A Fender Tele Deluxe “Cleaver,” a not-so-golden ’57 Les Paul, a few gifts from Grohl, and a pedal playground help “Shifty” find some sonic space.
When Chris Shiflett left No Use for a Name and joined the Foo Fighters in 1999, he almost had no gear. The band was rehearsing to support their third album, There Is Nothing Left to Lose, and leader Dave Grohl was doing an inventory check on their newest member.
“Dave asked me how many guitars I had, and I said, ‘Well, I have two, but one has a broken headstock,’” recalls Shiflett. “Dave chuckled and said, ‘We gotta get you a few more guitars.’”
The duo ventured down to Sunset Boulevard hitting all the guitar shops and Grohl gifted Shifty a pair of Gibsons (that we’ll meet later). (This story is even more proof that Grohl is one of the coolest rock stars ever.)
“I had been going to some of those Sunset stores since I was a teenager, and they’re never nice to you because they know you’re not buying anything. So, when I went in there with Dave Grohl and his AmEx card, it was a real moment for me. Here I am joining my dream band, and he’s like, get whatever you want … and he really meant it!”
Shiflett’s gear germination didn’t stop there. “When I joined the band, I didn’t have any pedals. And now my bandmates constantly make fun of me for the size of my pedalboard—it’s ridiculously big and there are a lot of pedals on it—but my view has always been, ‘as long as I don’t have to carry it around, bring them all [laughs].’”
But they all serve a purpose and allow Chris to stand out in a three-guitar band. “I do love that my role in Foos over the years has become the color guy with all these pedals.”
His growth as an artist doesn’t stop there. Shiflett’s put out punk albums in Jackson United and for nearly 25 years, he sparked endless good times in the best punk-rock cover band (Me First and the Gimme Gimmes). In 2010, he shifted his creative outlet to busting out alt-country twangers and Bakersfield barroom bruisers as Chris Shiflett & the Dead Peasants, and then, later, solo. Since 2013, he’s been hosting a podcast (Walking The Floor with Chris Shiflett) that’s featured conversations with Wolfgang Van Halen, Mike Campbell, Greta Van Fleet, Billy Strings, and recent Rig Rundown subject Marcus King. Where does the dude find the time?!
Following Foo Fighters' recent Taylor Hawkins Tribute Concert at L.A.’s Kia Forum to honor their dearly departed drummer, Shiflett carved out some precious time and invited PG’s Chris Kies to the Foo’s HQ, Studio 606. The laidback conversation covered his essential live guitars (including a not-so-golden ’57 Les Paul and a few gracious gifts from Grohl), some custom Friedmans, and a pair of unusual AC30 stacks that only he and Sir Paul have … and all his pedals that sting, sparkle, shimmer, and sizzle.
Brought to you by D’Addario XS Coated Strings.
All That Glitters Is Not Gold
This 1957 Gibson Les Paul started out its long life as a goldtop. Shiflett believes that the rest of the instrument is true to the day it left Kalamazoo. He says in the Rundown that he bargained with himself to sell about 20 guitars on a Reverb shop with the idea of parlaying that scratch for one or two “magic guitars.” They tallied up his credit and started dusting off their most-valuable coffers. He was drawn to this one for its sound and character as a player-grade holy grail Les Paul—with its stripped finish and broken headstock. He originally thought it’d be a studio piece, but fellow Foo Pat Smear told him he had to bust it out for tours … which he now has for years. This one stays in standard tuning and takes D’Addario NYXLs (.010–.046).
Shiflett uses lighter-gauged Dunlop Tortex picks that feature the band’s logo on one side and his husky Lucky on the other.
Meet the Cleaver
Ten years ago, Shiflett was honored with a MIM Fender Telecaster Deluxe signature. A few years later, Chris revisited the Tele Deluxe design with Fender’s Masterbilt team and devised this devilish T. They dubbed it “Cleaver, because it positively slashes through the mix,” he says. Specs include a 2-piece alder body, quartersawn maple neck, 21 medium jumbo frets on a rosewood ’board, a large ’70s-style headstock, Schaller tuners, and the Hattori Hanzō-sharp blade of this beauty is a custom pair of Lindy Fralin P-90 Soapbar pickups that are noiseless and slightly overwound.
Ace Gift from Grohl
This Les Paul Custom (Shiflett thinks it’s from 1989–1991) was one of the guitars Grohl bought him back in 1999. It’s seen a lot of pickup combinations, but it currently has a Seymour Duncan JB (bridge) and a ’59 (neck). Shiflett’s a big Kiss fan, so he threw on the Ace Frehley sticker. He’s put a lot of miles on this stallion, and he says that it gallops and grooves best while in drop-D for songs like “Monkey Wrench” and “Everlong.”
The Cheapest Way to a Signature Guitar is…
getting a custom truss rod cover made and slapping it on the headstock, as seen here.
C’s Flying V
This 2002 Gibson Flying V was the first axe Shiflett ordered fresh from a guitar company. He got it just before touring in support of 2002’s One by One (the first Foo’s album he contributed to). In the Rundown, he shared his thoughts on the body shape: “As impractical as they are to play sitting down, god, they’re amazing to play standing up!” The V currently has a set of Fralin Pure P.A.F. humbuckers that are “really musical and clear.”
Dave Does It Again
This prized Gibson Explorer was the first guitar he was gifted from Grohl, ahead of his first tour in the Foo Fighters. It’s all stock except for a Seymour Duncan JB subbed into the bridge position.
Can’t You Hear Me Rocking?
When you play in an arena-filling, three-guitar rock band, you need to bring it. Shiflett toggles between the custom, two-channel Friedman Brown Eye 100W head and the Vox AC30 head. For the heavier, distorted songs, he goes with the Friedman, while the Vox is used for softer songs like “Aurora.” Both 4x12 stacks have a backup head. Shiflett claims in the Rundown that his Vox rep stated that only he and Sir Paul have AC30 4x12 stacks. Now that’s some splendid company to share!
Here’s a closeup of the settings Shiflett’s dialed in for the Brown Eye.
And here’s the recipe for Shiflett’s AC30 jangle and chime.
Chris Shiflett’s Pedalboard
His current pedal playground is home to all sorts of tone toys. Starting in the top left he has an Electro-Harmonix Micro POG, a JHS Muffuletta, a pair of MXRs (Flanger and EVH Phase 90), an EHX Holy Grail reverb, a Strymon Deco, and a Klon KTR. The next row starts with a Boss CE-2W Waza Craft Chorus, a couple of Strymon TimeLines (one for each amp), and down below is a trio of Xotics—an EP Booster, SP Compressor, and an XW-1. Utilitarian boxes include a Lehle Little Dual amp switcher, Palmer PLI-05 Dual Channel Line Isolation Box, Boss FS-5L footswitch (to toggle between clean and dirty on the Friedman), and a TC Electronic PolyTune that keeps all his guitars singing on key.
The good-vibes retro rocker remembers how a cool aunt snuck him quintessential cassettes that put him on the path to discovering Cobain & co.'s watershed album—and forever changing his life.
Now-classic designs such as Gibson's Flying V and Explorer originally bombed with the public—and chances are you would've turned up your nose at their debut, too.
Over the years, I've vacillated between my love of classic instruments and looking to the future. The same goes for automobiles. I was an F1 fan who always looked to the future. I drooled over carbon fiber wings and thought manual shifters were as antiquated as the crank starter and roll-up windows. Then I was stopped dead in my tracks in the paddock at a vintage sports car race by the sight of a beautifully crafted 1950s Maserati Grand Prix car. As Seinfeld might have said, worlds collided. As I stood before this piece of rolling artwork, it cast a spell on me that I haven't been able to shake.
Conversely, I still thought almost every guitar and gadget worth paying attention to was made before 1972. Why am I and so many others resistant to change when it comes to guitars?
In the late 1940s, Leo Fender and Paul Bigsby were on the cutting edge of mid-century design applied to age-old guitar building artistry. Their slab-bodied instruments were looking to a future that stodgy, old-time builders like Gibson couldn't imagine. Fender released the swoopy and futuristic Stratocaster in 1954, and by 1957 Gibson and other traditional builders found themselves on the back foot. As the appeal of Fender's rock 'n' roll-approved designs started eating into their profits, Gibson knew they had to keep up. As legend has it, that's when Gibson employee Seth Lover handed a sketch of an arrow-shaped instrument to company president Ted McCarty, and everything changed.
At the 1957 NAMM convention in Chicago, Gibson launched their return salvo at Fender—a trio of insane looking jet-age korina guitars with fins like space rockets. They were called Explorer, Moderne, and, of course, Lover's Flying V. Beaming smiles on Gibson's salespeople exuded the confidence of Babe Ruth stepping up to the plate, but by the time the show closed, the smugness might have evaporated. Somehow, these fabulous mid-century showpieces crossed a line that many buyers couldn't warm up to. Gibson's dealers bought a few as novelties for their store windows, but reorders were dismal.
Why am I and so many others resistant to change when it comes to guitars?
Marv Lamb, one of the founders of Heritage guitars, began his career in 1958 working in Gibson's Kalamazoo factory. In an interview with author/historian Tony Bacon, Lamb recalled his early days: "I remember working on the Flying V and Explorer. They were the ugliest things, way ahead of their time. I think Gibson practically gave them away to get rid of them." Within the span of two years, less than 100 Flying Vs, and even fewer Explorers, were sold. Gibson tried to revive the Flying V in the late 1960s, to little success.
When I visited McCarty in 1974, he bluntly told me, "those guitars were failures." But by then, the worm had already begun to turn. Young guitarists started to gravitate to the older single-cutaway Les Pauls, and slowly but surely came to embrace the Flying V. It took a little while longer for the lightning-bolt shape of the Explorer to catch on. Ironically, despite being decades old, musicians thought they looked new and cool. Sound familiar?
Today, the Explorer, Flying V, and the once forgotten Les Paul are seen as the archetypes of classic dad-rock. Their form is so ubiquitous that, like Kleenex, guitarists refer to any maker's version by the original Gibson designations. But it was the V and the Explorer's concept that really solidified the idea that as long as you retained the basic parts layout of an electric guitar, the outline of the body could be anything. Seth Lover, who wasn't a guitarist, had taken the leap that Fender had only hinted at. In a way, without the Explorer and V there might not have been a B.C. Rich, Jackson, and certainly no Hamer or Dean. But just as the rockers of the 1970s looked to the past to create their alternative sound and image, so, too, did the bands that followed. Those pointy guitars born in the shadow of Sputnik and the Cold War became de rigueur for metal and thrash music, while alternative icons like Elvis Costello, Johnny Marr, and Kevin Shields revived the comatose "offset" designs of the 1950s. Shiny polyester-clad "CEO" guitars, once buoyed by nu metal's push into the mainstream, have now been usurped by faux 1960s pawnshop guitars with purposely flawed finishes. We keep looking backwards to move ahead.
The original French phrase plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose is most often attributed to critic, journalist, and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849. It means the more things change, the more they stay the same. Since then, technology has certainly progressed, yet most of human nature has not. To my way of thinking, if Monsieur Karr was a veteran music dealer today, he might utter something similar about our attitudes and tastes in guitar.