Duane Allman’s Tone Quest
As budding young pickers trying to negotiate the hammer-ons in the introduction of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” on the crappy acoustic guitars our parents had gotten us with S&H Green Stamps, my friends and I had a saying: “No pain, no Duane.”
We idolized Duane Allman’s remarkable licks and sound, but no matter how hard we worked on that riff — and others — we could never quite get there.
Little did we know the importance of having the right gear. Duane, however, knew this in spades, and like all truly great guitarists spent his too-few years searching for the right tools to produce the tones he heard in his head.
Although Duane’s best known for playing a ’59 Cherry Sunburst Les Paul or his Cherry SG through a 50-watt Marshall head riding atop a matching 4 x 12 cabinet – the iconic instruments he was photographed playing on stage most often – arriving at that combo took years of real hunting and experimentation, both live and in the studio.
His first notable guitar, other than the Silvertone acoustic he’d swipe from his brother Gregg until he traded a pile of motorcycle parts for his initial electric ax, was a Telecaster with a Stratocaster neck, which then yielded to a ’54 Strat. At the start, Duane was a Fender man, running those six-strings through a variety of that company’s amps. The Twin-Reverb was his favorite. But Duane hungered for more beef, so he drove his signal with a Fuzz Face distortion box. Legend has it he’d only use run-down batteries to power his pedal, believing their low voltage yielded a warmer sound.
Much of his early, pre-Allmans studio work with Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and others was accomplished with that mix of equipment. But when he formed the Allman Brothers Band in 1969, Duane’s quest for tone kicked into high gear. If nothing else, he needed to step up his game sonically with Dickey Betts as his guitar partner and foil. Dickey already had a fatter, more aggressive sound generated via his Gibson ES-345 and ’68 SG.
So Duane also got an ES-345, soon followed by a ’57 Les Paul Gold Top with PAF pick-ups, and then a Cherry Sunburst Les Paul. He kept the Gold Top’s pickups, however, and swapped them into the Sunburst.
Z.Z. Top’s Billy Gibbons found Duane’s most significant guitar acquisition for him in 1971: a ’58 Tobacco Sunburst Les Paul. He used it on the classic Eat a Peach and The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East albums. As he’d switched to Gibson guitars he also switched to Marshall amps, and those discs in particular capture the thick, buttery, distortion-colored tone that became his signature. Late in ’71 Duane got his Cherry SG, too – from Dickey – thus completing the essentials of his sonic arsenal.
Of course, there are fine points. For example, Duane’s and Dickey’s Marshall cabinets were modified. They were half-open-backed and, instead of the 25-watt Celestion “greenback” speakers that gave Clapton his distinctive Cream-era howl, boasted JBL-D120s for a cleaner sound. Duane also used circular picking to soften his attack and increase his speed.
Then there’s Duane’s beautiful slide technique. He most often played in standard tuning, which begs a more melodic approach. And his choice of a coricidin bottle – too short to cover all six strings at a time – precluded Elmore James–style full chords, so Duane favored triads. He also muted the strings with his middle finger behind the slide, which he wore on his fourth digit, to remove any unwanted or random harmonics.
And speaking of Elmore, when Duane did play in open tuning he typically opted for E (E-B-E-G#-B-E), also James’ open tuning of choice, yielding masterpieces like “Statesboro Blues” and “One Way Out.”
The rest was pure mojo and monster technique. And that can’t be found at a music store, a pawn shop, or even Sotheby’s, so remember: “No pain, no Duane.”