LOOK, I KNOW IT’S A YUCKY TITLE but everybody else puns Dylan’s lyrics, so why not me? Right, now, sit up, backs’ straight, because we’re going to offer a salute to Bobby’s most visible musical props of the last thirty-five years - his electric guitars.

OCEANS HAVE PASSED under the bridge since the man "went electric" back in ’65. America is thankfully now only at war with itself, and Dylan’s view of life has changed radically a number of times. His output has been inconsistent to say the least, but in one area, and with one company’s products, he has been almost unswervingly loyal. I speak of the Fender Electric Guitar.

As we should expect, there has been the odd example of experimentation (Dylan wouldn’t be Dylan if he didn’t try occasionally to upset his own applecart), but always he has returned to the ONE TRUE PATH.

Before we look back to July 25th 1965, the day that this particular clock began to tick, I have to be sure that everyone in the Great Dylanocracy knows that on January 5th 1965, CBS bought the Fender Guitar Company lock, headstock and barrel. The cynical among you may feel that their little acquisition may have had some influence on Bobby’s choice of electric axe. Stuff and nonsense, and heaven forefend, say I!

(However, around this time Bob appeared in that most unusual promotional photo featuring the Fender Jazz Bass. Now, Bob ain’t no bass player: I think that we can safely assume that that promo shot was just an early example of how CBS seriously misunderstood, and ultimately mismanaged, their venture into guitar manufacture and sales.)

DYLAN’S FIRST-EVER OUTING with an electric guitar saw him wielding a rosewood-necked Fender Stratocaster. (Actually, it had a maple neck capped with the dark rosewood, but I don’t want to be pedantic. If however you are into real trivia, you may like to know that he had it permanently switched to the treble (bridge) pickup!)

At this point, the "Strat" was only eleven years off the drawing board, having been introduced in 1954 by the Fender Musical Instrument Company of Fullerton, California. "Slowhand" Eric Clapton himself is quoted as saying "I have tried just about every guitar that has ever been made, and without fail I always come back to the Stratocaster; it’s just like going home again. It’s mean and yet comfortable, crude and yet pure. It’s about as close to being perfect as any electric guitar can be".

"Crude and yet pure". Says a lot, doesn’t it? Says a lot about the guitar, and those who have played it. Buddy Holly; Jimi Hendrix; Stevie Ray Vaughan. And Dylan in July 1965 at Newport.

THE LEGENDARY ’66 TOUR with The Band saw the switch to a more rudimentary instrument, but no change in stable: enter the black, maple-necked Fender Telecaster. This is the guitar of which it has been said "If the U.S. Army was issuing guitars to combat troops, it would choose the Telecaster".

The revolutionary body shape first saw light of day in July 1950 when Leo Fender introduced the Esquire (with a light-coloured maple fretboard) at the NAMM show in Chicago. This was his single-pickup launch vehicle; the twin-pickup Broadcaster appeared later the same year, with the name being changed to Telecaster early in 1951. This was the machine that Dylan chose to take to war.

A SMALL POINT OF HISTORY about rosewood- and maple-capped necks; there are both aesthetic and musical reasons why a player may choose one over the other. It was undoubtedly true back in the ‘50s and ‘60s that, given the choice, black guitarists (Muddy Waters, Albert Collins and Ike Turner amongst them) would go for maple. This, it was said, was because their hands were so much more visible against the lighter fretboard - an important factor when bands were appearing on relatively poor quality black-and-white TV. Musically, rosewood is thought to give a warmer, more rounded tone whilst maple produces more hard-edged bite; tonal niceties which have I am sure been high in Dylan’s list of priorities down the years!

IN 1974, touring again with The Band, Dylan stuck with Fender (mostly playing a Strat with a rosewood board) but he did stray a little, experimenting with a Gibson ES335 (the Chuck Berry / B B King style of guitar). This phase didn’t last long, probably because the sound wasn’t to his liking and the ES335 is rather big and bulky after a Strat, and also because Gibson guitars have a shorter scale-length than Fender.

(A bit technical I know, but this refers to the length of the string between the nut (near the tuning pegs) and the bridge. Fender prefer twenty-five-and-a-half inches, Gibson go for twenty-four-and-three-quarters. This may not sound much of a difference, but it means that the frets are closer together on the Gibson. Dylan is not a big guy, but he does have fairly large hands and the effect of changing from Fender to a Gibbie would be quite noticeable.)

BY THE TIME OF ROLLING THUNDER we are firmly back in Fender territory. In the main, the April / May 1976 leg featured a sunburst maple-necked Telecaster, but again there was one notable aberration: the use of a white National Glenwood for slide-guitar playing. This is the so-called "map guitar", made of plastic ("Resoglas") and shaped like a map of the U.S.A. Flash or what?

ONE CAN PRETTY WELL SAY that since The Band’s "Last Waltz" gig in November 1976 (maple-necked Strat), Stratocasters have been the name of the game. Throughout the 1978 world tour he sported a black Strat with a rosewood fretboard; Born Again in 1979, a maple-neck Stratocaster became "de Fender of the faith" (sorry about that).

Dylan has tried Gibsons a couple of times since - once in 1980 and, most visibly, around the time of the "Pope Gig" in 1997. However, his use on both occasions of their Les Paul Model was very short-lived (probably because, along with all the other Gibson characteristics, Les Pauls are notoriously heavy).

ON MARCH 12TH 1985, CBS sold Fender to "an investor group headed by William Schultz, President of Fender Musical Instruments". In other words, a management buy-out went through, and once again Fender had its freedom. So, should anyone have ever doubted it, did Dylan: any corporate encouragement to play the house brand came to an end with this announcement.

INTERESTING GUITARS of late have been a hybrid "Strat body / Tele neck" used during the Never Ending Tour in 1993, and his bee-oo-tiful Custom Shop Strat. Adapted to Bob’s specification from the Shop’s standard "Bonnie Raitt" model, this baby was put together for him at Fender’s "Dream Factory" in Corona, California.

I don’t know when he took delivery, but I first drooled over the Custom Shop guitar at the London Hyde Park gig in 1996. I mean, you couldn’t help it, could you; that gorgeous birds-eye maple headstock; and the pearloid scratchplate. All set off so beautifully against its sartorially-challenged owner. What? You didn’t notice? Shame on you!

OK, I know what you’re going to ask next: where does Dylan rank in the Worshipful Company of Plank-Spankers? Well, now …

(Enough … Ed)

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