This is an excerpt from the all-new JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story, plus features on Gary Clark Jr. and his guitar collection, Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s 1966 Fender Telecaster, Rudy Pensa’s collection of the world’s finest archtop guitars, the guitars and amps of Ratatat’s Mike Stroud, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.
SMOKING GUNS: The weapons of choice for Blackberry Smoke frontman Charlie Starr include both vintage and contemporary boutique gear.
By Alan di Perna | Photos by John Fulton
Is the Georgia-based band Blackberry Smoke really the new Great White Hope for southern rock?
Their newest album, Holding all the Roses, is certainly packed with forthright blue-collar songcraft and gregarious guitar riffs that roll like a crisp, clear mountain stream off the fretboard of lead guitarist/singer and tunesmith Charlie Starr. However, the band’s rootsy approach—embracing everything from Stonesy swagger to interludes of nimble bluegrass picking—is actually too diverse to squeeze into any single generic pigeonhole. But still, when a musical patriarch like Gregg Allman comes right out and says, “That band is gonna put southern rock back on the map,” the pronouncement does carry a certain amount of weight.
Starr is ambivalent about this kind of talk himself. “I don’t like being compared so heavily to other bands,” he says. “We didn’t set out to be the next Lynyrd Skynyrd, although I truly and deeply love that music, and there are certainly worse things to be compared to. But the world already has a Lynyrd Skynyrd. Why would it need another one?
“But if people mean that we’re carrying on a tradition, I’m fine with that. Personally, when I look at that music I see freedom. The Allman Brothers, Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, Blackfoot… They all sounded different from one another, and they were all were musically adventurous. They didn’t stick to the three-minute song rule, which, for a guitar player is heaven—the freedom to stretch out a little bit.”
Growing up in LaGrange, Georgia, Starr was steeped in the American roots music tradition from an early age. His father was a hobbyist bluegrass player who passed his enthusiasm along to his son. “As far back as I can remember, there was always a guitar around,” Starr recalls. “My dad would play all the time, so it was easy to get fascinated with music and guitar playing. Finally he bought me a cheap little acoustic guitar when I was old enough to hold one, about six years old. He taught me the chords that everyone needs to start with—E, G, and D—and away I went.”
So it’s not surprising that Starr’s current guitar arsenal is well stocked with fine acoustics, including a 1948 Martin 000-18 and the 1964 Gibson LG-0 heard on the solo in “No Way Back to Eden” from Holding All the Aces. He also owns a Martin 0000-28, a Gibson Hummingbird, and a Gibson SJ-200 of more recent manufacture. “With Gibson and Martin, you just can’t go wrong, for acoustics,” he says.
But when Starr hit his teen years he was drawn more to electric guitars and rock music. “When I started to gig in bars and play in cover bands, we all loved Aerosmith, the Stones, AC/DC, and things like that,” he says. “None of my friends were interested in the background that I came from with my dad—bluegrass and traditional country music—so I sort of put that influence away for a long time. But as I got older and started to write songs, it reappeared. That kind of thing never leaves you, especially not Bible Belt people.”
Blackberry Smoke’s effortless blend of classic rock, country, and bluegrass is unique and heartfelt. Starr has played with most of his bandmates—co-guitarist Paul Jackson, keyboard man Brandon Still, and the sibling rhythm section of Brit and Richard Turner—ever since the days of those teenage cover bands. Blackberry Smoke released their debut album, Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime, in 2004 and have put out three more studio albums in the years since. But mostly their reputation is based on relentless, hard-traveling, 250-gigs-per-year live work, which has made them a tight-knit and resilient musical unit.
“That has been necessary,” Starr says of the band’s demanding touring schedule. “We’ve never received a great deal of radio airplay, so we have to take our music to the people. I suppose we could stop anytime we want. But it’s not like anyone’s forcing us to do this. We really just love to do it.”
Starr’s guitars work as hard on the road as he does. And that includes his vintage 1956, 1959 and 1962 Gibson Les Paul Juniors. They’re insured and well looked after, but they earn their keep. “My tech takes really good care of them and he loves them,” Starr says. “They’re his children as well as mine. But at the end of the day, it’s just wood and iron. They’re guitars. They need to be played.”
The no-frills, single P-90 pickup style of a Les Paul Junior suits Starr’s temperament as a player. “It’s just a very friendly feeling guitar,” he says. “I think that playing a single-pickup guitar forces you to find creative ways to get different sounds.”
Starr isn’t hung up on vintage, however. In fact, he says that his recently made Gibson Custom Shop Southern Rock Tribute 1959 Les Paul can go neck and neck with any 1960-vintage Burst he’s heard. Starr’s collection of vintage workhorse electrics is balanced with the work of several tradition-minded, contemporary boutique makers, including guitars made by luthier Gabriel Currie of L.A.’s Echopark guitars.
“Gabriel is a true artist,” Starr says. “His attention to detail is incredible, particularly the neck profile, body weight, and even the resonance and tone of his guitars. A lot of the wood he uses is really old growth—300-to-500-year-old mahogany and korina. I’ve got two guitars from him: One that he calls a ’59 Custom that’s a double-cutaway Les Paul Junior/Special shape from ’59, and the other that he calls the ’55 Gold Custom Downtowner, based on the ’55 goldtop.”
Another custom builder, Joe Hamilton, built Starr a lovely 335-style semihollow archtop, a J Hamilton “Elizabeth” Custom. “Joe’s actually an old friend,” Starr says. “I’ve known him since I was about 14 years old, when we lived in LaGrange, Georgia. “When I was a teenager, he was a bluegrass guitar player around town, like my father. I had no idea he was a luthier until about three years ago, when our bass player came in with a beautiful bass that Joe built for him. I said, ‘Where did you get that?’ He said, ‘Joe Hamilton from La Grange.’ I said ‘Really? That’s a guy I knew in high school.’ Joe came to a show that we did in Atlanta, and we started to talk about him building me a guitar.”
A similar balance of vintage and contemporary boutique pieces also informs Starr’s amp collection. He has several 50-watt “plexi” Marshalls but is equally fond of the Marshall-style boutique amps built by Greg Germino of North Carolina. “They’re hand-wired, point-to-point amps, and I just love them,” he says. “An old friend of mine, Keith Nelson from Buckcherry, gave me Greg’s contact information a couple of years ago. Keith said, ‘You gotta check these amps out.’ I did, and they’re incredible. I used one of them on several songs for the new record. Greg is a Marshall savant. He knows everything there is to know about Marshall circuitry and history. Some say his amps are better than a vintage plexi in some ways, and I believe it. I’ve taken them around the world now, and they’re still rock solid…”
This is an excerpt from the all-new JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story, plus features on plus features on Gary Clark Jr. and his guitar collection, Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s 1966 Fender Telecaster, Rudy Pensa’s collection of the world’s finest archtop guitars, the guitars and amps of Ratatat’s Mike Stroud, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.