George Thorogood, like most American treasures, has spent his career as both a music business anomaly and an American treasure. He’s a household name to most music fans thanks to a life spent his life on the road in the same “showrooms” where he first saw his heroes like Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee. Those artists still loom large in his imagination and all of them instantly accepted Thorogood as a brother and a kindred spirit. The Rolling Stones hired Thorogood to open a show for their 1981 tour and kept him on the for the rest of the dates. ("It was supposed to be one night and they kept adding me and adding me. Every night Keith would come in to my dressing room and say, 'how about another?' I couldn’t believe it"). Thorogood has been on both independent and major labels, but the labels themselves never made much of a difference. What little money they offered probably went into keeping his battered vintage ES-125s going. If you wanted to know Thorogood's music, you had to experience him live.
If you grew up in the 70s, George’s ferocious covers of Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over,” Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” and his own “Bad to the Bone” were staples of urban FM stations on both coasts. With his band, the Destroyers (originally the Delaware Destroyers named for his home state) Thorogood's shows were guarantee sell outs, often attracting fellow music colleagues from every genre and generation. Today, it is Thorogood who is the experienced hero to a small group of musicians who still look to country, gospel, blues, and rhythm & blues to make their own rock and roll. At age 69, he remains a believer, a man of action, and fervor and shows no signs of giving up or giving in. His new limited edition Epiphone George Thorogood ES-125 Outfit, his debut signature model, delivers the tone, growl, and power that you would expect from an instrument with his name.
George Thorogood dropped by Epiphone’s headquarters in Nashville to take delivery of the final prototype and hold court in the Epiphone showroom crowded with employees, techs, and friends who were treated to a performance and a recitation of sorts from the one time Delaware street performer who is a living American legend and the last link to the generation that created the roots of rock and roll.
George, thank you for joining us and welcome to the House of Stathopoulo. How is your Epiphone?
The Epiphone is great. But my people will never stop trying to make an improvement. Their theory is if you can hit the ball 400 feet, you can hit it 430 (laughs).
You’ve been identified with the ES-125 for most of your career. I recall when you were a regular in the Washington D.C. clubs like the Cellar Door.
That’s right. Were you there? The most famous story about the Cellar Door, the one I have to retell over and over again, was when Jimmy Thackery (of the Nighthawks) and I walked across M Street, each of us playing “Madison Blues.”
Our (the Destroyers) “Madison Blues” was on the radio. Theirs was not. I don’t think it’s because of my charm or international sex appeal. Because it’s better (laughs). But Thackery had this whole thing—'we’re playing at Desperados the same night you’re playing at the Cellar Door.’
They came up with this thing where we were gonna switch guitars in the middle of the road. And I said, Why? I worked for ten years to get out of places like Desperados…to get into the Cellar Door. But I said ok, I’ll do it. So, we did it. We played the song, we timed it right. I walked out the door. I get out into the middle of the street. He gets out into the middle of the street. We switch cords. I walked into Desperados. Now in the Cellar Door are all the wives of the Nighthawks. Not in their club but in my club. Now what does that tell you? They’re watching me. I go into Desperados, big applause. He comes in the Cellar Door guess what happens? Boo! But if Jeff Beck wants to switch guitars with me, I’m all ears, pal!
But yes, I was playing a Gibson ES-125 single cutaway two-pickup archtops for years until they stopped making them in 1970, so I collected all of what I could. They were very frail instruments to begin with. But the neck was just right for my hands and the sound was unique. And the instruments weren’t expensive. My attack on the guitar is a little aggressive and I literally wore all my ES-125s down.
They were originally designed as an entry-level archtop. Probably for rock and roll and jazz, too.
Playing heavy rock wore them down as the years went on. So, my folks kept repairing my guitars and they kept falling apart and the sound kept getting weaker. Because they were old. I said, Well I guess I’m through playing. If they don’t make any new ES-125s I’m gonna have to stop
. And people in my organization said: ‘You’re gonna quit because you don’t have the right guitar? And they said wait a minute—let us make a phone call. And that’s when they called Epiphone. And the Epiphone showed up.
I didn’t know the history of Epiphone. I always thought that Epiphone was the minor leagues of Gibson. But it’s the other way around. Everybody worked hard on these guitars. Everything I wanted to change they worked on. They wouldn’t give up. Finally, I said, gee I don’t know if it will work out with these Epiphones. And my crew laughed and said you know those last shows you did in Oregon and Washington? I said yeah, I thought they were good shows. The crowd was really into it. My crew said, you didn’t know it but you were using those guitars those nights. We just didn’t tell you. Then I was committed. I think someday I should be committed—like all musicians should be. Especially guitar players.
I imagine that your new signature ES-125 is much more responsive than the vintage models.
That’s right. It reaches the audience all the way in the back. My attack doesn’t have to be as strong. Before I had to beat the instrument. Now I get response on the higher notes. My Epiphone is built for the sound in my head. This gives me the response that I need. I couldn’t walk into a room and explain it to a stranger. The original ES-125—and my new ES-125--is more like a semi acoustic instrument. That’s why a lot of cats who are blues cats like ‘em since they all started on acoustic, as I did. So, there’s an archtop to it, the strings are elevated off the body. When I started, I was having to find something that was right in between. Something that had the sound of an electric but the physics of an acoustic. I had to have that match up. Time went on, and you know how it is, sometimes that horse has run its last lap. I thought I’d have to quit without that sound. So, they brought these studs in (laughs). And I’ve been more than happy. And now I can’t wait to get to the gig. Where-as before, I was beating on my guitar trying to get my head above water at soundchecks. My new signature ES-125s are like a thoroughbred horse I have to hold back. Woah! That’s the way it should be. You should have more to work with than less. That’s when it gets fun. And I think I deserve a little fun at this point.
How did you settle on the ES-125 as your signature sound? What was happening in your life at the time?
It was out of necessity. I had been playing solo acoustic working with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Robert Lockwood (step son to Robert Johnson) and people like that. I had some success and some great encouragement from those people.
Were you playing clubs with Brownie and McGee at that point on an acoustic guitar?
Sometimes. I was also playing on the streets. Sonny Terry said to me where have you been playing? I was 22. And I said I’ve been playing in the streets. And he said, well that’s no kind of living. You shouldn’t be playing in the streets. You should be making records.
Brownie McGee was listening and said I used to play in the streets and a guy walked by, really dressed great, and threw a bunch of change in my guitar case and said, Hey, look kid, you should be making records.
And the guy was Leadbelly. So, Brownie McGhee told me the same story that Leadbelly told him. I’ll take it. If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.
But we had a friend in Delaware, Jeff Simon, who wanted to put a band together and he was very into the blues. And he booked a gig without me knowing it. And I didn’t have an electric guitar. So, there was another cat in town who had a ‘125 in the hock shop. And it had been there for years. And everybody was looking at it. I left town. Came back. It was still there. It was destiny—nobody had bought it.
It was way up high so no one would steal it. It cost $200—all the money I had in the world. I had to scrape together to get it. And when I picked it up and played it, it was just a miracle. I said ‘this is the guitar for me
.’ It was a freak 125. The neck was actually smaller then a lot of them are. It was thinner. I didn’t have to make any adjustments. And the P-90s were different, too. Friends of mine who work on pickups said this is a freak—'you’re getting twice the response out of these than you would usually. Where did you get this guitar?
’ It was supposed to be.
You probably soon discovered not all vintage guitars are alike.
That’s right! Me being me, I thought all the 125s would be that way. They’re not. No two cars are the same. One runs great, the other doesn’t. You can’t explain things like that. So, as time went on, they had to keep working on that guitar. Playing slide really beat the hell out of the frets and it took a pounding. But it wasn’t anyone who influenced me to say this is the one you want to get
. It was economics. And it looked cool—it looked like Chuck Berry’s guitar. And then when I painted it white, it really looked like (a black and white photo of) Chuck Berry’s guitar. That was an inspiration.
When you got in the business, many of your idols, like Chuck and John Lee Hooker were still relatively young and touring. Were they receptive to you when you met them?
I got lots of advice. Like getting a good night’s sleep. That’s what I’ve learned from two of my biggest idols, John Lee Hooker and Chuck Berry, if they taught me anything. I finally cornered Chuck Berry and asked him the question the whole world asks him. I thought this could be my only chance. He’s not an easy man to get close to. He’s a distance guy. He comes to you, you don’t go to him. I finally had him in a room and I said: If you could give me one piece of advice Chuck—a key to success—what would it be?
I didn’t know what he was going to say. He looks me in the eye and says, “George, you gotta eat right.” Now think about it, if you’re gonna be successful, that’s good advice. There’s a clip of him on the Tonight Show
with Johnny Carson and Chuck is 60—you have to see this clip—you can’t believe what he looks like. He looks like a 20 year old. Talk about taking care of yourself. Before Chuck Berry performed, you wouldn’t even know it was Chuck Berry sitting in the room. He just faded into the woodwork. You gotta reserve that energy. Mick Jagger knows that, too. He’s not put on a pound since the Rolling Stones were on Ed Sullivan.
You’ve covered a lot of John Lee Hooker songs over the years. I know that he was an idol. Did you become close friends over the years?
I first saw Hooker play at the Cellar Door. That was a good room. They used to call them showcase rooms. They showcased the artist. We used to call him on his birthday. Went to his house. And then as time went on, and we cut some of his songs, I met him when he was doing a show with Canned Heat. We had the same booking agent at the time. By this time, he knew who I was. The (San Francisco) Giants had just signed a deal for Joe Morgan to join the team. And John didn’t say you play guitar goodor any of that stuff. He didn’t say anything about music. He never did. The first thing he said was—You think Joe Morgan is gonna help the Giants?
He never talked music. He talked baseball and baseball. The greats don’t talk. They justdo
. I tried to get Jeff Beck to explain what he does. He was at a loss for words. He just does it. That’s cool.
John Lee was in a horizonal position 90% of the time. He never wasted extra energy for anything. John Lee Hooker used to have an Epiphone like mine that was thicker. Two of the great tragedies of rock and roll is John Lee Hooker’s Epiphone got ripped off and Keith Richards three pickup Les Paul got ruined in a fire.
Where did the Cobra imagine on your ES-125 come from?
We had this thing that was on a sticker that was a giveaway for a show we did for Halloween. There were a lot of women there who were wearing black t-shirts and they took the sticker and stuck it on their shirt. And it looked really cool. So, I took one and stuck it on my guitar. Didn’t give it any thought. One time my guitar tech had sent my guitar out to get refinished and had someone paint this on it. And I was like, what did you do that for? I got a snakeskin headband. Let’s not overdue it. From then on, they just put it out there. I had really no say in that. If anyone asked me, I probably would have said no.
And now it’s on your Epiphone!
Hey, I never thought I’d have a signature model with an upscale company like Epiphone. I never thought that day would come. But hey, I’ll take it! And the price is sure right. So, am I good? Am I good?
(George turns to a room full of techs and Epiphone employees who shout back in the affirmative.) Just remember this. Most of what I told you is true.