An electric guitar given to musician Jack Nitzsche by Neil Young to play during the 1971 Harvest sessions is going up for auction this month, via Bonhams.
The sale takes place March 21-31 and includes a late-'50s Kay Sizzler featuring a grey speckle finish, maple fingerboard and a single pickup, alongside two control knobs and a distinctive angular scratchplate. Also included in the lot is a 1936 Epiphone Electar Zephyr amplifier purchased at the same time. However, the story behind the two items is perhaps the best part.
Nitzsche was a producer, writer and musician, who was part of LA's fabled Wrecking Crew. He first worked with Young in Buffalo Springfield and then co-produced Young’s eponymous 1968 debut and contributed to its follow-up, the enormously successful After The Gold Rush. Having done so, he probably thought that Young knew his strengths by the time they came to record Harvest in 1971.
Young had hired a group of country session pros that he dubbed The Stray Gators for the record and brought in Nitzche to play piano. The electric sessions for the album took place that September in a barn at Young’s ranch. It was in this period, during a group outing to a guitar shop, that Young picked up the Kay.
The incident is noted by Young’s biographer Jimmy McDonough in his exhaustive 2002 book, Shakey:
“Poking around an instrument shop, Young caught Nitzsche eyeing a vintage 1936 Epiphone amp and an old Kay guitar,” writes McDonough.
“Young bought them for Jack on the spot and, after overhearing Nitzsche fumble around with an ancient blues lick he’d copped from a Howlin’ Wolf record, Neil soon appeared with [album track] Are You Ready for the Country?”
At the time Nitzsche noted the gift in his diary, but made no other mention of it. Amusingly, it seems Young had a bigger scheme in mind.
Five days later, during the recording of Are You Ready For The Country?, Nitzsche was put on the spot and asked to play slide guitar, using the Kay.
This would have come as a surprise to him for two reasons: 1) expert pedal steel player Ben Keith was already at the sessions and 2) Nitzsche had zero experience playing slide. Neither of these things seems to have bothered Young.
“Much to Nitzsche's embarrassment,” notes McDonough, “he was soon sitting amid bales of hay accompanying Young on a Kay guitar he barely knew how to play.”
Photographer Joel Bernstein captured the moment and the image was then chosen to adorn the album's back cover. The story represents an amusing little snapshot of Neil Young’s creative dynamism and proof of the adage that ’certain guitars just have songs in them’.
Nitzche was highly experienced and a known force by the time he came to work with Neil Young on Harvest. However, Young still found a way to make the seasoned pro perform like it was his first time – and in a way that sounded meaningful on tape. Nitzsche, meanwhile, may not have been ready for the country, but listening to the results, he certainly styles it out.
Nitzsche’s Kay Sizzler and Epiphone Electar Zephyr amplifier are on sale March 21-31, 2023. Head to Bonham's for more information on the auction.