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Blues Singers & Their Instruments (October 2007)
by Dai Thomas

This started as a list of acoustic or acoustic-based blues artists with an informed (mostly) guess at the make of the instruments they used during the “Acoustic Era”, i.e. prior to The Second World War. I have had a huge amount of feedback (for which many thanks to all you clever, knowledgeable people) about the original list and so I have expanded it to cover later artists (including some Gospel), but I still try restrict it to acoustic instruments, give or take the odd added pickup. The information is mostly gathered from repros. of old photographs or stories told by their contemporaries, so, since the photos were not always good, the reproductions were not always accurate and memories were not always reliable, there will be some mistakes in the list. Also, please bear in mind that any one singer would have used several instruments in his career and that he could have borrowed a guitar for the photo session (e.g. Skip James claimed to have used a studio guitar that could be strung as a six or twelve string for his 1931 recordings). Any further information to add to the list, to correct the dodgy bits (I know where they are!) or to fill in holes would be much appreciated. There is a note at the end about Stella guitars. 

1.                   Louis Allen – Kay.

2.                  Pink Anderson – Harmony, Gibson B-25, J-50, Martin 0-18.

3.                  Kokomo Arnold – reportedly a Martin, but it’s a good single cone brass National on the records, according to my ears.

4.                  Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong – Weyman banjo-mandolin, “Keystone” flat-back mandolin.

5.                  DeFord Bailey – Yes, I know, a Hohner Marine Band (pref. an A or a G), but he also played guitar (a Gibson Dove) and banjo (NorMa(?) and Maybelle 5-strings)

6.                  “Memphis Willie B.” Boerum – Epiphone Triumph.

7.                  Barbecue Bob – Stella 12-string.

8.                  John Henry Barbee – Gibson L-1.

9.                  Jim Baxter (of Jim & Andrew Baxter) – Stella.

10.                Ed Bell (Barefoot Bill) – Stella.

11.                 Blind Blake – Stella, prob. a resonator guitar on 1929 sessions onward.

12.                Black Ace (Babe Turner) – National Style 2 Squareneck, Kalamazoo KG-11.

13.                Scrapper Blackwell – National Triolian (c.1931), Gibson L-1 and Stellas. A Kay Solo Special in the 1960s.

14.                Ted Bogan – Martin D-35.

15.                Pillie Bolling – “A mail-order red Stella”.

16.                Wee Bea Booze (Muriel Nicholls) – Regal Model 27½ tenor guitar.

17.                Ishmon Bracey – Regal.

18.                Dink Brister – Gibson A-1 mandolin.

19.                Big Bill (Broonzy) – c.1920 Gibson Model O, Bacon & Day Senorita, Epiphone DeLuxe, Gibson L7. Bill played a Martin 000-28 during his late 40s/early 50s acoustic period.

20.               Buster Brown – Dobro (Regal) Model 27.

21.                Gabriel Brown – Washburn, Dobro Model 45, Gibson J-35.

22.               Willie Brown – Stella for the May 1930 recordings; apparently this was the make he preferred.

23.               Bumble Bee Slim – National Model O.

24.               R.L. Burnside – Martin D-28, Japanese Epiphone dreadnaught.

25.               Joe Callicott – Harmony Archtop and H1203 flat-top.

26.               Gus Cannon – Orpheum & 1920s Gretsch Broadkaster banjos. Ashley Thompson from his Jug-Stompers played a Stella.

27.               Bo Carter – National Style N.

28.               Catiron – Harmony parlour size.

29.               Sam Chatmon – Gibson L-4, Harmony Sovereign H1203.

30.               Sam Collins – Stella.

31.                Elizabeth Cotton – Martin 00-18, 000-18, D-18, Gibson J45.

32.               Ollie Crenshaw – Stella.

33.               Arthur Crudup – Silvertone, Kay and Gibson archtops.

34.               Emma Daniels (of “Two Gospel Keys”) – Stella.

35.               Jed Davenport – Stella concert 12-string, Joe McCoy’s Washburn(?), Regal mandolin.

36.               Blind Gary Davis – National Duolian then a Washburn and various Gibsons including J200s, B45-12s, Hummingbirds, a Southern Jumbo, a J-50; also a Bozo 12-string and briefly, a 6-string. There are photos of him with a Yamaha dreadnaught and a Martin D-28.

37.               Dan Dixon – Martin D-28.

38.               Scott Dunbar – Gibson J45.

39.               Ford “Snooks” Eaglin – Harmony Archtop.

40.               Dave “Honeyboy” Edwards – Stella, Martin 00-17 (1930s), Martin D-41.

41.                Sleepy John Estes – Stellas, Silvertones, Gibson LG-1 (“mid-50s”, customised), a Lark Junior archtop in 1962, Harmonys Stella, Models 162 and Sovereign 1260, also a Yamaha dreadnaught later.

42.               Bud Ezell – Bacon & Day (Regal?).

43.               Blind Boy Fuller – National Duolians (1 from 1933, 1 from 1938).

44.               Jesse Fuller – A modified Prairie State (Larson Bros.) 12-string of the really huge variety (from the late John Joyce, via Paul Brett – thanks again), also various Harmony 12-strings.

45.               Clifford Gibson – Gibson L-1.

46.               Arvella Grey – various National Duolians.

47.               Guitar Shorty – Kay archtop.

48.               Buddy Guy – Kay Archtop for “Muddy Waters – Folk Singer” session also a Kay Jumbo, possibly a Solo Special.

49.               “Hacksaw” Harney – Gibson J-200.

50.               Buddy Boy Hawkins – Stella.

51.                John Lee Hooker – Kay Jumbo.

52.               Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins – Kay K-24 Jumbo, Gibson J-45s & J-50, also a Washburn.

53.               Son House – National Duolian, Triolian or Model O. He favoured Stellas early on and said that he used one for the 1930 recording session; there is a 1960s photo of him holding one, but it was on loan; there is also a late picture of him holding an early 20s Gibson L-1.

54.               Peg Leg Howell – Stellas. Henry Williams, a member of his “Gang” also played a Stella.

55.               Howling Wolf – Kay Archtop, Guild G-212 12-string, Harmony Sovereign flat-top.

56.               Mississippi John Hurt – Gibson J-45 (customised & refinished), Guild F-30, Regal Dobro Model 19, Harmony Sovereign H1260, 1930 Martin OM-45 (from Stefan Grossman), also Neil Harpe says he played Tom Hoskins' Emory guitar. The guitar he used on the 1928 sessions was provided by the studio, his personal guitar (“Black Annie”, of unknown provenance) was not considered good enough quality.

57.               James “Bo Weavil” Jackson – Stella.

58.               Papa Charlie Jackson – Probably a Euphonon guitar banjo in 1925/6 pic., a Gibson GB Banjo in the 1927 photo &, reportedly, a Gibson guitar, model unknown.

59.               Jim Jackson – Stella 12-string.

60.               John Jackson – Early 1950s Gibson J-50.

61.                Lulu Jackson – Stella.

62.               Melvin “Lil’ Son” Jackson – Harmony Sovereign H1260.

63.               Elmore James – Kay dreadnaught with added electrics (specifically DeArmond Rhythm Chief Model 1000, the actual pickup he uses on most/all of his recordings, mounted on the guitar top between bridge and soundhole, with the DeArmond vol./tone control box hanging down from the bridge. He also experimented with pickups attached over the soundhole. a DeArmond soundhole pickup is present on the November 1959 pictures, not there in 1957 pictures and gone by December 1959 pictures. The Rhythm Chief pickup is present in ALL photos !!). Thanks to “Snakehips” O’Donnell for that.

64.               Homesick James – Stella.

65.               Skip James – Gibson J-185, J-45, Martin D-18, D-28 in the sixties. The guitar used in the 1931 session is now generally accepted to have been a Stella 12-string strung as a six-string.

66.               Blind Lemon Jefferson – Stella (and reportedly an Oahu).

67.               Henry Johnson – National Model O 14 fret.

68.               Herman E. Johnson – Stella.

69.               Lonnie Johnson – Martin 00-21, 1942 Gibson J-100, a custom-made Mexican 12-string.

70.               Mager Johnson – Guild F-30 (poss. borrowed).

71.                Robert Johnson – 1928 Gibson L-1, Kalamazoo KG-14 (Johnny Shines referred to Johnson’s last guitar as a “big old Kalamazoo”). He was also reputed to have played Stellas and a brass National with the high E string doubled for extra volume.

72.               Tommy Johnson – a Stella, a Washburn, a Martin and a Gibson; also “many cheap guitars” (c.f. the excellent “Tommy Johnson” – David Evans 1971).

73.               Blind Willie Johnson – a Stella in the picture (poss. taken 1927), but Pillie Bolling borrowed his Washburn in Atlanta 1930.

74.               Dennis “Little Hat” Jones – Harmony Archtop (from c.1950).

75.               McKinney Jones – Harmony Sonata Superior archtop with added pickup.

76.               Charlie Jordan – I don’t know what his guitar is (the one with all the pearl dots).

77.               Junior Kimbrough – Yamaha dreadnaught.

78.               B.B. King – there is a very early photo of him with a well-worn acoustic guitar of strange appearance, possibly with a resonator. Does anybody know what this machine was? Also “a red Stella”, a Gibson L-30 with added electrics (The Original “Lucille” was one of these) and a J-45.

79.               Furry Lewis – Stellas, Martin 0-18 in the early ‘60s, a Japanese Epiphone dreadnaught and a Gibson B-25N in the late 1960s.

80.               Leadbelly – Stella 12-strings, one custom ordered in 1935 (the one on the films and most of the photos), also a Martin 000-18 in 1949.

81.                J.B. Lenoir – Gretsch Synchromatic A/top, Gibson LG-0.

82.               Charlie Lincoln – Stella 12-string.

83.               Mance Lipscombe – Harmony Sovereign H1203, Gibson J-200.

84.               Robert Jr. Lockwood – “$3.98 Gene Autry model from Montgomery Ward”, Gibson L-0, Dobro “Hula Blues”, Guild 12-string.

85.               Joe Hill Louis – Kay archtop.

86.               Carl Martin – Stella.

87.               Maxwell Street Jimmie – Harmony archtop.

88.               Charlie McCoy – Washburn mandolin (model 5281?).

89.               Ethel McCoy – National Duolian 1933/34 12-fret.

90.               George McCoy – Gibson J200.

91.                Kansas Joe McCoy – Washburn, Harmony, National Style 3 Tricone, National Electric Spanish.

92.               Mississippi Fred McDowell – Washburn DeLuxe, Harmony Cremona, Guild F-30 (prob. borrowed from John Hurt).

93.               Brownie McGhee – The Martin D-18 is what he’s famous for, but, before that, he played “an f-hole S.S. Stewart” (possibly made by Gibson), a 14-fret National Duolian, 1938 Gibson J35 (later customised with, to the eye, extended f/board & modified bridge), a Martin D-28, a Harmony archtop and a Gibson J-200. He preferred Black Diamond strings with an unwound 3rd and used steel National fingerpicks (2) and a plastic thumbpick.

94.               “Sticks” McGhee – National Trojan (1935?), Kalamazoo KG-31(?).

95.               Fred McMullen – Stella, Martin OM-28 c.1930.

96.               Lil McLintock – Stella(?) in the photo, but I think that he plays a 12-string on the recordings.

97.               Blind Willie McTell – various huge Stella, Regal & Harmony 12-strings.

98.               Memphis Jug Band –– Robert Carter – Gibson L30; “Unidentified Member” (Charlie Burse?) – National Triolian; Will Shade – Stella, Gibson SJN, 1933 National Duolian.

99.               Memphis Minnie – Stella, Washburn, National Tricone (Joe McCoy kitted them both out with identical Nationals in c.1929), 1938 National New Yorker Electric Spanish (1940 pics.), early 1950s National Aristocrat with non-standard quadrant fret markers (c. 1953 – thanks to Mark Makins), Harmony.

100.            Memphis Slim – National Electric Spanish archtop (perhaps just minding it for a friend?).

101.             Lottie Merle – “An old Stella”.

102.            George “Daddy Hot Cakes” Montgomery – Kay archtop.

103.            Buddy Moss – Gibson L-00, Kay Kraft Style C (poss. Curley Weaver’s).

104.            Charlie “Dad” Nelson – Stella 12-string.

105.            Robert Nighthawk – Stellas.

106.            Hammie Nixon – 1933 National Triolian.

107.            Jack Owens – Silvertone 12 string, Guild F-30 (poss. not his own).

108.            Charlie Patton – Stromberg-Voisinet Concert in the photo; he reportedly used a “brown Stella with lots of fancy pearl and stuff” for some time. Patton was also said to have used “a Gibson with a Black Top” around the time of his last session; the guitar lasted well because of its robust construction, although he apparently preferred Stellas for bass and volume. It is also said that he played and destroyed the odd Washburn.

109.            Ike Perkins (Albert Ammons Rhythm Kings) – Gibson L-5; in 1936 he was photographed holding an early Rickenbacker Frying Pan (prob. A-25), complete with correct amplifier (these guitars had a round neck, so could be played either as Hawaiian or Spanish). The way he held the guitar suggests that he played it in conventional “Spanish” mode, possibly even while standing.  

110.             Robert Petway – c.1931 Sears (National) Duolian.

111.              Washington Phillips – a complex double zither of his own devising (see http://www.angelfire.com/, Dolceola section, for argument and mp3s).

112.             Eugene Powell – Silvertone auditorium-sized flat-top.

113.             Yank Rachell – Gibson A-1, F-5s, Flatiron F-5, Harmony mandolins with the bottom strings octave tuned. Gibson J-200 guitar.

114.             Moochie Reeves – Kay-Kraft.

115.             Dr. Isiah Ross – 1960 Gibson SJN, Harmony Cremona.

116.             Bobbie Rush – Gibson Hummingbird.

117.             Tom Shaw – “$8 Stella”, Gibson J45.

118.             Johnny Shines – Stella, Gibson B-25.

119.             J.D. “Jelly-Jaw” Short – Stella, Regal (Dobro) Model 37 spanish with the resonator assembly removed and the hole filled in (also with a wonderful custom harp-rack clamped to the top bout).

120.            Frankie Lee Sims – Gibson J-50.

121.             Robert Curtis Smith – Harmony Sovereign H1203.

122.            Spark Plug Smith – Martin 2-17.

123.            Joseph Spence – a large Kay archtop in 1958, a 1949 Martin 00-18 by 1977.

124.            Frank Stokes – Martin 00-28.

125.            Jewell “Babe” Stovall – Model O National c.1932, Stella.

126.            Daddy Stovepipe (Johnny Watson) – In 1924, a 9-string guitar with doubled-up treble strings and single basses. Neil Harpe identifies this as a Grunewald, c.1905, made in New Orleans.

127.            Stovepipe No. 1 – Stella (I’ve no idea what make the stovepipe was).

128.            Roosevelt Sykes – Gibson J-50 (you’d better believe it!).

129.            Baby Tate – (?) Leader jumbo.

130.            Tampa Red – 1928 National Style 4 with custom engraving (sadly nickel plated, not gold), now on its third neck at least. Custom National Electric Archtop c.1938.

131.             Sister O.M. Terrell – National Triolian flat f-hole model with a plated cover-plate.

132.            Sister Rosetta Tharpe – National Triolian, Gibson L-5.

133.            Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas – Stella.

134.            Rambling Thomas – Stella, his first guitar was from Sears.

135.            James “Son” Thomas – Wolfram Triumph with an aluminium clad fretboard, Martin D-28.

136.            Buford Threlkeld (Whistler’s Jug Band) – Stella.

137.            Henry Townsend – Stella, also a Thorn or Thornton which he says was the best ever (prob. a Thornward by Lyon & Healy – thanks Todd). Later, Henry was filmed using a c.1937 National Model O.

138.            Walter Vincent (Vincson) – National Style 1 Tricone.

139.            Muddy Waters – Stella, followed by “a beautiful Sears-Roebuck box”, a borrowed Martin for the L. C. session, a National Trojan (maybe a Sears model?) in 1943 John Work photo, Gibson Southern Jumbo, Martin 00-21NY(?) (for “Folk Singer”).

140.            Curley Weaver – Kay Kraft.

141.             Sylvester Weaver – Stella, 1927 Martin 00028.

142.            Peetie Wheatstraw – National Style 3 Tricone (possibly belonging to Joe McCoy).

143.            Bill Weldon – Stella (1927). If you believe that the early picture is of Casey Bill Weldon, then you should know that the guitar that he favoured on the 1935 onward recordings was, almost certainly, a National Tricone squareneck. There is a poor quality photograph of him with an electric lap steel which I can’t identify; the photo is dated 1941, but he “went electric” before Dec. 1938 – his last recording session.

144.            Booker T “Bukka” White – National Duolians & Triolians after his first Stella; he swapped a Gibson “in bad shape” for his first National. He was also photographed playing a very rare 1938 National “Exploding Palmtree” squareneck Tricone.

145.            Josh White – Kay Kraft (as Curley Weaver & Buddy Moss), Martin 00-21, 00-45, with custom scratch-plates applied when he wore the tops. Custom Guild and Ovation “Josh White” models.

146.            Mott Willis – Guild F-30 (prob. on loan).

147.            Rev. Robert Wilkins – Gibson J-45, Martin D-28, Stefan Grossman’s OM-45.

148.            Bill Williams – Gibson L-1 c.1931.

149.            Poor (Big) Joe Williams – Gibson L-1, Stella 12-string, then all sorts of Harmonys, Gibsons, Kays, Silvertones, etc. butchered in an infinite variety of fascinating fashions.

150.            Robert Pete Williams – Stella Grand Auditorium (converted 12-string?), Harmony Archtops, Harmony Sovereign H1260 & H1203, Martin 00045.

151.             Johnny Young – Martin 00-21.  

Note: Stella guitars were made by the Oscar Schmidt Company of New Jersey before 1935 and by John Carner’s Stella Company from 1935 to 1940. These were usually well made, playable and relatively cheap instruments with good tone and projection. Harmony took over the name in 1940 and the quality dropped considerably, although some made under the Sovereign marque were OK. I am not good on Stella models and so I have made some errors in identification and I certainly have not tried to differentiate between Stellas and other brands that were applied to Stella guitars, e.g. Sears, Galiano, Sterling, etc.. All rather bewildering, but if you wish to be less confused, I recommend reading Neil Harpe’s excellent “The Stella Guitar Book” available from his website http://www.stellaguitars.com. Also Paul Brett’s magnificent collection of Stellas, etc. is viewable on http://www.fret-dancer.com; it would be great if you could support his museum project, too.

Dai Thomas (October 2007)

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