The modern Southern rockers recently played Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, and guitarists Charlie Starr and Paul Jackson displayed a bevy of gear every bit as hardworking as these road dogs.
Right now, they’re in Europe, but Atlanta-based rockers with a distinctly Southern musical accent, Blackberry Smoke, smoked Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for two nights in February before jumping the pond.
Their latest album, You Hear Georgia, was produced by Dave Cobb in Nashville, and hit the top of the Billboard Americana/Folk chart when it was released in mid-2021. PG’s John Bohlinger caught up with guitarists Charlie Starr and Paul Jackson before their sold-out show at the Ryman to run down their ever-expanding universe of gear.
Brought to you by D’Addario XS Strings.
Battered, Not Fried
This 1956 Gibson Les Paul Junior was professionally refinished in the ’70s, but Charlie Starr has put some serious miles on this one-pickup wonder. The battered badass with a dog ear P-90 and all his electrics are strung with D’Addario XL Nickel Wound strings, .010–.046. He uses InTuneGP Heavy picks and a ceramic Charlie Starr Signature Osanippa Creek Slide.
Like Ernest Tubb and other guitarists from the classic annals of entertainment, Starr has a greeting on the back of his ’56 Junior for the fans.
For some semi-hollow tone and feel, Starr goes with his stock 1964 Gibson ES-335 in Cherry Red with a Bigsby. The guitar belonged to a friend’s grandfather, and when Starr acquired it, he says, “It had gouges at the C, G, and D,” positioning his hand over the open chord shapes. He had it re-fretted by Stan Williams in Georgia, who told Starr, “This guitar looks like it's been sitting outside in a barn since 1964. And I don't know how the dude was able to get a bird to shit inside that f-hole.”
Starr maintains that this 1965 Fender Esquire in factory black, like his other single pickup guitars, sounds larger than most as there are less magnets interfering with the string vibration. He adds, “I’m told that it’s a physics thing. And I’m a physicist, so I subscribe to that theory.”
The Rest of the Best
Here are the Starr's other main stage rides (clockwise from the top left): a 1956 Gibson Les Paul Jr., a 1963 Fender Esquire, a Fender American Nashville B-Bender Telecaster, and a 1964 Gibson SG Jr..
“This is on all the time,” Starr says of his Echopark Vibramatic 23, which he pairs with a tall cab. “It's basically a tweed Deluxe, and it adds that 6V6 creamy sweetness all the time.” The maker of Blackberry Smoke’s 50-watt Germino heads, Greg Germino, personally recommended this Germino Lead 55LV (left) to Starr, and is paired with a 4x12 cab. And the other Germino is a Master Model 50.
Charlie Starr's Pedalboard
Starr’s pedalboard features a Cry Baby Wah, a PCE-FX Aluminum Falcon Klon clone, an Analog Man Sun Face, Chase Tone Secret Preamp—“a preamp that accidentally made everyone’s signal a little sweeter,”—Wampler Faux Tape Echo, Fulltone Supa-Trem, DryBell Vibe Machine, Analog Man-modded MXR Phase 45, and a Polytune 3. XTS XAct Tone Solutions supplies the juice. Starr tapes a few of the pedals’ knobs to make sure his settings don’t go missing in action.
Paul Jackson's Ol’ Reliable
Paul Jackson’s number one is his 1979 Les Paul, which has been modded with a Seymour Duncan ’59 neck pickup and a Pearly Gates bridge pickup. He says he got it at a Guitar Center in Atlanta about 18 years ago—it also sports Dickey Betts’ autograph. Jackson strings this and all his electrics with D’Addario .010-.046s.
This black Gibson SG Standard—one of Jackson’s pair of SGs—was a gift from Frank Hannon of the band Tesla, who signed the back of it.
Keep It Together
Jackson’s Martin D-28 currently has gaffer tape holding down its binding.
The other three touring staples for Jackson include a 1978 ES-335, a 40th Anniversary Les Paul Ebony 1991, and a 1998 Gibson SG Les Paul Custom Shop Historic.
De-Modded For Classic Tones
One of the two amps Jackson tours with is a pre-’85 Marshall JCM800 50-watt with a stock 4x12 cab. You’ll see it has a sticker that says “Paul Jackson Mod”—he had it modded at one point, but later took it to Andrews Amp Lab in Atlanta to have them “turn it back into a Marshall.” Along with the Marshall, Jackson’s Vox AC30 is on “all the time.”
Paul Jackson's Pedalboard
Jackson and Starr’s pedalboards have more than a few things in common—Jackson’s also equips his with a Cry Baby Wah, Wampler Faux Tape Echo, and a PCE-FX Aluminum Falcon Klon clone—although Jackson’s is an Aluminum Falcon III. Other pedals on his board include a Radial Twin-City ABY Amp Switcher, JHS 3 Series Reverb, MXR EVH Phase 90, Way Huge Overrated Special Overdrive, and an Ibanez Mini Tube Screamer. Power comes from a Truetone power supply. Of the EVH Phaser, Jackson says, “If you don’t know what you’re doing, hit the phase pedal. nobody will ever know.”
When Gibson Met Hagstrom
A see-through cherry factory-finish 1960 Gibson Les Paul Custom? You bet your meatballs!
Ted McCarty, the man most responsible for the creation of the Gibson Les Paul and the president of the company during its golden era, never spared his criticism of the competition at Fender. He sniped to guitar writer Tony Bacon that Fender didn’t even own a carving machine, adding, “they joined their neck with a plate in the back of the guitar!” In another interview, he told author Tom Wheeler, “It didn’t take a great deal of skill to build a plank guitar”—an insult that, for some, still carries a barb all these decades later.
So, when McCarty and the Gibson team deigned to make their first solidbody Spanish-style electric, they pulled out all the stops, creating the carved maple top, famous gold finish, expert binding, and trapezoid inlays of 1952’s debut Les Paul. But, lo and behold, the Les Paul Custom model that was unveiled one year later was even fancier. McCarty, with input from Les himself, outfitted the Custom with more intricate binding, gold hardware, a split-diamond headstock inlay, an ebony fretboard, and a tuxedo-like finish that inspired a lasting nickname: the Black Beauty.
In profile, this 1960 Gibson Les Paul Custom’s see-through finish seemingly makes its solid mahogany glow.
What, then, is this month’s find from the vault? It’s a bona fide 1960 Les Paul Custom in a factory-sprayed, see-though cherry finish. There’s a story here, and it goes: This all-original Custom is the same as others of its era except for that transparent color. It has the same Grover tuners and extra low “fretless wonder” rails of its genus. It sports the same 3-humbucker setup. (The move away from two pickups began in ’57 and continued through the SG-body Customs of the early ’60s.) The 3-way switch selects between the neck pickup, middle plus bridge, and the bridge pickup alone, and there’s Gibson’s typical two volume and two tone knobs.
In 1960, a regular Black Beauty would have retailed for $395 in the U.S., and this custom-finish import likely had an extra charge.
But what about that clear cherry red finish that lets the mahogany wood grain talk to the eyes? It almost looks like something the Sweden-based guitar company Hagstrom might’ve offered back then. And that’s the tip-off. According to GuitarPoint, the vintage German guitar store that has listed this instrument for sale on Reverb, this is one of six Les Paul Customs specially ordered by Hagstrom for import between ’59 and ’60. Cool, right?
The back of this guitar’s neck shows its age in nicks and scuff, but according to its seller, it plays like a pup.
On this 6-string, there’s a “Made in the USA” imprint above the serial number. All official export models had this back then, for customs purposes. The finish shows the all-mahogany 1-piece body construction. There are some small, repaired cracks on the right wing of the headstock between the 100-percent-stable machine heads. This axe shows some wear, especially on the back of the neck, but in general, it’s nice and clean and stock. The pots have untouched solder joints and read 134.59.47, meaning they’re from the 47th week of 1959. The original PAFs had never had the covers off and measure 7.94k (neck), 8.29k (middle), and 8.34k (bridge). The weight of nearly 10 pounds is typical for a Custom, and this one even comes with its original black Gibson case.
In 1960, a regular Black Beauty would have retailed for $395 in the U.S., and this custom-finish import likely had an extra charge. For reference, a common factory upgrade like a gold-plated Bigsby would have cost another $75.
For all the elite trappings McCarty bestowed on the Custom, history has offered a funny twist. Wealthy players and collectors have decided that the Standard Bursts of 1958 to 1960—those with simply two PAFs, a flamed-maple top, and a sunburst finish—are the pinnacle of Les Paul design and collectability. Because of this, vintage Customs from this period do not command the same stratospheric prices. While an excellent-condition, 3-pickup Black Beauty could hit $80,000, Bursts start at around $160,000 and go up—way up—from there. However, this rarity in its original, spectacular finish is listed at roughly $133,500.
The small cracks between the OEM Grover tuners have been so expertly repaired as to be invisible.
Sources include “Former Gibson Chief Ted McCarty on Tonewoods and the Problems of ‘Top-Heavy’ Management” by Tony Bacon, published on Reverb News; American Guitars: An Illustrated History by Tom Wheeler; The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ’n’ Roll by Ian S. Port; Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars: An Identification Guide for American Fretted Instruments by George Gruhn and Walter Carter; and Reverb sales data.
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