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Old Guitars and the Local Musicians Who Love Them - Boyd Bristow

1969 Les Paul Custom
Boyd Bristow with his 1969 Les Paul Custom

Boyd Bristow has been a mainstay in South Dakota's music scene since the 1960s. He's been part of numerous bands, including Blueberry Buckle, R&B Supply, and others. He's been playing his favorite electric guitar, a Gibson Les Paul Custom that he bought new in 1969, for more than 50 years. SDPB spoke with Bristow about that guitar and several others he owns and plays regularly.

Boyd Bristow: I was living in Sioux City in 1969 and a lot of my friends had Les Pauls and they had Les Paul Deluxe guitars. That's what I wanted but they didn't have any in Sioux City at the time, so we went down to Omaha and found that they had some Les Pauls there. They had no Deluxes. They just had this one. And, of course, this was the most expensive one but I decided I’d better have it. So I bought this in early 1969 when it was brand new and it's been mostly the guitar that I've played most of my life… when I was gigging full time. And even after that, playing part-time for the last 50-some years. It has a lot of… they call this “characteristic wear” on it. One part of the top oftentimes wears off because your arm is there. There's a place where your belt buckle hits the guitar and so that wears off eventually. And the neck is supposed to be black, like the rest of the guitar, but when you play it a lot that finish wears away. It's kind of funny… I walked into Sioux Falls Music a few years ago and hanging on the wall, just as you came inside the door, was a guitar that looked exactly like this. It had the same wear patterns. The neck was worn. Not this bad, but it was worn, and it was a brand-new knockoff Les Paul guitar that they made to look like this. And I thought, ‘I want mine to look new,’ and they… well, anyway.

SDPB: You must have played other electric guitars. Why this one?

Boyd Bristow: This guitar did go out of commission for a while. I had problems with it and I switched to playing Fenders. I played a Telecaster Fender when we lived in Nashville. I mean, well, it’s Nashville. Telecasters are great guitars so I used my Telecaster for a couple years. Then I switched over to a Fender Stratocaster because this guitar (the Gibson Les Paul) wasn't working right. Anyway, I finally got this guitar working again. Hopefully I'll never go back because it plays so good.

SDPB: How do you mean?

Boyd Bristow: One of the things that I judge a guitar by is how the high ‘E’ on the smallest string sounds. It just rings out on this guitar. It doesn't go ‘plink,’ you know? And so that's one of the things that just feels right. And you can get all different kinds of tones out of it if you learn how to operate the tone controls and the volume controls. As you reduce the volume, it gets darker in sound. At regular volume it’s much brighter. It does a lot of different things and it's been with me now for over 50 years.

SDPB: Do you think that older necessarily means better? In terms of sound, at least?

Boyd Bristow: A lot is said about (the sound of) vintage guitars and that may actually hold a little bit more true with box guitars - acoustic guitars - than with electric guitars. They are making guitars now that are, perhaps, more precisely made. They're just as good as these old guitars… probably. But on the other hand, if you went shopping for a new guitar, and let's say you could try five different brand-new Les Paul Customs, chances are they all would feel different. I don't know how much different they would sound but they would feel different. One of the five, all of a sudden… it's just like magic. And I don't know why that is.

SDPB: What materials were used to make your Les Paul Custom?

Boyd Bristow: Well, this is a solid mahogany body. Then they used a couple layers of maple on the top. Carved maple that they glue to the mahogany. It's got an ebony fingerboard. Ebony wood. And that's it. That's the only materials that you use. Mahogany and ebony and maple. And it weighs nine pounds. This is one thing about a Les Paul. I’ve read that they’ve made Les Pauls as heavy as 14 pounds. That gets to be really heavy after playing it for an hour or more. Fenders oftentimes weigh in at about seven pounds, so they're a little bit lighter. But this is a nine-pound hammer right here.

SDPB: I’ve heard some players describe Les Paul style guitars as being ‘hot.’ Like, you have to basically make adjustments to keep them from sounding loud or fuzzy?

Boyd Bristow: Well, it would depend. The reason they're hot, like say compared to a regular (Fender) Stratocaster or a Telecaster, are these humbucker pickups. They were invented to reduce the amount of hum that you get from interference in the room. And they are louder pickups. They put more signal through your guitar than a single coil pickup, which is what you usually have when you have on a standard Fender guitar - and many other guitars. All guitars were single coil pickups, even Gibson's, until they invented these humbucker pickups. And they were loud. They hit the amp circuitry harder than a Fender would. And that can be good because, I mean, most all electric players these days want to have a little bit of distortion in their sound, you know? I don't think it really makes much difference in use because you can always make a single coil pickup as hot as you want by what amp you're using and any pedals you're feeding it through. Now Gibson is making Les Pauls that… you can push the control down and that switches the pickup to a single coil sound. Pull it back up and then you get your humbuckers again.

SDPB: So much depends on the amp, I guess.

Boyd Bristow: Yeah. One of my favorite topics. I have a book at home on amps and it has pictures of all the old amps going way back. The earliest amp I have is a 1948 white Fender Princeton. They started making them in ’47. It's just a three-watt amplifier. A lot of people made amps, but Fender - Leo Fender - really got into custom-making these amps. He would make them in Fullerton, California and have these guitar players like Dick Dale come in and try them out. He would change the circuitry all the time, like, ‘Hey, let's try this!” So Fender amps are a staple for a lot of people. Other amplifier companies came along and the Allman Brothers and other people were using Marshalls and Jimmy Hendrix was using Marshalls and different types of amps. Now there's all these boutique amp builders that make these wonderful amps. And they do make a difference. 
For my Les Paul Custom, I have a 1964 Fender Super Reverb and it just screams. There was a period of a few years when I was playing with a group called R&B Supply - right at the end of playing with Blueberry Buckle - where that amp and this guitar just were like, made in heaven. It was just… we were playing at the right volume. Loud enough to where that amp just sang. I mean, notes would just ring and sustain both at the same time and distort just the right amount. But, of course, things get old. Now that amp doesn't quite sing anymore so I use different amps. I use a small Fender Blues Junior for when I go and sit in with the boys at Carey’s in Vermillion and other places where you don't need to be really, really loud. When I play where I have to be a little bit louder, I have a kind of a newfangled thing. It's a 1965 Twin Reverb but it is completely digital. Fender just released that. I have a real old Fender Twin Reverb too, but this one is brand new and it's digital. And all it does is emulate a 1965 Twin Reverb, which is a very powerful amp. It weighs only 30 pounds. You can just pick it, right? I mean, it doesn't weigh any more than my little Blues Junior.

SDPB: How do guitarists get so discerning and so particular? I mean, you know what you want the sound to be, but there are all of these variables.

Boyd Bristow: That's hard to say because the other factor in every amplifier sound is the room you're in. If you're outdoors, there's no reflection behind the (open cabinet) amp and they sound completely different. That's why a lot of people use amps that have closed speakers rather than open-back speaker cabinets. I’ve never had one of those. You know, you go to one room where it's got a certain resonance, and then the amps aren't wonderful when you go to the next room. it sounds completely different because of the way the room contributes to that sound.

SDPB: But audiences maybe aren’t so… discerning. They expect a certain sound but don’t they kind of adapt?

Boyd Bristow: Adapt, yes, as a few minutes go by. Even if it doesn't sound quite as good as you were hoping, you start to adjust to it. But (as a performer) if it sounds bad or it doesn't sing or it doesn't ring or whatever your particular criteria is, you can't play as well. It's a synergistic thing. The way that guitar feels, whether you have new strings, how the amp sounds and works in the room you're in, how many people… every night is kind of different in different places.

SDPB: Who were your early musical influences?

Boyd Bristow: I came up during the Hootenanny era. There was a group of folk singers that were popular. There was the Kingston Trio, there was Peter Paul and Mary, and there was a group called the Limelighters. And they were funny. They had jokes and they were great musicians and singers and I heard them and I just fell in love and so I had to have a guitar. I bought my first… it was a nylon string guitar - because that's what the Limelighters used - and I bought it from Sears and Roebuck. It cost fifty dollars. It finally came in the mail. And I had a book. I wish I could find it. He (the author) is still alive, I think, and his name is Happy Traum. He's a folk singer teacher. He had a book on how to play the guitar and it really explained things well.

SDPB: You have a couple of acoustic guitars here as well. Could we start with the Martin?

Boyd Bristow: Well, this is one of the guitars - one of the few guitars - that I actually went looking for. I have that Les Paul because it was the only Les Paul guitar the store, but this one I got intentionally. I read that they (Martin Guitars) did a limited-edition Clarence White, who is a hero of mine. Clarence White played great flat-picking music - bluegrass music - and then became a guitarist for The Byrds and very influential. He died too young so Martin made a limited-edition Clarence White. I had to see if it was as good as I thought it might be. They made 292 of these and we found this one in Indianapolis.

Martin Clarence White Limited Edition Acoustic

It's really good and what I like about it is, this is not made to be plugged in. What they (Martin) did is, they re-created some of the older things about guitars. It's got the Adirondack spruce top, which makes it rare. Clarence White's brother kept this wood under his bed and that's what they used to make these guitars. It's a high-strung guitar, so the bridge is higher than a lot of guitars. So you get a pretty loud sound out of it. A bright sound, but full. The neck is a little wider. More like a classical guitar - a nylon string guitar. Clarence White had a guitar that like that. I use this when I play with East of Westerville because we play without any amplification. We just gather around a mic, and you have to have a loud guitar.  I have another acoustic guitar that I've owned for nearly 50 years that is the same size. A dreadnaught Martin. It's a very mellow, soft-sounding guitar. When you plug it in, it sounds good. It sounds really good so I use that when I plug in.

SDPB: The right tool for the right job.

Boyd Bristow: Guitars have different purposes. Chris Gage (a former bandmate and current collaborator) has a story about a friend of his and his studio: You walk in and there's 30 guitars hanging on the wall. Somebody asked him once, ‘how come you have 30 guitars?’ And he said, ‘Because there's something wrong with every one of them.’ I think what he meant was they all have their own voice and they all have their own purpose.

SDPB: So what’s this particular Martin made of? The Clarence White limited.

Boyd Bristow: Well, the main feature is its really pretty sides. It's called ‘figured mahogany.’ I don't know if that's like ‘Corinthian Leather’ but, it may be a real thing. The main thing is that the top is made of Adirondack spruce. They used that to make most of the valuable pre-World war II guitars. I think other manufacturers used Adirondack spruce tops until that wood became depleted, then they started using Sitka spruce instead. Like I said, Clarence White's brother stored a bunch of Adirondack spruce under his bed or in some room somewhere. Enough to make 292 of these things. The woods in acoustic guitars make a lot of difference on how they sound. How thick it is, what kind of wood it is, what kind of bracings inside… all that makes all the difference.

SDPB: You have another acoustic guitar here with a little different pedigree. This one is a favorite as well?

Boyd Bristow: This is a 1963 Epiphone. I think I got this in 1972. It's what they used to call a three quarters guitar, like a beginner's guitar maybe, or for a child or something. But a lot of people like this size guitar even if they're a little older. This is the guitar that sits in our living room. It’s easy to pick up and play and just have fun working things out. It's just a lot of fun to play so this is the guitar…  this is one of the ones I love because it's a good little guitar and it really does some things. It was a real smart thing that Gibson did, I guess.

SDPB: Is an Epiphone basically a scaled-back Gibson? I know they're made by the same company.

Boyd Bristow: They had their expensive Gibson guitars and then they would often make exactly the same guitar out of, I suppose, a little bit lesser woods. Maybe they didn't put quite the expensive tuners on them. I don't know what the difference would even be. They would sell them cheaper so that people could… the average person could afford them. They're still doing that. But I mean, Paul McCartney, when he sang “Yesterday” on the Ed Sullivan show, was playing an Epiphone. They make really good guitars. They make some that, you know, maybe the frets don't feel like they've been polished down as much, but they feel just as good as any Gibson. They're kind of like the junior division of Gibson. Or they used to be. My Epiphone is Kalamazoo-made. They made them in Kalamazoo, Michigan and mine was made in Kalamazoo in 1963. All the bigger guitars that I have played are like this - as long as you don't have to try to play too loud. Because it's not as loud, you know? I suspect that most guitar players that go out and play and gig and stuff have something like this in their living room. Just something that you don't have to put away in the case. They say the safest place for a guitar when you're not playing it is in the case, but if you put it in the case, then you're less likely to play it. So I suspect that most guitar players have something like this sitting on or leaning up against their couch. Or somewhere in their house.

Boyd Bristow with his 1963 Epiphone Acoustic

SDPB: Don’t these old guitars eventually wear out? How long can you play one in front of an audience?

Boyd Bristow: My Les Paul has now had six sets of frets. The frets wear down and get little grooves in them and then it changes their intonation or the way it tunes and actually, how they ‘ring.’ You get new frets, and boy, that guitar is alive again. On this Les Paul, I’ve had four bridges. They they're made out of metal but they collapse. I just heard this remarkable podcast talking about how Stradivarius violins someday will collapse. People are still playing them but they're gonna just eventually fall to dust and nobody will be able to play a Stradivarius anymore. That shocked me. I mean, I thought they were forever. I know that Martin has guitars that are 150 years old in their museum and I suppose they can be patched up. As the wood ages they start to open up and sound better. I don't know if there's a limit on that.