Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr on his greatest gear buys, regrets and why he's an enabler of impulse purchases

Charlie Starr
(Image credit: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Blackberry Smoke)

What was the first serious guitar that you bought with your own money?

“Now, ‘serious’ is debatable. I bought a 1985 Gibson Les Paul Custom, a Pearl White one. I bought it because it looked like the pictures I had seen of Randy Rhoads playing one. I bought it for $500 and I had to borrow the money from my sister. I kept it for about five years or so. 

“I’d started to play in bars – illegally, because I was underage – and played cover songs, so we would play all the bar band favourites: Roadhouse Blues, Honky Tonk Woman, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Highway To Hell… I actually got a little adventurous then because I was really into Aerosmith and so I had us do Walkin’ The Dog and Mama Kin.”

What was the last guitar you bought and why?

“I just bought a 1965 Fender Esquire a few weeks ago because I fell madly in love with it. It was loaned to me by a friend to make our new album because our gear was in a truck. The guitars I had on the road at the time, and my favourite Esquire, which is a ’63, was packed away and so I needed one. A friend of mine let me borrow his and I could not give it back. There’s something about the single-pickup situation on those guitars that makes them breathe a little more fire than a Telecaster.”

What’s the most incredible find or bargain you’ve had when buying guitars?

“Well, this is a hell of a bargain because I was gifted a 1958 Les Paul Custom Black Beauty. I would say there’s no better bargain than that! A very, very nice gentleman several years ago said that he was retiring from music and he was not well, he was dealing with some debilitating health issues and couldn’t play any more. So he decided to give that guitar to me. He told me he’d had jumbo frets put in it because he didn’t dig the ‘Fretless Wonder’ thing and I had to agree. It’s a monster.”

What’s the strongest case of buyer’s remorse that you’ve had when buying gear?

“I’ve had that happen a few times. Years ago I thought that it would be cool to buy a '90s Les Paul Special. I thought it looked cool. I was still playing in little bars then and I got it home and it was just atrocious. I was really only thinking about how cool it looked instead of how it played and sounded. I paid $400 for it and I so regretted it, but I was able to sell it and get out from under that burden.”

Charlie's go-to rig

“On tour I have lots of guitars. I generally have six to eight, and that’s just because I love ’em so dearly. I don’t need that many, really. I have a handful of [Les Paul] Juniors: a ’56, ’57, ’58 and ’59. A few Esquires: a ’63 and ’65. And a few more. 

“My touring amps for the last several years have been a Germino Lead 55 head and 4x12 cabinet, and an Echopark Vibromatic 23 head and cabinet. 

“Pedals, I have a Fulltone Supa-Trem, which is fantastic; I’ve been using the same one for probably 10 or 12 years. A Cry Baby, a Klon clone called a [Piedmont Custom Electronics] Aluminum Falcon that’s really great, and I was bringing tape echoes on the road for a while. I had a couple of Fulltones and an Echoplex EP-3, but they’re so temperamental that I finally found a pedal that really works well – it’s a Wampler Faux Tape Echo. 

“Then I have an Analog Man Sun Face, a couple of pedals from Chase [Tone]: a Secret Preamp, which is like a little Echoplex preamp in a pedal, and a Red Velvet Fuzz. Then my newest pedal acquisition, which is maybe my favourite right now, is the Treble Booster by R2R, which is fantastic. It’s based on a Rangemaster and I can’t say enough good things about it.”

Have you ever sold a guitar that you now intensely regret letting go of?

“Years ago when I was young I had a late-'60s Blonde Telecaster with a rosewood fretboard and a Bigsby. It was the first vintage Tele I ever bought and I actually traded it with some other gear to get a ’69 Lucite Dan Armstrong, which I wound up having real problems with because it really needed some surgery. But I miss that Telecaster. I have one photograph of myself playing it and it was one of those really good ones. I was foolish to let it go.”

What’s your best guitar-buying tip?

“I don’t have any advice relating to impulse purchases  because I am so guilty. I’m an enabler. I’m no help in  this area.”

When was the last time you stopped to stare in a guitar shop window and what were you looking at?

“I was actually in a shop last week in Atlanta and there were a couple of really great Martin D-18s and a great little early 60s Gibson LG-2. I’m a sucker for those little acoustic guitars: they sound so much bigger than they look and they sound so ‘woody’ and present. They’re really comfortable, y’know? It’s all about their age as well. A vintage guitar has been a guitar for so long and the wood has completely dried out. Nothing can replicate time with an acoustic guitar. But I made it out of there unscathed, I did not buy one.”

If forced to make a choice, would you rather buy a really good guitar and a cheap amp, or a cheap guitar and a really good amp?

“That’s a tough question. Probably cheap guitar, good amp. For some reason I’m thinking that a shitty amp is going to make a great guitar sound awful, but you’d probably pick out some good sounds from a great amplifier with a cheap guitar. I had this old warhorse JCM800 Marshall head that I’ve had for ages and, really, anything you plug into it sounds great. It’s just one of those amps, it does its thing so well. I would think that you could probably take a ’Burst and plug it into a cheap amp and it would not be good.”

As much as I love humbuckers I don’t think I would be able to get by without the personality of a single-coil pickup

If you could only use humbuckers or single coils for the rest of your career which would you choose and why?

“The single coil. The P-90 is basically a single-coil pickup as well if we really get down to nuts and bolts, and as much as I love humbuckers I don’t think I would be able to get by without the personality of a single-coil pickup. I find that the bridge pickup on an Esquire is most definitely angrier than the normal Tele pickup. I have a couple of newer guitars made by Echopark and they have pickups that are proprietary to the T-style guitars that they make and they’re Broadcaster pickups, basically. They had something; they were more P-90-ish than the later bridge pickups. Fatter and a little less brittle.”

What’s your favourite guitar shop?

“I love Rumble Seat Music in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s fantastic. There’s also Carter Vintage in Nashville and Killer Vintage in St Louis… can I do three? That’s where I browse and try to avoid the impulse buy!”

  • You Hear Georgia is out now on 3 Legged Records.

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David Mead

With over 30 years’ experience writing for guitar magazines, including at one time occupying the role of editor for Guitarist and Guitar Techniques, David is also the best-selling author of a number of guitar books for Sanctuary Publishing, Music Sales, Mel Bay and Hal Leonard. As a player he has performed with blues sax legend Dick Heckstall-Smith, played rock ’n’ roll in Marty Wilde’s band, duetted with Martin Taylor and taken part in charity gigs backing Gary Moore, Bernie Marsden and Robbie McIntosh, among others. An avid composer of acoustic guitar instrumentals, he has released two acclaimed albums, Nocturnal and Arboretum.