From the GW archive: The story was originally published in the August 2012 issue of Guitar World. The legendary guitarist discusses his first song, first guitar, first show and more.
What inspired you to start playing guitar?
I had first played other instruments growing up. I had lessons on several instruments, and I knew I was musical because I heard music in my head a lot.
But the guitar was the first instrument that I could really express myself with. I found that it was the best vehicle I had to get what was inside my head out of it and into somebody’s ears. And when I heard the Beatles while I was in high school, it was inspirational to me. I wanted to be like them, so I took up the guitar as well.
What was your first guitar?
It was a Silvertone acoustic that we ordered when I was 10 years old from the catalog of the mail-order company Sears Roebuck. It cost about $30. Let me tell you, when that thing finally arrived in the mail, after waiting for it for three weeks, I was on top of the world. And though I couldn’t yet play anything, it was the coolest thing.
What was the first song you learned?
It was the Ventures song “Walk, Don’t Run,” and it was the first song where I realized that playing guitar was all I wanted to do. And I learned the rhythm part, the lead part, the bass part and everything. I learned every note of that song.
Do you remember your first time onstage?
Yes, I was 12 and in ninth grade, and it was at a school assembly. I had learned to play stuff on the top four strings of the guitar, more like a ukulele, but I learned enough to be able to play a song, and I had a friend who played trumpet, so it was me on guitar and him on trumpet. It probably sounded horrible, and I remember being absolutely petrified. I eventually became more confident onstage, but I never forgot that first experience.
Ever had an embarrassing onstage moment?
I have had many. Everything that you think can happen has happened to me somewhere along the way—from totally forgetting the words to tripping on a guitar cord and falling down onstage to blowing up my amp a couple of times. And once that happens, you’re done for the night!
What is your favorite piece of gear?
I always come back to my 1958 Les Paul “Goldtop” and a 1956 Fender Stratocaster. They were two of the first electric guitars ever designed, and I am not sure anybody has topped them in all these years.
Got any advice for young players?
You have to go out and play in front of people; even if you suck at it at first, you have to do it. For anybody going onstage the first time, it can be a terrifying experience, and it can be so scary that they never go again. But you have to do it a couple times before you can make your mind up.
Photo: Ross Halfin