When it comes to the game of guitars, Tee Kay is holding one of the best hands Guitar & Bass has seen in a good long while – a rare and tasty line-up of blue-chip archtops, thinlines and solidbodies. Lars Mullen hears all about it
This month Private Collection is paying a visit to Tee Kay, a guitar player who has never let mere geography get in the way of fulfilling his lifelong passion for great American and British blues, rock and jazz. Tee Kay grew up in Lebanon during the ’60s and initially became hooked on the sound of the great British blues boom. With the chance to witness gigs by his heroes such as Alexis Korner and John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers only a very, very distant possibility, he instead fed his passion by haunting the local record shops, sharing his knowledge with friends and, of course, by reading various guitar magazines.
As with so many before him, Tee Kay’s fascination with the new blues wave of the ’60s led him inexorably to discovering who and what had inspired those players in the first place. ‘I was lured more towards the roots of the blues,’ he explains, ‘and from then on, I went back in time and researched many of the early black musicians from Chicago and further back to the Mississippi Delta – the ones who had first inspired a lot of the more modern blues players.
I also became fascinated by early jazz players… I still love Wes Montgomery’s guitar work, and people like Miles Davis too. My parents were musically-minded and were always playing blues and jazz records from that era.
‘All the music I seemed to like always had a big guitar sound, and I became interested in how the contrasting sounds of the guitar could vary so much depending on what guitar or amp was used. I hung out with a lot of local bands and learnt about their guitars and equipment, dreaming that one day I would either be in a band or own a fine instrument like the ones they played.
‘Back then I had a half-decent nylon-strung acoustic, which was a pretty good student model and fine for basic open chords, but I still had the dream of one day owning a famous brand. In my own pretend world, I assembled mock guitars from discarded gear or bought cheap electric models to reassemble and put a famous logo on the headstock to make them look like the real thing
‘To this day all the music I’m interested in has a core blues and jazz element to it, but I wouldn’t say that has totally dominated which guitars I have chosen to be in my collection. However, I do adore Gibson archtops and big bodied semi-acoustics – the guitars which played such a major part in early blues and jazz – and also the solidbodies as played over the years by so many blues artists like the three Kings, Albert, Freddie and BB.’
If Tee has a favourite guitar, it’s the blonde 1969 Gibson L-5CESN he’s pictured holding in the photograph above. ‘It seems to be the one I feel the most at home with and the one I go to for inspiration for most styles of music,’ he explains. ‘The humbuckers on these maple guitars – especially the neck pickups – seem to go effortlessly from old to modern blues and jazz, and the neck profile and playability on this guitar just seems to work for me every time. It was also a number one choice for many of the early high-profile players, and it’s now a vintage model, of course.
‘I’ve also always loved ’50s and ’60s Gibson thinline models. They were played by a host of people, from the original big jazz bands to blues and rock’n’roll players. They were very modern-looking guitars when they were introduced… quite a contrast to the earlier deep-bodied archtops.
‘For me, the stereo Gibson ES-355 has always been the Freddie King guitar. My one is a ’63 in cherry with the ebony fingerboard, the six-way Varitone switch and the Maestro vibrola. My friend Otis Grand – who I think is one of the best UK-based blues players – often borrows this one to use live.
‘The ES-335 was of course the cheaper version, but it’s just about everybody’s favourite thinline Gibson, and it was put on the map by a lot of modern electric players like Alvin Lee and of course Eric Clapton. This one dates from 1960 and it’s one of the most collectable thinlines I’ve got. It has the classic thin 1960 neck, dot markers, a stop tailpiece, a pair of PAFs and the early long pickguard, and looks wonderful in this exceptionally clean tobacco sunburst finish.
‘Here’s another Gibson thinline, an ES-350T made in 1956 with a maple body, a flamed maple top and a Brazilian rosewood fingerboard. The P90 pickups have this very sweet and detailed clarity. It’s a very lively and versatile guitar, and it’s at home on all sorts of styles… even Chuck Berry used one of these. This one here is one of only 62 produced in maple and it’s a kind of a precursor to the short-scale Byrdland model next to it, which is a ’69 in sunburst with gold hardware and a pair of humbuckers.
‘The next two Gibsons are an ES-295 from 1957 and a ES-225TDN, also built in ’57. The 295 is from the famous Scott Chinery collection. He was one of the biggest collectors in the USA, and would only buy the best of the best, so as you can guess it’s in superb condition.
‘The extra frills on the ES-295 launched it towards being more of a top-end model, and it’s always been regarded as the Scotty Moore model, as he used one as his main guitar when he worked with Elvis Presley. This one is quite rare as it’s got a pair of factory PAFs, and the gold finish is in really good order. It’s real gold paint, so finding one this clean is a task in itself. It’s not mint… there are some small lacquer cracks appearing, but if it had been perfect I wouldn’t have bought it, as it would surely have been refinished.
‘The ES-225 was a simple, no-frills model, more a budget version of the thinline range. A lot of the up-and-coming blues guys in Chicago and the Midwest can be seen with this particular model in early photographs. They’re not easy to find as a lot were not worth repairing if they were damaged, and they were often broken down for parts. This is a really sweet-sounding guitar. The P90s seem to be extra loud for some reason, and I’m really comfortable with the big neck. I play this one a lot!
‘Most of my guitars are pretty clean for their age. A lot of dealers would claim that they are mint, but they’re not, because they have been played. For me they’ve got just the right amount of wear, like the patina on the hardware, but I do like the wood to be in top condition without any buckle marks or serious dents.
‘Some arrive a bit gritty and dirty, so I just take them apart and clean and polish out any greasy marks with just a clean cloth. Polishing products can harm bare wood; some of these guitars have developed fine lacquer cracks through age and I really don’t want any polish getting into the wood. I’m suspicious of any “as new” vintage guitars with perfect finishes, unplayed frets and pristine hardware. Some collectors will say the sound and the tone is more important than the condition… well, I like to have both!
‘I’m not a big collector of signature guitars, and during the ’50s and ’60s there weren’t actually that many produced, but I do have a few, like this 1964 Gibson Tal Farlow. Farlow was a fine jazz player who was also known as “the octopus” because of his large hands and wide spread over the fingerboard.
‘This guitar is built in the true tradition of early Gibson archtops and it has some very distinctive appointments like the scroll inlay around the Venetian cutaway, J-200-style “crest” position markers inlaid upside down, and a wooden plaque in the tailpiece with Tal’s name engraved on it. The one I have was actually ordered by Farlow himself with an extra-large headstock.
‘Here’s a Gibson dedicated to the fantastic American jazz guitarist Johnny Smith, who played with all the greats and wrote Walk, Don’t Run, a 1959 hit for the Ventures. He specified that he didn’t want any holes drilled in the body, so the mini humbuckers and controls were all part of the scratchplate assembly. This guitar dates from ’65 and has a really nice timbre, both acoustically and through an amp, although the mini-humbuckers are a bit prone to feedback at higher volume levels.
Blonde finish Gibsons from the ’50s are among the most collectable of all, and Tee Kay has a few more yet to show us. ‘The ’56 ES-175 is another Chinery collection guitar, and the rarity factor is really in the blonde finish and the P90 pickups. There aren’t many blonde models built as early as this, when the ES-175 was the workhorse model of every jazz man from Joe Pass onwards.
‘With three P90s, and again with a blonde finish, this Gibson ES-5 dates from 1952 and it’s got an exceptionally wide range of tones. Each pickup has a separate volume control, and there’s just one master tone control. This particular model was used by a host of great players from blues legend T-Bone Walker through to Frank Zappa. This is the actual guitar featured in the comprehensive Gibson Electrics reference book by AR Duchossoir. Otis Grand found this one for me… I can’t thank him enough.
‘I have a ’97 Jimmy Page Les Paul Standard, which is slightly out of character with the vintage theme of my collection – in fact, it’s the newest one here. I’ve always loved Page’s work from the early days right up to the Led Zeppelin albums. Modern guitars of this nature can play unbelievably well, and this one looks good with the tiger stripe maple top, and it’s really loud, too. The various push-pull controls give you a variety of sounds and out-of-phase permutations from the humbuckers.’
Next up is something really spectacular – a Custom Shop Gibson made as a prototype for Chet Atkins himself. ‘It’s taken some serious work to find some of these guitars,’ Tee explains. ‘I travel a lot in my job, especially in the USA, where they have a very deep market for vintage guitars.
‘Almost every town in the USA has a guitar shop, many of which also have vintage guitars, and a lot of big collectors seem to be over there as well as the key dealers. I’ve developed a good relationship with a guy based in California called David Brass, who is in fact British. He only deals with serious collectors and he now knows what I like, so I often get a phone call as a first choice on some of the finer guitars that have surfaced after many years, or guitars from high-profile people who are selling things from some incredible collections.
‘The Custom Shop Chet Atkins came from the actor Stephen Segal’s collection. It was made in 1987. It wasn’t one that I was chasing, or even knew about, but when David sent me the specifications, I had to buy it!
‘The craftsmanship is quite remarkable, with the large 17″ thinline style body and the finest birdseye maple used for the body and the headstock cap, which is inlaid in abalone with the Gibson script logo and Chet Atkins’ signature. All the hardware is gold, including Gibson’s own Rotomatic tuners with flip-out buttons, and the Tree Of Life inlay goes up the ebony fingerboard all the way to the 19th fret. It’s a very unique guitar.
‘I don’t collect guitars for the sake of making money. I’ve never sold a single guitar, and I’m not planning to! I enjoy every one and look forward to the times when I can spend the whole day with them in a private and secure lockup, and just take two away at a time to keep in my office to play. So they are rotated on a regular basis.’
Next we travel back in time with the first pair of Tee’s unamplified archtops. ‘The Gibson L-5 is a delightful model, the epitome of the guitars used in the early big jazz bands. These are highly collectable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean very expensive, especially compared to a Fender from the same period.
‘I have two L-5s here. This sunburst one is from 1937, and it’s called the “Advanced” model
because of the larger 17″ body, introduced in 1935. It’s got gold hardware and a figured bookmatched tiger stripe flame maple top. The other one is a blonde version dating from 1941, formerly owned by the guitar historian Walter Carter, and featured in his book Gibson: 100 Years Of An American Icon, and also in his book entirely on L-5s.
‘One of the problems on some of these guitars is the pickguard. The nitrocellulose that they’re made of breaks down over the years and they shrink, warp and eventually start to crumble. It doesn’t happen to every one, so you can’t tell if it will or not. This one has been replaced, but I have the original kept in a plastic bag, and you can see how it’s gone like brown sugar in places!
‘Here are two more from Gibson’s L Series. This all-acoustic L-4 from ’51 is quite rare in factory black. It’s lost some of the high gloss on its original finish, but it has the played-in patina that I like very much.
‘Next to it is a tobacco sunburst L-7CE, also from 1951. The L-7 was the top of the L range, with fine appointments which included a handcarved solid spruce top and a two-piece solid carved maple body. The neck is two-piece maple with a mahogany centre, and the fingerboard is Brazilian rosewood inlaid with double parallelogram position markers.
‘This was of course the early days of the electric guitar, so it’s fitted with a “McCarty” pickup. These wonderful guitars were for the guys who played in the rhythm section at the back of those early orchestras and big bands, rather than the louder lead players who were at the front showing of their virtuosity and melody.
‘Going way back to when I researched early blues guitarists, I was always fascinated by the sound of a resonator, especially in the hands of a really good slide player. I have a National Style O from 1930; I’ve kept it clean, but not buffed to perfection. It’s still got the player’s hue that I feel it should have.
‘The 1938 Epiphone Masterbilt Deluxe was an opportunistic buy from a friend who happened to be selling it – I decided it needed to live with my other guitars of the same age! This was an expensive and powerfully loud archtop of its day. At some point a DeArmond floating pickup assembly has been added… it works well, and I won’t be taking it off.’
Fenders? Well, yes, Tee’s got a couple. But what a couple they are…
‘My collection is more or less based on large bodied acoustic and semi-acoustic guitars, and I don’t want to own too many solidbodies, but I felt I should have a few classics from two of the major brands,’ Tee says. ‘The years 1954 and 1957 are renowned as magical ones for Fender Strats, and examples often change hands for six-figure dollar prices.
This one is a ’57 which once belonged to Richard Gere; it was one of several Strats being auctioned at the same time. It has heavy wear from extensive use throughout its life and it’s been aged in all the right places, as you can see on the body, the V neck and maple fingerboard. Luckily, because of the condition, it was being overlooked by the auctioneer, and I managed to buy it for less than the asking price.
‘Of all my guitars, it’s the easiest one to play. It’s ultra-light and it has a natural acoustic resonance that I’ve not heard before from any solid-bodied guitar. I don’t play this one hard as I don’t want to lose any wood on the fingerboard… the lacquer is worn away in places and, as I mentioned earlier, none of my guitars have been restored – I’d rather keep them in their natural condition. I wouldn’t have bought an archtop in this condition, but it works for this guitar. The case is also proof of years of gigging!
‘There’s a lot of debate and argument about which is the best Tele to own, but if you want to own just one, I believe it has to be a blonde blackguard ’53 like this one, a favourite amongst a lot of players like Bruce Springsteen and Keith Richards. It’s renowned as the guitar that solves all the problems in the recording studio when others have failed. This one is in great condition and complete with the ashtray bridge cover. It took an age to find it, but as soon as I saw it, I knew it was the one for me.
‘I go on the basis that any serious collector – of anything really, not just guitars – should have some form of discipline, otherwise it becomes an addiction. You have to compromise. I could spend a year looking for a certain guitar, and during that time I might see many in various conditions with all sorts of price tags.
Sometimes it’s important to resist; I might see a good one, but not the one I would like. I’ve learnt that if you have doubts then you need to back off, as there will be a better one – and when you find that one, the key is not to hesitate, but to pay up and buy it.
‘That was the way with two other Gibsons, none of which were high on my target list… they were opportunistic purchases. I had a call again from David Brass, saying he had this immaculate three-pickup Black Beauty Les Paul Custom and an exceptionally clean cherry red SG, both fitted with the sideways vibrato. When I saw them, I bought them both without hesitation… you just don’t see guitars of this age and in this condition. Again, they aren’t “under the bed” guitars, they’ve had just the right amount of use. The SG dates from ’63 and the Black Beauty, can you believe, dates from ’58.’
Acoustic guitars are high on Tee’s wish list, although not all are vintage. Some of them are pictured in the photograph on the first page of this article. ‘I have a few Martin acoustics, but none are classed as vintage, really…
I’ve found the early ones are overpriced and often in poor condition. So I’m enjoying the modern ones, like a Martin Eric Clapton 000-42 and a Martin Custom Jumbo, both in rosewood, and a D-28. The oldest is a D-35 dating from 1967, which also came from Richard Gere. I travel a lot with these guitars, either on holidays or visiting friends for guitar evenings.
‘I also have a Froggy Bottom Custom which I bought from Rudy’s Music Stop in New York. I was actually looking for a small-bodied Martin, but just couldn’t get comfortable with any of them. I’d been in and out of the shop for days when he eventually said I should try this other make.
‘At first the small deep body looked odd to me, but it’s built from a gorgeous piece of walnut with fine trimmings in all the right places, and it’s very light and vibrant. It was apparently built to the specifications of John Mayer, but for some reason he just didn’t collect it. It was more than double the price of the Martins, but I bought it there and then – I was totally smitten.’
Finally, when we think Tee can’t better any previous guitar stories, he comes up with something very, very impressive. ‘Here we have a Martin 00-18E which I bought from Bruce Welch of the Shadows,’ he says proudly. ‘He bought it new in 1959, fitted with a soundhole pickup and controls on the lower bout.
‘This is the guitar Bruce used throughout his career with Hank Marvin in the Shadows whenever an electrified acoustic guitar was required, so it can be heard on all the Shadows records. It has a very evenly balanced sound… everything sounds wonderful on this guitar.
‘It’s also featured in the Barry Miles book on Paul McCartney called Many Years From Now, where it’s confirmed that this was the guitar that Paul used to piece together the song Yesterday when he was on holiday in Bruce’s villa in Portugal in May 1965. He arrived without a guitar, and Bruce had this Martin, which of course is right-handed, so McCartney had to play it upside down. He quotes in the book, “I think I finished the lyrics about two weeks later, which was quite a long time for me.”
‘For me, guitar collecting – especially vintage guitar collecting – is a reflection of the older generation, or the baby boomers, for want of a better title. We followed those early bands and were enthralled by their music and the sounds their instruments produced.
‘Who knows what will happen to these instruments in future with the next generation? I wonder if they will continue to value them, and if they do, will it be for their craftsmanship, or as antiques? I hope my children and the generations beyond will cherish these guitars as a representation of the music from the ’50s and ’60s, which created the music of today.’