Monday, November 28, 2016

Keef's Favorite Guitars & How He Got 'Em

The man known as "The Human Riff" has over 3,000 guitars at his disposal, filling up a warehouse and maintained by one of the best techs in the industry... but just like anyone else, he's got his favorites, and a few of them have great stories. While there are many blogs and websites dedicated to Keith's guitars, I'm focusing on a few favs with some interesting origins.


Keef & Micawber, a love affair 46 years strong.

Keith's #1 and most iconic guitar, a '53 butterscotch blackguard Telecaster nicknamed "Micawber" (after a Charles Dickens' character from David Copperfield), has been profiled at great length by just about every guitar publication in existence, so I won't be getting too crazy here; I will point out, in keeping with the theme of this post, that an early-50's blackguard Telecaster was presented to Keith as a 27th birthday gift in December 1970 by none other than Eric Clapton himself, at a time when EC made a habit of gifting Fenders to his mates (see addendum below for updated info). While on tour in Nashville, Clapton purchased six Strats from the Sho-Bud music shop; three as gifts for George Harrison, Pete Townshend, and Steve Winwood, then took the best parts of the other three and had Nashville luthier Ted Newman-Jones III assemble what would become known as "Blackie", Clapton's signature instrument throughout the '70s and '80s. But why is this part of a blog post about Keith Richards?

Keith with pre-op Micawber in original spec, circa early '72

Newman-Jones would go on to work for the Stones after showing up unannounced at Keith's Nellcôte villa in the south of France, where the band was recording Exile on Main Street in 1971. He convinced Keith that he should have a freshly-tuned guitar ready for each song when touring, and after a strong referral by Clapton, became their first official guitar tech. He was the man who added the backward Gibson PAF humbucker to the neck position of Micawber in late 1972, replaced the bridge pickup with a late-'40s Fender lap steel relic, and modified the Tele specifically for 5-string open-G use, something Keith had been experimenting with but hadn't found the perfect guitar for until then. Newman-Jones worked on many of Keith's other guitars, including the backup to Micawber, a similarly-modified near-identical natural ash '54 Tele named "Malcolm", and built several custom instruments for him as well throughout the '70s and early '80s.

After all these years following and reading about both musicians, I never knew of this connection between them and their signature guitars until now, and personally think it's pretty damn cool that two of those most iconic instruments of the era were the result of the same luthier.

Addendum 1/11/17: Per the first-hand account of Jeff Smith, current head of Newman Guitars, the original EC birthday gift Telecaster was in fact stolen from Keith at the Nelcotte villa during the recording of Exile, and he requested that Newman-Jones find a couple of similar replacements for the upcoming tour; he brought Keith a pair of blackguard Teles, a '53 and '54, which would soon become known as Micawber and Malcolm, respectively. The original humbucker route was performed on Micawber by Newman-Jones with a screwdriver and ball-peen hammer during the '72 tour. So while Micawber was not the birthday gift it was rumored to have been, it was still very much part of the Clapton/Richards/Newman-Jones guitar triangle.

Micawber in it's current form, with backward Gibson PAF in neck
and brass bridge with low-E saddle removed.

'72 Black Telecaster Custom

Keith with his black Tele Custom in '82 (Ronnie Wood to the left).

Another favorite of Keith's is a '72 black Telecaster Custom, purchased at the Caldwell Music Company in San Antonio, Texas, on June 5th, 1975, for $364.00. How do we know the exact date and price? Because the man who sold it to Keith said so, with evidence:

"I had gone to the Monday evening (Stones) show, and was back in the saddle at Caldwell Music store on Tuesday, selling gear, and nursing a bit of a hangover. A young kid came running into the store, yelling 'the Rolling Stones are over at the liquor store!' San Antonio, at that time had five music stores in about a two block stretch. We were at the end that was closest to the liquor store. After getting some fortification, the Stones started making their trip down "music row".

Sure enough it wasn't long before Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and a roadie sauntered into the store. We didn't go nuts, we needed to stay cool, and just treat them like any good customer. They were quite personable, and easy to talk with. Keith wore a blue work type shirt, with a hole cut out over one of his nipples. Ron and Keith went straight to the guitar wall, while the roadie placed an order for some drum heads. Keith mentioned a 'Tele with a bucker' in his British accent, and soon had it in his hands. I don't think he ever plugged it in, just noodled around on it. I don't believe Keith ever put the black Custom down, but held on to it until he got over to the counter to complete the transaction.

Our owner Ed Fest, published a small monthly newspaper, that had pics of many different customers posing with gear they had just purchased. It was the duty of the salesmen on the floor to grab a camera that was always loaded, and take the pictures for "The Caldwell Happenings". I had read in the news of incidents between camera flashers, and members of the Rolling Stones. I decided I should ask first, and shoot later. After explaining why we wanted the pic, Keith said "do it". I took one shot, and he kind of posed for me, holding up the fat white pay envelope, and reaching in for bills to buy his Tele.
Someone asked where Jagger was, and Keith said 'He's probably in the bloody jet, setting at the end of the runway cursing us'."
- Gene Warner, forum (paraphrased), 3/29/2010

The original sales receipt (left) and photo of Keith & Ronnie (flanked by crew members, right)
purchasing the Tele Custom (Photos courtesy of Gene Warner & Oscar Fernandez).

This guitar spent it's first decade or so with Keith in standard tuning as one of his favorites for stage and studio, including use as a weapon against a stage-rushing fan in '81, and the infamous 1987 "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n Roll" concert film with Chuck Berry, reappearing later in life with an open-G setup and the pickup toggle switched moved to replace one of the tone controls. The unique sound of the Fender Wide Range hi/lo humbucker in the neck, along with 1meg volume pots, set this Tele apart from Micawber and Malcolm, and may have interacted better with Keith's Mesa/Boogie amps of the era. There is a rumor that the original neck and/or body (or even the entire guitar) was replaced at some point, possibly with the original pickups transplanted into a newer model, but this is unconfirmed.

Oh, he definitely got some Satisfaction out of that...

Keith with his black Tele Custom in '78 (left), and more recently in '06 (right)

'59 Ebony ES-355

In the Spring of 2000, I had the privilege of working at a recording studio where Keith made a guest appearance on a Hubert Sumlin album, About Them Shoes. Already a huge fan, having seen the Stones several times, countless hours spent playing Keith riffs in my bedroom on my dad's '66 Tele, this was the thrill of my then-20-year-old lifetime, still yet to be eclipsed in many ways. Although his longtime tech Pierre de Beauport didn't make the trip, he sent two of Keith's favorite instruments: his #2 Telecaster, Malcolm, tuned to open-G, and his beautiful ebony '59 Gibson ES-355, Keith's favorite guitar for standard-tuning songs at the time. If memory serves correct, Keith used only the Gibson along with a Louis Electric combo amp to cut two Muddy Waters tunes that day, "Still A Fool" and "I Live the Life I Love". It was absolutely surreal watching him at work, totally in the zone and vibing off of some incredible players at the session, including Levon Helm, Bob Margolin, Paul Oscher, and of course Hubert himself. Although I didn't get a picture, we had a great little conversation before he handed me a couple guitar picks. I'll never forget that day for the rest of my life.

'59 ES-355 when owned by Mike Bowen, '88-'93

That ES-355, turns out, previously belonged to a current acquaintance of mine, whom I did not know at the time; a vintage guitar connoisseur and collector from Pittsburgh, PA named Mike Bowen. To say Mike is a guitar aficionado is a gross understatement... the guy knows '59 Les Pauls down to the serial number, can tell you who owned what when and sold it to whom, it's incredible. It was circa 1988 that a young man brought that ES-355 into Hollowood Music in Pittsburgh looking to sell; it had been his father's guitar, and he passed away. Having never seen an ebony '59 before (only sunburst or cherry red), the guys in the shop thought it was a refinish job. Mike was looking to add to his collection, which included a '59 ebony Les Paul Custom at the time, and when he compared the finishes, it was evident that the 355 was indeed a very rare factory ebony. Later, Mike learned that Gibson made only three ebony 355s in 1959, and this was one of them.

Keef posing with that same 355 for Louis Vuitton, '08

Mike kept the guitar until 1993 when he got the itch for a '59 'burst Les Paul, and sold it to Harvey Moltz of Rainbow Guitars in Tucson, Arizona. It was there that Pierre de Beauport found it in 1995 while the Stones were passing thru town on the Voodoo Lounge tour; he immediately recognized the 355 as something Keith would love, as it was a rare combination of period and looks; Keith, being a lifelong Chuck Berry fan, would love that it was from Chuck's era, but not the bright red that was Berry's signature. Keith has always liked the looks of ebony Les Paul Customs, and this 355 had the tuxedo-like appointments, as well as gold hardware and bigsby vibrato. It's been his main instrument for standard-tuning songs ever since, although a new contender was found in 2006, very close to my home.

'64 Custom White ES-345

"Dwight" with his original owner in '64 (left), and Keith in '06 (right).

"Da White One", eventually just "Dwight", a '64 ES-345, was purchased for Keith at Lark Street Music in Teaneck, NJ, while on the Bigger Bang world tour in '06. A custom-order one-off finish, this ultra-rare guitar was in the possession of it's original owner for 40 years before being sold privately in '04, ending up with Buzzy Levine at Lark St. a year later (a wonderful shop that I visit often, and highly recommend if in the northern NJ area). Keith has been playing this guitar quite a lot ever since, sometimes for all of the standard-tuning tunes in a given night. Personally, the fanboy in me gets a slight kick out of having less than two degrees of separation from two of Keith's favorite Gibsons. Although Keith favors the Chuck riffs, i'd kill to play some B.B. on either one.

Lastly, a word on perhaps the hardest-working guitar technician in the business, Pierre de Beauport. Employed exclusively by Keith and the band for over 25 years, he was originally a recording studio employee, then hired by Mick Jagger as an assistant for a solo tour, before impressing Keith with his ability to rebuild and optimize old Fender tweed amps (possibly the reason Keith switched back to vintage Fenders in the early '90s). Pierre serves as senior guitar tech and crew chief while on the road, maintains Keith's massive guitar and amp collection the rest of the time (including the world's oldest known working tweed Twin, serial # 00003), as well as operating his own private recording studio (The Library) and working on his own music. A multi-instrumentalist, he's even managed to get a few performance credits on Stones albums, along with a songwriting co-credit for "Thief in the Night" on 1997's Bridges to Babylon. Quite possibly the most enviable part of Pierre's gig, at least in my humble opinion, is his task of procuring any new equipment he thinks Keith might like; visiting the best vintage guitar shops in the world, inspecting the finest instruments, with a seemingly unlimited budget... ah, 'tis but a dream. The most unenviable part? He estimates to have changed approximately a quarter of a million guitar strings over his career thus far. C'est la vie.

Pierre de Beauport soundchecking one of Keith's ancient Martins on stage.

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  1. Nice piece. Do you happen to know anything about the green tele Keith started playing summer 2015?

    1. i'm not sure how he got that one, but it made me happy because i have one just like it!

    2. im pretty sure it was bought in st paul on zip code tour

    3. Possibly the same day he got this '54 tweed Pro...

  2. Extadinary info about Keith's guitars, I'm also a collector "Luthier" I restored a few old Gibson arctops, and find vintage instruments that need to be restored and refurbished, being a Jazz guitarist, I favor the archtops, but fenders and les pauls are implied, the Strat is my all time favorite, but as far as action and intonation are concerned, nothing can beat a custom guitar I built from scatch, a Strat like no other.. But my personal favorits are the origanl Epiphone classic Archtops from the 50's, Broadway regents, and the Gibson's L-5s and L-7s as well as the Birdland.....
    Much love Babz.

  3. Great article. Do you know anything about the ES-350 that he never plays onstage but is often photographed playing backstage and in the studio?

    1. I understand it's a favorite of his for warming up backstage and in hotel rooms, but that's all... no idea how he acquired it.

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