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Steve Gunn: “I’ve played Fenders from the '50s, pre-CBS, and there’s an energy in the wood. There’s a lot of magic in older guitars”

Steve Gunn
(Image credit: Courtesy of Steve Gunn)

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

“My parents gifted me the first guitar that I ever played, which was an Alvarez acoustic. It was one of those deals where if you walk into a big guitar store, they’re on display and you can snag them for Christmas or something like that. That was my first acoustic. 

“And then when I was a young teenager I worked at a little ice cream store and saved up money. The first guitar I bought was on a super impulse, based on what it looked like and based on the price. I bought a Silvertone – the one that has the amp built into the case.

“In retrospect, I wish I had bought something like a vintage Fender Jazzmaster, because at the time the prices weren’t as high as they were even 10 years ago. I wasn’t satisfied with the Silvertone, it wasn’t staying in tune, and so I traded that in and I bought a '60s Fender Mustang – it was one of those moments where I walked into the guitar store and it was up on the wall and that was the one I wanted. I didn’t know anything about the pickups or anything, I just knew it looked cool!”

What was the last guitar that you bought and why?

“The last guitar I bought – and I’m really glad I did this – was a classical guitar because I’ve been playing steel-string-style guitar for years and years, and then I played a Gibson [F-25] Folksinger guitar. They have a wider neck, it’s almost as if it’s a transition from a classical neck to an acoustic. 

“A friend of mine had one of those and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this wider neck makes so much more sense to me, considering the way I play fingerstyle,’ and so I wanted to get a classical guitar just to have around my house. This was right before lockdown. 

“I’m friendly with the guys who run the Chicago Music Exchange and I wrote to them and said, ‘Can you recommend a classical guitar? I don’t want to break the bank…’ and they said, ‘You should definitely get a Cordoba,’ and so I bought one from them and they mailed it to me and I played it every day.”

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

“I never had any of those miracle gear moments, but I have had some luck with Craigslist. I bought a Martin 000-18 from a guy on Craigslist. I’d been looking for a triple-0 for a while and suddenly one popped up and I emailed the guy immediately and he got back and said, ‘You’re the first person to get back to me and so I’ll honour your offer,’ and I’d offered him a very fair price. 

“It turns out he was a gentleman who was working for a church and he had two of the same guitar that he’d got from a dealer somewhere and they were special editions. So the guy said, ‘Okay, let’s meet up. Meet me in the Guitar Center, I’ll be wearing a black leather jacket.’ 

You pick up a guitar and you just kind of know

“So I went to the bank and got the cash and I was in this enormous Guitar Center and I see this guy with a case, opened it up, perfect condition, gave him the money and I brought it home. It just felt so perfect for what I needed it for and I took it on the road for seven or eight years until it got smashed by an airline. 

“After a lot of haggling, the airline gave me some money and I put that towards buying a really beautiful vintage D-28. So purchasing that original guitar helped me buy this beautiful Martin.”

Steve Gunn

(Image credit: Courtesy of Steve Gunn)

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

“I have too many guitars and I’m always afraid to sell them. But, just for sentimental value, I wish I still had that Silvertone I sold for probably next to nothing because it was the first guitar I earned with my own money.”

What’s your best guitar-buying tip?

“This happens to me with guitars I can’t afford. You pick up a guitar and you just kind of know. Obviously, that can happen with very expensive instruments, but when you know, you know. It doesn’t happen to me a lot and when it does I always try to figure out a way to get the instrument.”

I really would love to have a sturdy Echoplex – I relied a lot on that with this last album, Other You

When did you last stop to stare in a guitar shop window, or browse online, and what were you looking at?

“I look at Reverb all the time and I’ve recently been looking at some effects. My primary search right now is for vintage tape echo. I really would love to have a sturdy Echoplex – I relied a lot on that with this last album, Other You – [producer] Rob Schnapf has a beautiful one in his studio. I’ve tried replicating it by buying modern equipment, but I feel that the real thing is so much of a better, palatable tone.”

If forced to make a choice, would you rather have a cheap guitar and an expensive amp or a top-notch guitar and a cheap amp?

“I think I’d rather have the guitar. I’ve played Fenders from the '50s, pre-CBS, and there’s an energy in the wood. There’s a lot of magic in older guitars and I think I would definitely play through a cheap amp if I could get a priceless Fender.” 

Steve's go-to gear

“I’m playing acoustic guitar, mostly, so I have my two Martin models: the 000-18 and the D-28. I use a [Radial Engineering] Tone Bone, which is a preamp and a DI, and so I can run a line into my effects and then run a line direct into a PA. 

“In my effects, I have an Xotic EP clean boost and a compressor, the 2026 from Bondi Effects in Australia. I use their Art Van Delay, too, which is modelled on the Boss DM-2. For reverb and echo I have [Strymon’s] El Capistan. Since I finally muscled up the money to get it, it’s been such a great pedal for me, very versatile – it gives me that tape echo I like. 

“I also have this really great overdrive pedal called the [Sarno Music Solutions] Earth Drive; I think it’s based on the old vintage Tube Screamer, it’s just perfect for me. I use a the Real McCoy RMC wah pedal, too, my favourite over the years – and I have tried many!

Electric guitar-wise, I have a T-style that my friend Rick Kelly made. I ordered it, it took two years to make and now I have this beautiful guitar. I’ve also got a Jazzmaster – not a vintage one but a special edition from the Chicago Music Exchange – and it’s really beautiful from head to toe.”

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Jamie Dickson is Editor-in-Chief of Guitarist magazine, Britain's best-selling and longest-running monthly for guitar players. He started his career at the Daily Telegraph in London, where his first assignment was interviewing blue-eyed soul legend Robert Palmer, going on to become a full-time author on music, writing for benchmark references such as 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and Dorling Kindersley's How To Play Guitar Step By Step. He joined Guitarist in 2011 and since then it has been his privilege to interview everyone from B.B. King to St. Vincent for Guitarist's readers, while sharing insights into scores of historic guitars, from Rory Gallagher's '61 Strat to the first Martin D-28 ever made.