PUBLICATIONS > Articles > 1970s > Stephen Stills – Guitar Player

Stephen Stills – Guitar Player
January 1976 (cover story)
by Lowell Cauffiel
photo’s by Steven R. Sanders


Stephen Stills – singer, songwriter, producer, businessman, musician on several instruments. You would think the guitar could play only a small part in his life. Instead, Stills’ involvement with the instrument is as deep as his artistic dedication and as diverse as his multiple talents.

Stills has played in countless jam sessions with some of rock’s most legendary figures; is an avid collector, owning more guitars than many music stores display on their racks; and plays with enough colorings to cover good portions of the pop music spectrum. Through his work with Buffalo Springfield, the super group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and several solo efforts was impressive, Stephen currently maintains it has been only in the past two years that he “became the kind of guitar player I’ve always wanted to be.”

“I like all of it”, he says. “But I really enjoy the hell out of just getting up there and burning on my guitar. And the better I get, the more take advantage of the arrangements.”

Its been fourteen years since Stephen (born January 3rd, 1945) got his first guitar – a Kay hollowbody electric. That started a long road of self instruction, with Stills also playing drums and piano and serving as conductor of his high school orchestra. His roots grew in country and blues style, but it wasn’t until the late sixties that his interest in lead playing mushroomed – when he first heard Jimi Hendrix.

“I followed the dude around for two years learning how to play lead guitar,” he recalls. “I literally followed him like he was my guru. People thought I was a groupie, but I wasn’t; I was going to music school.” He and Hendrix were soon friends and began jamming in clubs with other musicians like Buddy Miles and Johnny Winter. “Jimi and I played for fourteen hours once at my house in Malibu. We must have made up fifteen rock and roll songs, but forgot them all, because it wasn’t taped. We just played for the ocean.”

Wasn’t it difficult learning in the shadow of a dominating lead player like Hendrix? “That’s total BS,” Stills responds. “He kicked me in the butt one night – I was playing rhythm with my eyes closed, and he said, ‘Go on. Play lead!’ Jimi and I got together as much as we could. I always thought a good blues (rhythm) section that would take time to learn Jimi’s vamps and stuff would have really just set him free. God knows what he was hearing. I really didn’t hit my stride, though, until after he died. If he was still around, we’d be inseparable by now.

“Duane Allman and I also used to play together back when he was in the Hourglass,” he continues. “Every time we’d hit the same place at the same time it was, ‘C’mon let’s play. Get the band. Who wants to play drums? Who wants to play bass? Let’s play, play, play.’ The great thing about jams is learning – learning how to copy the other guys riffs. A guy lays down a rhythm riff, you play against that. Then when it’s his turn, play the same rhythm he was playing with the same accents and so on. I’ll tell you, sometimes when I’m on stage now I see ghosts as I play my guitar. Sometimes they’re saying ‘right on.’ ”

Stills states that practicing scales in recent years has given him confidence for soloing. “All of a sudden you know where you’re going ,” he explains. “You run up the neck, and you don’t miss, and hit those awful, sour notes. The mistakes I make now are when my finger falls off a string or something. I’m trying to get to the point where I don’t have to look at all. You get to the top of the neck, though, and the postitions get finer and harder. I basically started down the bottom of the guitar and learned scales there. The seventh scale, the major seventh scale, the minor scale, and the major seventh scale.

Has he found any short cut? Stills laughs and says: “No man, there really aren’t any. It’s the old developing of the fingers thing. A lot of young kids start out being lead guitar players and consequently turn out to be terrible rhythm guitarists. One thing you must learn is how to be a good, strong effective rhythm player, or you’re just out of it. You’re useless to anybody else. You can play melodies all day long, but it doesn’t mean a thing if under the singing you’re going RRRRRR, RRRRRR, RRRRRR, BRRRRRRM.

“The secret of rhythm – like my folk experience – is learning to Travis pick: Getting the rhythm in the thumb, getting with the bass, and getting that push beat to it. If you are using a flatpick, you can go the same way. You learn how to palm. You learn which position is the best to get the most out of a chord, because rhythm is basically dividing the chord into two parts. You’ve got the bass and treble and you divide the measure up and play brmmmm, chick, brmmmm, chick. You’ve got divide them up and use the damper in between. There are relatively few great rhythm players in rock. Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh is one of the greatest, and Jimi Hendrix was actually a great rhythm player.

For rhythm or lead, Stills doesn’t use a pick, but instead his index finger braced by the thumb. “The pick always hangs me up if I’m going to play one of those little chords on the first four strings with all four fingers (plucking at once) and have my thumb get the bass. My index finger is rather demented looking. That’s my flatpick – a big callous. (He uses his fingernail for sharp cutting notes.) The only drawback is on the rapid run. Lots of times I’m skimming, but I’ll work that out eventually.

“Playing fast is not necessarily best,” Stephen adds. “It’s what you play when. In a way, too it’s a question of taste. I mean, the taste of the public could leave me right behind. But I’m basically a blues cat, and one well-placed blues lick can just rip your heart out. That’s the theory I work on.”

When touring, Stills needs two dressing rooms – one for himself and one for the seventeen (and sometimes more) guitars he carries on tour. Stephen offers his axes to other members of the band for gigs, besides using them himself. He also has two house amps, an electric piano, and an organ which is powered by an incredible 800 watts.

He prefers Martin guitars for acoustic tunes. He plays a 1942 D-45, a pre-war D-28 Herringbone, and a late model D-18, which he has modified into a 12-string. On the 6-strings he uses D’Angelico light gauge. He likes the pre-war Martin’s because the wood is thinner, giving the guitar a brighter sound. Also on hand are an N.B.M. 5-string banjo with an extra long neck (designed by Stephen himself) and a 1924 National Dobro.

Several years ago the Dobro was smashed, thanks to some rough handling by an airline company. “For two years I looked around the country, and nobody would risk trying to fix it,” says Guillermo Giachetti, Stills guitar caretaker. Finally he found a member of the Dobro family who refurbished the priceless relic. Later it was gold plated.

For electric work on the road, Stephen carries a Fender Precision bass, two Les Paul (double cutaway) Specials, a Les Paul Standard, three Gibson Firebirds (two with one pickup, one with three pickups), and two White Falcons and three Country Gentlemans made by Gretsch. Most of these instruments are dated in the Fifties and the early Sixties.

Stills explains that he uses this wide variety of axes in his three-hour performance because “they each have a different voice. Gretsch pickups are built entirely differently than humbuckings. Firebird pickups are different from humbuckings. The Firebird gives me the feel of a Gibson with a Stratocaster sound. The double cutaway is my jazz guitar. The Gretsch is my country guitar. Stills says his favorite is the one pickup Firebird. “One pickup and two knobs,” he describes, “right down to brass tacks. How can you go wrong? And they really put out the beef. I’ll do the rest with my fingers.

Stephen asserts that he has solved the problem of slipping machine heads in the old Firebirds by replacing them with new peg sleeves and Gibson Mastertone banjo pegs . “Can someone please find us some?”he asks. “We’re going through hell trying to find Mastertone pegs, because the cheaper kinds don’t work.”

This versatile guitarist keeps his action relatively low, though he allows enough distance to get behind the strings on some bends and “enough room to move around.” He uses Fender Rock and Roll light gauge strings for lead guitars. On the White Falcon – used for rhythm – he strings with a .050, .040, .030, .022 wound, .015, .011 set. “The Gretsch really doesn’t work with light gauge strings,” he explains. “I’ve discovered that through long, painful years of tuning on stage. Buffalo Springfield spent most of its time tuning guitars on stage.” For tunings on the electrics and acoustics he uses standard, open E, open D, and a “Bruce Palmer Modal tuning,” with the strings E, E,E, E, B, and E, working from the bass strings first. This tuning was used for his interludes on “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Atlantic, At S-8229).

Stills’ amplifier set-up is as unique as his lot of guitars. He utilizes two Marshall 100 watt tops with four bottoms- four 10″ speakers in each. The tops have been modified: One rewired to accent treble frequencies, and the other emphasizes the bast frequency. A typical late-show setting on the amps has volume two-thirds up and treble full out, with the bass setting varying according to the guitar used.

Add to this a gizmo designed by Giachetti, called a “junction box”. The amps are patched into the box, and, with his lead chord attached to its input, Stills can use each top separately, together, or in stereo – with all choices illuminated by pilot lights. The box also has monitor outputs for studio work and inputs for accessories. Stephen, however, limits himself to a Cry Baby wah-wah in live performances. “With too many gadgets, the roadies go nuts, trying to keep it all working,” he explains.

Stills bank of equipment, though, doesn’t stop with his road intruments. He spent a fortune putting together an acoustic collection of Martins, old Gibsons, and electrics. He has more than seventy guitars – and the number is still growing. “I consider Martins a work of art,” he declares. “I think I’m going to build a special vault for them. I’ve got a whole collection – single 0, double 0, triple 0, up through D.” (Stephen adds that he would like help finding a Gibson J-200, with dark sunburst finish and #A111 inside the soundhole, which was stolen in Cleveland last winter.)

‘I’ve got an incredible D’Angelico New Yorker made in 1915 by the old man himself,” he continues. “What a sound!” It’s a gorgeous guitar, a stupendous guitar. I’m getting a lot of things which are museum pieces that the airlines wreak havoc on. I buy a seat, but a lot of kids that have valuable guitars can’t and they can’t afford a really good case, and the guitar gets blown away by the luggage people. When I get the whole collection together, I might put them on display.

According to Giachetti, who has been scouting out relics for Stills for five years, some pre-war Martin prices have become inflated because of one of Stephen’s purchases. It seems a year ago Stills got into a bidding war with a Japanese instrument reseacher over his 1942 Martin D-45. Stills paid $8,000 for the guitar, Giachetti says. “I can’t stand the thought of a guy bringing a forty year old Martin back to Japan and taking it all apart to see how it ticks,”Stills explains. “They did it with one, and put it back together, and said it sounded the same,” Stills grimaces, then laugh. “I have nothing to say. I had to outbid him.”

Stills also gives away his guitars, his latest present being a Martin 000-42 to Eric Clapton. “It was sitting around gathering dust,” Stephen states. “Eric needed an acoustic, and I had one that would fit his needs. If he doesn’t play it though, I’ll go and take it back. But he’ll understand that.

gplayercover76aOverall, both electrically and acoustically, Stills prefers the older guitars for their distinctive natures. “I don’t think they’ve built anything new that’s worth a damn since 1965,” he says. “It’s all mechanized, and it’s costing people jobs. There’s a little craftsmanship going around in the acoustic field. But factory? I mean hand-wound post, hand would coils – that makes every guitar different. Every guitar is unique. Somehow, maybe, the human oils that get on the copper (are a factor).

“I keep bass strings on my bass for two years at a time. Because I play bass so hard that I really thump it, when I get a new string, I buy some barbecue sauce and sit and rub it in. This is because it’s got to get a little funky, rusty, and greasy in there so it will start to respond. And that’s something you can’t build on a machine.

On the music scene in general, Stills feels that if he could accomplish one thing it would be to eliminate the pop star syndrome and “overt jive-sim” that plagues much of music today. “I’d like to get people back to like it was in the jazz era – appreciating musicians for their music,” he says.

“As you learn to play guitar you get to certain points where you go ‘Ohh No, I’ll never be able to do that.’ Then something else comes along and whole new vistas open up. Then you get stuck again. It’s a whole cycle that keeps repeating itslef until finally you master your instrument – but do you ever? Look at George Benson. There’s a guy who can get funky but then come right back and play jazz. A lot of people get stuck, though. If I have any advice for young dudes, it’s keep your vistas open. Try to play anything and everything you can.”


STEPHEN STILLS’ GUITARS (List from 1976 Guitar Player)

Electric Instruments / Model No.
Ampeg Upright Bass
Coral Sitar 821068
Epiphone Zephyr Deluxe 64793
D’Angelico New Yorker 2103
D’Angelico New Yorker
Fender Precision Bass 178986
Fender Precision Bass 50519
Fender Stratocaster (Lefty) 18093
Fender Stratocaster (Sunburst) 7877
Gibson Double Neck (prototype) 70001
Gibson Violin Bass 32682
Gibson Les Paul special (black) 78536
Gibson Firebird 15249
Gibson Firebird
Gibson Firebird (white)
Gibson Firebird Bass
Gibson ES
Gibson Lap Steel 227-24
Gibson Super 400 819930
Gibson Les Paul (Sunburst) 0-8087
Guild Blonde 12-string e1-0114
Guild Blue
Gretsch White Falcon 31476
Gretsch White Penguin 26330
Gretsch White Falcon
Gretsch Country Gentleman (club) 35309
Gretsch Country Gentleman 35121
Gretsch Country Gentleman 36978
Gretsch Country Gentleman (D.C.)
Gretsch Chet Atkins 23462
Gretsch Chet Atkins (orange) 35937
Gretsch Chet Atkins 25807

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