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(Credit: Jim Summaria)

Music

The legendary guitars that were gifts from Joe Walsh

@TylerGolsen

Being friends with Joe Walsh pays off. Not just because he is a legendarily gregarious figure, as can be proved by his friendships with everyone from Keith Moon to John Belushi and brother-in-law Ringo Starr, but also because Walsh is an expert gift giver. That’s especially true if you happen to be a guitar player.

Walsh got to live out any young musician’s fantasy in the late 1960s when Walsh’s band The James Gang opened a number of American concerts from Led Zeppelin. Never afraid to befriend even the most famous of rock stars, the green Walsh made a strong impression on Jimmy Page, not just with his humour but also with his guitar skills.

As he told Vulpeck guitarist Corey Wong on the Wong Notes podcast, Walsh and Page bonded over their similar setups (The James Gang were a power trio, and Led Zeppelin were “a power trio with a singer”), but Page was getting frustrated with his number one guitar. That was the Fender Telecaster with a psychedelic paint job, but Tele’s were known for their twang, not their raw power.

“Oddly enough, Jimmy Page played a Telecaster in all of The Yardbirds, and the James Gang opened for Led Zeppelin when they first came to America,” Walsh recalled. “We opened for them, and they played four or five places – one of them was Cleveland. And so I met Jimmy, and their first album had just come out, and people were just starting to discover Led Zeppelin. The word of mouth was huge, but a lot of people came to hear The Yardbirds songs because that’s all they knew.”

“So Jimmy and I became friends because pretty much that’s a three-piece band with the lead singer, and Jimmy said to me, ‘Look, The Yardbirds is great, and I played on so many records…’ He played on so many sessions! If you look up what he played on, you’ll be amazed,” Walsh added. “But he said, ‘This Telecaster ain’t cutting it for Led Zeppelin. And I don’t know what to do.’ Now, Les Pauls virtually didn’t exist in England at the time. They didn’t hit popularity yet, and they were pretty easy to find because they hadn’t been discovered – and they didn’t cost very much.”

So Walsh, who happened to be the owner of not one but two 1959 Gibson Les Pauls, was happy to hand one over to Page. “I found one in the basement of a family-owned music store; I think in Athens, OH, where Ohio University is. It was just in the basement. I just walked in another garage, and it was all boxes – and I said, ‘What do you get downstairs?’ And there was a Les Paul! And I found another one through a friend, I traded him some stuff for one. So, one I really liked and one I just was saving for a rainy day, so I gave Jimmy that one.”

That particular model of Les Paul wound up being one of the rarest and most expensive guitars of all time, so it’s incredible that Walsh had an extra one just sitting around. And it was all because Gibson had yet to properly expand to England. “After the fact, when that became the guitar for rock ‘n’ roll, the rest is history – but he said, ‘I got to get a double-coil situation and I’ve looked for Les Paul, there aren’t any in England. Do you know any way you could help me get one? Because Led Zeppelin ain’t making it with a Telecaster.'”

It would have been enough for Walsh to be the impetus for giving Led Zeppelin what became their signature sound, but Walsh actually did it again for another classic British rock band. It was once again thanks to The James Gang being a reliable opening act, as they were when The Who came to America in 1970. “He really identified with what we were doing,” Walsh told Rolling Stone in 1975. “Pete’s a very melodic player, and so am I. He told me that he appreciated my playing. I was flattered beyond belief because I didn’t think I was that good. Pete and I really hit it off. We had the same frustrations about working with a three-piece group.”

Once again, Walsh bonded with another legendary English guitar player because he was frustrated about getting a fuller sound. Walsh didn’t have any Les Pauls to hand out this time, but he had another solution: a Gretsch 6120 manufactured in the same year as the Les Paul Walsh gave to Page, 1959. “Townshend had finished Tommy and was going through the same changes,” Walsh explained. “We got along so well that I gave him the fat orange Gretsch guitar that he used on Who’s Next and Clapton’s Rainbow Concert.”

Unlike Page, Townshend wasn’t taken with his gift when he first saw it. “I opened the case, and it was bright orange, and I thought, ‘Ugh! It’s horrible, I hate it,'” Townshend recalled in a 1972 interview with Guitar Player. “I went home and went into my studio and plugged it in, and it totally wrecked me out. It’s the best guitar I’ve got now.”

“I used that guitar on every track on Who’s Next. It’s the best guitar I’ve ever had,” Townshend continued. “It’s the finest guitar I’ve ever owned; it’s the loudest guitar I’ve ever owned. It is so loud, man; it whips any pickup that I’ve ever come across. It’s maybe six or seven times louder than anything I’ve come across. If I plugged it in my amp tonight, normally I’d be working on volume six or seven, but I would work this guitar on one.”  

Pro tip for anyone who wants a great guitar: be friends with Joe Walsh. Sooner or later, if you complain about wanting a bigger sound, he just might gift you with an unbeatable six string that will give you your signature sound.