Neil LeVang

Six Strings Behind — and Beyond — Champagne Music

Neil LeVang
LeVang in ’69 with with his ’64 Fender Telecaster.

Neil LeVang was about to get a lecture.

Days earlier, the A-list studio guitarist’s new boss, Lawrence Welk, had golfed with a couple well-known singers who mentioned that LeVang had played on their sessions.

“Neil,” Welk implored in his famous German accent, “If you thought as much about this (band) as recording with all these different people, you could be my right-hand man.”

LaVang, a master of the sarcastic retort, had an instant comeback.

“Should I have my cards printed now?”

His easy laugh bursts forth as he tells that story and others covering his half-century career. Like Welk, LeVang is a rural North Dakota native. But the similarities end there. ABC’s weekly “Lawrence Welk Show” gave him such high visibility that he was the first guitar hero to a number of babyboomers. As a kid, Seymour Duncan audiotaped LeVang’s solo spots from the show (see sidebar). Nonetheless, the former jazz violinist made his greatest mark as a guitarist in Hollywood’s recording studios from the late 1950s through the late ’80s, his staggeringly diverse workload spanning all genres, including TV and film.

Regardless of their home base, great studio players tend to be a breed unto themselves, with their own codes and an uncanny chemistry. LeVang joined that elite group when network TV was evolving and stereo was becoming mainstream. The digital era was dawning when he hung it up in the early ’90s. His strength – a knack for tasteful playing – remained a constant, as did his ability to give producers and arrangers precisely what they wanted. For him, it was art, but also business. He never took his eyes off quality, excellence, or the bottom line; understandable, given his humble origins.

“I came from a Swedish family,” he says. Born on a farm in 1932, Neil Kenneth LeVang says his home town of Adams was made up of “200 people, so, you know… not much talent around there! We didn’t have electricity or plumbing, so we were… in trouble!” he laughs. “My dad had a violin and a guitar hanging on the living room wall, but wouldn’t let me touch ’em. I was very young. Dad played old-style fiddle, and my older brother, Morris, played guitar. When I was three or four years old, I was totally interested in music. And I didn’t realize at the time, but I had (perfect) pitch. And as time went on, my mom would let me take the violin down, so I learned to play it a little.

“We didn’t have electricity, but my dad worked up a battery-operated radio, and at night I could get WLS in Chicago. I’d listen to jazz players like Rhubarb Red – Les Paul – and George Barnes, and saxophone players… the greats of the day. And that’s what I wanted to play. I hadn’t even started school yet, but I knew what I wanted to be!”

LeVang began working when he was young, “candling eggs at Johnson’s Mercantile for 25 cents a crate. I worked all evening.”

In 1940, the family moved to Bemidji, Minnesota, a town of 5,000 that LeVang recalls was “humongous to me. It was like New York!” He became interested in the guitar, and at age 10, met a kid from the local high school. “He got some kids together to form a band – horns and the whole shot. He asked me to play guitar with the band, and we practiced, then got a job at a place called Shore Crest, in nearby Walker. All of a sudden, I was making $5 a night! People loved it because we were kids.”

Neil LeVang
LeVang in 1980, with his ’74 Gianninni Craviola.
By 1945, LeVang had decided to leave Bemidji for California, where a cousin worked at an aircraft plant in Riverside. After telling his family, they moved with him. Despite his guitar experience in Bemidji, jazz violin remained his main instrument, with Joe Venuti and Stuff Smith, two of the greatest, among his heroes. Like Smith, LeVang amplified his violin. Arriving for a Sunday jam at a Riverside bistro, he met Edgar Hayes and the Stardusters, a respected jazz combo led by pianist Hayes with bassist Curtis Counce, guitarist Teddy Bunn, and drummer Blinky Allen. Bunn, LeVang recalled, tuned his guitar to E-flat. His violin so impressed the band they took him to Los Angeles’ Central Avenue area, locus of a vibrant music scene. Jamming at Jack’s Basket Room, upcoming young blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon complimented his playing.

Eventually, someone directed him to a restaurant near CBS’ Hollywood radio studios, where a number of Western singers hung out, among them Jimmy Wakely and comic Smiley Burnette. LeVang assembled a combo to open Burnette’s stage shows. His guitarist was jazz virtuoso Bill Dillard, who later replaced Tal Farlow in the Red Norvo Trio before he died in a fire. “This guy was a beautiful jazz guitar player, 22 years old, and we went on the road and opened for Smiley. We had worked up some jazz tunes, some standards. I was playin’ electric fiddle and we… kicked butt!”

In Hollywood, he met singer Colleen Summers, part of the local Western duo the Sunshine Girls. She was a regular at Les Paul’s garage studio on North Carson Street even before Les renamed her Mary Ford. In 1948, LeVang joined the Western vocal group Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage as a singer. The stint lasted two years, after which he moved to Texas Jim Lewis’ band as a fiddler. During an engagement at Manhattan’s first important country music club, New York’s Village Barn, LeVang did his first recording sessions as a sideman, fiddling behind the country band the Pinetoppers, who recorded for the Coral label. His composition “Jelly Bean Rag” was later recorded by Leon McAuliffe and the Cimarron Boys.

Lewis was Seattle-bound in January of 1951, and when LeVang arrived, he took an office job at Seattle radio station KOL, working his way into a disc jockey job and later, becoming a local TV personality on KING. “I was dabbling with guitar on the side, but not as a profession,” he recalls. “I heard everything; I was a sponge.” From 1951 to ’53 he was enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, based in Seattle, and doing so well in a bureaucratic position at the port that his commanding officer urged him to stay. Attorney-politician Albert Rosselini, a future Washington Governor, helped him get into college and shoot for a law career, a notion he abandoned in 1956 by returning to Hollywood.

Switching to guitar, he wound up replacing Barney Kessel as guitarist on Jimmy Wakely’s weekly CBS radio show, playing a Gibson ES-175D. During two years attending the Westlake College of Music part-time, he learned the Schillinger System of composing and arranging. Acquiring a new Fender Pro amp launched his lifelong friendship with Leo Fender. “I loved the sound of it because it didn’t try to make sound – it [reproduced] sound. That was my thing with Leo. I was supplied with instruments, and he would come up with these country amps with a pitch only dogs could hear. The Pro was my favorite because it had a mellow sound.”

Neil LeVang
1) LeVang on the Welk show with the 1974 Gianninni Craviola and singer Ralna English. 2) LeVang with his 1930 B&D Silver Bell tenor banjo. 3) LeVang with his son, Mark, in 2008.
LeVang found work doing demos, and by ’58 had graduated to country sessions with the Sons of the Pioneers and Freddie Hart. A soundtrack date with pop orchestra leader David Rose led to a lifelong friendship and association, including working on Rose’s own orchestral recordings (among them “The Stripper”) and briefly on Red Skelton’s weekly CBS TV show, where Rose ran the band. In the fall of 1959, after touring with Gail Davis, TV’s “Annie Oakley,” he got a phone call about a job. Buddy Merrill, Lawrence Welk’s wunderkind guitarist, was going into the Army, and the band needed a replacement.

Welk’s Saturday night TV show had immense appeal to older adults enamored by his bland but melodic “champagne music,” complete with a machine pumping out bubbles around the band. For average uncritical music fans, Welk was all they needed, and even hipper musicians who deplored that music couldn’t argue with Welk’s commercial and financial successes.

There was no favorite to fill Merrill’s chair, he remembers. “They had several different guitar players (try out). Tommy Tedesco was on the week before me, so when I called into the office they asked, ‘Can you do it this week?’ I went in the week after Tommy, and I played ‘Little Rock Getaway.’ I guess I did it good,” he laughs. “He called me on Monday (imitates Welk). ‘Hello! How would you like to join our show?’ I said, ‘Let me think about it.’” He was dubious, though his band encouraged him. Finally, he talked with George Cates, Welk’s musical director, telling him, “I’ve got a good studio business starting here, and as long as tjos doesn’t limit me from doing my studio work, I don’t mind.” Cates assured him that beyond the day the show was taped, he was free to work sessions.

LeVang officially joined the Welk Musical Family around Thanksgiving of 1959. He’d remain for the next 23 years, doing occasional tours but mostly working that day a week when the show was taped.

His rationale for taking the job was mainly pragmatic, explaining, “it paid my kids’ (health) insurance and my child support,” and firmly asserts Welk was “a quarter of my total work.” He had good reason to maintain his studio schedule. The other days of the week, he worked for top arrangers like Nelson Riddle, Don Costa and Billy May. Early on, he’d become a vital cog in the musical section of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon machine, working with arranger Hoyt Curtin, which led to 15 years of more or less steady soundtrack work.

Kicking around new ideas with Leo Fender, LeVang helped him create the Fender Bass VI. He explains one early prototype thusly. “I took a Telecaster and equipped it with bass strings. He built the other one (production model), which I used.” Youtube videos show him using the Bass VI on the Welk show. He also recalls using it years later on Glen Campbell’s hit “Wichita Lineman.” Campbell was an old friend; they worked many sessions side-by-side. “They’d write parts for him, but he didn’t read, so I’d sit there alongside him and I would pencil in his stuff and I’d play in thirds or whatever.”

The Bass VI was introduced in ’61, the same year Buddy Merrill, discharged from the Army, returned to the band. Around that time, Welk decided to make other changes, delegating Cates to call the unlucky musicians. LeVang received one of those calls. Unconcerned, he took David Rose up on his offer to fill the guitar chair with the orchestra for Red Skelton’s weekly TV comedy-variety show. Cates consulted with Welk, who within an hour reversed course on Neil. A tough negotiator, LeVang wanted double union scale and doubles for playing multiple instruments. When Welk balked, LeVang reduced the double scale, but shrewdly worked out a deal that, when the smoke cleared, netted him a total 2.25 times scale. Again, he asserts, practicality motivated his thinking. “I’ve been a businessman since I was a kid,” he explains. “Let’s face it. You either make this a business, or you make it a hobby. I just feel that you do it for one reason or another: you want to kick ass or work the country club and pick up chicks – your choice, not mine.

“I’m very proud of [being] self-taught. I learned to read from violin and clarinet books, and if you can get that down, you can read anything.” In the early ’60s, he recalls, “I did a lot of things with Herb Alpert. I did the original Tijuana Brass. We were tryin’ to get a sound, so I did those up to the time of ‘Whipped Cream’ – when he formed the (recording and touring) band.”

Sessions gave him the opportunity to rub shoulders with giants. “We were doing an album with Frank Sinatra, who never rehearsed – he ‘came in.’ The band rehearsed. And one time there was an empty chair in the rhythm section, and he came over and sat by me, listening to playback. He said, ‘Hey Neil. Don’t sound bad for an old drunk, does it?’ He loved musicians.”

Sessions paid well, but also had their frantic side. “My biggest problem was makin’ it from one studio to the other,” LeVang laughs. He worked with anyone popular at the time. “I did an album with Liberace, one with Roger Williams, Eddie Fisher – the worst singer I ever recorded with – and Carol Burnett before she started doin’ TV. At one session with singer Tony Martin, Martin asked the studio be set up like a stage so he could record in a concert setting, wearing a tux.”

LeVang did extensive work on TV soundtrack sessions and, in ’65 a “Beverly Hillbillies” cast album for Columbia. Other TV work in the ’60s included two classic themes – “Green Acres” (“that’s me on first guitar playing the theme”) and Neil Hefti’s theme for “Batman.” “I did a whole bunch of things with him. I played six-string bass and also regular guitar.” Playing alongside him on the “Batman” session were two other guitar giants – Howard Roberts and Al Hendrickson.

Neil LeVang
1) LeVang on the Lawrence Welk Show in ’67, with Lynn Anderson and Buddy Merrill. 2) Neil LeVang with his early-’60s Fender VI. 3) LeVang in 1980 with his ’63 Fender King Acoustic.
He also worked extensively with other great orchestral arrangers including John Williams, Patrick Williams, Marty Paich, Artie Butler, and Henry Mancini among them, as well as his buddy Frank DeVol, known for portraying inept bandleader Happy Kyne on Martin Mull’s sitcom “Fernwood-2 Nite” (with Tommy Tedesco on guitar). “With Frank, I did ‘Brady Bunch,’ ‘Family Affair’ and several other things,” LeVang says. “He was a beautiful cat.” When the plot for “Family Affair” included a trip to Spain, he asked LeVang to record Spanish guitar solos for the soundtrack. His response was typically candid. “I said, ‘I don’t want to hold you up. But I’m not a legitimate gut-string guitar player.’” When DeVol insisted, LeVang offered to have a schooled gut-string player standing by in case he couldn’t cut it.

“I never looked at charts before the session because I didn’t want to freak myself out. I put the earphones on and opened it up. But he wrote so well for guitar, I just read the (solo) spots. Listening to the playback, I didn’t even recognize my own playing! DeVol came out and said, ‘Where did you learn to read like that?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He asked, ‘What was your original instrument? I said, ‘Violin.’ He said, ‘That explains it!’”

The rock and roll of the ’60s expanded his range of sessions, though due to overdubbing, he often recorded backgrounds, unaware of the identity of the singer or band. “At one session, this guy comes out of the booth and says, ‘Neil, you did a hell of a job on the last album!’ I said, ‘Oh… Whose album was that? He said, ‘Dino, Desi and Billy.’ We were doing the Monkees stuff. Studio musicians did the work and (the rock bands would) sit down and copy the records.” That wasn’t the case, however, with one session. “I was called to TTG studios to do an album with Frank Zappa when he was just starting out. I was working with Welk at the time, and we got through the first session, when Zappa looks at me, his hands wheelin’, and says, ‘How do you play that way? You’re “Mr. Straight Life!” I thought he was out of his mind!”

A 1971 date brought an unexpected reunion. “When I got there, they said, ‘You’ll be playing funk fills. I got my Fender and put the headset on, doin’ the fills. And after I get through with the first tune, this fella puts his hands on my shoulder. He said, ‘Don’t you remember me, Neil? I’m Spoon!’ It was Jimmy Witherspoon, who he’d met 26 years earlier on Central Avenue. “It was a kick that he remembered me.”

Some in Welk’s musical family expected LeVang to be on the receiving end of a different kick. “Everybody thought I was gonna get fired all the time.” He witnessed Welk’s penchant for mangling the English language with his famous bloopers. Once, reading from cue cards, he announced the band would play “songs from World War Eye.” Another time, Welk requested a sideman accompany an auditioning female singer, innocently asking the accompanist to, “Give this girl a good feel.” But the money was good, and he got along well with Cates, who ran the band behind the scenes. “I was in charge of the rhythm section and (George) respected my ability. I’d come in one day a week, do my gig, and get the hell out. I didn’t want to be invited to Lawrence’s for dinner.”

Clearly, that was not going to happen, given incidents like one during the band’s Lake Tahoe engagement. Accompanying the Lennon Sisters, he suddenly found Welk standing in front of him exclaiming, “Too much! Too much!” “He’s wavin’ his arms. I’m hearing him over my earphones and said, ‘Shhhh!’ and keep playin’.” Called to Welk’s dressing room later for a chewing-out, LeVang struck first. “I said, ‘Lawrence, I could hear you over my earphones, and if my mic is picking you up, it’s going out to the audience, I didn’t want you to be embarrassed.’ He said, ‘Everybody’s telling me how to run my band!’ I said, ‘No, Lawrence.’ He said, ‘You were just playing too much.’ I said, ‘I may not be the best guitar player in the world, but I’m probably one of the tastiest!’ I had to fight that ego with ego.”

At its peak, LeVang’s armada of gear gave his cartage company a considerable workout. It included the Bass VI, a Fender Precision Bass, Dobro, Gibson L-5, Fender steel-string acoustics including a King, and “several gut-strings” including a Tarrega. He can’t recall the brand of one favorite guitar, but, “I called it the Thrifty Mart because it cost $39.95, but had a hell of a good recording sound.” A Fender Twin Reverb and a ’65 blackface Pro Reverb were his amps of choice.

Neil LeVang
1) A 1960 Fender promo photo. 2) LeVang in 1952 with his first Fender Telecaster.
Along with guitars, he routinely kept four-string tenor and five-string banjos handy, tuning the tenor like a guitar because, as he says, “People didn’t know how to write for tenor banjo, so I tuned it like a guitar, so I could read (music while playing) on it, and I also played a Fender electric mandolin. I had a couple of ukuleles – tenor and a baritone. Hell, I had a little bit of everything. I played a Gibson (A-series) mandolin.”

On some early shows, he played a Fender Jazzmaster given to him by Leo, who liked LeVang’s directness. He recalls a time Fender was planning to make an electric banjo. “He had a prototype I happened to see one day, and he said, ‘What do ya think?’ Leo had a 42-foot boat, and I said, ‘If your rudder ever breaks, this would be a good replacement!’ He always wanted a straight answer.” LeVang particularly loved one axe Fender custom-made for him in the early ’60s – “a Stratocaster with curly maple. The I had them wrap the pickups so they didn’t have all those highs, and the neck was flat in the back like an old Gibson neck.”

In ’74, the Strat and some of his other instruments were stolen from Welk’s truck. “The guy transporting them from the studio went to his girlfriend’s for lunch and forgot to secure the truck. I had an L-5 stolen, along with the Stratocaster.” Also gone was tenor banjo given to him by Eddie Peabody when he appeared on Welk in ’63. “The Lennon Sisters had written him a solo, but he didn’t read.” After LeVang played the part for him, a grateful Peabody gave him the Vega he used on the show.

“When Leo sold the factory, I started playin’ other stuff,” LeVang noted. “I had an Epiphone Sheraton that I loved, and a Guild Starfire I played on the Welk show.” On occasion, he used a Music Man and a Fiesta Red Tele owned by his son, Mark, a composer and studio keyboard player in L.A. But when Fender founded Music Man, LeVang switched allegiances, playing the company’s electric guitar and HD 130 and a 115 RP amps.

His soundtrack work continued, encompassing dozens of major feature films including All the President’s Men, At Long Last Love, Valley Of The Dolls, Dick Tracy, Good Morning, Vietnam, the Disney Herbie The Love Bug series, Rosemary’s Baby and Smokey and the Bandit, to name a handful. He played his Gibson mandolin on the Godfather soundtrack. That led to his recording an album with singer Al Martino, whose bodyguard effusively praised LeVang’s mandolin playing, adding “And you’re not even Italian!” For a Judy Garland concert with the L.A. Philharmonic, he remembers, “I played gut-string, and knew how to accompany a vocalist. I played fills, and it was a very nice moment. She wanted me to do her TV show, but because of my other obligations and the Welk show, I couldn’t. Still, it was nice to be asked.”

He worked with pop and rock acts including Duane Eddy, the Fifth Dimension, the Jackson Five, Harry Nilsson, and Rosemary Clooney. He played on the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There” alongside ace session guitarist Don Peake, and did some of Michael’s and Janet’s solo material. On other sessions, he backed Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, David Clayton Thomas, Dick Dale, Lou Rawls, Neil Diamond, Al Martino, Dean Martin and Sinatra. He played on the Carpenters’ Christmas album and Phil Everly’s acclaimed Star Spangled Springer album. “I did Bing Crosby’s last album (Crosby died in 1976),” he adds. “Beautiful. He was laid back.”

Neil LeVang
1) LeVang in a U.S. Coast Guard promo photo in 1950, playing fiddle. 2) A 1952 promo photo of Texas Jim Lewis (from left) Lewis, Frank Lawver, Tex Worrell, Neil LeVang, and Jack Rivers.
He once recorded in Nashville with Brenda Lee, working alongside some of the celebrated A-Teamers with Lloyd Green on pedal steel.

LeVang’s work on the Welk show had its moments, both solo and when he teamed with Merrill, a featured and much-admired soloist on guitar and pedal steel until he departed in ’74. One youtube video shows the pair tearing up the “Green Hornet Theme” on matching Strats. LeVang also accompanied band member Peanuts Hucko (respected big-band clarinetist) on tenor banjo on the ancient jazz favorite “Hindustan.” Backing violinist Joe Livoti on the Joe Venuti-Eddie Lang instrumental “Wild Dog,” he made his Fender King sound like a jazz archtop. “I happened to be playing the bass line along with the chords,” he laughs. “I made it up as I was going along. What do I know?”

He was involved in another unusual Welk jazz project – a ’65 album with iconic Duke Ellington tenor saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Welk faced a changing world during that decade. Amid the turmoil of the civil rights movement, pressured to include black performers, he added tap dancer Arthur Duncan to the cast. When longtime drummer John Klein (who was Welk’s cousin) left the drum chair in ’76, at LeVang’s recommendation Welk hired a black drummer who worked with the band for a time. In the past, rock acts occasionally appeared with Welk (the Chantays played “Pipeline” on one broadcast), but by the ’60s the show included more rock, adapted (dumbed-down, some might say) for Welk’s aging audience.

LeVang’s cheekiness with the boss occasionally exacted a price, yet even then, he had a comeback – or two. He wrote all the charts for a (Welk) album, but then on the day of a show taping, he found a copy of the album on his music stand in the studio, and his name was conspicuously absent from the credits. Irritated, he hit the talkback button on his music stand and began reading the album credits to everyone in the control room. “I was naming all the people including (Welk’s) secretary, down the line to the guy who cleans up the stage. And Lawrence comes back just a couple minutes later and he says, ‘Neil, I notice the album doesn’t have your name on it.’ I said, ‘That’s alright. If the album’s a flop, your name is on it, mine isn’t.’ That was the relationship we had.”

Nonetheless, the show continued through the ’70s, and so did LeVang’s session work. He worked with David Rose on the soundtrack for the TV series “Highway To Heaven,” which ended in ’88. “When we did the last show, he called and said, ‘I didn’t have time to write a guitar part. Just look at the score and when you feel like it’s time to play, you play.’ It was a pleasure working with the man.” Rose died in 1990.

He even went the distance with Welk, remaining until ’82, when the 79-year-old leader, dealing with the realities of age, ended the show after a hugely popular farewell tour. Welk hosted a couple subsequent reunion shows before he died in 1992. Summarizing the relationship, LeVang reiterates that “Welk was not my career or my head or my heart. That was to pay my child support and the insurance for my kids. It was sensible to hang on to, and that was basically it. You see the (Welk) things of mine online and (think) ‘This is what the guy did.’ But that’s not what I did. I didn’t do all I could on that show, because we were limited.”

When his studio calls tapered off by the late ’80s, he was philosophical. “I had so many years, I really didn’t care,” he says. He found himself touring Japan with bandleader Billy Vaughan, who was “a sweetheart of a man” bigger overseas than in America. During those tours, LeVang did occasional solo shows. At one, he met a fan who bowed to him. “I said, ‘I’m just a guitar player. You don’t have to bow to me.’ He said, ‘No, I’m just a doctor. You are an artist.’”

What does LeVang consider himself today? “Retired, thank God! All I did was make a living. I never had to work a day in my life, and I’m proud that I had the chance to do the things I’ve done. Some were memorable.” He no longer plays, saying, “I have nothing to prove. It was a nice 40 or 50 years! It was great.”

Seymour Duncan: The LeVang Connection
“I bought my first Fender Stratocaster in 1963 because of Neil LeVang,” says Seymour Duncan, whose admiration for the L.A. studio great and Welk guitarist sparked his passion for the instrument. “I told the owner of Musicville, in Woodbury, New Jersey, that I wanted to get a Strat so I could sound like Neil LeVang.”

Duncan, a revered guitar tech even before he started his legendary pickup company in 1978, is an institution himself, his gear used and endorsed by everyone from David Gilmour and Slash to Robben Ford and Jimmy Bruno.

LeVang’s inspiration helped start it all.

Seymour’s uncle, Howard Duncan, actually pointed the way. Having hipped his nephew to Chet Atkins and Jimmy Bryant, he told him about the Welk guitar duo of LeVang and Merrill in the early ’60s. Duncan’s dad, who owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder, allowed him to record LeVang’s playing on Welk’s show every week. Duncan remembers how it affected him, particularly his performance of “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”

“He was the first professional musician I ever saw perform, and he was playing a sunburst Stratocaster with gold pickguard with white pickup covers (the guitar stolen from Welk’s truck in ’74). I watched the show every week, recording any solo Neil would take. He was my first guitar hero, along with Duane Eddy and The Ventures, who I only heard on record. It was so great to see Neil play, and watch his technique.

“I liked his playing because I could hear the melody. I basically get lessons while watching.”

Later, the two met at NAMM shows in Anaheim. “Meeting him was a great thrill. He can play so many styles of music.”

Also memorable for Duncan were the guitars LeVang played on the Welk show, including a white Jazzmaster he used when he performed “South,” with tortoiseshell pickguard and the “switch in the middle position.” He later used a sunburst Jazzmaster, again with the tortoiseshell guard. For “Green Hornet,” he and Buddy Merrill used white Strats. In ’77, he vividly recalls Neil using a three-tone sunburst Strat to perform “Wabash Cannonball.” On a performance of “Wheels” that same year, LeVang used the neck pickup on his famous Fiesta Red Tele.

Duncan and Fender’s Custom Shop have teamed to build a reproduction of the stolen Strat with the custom pickups Leo Fender wound especially for him to emphasize a more mellow tonality. Duncan has a clear strategy for recreating that sound. “I’ll make the pickups by hand, using a specific Formvar-insulated wire, and I’ll scatter-wind the coils using hand-controlled tension, magnetized and calibrated magnets, and it’ll be calibrated for the bridge, middle, and neck position. The tone will also be determined by the string gauge Neil uses.”

Other custom touches will include waxed pots and a custom wiring harness with a five-way pickup selector switch. The pickups will be calibrated for string balance and position, and the pickguard will be either anodized or single-layer white, depending on Neil’s preference. The pickguard will have a ’50s control plate.”


This article originally appeared in VG December 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.