A blues-rock guitar hero and American music treasure shows us some of the gemstones in his 6-string strongbox, shares an amp with some history, and displays the onboard filter and select stomps he uses to goose his rich tone.
Tinsley Ellis broke onto the national blues scene with his early ’80s band, the Heartfixers. By late in the decade, when the Atlanta-based guitarist and singer began releasing albums under his own name, he also became a fixture in the genre’s international club and festival circuit. Over the years he's earned a reputation for full-throttle live shows and well-crafted albums that hinge on his powerful singing and on his playing, which is based in tradition but packed with signature moves like deft finger slides, the use of open, ringing strings in single-note solos, and bends borrowed from B.B. King but laden with his own emotionalism and rock 'n' roll energy.
Ellis has been a seemingly tireless road warrior—at least until Covid. But even the pandemic couldn't slow his songwriting, and he penned more than 200 new titles while in lockdown. You can hear 10 of those tunes, including 6-string bonfires like “Slow Train To Hell,” on his new album Devil May Care—the 20th in his catalog. Back on the road this year, Ellis stopped at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley on March 3, where he showed Premier Guitar his rig and told stories of close encounters with B.B. King and other greats after soundcheck and, that night, delivered a sermon on the power and glory of blues. His current run continues until the end of May, and Ellis has just been nominated in the 2022 Blues Music Awards for Blue-Rock Entertainer of the Year.
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Meet the Fleet
Tinsley Ellis favors classic tone flavors, and he gets them through classic guitars. At the 3rd & Lindsley gig, he relied on his 1959 Fender Stratocaster, his mid-’60s Gibson ES-345, a 1930s National resonator, and an ’80s Gibson Moderne. He also travels with a Les Paul and another Strat when the mood or need arises.
A Fine ’59
Here's a close-up of that 1959 Strat. It's been one of his companions for decades. When asked if he’s concerned about traveling with such a superb vintage instrument, he replies: “I own ’em to play ’em.” And indeed he does, eliciting a wide variety of classic single-coil tones from its barking pickups as he dances over its rosewood neck. One snag: the middle single-coil is a replacement, because the original was swiped years ago when he brought the guitar in for a repair. Ouch!
Tinsley's No. 1
Dig that Varitone switch—which means this 1967 Gibson is an ES-345. It's Ellis' main axe and sounds killer through his double Fender amp setup and under his hands. “I bought this guitar in the ’70s, because I wanted to sound like B.B. King,“ he says. He loves the way the Varitone works as a filter, giving him that B.B. King Live at the Regal tone on demand, and even taking him into Peter Green turf. You can see every road mile on the ES’s beautifully weathered face. This guitar and the Strat are featured throughout the Devil May Care album, along with a Les Paul and several other carefully curated axes.
A Unmodded Moderne
Although Gibson designed the Moderne in 1957, along with the Flying V and Explorer, it was not produced—save for a few prototypes—until 1982. Even then, few were made over just two years, although the guitar returned to Gibson's catalog in 2012. Ellis keeps his stock Moderne tuned in open D, primarily, for playing slide, and the guitar seems to have an affinity for Elmore James’ material.
Note the Moderne's very un-Gibson-like “Gumby” headstock!
Take a Shine to This!
This is a 1932 National resonator, with its chrome body decorated by an oasis motif on the front and back. Ellis keeps this little doggie, a recent acquisition, mostly tuned in open G, and when he plays Muddy Waters' “Can't Be Satisfied,” laying his bronze slide on its strings, it's impossible to not be carried back to the days this guitar—and the blues genre—were young.
Here's the backside of Ellis' National.
A Super Super Reverb and Its Deluxe Sidekick
Ellis is a die-hard Fender amp fan and runs his vintage Super Reverb and reissue Deluxe in parallel to achiever his widescreen tone. This Super Reverb is a little more super than meets the eye. Ellis purchased the 40-watt wonder from Thom Doucette, who played harmonica with the Allman Brothers on the classic 1971 album At Fillmore East. Doucette owned two Supers, he and told Ellis he either played this one or its sibling—he no longer remembered exactly which he'd used—on the nights the album was recorded. Oh, and one more thing: This amp was also used by Stevie Ray Vaughan whenever he sat in with Ellis, who told us he hasn't changed the settings—volume at 6, treble just past 8, mid at 6, bass at 3, and reverb just past 2—since the first time SRV plugged into it. “When I heard Stevie play though that amp, I thought, ‘Aha, that's how it's supposed to be set!'”
Ellis keeps his pedalboard simple. There’s a Boss TU-2 chromatic tuner and a BBE Soul Vibe rotary speaker emulator—way easier to carry than the Leslie heard on Devil May Care—followed by a Nobles ODR-1 Natural Overdrive and a Real McCoy Custom Wah.
A rare resonator with a broken headstock, cracked fingerboard and corroded steel body
National built the Duolian metal-body vintage resonator from 1930 to 1938. What makes this Duolian different from many others is its frosted Duco crinkle-type finish, in a very rare shade of grey to dark green. This feature makes the restoration that much more pleasurable. It’ll be good to have this guitar fit for human hands to play again.
1933 Doulian Specs:
Steel Body with rolled-edge f-holes
Single convex 9.5" diameter cone
Wooden maple biscuit and saddle
Ebonized maple fingerboard with no binding
Fingerboard radius 10", gradually flattening to 15"
Total of 19 frets, 12 frets clear of the body
Mahogany round “C” neck
Slotted peghead stamped NATIONAL DUOLIAN
Stamped on peghead top is:
C 666 0
MADE IN USA
Clearly, the bass tuner side of the headstock needs to be repaired. This will be the second time. You can see it had previous epoxy slapped on everywhere, which is finally weakening and coming loose. I could tell by observing the gluing surface of both pieces that there was no pressure applied in the gluing process to help create a tighter, stronger glue joint. The glue was applied kind of like thick frosting on a cake.
At the fingerboard extension there is a 9" crack with a 1/16" wide gap. This area has never had any previous repair done to it. It appears that one of three screws used to secure the fingerboard to the metal body, hiding under the upper last fingerboard dot, has caused or at least encouraged the fingerboard to crack.
This instrument has been kept in a very moist atmosphere for some time, and the steel body will need some mild cleaning and conditioning. Care must be taken to avoid distorting the frosted Duco finish. The tools and materials used for this restoration are available from stewmac.com or a local hardware store:
#5391 Shop Stand and Guitar Repair Vise
#1816 Nut and Saddle Vise
#4167 Glue Brush
#4199 Mixing Cup
#5174 Slow Setting Clear Epoxy
#3721 Small Cam Clamps
Extra Strength Stripper
Dental pick/Dental scraper tools.
It was very important to remove all of the epoxy from the previous repair so that I could get a strong and proper fit, ensuring that the wood would not come apart again.
What seems to work best for removing weak epoxy is extra-strength stripper, which I normally use for removing finishes. I carefully apply the stripper with a glue brush until I can see it begin to react. I use my smaller flexible spatula with dental tools and gracefully shovel out the old unwanted glue, but without altering any of the wooden foundation, removing one layer at a time. As you see in the picture I’m securing the neck with my Shopstand and Guitar Repair Vise. The Nut and Saddle Vise works well for gripping and holding the smaller two pieces of wood while removing the old glue. Note: keep a small cup of water and a Q-tip near by, so that if the stripper goes in an area where you had not planned, a quick dab of water and wipe from the Q-tip on the surface will deactivate the stripper.
Now that all of the epoxy is removed we’re ready to put the three pieces together and check the fit. Overall, the fit is looking good, considering that there are small to medium slivers of missing wood. We’ll go back to address those later, after the first stage of gluing is completed.
We’re now ready to dry assemble using clamps. It takes a few tries clamping up the side wall of the headstock to get all three separate pieces to sit right for the final fit. I really want to have this part down before mixing my glue, slow-setting clear epoxy. I’m using a variety of non-stick 4-1/2" plastic clamping cauls to tidy everything up.
We will be addressing final stages of the headstock rebuild, fingerboard crack and body corrosion in next month’s “Restoring an Original.”
John Brown, of Brown's Guitar Factory, is the inventor of the Fretted/Less bass. He owns and operates a full guitar manufacturing and repair/restoration facility, which is staffed by a team of talented luthiers. He is also the designer of guitar making/repair tools and accessories that are used today by instrument builders throughout the world.