What does it mean if your guitar is named by or for a famous guitarist? The answer is, it depends. Guitar names are a marketing tool. Naming a guitar after a guitarist could indicate an endorsement by the artist, which might mean no more than the artist must appear in photos holding that model of guitar.
There are “signature” model guitars which indicate the guitar is approximately the same model used by the guitarist. The guitarist may have used a stock model guitar or maybe made some cosmetic changes – but now you can get the same model and finish guitar plus the guitarists name applied somewhere on the guitar.
Another category of named guitars are tribute guitars. The guitarist may no longer be alive but was known for playing a particular model guitar. The guitar company hopes to sell more guitars if they add the artists name to the model.
So far, all of the above categories of named guitars are, in my opinion, aimed at fanboys and wannabes. Many of the guitars named after the fanboys’ heros are thus less expensive models than their heros play. You’re not really getting the guitar your hero played but a more affordable facsimile.
Personally, I am prejudiced against buying any guitar that has someone’s name on it unless the guitarist had design input into the model in order to create something unique. I don’t consider color or finish or most hardware options to count as significant design features. However, the reality is, many famous named guitars had little input by their namesake. I should just relax.
The Les Paul. Perhaps the most famous example of a guitar model named after a guitarist is the Les Paul by Gibson. Les Paul was a tinkerer who probably made the first solid body Spanish electric guitar, the log. He tried to get Gibson to make this guitar in the 1940s, but Gibson rejected the design. The amount of actual design input Les made to the eventual guitar bearing his name is controversial. It is likely that his input only was with regard to cosmetic features. He was to be an endorser more than a designer. The Gibson president, Ted McCarty, was responsible for the Les Paul and many other notable guitar innovations during his tenure.
The Les Paul guitar was introduced in 1952. Les Paul played Gibson models with his name for most of his subsequent career – although often with custom features of his own. Gibson now offers many Les Paul variations including lower priced models from Epiphone. Among the significant design differences compared to the Fender guitars the Les Paul was competing against are: set neck (Fender uses bold-on necks), mahogany body (most with maple cap), 24.75 inch scale length (Fender uses 25.5 inch scale length) and strings which terminated on the top of the body – originally in a trapeze tailpiece and later in the stop bar tailpiece (as opposed to the string through body design used by Fender).
The Gretsch Country Gentleman. Chet Atkins became an endorser of Gretsch guitars in 1955. His name appeared on a number of models including the 6120 which later became associated with Duane Eddy and Eddie Cochran. The 6119 Tennessee Rose model was also endorsed by Chet as well as the 6121. But perhaps the most famous model is the 6122 Country Gentleman. Sales skyrocketed after George Harrison played a Country Gentleman on the Ed Sullivan show with the Beatles.
When I was in high school, I too drooled over these Gretsch guitars. The Country Gentleman had many unique features. There was a buckle protector on the back. This was a circle of material to keep your belt buckle from scratching the guitar. There were dual felt string mutes, one for the high strings and one for the low strings. You could mute high and low strings independently. Of course almost all Gretsch electric guitars had genuine Bigsby vibratos. Each pickup had an independent on/off switch. Gretsch guitars also had a master volume control. The f-holes were painted on to minimize feedback. All very different from Gibson.
Gretsch lost the Chet Atkins endorsement to Gibson for a time. Gibson came out with several Chet Atkins models including the Country Gentleman. However, Gretsch is again the maker of Chet Atkins signature guitars.
The Gibson Byrdland. Billy Byrd and Hank Garland were Nashville session guitarists. They wanted a guitar based on the 17 inch L5-CES, the big, full bodied jazz guitar, but with some specific changes. Gibson gave them the Byrdland (a combination of their names) in 1955. This was the first thinline guitar from Gibson with a 2.25 inch body depth. It was still a 17 inch wide, fully hollow guitar. Another unique feature of the Byrdland is a 23.5 inch scale length. The short scale, in theory, made it faster to play. It definitely made long stretches for chords or single line playing easier. Over the years the Byrdland has been made both with a Venetian cutaway (rounded corner) and a Florentine cutaway (a sharp corner as in the ES-175). The Venetian cutaway is pictured here but the current models featured at Gibson.com have Florentine cutaways.
Ibanez George Benson models. Jeff Hasselberger was director of marketing at Ibanez in the mid 1970s 1 . He became friends with George Benson and they began to discuss what George would want in a guitar. George said he thought something that was a cross between a Johnny Smith jazz guitar and a Les Paul would be ideal. Jeff traced the shape of a Johnny Smith Guitar and then a Les Paul onto the same paper then hand drew something in between. The result was the GB-10 in 1997.
Some of the unique features are a small body size (14.75 inch width) with a thicker laminated top, floating mini-humbucker pickups with a 24.75 scale length.
Ibanez currently has 3 models of guitars endorsed by George Benson. They are the GB-10, GB200 and the GB30th.
B.B. King’s Lucille by Gibson. B.B. King’s guitar isn’t named B.B. King, it’s named Lucille. He tell’s the story of how he named his guitar after the nightclub he was playing burned down. The room was heated by an open can of kerosene in the middle of the floor. Two men started a fight over a woman, knocked over the kerosene can and burned the nightclub down. B.B. King ran out of the building with everyone else when the fire started but when he realized his guitar was still inside he ran back in to get it. He later realized he could have died in the fire and to remind him not to do anything like that again he has named his guitars after the name of the woman the two men were fighting over, Lucille.
Gibson makes Lucille for B.B. King. It is based on the ES-355 model B.B. had playing since the 1960s. He had been stuffing rags into the f-hole sound holes to minimize feedback. But when Gibson agreed to make him a custom guitar, he had them eliminate the sound holes. In this respect it is similar to some of the Chet Atkin models which don’t have sound holes, but painted on f-holes. Gibson has made Lucille for B.B. King since 1980.
Joe Pass guitar models. Almost all pictures and videos I have seen of Joe Pass playing guitar show him with a Gibson ES-175 (although in some cases he may be playing a L4-CES, the solid, carved top guitar which is sized the same as the ES-175). Still there have been Joe Pass signature guitars which have been popular.
I have read of an Ibanez Joe Pass model which is no longer in production, but I have never seen one. It has been reviewed as good quality and nice sounding guitar. An article was just published (July 2011) concerning this Ibanez Joe Pass model.
The more famous of the Joe Pass named guitar models is the Emperor II Joe Pass model from Epiphone. Its body width is similar to the ES-175 but has a Venetian cutaway (rounded corner) rather than the Florentine cutaway on the ES-175. As far as I know, Joe Pass never played this guitar while he was alive (nor any other time). The model is thus more a tribute guitar, in the style that Joe Pass might have wanted if he wasn’t going to play the Gibson models. Really just a marketing gimmick. Yet for jazz guitarists on a budget it is an acceptable guitar.
Johnny Smith guitar models. Unless you are a jazz guitar lover, and particularly if you are young, you may not know of Johnny Smith. He was one of the greatest Jazz Guitarists during the 1950s. Gibson made a Johnny Smith model starting in 1961. It was a big guitar, similar to the L5-CES with a 17 inch wide body. Guild and Heritage guitars have also made Johnny Smith models. None of these are currently in production.
Wes Montgomery L5-CES. The Gibson Wes Montgomery guitar is a tribute guitar. Wes never played a guitar with his name on it. However, he did order a custom L5-CES with a Venetian cutaway (rounded corners) instead of the Florentine (sharp corner) cutaway that was standard on the L5-CES. That is the model Gibson now sells using his name.
Trini Lopez guitars. Trini Lopez became popular when I was still young. He was one of the first Latino guitarists to gain mainstream popularity. His breakthrough hit was “If I had a Hammer”. I remember him for “La Bamba”. I also remember he recorded the theme song to the TV show, Secret Agent man.
Gibson asked Trini Lopez to design and endorse a guitar for them in 1964. He designed two models. The one shown in the album cover here is the Trini Lopex Deluxe which is a fully hollow, full depth double cutaway based on the Barney Kessel model of Gibson guitar. The Standard model is based on the Gibson ES-335 with a headstock shaped more like a Fender.
Gibson began making the Johhny A guitar in 2003. Although there are a number of unique features to the guitar, on first look it appears very similar to the Trini Lopez Custom.
- See George Gear in the March 2010 issue of Vintage Guitar Magazine, p47 – part of the article “George Benson – A Master Guitarist Brings Jazz to the Masses by Dan Forte.” Unfortunately, Vintage Guitar Magazine does not archive articles electronically – not even for subscribers with online accounts. You’ll have to find a print issue. Try your library.