Try as he might, Peter Holyman just can’t break his all-consuming addiction to the great, time-honoured big-name guitar models and why on earth should he? Lars Mullen meets a man who knows what he likes
Notice anything about the guitars above? They’re all established classics, or variations thereof – and they’ve all got a purple pick neatly stashed at the third fret. You might rightly conclude that Peter Holyman likes things just so.
A draughtsman by trade, a music technology teacher and a long-serving guitar player in various bands, he’s an unashamed traditionalist and someone who likes things, as he puts it, ‘straight, upright and in their place’. Weaned on the Beatles and also a huge Hendrix fan, he likes to look to his musical inspirations for guitar ideas.
‘Jimi Hendrix took the Fender Strat to a new dimension,’ he begins, with justified conviction. ‘I have two Road Worn Strats, a white Mexican one and a red USA one. To me the white one sounds far more Strat-like and plays better than the red one – and at half the price!
‘I do get a little hot under the collar when I read the debate about relic guitars. It’s just personal. If it makes you want to pick it up and play it, surely that can’t be bad. And if that detail makes you want to play it… then buy it!’
And what of the Hendrix-painted Strat? ‘Well, being a bit handy with a paintbrush, I decided to bless this Fender Highway Strat with my own artwork of the great man. It’s all nitro-cellulose, and it took me a few days to complete.’
The red oddball guitar with the single humbucker-sized P90 is in fact a very cool DIY project. ‘I missed out on a really nice Billy Bo Jupiter Thunderbird at a Gretsch guitar evening, being just beaten to the post by the Rev Billy Big Guns from the ZZ Tops,’ Peter grins. ‘I’ve always been pretty handy with wood, so I decided to build my own from a slab of bubinga from my neighbour’s fireplace. The result is the Peter Holyman Bo Junior, with the “Junior” part of the name coming from the P90. I’m proud of the Dan Dare-style scratchplates.’
While he’s happy to mod or even build a guitar, Peter’s also a vintage detail freak – and his sunburst 50th Anniversary Custom Shop Masterbuilt Strat, one of only 1954 made, really gets him going. ‘This one was created by Dennis Galuszka, who has built guitars for Eric Clapton and Jimmy Vaughan. I love this guitar and I’ve gigged it just for the craic, but I don’t take it out on a regular basis!
‘Dennis did a fine job in keeping to the original body shape and getting the right dimensions and feel of the neck. The fat “baseball bat” profile is perfect for me. The pickups were wound by Abigail Ybarra, who has been working for Fender since the ’50s; the ‘quack’ is amazing, and the neck pickup with a little overdrive through my 40W Fender Deluxe sounds a lot like Stevie Ray Vaughan. The controls, the switch tip and rounded pickup covers are all authentic pre-’55 style, and it even has a brown vinyl form-fit case. I guess this is as close as possible to buying a real ’54 Strat. Some might say “how anorak can you be?” but this is what makes my clock tick!’
Traditionalist he may be, but Peter has come around to appreciating Far Eastern-made guitars. ‘Take this butterscotch Vintage V52,’ he points out. ‘Once I wouldn’t buy a model that didn’t have “Made in the USA” on it, but over the last five years they’ve got so good – they play well and sound amazing straight out of the box. Compare them to some of the USA guitars… I sometimes wonder where all the money’s going.
‘I call this one my “Keith Richards” guitar, with the classic five-string set up. Although I grew up as a Beatles fan, later I latched onto the Keith style, the way he sonically weaves in and out on stage with Ronnie Wood. The way he plays in open G and Ronnie plays a straight chord really does it for me. There are notes flying around in those inversions that still put up the hairs on my neck!
‘The Tele on the right is a Fender relic Nocaster. It’s a great live guitar and used to belong to the guy in the Charlatans. It has a really high output and an extra-thick neck.’
Staying with the Tele shape but shifting far away from the ’50s, we move on to a Mexican Fender Cabronita Tele in white blonde. ‘This one’s my second in line for live work at the moment,’ Peter says. ‘To be honest I didn’t like it much at first, but it’s turned out to be a real grower. With the two Fidelitron pickups it has bags of Tele mojo mixed with generous helpings of Gretschiness, and with just a single volume and a three-way switch it’s a doddle to use live. The ash body and maple neck give bags of top end twang without being harsh in any way.
‘The orange guitar is one I keep in the studio and use a lot. It’s a Reverend Flatroc, a real value-for-money guitar with mini humbuckers and a korina body that give you a really sweet midrange… ideal for rock and blues. They’ve wired the tone controls rather like a graphic EQ to either roll off the top or bottom. The art deco guard is pretty cool too.’
Another all-time favourite player is Pete Townshend. ‘Each time I’ve seen the Who, his sound never lets me down – there’s just something about the way he approaches the guitar – that rhythm/lead thing,’ Peter says. ‘I have my own band, the Dark Horses, and I’d be happy to think that even a small percentage of his style has rubbed off on me.
‘I wanted a Rickenbacker Townshend Limited Edition when it came out, but they only made 250. This 330 is a fantastic substitute, and it’s in Fireglo – which I consider the only “real” colour for a Ricky!
‘Another guitar that Townshend used – as well as Brian Setzer – was the Gretsch 6120. Mine is a 2002. I used to have quite a few Gretsches and used many of them on stage, but they were unpredictable, especially when it came to the vibratos returning to pitch. This is a fantastic rock’n’roll guitar.’
In his early gig-going days in Birmingham during the ’60s Peter was lucky enough to witness the onslaught of the Who at point-blank range from a stage only about a foot high. ‘Townshend’s amps and Moonie’s drums, right in your face – I’ll never forget that,’ he says, shaking his head.
‘I also saw the Who on their last-ever UK gig with John Entwistle – who once said in one of his books that he thought Pete’s SG with P90s gave the best live sound that he ever had. I do have a Townshend Gibson SG Special with a bound neck. It’s actually pretty versatile; I can get very close to a Fender quack with both pickups on together. I really adore P90s, both clean and overdriven.
‘Gibson SGs, for me, just have to be cherry! My other one is a ’61 reissue. I’ve modified a lot of my guitars by installing 0.001 microfarad capacitors to retain the treble when I wind down the volume controls, but there’s no need to do that on this one – the ’57 Classic humbuckers keep the tone clear all the way down to zero.’
Next to emerge blinking into the light is a pair of TV yellow beauties with single P90s – one a Gibson, the other a Japanese-made Edwards. ‘P90s can be quite variable,’ Peter muses. ‘I once had a Gibson Historic double-cut Junior, but the pickup was just too powerful… I couldn’t balance it out for a clean or crunch sound, even with it backed all the way down to almost zero.
‘Then I found this double-cut Edwards. It’s pretty recent, built in 2010, and for just £650 it’s amazing. In fact, I think it’s the better guitar. It easily overdrives the front end of my amps, but it cleans up perfectly when you back it off.’
Two Juniors should be enough even for a fairly hardcore P90 fan, you might think. Nope: this man’s got four. ‘The tobacco burst Gibson single-cut, like the TV Junior, is a little more balanced than the Edwards, with a brighter sound through the frequencies.
‘The tobacco burst was an eBay purchase, and it took weeks to arrive – so long, I thought I’d never see it. So after the success of the Bo Junior, I decided to build my own Junior. This is it, finished in dark cherry, with a bound neck. Ironically, the Gibson finally arrived about halfway through building this one! Mine has a Bare Knuckle pickup and it sustains forever, especially through my new Vox AC30 with Celestion greenbacks. I can’t think why I didn’t get one before, there’s so much top end chime. It’s Chinese, but these days I’m judging guitars and amps on their merits rather than where they are made.
‘On some occasions when the Dark Horses are scaled down to a duo, I call upon my Custom Shop Gibson ES-339 semi-acoustic. This is such a cute guitar… the body’s like a small 335, but the sound is massive.
‘The Firebird with the three P90s is a 2010 model. I’ve always preferred the reverse shape over the supposedly more desirable non-reverse – I suppose it’s my draughtsman’s eye kicking in again. It just looks more correct to me. It’s a great player, with a coil-tap and reversed polarity to cover all the sonic permutations. I bought this one privately over the net from Germany. As it’s a 2010 it has a solid rosewood fingerboard rather than the newer composite board.’
After years of playing Fenders live, Peter is back in love with the Les Paul. ‘It’s my “get me out of jail” guitar,’ he laughs. ‘And without doubt, the loudest Les Paul I’ve ever owned or played is my Joe Bonamassa signature. It’s ferocious! It’s got a BurstBucker BB2 at the neck and a BB3 at the bridge, both double-waxed to perform better with high gain, plus unpolished Alnico II magnets and unequal turns of 42 AWG wire on each bobbin. I’ve changed the pickup surrounds and scratchplate from black to cream. The rear of the body and neck are high gloss black, which is a little overpowering, but I’ve managed to live with the odd pairing of the amber and the mirror-top knobs.
‘This Les Paul ’50s Gold Top Studio sounds stunning – I can’t see how Gibson can make a guitar in the USA of this quality for £600. It’s nice to have a guitar with almost the same hardware as the SG Special, but a warmer, thicker sound.’
Next, Peter lines up a very impressive trio of sunburst Les Pauls. ‘The one in the middle is a Les Paul Standard – my first Gibson purchase, back in 1993. I was driving past a little shop in Birmingham and it was in the window at less than a grand, which was pretty good for then. The wear marks, the lacquer cracking and the dulled nickle are all down to 10 years of hard labour on the live circuit. It once had a Bigsby, which looked wonderful, but the tuning was temperamental. I’ve strung it up like Billy Gibbons and Joe Bonamassa with the strings running up and around the stopbar tailpiece to give less break-angle from tailpiece to saddles. The strings are in contact with more metal and the theory is that it gives more sustain. It’s a doddle to play.
‘I’ve done the same with my Custom Shop ’59 reissue from 2000. This is my favourite Les Paul right now – I just can’t leave it alone. It’s got a fabulous flame top, a rich cherry sunburst, and a big neck profile. It plays and sounds amazing, and it’s just 8.2lbs… very light for a non-chambered Les Paul.
‘Ironically, the chambered 2012 Les Paul is slightly heavier. The coil-tap and out-of-phase option via one of the tone controls makes this the most versatile Les Paul I’ve used. We play Oh Well in the Dark Horses, and in that mode it’s just pure Peter Green.’
The next Les Paul, a goldtop Classic Custom, is a little unusual. ‘It has binding, like a Les Paul Classic, but just around the top of the body, like a Standard,’ Peter explains. ‘I was a little sceptical about the baked maple fingerboard as opposed to ebony or rosewood, but I was convinced as soon as I played it, and the Alnico II ’57 Classic humbuckers sound the part. All my guitars are strung with .009’s, but this guitar’s so easy to play, it seems to like being strung with .010’s.’
On several occasions Peter has tried to veer away from Les Pauls, but mostly he only half-succeeds. ‘About five years ago I tried to go down another road. I got to the crossroad and just couldn’t do it, so I bought a Trussart Steel Deville. It’s a work of art – totally handbuilt and unique. You could display it like a painting. It looks like it weighs a ton but it only just tips 8lbs. It has its own sound and it gives me an enormous amount of pleasure.
‘I bought the Zemaitis from the Music Zoo in New York. It really reminds me of the Stones. I managed to get Danny O’Brian, who did the original Zemaitis etching, to scribe caricatures of Keef and Ronnie on the back plate to give the guitar some individuality. Just after I bought it I went on holiday to France and couldn’t leave it behind, and ended up meeting some local players. We couldn’t understand a word we said, but we communicated through music and on the same night did a gig in a village hall!
‘Although I think my PRS is a little too close to a Les Paul, the large V-profile neck gets top marks from me – it’s one of the best I’ve played. It’s one of the last Singlecuts they built before being sued by Gibson. It has the belly-cut so it’s really comfortable, and the coil taps are useful. The pickups have their own sound and the vibrato returns to pitch, which is a feat in itself. The look is perfect, it’s just a quality guitar all around. I can’t fault it… but it just doesn’t shake my bones like a Les Paul.
‘I have my own studio which is pretty well stocked with computer technology, but I think when it comes to recording you can’t go wrong with a classic guitar, especially when recording bass. The reissue Hofner Violin Bass records so well, with a thud and a depth I’ve never heard on any other make… and of course there’s the McCartney connection. This is a real collector’s piece with all the certification. They only reissued 150, so I’m privileged to own it.
‘I think guys with a lot of guitars always have their favourite armchair guitar. Mine is this gorgeous Gibson J-200 with figured maple back and sides. I like to sit with the telly on and see if I can work out the music for the adverts – and yes, I get odd looks from my wife! When the TV’s off, there’s nothing better than to strum Beatles songs way into the night.’
Peter Holyman certainly has his priorities sorted, and derives huge pleasure from his passion. ‘I buy guitars because they’re what I want, and I enjoy them immensely. Some collectors pay vast sums of cash for what I call “funny money guitars”, like original vintage models, but they’re always thinking about making a profit. To me, my way is what it’s all about. I talk to a lot of guys who aren’t really into guitars, and they just don’t get it – they say most of these all look the same! I have a feeling that a lot of readers out there will understand, though. There’s a magazine out there for everybody, I suppose… and I’m just glad mine is Guitar & Bass.’
For more information on the Dark Horses