“I had Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player, out on tour with me, and he showed up with a $120 Squier Strat. He played it on stage that night and killed it”: Kenny Wayne Shepherd on why tone is in the hands (but it helps to have a trio of Dumbles)

Kenny Wayne Shepherd
(Image credit: Steve Jennings/Getty Images)

In this edition of Bought & Sold, Guitarist has the pleasure of Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s company, and there are few bigger electric guitar aficionados in the world. 

We often associate him with the Strat but as he admits here, after a decade-long search for a Les Paul, he has settled on The One, and an instrument like that can change a player. It has changed Shepherd, who admits he has had to adapt to the new dimensions of the single-cut.

Here, he answers the big questions. Humbuckers or single-coils? Cheap guitars and pricey guitar amps or vice versa. And he reveals what’s in his rig now. Spoiler: there are not one but three Dumble amps in his backline.

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

“The first guitar I bought with my own money was a Fender Custom Shop 1954 reissue Strat at a local music store called Shreveport Music [in Louisiana]. It was one of the first Custom Shop guitars that I ever really saw hanging on a wall and it got my attention because it had this very flame-y maple neck on it. 

“And it had a Mary Kaye type finish – it was an ash body with a translucent off-white finish. I’m not sure why they call it a ’54 reissue; it looked like a Mary Kaye Strat but without the gold hardware. I just thought it was so fancy. 

“I bought the guitar after I signed my record contract. I got an advance so I bought that instrument and then I bought my first car. Then the rest of the money was put into the bank as a sort of backup college fund in the event that the music situation didn’t work out.”

What was the last guitar you bought and why did you choose it? 

“A 1960 Gibson Les Paul Sunburst – an original one. I had been on the hunt for some time, at least 10 years. The thing is, Les Pauls always felt a bit awkward because of my style of playing. I have to adapt my approach with Les Pauls, otherwise I’ll be in the middle of playing and I’ll accidentally hit the pickup selector and change the sound of the guitar mid-solo. 

“For a long time Strats were the most comfortable guitars for me, but over the course of my career I started using Les Pauls on various songs on various records, and also on stage because if you want ‘that’ sound, you can only get it from ‘that’ guitar. I found that the features of the 1960 Les Pauls, with the thinner neck profile, just seem to play faster and easier for me. 

“A year or two ago, I finally found the right one and it’s a beautiful guitar, with a tremendous flamed top and basically the appearance of a ’59, so it has all the good looks you would ever want and a great personality to go along with it.”

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

“I don’t know about bargains, but one of the things [I’ve bought new] that has appreciated the most surprising amount would be the original Klon Centaur pedal. I bought two of those when they first came out – a gold and a silver one – and somewhere along the way, the gold one disappeared. But I still have the silver one. They were like 250 bucks, but it’s worth multiples of what I paid for it.”

I got a couple of Marshall ’59 Reissue Plexi heads... I had them out on the road and it was a never-ending cycle of blowing amps up on stage. Like literally

What’s the strongest case of buyer’s remorse you’ve experienced?

“I got a couple of Marshall ’59 Reissue Plexi heads when they first came out – around 2004, I believe. I wanted to mix things up because I generally played Fender amps and I was gonna bring some Marshalls on stage. I had them out on the road and it was a never-ending cycle of blowing amps up on stage. Like literally, constantly blowing up.

“I could never keep one healthy. We’d send them back to Marshall and they’d fix them and send them back. Eventually, somebody at Marshall told someone in my camp that through all of this they identified a flaw in the circuit design and then found some kind of a fix. 

“I guess they were able to resolve that moving forward, but it certainly didn’t help my situation. You really have to have stuff that you can rely on, and if things start blowing up, it can really ruin the momentum of the show.”

Have you ever sold a guitar that you intensely regretted letting go?

“I’ve never sold any guitars. There are a couple of guitars that somehow mysteriously wound up out of my possession. They grew legs somehow – not really sure how that happened. Thankfully, there’s not many of them. But there are a couple that are just not accounted for.” 

What’s your best guitar-buying tip? 

“My go-to tip when buying guitars is to call my friends who know more about buying guitars than I do! They do this kind of stuff more often than I do and so I call them and I seek advice. But you’ve just got to go in and you have to have a number; you can’t let your emotions get the best of you, you have to have a number that you feel is fair to you and also fair to the person selling the instrument. You want everybody to walk away happy, right? And if you can’t get to that number, then you just walk away from the deal. There will always be another guitar.”

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

“I would buy a cheap guitar and a really good amp. I am an advocate of the theory that much of the feeling in your playing is coming from your hands, right? I mean, when they post videos of me online playing my Les Paul people are commenting, ‘Wow, it sounds like a Stratocaster!’ And that’s because there’s a Strat player playing it, you know?

“A perfect example was Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. I had him out on tour with me and we did a show in Milwaukee and he showed up with a Squier Strat – a $120 Squier Strat. And he brought it up and played it on stage that night and killed it. It sounded just like Hubert Sumlin, right? The guitar is only so much of it, but the amplifier is what’s projecting the sound into the PA.”

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

“Well, probably single coils because I’ve found that I’m better able to utilise that setup. I know that there are people that are masters when it comes to having a pair of humbuckers and two tone knobs and two volume knobs, and they can manipulate all kinds of sounds out of that combination. 

“But I’d go with the single coils. The only thing is when you get into a building with really dirty power, they can buzz so loud and that’s a real pain in the butt. That’s the nature of the beast and you learn to deal with it.” 

Kenny's go-to rig

“We carry about 20 to 25 guitars on the road, various Gibsons and Fenders. But we go from the guitar into a Custom Audio Electronics wah pedal that Dunlop makes. Then we go out of that into a Uni-Vibe [Shin-ei Vibe-Bro], which is actually made by my guitar tech Dustin Sears. 

“Then we go into the Klon Centaur – well, the Klon reissue, the KTR, I believe it’s called. Currently, I have a TS808 reissue and a King Of Tone pedal. Then we have a Bi-Chorus pedal from Analog Man and then I have a delay pedal, I think it’s a Way Huge unit. 

“I have a Boss tuner and a Roger Mayer Octavia. My three amps were all built by Alexander Dumble: sometimes I’ll run all three, but generally I run two and one serves more as a backup.”

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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.