World-hopping Aussie-bred bluesman Gwyn Ashton is back with a new album, Radiogram, and for the recording sessions he dug deep into his impressive stash of classic electrics, acoustics and resonators. Lars Mullen hitches a ride
Have Guitar Will Travel – Part 2
‘The good old single coil plays a major part in my sound, and for me there’s nothing better than if it’s on a well-worn guitar… which is something that tends to happen to all of mine,’ he laughs. ‘I bought the white Strat from Derringer’s Music, which I believe is still there in Adelaide – a really cool shop with red fluffy carpets, a coke machine and an Old English sheepdog.
‘This Strat once belonged to Mick Jurd, the guitarist in Bon Scott’s band Fraternity before Bon left to join AC/DC. When I bought it in 1976, it had a ’61 body with a ’64 neck. Funnily enough in 1996 I bought a Strat which had a ’61 neck and a ’64 body, so I swapped them around so the parts should match with age.
‘The week after I bought it the bridge pickup died while I was gigging in San Francisco, so I got Paul Chandler to rewind it. He loved the sound of this guitar so much that he analysed it and developed a set of single coils called the Super 60 Chandlers.
‘This guitar has always had a magic tone, and for years it was my main gigging and recording guitar. It’s become my “groupie” guitar, as I’ve asked most of the players I’ve gigged with to sign the back, which goes a deeper yellow every time I seal it. There’s a lifetime of signatures here – Rory Gallagher, BB King, Mick Taylor, Hank Marvin, Steve Morse, Albert Lee, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Eric Johnson, Robin Trower…’
In recent times the white Strat has been usurped by an impressively distressed-looking sunburst ’63. ‘Yeah, this has now become my number one, at least for the live stuff,’ Gwyn nods. ‘I found it hanging on the wall in a shop in Melbourne in 1995, just before I came over to England. The sound matches the shape of the neck – it’s really, really fat. It was already pretty banged-up when I got it, which is what attracted me to it. Both the white Strat and the sunburst are on my new album Radiogram… there’s a duet with myself on lap steel and Robbie Blunt using the ’63.
‘I also have a black one, which has a body and neck made by Allparts. I’m totally in love with their one-inch deep necks. The pickups are called Rocket Fuels, and they’re made by a company in Minnesota. I had this one finished in a lightweight coating so it would deteriorate a lot faster with sweat rather than throwing it around the back yard.
‘I bought my two-tone 40th Anniversary Strat from a friend called Harvey James just before I came to England. Harvey was in a band called Sherbert, who had a hit in the mid-’70s called Howzat. During the ’90s he was the Fender rep in Australia, and out of the 1954 Anniversaries that were made only a handful arrived in Australia. Harvey hand-picked this one as the best, and bought it. It has a very distinct sound as it’s got Seymour Duncan Antiquity single coils. I used this one to record Rest In Paradise, a tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan on my Prohibition album. It has a really sensitive trem, and the brighter snap of the maple neck made it ideal for that “Lenny” feel.
‘All my Strats except the ‘61 have Raw Vintage saddles and low-tension vibrato springs, so you can install all five springs for that natural reverb and sustain but with the tension of just three. I play pretty hard, so for standard tuning I use Eb with 11-58 gauge strings. I was always led to believe that bigger strings meant a bigger sound, although BB King only uses .008s and Billy Gibbons plays with .007s, so who knows? You can’t get a much bigger sound than Billy’s!’
It’s plain to see that Gwyn is not a fan of brand spanking new guitars. Wear is fine, the ability to wear fast naturally is even better, and customisation is always on the menu. ‘New guitars… well, to me most of them just have no character,’ he muses.
‘This red Strat was a brand new Mexican one that Fender in France gave me. It played great, but I decided to fit a big fat Allparts neck, and had Clive Brown get rid of all that new plastic goop and spray it with a very thin lacquer so it ages really quickly. He did a fantastic job, and the Bulldog Vintage 50s pickups sound great.’
‘The Fender Esquire with the white pickguard started life as a Mexican reissue which I bought while touring Germany. It was the neck that did it for me, it felt wonderful… and this time I had Steve Pickering do the honours with the finishing. I wanted that Mary Kay/Jeff Beck colour. I kinda go through life trying to collect guitars I loved as a kid, and Jeff Beck’s was one of them. Doing it this way is probably the closest I’m ever going to get! I wound the pickup myself to 10k, the same as a Broadcaster, while I was visiting Seymour Duncan’s factory a few years ago.
‘I have the same spec bridge pickup in this butterscotch 1981 ’52 reissue Tele. I’ve worn the hell out of this guitar, and it’s starting to look the part. This was also used on several tracks on Radiogram… a very inspirational guitar.’
Thinline Teles are also very much to Gwyn’s taste, but only one is with us today. ‘Mine are both Mexican. I’ve got one I keep in Australia, and this one, which has coil-tapped humbuckers. It sounds pretty close to a Strat.’
But wait: next to emerge into the light are three guitars which look suspiciously clean and shiny… ah well, perhaps it’s only a matter of time. First is a complicated-looking beast in a fetching green metalflake finish.
‘At one point I found myself thinking about the ultimate guitar,’ Gwyn explains. ‘All my favourite concepts – visual design, playability and pickup characteristics… and as luck would have it, an Italian company, Liutart, asked if they could build me a signature guitar.
‘I ended up designing a kind of hybrid style guitar with a big, fat neck with a left-handed headstock, a swamp ash body finished in sparkly green, a Bigsby, and a variety of pickups for all occasions. At the neck I’ve got a P90, there’s a lipstick in the middle, and there’s a stacked humbucker at the bridge which was part of a small batch being wound at Seymour Duncan for Billy Gibbons.They had one left over, it’s called a BG1400, and it sounds absolutely ferocious.
‘My only other “clean” guitars are these two Vigier Experts. I first played Vigiers at a guitar show in the USA and Patrice Vigier asked me what I thought. I said they were great guitars but for me the necks were a little too thin and modern, so he offered to build me a pair with huge necks finished in my choice of colours, so here we have a silver sparkle, inspired by a Gretsch Duo Jet I once owned, and a white one in tribute to Jimi Hendrix.’