Saturday, August 22, 2015

John Denver's Guitars

Note: My sources can be accessed by clicking the links.

Recently there was a television special about John Denver. I’d forgotten what a great contribution he had made to popular music during his lifetime. As a guitarist, I remember and associated him as exclusively playing Guild guitars. Watching the show I realized that he played a diverse array of guitars throughout his career.

From The John Denver Guitar Research Center
In doing some digging around in periodicals and online I came across a wonderful site called The John Denver Guitar Research Center that had cataloged every guitar John had played throughout his lifetime.

I thought perhaps I could look into some of these instruments, their makers and how John Denver had acquired each of them.

John Denver's first guitar

Before he became John Denver, the artist, he grew up as Henry John Deustchendorf and was born in Roswell, New Mexico, the home of Area 51. He received his first acoustic guitar at age 11 as a gift from his grandmother.

John Denver's first guitar
This was an archtop, built in 1910 that his grandmother had played when she was a girl. It has a lovely, woody tone when played.

Denver with a Gibson B-45-12

A few years later he was given a lovely Gibson B-45-12N twelve string guitar. It had a natural finish and came with an unusual pickguard, which leads me to believe Denver was not the original owner.

John's father was a military pilot, so the family moved around the country a lot.

When John was in his third year of high school he had learned enough about guitar and singing to begin playing in local clubs.  It was this year that he took his father’s car and headed to California in hopes of starting a career in music. His father flew a jet aircraft from Ft. Worth, Texas to retrieve his son. John finished high school before embarking on a career in music.

John on the right with his Gibson B-45-12 in the New Christy Minstrels
He made use of his 12 string Gibson when he was associated with The New Christy Minstrel. It was during this era that he changed his stage name to John Denver. The group’s leader Randy Sparks owned a club called Ledbetter's in West LA, where John was performing. He commented that Deutschendorf would not fit on a marquee.

John with the Gibson B-45 18 string guitar
At this time period he was still playing his Gibson B-25 twelve string, but he also acquired another unusual guitar. This guitar was a Gibson B-45-12 that had been converted to an 18 string guitar. It belonged to Randy Sparks and he loaned the guitar to Denver while playing with the Minstrels.

Gibson Hummingbird
John left the group and joined another folk contingent called The Back Porch Majority. During this era, Denver set aside his Gibson 12 string guitar and played a Gibson Hummingbird. He eventually left the group to study at Texas Tech. While there he played guitar and sang with a local trio.

John Denver with the Chad Mitchell Trio
In 1963 he left school and moved to Los Angeles. Within two years he had  joined The Chad Mitchell Trio and remained a member of this group for the next four years.

Denver with Guild F-212XL
He began his solo career in 1969 when he caught the attention of Milt Okun, who was producing records for the Chad Mitchell Trio. Okun convinced RCA Records to sign Denver and soon an LP called Rhymes and Reasons was released. This album contained a song called Babe, I Hate To Go, which would be retitled Leaving On A Jet Plane.

Guild F-212XL

Denver was very fond of 12 string guitars. On his next album, Poems, Prayers and Promises, the front cover shows off his first Guild F-212XL 12 string guitar.

He used this during the late 1960’s and earlier part of the 1970’s.

Denver with Guild F-212XL
In my opinion Guild made some of the greatest 12 string guitars.

The F-212XL is no exception.

Denver utilized several Guild 12 string models throughout the 1970’s, including this F-2 style and also an F-4, F-5 and later an F-6, which was his next stage guitar.

With Guild F-612XL

The Guild F-612XL is a noticeably different than the F-212 as it is much fancier.

Guild F-612XL

The body of the F-612XL is bound as is the neck and headstock. The neck has fancy inlaid pearl fret markers starting at the first fret and ending on the 16th fret.

F-612/XL custom - youtube
Denver must have liked this F-612 a lot, because he ordered a custom-made version. The headstock also has the stylized “G” inlaid in pearl. It also has a single pickguard. It is an exceptional instrument. He used this during company that he used from 1979 through 1982.

Guild from - youtube
Although it had the same basic accouterments found on the standard model, the inlay on this guitar was much more elaborate. The neck had fancy vine inlay that ran from the 2nd fret thought th 19th fret. The bridge saddle was also inlaid with a similar vine pattern. The hardware on this guitar; the tuning keys and the strap buttons were all gold-plated. It was a stunning instrument.

Denver with Guild F 50 AA

Denver also utilized a beautiful Guild F-50 “Artist Award Model” 6 string guitar. This instrument can be distinguished by its double pick guards and over-sized  head stock, which features a plate that identifies it as an Artist Award Model.

Guild F-50 Artist Award

The neck, body and head stock are all bound as is the truss rod cover. The neck is inlaid with block pearl markers starting at the 1st fret and ending at the 16th fret.

F-50 R Artist Award
This is perhaps his most recognizable guitar. It is featured on the cover of the album, An Evening With John Denver.

Denver with Yamaha L-53
Perhaps the most unusual guitar John played was a six string acoustic prototype made for him by Yamaha called the model L-53.

Yamaha L-53
It can be seen on his Christmas special, called Rocky Mountain Christmas. This guitar was built to only be sold on the Japanese market.

John Denver's Yamaha L-53
According to the John Denver Guitar Research site, Denver had 3 of these instruments. On a tour of Japan, Denver met Yamaha master guitar builder Terumi Nakamoto after a concert. Mr. Nakamoto offered him his choice of 3 different Yamaha guitars, an L-51, an L-52 and an L-53.

Denver with Yamaha L-53
The Yamaha L-53 guitar became one of Denver’s primary stage guitars for much of the latter 1970’s and it shows a great deal of usage. It is an exquisite instrument. The top is solid spruce, while the back and sides appear to be rosewood. The body is bound on the top and bottom, with the upper binding featuring gorgeous abalone.

The rosette is also bound with twin layers of abalone separated by a black circle.

As on a Martin D-45, the edge of the top in which the neck extends is framed in abalone trim. The 19 fret rosewood neck is bound and features exquisite abalone block inlaid fret markers which start at the first fret.

Yamaha L-53

The head stock feature mirrored image abalone inlay on each side with the gold-plated Yamaha tuners peeking through. The center of the head stock veneer is wood topped with the 3 tuning fork Yamaha logo. On the back of the head stock and mahogany neck there are two strips of ebony that run its length.

Back of the L-53

The back of one of the guitars necks shows extreme checking on the area where the head stock breaks, leading one to believe that the guitar may have been dropped and a poor repair done.

John Denver with Yamaha Guitar

The neck on a different version features more of a golden hue on the abalone and more colourful block inlays.

The back of this neck shows extensive wear as the top of one side of the head stock is seriously chipped. This guitar is shown of the cover of the video John Denver and The Muppets Christmas Together.

Stuart Mossman Guitar
Denver also played a beautiful guitar designed by his friend and luthier Stuart Mossman. Mossman began building guitars in 1968 and continued through 1983 when health problems caused by breathing fragments of abalone and sawdust threatened his health. In 1984 he sold the business. Throughout his career Mossman built around 6,000 guitars.

From the S.L Mossman Catalog
The guitar he built for John Denver is an exceptional instrument and a work of art. The body is in the familiar shape of a dreadnaught guitar. It is Mossman’s top-of-the-line model that he called Golden Era. This instrument has polished solid spruce top that is mounted on rosewood sides and back. The body is bound with beautiful abalone shell trim.

Mark O'Connor with a similar Mossman
The bound mahogany neck is topped with a rosewood fretboard that is exquisitely inlaid with an extraordinary about of mother-of-pearl fleur-di-lis patterns that extend from the first fret to the end of the fretboard. The head stock is bound on its upper side and has a rosewood veneer that is bedecked with a stylized “M” with mirrored fleur-di-lis inlay and abalone dots.

Mossman was offering this instrument for sale in the 1970’s for only $875. By Comparison, in the mid-1970’s a Martin D-28 sold for around $750. Denver took this guitar on world tours.

Denver with a Greven Guitar
Between 1981 and 1982, luthier John Greven built two guitars for Denver; a six string model and a matching twelve string model.Greven is still creating beautiful custom instruments today.

Greven began his career by working at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville Tennessee back in the 1960's. He restored and repaired vintage instruments and considers this to be his education into the methods and concepts that differing manufacturers utilized in building guitars. He says he has applied these concepts and modern building concepts into the creation of his instruments. And Greven does build some exceptional guitars.  He was introduced to John Denver by a mutual friend while Denver was staying in New York City. Denver commissioned the guitar.

John Greven White Lady guitar similar to Denver's model
The six string is known as The White Lady. The guitars top is made from Sitka spruce from Ketchikan Alaska and the sides, back and neck are made from rock maple that grew in Pennsylvania. The body is bound in beautiful abalone trim on its top and bottom.

Greven neck and headstock
The rosette features three concentric circles with an inner circle of inlaid abalone. The guitars back shows lovely book-matched and flamed wood divided by a thin black strip. The neck also shows the lovely flame of the wood and is carved on the instruments heel. The neck is bound with white trim and has an ebony fretboard inlaid with mother-of-pearl angel and cloud patterns.

This is a 2013 White Lady
The head stock veneer is made of ebony wood and inlaid with mother-of-pearl depicting the nude "White Lady" in front of an eighth moon. She is running her fingers through her flowing long hair that is made of abalone inlay. The builder's name is inlaid in a scroll at the top of the instrument. A feature that is hidden is John Denver's name inlaid on a rosewood block that is mounted on the instruments interior neck block. It is a gorgeous guitar.

The inclimate weather in the Colorado mountains or perhaps storage in the cargo hold of an airplane has taken its toll on this guitar as the head stock shows extensive cracking in the varnish.

John's 12 string Greven
The Greven 12 string guitar had many of the features found on the six string model, except on the instruments head stock there was an elongated quadrangle design. It too was made of Sitka spruce and rock flamed maple with an ebony neck. Unfortunately this guitar was destroyed in an automobile accident not long after Denver took possession.

Denver with an Adamas 12 string
In August of 1980 John Denver appeared at The Aspen Music Festival with yet a different guitar. This was an Adamas 12 string guitar made by The Ovation Musical Instrument Company.

Adamas guitars were designed by Charles Kaman and his team and were made of synthetic composite materials. The carbon fiber top was thinner than a wooden top and was suspended to give it more vibration and longer sustain. The rounded parabolic bowl was designed to better project the sound.

Adamas 12 String
Instead of the typical round sound hole, This top-of-the-line Adamas featured twin sound ports that each had three large ports and eight smaller ones. The head stock and bridge saddle were elaborately carved. And the guitar was fitted with the Ovation piezo electric bridge and built in pre-amp and controls for volume and tone. As with many Adamas guitars, the top had a blue hue.The binding around the body was or a molded rope-type. At the same festival Denver also used an identical six string Adamas guitar.

Ovation Elite 12

From time to time Denver employed some other Ovation guitars including a 12 string Elite model. This was Ovation's wooden version of the Adamas. Instead of a carbon fiber top, the Elite came with a solid spruce top.

Adamas six string from youtube
He can be seen playing other Ovation guitars, including an Adamas six string, an Ovation six string acoustic Legend and an Ovation 1613 Classical electric guitar.

National Steel guitar
We also see photos of John Denver with some other guitars such as the National steel resonator guitar that he is holding on the cover of the album Love Again aka the Very Best of John Denver also released under the title John Denver Favorites.

Denver with Gibson CEC guitar
We see John playing a black Chet Atkins CEC in The Wildlife Concert. CEC stands for Classic Electric Cutaway. This may look like a solidbody guitar, but it is actually a chambered body instrument. The bodies were generally made of spruce or cedar and the necks were mahogany. The fingerboard is made of rosewood. The electronics are mounted on the upper side and feature several rolling potentiometers for volume and tone.

1988 Gibson CEC
This guitar has a built in pre-amplifier. There are six piezo crystal pickups under the bridge. The width of the neck is 2" at the nut, which is approximately the same as most classical instruments. It was designed by Gibson and Chet Atkins.

John Denver playing a Martin guitar

He can also be seen playing a few Martin guitars. We know for certain one was a Martin D-20-12. He is playing a Martin D-28 in this picture.

Ervin Somogyi
In 1986 John Denver commissioned luthier Ervin Somogyi to build a matching pair of guitars.

One was a six string and the other was 12 string guitar. These instruments featured Sitka spruce tops, Brazilian rosewood was used for the backs, sides and bridge saddle. The necks were made of Honduras mahogany.

The guitars were both featured a single Florentine cutaway and decorative inlays starting at the 3rd fret. The headstocks had an unusual design, ending in a point. The bridge saddle also featured an extremely stylistic design.

The unusual rosette consider of alternating Blocks of on X or two X’s. This seems to be a trademark of this luthier.

Denver with a Somogyi guitar
There is no marking on the headstock with the builder’s name. Only the label inside identifies it as made by Ervin Somogyi. The six string version appears on the CD cover for the National Arbor Day charity that were given away as PSA’s for the organization. Somogyi is still building custom made guitars in Berkely California.

Towards the end of his career John Denver used some more utilitarian guitars. Not to diminish their value, but his choice of Taylor and Godin guitars were more roadworthy than his custom built instruments.

John used two different Godin models. One had steel strings and the other was a nylon string model. They were somewhat similar instruments, but for the wood used in construction and the construction techniques.

The steel string version was known as the Electro-Acoustic Steel Duet Ambiance. This guitar featured a chambered mahonany body with a solid spruce top and X bracng.. The guitar had a 25 1/2” scale (the same as a Stratocaster), with a customer Fishman electronic under saddle transducer and a built-in microphone.

The switches in the upper bout controlled volume, slider switches for equalization, a blend between the transducer and the microphone. And phase controls.

The nylon string version called the Multiac Grand Concert Duet Ambience.

This guitar is equipped with electronics by EPM, which include an under-saddle transducer and a microphone that is within the twin chambered silverleaf maple body. The top is made of cedar and the neck is made of mahogany and also has a 25 1/2” scale.

The guitar is equipped with a built-in pre-amplifier and slider switch to control volume, equalization and mic/transducer blend.

John Denver with his Taylor 915-M
Through the final years of his career and last days of his life, John Denver relied on Taylor guitars. The story of how Bob Taylor started this company is fascinating. Taylor guitars are not just wonderful and well-made instruments, but very road worthy as well. We know that John owned more than a half dozen Taylor instruments that he played throughout the 1990’s

Taylor K22
The Taylor K22 six string model is a beautiful guitar with a body made of flamed Hawaiian Koa wood. The body is in the Grand Concert style and it is bound with faux tortoise shell. The neck is made of mahogany. Like the Godin guitars, the scale is 25 1/2”.

The fret board is made of ebony with abalone special design fret markers. The rosette is also made of gorgeous inlaid abalone. The head stock is adorned an abalone floral design and topped with gold-plated Grover tuners.

Denver with Taylor K15

The Taylor K15 six string model is almost identical in every aspect to the K22, except for the fact that it has a jumbo body.

Taylor JD Memorial
After his death, Taylor produced a similar John Denver memorial model of this instrument with inlay on the guitars neck that is a facsmile of John. The design is a representation of a statue of John Denver that is in Snowmass Colorado on the Windstar Foundation land preserve that was created by John Denver and his friend Tom Crum in 1976. The preserve covers 1,000 acres.

Denver with Taylor 915
John Denver purchased two Taylor 915 six string guitars in 1994. Both guitars are made in with the jumbo sized body and solid Sitka Spruce tops. One, the M model, had gorgeous birdseye maple back, sides, with a  neck mahogany while the other had a rosewood back and sides and a mahogany neck.

The 915-m was one of the first guitars that Bob Taylor designed back in 1977. It came with an unusually designed bridge saddle. The rosette featured abalone inlay.

The 915-m was one of the first guitars that Bob Taylor designed back in 1977. It came with an unusually designed bridge saddle. The rosette featured abalone inlay.

Taylor LKSM 12 string
The Taylor LKSM 12 string guitar was designed for finger-style guitarist Leo Kottke with his input. It is not a fancy guitar. The body is solid Sitka spruce and the back and sides are mahogany as is the neck. The body is bound in Indian rosewood.

Taylor LKSM 12 String

The fret board is made of ebony with no fret markers. The head stock veneer is made of Indian rosewood with the logo inlaid in mother-of-pearl. The tuners are gold-plated button style. The body features a modified Venetian cutaway. According to Kottke it plays like a six string. John owned at least one of these instruments.

Taylor 855-12
He also own a lovely Taylor 855 12 string guitar. This guitar featured a jumbo sized double bound body with book-matched solid Sitka spruce wood for the top and the back and sides were crafted of Indian rosewood. The guitars bridge saddle was also crafted from Indian rosewood.

The bound neck was mahogany topped with an ebony fret board. The position markers were special design made of mother-of-pearl. The guitars scale was 25 1/2”. The rosette was made of abalone inlay.

The guitars head stock veneer appears to be Indian rosewood and the tuners are gold-plated Grovers. John probably purchased this guitar in 1994 along with several other Taylor instruments. It is featured in a concert for the 100th Anniversary of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Taylor J15
John also owned a Taylor model J15. The wonderful instrument features a jumbo sized body with a Venetian cutaway. The top is once again book-matched solid Sitka spruce. The sides and back are made of Indian rosewood, with the back also being book-matched with a strip of lighter wood separating the two pieces. The body is double bound. The neck is bound and made of mahogany.

Taylor J15
The back and front of the head stock feature ebony veneer with the back veneer blending into a point at the break in the neck. The fret board is also made of ebony and has ovular mother-of-pearl position markers. The truss rod cover is also made of mother-of-pearl. Again the tuners are made by Grover and gold-plated, as are the strap buttons.

On a final note John did not seem fond of guitar cases. Subsequently his instrument suffered the damage.

Pictures show damage to the head stock of two of his Yamaha L-53 guitars. One picture show a repair to a head stock that was damaged at the portion where the head stock joins the neck. Another picture shows a neck without the guitars body.

Denver's gig bag

This may possibly be due to the fact that early in his career Denver carried his guitars in a leather gig bag that appears to be made for him by a leather craftsman instead of using a hard shell guitar case. Other pictures show him with more conventional gig bags strapped to his back.

His Ovation guitars all came with molded cases and he utilized those. The Taylor guitars also came with leather bound hard cases.

It would be fascinated to find out where these instrument are today.

John Denver Memorial
His archtop Martin was in a museum as you can see in the picture at the top of the page. However when John died, it was rumored that his body and this beloved guitar were cremated and the remains were scattered over the John Denver Sanctuary located in Aspen, Colorado.

There is a link to an auction site that showed one of the Taylor K15 guitars offered. 

I would encourage readers to check out the John Denver Guitar Research web page.

These folks have done a lot of research and offer quite a lot of pictures of John playing his different guitars.

John with Guild F-612 12 string$$$$

John with Taylor J-15 - James Burton Telecaster
John with Guild F-50 Artist Award

John with Mossman 12 string