Sunday, December 11, 2016

Elvis' Guitars

Elvis, That's The Way It Is
I watched a show on Turner Classic Movies last night called Elvis, That’s The Way It Is, which went behind the scenes to show Elvis and his band rehearsing for a 1970 Las Vegas show that was attended by a bevy of celebrities.

Elvis with Gretsch Country Gentleman
During the show Elvis played two guitars; A Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar and a 1956 Gibson J-200N, which was updated  in the 1960’s with a custom pickguard.  In taking a look at Elvis' history I am surprised at how many guitars the man owned.

Early Elvis with Martin D-28
Early in his career, you can tell he was always looking for a better and perhaps louder instrument. To Elvis guitars were mainly used as props. That voice was what was important. There is no question Elvis was gifted with a unique and beautiful voice. Watching him in action on this movie, I can attest that Elvis was a plausible rhythm guitarist that knew enough chords to accompany himself on many of his songs.

Elvis Tossing a Martin guitar
Though he was fortunate enough to own and play some wonderful instruments, Elvis was not at all kind to his guitars. He dropped his beautiful Gibson J-200 on the floor several times during this production. His close friends confirm that he would occasionally toss a guitar to them during a concert which they would fail to catch.
 
Broken Martin D-35


His style of strumming was very rough. Perhaps this was due to the lack of adequate amplification during his early days of fame that he played so aggressively that he damaged the top of his guitars. His huge belt buckles attributed to a bad case of “buckle rash” on the back of a number of his instruments.


As I already related, we see Elvis changed guitars quite often and no doubt the damage that he inflicted accounts for some of this reason.

1946 Kay Guitar

Elvis received a Kay guitar in 1946 for his 11th birthday that his parents bought for either $7.00 or $12.50 from a hardware store in Tupelo, Mississippi. Accounts tell us he wanted a bicycle, but instead received a guitar. And his fans are grateful. This Kay instrument may have been the guitar that he took to Sun Records to make his first recording. There are several stories about the history of this guitar.

One states that Elvis gave the guitar to his friend, Red West when he (Elvis), enrolled in Jones County College. Then Red gave it to his friend, Ronnie Williams, who bequeathed it to his brother William. The other story states that Elvis traded the Kay guitar at the O.K. Houck Piano Company in Memphis when he purchased a Martin guitar. This story goes on to say upon selling Elvis the Martin guitar the store promptly threw the Kay instrument in the trash. Whichever story is correct the guitar still exists, and is held together by tape and has no strings. It was offered for auction in 2002, but due to the lack of provenance to document it, failed to attract bidders.

Elvis with Martin 000-18


In 1954 Elvis purchased a 1936 Martin 000-18 from the O.K. Houck Piano Company in Memphis, Tennessee. This guitar was purchased for $5 down and $10 a month which cost $79.50 in 1954. Included with the purchase was a set of “autogram” Metallic letters that spelled E-L-V-I-S. Presley put these on the body of the guitar.


Recording King Guitar
That same year, 1954, Elvis acquired a Recording King guitar. This instrument was a brand sold at the Montgomery Ward store in Memphis. I have found no record of him ever using this instrument. He eventually gave it away to a famous harness horse racer named Delvin G. Miller in 1964. It has a note from Elvis to Miller inside the guitars body. It presently resides in a private collection.

Elvis' 1942 Martin D-18



Elvis apparently was not happy with the sound of the Martin 000-18 that he had purchased from the O.K. Houck Piano Company and in November of 1954 he traded it for a 1942 Martin D-18, which was a larger bodied instrument. He immediately put the same metallic lettering on this guitars body to spell out his name.



1955 Martin D-28
Within a few months Elvis traded his D-18 in for a 1954-55 D-28. That guitar would have cost $210 new. An employee that worked at the O.K. Houck Piano Company named Marcus Van Story, made a hand-tooled leather cover for this guitar at Elvis' request. Elvis had seen Hank Snow with his Martin Dreadnought which had a similar cover and Presley wanted one just like it.

1956 Gibson J-200
In 1956 Elvis acquired his first Gibson J-200, which like his previous instruments was purchased from the O.K. Houck Piano Company. Scotty Moore, the guitarist In his band, had just signed a deal that year to endorse Gibson guitars and figured Elvis would appreciate a free guitar. So Scotty had the store order the J-200. However Colonel Tom Parker would not let Elvis endorse any products. Subsequently Elvis was billed for the guitar.


He was supposed to visit the store in person to pick it up, but was unable to get out of other commitments, so Moore picked it up for him.

1956 J-200 with cover


The Gibson J-200 became one of Elvis’ favorite guitars. And it still is a gorgeous instrument. Within a year, Elvis had a hand-tooled leather cover made for it by Charles Underwood. (This was not the high-end leather manufacturer of the same name.)




Isana Guitar

It was 1958 when Elvis was drafted into the United States Army. While stationed in Germany his friend Lamar Fike, purchased a German guitar for Elvis called an Isana. This was a jazz style archtop instrument with soundholes that resembled the letter “S”. Elvis may of owned a couple of these guitars. One had a floating pickup, but was constructed in a way to be played without amplification.



Elvis used these guitars during his military service and when he was discharged gave them away to some local men he had befriended.


The modified Gibson J-200
Upon leaving the service in 1960 his 1956 Gibson J-200 was sent away to Gibson Guitars to be repaired and refurbished, so Elvis ordered a new 1960 Gibson J-200 from the same music store to use for a recording session.  Scotty Moore asked the folks at Gibson guitars to modify the 1956 J-200 by engraving his name in mother-of-pearl inlaid letters that were surrounded by two stars. Scotty left it up to Gibson to modify the pick guard to "something that Elvis might like". The Gibson craftsmen did a great job and it remained as one of Elvis' favorite guitars.

Elvis used his newer 1960 Gibson J-200 for the next eight years including on the 1968 Elvis Comeback Special.

Elvis with borrowed Hagstrom Viking

In 1968 for this same show Elvis borrowed a 1968 Hagstrom Viking electric guitar from session player Al Casey. During the taping the shows producer asked if any of the musicians had a flashy looking instrument that Elvis could use. Al Casey had this guitar in his cars trunk.



The background of the scene was red with silhouettes of guitar players and Elvis was dressed in all black with a red bandanna and was holding this bright red Hagstrom Viking. It was a very striking combination.

And though Elvis did not own the guitar, it became a great prop. By the way, Al Casey was one of the top California session players of the 1960's and '70's.

1968 Black Gibson J-200

In 1963 Elvis was given a black Gibson J-200 during a recording session in Nashville. He used this guitar on stage during Las Vegas shows throughout the 1970’s. Elvis had a decal put on the guitars top that was for Kenpo karate, to honor his friend Ed Parker, the founder of Kenpo karate.


With Scotty Moore's Super 400 CES

During the Elvis Comeback Special, Elvis borrowed Scotty Moore’s 1963 Gibson Super 400. This guitar had a Florentine cutaway, twin humbucking pickups and gold-plated hardware. During this scene in the special, Elvis played the Super 400, while Moore played Elvis’ 1960 J-200.


'64 Gretsch Country Gentleman

Elvis also owned and played a 1964 Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar that was quite similar to the one that George Harrison played. This guitar had a dark walnut finish on its flamed maple veneer top. It also came with double flip-up mutes which worked by turning two knurled knobs on opposite sides of the lower body.



'64 Gretsch pickups
This guitar was unusual in that the two pickups were mismatched. The neck pickup was a Super’Tron II with blade pole magnets while the neck pickup was a Filter’Tron pickup with 12 pole pieces. The tuning machines were Grover kidney style buttons instead of the stepped buttons usually found on this model. Though the hardware on this guitar was once gold-plated, including the Bigsby tailpiece, it has since faded and tarnished.


1969 Gibson Ebony Dove
Elvis owned a 1969 Gibson Ebony Dove, sometimes known as the Black Dove. He used it on stage from 1971 to 1973. This was a customized guitar.  When Gibson received the request for the guitar it specified that Elvis’ name was to be inlaid on the rosewood fretboard in mother-of-pearl lettering.

Close up of inlay 

The inlay work was done by Gruhn Guitars , since Gibson Guitars was in a time of transition and had no craftsman that could accomplish fancy inlay work at the time of the order.


1969 Ebony Dove
The glossy black body featured a three-ply black/white/black pickguard with no dove inlay. It was just a solid black pickguard. The headstock had a single crown inlay, Twin mother-of-pearl inlaid "doves" faced each other on opposite sides of the rosewood bridge unit. One the lower section of the body Elvis had placed a Kenpo karate decal.

Elvis dropped this guitar during a 1972 show and had it repaired.


A year later he handed to an audience member that had been looking at the guitar and told him, “Hold on to that. Hopefully it’ll be valuable some day.” Mike Harris, the audience member and guitars owner, put the guitar on eBay in 2008 and rejected a bid of $85,000.

Elvis with Guild F-50
In 1977 Elvis began playing a 1974 sunburst Guild F-50. This was a beautiful jumbo instrument in the style of the Guild F-50-12, their top of the line 12 string guitar. The top was made of solid spruce. The sides were a 3 ply laminate of mahogany/maple/mahogany and the back was select maple laminate with an arch. Guild used this style of back on several of their models. It eliminated the need for back bracing. The adornments on this guitar were deluxe. The top and back of the body was double bound as was the neck.

Elvis tossing the Guild 
The rosette was inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The block position markers were also mother-of-pearl. The headstock was bound and the Guild was inlaid on top and the “G” logo was inlaid beneath of it. Elvis used this guitar in concerts during 1976 and tossed it to Charlie Hodge like it was a baseball.

Elvis - Martin D-35


In 1976 Elvis purchased a Martin D-35 of that same year and utilized from 1976 until February of 1977 when he damaged it during a performance. Part of the lower end of the guitars top cracked and split off. It could have been a simple repair.




Broken D-35

Instead Elvis gave this guitar to an audience member who had camped out in a lawn chair to see The King.

The guitar sold it at auction in Guernsey’s of NYC for $20,000 in 2002.




Elvis with 1975 D-28


Elvis’ last guitar was Martin D-28 that he used for his last 56 concerts including his final show on June 26, 1977. Ironically this is the same model of Martin guitar that he used when he started his career back in 1955. Less than a month later Elvis had left the building for good. He passed away on August 16th, of 1977. The Martin D-28 remains on display at Graceland.

Guitars on display at Graceland

Elvis owned many other guitars, some he was intrigued by, while other he collected or was given.

Elvis starred in 31 movies and played. or used at least 28 different guitars in these movies that were property of the movie company and he was given some of these guitars.

Please click on the links under the pictures for sources and additional information. Also click on links in the text for additional information. 

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