We guitarists tend to think in boxes, where gear is concerned anyway: a Gibson Les Paul is a rock guitar, a Fender Telecaster is a country guitar, a Gibson ES-175 is a jazz guitar, and so on. Certainly many different guitars and amps have been designed to suit the needs of specific styles of music, but that hasn't stopped adventurous musicians from making their art on a vast range of odds and ends of equipment that might outwardly seem totally mismatched to the task at hand. Let's take a look at some incongruous rigs that have graced the music of guitar greats, and rocked the world in the process.
Noted as one of the loudest live acts of all time, for most of his career Ted Nugent has used a guitar that would seen totally unfit for high-decibel hard-rock guitar: a Gibson Byrdland. This fully hollow thinline archtop model was co-designed by two first-call ’50s session players, Billy Byrd and Hank Garland, and was aimed primarily at jazz, country and dance-band guitarists of the day. Aside from its hollow construction — a feature always prone to introducing feedback at high volumes — this was also a short-scale design at 23.5" rather than the standard Gibson 24.75" (or 25.5" for many full-sized jazz guitars of the day), and it had a narrower neck than usual, too. Despite this mass of incongruities, the Nuge applied his ’60s Byrdland with pointed Florentine cutaway and humbucking pickups to an unholy maelstrom of metalesque exploits. And how's this for further unlikely gear usage? Nugent purportedly recorded his best-known hit, "Cat Scratch Fever", through a little tan Tolex Fender Deluxe amplifier from the early ’60s. True rock really does know no bounds.
Think "Gretsch" and you're likely to picture a country or rockabilly player swaggering in front of an old tweed-covered amp, right? Think again, Batman. British goth-rocker Billy Duffy of The Cult created some of the heaviest, most infectious riffs going in the mid ’80s on a big-bodied Gretsch White Falcon archtop rammed through a Marshall stack, occasionally with a little flanger added for flavor. Like the Nuge, above, Duffy miraculously managed to tame feedback from this rig, while producing a huge, searing, driving tone. Check out "She Sells Sanctuary" from the 1985 album Love and try to tell me that tone ain't big.
Nirvana's guitarist and frontman almost single-handedly reignited heavy rock guitar in the early ’90s—wrestling it bodily from a plethora of electronic dance-pop and indie bands that were afraid of guitar solos—and did so on a range of unlikely rigs. Cobain used a wide range of guitars and never seemed very particular about choice, except that he generally preferred Fenders (having said it was because they were light), and needed guitars that were either factory left-handed, or could be easily adapted. There were a few instruments he used fairly consistently, however, none of which would normally be associated with the enormous sound that defined grunge of the period: a ’60s Fender Mustang with its standard, low-output single-coil pickups, was his favorite guitar throughout the Nevermind period, and he also frequently used a Jaguar after that. Never considered a rock player's choice, versions of the latter did appear modified with humbucking replacement pickups for a little more oomph. Cobain's favorite amp, a Twin Reverb, was equally incongruous for the sounds he created, although he did kick this super-clean country twanger into overdrive with a range of pedals, including a Boss DS-1 Distortion, a Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion, and an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, while adding swirl and dimension from an E-H Small Clone, Polychorus, and Echo Flanger.
Moving from Grungeville to What-the-hell-do-you-call-this-music-ville, it’s impossible to ignore the big noise Jack White of the White Stripes has made with what is mostly a complement of low-budget gear (or was, before his use of the stuff sent prices skyrocketing). White’s rig has been fairly well documented in recent years, but always bears examination: His favorite guitar has long been a red 1964 Montgomery Ward Airline model Res-O-Glas guitar, an instrument made in Chicago by the Valco company and — prior to White’s use of this one — better known for carrying the National brand name. Yep, it’s essentially made out of plastic, and despite looking like humbuckers those pickups are actually rather noisy, microphonic single coils … but they rock with a righteously raw, textured tone, make no mistake. White has also often used a cheap Kay arcthop acoustic-electric for slide guitar, and on the first three White Stripes albums he mainly rammed these through a mid ’60s Silvertone 1485 tube head (another catalog beauty, this time courtesy of Sears & Roebuck) and a 6x10" Silvertone speaker cab. And through it all, the man sounded humongous. Go figure.
Early ’80s punk guitar usually brings to mind a beefy Les Paul Junior or a beat down-market Fender and a roaring British half stack, but Billy Zoom of the LA outfit X kicked out the jams on a glimmering vintage Gretsch SilverJet with single-coil DynaSonic (DeArmond) pickups, amped through a Fender Super Reverb early on, and a tube amp of his own design and manufacture in later years. Having toured with rock and roll legend Gene Vincent in the early ’70s, Zoom undoubtedly knows how to twang on that Gretsch, but his sound with X is pure adrenaline-fired grind and drive. Add to that his mock-rawk straddle stance on stage and beaming spotlight of a manic smile, and you’ve got a uniquely powerful package, and one that’s entirely incongruous on just about every front.
Sure, the Led Zep leadster’s equipment has been worshiped more than that of just about anyone other than Jimi Hendrix, but the incongruity at the heart of Page’s own varied guitar and amp choices are impossible to ignore. Appearing for all the world like a Les Paul-and-amp-stack stadium rocker, the facts slowly disseminated around the guitar world that much of his classic early recording was done with a Fender Telecaster through a small Valco-made tube amp. More the kind of rig you’d expect a Nashville cat or Memphis house band to be throwing down on, Pagey nevertheless made it scream. For one, that “Stairway to Heaven” solo — Les Paul and Marshall plexi stack? Guess again: twang plank and budget amp. Go figure.
Did I forget to say “… just about anyone other than Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton” in that last entry? Let’s correct that right now. Clapton’s heyday tone conjures images of Gibson Les Pauls, SGs and ES-335s, cranked to smokin’ through 50-watt Marshall combos or 100-watt stacks. But the man they called “God” recorded his signature song, “Layla”, through a 3-watt tweed Fender Champ combo from the 1950s, an amp originally designed for beginners and students. Big sound, small package.
And that sums up the thinking behind Incongruous Rigs: whatever you pick to make your magic, it’s the magic you make with it that ultimately matters.