Vintage Guitar - March 2018 - open - 58
COLUMN The (Way) Back Beat
(CLOCKWISE) Lefty Frizzell's Bigsby-modded J-200 was an
often-seen trademark. Wexler's potpourri of personalization
tools. Fender belatedly offers "your name here" in 1968.
for Bigsby early on. For a time, it seemed like
a guitar with your name on it was almost as
important to a '50s country/western look as
the Nudie suit!
Surprisingly, the rock-and-roll performers
who followed mostly eschewed the practice,
though some from a country background
did personalize guitars. Elvis Presley's early
Martins carried his name in small, silver-metal
letters. Scotty Moore recalled the letters were
given away if you bought a guitar from their
local O.K. Houck Piano store, who sourced
them from the Wexler company in Chicago.
Intended more for accordions, these stick-on
letters were a low-budget way for Elvis - a truck
driver at the time - to flash-out his guitar.
The first was an 0-18 in fall '54; Elvis himself
applied the letters diagonally across the top.
Soon enough, it was traded in for a used ('42)
D-18 that was also then labeled with "Elvis"
behind and under the bridge. When the guitar
was sold years later, the S was missing, leaving
the guitar proudly emblazoned "Elvi."
As his star rose, Presley moved on to another
personalized Martin - a D-28 swathed in a
tooled-leather cover with his name included.
This decorative (and sound-supressing) addition was not unique to him; it can be seen
earlier with others like cowgirl singer Ardis
Wells, though the Presley guitar inspired a
new generation. Buddy Holly crafted one for
his Gibson J-45, while
Ricky Nelson commissioned a similar
cover for his D-28.
Conway Twitty did likewise on a Gretsch
Round-Up. Elvis soon moved to a J-200 with
his name on the fingerboard; by that point,
he could have asked for anything.
A simpler cowhide variation employed a
tooled-leather pickguard or some kind of facsimile. West Coast country superpicker Jimmy
Bryant had a couple of different "cowpoke"
pickguards on his early Fender Telecasters.
His partner, Speedy West, had his Bigsby
and Fender steels marked with his name on
the front - a tactic quickly adopted by other
first-generation pedal-steel players. Sometime
in the early '60s, trucking-song pioneer Dave
Dudley (famous for the 1963 classic "Six
Days On the Road") fitted his '52 J-200 with
a tooled-leather double pickguard. The guitar
has endured multiple repairs and a couple refinishes, but the leather applique is still intact.
By the mid '60s, the custom was less pronounced, but by no means dead. A bit late in
the game, neck personalization was offered
by Fender as a custom service; the announcement was in the November '68 Fender Facts,
but appeared on price lists months before;
10 letters were $150 with a $15 surcharge
for extra letters (and a risk of running out
of fingerboard space!). The most prominent
client was Buck Owens, and one of his necks
was used in the promo.
At the end of the '60s, Owens labelmate Merle
Haggard recorded a fine double LP of Jimmie
Rodgers songs. In further homage, he ordered
a Martin with his name in the fingerboard. As
'70s rock took over the airwaves, the tradition
of flashy, personalized guitars faded - it didn't
fit the "natural" aesthetic of the times. It lived
on in the blues; Albert King for years played a
custom Flying V with his name on the fingerboard built by VG contributor Dan Erlewine,
and Gatemouth Brown had a tooled-leather
pickguard made for his Firebird.
The tradition also survived with bluesbased rock performers like ZZ Top and the
late great J. Geils, who in the '70s brandished
a custom Flying V with his name in pearl on
Today, the demand for such custom touches
is mostly lying in slumber, though it's not
altogether extinct. It's still possible (if a bit
gauche) to go out with your name in pearl or
leather on your guitar. Just remember, though,
it can be tough to sell later, assuming you never