Hauling 60 guitars out into the freezing cold is worth it when it’s Nigel Pickering’s fine collection. Fuelled by biscuits and hot chocolate, Lars Mullen sets to work
Nigel Pickering has decades of playing rock music behind him, and more than a touch of tinnitus as a souvenir. As a teacher, both privately and in schools, he rejoices under the banner of Idol Frets; he’s a busy player-for-hire, and runs his own band in and around the Greater Manchester area – also called The Idol Frets – with the help of John Lees and Kev Whitehead from Barclay James Harvest. Nigel’s a fan of Brian May, Ritchie Blackmore and David Gilmour, and he also appreciates today’s players like Guthrie Govan.
Although a Stratocaster fanatic, Nigel isn’t, in fact, a keen Hendrix follower. ‘He didn’t really do it for me,’ he sighs. ‘I always thought he was out of tune!’
It all began when at the age of 12, when Nigel used to watch his older brother play drums in a band. What caught his ear, though, was the sound of the lead guitar player, Deon Webber, a Pete Townshend fan who also dabbled in the art of, shall we say, re-shaping guitars towards the end of a performance. Nigel’s first guitar was, in fact, the result of one of these ‘artistic statements’. ‘I bought his smashed-up Watkins Circuit 4 for £6,’ he laughs.
‘The body had completely split in two pieces, but with the help of some woodworking glue I managed to get it back in pretty good working order.
‘My mum had a wonderful Hammond C3 in the house, and she and my dad supported my interest in the guitar. My brother also encouraged me, and took me to some great gigs, I’m lucky –the first big show we went to was the original line up of the Who at Manchester’s Kings Hall in Bell Vue. From then on, like thousands of kids from that era, I wanted to be a guitar player.
‘After a while I must have showed some improvement, so we went along to Mamelock’s in Manchester where my dad splashed out on a Sumbro SG copy, which was fine for a few years as a guitar to learn on. I eventually wanted a guitar with more output and better playability, so with a Gibson in mind we went to the famous Frank Hessy’s Music Centre in Liverpool, where the Beatles used to buy their equipment.
‘It soon became clear that SGs and Les Pauls were way out of our budget, but the guy in the shop said I should try a Japanese-built Ibanez Randy Scruggs 2671 Pro. It didn’t mean a thing to me, as I hadn’t even heard of Randy, who was an American country player, and I was only slightly familiar with the Ibanez brand.
‘As it turned out, I really liked it – and I still have it. It was the first decent guitar in my collection. It’s a pretty high-end model, with a carved ash top on a bound solid ash body and a maple neck with an ebony fingerboard with the Ibanez vine-style pearl inlay.The headstock is a work of art and all the hardware is gold-plated, including the Super 70 humbuckers. I later used this guitar for several years on the circuit in my first pro band called Itchy Feet, touring the German military bases. But while it looked great and performed really well, that familiar scenario crept in… it wasn’t a Les Paul or a Strat!
‘I saved hard and eventually bought a Strat and a Les Paul that literally lived in the back of the Itchy Feet van with me for many years, but I kept the Ibanez. That’s really how my collection started. If I find a guitar I really like, I won’t sell one from the bunch or part-exchange – I’d rather wait until I have the money.
‘Here’s that first Strat, a pink ’62. I’m serious about Strats, but how can you explain to someone – like my dear wife Bev, bless her, who isn’t a player – that all Strats are different? They look the same from a distance, but I love all the fine variations.
‘The walnut one is an early ’80s model from “The Strat” series. The sustain is incredible, and it’s got high-output X1 pickups and plenty of sounds via a five-way switch and twin-mode rotary which replaced the bottom tone control.
‘A lot of my guitars are from the 1980s, as I feel it was such a good decade for guitar building. These days, there are so many cutbacks… even some of the top brands are substituting some of the finer materials they used back then.
‘The cream-coloured Strat is another early ’80s guitar; these are known as “two-knob” Strats because the jack socket sits where the lower tone control normally would.The colour is actually a very faded Olympic white and it’s got Fender’s then-new Freeflyte vibrato bridge, which used top-loading strings. The springs are hidden under the pickguard, so the back of the guitar is entirely smooth. I believe it was also the first Fender vibrato with a push-in arm with a metal tip.’
We down more hot chocolate and take on the next three. ‘This sunburst Strat with the maple neck is now regarded as a “Dan Smith” Strat,’ Nigel explains. ‘In 1981, Fender brought in Dan Smith from the US division of Yamaha as the director of marketing for Fender electric guitars to shake up production… and he certainly did.
‘He made some pretty cool changes to the looks and hardware, including a more accurate version of the pre-CBS smaller headstock, the higher output X-1 pickup as used in The Strat in the bridge position, and a body-end truss rod adjustment.This guitar feels really strong and powerful. A drunk once knocked over a PA stack onto this guitar, and the only real damage was the loss of the top two fretboard inlays.’
Nigel has a number of Japanese, Mexican and Korean Strats. ‘I used to be a bit of a badge snob,’ he admits, ‘but now I think a guitar is what it is. It’s too easy to snub a brand that shouldn’t be snubbed.
‘It’s easy to say a Mexican Strat is a copy of a real USA model and higher up the food chain than a Korean one, but in reality, there are good and bad guitars at all levels.A lot of far Eastern guitars are a lot better than they should be for the price, and a good one can easily outshine a USA-made model that doesn’t quite cut the mustard.
‘The all-gold Strat is a Japanese 50th Anniversary model and it’s a superb guitar. The white Japanese reissue is also a gem… the looks are so simple and so effective.
‘The two-tone sunburst and the red rosewood neck are also reissues, and they all play superbly. They really do compete on the same level as a USA reissue, like the white one with the maple fingerboard.’
Lace Sensor pickups on Strats may not be the flavour of the moment but Nigel appreciates their combination of noiseless performance and authentic vintage chime.
‘I’ve got four guitars with Lace Sensors,’ he says. ‘There’s an Eric Clapton signature model finished in pewter, a seafoam green Strat Plus with a Jeff Beck spec, and a Strat Plus with a mocha brown finish – all of these have Gold Lace Sensors.
‘The metallic blue Strat started its life as a Standard, but someone has upgraded it to Strat Plus spec by fitting a Lace Value Pack set which included a higher-output Red Sensor at the bridge, a Silver in the middle position and a Blue at the neck. They’re calibrated to enhance each pickup’s response in its different position on the guitar.’
Next are three US Standard Strats in black, sunburst and natural. ‘I do like a basic 22-fret Standard… I don’t think you can go far wrong with them. They’re a real pro player’s workhorse Strat, and the smooth bridge saddles don’t give you saddle-rash on your palm like some of the vintage designs.’
A fear of that first chip in the finish does make many a guitar owner nervous, and Nigel appreciates it when a maker takes that worry away from you. ‘I do cringe and loose a bit of sleep if I put a first mark on a guitar myself, so I think Fender did a pretty good job by just applying a nitro “thin-skin” to their USA Highway 1 Series guitars so they age quicker. My black Highway Strat dates from 2002… it’s done a lot of work but it looks as if it’s been on the road for 50 years.
‘I don’t mind a guitar that’s been upgraded, as long as it’s tastefully done. This white Mexican Strat has been fitted with a black scratchplate, a humbucker at the bridge and a Wilkinson roller nut and bridge.
‘It was the pure looks that drew me towards this Mexican Blue Flower Strat. I guess I view my guitars as a kind of tactile art collection – instruments that you can look at as well as feel and play.’
Nigel’s got a lot of time for Blade guitars by Gary Levinson – Swiss-designed, Japanese-made, and packed with subtle upgrades on the vintage formula.‘I’ve always liked his take on things,’ he muses. ‘I think Gary Levinson lifted these designs to the next level with some really tasteful modifications, like the Variable Spectrum Control with three trimpots that allow you to customise your own sound, from crystal-clear highs to creamy overdrives. His tapered neck joint is also a winner in my book – it makes for a really comfortable, enjoyable guitar.
‘I have three three-pickup Blades here. The first amber-coloured one has a black scratchplate and a rosewood fingerboard, while the second amber one has a maple board, a mirror scratchplate and a dual fulcrum vibrato… it dates from around 1990.
Both have gold hardware and Levinson’s own single coils. The third one is white with a mirror guard and a maple neck, and it’s fitted with a humbucker at the bridge.
‘I’ve some more Levinson Blades as well. One is an early Durango, which is more of an original design, with three pickups, a vibrato and a humbucker at the bridge. I first thought the camouflage graphic had been done by a previous owner, but it’s an original factory job. I won this at a local auction.
‘Another Blade oddity is this late ’90s JML1, fitted with Levinson pickups that actually look like Lace Sensors, and finished in two-tone see-through green-to-blue burst. I suppose it’s not a million miles away from a Fender Jazzmaster… quite an unusual, collectable guitar.
Finally, I bought this Blade bass – and the late ’70s 15W Fender Musicmaster amp behind it – from Steve “Dobby” Dawson from Saxon, the inspiration for Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls.’
Gary Levinson also built the ‘other’ two-pickup bolt-on guitar design, and they’re generally lesser-seen. ‘I’ve got a couple of thinline-style guitars – they come with the same kind of upgrades as the others,’ says Nigel. ‘I like them… I think they have the kind of appointments that you’d ask for if you wanted to upgrade your basic Tele.
‘I do have several Fender Teles which I’ve used on many occasions for live and studio work. As soon as you hook up a Tele, you know what you are going to get – I think that’s what appeals to me.
‘This sunburst 60th Anniversary Esquire is mint, and I pretty much keep it under wraps. I’m told there were less than 100 produced with the inlaid logo in the body – it’s a nice collector’s piece.
‘The second sunburst Tele with the black guard is a Jerry Donahue signature with the Strat neck pickup and the five-way switch… nice details. Jerry signed this one for me a while ago when we were on the same bill.
‘The red Tele with the cream scratchplate is an early 2000’s USA Standard. It couldn’t be any more basic but it hits the nail on the head every time. But I think my favourite-playing Tele from the whole bunch is the black Highway 1, which I’m not too worried about using live because of the worn look.’
Nigel also has another early 2000’s US Standard, this one in cream with a black guard, plus a lesser-spotted Elite. ‘It’s pretty far from the original design,’ he notes. ‘They ran from between ’83 and ’84, and this one is finished in a kind pewter with gold hardware, a restyled bridge and two plain-topped active humbucking pickups.’
Our man is not immune to the charms of Rickenbacker. ‘I think most players who like colourful guitars have a Rickenbacker or two in their stash,’ he says. ‘I have two here which I really enjoy plugging in when I need that familiar Ricky twang.
‘My black 360 semi-acoustic is from the early ’90s, but I think my favourite is this very versatile and unusual PLZ Laguna 380, with a piezo under the bridge. The gold hardware goes really well with the oiled walnut body, and the maple neck and fingerboard is a little wider than on a standard Rickenbacker.’
Next up we enter humbucker territory in one form or another, beginning with a cherry red ES-335 and a couple of Les Pauls. ‘The 335 was made in 2005 and it’s getting nicely worn in now. It’s ideal for clean to overdriven blues, but I find it a little big for live work.
‘The black Les Paul 2008 Standard is unusual as it’s got Grover locking tuners – so much better that the normal Kluson ones – plus a Neutrik locking jack, an asymmetrical neck profile, and fancy potentiometers which are actually on display via a see-through control cover! I really rate this one. The wide red Les Paul next to it is the only one without any binding, and it’s a very good Les Paul… a superb player.
‘I’ll never forget that first Who gig I saw with Pete Townshend playing his Les Pauls with the big numbers on the front. My orangey-coloured Les Paul is a ’72 Gibson Deluxe which has been routed out to fit standard-size humbuckers and fitted with a TP6 tuner tailpiece.This was my first Les Paul – the one I bought in ’82 and which lived with me and the ’62 Strat in the back of the van all those years ago. I’ve lost count how many gigs this one has done.
‘I have an Epiphone Les Paul Ultra with a gorgeous figured maple top, signed by Joe Bonamassa… I like the chambered body and the Slim Taper D neck profile. This Burny with the nickel hardware is outstanding, it really does look and sound the part.
‘I always loved the sound Townshend also got from an Gibson SG… I used to draw SG’s all over my school books! I have four here: a white SG Special from 2000 with gold hardware and an ebony fingerboard, a cherry Standard, a Heritage cherry, and an early ’70s SG Special with mini humbuckers which has faded from cherry to dark brown… maybe we got more sun in the ’70s!
‘I often get called upon to dep as a bass player and a ’80s Squier Jazz is my first choice, proving that all guitars, whatever their construction or price, mellow with age. To me, this plays and sounds as good as any American bass I’ve played. The lightweight active Tobias Toby is pretty nifty for the price, and it works well as a recording bass.
‘There are a few oddities here, like this Driftwood guitar built by Tony Revell. The body has been sandblasted to look like it’s been lying on the beach for years. It’s quite a mean machine with a sleek neck and a pair of Seymour Duncan humbuckers.
‘I bought this Line 6 Variax 700 for its ability to emulate lots of sounds, which I find ideal in the studio. Next is a black Schecter from the ’80s; I don’t mind a guitar that looks like it’s done a lot of work, and this one is pretty well weathered now.
The Schecter Omen Extreme was built in the Far East and it’s a fair guitar for the pennies, with all the coil tap facilities. It’s definitely one to take if there’s a bit of a dodgy gig up ahead.’
Nigel has a couple of nice PRS guitars, but the final two we’ll look at in detail are the work of an ex-PRS luthier, Joe Knaggs. ‘I first admired his work when he was head luthier with PRS, and I must say I’m really, really pleased with them,’ he says. ‘These days they’re my main working guitars. I see them as modern equivalents to a Les Paul or a Strat.
‘The cream Knaggs with the three single-coils is a Chesapeake Severn loaded with a set of Seymour Duncan APS-1’s, while the carved-top one is a Knaggs Influence Kenai Tier 2 with Seymour Duncan Seth Lover humbuckers.The finish is “aged scotch”, and it has the company’s proprietary bridge system which drives the sound into the body to enhance the sustain and tone. I’ve just used these two in Lisa Stansfield’s studio, working on tracks for Britain’s Got Talent.
‘I’m a real tonehound, so these fit what I’m after really well. I do like thick necks… I’m sure it helps the sustain. Funnily enough, I’m not that fussed tonally about maple or rosewood fingerboards; in fact, in terms of sound, I really can’t tell the difference.
Sure, they don’t feel the same, but I have my doubts about some people who say they can hear the difference… a bit like players who say they can tell the difference in sound between a black and a chrome Floyd Rose!
‘I know every detail of all my guitars, and I love every single one. The problem I have now is that if I see another, I’m not prepared to move any on to buy the next one… so the numbers are just going up and up!’