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(Credit: Alamy)

Music

The free guitar that Jack White wrote 'Seven Nation Army' on

When he was still a starving musician in Detroit during the late 1990s, a young Jack Gillis got a call from his brother. The elder Gillis owned a second-hand store with his wife and were moving locations, so they asked Jack to help them move some stuff with his truck. Jack, being an upholsterer by trade, was handy and free that day, so he journeyed over and helped them remove the items and restock.

Whether it was because they didn’t have any money or because they were family, Jack’s brother didn’t pay him for his favour. He did, however, offer Jack the ability to take whatever he could find in the store for himself. It only took a quick moment to survey the goods for the young musician to spot a Kay Semi-Hollowbody electric guitar. Jack took the guitar and called it an even trade.

The Kay was in relatively poor shape: it was old (or vintage, as a collector might claim) and had a problem of feeding back. A paper bag was applied over the body to help prevent this, but the guitar kept being naturally noisy. On top of this issue, the raising action was difficult to handle, making it tricky to play regular chords on but ideal for learning how to play slide guitar.

This was the main function of the guitar, tuned to an open tuning and used for slide songs. When Gillis met bartender Meg White and got married, he took her last name and christened himself Jack White. Meg began playing the drums, so Jack took up the guitar, giving the Kay more use as the duo adopted a blues-heavy garage style.

Early in the band’s career, the Kay got used for songs like ‘I Fought Piranhas’, but the guitar conflicted with the band’s new aesthetic of red, white, and black. With its greyish exterior, the guitar was used in the studio and largely kept out of sight while the band played on stage. That was until White wrote a riff that required the guitar’s power: ‘Seven Nation Army’.

Even though it didn’t fit their image, White concluded that no other guitar could be used, and so he began playing ‘Seven Nation Army’ on the Kay. Throughout the band’s career, the Kay guitar would be tuned exclusively for ‘Seven Nation Army’ and often only used for one song a set — but that song would go on to become the band’s most iconic number. If it wasn’t for helping out his brother and receiving an aged half-broken guitar, the world might never have gotten the biggest riff of the 21st century.