Elliot Easton

Lefty Goes to the Left Coast Part 1
Lefty Goes to the Left Coast Part 1

Last month, former Cars guitarist Elliot Easton conversed with Vintage Guitar about his experiences prior to the formation of the platinum-selling quintet that cruised out of Boston in the mid-Seventies, as well as his sojourn with that now-defunct band. This month, Easton brings us up-to-date on what he’s been up to since the Cars called it quits following the Door to Door album. He hasn’t been inactive, to say the least, and the guitarist also talked about his “southpaw perspective” (a term noted last month) on guitars.

Vintage Guitar: I’ve seen solo albums from members of the Cars, some of which were out before the band officially broke up. What about you?
Elliot Easton: I did one around ’85, before the band split; it was called Change No Change, and it was on Elektra Records. Rhino is seriously considering releasing it on CD. I co-wrote the songs with Jules Shear; he’s been a fine songwriter for other artists, as well. We’d written this huge batch of songs, just as friends, and they weren’t necessarily designed for me to sing, but I was in a position where I could do a record, so I did. It did okay; there was a single called “Wearin’ Down Like A Wheel,” and the video got medium rotation on MTV. I put together a band and toured, but Jules didn’t go out with me.

I saw your name associated with an album called The Guitars That Conquered the World.
That was something Guitar World magazine put together. It had one track each by twelve or thirteen guitar players. I contributed an acoustic guitar piece; a Bert Jansch kind of thing. It was in kind of an English folk style. I figured some of the others would take their track and blow their brains out, playing all their hot licks. No pun intended, but I thought I’d take a left turn and contribute an acoustic piece. Dickie Betts and Warren Haynes had a nice track on that album.

What prompted your move to the Los Angeles area?
Nothing really earth-shaking

(interrupting) Now that’s a bad pun!
(laughs) Aw, man. My wife and I just felt like a change. I had an experience putting an act together and getting it signed to Atlantic. I went through the whole process of making an album with Roy Thomas Baker producing. I had Stan Lynch on drums, Benmon Tench on keyboards; it was kind of a duo album with me and a singer named Danny Malone. We were called Band of Angels. We even had the artwork done, then Atlantic decided they weren’t going to release it. It was supposed to have come out at the same time as a Mick Jagger solo record.

That represented a couple of years of writing, shopping for a deal, etc., and to have it not come out really kind of put me off, and I felt like I didn’t want to start all over again from New York. I just didn’t have the desire, so Los Angeles seemed like the right move. And it was. Los Angeles has always been sort of a spiritual home to me, since I was a huge fan of the pop culture of Southern California when I was growing up. Everything from Ed “Big Daddy” Roth to surf music to cool cars. I loved all of that stuff, and I still do. Some of those things have come to fruition. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Brian Wilson. There’s not a lot of that around today, but there are a lot of people who were directly involved with it that I’ve gotten to know; the stories are great.

Are you saying that area still has an “ambience”?
It does, and you can create that ambience. If you’re driving down the P.C.H. and you put on a great instrumental record, how different is it? Just cruisin’!

If I remember correctly, you once told me that one of the first things you did when you got to L.A. was a Sam Kinison tribute.
Someone asked me to come down to a jam; it was just another opportunity for me to meet some of the local players. That’s what I did when I first got to L.A. My long-time friend Alan Kaufman – who was the roommate back in Boston that took me to see Richard & the Rabbits and works with celebrity jams at a club – and I formed an eight-piece band with a horn section and a Hammond organ. I was playing a Tele, and we were doing everything from Stax/Volt and Barkays stuff to Grant Green, Blue Note boogaloo to “Goldfinger.” Toward the end I got a lefty bajo sexto from Fender and ran it through a Vibro-King. We were called the Tiki Gods.

We’re at the age where as far as we’re concerned, Sean Connery will always be James Bond.
Absolutely. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that those movies were made while Ian Fleming was alive; he was involved with the casting.

The Tiki Gods went on until a few months ago, when I got too busy. But the list of people I got to play with was incredible: Herbie Hancock, Billy Preston, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Robby Krieger, Smokey Robinson, Tom Arnold, Gary Busey.

In one of the last “preliminary” conversations we had, you noted that you were playing with Creedence. Details?
It’s the original rhythm section, Stu Cook and Doug Clifford, a fine singer named John Tristao, Steve Gunner on keyboards and other instruments, and me. It’s called Creedence Clearwater Revisited. We’ve played a few gigs in Vegas and Reno, and a festival in Idaho. We met Col. Tom Parker in Vegas.

I’ve also been producing and doing some session work. My producing partner is Gordon Fordyce; he’s British and he apprenticed under Roy Thomas Baker. Once Gordon and Roy and some other friends took me to Liverpool while we were recording Heartbeat City. We visited places like Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, and there was a Beatles convention going on at the Adelphi Hotel; I met Gerry Marsden. I had the time of my life, and that’s how I got to be pals with Gordon. He’s a crack engineer and a good hands-on guy with computers and technology, and I’m more of a musical guy. I’ll be working with the guitar player or drummer, getting into a groove, helping them come up with hooks. So Gordon and I are a very complimentary team.

Let’s talk about your guitar collection. Quantity, rarest piece, favorite piece?
My collection is like an amoeba; it’s constantly changing shape. These days I’ve got about 50 or 60 instruments. I can name two that are both “rare” and “favorite”; it’s a toss-up because they’re both incredibly rare and wonderful guitars. I have a 1950 left-handed 000-28L that’s in museum-quality condition; it doesn’t even have a pick mark on it. I’ve also got a ’58 Tele that’s my ideal Tele: light blond, single layer white pickguard. It’s in almost the same condition as the Martin. I love those kind of Teles even more than the butterscotch, black-pickguard ones. Both of those guitars have incredible tone, as well.

To open up the “circle” a little more, I have a ’64 or ’65 Strat that’s in mint condition. It’s a better player than the Burgundy Mist one I sold a few years ago. The Burgundy Mist one was too new. The frets were still scratchy on it! John Peden photographed it; it was a “centerfold.” It even came with a white Tolex case that “creaked” when you opened it.

I have a really cool ’61 Gibson first-issue Barney Kessel with PAFs. It’s the Custom, with a spruce top, bow-tie inlays, and a brown case with pink lining. It’s got a wide, flat neck; it sounds like “a jazz guitar meets a Les Paul.” It’s a fine instrument; some people think those are ugly but I think they’re beautiful. That Kessel is quite elegant.

In the Vintage Guitars in America, Vol. 2 video, you were opining that it’s difficult to find left-handed vintage pieces.
Well, there’s certainly a fraction of what there is in “righty.” I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in a world where you can walk into any music store and pull most anything off the wall and try it (chuckles). When I walk into a music store, there’s usually nothing there for me to play. Here’s all these cool, sexy guitars, and for me, they’re all backwards.

I can’t say that I’ve ever noticed any left-handed instruments from the old Chicago-area budget manufacturers like Harmony, Kay and Valco.
As a matter of fact, I was just talking with Scott Jennings from Route 66. He just came back from the Arlington show, and he found two lefty Harmony Rockets. I’ve also seen a lefty Stratotone. There are these little “pockets” of funny things that you see in lefties. One of those companies you mentioned must have done a run of lefty electric mandolins because I’ve seen a few of them.

But when you were growing up, did you ever see something like a left-handed Silvertone/Danelectro with the amp in the case?
No, I’ve never seen a lefty Danelectro of any type.

At one time, you had a Kramer signature model guitar.
That was something that I designed with Tom Anderson, who’s a fine builder. The guy who was running Kramer at the time, Dennis Berardi, loved to hang around rock bands; I don’t know any other way to put it. He was a nice guy, and he offered me the opportunity to design my own signature instrument. I took it as a challenge to come up with something for Kramer that had more of a traditional vibe. At the time, they didn’t offer a guitar that didn’t have a Floyd Rose. So I designed a guitar with a Tele-style bridge. It was available in two models: The Tele bridge and Seymour Duncan Quarter-Pounder system with a five-way switch for a lot of sounds, or with a humbucking-single-single pickup setup with a Floyd Rose. I thought such a guitar might have some appeal to country players and roots rockers who might go for the Tele configuration.

Looks-wise, I was inspired at the time by that orange Jackson guitar Jeff Beck was playing around the time of his Flash album. I wanted something that looked “like it could have existed, but didn’t.” The pickguard on the Kramer is an example; Fender could have done that with their Tele, but didn’t.

Mick Jagger played one of the Tom Anderson-built prototypes in the “Mixed Emotions” video. Tom built fabulous guitars, and I can’t honestly say that the production guitars had the “magic” of the Anderson-built ones. That’s not to put Kramer down, but you’re talking about two completely different setups; one is an artist in a small shop, building one guitar at a time, the other is a huge factory, which by its very definition has to turn out a lot of instruments. In effect, Fender has gotten around the same potential problem by offering the Custom Shop; they don’t ask you to expect the same thing out of a Mexican-built Strat as one that Jay Black builds for you (chuckles).

Haven’t you been a Gibson clinician at times?
I have, and I still do those occasionally. I usually take a Les Paul with me. Right now, Gibson is building me a red Epi Sheraton – an American-made lefty.

In your search for vintage lefty instruments, have you ever encountered a counterfeit?
No, the only time something’s ever smelled rotten is when I’ll go into a store and the guy says he’s got a guitar that I used to own and he wants me to sign it. But when I look at the guitar, it’s something I’ve never had. That seems to happen because there aren’t too many left-handed collectors, but fortunately it’s a rare occurrence.

Are there any instruments you’re still seeking?
Yeah. May I use this interview as a forum to list three instruments?

The first guitar is one that everybody’s going to laugh about, because nobody wants them anyway: I’d love to have a Sixties Fender acoustic flat-top, like a Kingman or Malibu or Villager 12-string. One of those that were designed by Roger Rossmeisl. Some lefties were built; there was a Malibu in your magazine that I missed getting by a day. I’ve been looking for one of those forever.

I’m also looking for a clean ES-330, and an SG Standard from around ’64, like what’s seen in the “Rain” and “Paperback Writer” videos, with a long Vibrola tailpiece. Of course I’d always like to have things like Brazilian D-28s. I’ve got a ’61 now.

It sounds like you’ve got plenty to keep you busy these days, family-wise and business-wise.
Here’s hopin’! There’s a Cars anthology on Rhino that’s just been released, but now that we’ve got a baby, I’ve got to bring home the bacon.

Uh, with all due respect to your heritage, “bringing home the bacon” is a bit of a contradiction.
Well, maybe I should say we’re Reformed…(laughs).

In spite of being more or less limited in his access to classic guitars, Elliot Easton’s enthusiasm and eloquence concerning such a subject is an inspiration to other guitar lovers, left-handed or right-handed. We’d briefly conversed with Easton at numerous guitar shows, but once we were able to coordinate an interview, the wait was worth it.

Easton rocks out onstage during the 1982 Shake It Up World Tour with an early ’70s Gibson ES-355 (Mono w/Varitone!) that was not completed by Gibson until 1981. Elliot describes this guitar as “the best ES series instrument I’ve ever owned.”

This article originally appeared in VG‘s May ’96 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.