Published On: Thu, Aug 28th, 2014

Private Collection: Major Swing

As one of the UK’s hardest-working session players, Andy Mackenzie is a master on all types of fretted instruments and has something that will sound the part for every occasion. Lars Mullen hears his story

From jingles to tours to TV dates to recording sessions to weddings and parties, Andy McKenzie has done it all – and made a living at it, too. His true musical passion, however, is jazz, especially gypsy jazz, following in the footsteps of the great Django Reinhardt; he plays in a busy gypsy jazz band, writes articles on the subject, and has just recorded a selection of Django tunes for the Penelope Cruz film Head In The Clouds. He started early, his father being a jazz guitarist, but as a boy growing up in the ’60s, Andy’s initial guitar inspiration was somewhat more pop-based.

‘I grew up seeing the Beatles on the TV, and I came from the “I want that red Strat in the guitar shop window!” era,’ he explains. ‘My dad could see how much I wanted to be a guitarist, but he was a jazz player, so when I was 14 – the age at which most of the kids at that time were learning songs by the Beatles or the Rolling Stones – he bought me a Rosetti Lucky 7, a semi-acoustic archtop guitar which he felt was the closest at the time to an expensive jazz guitar. I now can see that he knew I had the gift, and after flying through piano lessons and getting the grades, he wanted me to go down the jazz road.

‘I seemed to handle the chords pretty quickly after listening to jazz players such as Barney Kessel. Not long afterwards my dad said there was an opening for a guitarist in the band, and if I got it together pretty quickly I could have the gig. Needless to say, I learnt all the jazz chops and filled the slot!

‘The Lucky 7 did really well for many years in the jazz band until in 1972 dad bought me a secondhand Gibson ES-330, which he was wise enough to recognise as a jazz guitar underneath the skin, as it had a completely hollow body without a centre block. I used it along with a Fender Bassman and that was my rig all the way through my teens, playing all sorts from jazz and also backing American blues artists during the ’90s. The 330 is a real working man’s guitar and they’re still very popular with blues players today. It’s a great player, and I still use it a lot for session work.

‘I used to have a lot of semi-acoustic guitars but I’ve narrowed them down to the essential ones for when I get the call for that style and sound. A favourite is a gorgeous 1949 Gibson Super 400… I’ve gigged and recorded so much with this one. I bought it in New York about 20 years ago, and I’ve fitted a DeArmond Swingmaster pickup for when the need arises to go electric. The joke is that they call this one the “austerity” model as it was built after the war, when they had shortages of ebony to make bridges and fingerboards, so they had to “make do” with Brazilian rosewood. Breaks your heart, doesn’t it.… ha!

‘Thinking back, learning how to play charts and scores really paid off. I’ve always loved intricate guitar parts and fingerpicking, especially classical and flamenco styles. But the guy who really does it for me is Django Reinhardt. Django influenced so many players, from Barney Kessel to Jeff Beck. Some of the solos he was playing in the 1930s were so far ahead of their time. I have a personal obsession about trying to work out how someone like that could walk on the stage of a packed 2,000-seat hall and entertain with an acoustic guitar and no amp!

‘Django, of course, played a Selmer Maccaferri guitar – and that’s it, full stop. If you want to sound like Hendrix, you play a Strat; if you want to sound like Django, you play a Selmer-style guitar.

‘Original Selmers have spruce tops and laminated rosewood backs and sides. The originals can sell for tens of thousands of pounds, but there are a few
guys who know what makes a really good gypsy jazz guitar.

‘One example is Maurice Dupont. I have one, built from solid Brazilian rosewood with a spruce top. This guitar is 10 years old now and it’s been played to within an inch of its life. It’s very loud, and it’s been wonderful to hear the sound mature with age.

‘Typically for Selmer-style guitars, this one is very light and vibrant, with a highly stressed top. It’s strung with a fairly light set of strings, and when at concert pitch the long scale produces that big, sharp, cutting sound.’

Top left in the group photo above is a nylon-strung Selmer-style model built by Scottish luthier Rob Aylward in Aberlour, Banffshire. ‘It’s got the “alternative” traditional woods – a cypress body and a sitka spruce top,’ says Andy. ‘It’s a fabulous handbuilt Maccaferri-influenced model.

‘Top centre is the Maurice Dupont, and top right is a Gitane, built in China; it’s my own signature model, with the same spec as the Dupont. It’s superb, very loud, and fitted with a D-Tar pickup system. Far left on the bottom row is an Italian Eko which dates from the early ’70s. I bought it for old time’s sake as I used to lust after this model in the famous Bell guitar catalogue as a youngster!

‘The smaller instruments in the front row are a ukulele modelled to look like a Macafferri tenor guitar and a mandolin, but made by the late Dave Hodson, an English luthier who really understood the gypsy jazz guitar. In 2005 Dave also built me this hybrid electro-acoustic fitted with a Bill Lawrence pickup which you can see in the front row on the right. It’s a prototype thinline model and it sounds superb both acoustically and hooked up. It has the real Django vibe, with some essence of a large archtop jazz guitar thrown in as well.

‘I met up with US guitarist John Jorgenson in France a few years ago and we were obsessing about Django and talking about the fact that all over the world his style had become cool again with a lot of electric players who were maybe looking for a new direction. John had been approached by a film company to play the role of Django in the film Head In The Clouds, so we transcribed all the original material between us and I’m happy to say that I appeared – very briefly – in the film, with my hair greased back and dyed black! I actually sold my original Selmer that I used in the film to John Jorgenson.

‘There’s a lot to be said for the volume these guitars produce. The tight, vibrant construction plays a major part, and silver-plated copper strings give the authentic gypsy jazz sound. The bridges are also hollow so they act almost like another sound chamber, so that’s another part of the equation. I remember seeing Fapy Lafertin, a top gypsy jazz player from Belgium, and his band Waso at a jazz club in Manchester. I can remember the owner asking if the band wanted a lift in with the PA, and they said they didn’t have one. He asked how the audience were going to hear them, and Lafertin just said

“They’ll have to shut up and listen!” That was one of the best concerts I’ve been to!

‘The story goes that when Mario Maccaferri left Selmer around 1934 he took his “D” soundhole design with him. Selmer carried on with their own smaller soundholes and 14-fret necks, which Django preferred, as they were more of a solo instrument. The D-holes – known in France as grande bouche, or big mouth – are better for rhythm as they have more of a midrange bark, while the oval hole, petit bouche or little mouth, is the louder one.’

Andy, perhaps slightly surprisingly, has an Ovation Balladeer. ‘It was a 21st birthday present and I fitted a DeArmond pickup and set it up with flatwound strings and used it as a jazz guitar for years,’ he explains. ‘It just worked out that way.

‘I also have a nylon-strung flamenco guitar custom-built by the US luthier Jamon Zeiler. It found its way onto eBay and didn’t get any bids, so I got it for a song. The retail price runs into thousands, but I’ve become friends with Jamon and I’ve honoured it by ordering another one and giving him credits on my albums. It’s a killer guitar with a spruce top and a stunning maple body, and it’s fitted with an LR Baggs system. It’s wonderful for classical session work, and I used it on the album Home Brew by Gadjojazz.

‘Completely at the top of the tree for me for custom guitar building has to be Bob Benedetto. I feel he’s one of the world’s greatest living archtop builders. I met him in New York when I was working with a lot of American jazz musicians including the legendary Bucky Pizzarelli, and he offered to build me whatever I wanted. So I asked for a Custom seven-string like Bucky played, made with maple, spruce and ebony, with a Kent Armstrong pickup. I use the Van Eps tuning where the seventh string is a low A, with a set of 14-80 La Bella strings; the third, fourth, fifth and sixth strings are black nylon tapewounds for a more mellow output in the midrange. I had to wait six months for completion, and Bob insisted I played it at the Benedetto endorser’s concert when I picked it up. I’d never played a seven-string before, so in the meantime, I asked British builder Brian Eastwood to build me one so I could rehearse for the show.’

Andy regards his high quality flat-tops as his rent-paying models. ‘As a session player, the big strummers really come into their own for acoustic blues, bluegrass and folk. This sunburst Collings CJSB doffs its cap to a slope-shouldered Gibson design, but it has its own sound and a balanced tone to die for. It sounds stunning hooked up via an LR Baggs Anthem pickup system. I liked this one so much I’ve purchased a D2HA dreadnought with a natural finish Adirondack spruce top, so between the two I have everything I could wish for.

‘The Collings guitars took pride of place while my very tired Martin D-28 was semi-retired for a neck set and a new bridge by UK luthier Peter Barton, but now the work’s been done it’s back in pole position. This guitar has been played so much… it’s done everything. I’ve been recording recently with this guitar with the Sarah Smith Trio, using just a Neumann mic and a Neve preamp, and it’s the sound that everyone wants – it’s stunning. I defy anyone to get a better acoustic sound!

‘The Recording King RD16 is modelled on a prewar Martin, with forward-shifted bracing. It’s very affordable and a great substitute if I don’t want to take the Martin out.

‘Every time I’ve bought new guitars, be it acoustic or electric, I wait for the guitar to more or less tell me what gauge strings it wants and what style it wants me to play it in. Some, like the D-28 or the Collings, ask for 13 gauge to excite them. Then again the Super 400 sounds really dull with flatwounds, but explodes into life with big bronze strings.’

Andy has another skill on top of guitar and mandolin – he can double on banjo. ‘There’s a big bluegrass movement here in the UK, and I need a lot of percussive fretted instruments,’ he explains. ‘ My 1926 Bacon & Day Silver Bell four-string banjo has actually earned me more revenue than any of the other instruments here. I’ll use the electric six-string Goldtone 750 if I need to, but I’ve done more gigs than I can remember with the Silver Bell.’

For harder rock sounds Andy has some cool solidbodied electrics.

‘I bought a limited edition 50th Anniversary Les Paul for my own 50th birthday. It retailed around $7,000, but I managed to get an amazing deal! The spec is quite high with all-gold hardware, goldplated pickguard and headstock, light alloy tailpiece, Burst Buckers, special resistors and pots, all-mahogany construction and an ebony fingerboard… it all adds up to a fairly special Les Paul. I actually bought it as an under-the-bed keepsake but I gigged it the day it arrived and thought it was the best Les Paul I’ve ever played, so it’s been a working guitar ever since. I recently used it for the electric guitar parts on the new album by Gwyn Evans, also known as Dr Jazz.

‘In contrast, this dark green Strat is a retired “bitsacaster” which I’ve had forever… I’ve changed the parts so many times. It’s now fitted with a Squier Tele neck. Somehow I managed to demagnetise the pickups, so I thought it was time I bought a decent Strat for solid electric work, so I picked up this really nice Suhr from Tone World in Manchester, finished in a light shade of sea foam green and with an HSS pickup configuration. I’ve done a lot of gigs with this one now and I love it to death… it totally responds to what I put into to it. The mechanics just work perfectly, and there still hasn’t been any need for adjustment of any kind from the day I bought it.

‘I liked the look of the Squier ’51 the day it was launched, and it’s regarded as a really underrated guitar by a lot of players. I bought this one on eBay, but took it apart and re-assembled it as I didn’t feel it was put together that well. Now it’s excellent – it really plays and sounds good, and it’s turned out to be a fine second-in-line to the Suhr.

‘The red Tele is also built from parts, but it’s a good working guitar. The body is original but it has a chunky Allparts neck, and I’ve fitted a humbucker. I can get all the sounds I need from this guitar, including country, blues, jazz or rock. I’ve also had the body hollowed out under the scratchplate.

‘Aesthetics come into play for me, although most of my recent acquisitions have been based on using my ears and what I feel I can sonically coax out of the guitar. During the ’80s I was working with a Frank Sinatra tribute act and they got uppity because I was using a dayglo pink heavy metal shredding guitar, even though I could make it sound like a big band jazz guitar for the part!

‘To be honest, all I would probably need is a Martin D-28 and a good Tele – I can make both of those sound like most other guitars. Still, I was recently looking for a visual guitar for some up and coming showbiz gigs – though maybe not a dayglo shredder this time! – and I saw this very affordable Vintage VS850WH big bodied semi (which does a fine job. The maple body works a treat with the Wilkinson Alnico double coil pickups. All the hardware is good quality and it looks great in white, with added essence of Gretsch.

‘I’m not a bass player but I need one or two in case I get the call to stand in for someone or do some recording. These three have proven their worth many times. My old Columbus Jazz Bass copy is something I’ve had since about ’72 and it’s still a favourite, a great player and the one I generally take along with me if anyone wants me for a bass session. I inherited the Gordy headless fretless model along with the Yamaha five-string.

‘There are a number of oddballs that also come in very useful when the occasion arises: for resonator sounds I have this Regal Tricone, while the electric four-string ukulele is another of Dave Hodson’s creations. This cute eight-string Ovation electric mandolin is one which John Jorgenson used when he was working with Elton John. This has been with me now for many years, so I can say it’s 99.99% mine now!

‘I’ve not had much need for a lap steel, but this is a beautiful example to have to hand. It’s a 1936 Gibson EH150 with a Charlie Christian pickup – this was the first electric model that the company ever produced.

‘I’m more than happy with my guitars right now. Like a lot of players I went through an early stage when I collected for the sake of it, and ended up with far too many, but when I started to earn money as a session player I realised I only really needed the essentials. I now regard them as a collection of tools. It’s a bit like having an old joiner’s tool bag, with everything inside there for sentimental reasons – but they’re all working guitars.’

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