Talk From The Rock Room: Tools of the Trade: Duane Allman’s Les Paul Guitar's -Goldtop, Cherry, Dark Burst -'Wings to Fly'

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Tools of the Trade: Duane Allman’s Les Paul Guitar's -Goldtop, Cherry, Dark Burst -'Wings to Fly'

One thing you can depend on in the Talk from the Rock Room ‘Tools of the Trade’ feature is that the instrument will be iconic and its voice instantly recognizable. This is the case with Duane Allman’s 1957 Les Paul Gold Top serial number #7 3312. The guitar that bellowed on the ‘Allman Brothers Band’s first two LP’s as well as on ‘Derek and the Domino’s classic Layla and Assorted Love Songs has a story that borders on fiction and an alchemy that balances on fantasy. Allman’s legacy was built using this guitar and his spirit continues to be disseminated by its use by various Allman Brothers family up through current times. Much has been said about this guitar and it is one of the most famed instruments in the annals of rock history. The ‘rock room’ won’t add much to the substantial legacy, but can collaborate information and celebrate Duane and his legendary 'tools of the trade’. One silly aside that that the 'rock room' is not proud of. When visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few years back Allman's 'Gold top' was on display. The 'rock room' was so overtaken with emotion upon seeing this beautiful piece of 'rock history that I actually set off the alarm sensor for getting to close to the iconic instrument. But...... I digress.

Duane Allman purchased his Goldtop sometime in 1968/1969 probably from Gainesville instrument shop Lipham Music where the band purchased much of their gear. The guitar became his partner in crime both in the studio and on the stage during the band’s formative months. In Galadrielle Allman’s book about her father, Please Be With Me, there is a document/letter labeled May 16, 1969 where Duane mentions purchasing a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop guitar in addition to a Marshall amp and Heritage acoustic to fellow guitar player Ralph Barr. As previously mentioned this 1957 Les Paul had the ‘goldtop’ finish, no pick guards, and two PAF pickups. The guitar can be heard on Duane’s early work with Boz Skaggs, such as ‘Loan Me A Dime’, Allman’s work with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and both of the ‘Allman Brother Band’s first two seminal recordings. Statements from Bobby Whitlock, vocalist and pianist for ‘Derek and the Dominos’ support the fact that the Goldtop was Duane’s main weapon of choice during this era and during the recording sessions for Lalya.

This guitar assisted in developing Duane’s touch and his tone as a player and offered a stunning contrast with Dickey Betts Fender Stratocaster in the early Brothers days. Stunning footage of the Goldtop in action can be found on the circulating pro shot footage from the Love Valley festival in North Carolina 1970.  A straight Les Paul into a Marshall stack, this is the stuff, all touch, all tone, all soul.

Now, this is the point of the tale when the Goldtop and the Cherry burst cross paths and exchange numbers. In September of 1970 the Allman Brothers Band were playing a concert in their hometown of Dayton, Florida where the opening act for the evening was ‘Stone Balloon’. The guitarist of that group,  Rick Stein had on stage a beautiful 1959 cherry burst Les Paul that caught young ‘Skydog’s eyes. Allman approached the guitarist following the concert with a deal in mind.  Allman offered the ‘Stone Balloon’ guitarist his Goldtop, $200.00 cash and a 50W Marshall head in exchange for the 1959 Les Paul.  One exception to the trade is that Allman wanted to keep the PAF pickups from his Goldtop and install them in his new acquisition. Allman Brothers Band roadie, Kim Payne has confirmed that he changed out the pickups from one guitar to the other in a Daytona, Florida hotel room. It is documented that the older PAF pickups have a lower output therefore having greater clarity and presence. Presence is one thing Duane Allman’s style is not lacking. So, in the end the pickups were swapped and Duane had a new guitar while the famed Goldtop would move on to experience a series of adventures of its own.

After the trade, the Goldtop changed hands a number of times in the 1970’s and reportedly underwent 2 complete refurbs. By 1977 it fell into the hands of Gaineville guitarist Scott LaMar. LaMar bought the guitar for $475.00 dollars in 1977. Since that time LaMar has become steward of the instrument doing a proper restore with the assistance of Gibson and lending the guitar to the ‘Big House Museum’ in Macon, Georgia. The guitar has also been lent to the ‘Allman Brother Band’ for in concert appearances, being played by Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes. The guitar sold at auction in 2019 for the price of 1.25 million dollars. The anonymous buyer still loans the instrument to the 'Big House Museum' for a few months out of the year.

Returning to the new Les Paul Allman received from the trade. By the time of the Allman Brothers Band’s performance at the Fillmore East on September 23, 1970 Allman was donning his new guitar with the Goldtop’s PAF’s and blazing new trails. There is some confusion with the pickups, since they have their covers on the new guitar, but did not on the Goldtop. Keeping covers on or off pickups tend to have a subtle effect on tone. The plain top cherry also has no pick guards which Allman did not like similarly to the Goldtop. The guitar features a mahogany neck and two piece maple top. This guitar would also be featured on the famed Live at Fillmore East album as well as the number of stunning live recordings and bootlegs that exist from Duane’s essential last year.

                                                             Photo: Amalie Rothchild

The subtle tonal discrepancies found between these two legendary guitars can be analyzed and compared by listening to the available studio recordings and live performances. Roughly, from the earliest Allman's concerts until 9/23/70 you get the Goldtop. From 9/23/70 until June of 1971 you get the 'cherry burst'. As previously stated, the Allman Brothers impeccable and historic live release At Fillmore East immortalizes this 'cherry' guitar for eternity. Finally from June 1971 through 'Skydog's final show (The Final Note released in October 2020) we get the melodic disseminator in Duane's short life which we will discuss below.

While the player is the one most responsible for the expression of sound through any given instrument, the instrument is the disseminator and the tool responsible for aural imagery and invisible sonic dreams to come vibrantly to life. Because Duane Allman’s musical career has to be measured in moments it’s easy to focus on his guitars and when and how they were used. The 1957 Gibson Goldtop assisted in developing Duane as a player and the 59 cherry burst was where he went once he started to develop a taste and technique. The following guitar, a 1959 Les Paul tobacco is when he he had a full vision of what he wanted aesthetically and musically in a guitar.

There is a third Les Paul in this story, one that was in the hands of Gregg Allman at the time of Duane's death. The 'dark burst' Les Paul is a 1959 standard tobacco burst and was purchased by Brother Duane in June of 1971. Road manager Twiggs Lyndon traded Gregg a 1939 Ford Opera Coupe for the instrument determined to keep it safe for Duane's daughter Galadrielle when she was old enough to understand the importance of the guitar. The 'dark burst' (which looks deep red around the edges) too has special 'Skydog' characteristics, in particular it's pick ups. Guitar tech Tommy Alderson worked on the instrument after years of non use. He stated in an interview with Guitar World magazine, 

“They (pickups) are set different than anything I’ve ever encountered,” he says, “dropped down a fair amount below the pickup ring. The pickup pole adjustments had the screws turned up so they would pick up the signal. Also unusual, the bridge pickup is a lot weaker than the neck pickup. I plugged it in and put it in the middle, and it was the ‘One Way Out’ sound. It was just crazy to hear.” He also stated that some work had been done on the headstock at some pint in the guitar's life.

This particular Les Paul also called 'Hot Lanta' can be heard on the live at the closing of the Fillmore East concert from June 27, 1971. This soundboard recording has been included on the deluxe edition of the band's Eat A Peach LP. It can also be sussed in definitive sound quality on the official release, Live from A and R Studios, New York, August 26, 1971 which the 'rock room' reviewed here. This guitar was the instrument that Duane would play right up until 'the Final Note' played on October 17, 1971 at 'Skydog's ' last show. Obviously due to Duane Allman's tragically short life he didn't get to keep searching for his perfect 'Tool of the Trade', but he was getting close. Duane's daughter has stated, "By the time my Father found those guitar's. particularly 'Hot Lanta' , he really achieved the ideal tone he was looking for". 'Hot Lanta' is also the guitar where roadie Twiggs Lyndon changed out the frets on the instrument following Duane's death and instead of disposing of them spelled out 'DUANE" on the back of the guitar.

A famed circulating field recording from September 16, 1971 at The Warehouse in New Orleans, LA features the original six in a late era peak. The tape is a perfect sonic document to hear Duane and his 'Hot Lanta' guitar streaking like blue heat in their natural environment. The 'rock room' often uses this special aural document to study the instruments habits. Silvery streams of stunning string displays pour off the existing tape. It's a gift to able to hear the vibe of  Allman and his final guitar during a  peak performance.

The aesthetic that Duane and Gregg Allman developed in the first three years of the 'Allman Brothers', was the template that the band used to 'hit the note' for the next almost 50 years. One of the defining elements of that sound and the curator of the group composition was Duane Allman, Through his fingers and his 'Tool of the Trade' 'Skydog' created a fingerprint that will remain an indelible mark on rock for as long as people continue to listen.

Three Gibson Les Paul's, three guitars with the spook, fire and as much personality as their respective owner. The guitars that allowed Duane Allman the means of expressing himself fully. It's obvious that Allman found a multitude of magic which he loved in a Gibson Les Paul. He spent most of days undertaking a series of tweaks and sonic experiments to insure he would eventually find sonic perfection.

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