Sears Roebuck Silvertone
Miraculously, Chet’s first guitar survives. His stepfather brought it home, where it was first used by older brother Lowell (the initials carved in the top are his doing—a girlfriend, apparently). A motivated Chet traded a year’s worth of early morning milking duty for the box, whose neck had been broken and crudely repaired with a screw. The action was stratospherically high and difficult.
Walter Carter, sales manager at Nashville’s Gruhn Guitars, who wrote the chapter on Chet’s instruments for the exhibit catalog, says he learned a lot about Chet through the Silvertone: “Most people who start on a cheap guitar, as soon as they show some talent, do anything to get something better. And the fact that Chet played this piece of junk for five or six years or more, it’s mind-boggling. He clearly wanted to be a great guitar player, and a bad instrument was not going to stop him.”
In 1936, Chet’s mother sent 12-yearold Chet to live in Georgia with his father, chiefly to see if the climate would be better for his troublesome asthma. It was, but Chet lost his musical family and friends. Lonesome, he picked this guitar for thousands of hours in every spare minute, favoring his high school bathroom for its resonance, the one thing that made this Silvertone sound acceptable.
While he was from rural East Tennessee, Chet did enjoy one rather remarkable and fortuitous connection in the music business. His older half-brother Jim played guitar and wound up in the Les Paul Trio on the famous Fred Waring radio show out of New York. Jim acquired this Gibson L-10 from Les Paul, who’d custom ordered the extended fretboard. “When (Jim) saw how much I liked it, he surprised me by giving it to me,” wrote Chet in his memoir, Me and My Guitars. “Riding back to Knoxville on the train, I was so happy I didn’t know what to do. Every little while I would open the case just to look at that guitar. I loved the way it looked and the way it smelled.”
As he would with nearly every guitar he’d own, Chet modified this instrument, installing a Vibrola tailpiece and a floating DeArmond pickup. The former gave him the tremulous vibrato effect that earned him the “talking guitar” tagline, and the latter gave him the volume and nuanced control he’d been looking for. Chet’s first serious radio work and his earliest recordings were made on the L-10.
Sadly, the promising career of this young guitar was cut short when Chet, standing on a chair to reach a radio microphone that nobody could be bothered to lower, slipped and fell. He did a chest-plant on the guitar, severely damaging the body. It was repaired but never the same, Chet said. He moved on to a Gibson L-7 with P-90 pickups, which he installed himself. It was the most invasive surgery he’d done yet on a fine instrument, and a learning experience that set him up for his most audacious act of guitar modification.
If a lesser player had tricked out a guitar this elegant and exotic this way, folks would have chided him for having more money than sense. Even Chet acknowledged that his friends must have thought he was crazy for so radically modifying one of the world’s finest instruments. Though truth be told, Chet ordered his dream guitar with electrification in mind. The D’Angelico log books reflect it with their first-ever order for an “ele.” guitar. Chet had begun to make decent money, and he custom ordered this Excel with a Bigsby bridge pickup and sound posts for a more rigid top. John D’Angelico was disturbed by the idea, but he accommodated his young client, and it was delivered in August of 1950.
Chet took it even further on his own. Seeking even more tonal control, he put this guitar under the knife in his backyard. When he was done, the Excel sported a P-90 at the bridge and a Bigsby at the neck, with a 3-way switch mounted in the lower f-hole. It “would have been considered a savage assault on the integrity of the guitar top,” says Walter Carter. “But it just goes to show you that by that time he’d realized that the sound of an electric guitar is largely in the pickup and not in the top or the acoustic qualities of the guitar.”
This instrument accompanied him on his career-making journey with the Carter Sisters, the reconfiguration of the seminal Carter Family, which featured Mother Maybelle and her three daughters. With them, Chet moved to Nashville and became a fixture on the Grand Ole Opry and in the young studio system of Music City. The story is only slightly marred by another accident. June Carter bumped the D’Angelico as it rested and the neck separated in the fall. It took years for it to be restored to its current condition, but the loss paved the way for a new chapter in Chet’s guitar career.