Kenny Olson

The Detroit Fender Bender
The Detroit Fender Bender

If you’re talkin’ Detroit rock, vintage guitars, muscle cars, then you’re talkin’ Kenny Olson. VG met Olson at the Detroit Guitar Show, and it didn’t take long before he was talking about old Strats and Teles. That seemed natural for a Fender-endorsed lead guitar player, but for Olson it was more. He loves the old stuff.

In 1994, Olson was working out of L.A. Then the big earthquake hit, and his apartment was annihilated. Luckily, he was on the road, but the quake caused a quick retreat to his native Detroit. Fate followed. There, he received a call from Bob Ritchie – the up-and-coming Kid Rock. Rock needed a good guitar player, and Olson needed a good front man. They hooked up and after a few years, major good things started happening. In ’98 Kid Rock released the critically acclaimed Devil Without a Cause, which sold more than nine million copies, spurred by monster hits “Bawitdaba,” “Cowboy,” and “Only God Knows Why.”

Vintage Guitar: Was there music in your family?
Kenny Olson: I have aunts who are singers, and my dad and his little brothers all had guitars. My whole life, there was always a guitar by the fireplace – an old Gibson acoustic, or a Martin. And there were always great records around the house.

What was your first guitar?
My aunt gave me my first guitar, and I don’t even remember what it was. Then I sold my bike to a friend and I went out and bought a Fender Candy Apple Red Mustang, with the white racing stripes and matching headstock. I bought that at Rock City, in Royal Oak, on Woodward Avenue. I used to go there all the time, and they had old flametop Les Pauls, and korina Flying Vs. I saw all of that stuff when I was a kid. They always had all these cool custom-color Strats. I was growing up in Detroit, loving old muscle cars, and seeing these cool vintage guitars all checked up in these really cool colors. I was drawn to that.

The first amp I got was from a friend of the family – an old ’65 Fender Princeton Reverb. I use to take it over to my buddy’s house and jam. I kind of lucked out, having a Fender Mustang and an old Princeton.

From that point on, my main guitar was always vintage. I had a couple of things as a kid. That was an era when you almost had to have a Les Paul, and I had a late-’60s black beauty (Gibson Les Paul Custom), which I wish I still had. As a kid, they told me a lot of those Gibson bodies in the late ’60s were leftover bodies from the ’50s. This one was cool, it was worn on the corner. But I was an idiot and got rid of it.

I had lots of cool old Strats I wish I’d never gotten rid of. But I still have my ’64 – an old sunburst that has half the paint gone. It was my main guitar at the start of my professional career. I got it at the Ferndale Guitar Exchange, where I was working right out of high school. There were a lot of guitars in there, and they took it on trade. I made them hang onto it until I found a way to buy it. They eventually gave me a great deal and I bought it in ’86 or ’87. It’s been with me through ups and downs. I had it when I was living in L.A., when I was staying house-to-house with sketchy friends in the industry. I’ve been around every walk of life there is. I used to put chains on my guitar case so I’d know when someone was trying to grab it or steal it. If people knew half the stuff I’ve been through…it wasn’t always pretty. I’ve seen it all.

You appreciated vintage guitars very early in your career?
I got to the point were I could tell a Strat from the logo, the contours, the neck, the finish, the whatever – from 10 feet away. In the instrument itself, it’s that tone. It takes a certain kind of player to be able to play one right. None of my guitars are set up to play great. I like high action, I like to fight it. When I was a kid, I forced myself to use heavier strings. I don’t have anything really heavy, not like Stevie Ray Vaughan. In the last two and a half years, we’ve done around 550 shows.

How did Fender contact you about becoming an endorser?
There are a lot of great guitar players out there. Some of these bands don’t really have a guitar fixture kind of person in the band that actually plays lead solos in every song. I knew Alex Perez (Fender Artist Relations/Custom Shop). I met him early on through a friend of mine.

I lucked out because I was going to hold out. Different companies came to me about an endorsement. Ernie Ball is the first company that ever endorsed me. I waited for the right endorsement. For Gibson, or any of these huge companies that came to me, it’s like, “I play a Strat or Tele.” I’m kind of stupid because I’d just rather make a lot of money and go out and buy a Fender Strat or Tele. It’s who I am. But I like a lot of other old guitars. The thing that’s neat about the Custom Shop is they have the old machines, from the ’50s and ’60s plant. They have the old jigs and everything. For the first one they made for me, over two years ago, I told them I wanted a 1967-ish era neck – kind of big, not as thin as a 1962, and I wanted the fat headstock, in a certain color. I’ve already retired a couple, like the ones I played at Woodstock, or at other special performances. They’ve been everywhere and gotten a little beat. I’ve put them with my ’64 because they’re great guitars.

Do you tell the Custom Shop what you want?
They’re all kind of unique. I used a Seymour Duncan Little ’59 in the bridge, and I wire the last tone control like the coil split, so I can slowly dial in that P-90 rock tone. I have a Tele they made for Keith Richards. They made him a couple of them, and they sent me one. It’s basically identical to his guitar. I had a Strat pickup put in mine. It has a one-piece swamp ash body they aged a little bit, but it is pretty much beat up from me. That’s a cool guitar, it’s the Tele I use on the road. They’re making me a Sherwood Green one right now. I have a Sherwood Green Strat I used for a couple of years on the road, and it just aged beautifully. They use all nitrocellulose lacquer on my guitars. A guitar with a nitro finish is like a good pair of red-tag Levis – you know it’s going to fade right.

My main guitar is a Fiesta Red ’67 reissue Strat the Custom Shop made for me. That’s my favorite guitar, my ’64 and my Fiesta Red. It has been in a lot of magazine articles we’ve done, and a lot of photo shoots. I used it at Woodstock. I love that guitar, and it’s the first one Fender gave me. I have the Sherwood Green one I love, too. It has a big old fat ’60s C neck. Those are the two main ones. I use 11s on those guitars and tune to E flat.

A friend of mine works in advertising at Ford Motor Company, and the Chrome Mustang Strat is number 4 of 35 made for the anniversary of the Mustang. The Custom Shop made it, and it’s real chrome. It has knobs from the dashboard of a ’64 Mustang. It’s a cool-sounding guitar. When we did the “American Bad Ass” video, I wanted to use one of the Harley guitars, but Fender didn’t have any left, so they told me about how they made one for Ford. I love Mustangs – I’m a musclecar freak – and I’m from Detroit!

What about the black Strat?
That’s the main workhorse, and it’s kind of a mutt. The Custom Shop rebuilt the whole thing; the body was originally sunburst, and we made a reissue neck for it. We changed the pickups.

I had another ’68 Strat that was sunburst, then and shot black. The Custom Shop re-created that guitar using a ’67 body.

What pedals are you using?
It’s pretty minimal. Onstage I use two CryBabies, they’re the first thing I go through. One is an old Jim Dunlop, like that old Jimi Hendrix old-school Thomas Organ Vox wah. And the next one is a 535Q. And then I go into a Menatone Blue Collar – I’ve never seen anybody else use one. Next pedal is a Fulltone Full-Drive – I have a bunch of those. I met Mike Fuller in L.A. when he was working at Voltage Guitar Shop. We were talking about old pedals, and he sent me a Full-Drive when he was making them for Robin Trower, Keith Richards, and Billy Gibbons. Then I go into a tremolo pedal, then a Uni-Vibe, and sometimes an octave pedal.

I love feedback. My pedalboard is always set for feedback at the flip of a switch. I like having that option.

What amps do you use?
Behind the stage I use ’65 Twin Reverb reissues running clean, and for dirty I have the Sunn Model Ts. I need the Twin Reverbs for “Only God Knows Why” and all the clean rhythm stuff. A lot of time for dirty I’ll use the Fulltone or Menatone through the Twin. A lot of times when I go to dirty, it’s actually the Twin. The Sunns sound really cool, too. When I was at the Fender Custom Shop I noticed a Sunn Model T and I said, “You guys are making these again?” I’d never seen one.

We have an old Marshall Bluesbreaker reissue combo in a roadcase. Whether it’s my amp or Bob’s amp, whoever’s amp breaks down, its like our little ace in the hole. Two or three shows a year, one of us has to use it. It sounds great clean and dirty. That’s a kickin’ amp! I love Marshalls, but my philosophy is, “This amp has a great Marshall tone,” or “This amp has a great Fender tone.” I’ve never heard an amp that can do a great Fender tone and a great Marshall tone.

In the studio I use a Fender Deluxe Reverb a lot. It’s a ’67 – the last-year blackface. It’s a really cool amp I’ve used for years in the studio. It has a Celestion Vintage 30.

I have a Fender Pro Reverb I use a lot in the studio. It’s a late-’60s silverface, hard-wired amp. It has not been modded. It has less wattage than a Twin, so you can crank it. When you put it with a 4×12, it’s real rockin’.

I like using different amps – I pretty much don’t use the same amp on any song on any record. That’s the fun part.

There are certain things I’ve always collected; I’ve always loved old Marshalls and old Fender amps. I’ve got a lot of old amps. On Devil, I did that whole record with vintage amps – Supros, Voxes, Marshalls, Fenders.

I have an old Marshall 100-watt ’69 Super Bass. I’ve had a lot of good-sounding ones. I had a ’68 plexi that Leslie West used to have. After I sold it, I found out it was Leslie’s old head, then I found out some of Leslie’s old heads were Jimi’s old heads. The ’69 Super Basses sound better for guitars than do the Super Leads. The Super Leads, the old plexies I have, I’ll have modded to be just like a Super Bass. It takes about four solder joints, and it’s a Super Bass!

I have an old Hiwatt cab with the old Fanes, that sounds great, too. Before I was with Fender and Sunn, when Naylor was still in business, I used a Naylor Super Drive 60. I loved that amp too, especially being made in Detroit.

How about acoustic guitars?
I have a Gibson ’67 Southern Jumbo my dad gave me. It’s a cool guitar, with bearclaw spruce, tobacco-finish top, and cherry red sides and back. There are a lot of unusual guitars around Michigan.

Do you give much thought to the vintage guitar market?
I’m probably out of the loop now. Most of the stuff I have kind of fell in my lap, like I was meant to have it. Anything I hold onto is sentimentally valuable. I have a whole batch of the Custom Shops, quite a few vintage pieces, and a couple mutts. One is a 1960 body, blue painted over, with a ’62 neck. That guitar has been through hell and back. It has cracks in the neck pocket. That one and my ’64 did a lot of the Devil record.

I have a late-’60s Strat, too. I like the big headstock ones. They look and sound cool, and I think the headstock affects the tone a little. On that particular old Strat, the pickups are kind of weak, but they actually sound cool. They give you a kind of weird, off-the-wall thing.

I like old Gibson acoustics. I have that old Gibson Southern Jumbo and a Hummingbird. I like Martins, but I’ve never owned one; my uncle has a couple, but I wasn’t hip.

I get paranoid about certain things; I’ve had guitars, like a Firebird, that broke so many times, and that made me lean toward Fenders because I could replace the neck. That Firebird is the coolest, but it’s worthless because it has been broken so many times it has dowel pins coming out of everywhere.

It sounds like you talk with a lot of the other stars and players, and you talk vintage with them?
True players really appreciate the old stuff. I’ve hung out with a lot of the guys, and they don’t know or care much about their newer stuff. But they love their old stuff! Like Joe Perry; I always admired him as a player, and to meet him is super cool. And he’s no different than a lot of guys who go to guitar shows. They love talking shop about old guitars. You meet a guy like Joe Perry, or anyone you meet, and you start talking about vintage guitars and they say, “Oh you ought to see what I have at home!” It’s a big topic.

And it’s the same with amps. Guitar players are always in search of the almighty tone. Every amp I’ve had for a while sounded neat, and the next night it’s not cuttin’ it. Even that old Super Bass Marshall. One night you turn it on it just sounds amazing, and the next night its like, “Uuuuuh.”

What vintage guitars would you like to own in the future?
For the most part, I’m a Strat man. But I love a Tele, too. There’s nothing like the searing sound of Tele players like Roy Buchanan, Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, and Keith Richards. I have to have Teles around for recording.

I have a lot of Stratocasters right now, old ones and Custom Shops. And a Mexican one – I love that guitar! We were going to do a European tour some time ago, and I didn’t want to take a Custom Shop or a vintage guitar, so I asked the Custom Shop, “Can I try one of those sunburst Mexican Strats?” They sent it, I changed the pickups, and it’s a great-sounding guitar.

I had a ’61 Fiesta Red Strat I sold, unfortunately. I’d like to find another one of those, or I’d really like a Sherwood Green. I picture myself having a few more. My Custom Shops are done that way.

I mainly want guitars that I need when I’m recording. I’d like to find some really clean Strats and conserve as much American history as I can.

But I already have my favorite guitar.

David Allan Coe (left) with Olson. Olson and his workhorse Strat, painted black over the original sunburst – very ’60s Fender! Photo by Gil Hembree.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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