Front cover

[Being reworked: Stratocaster (L),
and Telecaster that will be electric flamenco]
[Bass designed for David Freiberg, 1964]
['54 Hawaiian (L), '56 Danelectro


by Jon Sievert

Some of the better rock and roll news to come along has concerned the return of John Cipollina to the arena of public performance. In October, 1970 he left the Quicksilver Messenger Service after four years and five albums as lead guitarist with no intention of playing with a rock group again. He took with him a place in rock history as a part of that first generation of San Francisco bands that included the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Today, after a year or so of session work with the likes of Fred Neil, Charles Lloyd, Brewer and Shipley, and Santana, he is back playing - "hard rock" with a strong new quartet called Copperhead.

John's roots are classical. The front room of his parents' Mill Valley home holds two grand pianos, and the prevailing atmosphere of the home has always been that of home-made music. His mother and younger sister teach classical piano and his younger brother is an accomplished upright and electric bassist.

Under his mother's tutelage, John began to play and study the piano at age 2. At 12 though, he abandoned serious study in favor of guns, ham radio, and painting.

The next scene is a classic. At 16 he found an old guitar in the attic.

"It had only the A and E string left after the first day," says John, "and I played it like that for almost a year until I drove my parents nuts. One day they took me downtown for a set of strings and told me it was time to start taking lessons."

He began to study classical guitar fundamentals, theory, and positions, but it was 1959 and he was hanging out on the Sausalito houseboats, painting, and listening to Link Wray and Duane Eddy. The lure of the electric guitar was too strong to ignore.

"I heard Mickey Baker of Mickey and Sylvia playing 'Love is Strange' and I was hooked. I was completely awed by the imagery surrounding the electric guitar. It sounded so tough and so cool." After a year of classical study, he got a used Danelectro for $31 and laid his nylon strings aside. Three days after he got the guitar he started his first band dubbed The Penetrators and then The Deacons.

"The folk scene," Cipollina recalls, "was still going on in San Francisco in those days and rock and roll and electric guitars were pretty much identified with greasy hair, beer, and teenage traumas. We'd rent a hall, get a dance permit, buy a few cases of Coke, hire a couple of rent-a-cops and put on our own dances. It was the best, and sometimes only, way to get a gig. Other bands in the city were doing the same thing and I'd go to all the dances to watch the guitar players and copy their licks."

The Deacons lasted four years. In 1964, John met Dino Valenti, a singer with a big local reputation looking for a backup band, and the chain of events started that resulted in the Quicksilver Messenger Service. Ironically, however, Valenti didn't actually become a member of the group until 1970.

During all this, John's style and technique were changing and growing as he absorbed the influence of Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins, Leadbelly, and Chet Atkins.

"Chet really influenced me as far as tightness goes, but when I first started to listen to him the things he was doing were so tight and complex that I couldn't really relate to him. I could relate to Link Wray and spot the chords he was playing, but there was no way I could make it sound like that."

John's developing style demanded more from his guitar, primarily range in the upper register. He went from the Danelectro to a Stratocaster and, in 1965, acquired a Gibson SG Special. Two years later he bought the 1959 Gibson SG he still uses as his principal guitar.

"The Gibson not only, has one more fret than the Stratocaster (22)," John says, "but I've found that it's possible to stretch the range to 28 frets. For instance, on the old SG's you can use the top screw and get a true G which would be the 27th fret. The harmonics are also higher on the Gibson."

The SG reflects John's long preoccupation with electric guitar design and construction in that it has been extensively modified for structural, acoustical, and decorative purposes.

The entire instrument has been bound, the back striped, and the peghead and heel of the neck inlaid with slabs of ebony which John says help keep the guitar in tune. Both sides of the peghead and the top have been laminated. The ebony fingerboard has been inlaid with ivory and the control knobs embellished with pearl and inset with San Francisco Mint mercury dimes. The pickguard and ornamentation on the top are cut from laminated plastic into a bat-like design of John's origination. The pickups are the original Gibson humbuckings and the guitar has been wired for stereo.

The strings - Fender .150 Light gauge Rock and Roll or the comparable Dan Armstrongs - are set up to touch metal all the way through with metal pegs, nut, bridge saddle, and Bigsby tailpiece. (John admits he added the Bigsby "because it was so hip looking" and it has become a vital part of his sound.) He changes strings only about once every six months - a fact he attributes to a very light attack and Hoppes #9 Nitro Powder Solvent. "I don't dig in much at all. The pickguards on my guitars are strictly for ornamentation. The Hoppes #9 is made for use on guns and what it does is retard rust without building up a coat."

He picks with a medium size Coast Wholesale plastic thumb and fingerpick ("White - like a blindman's cane") usually on the first, but sometimes the second, finger.

John's interest in guitar design and construction goes back to when he first began to play. "I had been painting and thought I was going to be an artist, so I decided to combine music and art by sculpting electric guitars. I've always been impressed by functional art and all the existing electric guitars seemed to be pretty shoddily built.

"At first I tried to do all the work myself but I couldn't handle the tools. I kept cutting my hands up so bad that I finally had to make a choice. Now I farm most of the actual construction work out, but I still have an old Stratocaster that the rhythm player in the Deacons gave me that I've been reworking for a long time. I'm doing all the work on that one myself, and I still do my own necks and actions."

His first design to become a reality was an electric bass produced for Quicksilver bassist David Freiberg in 1964. From the standpoint of beauty it was an unqualified success. Acoustically it was something less, John admits. "I've learned a lot since then and the equipment has changed considerably, mainly the amps. My thinking then was that the bass is a deep instrument so it should be hollow for a deep, thumping sound. Now I realize it's much easier to get that sound with a solid body and good amps. There were other things wrong too but I learned a lot, and my brother likes to play it once in a while."

A more current project is what John believes will be the world's first electric flamenco guitar. He started with a completely stripped Telecaster neck and body. When it's finished everything will be inlaid or ground flush to the top and the neck will be widened to 2 1/8" (wider than a classical neck) to make it complementary to classical fingering. It will have planetary pegs and will be wired like a stereo Stratocaster. One interesting accessory might be a cigarette lighter. "When I drew up the final design some time ago," he says, "I included a small preamp for guitar effects. I've since found that effects belong on the floor, not on the guitar, and it's a shame not to use that preamp for something."

For the past two years, Cipollina has been encouraging an interest in slide he picked up in Hawaii. His earliest work was performed on a 1956 Danelectro Guitaralin including "Local Color" on his last Quicksilver album, What About Me. "What it is is a guitar with a mandolin range. It has a reach of 31 frets and you can act B above G. I looked for one for six years and it was in pieces when I found it. Link Wray played one. Danelectros were really cheap guitars in their day [the company folded in 1970] and I wanted something else when that was all I had. Now I've really come to appreciate them as fine guitars. The top and back are made of masonite.

Most of his current slide work is performed on a 1954 Gibson Hawaiian Lap Guitar, but that's a temporary situation as John awaits delivery on his most ambitious design project to date. "Basically it will be a very, sophisticated stereo Hawaiian Lap Guitar, but on a stand that supports a barrage of electronic effect, including a Condor and a Phase Two. The effects are split so you call run one straight channel plus an effect channel on a volume foot pedal. It will have eight channels, and we're getting a tone strip from a Hammond organ. It will also have guitar inputs so I can run all of the effects of my guitar. It's getting close.

"I consider myself an electronic musician and I really believe that electronics is music. Electronic effects, when added carefully in context to a mood or chord change or something, can create another facet to the music."

It is John's effect and amplification system that allow him to implement those electronic ideas. He and his equipment people have been modifying the same basic setup up for five years as John finds what he needs, and what he can get from it. Everything is wired for stereo and tri-amped - that is, he has three sets of amps each of which call handle a separate frequency range. Two Standels, bought with the first Quicksilver record money, carry the low frequencies and a Fender Reverb carries the highs. A third amp, a Fender Dual Showman controlled by a floor switch, powers six high-throw Wurlitzer horns for a register above 3,000 cycles, a place John often likes to play. The floor switch also houses a reverb, an Astro Echoplex, a Standel Modulux, a Gibson Maestro Fuzz and a Vox Wah-Wah.

"I've had a lot more stuff than that," Cipollina claims, "and I've always been aware that my love for electronic gadgetry has been a shaping influence on my playing. The trick, however, has never seemed to be how much one can use them. The trick is learning how to use them just a little bit."

[With his favorite 1959 SG which John
Cipollina completely reworked.]
[Cipollina's amp setup as used on stage.] [A Pair of John's '59 SGs.]

Guitar Player, January/February 1973

(Photos by Jon Sievert)

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