Earl Slick

Earl Slick was just 22 years old when he nabbed the coveted gig of replacing Mick Ronson as guitarist for David Bowie. Cutting his teeth on the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour, Slick went on to play a seminal role on Young Americans and Station to Station, two pioneering albums that featured some of Bowie’s most adventurous work. Four years later, Slick teamed with John Lennon for the recording of Double Fantasy, contributing his six-string skills alongside fellow guitarist Hugh McCracken.

In addition to those career highlights, Slick has combined session work with the occasional solo album and band projects of his own. His 2003 album, Zig Zag, remains an overlooked treasure that any aspiring guitarist would do well to seek out. On all of these projects, one common thread has been Slick’s use of his Gibson J-45, a beloved instrument that he’s owned for 40-plus years.

In this first installment of a two-part interview, Slick talks about his J-45 and why it’s served him well all these years. Next week, in Part Two, we’ll talk with Slick about what it was like working with Bowie and Lennon in the studio.

How long have you had your J-45?

I bought it brand new in 1970 at a “mom and pop” music store on Staten Island. I remember paying $170 for the guitar and the case, tax included. I thought it was a ’69 model, but I gave the serial number to Matt Brewster at 30th Street Guitars in Manhattan – Matt is probably the best vintage instrument dealer in the city -- and his best estimate is that it’s a ’68. It has an adjustable bridge.

When did you first record with it?

The year I got it. At the time, I was in a band called Beau Jack, named after a prize fighter from the ’20s.

What makes it special for you?

It was the first acoustic guitar I had ever owned. It's aged to the point where it sounds and plays better than ever. It’s like an old friend. The reason I went for a Gibson was because I was – and still am – a big Rolling Stones fan. Keith Richards played some amazing things on acoustic. There’s a lot of acoustic stuff on those very early albums, and all the photos of Keith at that time show him playing a Gibson. I originally wanted a Hummingbird, but it was out of my price range. But when I played this guitar in the store, I fell in love with it. There’s a certain sound you can get only from a Gibson acoustic.

Are you talking about Stones albums from the Beggars Banquet period?

Even before then. That’s all Keith – not Brian Jones – who’s playing acoustic on all the ballad-y stuff. “Lady Jane,” “As Tears Go By”… you always saw Keith playing those songs on either a Dove or a Hummingbird. You can see him on The Ed Sullivan Show playing “Lady Jane” on a Gibson acoustic. There’s a particular way Keith plays an acoustic, when he’s picking. I zeroed in on that when I was a kid, and I still play that way. I’ve gravitated to Gibson acoustics ever since.

What made you start playing guitar in the first place?

Seeing The Beatles on television really got my attention. And then, when the Stones came on the scene, that’s when I knew I really wanted to be a guitar player. I don’t think I’m very influenced by The Beatles, as a player. It’s more the Stones, early Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, going back to their Yardbirds days, and British Invasion blues and American blues.

What other Gibson acoustics do you own?

A J-160 and the trophy anniversary J-200.

What is it about the J-45 – and the other Gibson acoustics – that differentiates them from other acoustic guitars?

The best way I can describe it is, I can actually hear the wood. They don’t sound “clanky.” Other acoustic guitar manufacturers have flourished in the last 20 years, companies that supposedly make high-end guitars, but I’ve picked them up and played them and I just don’t get it.

How do you decide which Gibson to use in the studio?

Some of it depends on my mood. I’ve got the three-quarter size J-200, and it’s great. It really projects and it’s got a tight bottom end. If I want a lot of bottom end, I’ll go to the J-160. The J-160 is a little “bloomier,” so if I want more of that I’ll go to that guitar. Today, with the J-45, I’ll take it out of the house only once in a while. If I’m going into a studio to play something, and then coming right home, I might take it with me. Otherwise, I don’t like to leave the house with it. It’s too precious to me.

On which Bowie albums and songs did you use the J-45?

I played all the acoustic guitar parts on Bowie’s Young Americans album on the J-45. There’s a lot of acoustic guitar on that album. Sometimes it’s high in the mix – you can really hear it on the title track – and sometimes it’s mixed low. To this day, a lot of times I’ll bury the acoustic guitar in a mix to get a percussive effect, as opposed to something that’s more overt. If the acoustic guitar was taken away, you would really notice it, but you have to listen hard to actually hear it. Doing that adds an effect similar to a high-hat or a tambourine or a shaker. The Rolling Stones are famous for that. The J-45 is also on all of Station to Station – “Wild is the Wind,” everywhere.

How do you account for Bowie’s talent for getting exceptional work out of his guitarists?

Interestingly enough, he goes on gut feel, on you as an entity and a personality. Nearly all David’s guitar players, including myself, are recording artists in their own right. That’s been true of Mick Ronson, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Reeves Gabrels … almost all of us. We’ve all done our own albums and had our own bands. Carlos Alomar is probably the one guy who’s more of a session player. It’s not just about the guitar playing – it’s also about your personality and what makes you who you are.

Photo: Earl Slick with his J-200 M Trophy 75th Anniversary.

Further reading:

Gibson J-45 Standard

Heroes: A History of David Bowie’s Amazing Guitarists