Saturday, April 9, 2016

Merle Haggard's Guitars

Merle Haggard started his life in California. His father died at a young age which had a bad affect on young Merle. His mother had to find work and became a bookkeeper to support her family. Merle’s older brother gave him a guitar when he was 12 years old and Merle was able to pickup up songs by Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams by listening to phonograph records.

As Merle grew older he became rebellious, perhaps because his mother had to work, perhaps because life was hard. His mother eventually decided she could not handle him and had Merle placed in a juvenile detention center. This really only made matters worse, and Merle got into more trouble after being released. He committed a series of minor crimes which landed him back in a juvenile center.

His first “gig” was at a bar where he played guitar for $5 and free beer.

Younger Haggard with a Gibson
Somewhere along the way Merle Haggard was introduced to Lefty Frizzell and got to sing a few songs for him. Frizzell attempted to help him start a career in music, however Haggard, now married and deeply in debt, was arrested in 1957 and sentenced to San Quentin Prison.

After a series of run-ins with some bad company in prison, Merle Haggard straightened out his life, and earned a high school diploma.

While in prison he was able to play in the prison country music band. He stated that he took inspiration from a 1958 performance by Johnny Cash at San Quentin.

Haggard was released in 1960. Within a year he began recording music for a small label called Tally Records. He had a few minor hits. His fear was that his history of being a prisoner would ruin his career. But what happened was just the opposite.

In 1966 his album Branded Man, which contained his autobiographical song, was a commercial success. He had a new band, began touring and continued to record hit songs throughout his career.

Same Train, Different Time
In 1968 Haggard did a tribute album called Same Train, Different Time: A Tribute to one of his heroes, Jimmie Rodgers. This LP brought Merle many accolades.

By the end of the 1970’s Haggard had composed a number of hit songs, based on his past; such as Mama Tried, The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde, Sing Me Back Home, Okie From Muskogee and The Fightin’ Side of Me.

In 1972, after Haggard had become an established country music star, then-California governor Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full and unconditional pardon for his past crimes.

Young Merle with a Martin 00-18
Merle Haggard's choice of guitars have been Martin acoustics or Fender Telecasters. The first decent guitar that I can determine Merle played was a 1940's Martin 00-18 as we can see in this picture of a very young Haggard with guitar on a farm.

Merle Haggard with a Martin 000-18
One of Haggard's heroes was Jimmie Rodgers. Throughout his early career Merle seemed to have an affinity for small bodied 12 fret Martin 00-18 guitar that Rodgers played early in his career and we see Haggard on the cover of the Mama Tried album holding a Martin 00-18.

As Jimmie Rodgers prospered he purchased a top of the line Martin 00-45 with his name inlaid on the fretboard.

Young Merle Haggard's most photographed guitar with his Martin 00-45. It is on his album covers and in publicity photos.

It is a beautiful instrument.

Haggard played other Martin guitars throughout his career. These appear to be Martin D-28 models. In the mid 1960's

Country musician Billy Grammer and two partners put together a company to build Grammer guitars. For a few brief years these were played by many Country artists and Merle Travis was one of them. In 1968 the Grammer Company was purchased by the Ampeg Music company and around this time a Merle Travis model was offered.

Washburn Parlor guitar

Haggard's album Strangers shows him with a beautiful Washburn parlor guitar. Jimmie Rodgers played one of these guitars too.

Merle Haggard is also seen in publicity photos play an unidentified nylon string guitar, This was during the 1970's when other Country players were picking up nylon string guitars, possibly due to Jerry Reed, Willie Nelson and Chet Atkins gravitating to this instrument.

Ovation Classical

We also see a photo of Merle Haggard playing an Ovation Classical Electric.

Merle with Martin 000-28MH
In 2001 the Martin Guitar Company honored him with the Martin 000-28MH edition.This guitar was built with a mahogany body and a modified v-shape satin-finished neck which had the traditional Martin volute. The spruce top was highly polished with a nitrocellulose gloss finish.

There was no pickguard on this guitar. The body had a single cutaway. The neck on this guitar joined the body at the 12 fret.

It featured a slotted head stock that features an elaborate logo that read Blue Yodel No. 13 (a tribute to Jimmie Rodgers) was inlaid on the Indian rosewood peghead. The C.F. Martin logo was displayed on the back of the headstock

The neck was topped with African ebony fretboard that had Martin elongated diamond inlays. The belly bridge was also constructed of African ebony with pearl inlaid bridge and end pins.

The guitar came with factory installed electronics. There was only a limited number of the Martin 000-28MH editions issued.

Martin Guitars made a donation for each one sold to charities that Merle Haggard chose.

Perhaps the guitar that Merle Haggard is most identified with was his butterscotch Fender Telecaster. In 1961 Haggard was at a show in Las Vegas to watch his friend Roy Nichols do his act. Nichols had walked off stage and handed Merle his Telecaster and told him to "go use this thing". Haggard walked out on stage and sang a few songs. He played a Telecaster ever since that day.

He once remarked, "A Telecaster is not for the timid; you had to be a bulldog to play a Telecaster because it is hard to play. It doesn't respond like a lot of guitars, so you have to play it with a different attitude, and that makes the results different." 
Merle's Original Fender Telecaster at the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame
Merle with Fender Tuff Dog Telecaster

I have to wonder if that remark was taken to heart when Fender Musical Instruments created the Merle Haggard Tuff Dog Telecaster.

This guitar is a modified Telecaster Thinline model with a laminated top of highly figured maple. The neck is set-in with a deep carved heel and topped with a birdseye maple fretboard with 22 frets.

The pickguard is ivoroid and modified from a normal Telecaster plckguard design.

Fender Custom Shop photo
The body is bound on top. The body if quite interesting as it is made from a center maple block and has two ash "wings" laminated to the block. The ash sections are chambered. With the neck-heel and maple block it appears to be a neck through body guitar, however that is not the case.

The headstock comes with an inlaid dogs head underneath announcing it to be a Tuff Dog Tele. Merle's signature is on the headstock. The gold-plated machine heads are Fender Deluxe models with pearl buttons.

Tuff Dog Saddles
The instruments gold-plated bridge plate contains six saddles and the strings go through the body. The neck has black dot inlay markers.

Tuff Dog Tele
The electronics are unique. The guitar has twin Texas Special single coil pickups, one with a gold-plated cover and a 4-way blade switch that is has a Strat-style cap. The first position is the bridge pickup, the second position is the bridge and neck in parallel, the third position is the neck pickup and the fourth position is the neck and bridge pickups in series.

In an interview Haggard stated this was the best guitar he ever owned and was the guitar that he dreamed about.

Merle Haggard owned a few other guitars. He can be seen playing a Taylor 814ce.

He also owned a Framus 12 string guitar that he gave away to be auctioned off for a charity. The body was autographed by some of Haggard's friends.

Though he did not own this guitar, here is a rare photo of him playing his friend Lefty Frizzell's customized Gibson SJ-200 with a Bigbsy neck.

The last guitar he owned was a gift from his friend Randy Travis. He called it the Rose guitar. I cannot find any information on the luthier that made this fine instrument. I do not know it was named after Merle's song I Threw Away the Rose or if the makers name was Rose.

This was a small guitar that appears to have a spruce top and mahogany back and sides. The neck was topped with an ebony fretboard with no position markers. The word "Hag" is inlaid between the 9th and 11th fret. The neck joined the body at the 12th fret.

The guitars body is bound in white trim and is a dreadnaught shape. The headstock has a rosewood cap with "Rose"inlaid on it. Merle played this guitar later in his life and it is very well worn. From the looks of it, he must have taken it everywhere.

Merle Haggard with Rose guitar
Merle Haggard even played it at the hospital before his death.

Merle passed away April 6th, 2016 on his 79th birthday.


Eric said...

Thanks Marcus for sharing also the youtube

marcus ohara said...

Thanks Eric for stopping by. Merle was a real artist.


ferris209 said...

You noted that he did not own Lefty's guitar, but some of the Frizzell family says that he did. The Gibson J-200 Bigsby was being sold by Retrofret a few years ago and I had heard Merle bought it.

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Scott Wikle said...

Merle did buy the Lefty Frizzell guitar. Marty Stuart made arrangements with Retrofret to meet at Haggard's home so he could see it. They all flew to California and took the guitar to Merle. He played it and then told them he wated to keep it overnight and would make his decision the next day. The Retrofret people were apprehensive, but Marty Stuart said he would guarantee it, so they agreed. The next day a deal was made and Merle owned the guitar. There are photos of Merle with David Frizzell (Lefty's brother) with the guitar in Hag's living room. As of this writing, it is still in the possession of his widow. As a side note, David Frizzell had a replica made that can be seen at the Willie Nelson General Store Museum in Nashville.

Eddie said...

the signature telecaster is named after merle's toy fox terrier tuffy, whose pic is on the guitar