2014 Readers’ Choice Awards

2014 Readers’ Choice Awards
Readers’ Choice Awards
Illustrations by Sean Thorenson.

Since 1990, VG has asked its writers and readers to choose inductees to the magazine’s Hall of Fame – players, innovators, and instruments. Each year, hundreds of votes have been tallied via the magazine’s traditional written ballot, while hundreds more have voted at VintageGuitar.com. This year, we are happy to announce the launch of the Vintage Guitar Readers’ Choice Awards, which will include the 2014 inductees to the VG Hall of Fame as well as the readers’ selection for Album of the Year and a new category – Artist of the Year – both chosen based on artists and recordings featured in the magazine between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014.

2014 Players
32% Johnny Winter
26% James Burton
21% Michael Bloomfield
17% Peter Green
4% Richie Sambora
2014 Innovators
35% Randall Smith
32% Howard Dumble
22% Nat Daniel
12% Ned Steinberger
2014 Instruments
37% Fender Princeton/Reverb
25% Ibanez Tube Screamer
24% Gibson ES-175
19% Gibson Explorer
2014 Albums of the Year
41% Eric Clapton & Friends, The Breeze: An Appreciation of J.J. Cale
21% Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Hypnotic Eye
18% Eric Johnson, Europe Live
12% Jack White, Lazaretto
8% Black Keys, Turn Blue
2014 Artists of the Year
30% Joe Bonamassa
23% Derek Trucks
10% Bill Kirchen
10% Eric Johnson
10% Leslie West
9% Kenny Burrell
5% John Scofield
3% Ben Harper

Readers’ Choice Awards
Johnny Winter: Courtesy Johnny Winter Archives/Michael Weintraub.

Johnny Winter
2014 Player
One of the most influential guitarists in the history of blues, rock, and blues-rock, the story of Johnny Winter reads like a movie script; born and raised in a rural Texas town, one of two brothers with albinism, music helped him gain social acceptance and ultimately paved his path through a life replete with every stereotypical up and down of a rock star.

Winter first heard blues music as a child, when his family’s hired help would tune their radios to blues stations. Enthralled, he set aside the ukulele on which he’d been tinkering and picked up a guitar. At 17, he went to see a performance by B.B. King. Not satisfied to simply sit and watch one of his heroes, he talked his way into jamming onstage with King, and the mostly-black crowd gave him a standing ovation.

A few years later, a jam with Michael Bloomfield at a Chicago blues club led to a major-label recording contract, followed by a spot on the bill at Woodstock, jams with Jimi Hendrix, and even a fling with Janis Joplin. Aside from his career onstage, Winter famously helped shine light on the career of Muddy Waters when, after Waters’ label folded in ’77, Winter helped him sign to Blue Sky Records and produced three Grammy-winning albums for him.

Always a top-notch live draw in North America and Europe, he headlined many of the world’s best-known blues and rock festivals. Supremely influential, he was, is, and likely always will be cited by players of every ilk and age.

Throughout his career, he played a Gibson ES-125, an early SG, a Les Paul goldtop, National Tricones and Duolians, an Epiphone Wilshire, Fender Mustang, Fender XII (with just six strings), custom guitars by Steve Erlewine and Dean Zelinsky, and others, however, the image ingrained with most fans is Winter playing the fabled ’64 Firebird V acquired for $225 in 1970 from St. Louis dealer Ed Seelig.

In a cover feature on Winter in the July ’14 issue of Vintage Guitar, Sonny Landreth told author Dan Forte, “He had a raw edge like nobody else, that came from such a deep place. And for me, his interpretation of the blues just seemed so natural. It was real special how he just sort of hurdled through space when he played solos. There’s nobody that sounded like that. I really admired how he filled up space when he was doing the real kinetic, fast, furious licks, and then he would offset that by leaving a lot of space – and with a three-piece band. There’s so many ways you can understate a melody or a line.”

Of Winter’s induction to VG’s Hall of Fame, Landreth added, “I can’t think of anyone who deserves this honor more. Johnny’s voice and guitar floored me, along with an entire generation in the late ’60s, and have been a lasting inspiration ever since. A true legend, he will be remembered as one of the very greatest blues rock musicians of all time.”

ZZ Top guitarist and fellow Texas legend Billy Gibbons said Winter “stands as another cornerstone” of influence. “Johnny and his groundbreaking guitar interpretations of the American art form known as the blues remain solidly influential, experienced with a wide range of stylistic techniques to the enjoyment of many. His continual refinement of the recorded works by all sorts of blues players often leads the listener to observe his remarkable accomplishments of creating and re-creating the sound of the artform with his unrelenting playing throughout his illustrious career. One thing is certain, Johnny Winter loved his guitar and never strayed from digging deep into various ways of delivering some soulful sounds. If we leave with anything by Johnny, it’s the understanding of his upfront dedication to doing one important thing; play it ’til you say it. And play it he did.”

“Johnny was profoundly talented and had a unique style that was all his own,” added bassist Tommy Shannon, who played with Winter in the late ’60s, including during the recording his first three albums. “There was just no one like him. I was honored to be his friend and to be able to play with him.”

“I first saw Johnny Winter in 1969 at the Newport Pop Festival in Los Angeles,” recalled Howard Leese, who was a member of Heart for 22 years beginning in 1975, and today is guitarist in The Paul Rodgers Band and Bad Company. “He was fresh out of Texas, and guitar players were already talking about him. He took the stage wielding a Fender Mustang, and proceeded to devastate the crowd with his energetic playing and singing. He was a true Texas Tornado – so exciting. I remember him using five different tunings, all on the Mustang. I had never seen anything like that. Hendrix closed the show.”

Winter was active until his passing, and died July 16, 2014 while on a tour stop in Switzerland.

Vintage Guitar Readers’ Choice Hall of Fame 2014 Player
James Burton

James Burton
2014 Player

The life and career of James Burton isn’t readily summarized or categorized. From creating one of the most distinctive guitar licks in history (for Dale Hawkins’ recording of “Suzie Q”) to backing the first pop star on television (Ricky Nelson) then being hand-picked by Elvis Presley for the TCB Band prior to his late-’60s re-emergence, the reserved kid from rural Louisiana made much from little.

Born to and raised by parents of modest means who sacrificed much so their son (the fourth of their five children) could get his first good guitar, his ear for music developed thanks in part to KWKH radio in Shreveport, which regularly played songs by Chet Atkins, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddly, Elmore James, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and others. Naturally gifted, he learned guitar by playing along, and along the way developed his now-famous hybrid style of picking, using a straight pick and a fingerpick on his middle finger.

After recording “Susie Q” when he was just 16, Burton’s career took off. He parlayed a gig on “Louisiana Hayride” into a spot in Bob Luman’s band, then in the house band on “Town Hall Party,” then with Ricky Nelson’s band, followed by turns with Glen Campbell, Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, the Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and on and on. In ’68, Elvis called, and after his passing, Burton backed Emmylou Harris before doing likewise for John Denver.

In all, Burton’s discography includes more than 350 albums, hundreds of singles, and a bevy of other recordings. Amongst guitar players, no name is more revered, and though proof can be offered in dozens of ways, amongst six-stringers it’s borne out in the fact that he has not just one signature-model Fender Telecaster, but a series of signature Telecasters!

In 2002, he was inducted to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with none other than Keith Richards giving the address.

“When you hear any number of guitar heroes play, whether you realize it or not, you are hearing James Burton,” said country super-picker Brad Paisley. “In addition to the countless iconic recordings and classic guitar parts he personally played, almost every Tele player since should pay royalties for borrowing from James.

“A few years back, I recorded a song with seven Telecaster greats for a record I was doing, and had the honor of including Mr. Burton. Everyone was stellar, but James started playing and instantly, it was as if you could see the foundation of the building. He’s still just as inventive, just as unique as he was when standing behind Elvis or Ricky Nelson. I just love his sound, his spirit, and his creativity.

“Thanks, James, for making Telecasters so cool. More specifically, for actually managing the impossible feat of making paisley Telecasters cool. I, for one, don’t know where I’d be without you.”

“James is one of the main guys who influenced me to play a Telecaster,” added multi-genre guitarist John 5, with whom Burton has formed a close bond in recent years. “He is the pioneer of the instrument and a true inspiration.”

Today, at age 75, Burton remains very active, touring, running a recording studio, helping educate future musicians via the James Burton Foundation, and even planning a car museum in his home town of Shreveport, Louisiana.

VG Readers’ Choice Hall of Fame 2014 Instruments
1966 Fender Princeton: VG Archive.

Fender Princeton Reverb
2014 Instrument

In concept, if not form, the Fender Princeton was the first “lunchbox” amp. A modern term that describes the every-builder-is-doing-one concept of an amp in a very small cabinet and offering very “manageable” levels of output volume, the premise harkens to the earliest days of electrification of the guitar, when the very first amplifiers were physically small and were “loud” only in comparison to an unamplified guitar!

Introduced in 1946 as part of Fender’s three-model line collectors came to know as the “Woody” amps, the Princeton and its brethren, the Deluxe and Professional, had handsome wood cabs, fine casework, and grillecloths that added a splash of color aided by chromed-metal slats that lent an aesthetic punch while protecting the speaker.

Sold as a set with the Princeton steel guitar, the original Princeton amp was aimed straight at the beginning player; very basic, it had no controls (the guitar had a Volume knob) and a circuit that operated in Class A mode with just three tubes (6SL7 in the preamp, a 6V6, and a 5Y3 rectifier) that produced its 4.5 watts output through an 8″ speaker.

VG Readers’ Choice Hall of Fame 2014 Instrument Fender Princeton Reverb
1950s Fender Princeton “TV-front”: VG Archive.

The Princeton’s specs and status changed slightly in 1948, when Fender introduced the Champion line to supplant the Princeton as the student-model amp. Helping mark its upward mobility, it was given a control panel with Volume and Tone knobs and dressed in the company’s new tweed Tolex covering. In ’53, its preamp tube was replaced with a 12AX7, and its control pots were moved from the grid of the power tube to between stages in the preamp tube. For a brief time, a choke was added to the power-supply filter. In ’56, it was given a larger cabinet.

Major changes came with the ’61 model year, when the Princeton’s circuit was dressed with tremolo and given a second (glass-housed) 6V6 fixed-biased power tube running in Class AB push/pull configuration, along with a 10″ speaker to cope with the additional output (which was bumped to 12 watts). Through the ensuing years, it glided through tweaks big and small, including various era-defining changes in circuit (and face-plate colors, from brown to black to silver). In ’64, the addition of reverb resulted in a name change to address the technicality (and aid marketing). The smallest amp in Fender’s line to get both effects, the Princeton Reverb quickly gained an appreciative following, especially with studio pros.

Amongst many players today, the vintage Princeton has supplanted the Deluxe as the “favorite little Fender,” and any guitarist who overlooks its sonic virtues runs the risk of missing out.

“The blackface Princeton Reverb’s tone and output level, along with its feature set, helped to make it the perfect studio amp for many occasions, where session guitarists found it easily achieved that fabled sweet spot without wrecking expensive tube or ribbon mics,” said Dave Hunter, VG’s resident amp profiler and author of several books on the topics of amps, effects, and guitars. “But, it’s also loud enough to cut many gigs with a reasonable drummer, as Tele ace Jim Campilongo will tell you, or can be miked up live to sound superb at any volume.”

Coincidentally, Mesa-Boogie founder Randall Smith used a Princeton as the basis for his now-famous prank on guitarist Barry Melton.

“We are pleased that the Princeton Reverb has been chosen for VG’s Hall Of Fame,” said Shane Nicholas, Director of Product Development for Fender Amplifiers. “Whether you’re talking about a 50-year-old collectible or one of today’s popular ’65 and ’68 [reissue] models, the small-but-mighty Princeton Reverb is a favorite tone machine for countless guitarists from all walks of life.”

VG Readers’ Choice Hall of Fame 2014 Innovator Randall Smith
Randall Smith during the R&D phase of the Mark Five amp, 2009. Smith in his shop at Lagunitas in 1979, installing the speaker on a MkII-A. Photos courtesy of Mesa Engineering.

Randall Smith
2014 Innovator

A partner in a small guitar/amp repair shop housed in a former grocery store (his workbench in the meat locker – presumably with the coolers turned off), things got heady for Randall Smith one day in 1967, when, as a practical joke, he took a Fender Princeton belonging to Barry Melton (of Country Joe and the Fish) and turned it into a seriously practical amp by stuffing it with the circuit, transformers, and 12″ JBL speaker from a tweed Fender Bassman. Melton, likely expecting little from his timid Princeton beyond less-scratchy pots, instead was greeted with a face full of powerful – and stage-worthy – tube tone.

Rather than enjoy a good chuckle and simply shuffle back to his bench, Smith used Melton’s amp as a launch pad; from ’67 to ’70, he built more than 200 of his reworked Princetons before Fender started asking why he was ordering so many transformers.

Smith then shifted his focus to building amps of his own design, moving into a new shop he called the “Tone Shack,” a dog-kennel-cum-workshop, where he hand-made nearly every part, including acid-etching circuit boards in his kitchen sink, wiring, building cabinets, and punching sheet metal for chassis.

A major piece of inspiration struck when a performer named Lee Michaels asked Smith to build a device to push his super-clean Crown amps to distortion. Smith designed a self-contained 12AX7-driven circuit to serve as preamp, and gave it three Gain controls to alter its output at different points in the circuit. Michaels loved the device, which was housed in a small dovtailed-wood cabinet with (by his request) a wicker cane grille that give it a mellow, tropical look to match his surroundings in Maui.

The “woody” look and “cascading gain” became distinctive features of Smith’s early amps, which produced 60 or 100 watts of 6L6-driven output through one of two input jacks – Input 2 accessed a “normal” gain sequence based on classic Fender circuitry, while Input 1 preceded that circuit with the overdrive gain stage and additional Gain control, all running through a 12″ speaker (typically made by Altec-Lansing). One of the first to play it was Carlos Santana, who, when he plugged in and began ripping, paused long enough to tell Smith, “That thing really boogies!” Combined with the name Smith was using for his sideline business rebuilding Mercedes-Benz engines – Mesa Engineering – the Mesa Boogie amp was born. As he developed other amps, the original design became known as the Mk I. Keith Richards and Steve Miller were early adopters.

The Mark II version was the first dual-mode channel-switching amplifier where gain and volume could be independently set for both lead and clean modes, selected via footswitch. Its design required Smith to re-work the circuit, swapping stage locations, which in turn made it tricky to get reverb to both gain structures.

In the four decades since, Smith has continually refined and expanded the Mesa line of amps to include nearly 20 variants for guitar, seven for bass, and a host of cabinets, effects, tubes, and speakers. His company remains happily rooted in Petaluma, California, 30 miles from the original Tone Shack.

VG Readers’ Choice 2014 Album of the Year The Breeze: An Appreciation of J.J. Cale, Eric Clapton & Friends
Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale: David McClister.
The Breeze: An Appreciation of J.J. Cale, Eric Clapton & Friends 2014 Album of the Year
The Breeze: An Appreciation of J.J. Cale, Eric Clapton & Friends

The Breeze: An Appreciation of J.J. Cale, Eric Clapton & Friends
2014 Album of the Year

Writing in the January ’15 issue, VG music editor Michael Dregni paid worthy tribute to Eric Clapton’s tribute to singer/songwriter J.J. Cale.

As Dregni points out, Clapton had done something similar in 1994 with From The Cradle, an ode to his electric-blues heroes, as well as with the later albums Me and Mr. Johnson and Sessions For Robert J. All three were close-to-the-cuff efforts. With The Breeze, however, EC let other artists (Mark Knopfler, David Lindley, Derek Trucks, Albert Lee, Willie Nelson, John Mayer, Doyle Bramhall II, Reggie Young, and others) meld the music, citing his ability to get “inside the playing of others with incredible, chameleon-like exactitude.”

With this set of songs and musical pairings, the listener is treated to Clapton shifting from style to style, helping the others interpret Cale’s concepts, and moving past what we have heard before from him.

The Breeze was offered as a standard CD and, for the devout, a deluxe package in a clamshell box with Cale’s Harmony Sovereign on the cover, a second CD of Cale songs, digital copies on a USB flash drive, high-quality photos of Cale, and a book with liner notes by VG Editor at Large Dan Forte. Stunningly, the album did not receive a Grammy nomination.

“People are unaware of how important Cale is in the tree of the musical history of America and the world,” Clapton said of the project. “The effect he’s had on people in a very subtle way, in the way they sing and play guitar and make records, is something I needed to share.”

VG Readers’ Choice 2014 Artist of the Year Joe Bonamassa
Joe Bonamassa: Rick Gould.

Joe Bonamassa
2014 Artist of the Year

Up-and-coming guitar stars could do far worse than take a few cues from Joe Bonamassa.

The first player to win VG’s “Artist of the Year,” Bonamassa and his guitars were the centerpiece of the June ’14 issue. One of the lucky few who get to gather vintage instruments and amps as professional acquisitions, he is renowned not only for the instruments he has gathered, but the fact he makes them earn their keep in the studio and on the road.

The product of a musical household with a vintage-instrument-dealing father, he literally grew up around guitars. His interest in and love for the instrument have always run very deep, and by the time he was 12, he was proficient enough to open several shows for B.B. King.

While Bonamassa is fully aware that in many respects, he lives a guitarist’s dream life, make no mistake – what Joe has, Joe earned. In an era when the real musicians of the world are largely responsible for recording, distributing, and commercially supporting their own music, he epitomizes the nose-to-the-grindstone attitude required to be successful in the 21st century. Proof lies right there on the merch page on his website, which offers a glimpse at what it takes to make it when your name isn’t TayTay or Beyoncé – record a lot, tour a lot (making sure to hire crews to produce high-end video and sound), and get creative – maybe offer a bobblehead doll or two). For example, in late 2013, he released a four DVD/Blue-Ray set that exemplifies his work ethic; the shows for Tour De Force – Live In London were recorded over a six-day span at different venues, each spotlighting a different band and songs, and repeating none of the material.

In recent years, Bonamassa has been the recipient of numerous accolades, including a Grammy nomination, a Blues Music Award nomination for Best DVD, 11 #1 albums on the Billboard blues charts; five straight selections as “Best Blues Guitarist” and one for “Best Overall Guitarist” in Guitar Player’s annual Readers’ Choice Awards, and recognition as Billboard’s #1 Blues Artist.Beyond performing and recording, his duties include heading his own record label, J&R Adventures, co-hosting a weekly internet radio show where he talks about music and guitar, and overseeing the non-profit Keeping The Blues Alive Foundation he started to promote music education in schools.

VG Readers’ Choice Awards history:


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