“I think Leo Fender reinvented the universe when he made the Telecaster because it’s just so simple and perfect”: Jesse Dayton on his greatest gear hits and misses

Jesse Dayton
(Image credit: Daniel Sanda)

It is the turn of Jesse Dayton to stop by Guitarist for this month’s Bought & Sold, a conversation about the electric guitars in his life, his advice for buying gear, and, of course, the answer to the all-important question: whether it is better to have a cheap guitar and a high-end guitar amp or vice versa.

He’ll also reveal what is in his rig right now as he high-tails it across the UK and Ireland with Samantha Fish in support of Death Wish Blues.

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

“It was a red 1968 Fender Mustang with the racing stripes across it. I had to mow yards in my neighbourhood where I lived and my dad said if I got enough money, he would match it. I had a pretty cool dad. So I got that Fender Mustang with the whammy bar and I pretended it was a Stratocaster. Before that I had two acoustic Silvertones that I bought at garage sales.”

What was the last guitar you bought, and why?

“I bought a guitar yesterday! It was in Northampton, Massachusetts, at a local guitar store. It’s an Alvarez acoustic from the '70s and it reminded me of my brother’s guitar that I used to play while he was throwing papers to pay for it. I would go into his room and play, working out little basslines to Tush by ZZ Top or whatever because I didn’t know chords. I mean, I’ve got a lot of guitars, but this one was the exact guitar my brother had, so I bought it yesterday.”

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

“Well, I found a 1959 6120 Gretsch with the original Western leather and the branded ‘G’ on it. I bought it for $650 and that was in the '90s. That was a long time ago and now the guitar’s worth a lot; it’s incredibly expensive. 

“But the most expensive guitar I own right now is one made by luthier Wayne Henderson. I’m told that Eric Clapton owns one and Ricky Skaggs, and some really serious players. I got that through a friend of mine who was very wealthy and loved my playing, so they helped me get it. 

“It’s got kind of an ornate inlay on it and it sounds unbelievable. I mean, every time I take it to the studio people won’t stop playing it. It’s almost like when you’re holding this guitar it’s beyond vibration. It’s like the instrument is actually breathing, the top is so resonant.”

What’s the strongest case of buyer’s remorse you’ve ever had after buying gear? 

“When I was a kid I bought a Hondo guitar that was terrible – no big surprise. But then I bought a Marshall combo amp that had the head inside of it. And it was terrible. It just sounded like a fly farting, you know what I mean? It was buzz-city. And so I immediately got rid of it. I then saved my money and got a black-panel [Fender] Super Reverb. I now collect those. I have a lot of amps – I have more amps than I have guitars, actually.”

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

“Yes, I have. It happened during a divorce. When you get a divorce and you don’t have any kids and you’re a musician, then you just call your agent and say, ‘Hey, book me forever… I want to leave, I gotta go work. I gotta go play.’ 

“But before I could take off I had these huge legal bills to pay for and it was either I give up part of my publishing or I pay this money. So I ended up selling that Gretsch I told you about. And I also sold a ’59 Triumph Thunderbird, which was the exact same motorcycle that Marlon Brando rode in The Wild One… But, you know, at the end of the day it’s just stuff and I got to keep all my songs. I’m not bitter about any of it. Things happen.”

What’s your best guitar-buying tip? 

“Well, there are two ways to think about it. There’s obviously resale value. I know a lot of people who buy guitars who don’t necessarily play; they want them in their portfolio and they hang on walls. But I don’t want to say, ‘Hey, you should buy this because of the investment and resale value…’ 

“You should buy what feels good to you – like when you sit down and you play the instrument. If you’re struggling, or maybe it doesn’t feel right or aesthetically it doesn’t look like your thing, don’t buy it – walk away. Don’t let anyone talk you into buying something that’s not you. I think the [best] advice is to buy the guitar you want, not what the sales guy wants you to have or what the resale value is.”

Buy the guitar you want, not what the sales guy wants you to have or what the resale value is

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

“It was yesterday and it’s so weird. I saw this '80s Ibanez guitar, and a lot of these guitars don’t have any real monetary value, but they have sentimental value. I think the reason why people love music is because they usually don’t get past the first stuff they got turned onto, and I remember seeing this guitar when I was a kid. 

“I think Skunk Baxter was playing one and I think Rick Derringer had one at one point. I like all those guys because God ain’t making them any more. The younger set can call it ‘dad rock’ or ‘classic rock’ or whatever, but it’s never gonna happen again. It was an Ibanez Artist – kinda like a Les Paul but with a double cutaway. And I looked at it and was like, ‘Yeah, remember those?’”

If you had to make a choice, would you rather buy a really good guitar and a cheap guitar amp or a cheap electric guitar and a top-notch amp?

“Man, I don’t know. That’s hard to say because you’re only as good as your amplifier. So I would say if you give me a black-panel Fender [amp] and a cheap Silvertone, I could do pretty good damage with that. But if you gave me a really nice Fender [guitar] and a cheap Silvertone amp… 

“I mean, you could still get some cool stuff, but it would be a one-trick pony, wouldn’t it? It would be like either you couldn’t hear it or it would be the Hound Dog Taylor thing, the whole show. So I would say I would go with a cheaper guitar and a great amp.”

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

“It’s hard to say because I really love soapbar pickups. I mean, there’s all kinds of different pickups that I love besides those two, but I would have to say I’m more of a single-coil guy. I mean, I’m a Telecaster fanatic. And I think Leo Fender reinvented the universe when he made the Telecaster because it’s just so simple and perfect. Yeah, I’m a single-coil guy.”

Jesse’s Go-To Rig

“We’re on tour right now with Buddy Guy and, with the rig I’m using, I went real simple. I’m using these Tweed Fender Bassman reissues – two of those – and then I’m using a pretty basic pedalboard with MXR pedals, an analog delay and the '70s Phaser [MXR 70s script Phase 90]. 

“I use it sparingly just on little parts and then I have an MXR Tremolo and an MXR Booster; it’s not a distortion pedal, it just boosts my signal with the natural distortion that I get out of the Bassmans and works perfectly. I like my distortion not to be super-crunchy, you know, I’m not a heavy metal guy. I like stuff where it’s just breaking up and it’s really warm à la Hendrix or Billy Gibbons. 

“I play my King guitar, which is a one-of-a-kind that a friend of mine, Jason Burns, in London built for me. He owns this company called Blast Cult, but this is the very first one that he ever built. It’s a hollowbody guitar with TV Jones pickups and a Bigsby.”

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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.