Neil Young: Ragged Glory
Originally published in Guitar World, October 2009
From his beat-up Les Paul to his battered amps and vintage effect pedals, Neil Young's stage rig is a road-worn tribute to his timeless
"When it comes to equipment, the idea with Neil is that you don’t change anything,” says guitar tech Larry Cragg. “You don’t even think about it.”
Cragg is himself among the many constants in Young’s gear universe, having worked for the musician since 1973. A respected guitar repairman—he’s been Carlos Santana’s go-to guy for 40 years—who also owns his own vintage instrument rental company, Cragg first met Young while at Prune Music, a guitar shop in Mill Valley, California.
“At first I was just fixing his guitars,” says Cragg. “But a few years in, he was on the road in Japan when I got a call from his people saying, ‘Get on an airplane!’ And I’ve done every tour since.”
Young brought his standard rig out on the road for his 2009 tour, a mostly electric guitar-dominated jaunt. True to Cragg’s word, his setup has remained largely the same over the years. But if Young is consistent in the equipment he uses to create his sound, the various pieces of gear also tend to be as idiosyncratic and susceptible to change as the man himself.
At the center of it all is the volatile 1953 Gibson Les Paul goldtop Young calls Old Black. A brutal and battered beast, the guitar is responsible for the legendary gritty tones heard on countless Young classics, including “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By the River” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).”
The Les Paul, which features a Bigsby tremolo and a P90 pickup in the neck position, received the black paint job that inspired its nickname prior to being acquired by Young. Since then, it’s undergone several further modifications, including the addition of a “chrome-on-brass” pickguard and back plates, a bridge-position Firebird pickup and a toggle switch, installed between the two volume and two tone knobs, that acts as a bypass. “You flip that,” says Cragg, “and the Firebird goes straight to the amp.”
Cragg installed the Firebird pickup back in 1973. “Originally there was a P90 in there,” he explains. “But in the early Seventies the guitar was lost, and when Neil recovered it a few years later the bridge pickup was gone. He put a Gretsch DeArmond in there for a while, but when I came onboard I replaced that with the Firebird, which has been there ever since. Everyone calls it a mini humbucker, but it’s not. It’s a humbucker, and it’s very microphonic—you can speak into it. It’s really piercing and high and a big part of his sound.”
Old Black remains Young’s primary electric for both studio and live work, but he has also of late been making ample use of his 1961 Gretsch White Falcon onstage. Cragg says, “That’s the real deal. Neil’s had it forever. It’s kind of green-looking and really stunning. There’s probably only 10 or 11 of those around.” The guitar, a stereo, single-cutaway model, figured prominently in Young’s work with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, as well as on solo songs like “Words (Between the Lines of Age).”
Other electric guitars used by Young on his recent tour include a 1956 Les Paul Junior of Cragg’s that he calls a “really rude, in-your-face killer,” and a second ’53 goldtop that the tech assembled as a stand-in for Old Black.
Cragg says, “I put that together around the time of [1990’s] Ragged Glory, and Neil used it on about half that album. It’s not black, but it’s got the metal pickguard and covers, the Firebird pickup, everything. It feels different, but it still kicks butt. It’s a little more powerful and a little less piercing than the original.”
For his touring acoustics, Young has been relying on a trio of Martins, all equipped with Cragg’s stereo FRAP (Flat Audio Response Pickup) transducers: the 1968 D-45 used to record much of 1972’s Harvest; “Hank,” an early Forties D-28 formerly owned by Hank Williams; and a second D-28 that Cragg tunes to what Young calls “A# modal” [low to high: A# F A# D# G A#].
“That one’s a ’62,” Cragg says of the detuned guitar. “It’s also been shot. There’s a mark on the bottom where the bullet went in.”