Inside the story of the fab gear of The Beatles

Andy Babiuk: The Epiphone InterviewAndy Babiuk's Beatles Gear-- an encyclopedic timeline of The Beatles instruments and how they were used--holds a special place in the hearts of fans that identify themselves first as musicians. The Beatles, after all, were supreme music fans themselves with a deep knowledge of artists, record labels, and especially the hard-to-find 'b-sides' and album tracks that helped forge their early repertoire. Babiuk also authored The Rolling Stones Gear Book and noted how the two groups shared a deep love for the ingredients of rock n' roll as well as an almost casual attitude toward the instruments they played. As Babiuk showed us in the first edition of Beatles Gear published in 2001, the Fab Four's instrument choices were inspired by what their heroes played as well as the practical necessity of finding an instrument they could afford. And in many cases, actually finding an instrument at all was hard enough.

On the eve of the publication of the new updated edition of Beatles Gear--with an exclusive Ltd. Ed. Epiphone cover--Epiphone.com spoke with Babiuk about how The Beatles first discovered Epiphone in December 1964 as well as the sometimes comical--and ultimately unsuccessful--efforts by Epiphone's competitors to get John, Paul, and George to give up their Casinos. We also take a look at a few Epiphone mysteries that will have to remain unsolved for now.

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How hard was it to get The Beatles and their families to show you their original instruments?

Really hard (laughs). It wasn't easy. And you gotta figure that the first edition of the book was written in the 90s--pre-internet. Things were quite a bit different then. I could have just been another nut case trying to drive them crazy. But somehow I made them understand that it was a noble effort of putting together a historical document. So, I finally got them to play ball, which was cool. Which also made it easier when I went to the Rolling Stones and did the same thing.

Compared to many bands, The Beatles didn't use a lot of instruments to create their sonically rich legacy. How did they feel about the instruments they played? On one hand they were very loyal to their Casinos and the J-160E acoustic/electric.

You know it's weird; you're in the guitar industry and so am I. This is what we do. We're pretty passionate about this stuff. But oddly enough, both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones as well were not. It was a tool. They were just musicians.

For instance, my wife and I went out to hang out with the Stones a bit. They were in Buffalo and they asked us to bring copies of the Rolling Stones Gear Book for them. It was all very cool and it was a great honor. They are doing this Exhibitionism exhibit in London next April so they asked me to help them with it. I said sure--no problem. And one of the things that was on my mind was that the exhibit should have certain guitars that they still use live. So I was asking their head guitar guy, Pierre De Beauport: "Pierre, what are you gonna do if Keith's Micawber (Telecaster) is in a museum and he has a show?" And Pierre replied: I'll give him something else to use. He doesn't care." Really?

And ironically it's kind of like that. For instance, Ringo--when he does these All-Star Tours--he likes to have a new kit for every tour. Just because he can, I guess. So Jeff Chonis, his drum tech, tells me he'll bring Ringo a couple of options, he'll chose which one he wants, Jeff will spruce it up for him and there you go. So it's not like they're detailed-into it. Now, there are those musicians out there who are really into the gear as much as they are into playing it. But with The Beatles and 'Stones, I found it's more happenstance than anything else. They're not ever freaking out--I can't play unless I have this guitar or this amp or this pedal or whatever. It's kind of interesting.

Two Beatle-era Epiphone instruments that Paul still uses today are the Casino archtop and the Texan acoustic. Did he buy those instruments at the same time? We know thanks to your research they were purchased in December of 1964.

Andy Babiuk: The Epiphone InterviewAt that time Rosetti was the distributor for Epiphone and Selmer was the distributor for Gibson. And then it was kind of weird because there was a trade embargo on American instruments in the UK up until late 1959 so you couldn't actually get an American made instrument. As soon as they changed that embargo, manufacturers were quickly trying to figure out who to get to distribute their products over there. So be it Gibson, Epiphone or whoever--a lot of it switched frequently. They'd give (distribution) to one guy and then they wouldn't do a good job and they'd give it to another guy.

At the time McCartney got those Epiphones, they were distributed by Rosetti. And Rosetti would turn around and sell instruments to retail stores. Now the weird thing was, Selmer was a distributor, too but they also had a retail store so you might find Selmer would have all of the Gibson line-up, of course, because they distributed Gibson. But to a shop in another town, they'd sell them Gibsons as well. A Selmer shop might have Epiphone product, too because they'd go to Rosetti and say 'we want to be an Epiphone dealer.' It was a small community. It wasn't that big--England is a small country--and all of the distribution was based out of London.

McCartney bought his Casino and Texan right in London. John Mayall told me that the pubs in England would close at 11pm so if you wanted to continue drinking, you had to go to somebody's house. Mayall lived in Central London and had a great blues record collection and a lot of his musician friends would go to his flat to listen. He said McCartney was hanging out with him quite a bit in late 1964 and asking how he got all the sounds on these blues records--B.B. King and guys like that. And Mayall told him you gotta get a hollowbody electric guitar. Now at the time in late 1964, McCartney could have called The Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, and said: 'You know Brian, I want to get a hollowbody electric, can you get me a left handed one? Can you call Gibson or Epiphone in the United States and get me a lefty?' And I would have to say that both Epiphone or Gibson would have bended over backwards in getting him a lefty. But Paul didn't care--he just wanted to shop and went out and bought them.

And where did McCartney buy his Epiphones?

I believe they were purchased at Sound City because that was the shop they would frequent and buy from. They had a rapport with the guys at Sound City. It was right in Charing Cross Road.

At that point in late 1964, how many guitar shops would have been in London? It must have still been a relatively small community.

Yeah, it was. It blossomed later but in the early part of the 60s, there were only a handful of shops. In fact, in the new version of Beatles Gear, I actually show a map of London in 1965 and it pinpoints all the music stores. There was a magazine called Beat Instrumental that was like the Guitar Player magazine of the day--written strictly for musicians about equipment and so Beat Instrumental was like the forerunner of all that. They started publishing in '63 I believe. They had this great map of London that showed were all the shops were and there were not that many--8 or 9 shops. Most of them were small as far as having a lot of product. It wasn't like what we have today when you walk into a place and there are hundreds of instruments to choose from. Surely finding something left handed was impossible.

Did Paul buy his Epiphone Texan the same day as he bought his Casino?

They were both bought around the same time. Historically, at that time period at the end of '64, they were doing a stint of shows in London so they didn't have to travel. They were booked to perform three weeks of Christmas shows at the same venue at Astoria Cinema in Finsbury Park. Each one was sold out. They had to just show up and play for 30 minutes. But they didn't have to travel so they had a lot of time to just hang out in London. And that's the time period where they acquired a lot of new instruments. The two notables for McCartney were the Casino and the Texan and he got them almost simultaneously. He began using the Texan to write "Yesterday." And the first thing he used the Casino for was the lead guitar to "Ticket to Ride."

And I think he uses it on “Another Girl?”

Yes, we always want it to be George doing all the leads and Paul playing bass. But if you study their catalog, specifically the later stuff--they were switching instruments all the time. Paul was multi-talented--even getting on the drums.

Is there a story to how John and George bought their Casinos almost a year later?

Andy Babiuk: The Epiphone InterviewSo starting in '65, McCartney's main electric guitar is this Casino. If he's writing at home or in the studio, that's his guitar. It's strung left-handed. There's a great picture in the book that shows Paul and George playing around with Paul's Casino when he first gets it and it's strung right-handed and they're looking at the bridge and trying to figure out how to flip the bridge the other way to string it left-handed. And there are cool pictures of Lennon playing it as well while it is still strung right-handed. And those were taken backstage at those Christmas shows. And that was confirmed by McCartney as well. He wasn't sure where he got them but he said that's when those guitars were bought, during that time period. He couldn't remember if he bought the Texan the same day or if he bought one and then went to get the other (laughs) just as he doesn't remember what kind of strings he played--he just says they were long shiny ones.

So Paul now had both instruments and throughout 1965, they were his main writing instruments. Meanwhile, John and George were trying SGs, another Rickenbacker, they both got a pair of Strats--a lot of equipment started coming in. And they were also traveling to the United States and seeing what other bands were using. They took note of what their peers were using too. For instance, the 'Stones were using Showman amps at that time so John and George got a set of those--just like guys do in bands when you've got some money and they can finally go out and say: 'Gimme a couple of these! I wanna try that!" The Beatles also bought keyboards--the Hohner Pianet, the Vox organ--they were just buying things to use and also to try to get different sounds in the studio.

George and John had this thing about having matching guitars which goes back to a Shadows kind-of-thing. They both had J-160Es, then George got a Rickenbacker and painted it black so it would look like John's Rickenbacker, they both had Rickenbacker 12-strings and then they both had Strats. So in 1966, lo and behold, they send Mal (Evans, Beatles roadie) to get two Epiphone Casinos. And I think it was highly influenced by Paul because he had one. When it came time to recording or going out on the road or performing on television, they took out their new guitars. It was probably as simple as that. The Casinos were lightweight, they sounded nice, so they took them on the '66 tour.

Instruments were practical...

It was that simple, much to the chagrin of other companies. Don Randall was Leo Fender's partner back in the day. I interviewed him in the 90s. He told me he and Leo flipped out by the summer of '64 because guitar sales had plummeted and they figured out it was because of these--they called them-- "Beatle guys." Randall said he and Leo thought these guys were never going to play Fender so they decided to do something unprecedented. They had never paid an artist to play their instruments but they were going to offer an endorsement deal to The Beatles. Don never told me the amount they were offering but he said it was a very large figure. So they sent a rep to New York when The Beatles were playing their summer tour of the U.S. in 1964. There was a pre-arranged meeting with the national sales rep and Brian Epstein. Fender even stayed at the same hotel. The rep was going to meet Brian and The Beatles and say here are all these products and we're willing to pay you "x" amount of dollars if you will play our brand. Well this cat was so nervous that he went down to the bar and had a couple drinks and got so liquored up that he never met with them.

So they tried again in 1965 and again in 1966. They got nowhere. In 1967, The Beatles didn't tour. Finally in 1968, Randall picked up the phone himself and said he wanted to meet with them. Randall flew over to London to meet with John and Paul. And McCartney met him first and he was animated and talking about instrument ideas and sounds. And then Lennon came in and he was in a really miserable mood and he was with Yoko, too. And Lennon said "Right--what the @#$#@ are we here for?"

And Randall said "Well... I'm from Fender..." and Lennon said "Yeah, what do you want from me?" Now Randall was going to offer them the same amount of money but once Lennon heard him say he was going to give them instruments he said "Yeah, give us the instruments and we'll play them. Are we done?" And Randall never had to give them the money. But they still played their Casinos, too.

Andy Babiuk: The Epiphone Interview

And when you hear these stories... you know, we grew up with this music and so it's magical to us. But when you really break it down and when you talk to people who were there or you talk to the guys themselves, they were just musicians. You're a musician--you know how it is. They were just great musicians who wrote great songs and were really lucky, too. But these were tools. They didn't think beyond that.

I spoke with some of The Beatles' engineers at Abbey Road and they remarked that even when The Beatles would record in other studios, their sound traveled with them whether it was the Sgt. Pepper sound or the White Album sound.

Right! I've had the pleasure to play with a lot of different guitar players. Mick Taylor came and did a session with me one time and he came with no guitars. So I'm playing a Les Paul and it sounds good. He says "here kid, let me play that." He didn't touch the amp knobs or anything and it sounded completely different. And I think you're right about The Beatles--you put those voices together and that vibe and it creates that chemistry.

Do you know what happened with Keith Richards' Epiphone Casino from the early 60s?

Yeah (sigh), yeah I do and it's not a good thing and I can't really talk about it. It's unfortunate. When I did that book for them, there were a lot of things I found out that were stolen from them. And unfortunately, it was done by people who were supposed to be watching their stuff for them. It's kind of sad state of affairs but it is what it is. And Keith would wish to have it back. We got him another old one just like it because he really wanted his Epiphone back and we can't get the original back. We got him a vintage model. Everything was the same on it and he likes it quite a bit.

The one thing I tried to stay away from is the detective thing where I'm trying to find guitars and point fingers and stuff. That's why I stopped the researching I was doing because it uncovers a whole bowl of cherries that you don't really want to deal with. I notified Keith and Keith's manager about the Casino and I said "I have to let you know, this is what happened I'm just telling you because I found out about it... I don't want to get involved. Do what you want with the info." I try to stay neutral on the matter.

Perhaps we'll solve the mystery at a later time. Tell us about the new edition of Beatles Gear.

The new book has some really great Epiphone photos never published before--John and George both using Casinos live at an outdoor concert. We've added another 50,000 words and then on top of that there are an additional 625 more photos so it's double the size. Previously, there have been very few photos of The Beatles Abbey Road sessions. But in the new edition, there are a ton of color photos of them recording Abbey Road and Lennon is playing the Casino exclusively. We also see George Harrison's Casino, too. And there are quite a lot of photos of the 1966 tour. It's great and I can't wait for folks to see it.