From Gibson Firebirds to Les Pauls to thinline semis, from Fender Teles to Strats and Jaguars, from Epiphone archtops to Nationals, Sean Silvester’s guitars are all about one thing: delivering classic electric blues sounds. Interview by Lars Mullen
It only takes one glance at the name of Sean Silvester’s regular band to know what he’s all about: with a moniker like The Bluekings, it’s going to be vintage Chicago 12-bars and classic West Coast jive and swinging blues all the way. Travelling between their native West Yorkshire and the rest of the country with stop-offs at shindigs like the Great British R&B Festival, they’re all about giving folks a fine time. As for Sean, his assembly of tools of the trade provides ample proof of the massive range of sounds, looks and styles that can fall under the broad banner of ‘blues guitar’.
Sean’s musical beginnings were slightly inauspicious. ‘Looking back to my early days at school it’s a wonder I play the guitar or that I’m even interested in music,’ he explains. ‘Along with my brothers and sisters, I was forced to undergo some very dreary music lessons! As the weekend approached, Friday should have been a day to look forward to… but I started to hate the last day of the week, because I was thinking about those
forthcoming piano and violin lessons.
‘So at that time, wanting to play any kind of instrument, whatever the genre, didn’t really enter my head. Still, I suppose it did give us all a good music grounding, and we’ve all ended up playing instruments of some kind… and luckily for me, it was the guitar.
‘I started playing as a teenager in the late ’70s, inspired by guys like Freddie King – who, from day one, was and still is my favourite blues player. I literally wore out my copy of the ’74 album Burglar, but the later albums were just as good. His sound and his control over the guitar was just the best… he died far too young.’
Sean’s approach to finding his guitars is well-honed, and he’s long since given up the chance of saving a few quid via the web in favour of trying before he buys, every time. ‘I’ve bought a few guitars off the internet in the past,’ he admits, ‘but the question is, how do you know that particular guitar is going to be the best of the bunch? You don’t. That’s why I’m a big fan of music shops. You always know what you are getting, and you can get to pick the actual guitar you want.
‘I’ve bought all my guitars with an eye to how they will work out in a live situation with the band. I’ve found that what attracts me about a guitar when trying it out in a shop or even at home doesn’t always work when the drums and the bass are going.’
As well as being blues-mad, Sean is hugely fond of classic ’70s material by such artists as David Bowie and Roxy Music… which leads us neatly
onto the first three guitars hauled out for our delectation today. ‘I was always mad about the three-pickup red Gibson Firebird that Roxy’s Phil Manzanera used to play – it looked so huge and spectacular,’ he confesses. ‘I’ve been in love with Firebirds ever since.
‘The thing is, though, having owned about four of them, I realise all too well how much of a practical problem the body shape can be. You can’t lean them against a wall, or even an amp – you always need to use hanging guitar stands. They’re are not the most comfortable guitars to play, either, and they aren’t all that well balanced on the shoulder, but I still love them dearly… and for some reason I still seem to have three!
‘I did once have a red Firebird V, but although I loved Manzanera’s red Firebird VII, red isn’t actually my favourite colour for a guitar, so I swapped that one on for this ’89 model in tobacco sunburst.
‘This white one followed shortly afterwards – I saw it in a shop while I was working in the USA. It’s only a few years old, and I have it set up with a higher action for slide work.
‘The closest I’ve got to Phil’s is this Firebird VII, which is also from 1989 – a three-pickup model finished in seafoam green with gold hardware. I looked closely to the area behind the tailpiece to see if there were any holes filled in as I thought it should have had a vibrato, but Gibson themselves confirmed that this model shipped without one. This colour is similar to one I saw several years ago, but I let that one go
as it was very expensive. I always regretted it until I saw this one, which was about half the price of the one I missed. Seafoam green really does it for me, so this Firebird is the joy of joys.
‘I don’t actually use any of the Firebirds live, but I think the Gibson mini-humbucker is such an underrated pickup. The sound of it is just so pure Firebird… it’s the whole character of the guitar. Just listen to Johnny Winter, for example.
‘Another one I have with mini-humbuckers is a Les Paul Deluxe goldtop from 1969, the first year that Gibson fitted these pickups to a Les Paul – so it’s one of the ones without the volute on the headstock. The pickups are really versatile, and this guitar is just so loud! They have so much detail and punch, yet they’re very controllable, and they’re ideal for styles from jazz fusion right across to ’70s hard rock, like Scott Gorham in Thin Lizzy. This was the first Les Paul I bought and it has just the right amount of wear for a guitar of this age. This one is a great player.
‘I’d rather have the versatility of a mini humbucker over a PAF… but they’re all very different, of course, which is why they are so good. I have three other goldtops here, and it’s odd to see how the finish differs on each model. I have two goldtops with P90s: the darker one on the right is an original ’54 complete with the original case, which came from Vintage & Rare in London’s Denmark Street. I just think it’s nice to own a guitar that’s older than me… it’s also probably in better condition! I wouldn’t dare gig this one – if it got knocked over, I’d weep.
‘This other one, with a slightly brighter gold finish, is a Gibson 1954 Les Paul reissue, which is a wonderful guitar in its own right. It’s great having an original and a reissue of the same guitar so that you can compare the two. They both have a great sound, actually – the reissue plays well and sings like a bird, but the original ’54 feels a lot looser to play and the pickups seem to have a slightly lower output, with a beautiful mellow tone. It’s probably an age issue with the woods and the magnets. The P90s work so well on this model, but they do vary a lot from one guitar to another… which is another reason that they’re all so good
‘Finally for the goldtop Les Pauls, I have a 2005 fitted with humbuckers that came from the USA. It’s one of my latest additions, and the gold finish looks really bright in comparison. I wanted just one classic Les Paul with humbuckers, as I thought it would be rude not to. After a really good set-up, it turned out to be a nice guitar.’
Sean isn’t a pure Gibson man, however, and if the situation calls for it then he’s more than happy to jump ship. ‘I do use a Les Paul here and there in The Bluekings, but if both the guitarists in the band were using a Gibson then we’d have the same sound on each side of the stage, so I’d much rather be the one to change to a Fender,’ he says. ‘Fenders are really straightforward, easy to fix on the very rare occasions that they break down, you can’t hurt them, they always cut through the mix… and they play and sound great.
‘For live stuff I’ve settled these days on three guitars, which include two Fender Nocaster Thinlines – one in tobacco burst and the other in see-through blond. I guess they’re a bit of a historical mismatch with the f-holes, but they’re very light, wonderful to play, and pretty versatile – and they also look great, with just the right amount of wear on the fingerboards and bodies
‘They’ve both got Twisted Tele pickups, which are quite Stratty and a little hotter than normal; the neck units are taller to accommodate the extra windings, but they balance really well with the bridge pickups. I fitted a Bigsby and a Mastery bridge to the sunburst one, and I think it has come out really well. I only wish I could find a seafoam green one so I could do the same mods to that – I’d be in raptures!’
The Bluekings have played at some of the larger blues events around the UK, and at the Colne festival they were approached by a visiting band from the USA who invited them to go over play a string of dates in Nashville. ‘Needless to say, we didn’t argue the point,’ Sean chuckles. ‘All the gear was supplied, so we travelled light. We went down really well as a UK blues band in the USA, and we also made sure we saw some great players in the local clubs. You can’t be a blues guitarist and not be influenced by the big players. I have so many in mind, such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, and also his brother Jimmie in the Fabulous Thunderbirds… a very classy band.
‘Although he wasn’t exactly a blues player, Joe Strummer was one of my all-time guitar-playing heroes – what a loss it was when he died. He played, sang and wrote from the heart. I think the Clash were the best band in the world, and I’m still a huge fan. I saw them several times in the late ’70s, including at the Rock Against Racism concert.
‘As a tribute,I just had to buy one of Joe’s signature Fender Teles when they were launched in 2008. I also have a ’72 blond Telecaster with a polyester finish that has quite nicely aged over the years. It’s a good player, but it’s from a period when Teles had a really cutting-edge tone. I think most Teles need a little taming sometimes, but this one with the maple neck and fingerboard is exceptionally bright! It works well with a mellow amp, but crank it up loud through a blackface combo and you’ll have the audience running for cover!
‘The third “working guitar” is a Fender Eric Clapton Strat with the Fender Lace Sensors. These were designed to keep the noisefloor to a minimum when using overdrive, and I also really like the boost control on this guitar. I keep it with a fairly high action for slide work, with the vibrato bolted right down, and as it’s set up with 16-60 gauge strings I can hit it pretty hard, and they also help a lot for accuracy and sustain when using a slide. I’ve had this one about 15 years now and have used it pretty extensively.’
In this company, Sean’s Fender Jaguar comes as something of a surprise. ‘We all know how Leo Fender more or less started with two of the best-known guitars, the Tele and the Strat, and they’ve passed the test of time and have become today’s classics,’ he ponders. ‘I do sometimes think that some of the other Fender designs are a bit under-par. Jaguars are gaining more popularity now, but they have far too many switches for me… I just want to plug in and go! A lot of pro musicians I know have had the pickup switches disabled so you can’t turn them off accidently. It’s all there though, the sound and the Fender vibe, and that’s why I own one.’
You’ll probably have noticed that Sean’s guitars are leaning against some very useful-looking amps. ‘I have several vintage tweed combos including a Fender Super, plus a brown Pro Amp with a 15” speaker which is a match made in heaven for the Teles, although my number one amp right now is a modern combo in the same vein. This 40W Lazy J combo sounds stunning as a studio or live amp… it just takes it all to the next level.’
We’re now going to move on from solidbodies towards the many and varied semi-hollow electrics in Sean’s collection. ‘Semi-acoustics are great, because they’re so different from solidbodies, and yet they’ve survived all the fashions and trends in music and successfully carved a path from blues, to rock, to punk,’ he says. ‘They’re also perfect for when you just fancy a change.
‘I was lucky to get hold of this Joe Bonamassa signature ES-335 as it was a very limited run. There’s nothing visible to denote it’s a signature guitar, which I’m thankful for as I’m not really a fan of that. Gibson did a fine job of replicating his original ’61 with the right kind of neck profile, the vintage sunburst finish, and ’57 Classic humbuckers with bumblebee caps in the circuitry.
‘They also did the VOS treatment on the finish, which does look the part. I like guitars with a little history and a lived-in look, with wear and tear that’s naturally acquired over the years. I think some of the Fender relics are okay if the scuffing isn’t too obvious; Gibson do some authentic-looking aged guitars from their Custom Shop range, which I personally think is probably a more sensible approach than a heavily distressed look. Overall, I do prefer it over a brand-new model… I’m always so petrified of getting that first inevitable ding in the first few weeks.
‘The next guitar is a 1967 Gibson ES-345 in pretty good shape for its age. The 345 came out in the late ’50s as an upgrade on the 335, with a six-way Varitone control and parallelogram fingerboard inlays. I’ve had this one for about 15 years; I don’t gig with it that much as it’s a bit too vintage, and there are some very nice modern alternatives.
‘This black ES-355 is relatively new, and I bought it purely for the eye candy! I think looks fabulous with gold hardware. The Bigsby works really well, and if I took off the scratchplate it would look almost identical to the one Keith Richards plays. I reckon this is one of the best-made modern Gibson guitars.
‘I also have an early ’70s semi-hollow Les Paul Signature goldtop. With the offset cutaway, it looks rather like a 335 crossed with a Les Paul. It has low impedance pickups that I find sound really flat. There’s a rotary phase switch with a choice of 50, 250 and 500 ohms to tune the guitar to a variety of amps. Les Paul, as we know, was a great jazz player and I think this is where this guitar works best. I’ve tried to wind it up with The Bluekings, but I think it’s best left clean. If I spend time with this guitar I can get nice mellow, rhythm tones.
‘It’s a really good guitar to record with too. I’ve always recorded at home. I started with analogue tape machines in the ’80s, and now have a studio using modern technology mixed with older analogue machines. I gets used for all kinds of stuff, from home demos to more serious stuff with university students.
‘There have been occasions when I’ve taken a couple of these Gibson semi-acoustics to gigs instead of the Teles, and while I’m not a complete fan of humbuckers in Les Pauls, I can gig all night with humbuckers in a Gibson semi. It must be the air inside… they sound terrific in a band set up. I don’t take a Fender and a Gibson to the same gig, though; I find there’s always far too much fiddling needed with the amp settings, as the tone and output are so different.’
The next two archtops take us deeper back into blues history. ‘This first one,’ Sean beams, ‘is an Epiphone Zephyr De Luxe Regent from 1951. I’ve always wanted one, ever since seeing a guitarist in a jazz band use one ages ago. This one also came from the USA, and it arrived in pretty bad condition. I’ve had it rewired and refinished, and it’s now looking good and playing nicely. I had an accurate replacement scratchplate made in the UK as the original was missing. It sounds very sweet and mellow, this one, both acoustically and plugged in.
‘I really like using it through the Epiphone Electar/Zephyr valve combo with its maple veneer cabinet. This amp was introduced in the mid-’40s and it delivers around 30W.
‘I bought the amp as a pair with this 1940s Epiphone Electar Coronet archtop. The single pickup is about the size of a house brick and is fitted from the back… what you see from the front is just the tip of the iceberg! Considering this is a fully hollow guitar, the pickup makes it surprisingly heavy. I should imagine the pickup was kind of Epiphone’s answer to the Gibson Charlie Christian model, but they put it near the bridge as opposed to up by the neck.
‘I also had to have this guitar rewired to get it up and running, and I’m using big strings. That’s no problem because it’s got a very nice action. It’s a lovely old guitar, and rather unusually there’s no sign of the binding deteriorating, which often happens with guitars this old, especially if they’ve been kept in a case for too long. These two Epiphones and the amp make up a nice little collection in their own right… and I love the fact that they all have the same control knobs.’
Sean also has a bent for cool-looking and even more unusual guitars. ‘This,’ he says, pulling out a black electro-resonator guitar, ‘is a USA-built Owens Zeta electro-acoustic. It’s like a resonator with a modern twist. It’s quite a hi-tech guitar; if you peer inside the f-hole you can see a load of electronics which control the magnetic neck pickup and the Zeta-designed biscuit pickup. I thought the shallow single cutaway body looked nice with the black powder coat finish. There’s not a lot of info on these out there… I think the company has gone by the wayside. This was a phenomenally expensive guitar, but I got it for a song.
‘Here’s another great-looking guitar, a National Studio 66 from the early ’60s. It’s so art deco! They came in a range of light pastel colours, and this one is finished in pale pink with simulated black body binding, a cool moulded scratchplate and a black seashell-shaped pickup which sounds a little like a big Tele pickup. I’ve seen a few of these that have faded to a cream colour, but this one is holding its own in the paint department; great guitar.
‘I’ve dabbled live with this National lap steel dating from around the early ’50s, but I’ve found it’s tricky to get accuracy and precision as the scale is so short. I can’t believe how loud and clear this one is, and it’s got so much sustain.
‘This ’60s Silvertone is part of the “amp in case” set up. It’s a nice piece of kit, a lot of fun as well as a piece of history, and both the guitar and amp/case are in good working order. Crank it up to its full five watts and it’s instant Jack White – great for edgy blues.
‘I think I have enough guitars now, so I’d probably swap them in and out to get a better one if one surfaces, rather than just keep adding. Like a lot of players with a collection, room is always problem, so a while ago I decided to seek an alternative secure home for them, and I try to keep to a rota where I just bring home a couple each week. In a way it works really well as I’m always looking forward to the following week, no matter what pair I have out at the time.
‘A lot of these guitars are improving with age. I’m not sure human beings do the same… so I hope my fingers keep going for many years to come so I can continue to play the blues. It’s a genre that covers just about every aspect of life, from sad to happy, The Bluekings play the latter… I’m a happy blues player, and I’m loving it.