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Duane Allman’s Tone Quest and gear Guide

Published: Fri January 23, 2009  News Feed

Duane Allman is widely regarded as one of the best guitarists from the late 60's/ 70's. His untimely death in 1971, aged 24, prevented him from achieving the same popularity as pal Eric Clapton...but even as recently as 2003, Rolling Stone magazine voted him number two in their '100 Best Guitarists Of All Time'.

Duane Allman, one of the best guitarists ever

Duane Allman: One of the best guitarists ever.

Duane Allman was born in Nashville, Tennessee, 1946. He started his career as a session player, and in November 1968 he was hired to play on an album with Wilson Pickett. Allman's work on that album, Hey Jude (1968), got him hired as a full-time session musician at Muscle Shoals studios and brought him to the attention of a number of other musicians, such as guitar great Eric Clapton, who later said, "I remember hearing Wilson Pickett's 'Hey Jude' and just being astounded by the lead break at the end. ... I had to know who that was immediately — right now."

Allman's performance on "Hey Jude" blew away Atlantic Records producer and executive Jerry Wexler when Hall played it over the phone for him. Wexler immediately bought Allman's recording contract from Hall and wanted to use him on sessions with all sorts of Atlantic R&B artists.

While at Muscle Shoals, Allman was featured on releases by a number of artists, including Clarence Carter, King Curtis, Aretha Franklin, Otis Rush, Percy Sledge, Johnny Jenkins, Boz Scaggs, Delaney & Bonnie and jazz flautist Herbie Mann.

Shortly after he recorded his lead break in "Hey Jude", he recorded all of the lead guitar in Boz Scaggs' "Loan Me A Dime." His soloing in the song is noted as some of the best he ever laid down on record. For his first Aretha sessions, Allman traveled to New York, where in January 1969 he went as an audience member to the Fillmore East to see Johnny Winter and prophetically told fellow Shoals guitarist Jimmy Johnson that in a year he'd be on that stage; the Allman Brothers Band indeed played the Fillmore that December.

Duane knew the importance of having the right gear, 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.

The Allman Brothers Band went on to become one of the most influential rock groups of the 1970s, described by Rolling Stone's George Kimball in 1971 as "the best damn rock and roll band this country has produced in the past five years." After months of nonstop rehearsing and gigging, including fondly remembered free shows in Macon's Central City Park and Atlanta's Piedmont Park, the group was ready to settle on the Allman Brothers Band name, and to record. Their debut album, The Allman Brothers Band, was recorded in New York in September 1969 and released a couple months later. In the midst of intense touring, work began in Macon and Miami (Atlantic South - Criteria Studios), and a little bit in New York, on the ABB's second album, Idlewild South. Produced mostly by Tom Dowd, Idlewild South was released in August 1970 and broke ground for the ABB by quickly hitting the Billboard charts.

Duane Allman - Guitar Hero

A group date in Miami, also that August, gave Allman the chance to participate in Eric Clapton's Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Clapton had long wanted to meet Allman; when he heard that the Allman Brothers were due to play in Miami, where he had just started work on Layla with producer Tom Dowd, he insisted on going to see their concert, where he met Allman. After the show the two bands—the Allman Brothers Band and Derek and the Dominos—returned to Criteria, where Allman and Clapton quickly formed a deep rapport during an all-night jam session. At one point, Allman cautiously asked Clapton if he could come by the studio to watch. Clapton refused, telling Allman to bring his guitar because, "you got to play." Allman wound up participating on most of the album's tracks, contributing some of his best-known work. Allman never left the Allman Brothers Band, though, despite being offered a permanent position with Clapton. Allman never toured with Derek and the Dominos, but he did make three appearances with them on December 1, 1970 at the Curtis Hixon Hall and the following day at Onondaga County War Memorial, and one appearance {exact date in 1970 uncertain} at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Calif.

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.

Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident only months after the summer release and great initial success of At Fillmore East.

Duane Allman's Gear:

Early years:

  • Fender Telecaster w/ Stratocaster neck
  • Vox Super-Beatle amp
  • '54 Fender Stratocaster
  • Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face (used old 9V batteries because "they make a special sound")
  • Fender Twin amp w/JBL speakers

Allman Brothers Band, Layla, Later Session work

  • '58-'62 Gibson ES-345 Semi-hollow body (1st album)
  • '57 Gibson Les Paul Standard goldtop
  • '59 Gibson Les Paul Standard cherry sunburst
  • '58 Gibson Les Paul Standard tobacco sunburst
  • '61 Gibson Les Paul (SG)[11], formerly belonging to Dickey Betts, who gave it to Duane to use as a slide guitar; the SG's double-cutaway allowed for easier access to the higher frets often used in slide guitar.
  • Marshall Bass 50 heads, Marshall Bass 100 cabinets
  • Fender Champ combo amps (Layla)

Sources:

http://www.gibson.com/en-us/Lifestyle/Features/duane-allmans-tone-quest/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duane_Allman

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