing. And be proud to know him now.
Bo Diddley was an interesting character. His performances were highly energetic, with a lot of movement happening on the stage. Jumping around, energetic dancing and so on. The heavy guitars of the time did not lend themselves too well to that. So eventually, during one of his performances a guitar darted into Diddley’s diddles and he keeled over in pain. In that moment Bo Diddley realized that jumping on stage could result in this happening over and over again. He did not want to stop jumping, so he realized he needed a solution.
The Solution? His now Iconic Twang Machine. This square shaped guitar became his signature tool. He would not perform anywhere with it. The square shape was said to somehow swing less when he moved around the stag, thus keeping him protected from any unfortunate collisions. It also provided a rather unique look to the guitar player. The unique look became a part of being a rock and roll artist, and eventually every band would have a signature “thing”. The Beatles’ Haircut, Jagger’s Moves, the Clash’s Denim and of course Elvis’s… Everything?
Whatever it is, nobody has been able to pull of the square guitar ever since Bo Diddley famously used it for most of his career. The Twang Machine is a rock artifact, as much as Bo Diddley is a rock legend.
Willie Nelson – Trigger
Willie Nelson is old. Like very old. He was old back when his career blew up in the 1970s and it has been 40 years ever since; Has been around to see and write and sing about everything that has taken place in the United States; And he is an icon to an entire generation, while also representing the sound of the US for a lot of people both inside and outside of the country. You can see the age in his wrinkles and his scars, in his posture and in his face, and yet there is someone that feels like they are older than Willie Nelson. His guitar, the Trigger.
The Trigger has been around since 1969, starting its career with Willie right before Willie’s career actually went into overdrive. He broke his old guitar, bought a new one, and left for Texas. There he found himself becoming the icon he was and he felt like one of the reasons this happened was his guitar. He named it Trigger, after the horse that Roy Rogers rode in every single one of his films. And then he said the day when this guitar goes, I stop playing. The guitar has stayed by his side ever since, never leaving and always playing right. Over the past 50 years the guitar has aged, not too well. Even in its first years it was already suffering. And that is where its uniqueness comes from.
The guitar through being played with a pick non-stop started to feel the wear. The body started wearing, and soon a hole developed in the middle, right next to the soundhole. It kept growing bigger, so that a guitar technician had to maintain it every time Willie Nelson decided to perform with it. And yet Willie never put it down. He kept playing on it, kept saying that his guitar is a part of him and is the only reason he can play and sing the way he is. The guitar built a legend around itself, as much as Willie built a legend around himself.
It wasn’t long before Willie started getting country royalty to sign his guitar. Looking at it now you can see a half dozen signatures scratched into the guitar. It is like the guitar carries blessings from the best country musicians who ever lived. The guitar lived, through constant maintenance and through Willie’s will. Even today it persists, being played by Willie whenever he performs, again.
So, even if Willie has aged, his guitar has aged much more than he has. The scars and wrinkles on the guitar tell the story of music as much as the scars and wrinkles on Willie’s tell his. Which is what makes the guitar so unique – the love the owner had for it, the history it has and the incredibly long, fully lived life, more so than any other guitar ever has had.
Jack White – Custom Gretsch
Jack White is a unique artist by any standard. Especially by any modern standard. He has been a way of revival for modern rock and roll, returning to the roots in blues and turning these roots into a modern strength. He is a living legend that we hope produces so much more exciting stuff as soon as possible. So when he asked for a custom guitar, nobody was surprised. It was actually surprising he had not made a custom guitar way before the moment he asked for it.
Once upon a time, as part of the Raconteurs, Jack White decided that the guitar he had was not enough. It was a beautiful, semi hollow body Gretsch that sounded pretty amazing. Yet it was not enough. He asked his friend to customize it by installing a green harmonica bullet into it. Yep. Not on it, not to it, but into it. The result? Well, rather interesting.
The guitar sounded a little different now. It had a whole spool inside it attached to a bullet that jack white could simply pull out at any time he wanted. He started using this during concerts and recordings. Now he had a unique guitar which he could use both as a mic for his harmonica and a mic for his voice. Quoting him: “Something interesting happened”. Just listen to the Raconteurs perform live, and you will be able to tell.
This concludes my short list of unique guitars. If you really think about it this list was not about uniqueness at all. Mostly about the guitars I found extremely fascinating, or ones that impressed me the most throughout my life. Most of the people listed here were, at one point or another, heroes to me. Well, not everyone, but each one made onto the list for a reason.
Unique guitars forge names and legends as much as fame and skill do. So maybe, someday, you too can have a unique guitar a music geek will be excited to write about. Either way, fun times.