Peter Thorn’s tools include a 1963 Gibson ES-335, a 2011 Suhr Classic S, and a 1964 Fender Stratocaster.
Like most of you, I’m absolutely intrigued by gear and how it’s used in musical contexts. The gear choices we make stem from many things, but my main concerns are tone and functionality: How well does the gear get the job done? Still, aesthetics and ease of use are also important because the guitars we choose are vehicles for our expression. I’m going to walk you through my main guitars, offer some simple advice, and discuss the mods I’ve made to my axes to make them more functional.
Tools of the Trade
First and foremost, guitars are tools to me. I need them to do my job. I do have a real fondness for particular instruments in my collection, but I can honestly say that I’m not afraid to take vintage guitars out on tour, and I don’t get upset if guitars get dinged or scratched. They are meant to be played, and ultimately, it’s all about what you create with the tools, not the tools themselves.
I’m no purist. I like vintage guitars, but I don’t mind if they’re modified for improved tone, playability, or functionality. I also like new instruments that are crafted to high standards and believe they can often match or exceed the tone of the best vintage instruments. If a vintage guitar sounds great, there are quantifiable reasons why, and these things can be measured and ultimately recreated in new instruments. My friend John Suhr once said to me, “They didn’t use magic trees.”
The Well-Rounded Collection
Because I make my living mainly as a sideman and session player, I require a well-rounded guitar collection. I often need to reproduce many distinct tones within one set. When I was touring with Chris Cornell, for example, we would perform material spanning his entire recording career. So within one show, I needed the Hendrix-y Strat tones of Temple of the Dog’s Mike McCready, the somewhat cleaner and sometimes effected tones of Audioslave’s Tom Morello, the varied sounds from Cornell’s three solo albums, and of course the sludgy, dark, and downtuned tones of Soundgarden. My guitar choices are born of necessity.
I first started playing around 1981 on a Strat copy. Because of this, Stratocaster-style guitars and their 25 1/2" scale and body contours will always feel like home. I have a terrific 1964 Strat that sounds warm and ballsy, yet also clear and airy. It has a few mods, because again, I view guitars as tools.
My ’64 has been refretted with Dunlop 6105 fretwire and outfitted with a 5-way pickup-selector switch. The bottom tone pot has also been wired to work on the bridge pickup. This is a great mod for Strats because the often ice-picky bridge pickup can be tamed to match well with the neck and middle pickups. I also removed the string tree, which helps the guitar stay in tune, though it requires that I wind the 1st and 2nd strings quite far down the tuner posts.
I’ve toured with the old Strat quite a bit, although I’ve been leaving it at home lately. These days, when I need that Strat tone and feel, I use one of several Suhr Classic S guitars. They play and sound like good vintage Strats, but with all the quirks fixed. My Classic S guitars have floating Gotoh 510 tremolo bridges, compound-radius fretboards with stainless-steel frets, and Suhr’s noiseless system that eliminates 60-cycle hum without changing the tone of the guitars. All this makes for an extremely easy to play and great-sounding Strat-style guitar.
Two of my Classic S guitars have the traditional arrangement of three single-coils using Suhr V60LP pickups, while my sunburst Classic S has a single/single/humbucker setup. I have a push-pull tone pot on this guitar set to switch the Suhr SSH bridge humbucker from standard series operation to parallel. This too is a great mod, since a humbucker in parallel sounds very close to a single-coil. (“Tapping” a humbucker for single-coil operation has always sounded somewhat fake to me, so I much prefer the series/parallel switch.)
My Classic S with the humbucker is probably my most versatile guitar—if I had to bring just one axe to a gig, it would most likely be this one. I recommend that anyone in my line of work own at least one good Strat-style guitar with a single/single/humbucker pickup arrangement. It’s as close to a jack-of-all-trades electric guitar as you can get.
I also have a Suhr Classic T Antique, a ’50s Tele-style guitar. A good Tele-style axe is an absolute necessessity for sideman or session work. They are incredibly versatile for such a simple design, and sometimes you simply have to have that Tele-style tone and look.