Wilco’s Nels Cline Discusses HIs Quirky Assortment of Guitars

June 18th, 2014

This is an excerpt from the all-new July/August 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, travel and guitar shopping in Tokyo, new gear and more, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

As Many Guitars: Wilco’s Nels Cline has amassed a quirky and curious assortment of guitars.

By Mac Randall | Photo by Justin Borucki

I’m really not trying to buy any more guitars,” Nels Cline says in a tone that’s not entirely convincing. “I’ve never bought anything super costly—I can’t go there—but this year I did buy a very fabulous guitar that just had to be purchased, even though it was not financially the time to do so. I think that’s probably a sign of illness. Sometimes I try to justify it by saying that the U.S. government encourages musicians to invest in their work: ‘It’s a tax deduction!’ But then I start to worry about the guitars I already own that aren’t getting played.”

Cline pauses to scoff at himself. “Oh no, I don’t care for material possessions. Not me! People are going to read this and think I’m a jerk.”

That seems unlikely, given that the magazine he’s speaking to is called Guitar Aficionado. However, a lot of people do think that Cline is one of America’s finest living guitarists. He started out as a jazz player in the Eighties, working with the likes of Julius Hemphill and Charlie Haden. But for the past decade he’s been a member of the great American alt-rock band Wilco, and this has changed the tenor and size of his guitar collection. “The guys in Wilco have become my enablers,” he acknowledges. “Mr. [Jeff] Tweedy is a very bad influence on me.”

At this point, Cline owns close to 100 instruments, a number he describes as “terrifying.” Many of them reside in a Los Angeles house that the native Californian rarely visits anymore. A dozen or so are in the Chicago loft that’s central HQ for Wilco. The rest—about 35—can all be found in the four-story 19th-century brownstone in New York’s West Village that’s the setting for today’s interview and photo shoot. Cline shares the house with three people: his wife Yuka Honda of the band Cibo Matto, singer, multi-instrumentalist, and model Charlotte Kemp Muhl, and Muhl’s longtime boyfriend Sean Lennon. Yes, that Sean Lennon.

“It’s a temporary-living situation that’s been going on for almost four years,” he says with a slight grin. “At some point, Yuka and I are going to have to find something more permanent, but this is such an amazing place. I could never afford to live in this neighborhood myself, so every morning that I wake up here, I just go, ‘Yeah! ’ I’ve loved New York ever since I was a boy, but it took me a while to make a home here.” (Cline is now 58, although looking at him—and for most people that would involve looking up, as he’s well over six feet tall—you’d swear he was at least a decade younger.)

As one might expect in a house shared by four musicians, there’s a lot of gear to be found. The drawing room/dining room space on the first floor, a classic full-building railroad construction divided in two by pocket doors, is crammed with instruments and studio equipment. Part of the screened-in back porch has been converted into a recording booth. Amps, drums, effect pedals, and analog synths line metal shelves on both sides of the room. There are some whimsical touches: an eight-foot-tall Steiff stuffed giraffe stands a tad forlornly between the front windows, and a taxidermied ring monkey lies on its side by the Bösendörfer baby grand.

Most of Cline’s gear occupies the floor and wall of the room’s northwest corner, opposite the piano, but he’s also carved out a practice space for himself toward the back, near the computer and outboard racks. That’s where you’ll find his main New York guitar, a well-worn 1959 sunburst Fender Jazzmaster, resting on a stand. Cline is, funnily enough, one of the few guitarists ever to play jazz on a Jazzmaster, and he’s famously devoted to them. He owns 12, many from the late Fifties and early Sixties. A 1961 with a new, clear finish hangs on the wall as a backup.

“I was inspired to pick up the Jazzmaster first by [Television’s] Tom Verlaine and then by [Sonic Youth’s] Thurston Moore,” he says. “I liked the look of them and the fact that you’ve got all that accessible string length below the bridge. Before I got a Jazzmaster, though, I bought a ’66 Jaguar. At the time, I didn’t know the difference between the two models, and some people told me later that I paid way too much for that guitar. But I’ve still got it, and I also have two other Jags now.”

Jerry Jones guitars make up another substantial percentage of Cline’s arsenal. He owns 10 of them, including an extremely unusual white 12-string/baritone double-neck (currently in Chicago) that he plays on the road with Wilco. “That’s a real attention-getter,” Cline notes. “Jeff loves to make fun of it when it gets pulled out onstage. He’ll say it’s trying to steal the spotlight from him.”

One of the real prizes in Cline’s New York collection—and the guitar whose purchase earlier this year he described as a sign of illness—is a weathered 1937 National Duolian that was previously owned, and decorated in striking fashion, by Curtis Rogers, a Tennessee traveling musician. Rogers painted his name on the fingerboard and added rhinestone inlays that continue up to the headstock. He also painted the face of a woman on the body underneath the strings. When TR Crandall Guitars in New York acquired the instrument a few years ago, its fretboard was so worn that it had to be replaced, and Rogers’ designs were painstakingly replicated for the new one.

“I still have the original fretboard,” Cline says. “Crandall sold it to me along with the guitar.” He slips the National’s original jute strap cord over his shoulder and starts to play. The sound is incredible, deeper and less clanky than a typical steel guitar, with each note bathed in a rich, lingering echo…

This is an excerpt from the all-new July/August 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, travel and guitar shopping in Tokyo, new gear and more, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.


  1. Posted by perry on June 18th, 2014, 18:49 [Reply]

    Hey, us and our guitars, what can ya say, what can you do, too many guitars too little time…


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