Thursday, 27 May 2021

…Then We Were Ziggy’s Band - On the Road with David Bowie and the JSD Band

by Stuart Penney and Mikey G

“I don’t think we’ve ever worked with a better group.  I think the JSD Band are fantastic, I really do” – David Bowie, Kingston Polytechnic, May 6, 1972

Those of us of a certain age will remember exactly where we were on the early evening of July 6, 1972.  We were watching Top Of The Pops on BBC TV, just like we did every Thursday.  But this night it was a little different.  This was the night when we saw David Bowie performing “Starman”.  

Strumming a bright blue 12-string guitar and sporting an orange mullet, red patent leather knee-high boots and a close-fitting two-piece quilted suit, Bowie looked lean, handsome and simply fabulous.  He and his band also looked like no one else who had ever appeared on the show.  And when, at a little over 1 min 30 seconds, Bowie fixed his gaze on the camera, pointed a finger down the lens and sang, “I had to phone someone, so I picked on you-oo, oo”, it was (as we would learn to say a decade or more later) Game Over.  As if to seal the deal Bowie then gave a look of studied insouciance and draped an arm around his peroxide blonde wingman, guitarist Mick Ronson.  Dads across the country may have spluttered their disapproval at this point, but their kids were already well and truly hooked.  Glam rock was still in its infancy in mid-1972, but before too long TOTP would be filled with like-minded wannabes dolled-up to the nines.  On that July night, however, David Bowie had inadvertently set the bar impossibly high for all who would follow him.

Of course, it didn’t just fall into place quite as simply as those four memorable minutes of TV would have us believe.  Earlier in 1972 Bowie had engaged high-powered music biz lawyer Tony Defries as his manager and between them they cooked up a publicity and artistic plan that would prove to be one of the most successful of the decade.  With the slow burning delights of Bowie's fourth album Hunky Dory still looking for the audience it deserved (and would eventually get) and a critically acclaimed new record The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars ready to hit the shelves, there was nothing else to do but put a band together and get the music out on the road and into every corner of the land.  The Ziggy Stardust Tour would eventually stretch to 19 months, totaling 191 shows in the UK, America and Japan.  The final dates even overlapped the release of Aladdin Sane, which many view as Bowie's American Ziggy album, as it finally launched the man, his alter ego and his band in the States.

*The final Bowie/JSD show was at Friars Club, Aylesbury, July 15, 1972

So far, so well-documented rock history.  There is, however, a little-told story of what became an important part of one of the most memorable tours of the 70s.  After some early pub dates with earnest folk duo the Sutherland Brothers as support (this was prior to their partnership with Quiver) Bowie sought a more upbeat alternative.  After a chance meeting, a young Scottish folk rock group called the JSD Band was invited to be the support act for a large chunk of the first leg of the UK tour, playing their first show with Bowie just 12 days before the Ziggy Stardust album was released.  “Who are the JSD Band?” I hear you ask.  As luck would have it, this blog ran into Sean O’Rourke, vocalist and a founder member.  It seemed rude not to ask how it all fell into place. 

How on earth did a Scottish Folk Rock band end up on the road with Ziggy Stardust?

We met when the JSD Band played on the same bill as Bowie at Kingston Polytechnic (now Kingston University, May 6, 1972) in London.  David liked what he heard and publicly complimented us from the stage during his own set.  He then invited us to join him as support on his upcoming British Tour.  We started at Preston Public Hall (June 4, 1972), replacing the Sutherland Brothers, who had been the support act up to that point.  Bowie seemingly thought we could do a better job of warming up the audiences for him.

I believe the tour got off to a slow start

We were a bit disappointed by the audience numbers initially but thoroughly enjoyed the benefits of doing a major tour in large venues with good stage and dressing room facilities and so on.  We also learned from the professionalism of the PA and lighting crews with their attention to detail as well as the Spiders’ effort and consistency of performance including their stagecraft, clothes and make up etc.  Although the JSD Band didn't go as far as adopting make up! 

Most dates were quite sparsely attended until the final gig in London (Royal Festival Hall, July 8, 1972).  But no matter the size of the audience, Bowie and the Spiders gave it 100% at every show and over the course of the tour reviews were generally positive.  The music press focused solely on the performances and no mention was made of the small audience numbers.  With the good reviews, Bowie’s album sales began to increase, as did the audiences.  The Royal Festival Hall show was packed, no doubt helped by the distribution of complementary tickets to industry figures.  Aside from us, Marmalade and Lou Reed were also on the bill and Kenny Everett was the compere.

The next morning Ziggy Stardust was on the front page of all the British music papers and the big time was beckoning.  We only did one other gig with Bowie, at the Friars’ Club, Aylesbury (July 15, 1972).  Massive queues formed well before the start with many fans dressed in full Ziggy Stardust clothes, make-up and hair.

How did the audiences react to Bowie and his new image?

His appearance was obviously very striking.  He was extremely slim and sported a shock of flaming red hair, which drew a lot of attention, not all of it positive.  As a result, he had to be accompanied by Stuart George, a very muscular member of the crew whose appearance was enough to put off any would-be antagonists.  

Ziggy and the Spiders came onstage to the music of Walter (now Wendy) Carlos’s “Ode To Joy,” from the film A Clockwork Orange.  Stu would stand in the wings and encourage the audience to shout for encores at the end of their set.  On one occasion the lighting crew, as a joke, turned the spotlight on Stu, much to his embarrassment and annoyance.

How were you treated, as the support band?

Throughout the tour David was friendly and positive.  He seemed very interested in people and everything around him as if he was observing and absorbing whatever he came into contact with.  He asked me and Lindsay Scott (JSD Band fiddler) to play on some of his recordings.  Lindsay played on the single “John I'm Only Dancing” but logistics were such that I couldn't get the time to record with him.

I understand Bowie tried to get you guys interested in the Glam scene.  How did that go down with the band?

At one point David tried to impress on us the advantages of wearing eye make-up, to enhance our features and expressions.  He told us it would make our eyes stand our more when we were on stage.  We were a bunch of young guys from the mean streets of Glasgow so, as you can imagine, his suggestion was met with disdain, in fact it was a complete non-starter! 

Clothes, make-up and visual image generally were never a priority for us.  We never even thought about it.  The band members just wore whatever we felt like wearing with no thought of image or colour co-ordination etc, so you can imagine our reaction to Bowie's tips regarding wearing eye make-up.  However, later in the tour we did start playing around with the various hairsprays the Spiders were using, much to Bowie's amusement.

Bowie, being a visual person, was fascinated by our fiddler Lindsay Scott's face.  One day David said "Hasn't he got an amazing face?".  The band's collective reply was that he had a "baw-heid" (Scottish slang for a round or chubby face), again much to Bowie's amusement.

Did you cross paths with Angie Bowie?

Occasionally Angie attended the gigs.  She was exactly the loud and brash American you would have expected her to be, although she was always warm and engaging with anyone in her company.  She was very much in control of David’s image and was heavily involved in his stage appearance as well, both his clothes and the make-up.  They would both wear floppy hats and impossibly big flares when travelling between gigs.  

Angie was much braver than David when it came to handling fans and journalists, which is probably why she got a reputation for being difficult.  We have to remember that Bowie was a very non-confrontational guy which, when you were given to wearing ladies’ clothes and make-up in the early 70s, meant you got a lot of unwanted attention and abuse from guys, particularly out in the provinces away from the cosmopolitan streets of London. 

Angie was effectively his first line of defence.  As the tour went on and the press coverage surrounding Bowie’s stage persona grew, it became apparent he needed a bodyguard to fend off any unwanted attention, hence the recruitment of Stuart George, a bouncer from Hull and good friend of Mick, Trevor & Woody.

I suppose Bowie’s soft approach and camp image never caused him any problems in the future as he was cosseted by security people for the rest of his life.  Getting back to Angie, she was very lively, friendly, positive and interested in people.  A force to be reckoned with. 


Speaking of Mick, Trevor and Woody, how did you get along with them?

They were salt of the earth, Yorkshire lads from Hull.  They got on with us like a house on fire and their friendliness and generosity extended to the JSD Band staying at Trevor's parents’ house in Hull on a few occasions.  Mick Ronson even offered to help produce our band but unfortunately, logistics didn't make this possible.  If only we knew then what we know now, we would have jumped at the chance to have Ronson produce us.

How familiar were you with Bowie’s Music before the tour?

Someone in Bowie's crew gave us a cassette tape of the Ziggy Stardust album, which we would listen to in the van travelling between gigs.  So, we got to know every track, arrangement and lyric on it.  Along with the music Bowie had a set of choreography moves that he performed every night, and the Spiders did this too.  I've already mentioned Trevor's ill-fated forward rush and backward run (see below).  During sound checks Des (Coffield, JSD guitarist), who was the comedian in the band, took to aping Bowie's pre-planned moves, which caused Stu and the crew to go into hysterics.  Des's height and build didn't exactly lend itself to an elegant performance!

Did you encounter Bowie’s high-powered manager Tony Defries? 

Defries was only on the tour sporadically and he didn't really interact with us, as we had our own management company.  I recall he was fairly quiet, reasonably friendly but an extremely business-like bloke.  We could tell there was a lot of work going on in the background, as the amount of press and music industry people who turned up, even at the remotest provincial gigs, ensured that every show got a review of some kind in the local press.  I suppose you would expect nothing less from an Allen Klein protégé.

Any Spinal Tap moments during the tour?

We played a show at a glass pavilion in Liverpool where the electricity cut out halfway through (Liverpool Stadium, June 3, 1972).  We were able to carry on by switching to our acoustic instruments and then wandering through the audience, but Bowie and the Spiders had no choice but to vacate the stage and then resume where they had left off when power was restored.  

Then there was the time at the Colston Hall, Bristol where Trevor Bolder fell over his amp while doing his choreography moves, involving a backwards walk.  This was probably aided by the alcoholic refreshment both bands had been imbibing beforehand.  Speaking of Trevor, I recall how his famous sideburns took on a life of their own during the tour, growing ever longer.  He made a point of spraying them silver before every gig! 

But just about every gig on the tour was a highlight.  Barring the power cut in Liverpool and the lack of numbers at the initial gigs there were no real lowlights.

How did life change for you after the tour?

After the tour was over it was business as usual for us, playing venues all over the country.  No discernible change was obvious, although having witnessed first-hand Bowie’s success this inspired us and increased our ambition.  We would have appreciated a bit more press coverage during the tour as we thought we went down just as well as the headliners.  But, at the same time, we realised that this was David Bowie’s tour and his management company had put a lot of effort, belief and money into making him a success.

The JSD Band appears to have fallen off the radar in 1974

After the tour we brought Chuck Fleming back in on fiddle and completed the third album Travelling Days (1973) which, despite critical acclaim, didn’t sell as well as the “Black Album” (JSD Band 1972).  We also toured America for the first time, although the tour was cut short due to Chuck's flying phobia. 

Around this time Cube Records wanted us to aim at the pop charts and, although we had started a fourth album at Rockfield studios in Wales, they decided to concentrate on us becoming more commercial by putting out singles for the first time. 

In early 1974 we headlined our own British tour, playing major halls and venues supported by Randy Pie (a German band featuring ex-members of the Rattles).  The tour was quite disappointing numbers-wise and fissures which had already started appearing became more apparent within the band in relation to the music genre and style we should be playing. 

Then the all-too-common musical differences appeared, and the tour came to an abrupt end with the sudden departure of Chuck Fleming, which made it virtually impossible for us to reproduce live what we had just recorded and were supposed to be promoting.  With no immediate replacement available there was no choice but to end the tour prematurely.  After Chuck quit, I decided to leave the band permanently to pursue other interests.


The band continued for a few months as “The New JSD Band” without Chuck and Sean and with the addition of a new member Ian Lyons on lead guitar.  Under this name they changed their style from folk-rock to pursue a more pop-rock musical style, playing original material mostly written by guitarist Des Coffield.  Their new direction didn't go down well with their existing fanbase as it was so different from the music they had recorded previously, and it also failed to gain many new fans.  They had wanted to change the band name to reflect this, but were dissuaded from doing so by their management.  After about six months the whole thing collapsed, and the band members went their separate ways.  

Over the years the JSD Band have had several reunion gigs and they produced a couple of albums in the 90s - For the Record (1997) and Pastures of Plenty (1998).  They still get together on a regular basis for occasional gigs, musical sessions and various social events.

*Sheet Music

JSD Band – The History

The JSD band started out as a trio comprising Jim Divers, Sean O'Rourke and Des Coffield, naming the band after the first letter of their forenames.  They hailed from Rutherglen, near Glasgow and all of them went to St Marks primary school in 1957.  Their roadie, Colin Finn was originally the drummer/percussionist.  He also came from Rutherglen and went to the same school as the other three, albeit a year earlier.  

The fiddle players Chuck Fleming and Lindsay Scott came from Loanhead, Midlothian and Hawick respectively.  Chuck was about five years older than the original three and had classical training on violin but in his teens got involved with the nascent Edinburgh folk scene of the sixties.  Lindsay was a few years younger and, like Chuck, had violin lessons as a youngster and was also well steeped in traditional music, his grandfather being Willie Scott the renowned traditional singer/shepherd from the Hawick area.

The four from Rutherglen began performing together when they were around 14 or 15, playing popular music of the day including material by the Beatles, Kinks, Who, Rolling Stones etc, plus some light classical music instrumentals.  After rehearsing in Jim's dad's garage they played local youth club dances, plus the occasional wedding and birthday party.

Around that time Jim, Des and Colin, together with a girl singer named Betty Little, began performing in lounge bars in the local area playing popular, mainstream material of the day.  Sean started busking with his friends from high school in Glasgow and Edinburgh with his guitar and a banjo bought for him by his dad, playing the music of Bob Dylan, the Incredible String Band and other folk and blues material.  Sean also got a few pointers on banjo playing from fellow Ruglonian (as those from Rutherglen are known) and future JSD collaborator Rab Mears, who also taught Billy Connolly some banjo tunes. 

Des’s sister then returned from America armed with a collection of folk albums including LPs by the Clancy Brothers, Dubliners and Journeymen, among others.  Jim, Sean and Des started to learn this traditional folk material, much of which they were already familiar with due to their family backgrounds.  Jim acquired a double bass, Sean already had his banjo and an acoustic guitar and Des bought a 12-string guitar and so the JSD trio was born. 

With this line-up and the new material, they quickly found places to play in the local area.  Their floor singing spots in local folk clubs got a good reception and this led to more and more offers to play.  At the same time they listened to a broad range of other music including Doc Watson, Pentangle, Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman among others.  Jim was the band’s researcher, picking up all sorts of unusual albums, mostly sourced from the famous Glasgow market the “Barras”.

The instrumentation was expanded with Des playing tenor banjo and mandolin, while Sean took up the fiddle and flute.  Meanwhile Colin, aside from his roadie duties, was gradually introduced into the band playing assorted percussion, turning the trio into a quartet.

As the JSD Band they played local folk clubs and the occasional concert, one of which was with the Humblebums (Billy Connolly, Gerry Rafferty and Tam Harvey) and Barbara Dickson.  An impressed Billy Connolly invited them to support the Humblebums at the Glasgow City Halls.  Encouraged by the audience reaction, the four decided to quit their jobs and pursue music full time. 

They gigged all over Scotland and also into the Newcastle area where they met the fiddler, Chuck Fleming, who soon came on board.  At that time, the band stayed in Tynemouth near Newcastle and, after playing a private party at the request of the local CID, they landed a residency at the North Shields Police Club.


In 1970 they won the Scottish Folk Group Championships and, as part of the prize, were awarded a recording contract with EMI's newly re-booted Regal Zonophone label.  Their first album was recorded at Craighall studios, Edinburgh and its 1971 release brought them attention from various management companies, record producers and DJ John Peel, who played tracks from the debut album Country of the Blind on his BBC's Radio 1 show.  With a new management deal the band became busy playing across Britain and eventually in Europe and USA.

After many gigs and widespread travelling the band’s popularity grew and they were subsequently offered a recording deal from Cube records.  Cube was the successor to Fly Records and became home to several artists who had also recorded for Regal Zonophone, including T.Rex, Joe Cocker, Procol Harum, The Move etc.

They made two albums for Cube: JSD Band and Travelling Days and recorded three singles “Sarah Jane”, “Sunshine Life” and “Hayes and Harlington Blues”.  These were recorded in various studios including Island, Trident and Rockfield as well as Cube’s own studio with producers Roger Bain (Black Sabbath) and Phil Wainman (The Sweet). An Old Grey Whistle Test appearance was filmed in 1974.

*7" Picture Sleeves from the UK & France


Friday, 12 February 2021

Zappa - The Documentary

Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed by Stuart Penney

“We were loud, we were coarse, and we were strange.  And if anybody in the audience ever gave us any trouble, we’d tell them to fuck off”.  So says Frank Zappa in the - spoiler alert! - poignant closing scene of this documentary.  It’s the kind of arrogant, no-nonsense image Zappa loved to project, especially during the early Mothers’ years when his musicians resembled (superficially, at least) an outlaw band of brothers, as opposed to the revolving door of academy trained hired guns which came later.  

But quotable though it is, this two-dimensional soundbite doesn’t give the full picture.  Zappa was a deep and complex personality, constantly tormented by the intricate musical sounds in his head.  As Steve Vai (Zappa band guitarist 1980-83) says in the film: “Frank was a slave to his inner ear.  He heard things a particular way and he tried to manifest them in the world.  But there were limitations”. 

Instead of attempting to shoehorn Zappa’s entire life story into just 130 minutes (an impossible task), Alex Winter’s film treads a narrower path and explores the character of one of the most prolific and obsessively creative musicians of the late 20th century.  For the most part it succeeds.  

Zappa has endured a long and, at times, painful gestation.  Five years ago, Winter, the Bill and Ted’s movie actor who is himself a noted director and producer, launched a Kickstarter campaign which raised a record US$1.2 million in just 30 days.  The money was used to preserve the vast amount of film and audio archive material sitting in Zappa’s vault.  The death of matriarch Gail Zappa and the ensuing bitter (and often public) legal squabbling between the Zappa siblings delayed the project for some time and then COVID-19 arrived.  Now at last the film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.  Hard core fans will be pleased to know much of the footage here is unseen and all of the narration has, apparently, never been heard before. 

Let’s get the sad stuff out of the way.  The action starts in 1991 backstage at the Sports Hall in Prague, following the 1989 withdrawal of Russian troops from Czechoslovakia.  Visibly ill from the prostate cancer that would soon claim him at the early age of 52, it was Zappa’s last-recorded guitar performance.  This is immediately followed by news of his death, as reported in many languages by TV channels around the world.  All this and we’re not yet five minutes in. 

Next up is a tour of The Vault, the huge underground storage facility at the former Zappa family home in the Hollywood Hills (now owned by Lady Gaga, fact fans) stacked floor to ceiling with the recorded history of his life’s work, most of it (despite Frank’s prodigious 100+ album output) yet to be released.  And, boy, was it a life well-lived.  We see boxes containing the original master tapes of Freak Out, Hot Rats, Overnite Sensation, Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch, Shut Up N’ Play Yer Guitar and other timeless albums.  This cuts to some grainy 50s childhood footage made on Frank’s dad’s 8mm movie camera.  From there the documentary proceeds roughly chronologically, starting with the family’s 1952 move to California where Zappa Sr worked for the government.  But the story really begins when Frank discovers a love of blues and R&B and takes up the guitar.  

“When I first picked up the guitar I said, ‘how in the world could anybody get any sound out of this thing?’  Once I figured out that the pitch changed when you put your finger down on the fret, I was hell on wheels” offers Frank, sounding like a precursor of Viz comic’s Mr. Logic.  

And so we arrive at Zappa’s first major band, the Mothers Of Invention.  I don’t know what Bunk Gardner is taking but I think they should market it.  Now an amazingly well-preserved 87 years old (he was born in 1933) Bunk seems as sprightly as a man 20 years younger as he reminisces on life as a Mother.  One of several Zappa alumni interviewed for the film, he played sax/woodwind in the early MOI line-up.

The unfailingly delightful Ruth Underwood (vibes / percussion 1972-77) also has a wealth of stories.  She met the Mothers during their NYC club residency in 1967 and tells how she was thrown out of a practice room at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for playing one of Frank’s pieces on piano.  Ruth pops up several times throughout the film and, together with Joe Travers on drums, delivers a stunning new performance of “The Black Page”, one of Zappa’s most complex and musically challenging pieces.

Zappa’s 60s record label Verve / MGM were terrified of getting sued over the
Sgt Pepper spoof on the cover of the third Mothers’ LP We’re Only In It For The Money, so Frank rang McCartney personally asking for legal clearance, only to receive the brush-off.  “We have lawyers who deal with that stuff”, sniffed Paul. 

Some late 60s footage of the Mothers goofing around in the tourist hotspots of London is entertaining if only for its sheer absurdity (admit it, you’ve always wanted to see Zappa at Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall wearing a bowler hat).  He was back in England a year or two later to film 200 Motels.  Perhaps because the movie has always been virtually impenetrable even to the most ardent FZ fans (a clutch of truly great rock tunes notwithstanding) this entire period is glossed over rather quickly.  

Shortly after this Frank was attacked and thrown off the stage at the Rainbow Theatre in London, bringing the Flo and Eddie-era “vaudeville” band to an end.  While convalescing he encountered Bruce Bickford and his wonderfully nightmarish claymation, leading directly to the Baby Snakes movie project.  Looking very old and sick (he died of a heart attack in 2019, not long after this interview was filmed) Bickford describes how the most important aspect of making a Zappa clay model was “to get the nose right”. 

Problems with obstructive record companies who had little idea how to market him were a constant theme of Zappa’s 70s recording career.  Wearing a “Warner Bros Sucks” t-shirt, Frank explains how he once had no fewer than nine active lawsuits out against Warners at the same time.  This led directly to the formation of his own Zappa and Barking Pumpkin labels, two of the first fully independent record companies of the late 70s. 

He may have seemed like he was enjoying himself during a 1978 appearance on NBC TV’s Saturday Night Live, but Frank apparently hated every minute.  “A lot of times, people like what you do for the wrong reasons” he later said.  Zappa famously didn’t do drugs and on a show populated by enthusiastic cocaine users the writers thought it would be a great idea to involve Frank in a sketch which made fun of him for NOT taking drugs.  This was ironic considering several high-profile SNL cast members ruined their careers or even expired as a direct result of substance abuse. 

Zappa’s non-stop work ethic and relentless drive for musical perfection came at some personal cost to his private life.  Frank could be a cold fish, remembers Ruth Underwood and he cared little for friendship outside his immediate family.  He was also not without flaws and the film doesn’t shy away from the horrendous sexism which was rampant in the 60s and 70s rock world.  Frank’s admission that he’d often come back off tour with a dose of the clap and then instruct wife Gail to “go get a prescription” for both of them wouldn’t hold up for a second today, but those surely were different times.

Frank’s 1985 battle against the introduction of record warning labels has been extensively documented elsewhere, but it’s always interesting to see a short-haired, be-suited Zappa taking on Tipper Gore and the pearl-clutching Washington wives of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC).  He became the go-to guy for the morning TV news programmes speaking out on behalf of musicians who mostly fell silent in the face of music censorship.  Despite opposition the Parental Advisory stickers eventually appeared, but Frank’s involvement surely increased public awareness. 

Following his final world tour in 1988, Zappa’s prostate cancer diagnosis slowed him down and the final 20 mins of the film make for sad viewing as we see him getting progressively weaker.  There was just time to complete one last major project, The Yellow Shark with the Ensemble Modern orchestra which brings the film to an emotional climax.  Often overshadowed by his scatological rock material, Zappa’s classical work was of equal importance to him (if not his fans) and this time he seemed (almost) satisfied with the results.  Fittingly, the film ends with a long fade-out montage over the beautiful guitar instrumental “Watermelon In Easter Hay” culminating with Frank symbolically turning out the lights in The Vault.   

Zappa always stubbornly refused to fit in.  Despite looking every inch the long-haired freak, he never aligned himself with the 60s peace and love hippie movement and, equally, with such an expansive and unwieldy back catalogue, his music is unlikely to resonate with today’s streaming and playlist generation.  There was no one else remotely like him in the world of popular music.  He existed entirely and gloriously outside the orthodoxy of the rock tradition.  His music is a wondrous alchemy of comedy, classical, jazz fusion, musique concrete, doo wop, heavy rock and much else besides.  He could do it all and he did it in style.  

Several have attempted it before with mixed results, but Alex Winter’s 129-minute film comes closer to capturing the essence of the complicated man behind the myth (and, indeed, the moustache) than any Zappa documentary to date.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Old, New, Borrowed and Blue - A History of Donovan’s Guitars

by Stuart Penney

©Donovan Discs 2019

When we think of Donovan and his guitars it’s usually his iconic 1965 cherry sunburst Gibson J-45 acoustic that comes to mind, or perhaps one of the beautiful bespoke instruments made by Tony Zemaitis or Danny Ferrington which arrived later.  While these were, perhaps, Donovan’s most high-profile guitars, he has owned and used many different instruments, acoustic and electric, since he first exploded on the pop scene in 1965.  

This is an attempt to unravel the story of the dozens of guitars Don has been associated with over more than 55 years.  I’ve restricted the list to around 40 well-known instruments, but there are others where evidence is sketchy or lacking completely.  There is a partial photograph showing Donovan playing what appears to be a mid-60s Gibson SG electric, for example, and another picturing him at home with an unidentified resonator dobro style guitar. There's also evidence of a Martin OM model he used in the early 90s. So, any information, corrections and updates on these and other instruments listed here will be welcome.  

In his book The Hurdy Gurdy Man, Donovan says this about his very first guitar.  “[It] was an old ‘box’.  Not much to look at, but to me it was fantastic, and it was mine.  I had bought it for £3/10 shillings [£3.50] from [guitar teacher] John Vanstone”.  He goes on to describe the instrument as a nylon string classical guitar which had been fitted with steel strings.  It also had old fashioned wooden tuning pegs instead of modern metal geared tuners.  Whatever this early guitar was, it clearly wasn’t the first instrument on our list.

Guitar #1 - Framus 5/024 Hootenanny 12-String

Although Donovan has mentioned owning “a classical guitar (with) steel strings on it” in the early days, the first instrument with photographic evidence is this Framus Hootenanny 12-string, as pictured in the booklet from the 1969 LP Donovan’s Greatest Hits.  Here we see the teenage Donovan, circa 1961, in the Leitch family home at 230 Bishops Rise, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, gamely holding down a difficult A7 barre chord on the fifth fret of his Framus guitar.  

Framus was a German brand who made mid-price instruments between 1946 -1975.  Their guitars were hugely popular with British musicians and were even used by the Beatles.  John Lennon can be seen playing “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” on a Framus Hootenanny 12-string in the film Help! but his was slightly different (possibly a 5/019), with a natural top and solid headstock, unlike the slotted headstock on Donovan’s sunburst example. The mid-60s price of a Hootenanny was £42 10s 6d (equivalent to £840 today).

David Bowie also played the larger-bodied Framus 12-string guitars and Bill Wyman was a long-time user of their basses.  

Framus went out of business in 1975, but the name was revived 20 years later by the German instrument company Warwick and the guitars are now back in production.


Guitar #2 - Zenith Model 17 

Don’s Framus was superseded by a Zenith Model 17.  This was a slightly higher quality (although still relatively inexpensive) archtop instrument with F holes, probably built in the late 50s.  Donovan tells how the guitar was borrowed from the girlfriend of his pal Mick Sharman but “the poor girl was never to get it back”.  

His early Denmark Street demos and even the “Catch The Wind” hit single were recorded with the Zenith and it was also the guitar with the “This Machine Kills” sticker Don used on his first Ready Steady Go! appearances in January and February of 1965.  He was pictured with it on the front cover of a 1965 tour programme as well as a Swedish 7” single sleeve for “Catch The Wind”.  

Zenith guitars were made under licence in Germany by Framus and imported into the UK by the famous music publisher and instrument retailer Boosey & Hawkes.  The guitars carried a B&H medallion logo on the headstock, together with the stark legend “Zenith - Foreign”.  Inside the body, visible through one of the F holes, was a label signed by jazz guitarist Ivor Mairants.  

A 1957 magazine advertisement shows the Model 17 on sale at 14 guineas (£14.70) which converts to around £360 today.  

Paul McCartney played a Zenith Model 17 in the early years of the Beatles (photograph of Paul below by Mike McCartney).


Guitar #3 - Second Zenith? - Mystery Guitar With Pick-Up

This is the first mystery guitar.  There are some early 1965 photos of Donovan playing an archtop instrument very similar to the Zenith (see Guitar #2), complete with “This Machine Kills” sticker, but it is clearly not the same guitar.  The photographs don’t show enough detail to provide a positive identification, but we can see it has an extra fretboard position marker, a pick-up and the F holes are also positioned slightly differently to the Zenith.  The pick-up could have been added easily, of course, but changing the dot position markers would have been more difficult and probably not worth the effort on such a cheap guitar.  Was it another Zenith, or was this mystery guitar a different make altogether, such as an undocumented Hofner or an Egmond/Rosetti? 



Guitar #4 - Martin D-28 

After a couple of Ready Steady Go! appearances, the Zenith was replaced with Don’s first high quality acoustic, an expensive and desirable US-made Martin D-28.  Interviewed by Disc Weekly ahead of his first national tour in May 1965, Donovan revealed that he’d just bought a new Gibson guitar for "around £80".  “It’s the first one I’ve owned” he said, adding, “I borrowed one for TV”.  This implies the Martin D-28 was hired or borrowed and the Gibson was most likely the SJN / Country-Western model mentioned below (see Guitar #6).

As his career began to take off during 1965 he was pictured with the D-28 extensively.  It’s seen on the front and back cover of his debut LP What’s Bid Did And What’s Bin Hid (US title Catch The Wind) and we assume it was used to record at least part of that album.  The famous “This Machine Kills” sticker from the Zenith was briefly transferred to this guitar for a Ready Steady Go!  appearance.

One of the earliest sightings of the Martin was on April 11, 1965 at the NME Poll Winners Concert at the Empire Pool, Wembley, where Donovan played two songs backed by second guitarist Mac MacLeod, who used the Gibson SJN / Country-Western mentioned below.  

Martin introduced the D-28 model in 1931 and it was an instant hit with country players, folk strummers and bluegrass pickers alike.  With spruce top, rosewood back and sides and an ebony bridge and fretboard it became Martin’s most popular construction style.  The white plastic binding differentiates it from the cheaper, yet visually similar, D-18 model, which has black binding with mahogany back and sides.  

Martins have never been cheap guitars and in 1965 the D-28 was priced at close to £250 in the UK, which converts to almost £5,000 in 2021.  In the US they retailed around US$400 (US$3,300 today).  While pre-war D-28s now routinely change hands for six figure sums, a 1965 example similar to Donovan’s would easily sell for more than £5,000 on the vintage market today.



Guitar #5 - Bob Dylan’s Gibson Nick Lucas Special

This was Bob Dylan’s guitar.  Donovan is seen using it to play “To Sing For You” in Dylan’s Savoy Hotel room in London during the film Don’t Look Back, filmed in May 1965.  

Dylan purchased his early 1930s Gibson Nick Lucas Special in 1963 from Marc Silber, who ran a shop in New York City called Fretted Instruments.  The Gibson previously belonged to Silber’s sister Julie and was originally sunburst, but when Dylan got it the guitar had been refinished in blonde and the bridge replaced with one from a Guild guitar.  

Dylan used this Gibson onstage for around four years, until it was damaged in Melbourne in April 1966.  Bob apparently placed some harmonicas on top of the guitar while it was in the case, then closed the lid (never a good idea), causing the top to cave in.  The Nick Lucas was repaired in Australia and survived to complete the 1966 European tour dates, but Dylan moved on to other acoustics soon after. 

Nick Lucas was a popular jazz guitarist of the 20s and 30s.  Gibson gave him his own signature model which was sold between 1928 - 1941.  Original unmolested examples are now extremely rare, selling for up to US$40,000 today.


Guitar #6 - Gibson SJN / Country-Western

In an early 1965 interview with Disc Weekly, Donovan is quoted saying that he’d just bought a new Gibson guitar for around £80.  He was probably referring to this SJN / Country-Western.  This mysterious guitar seems to have been around only briefly during 1965 and early 1966 and there are tantalisingly few photographs of Donovan using it.  It’s pictured in the songbook Looking Very Tired From The Trip and there are a couple of photos showing Don playing it onstage at the Marquee club in London.  One backstage image shows this guitar and his famous Gibson J-45 (see Guitar #8) together, so both instruments were around at the same time.  

The plot thickens here, however.  During his April 1965 appearance on the NME Poll Winners Concert at the Empire Pool, Wembley (now re-named Wembley Arena), Donovan (using his “borrowed” Martin D-28) was backed by second guitarist Keith 'Mac' MacLeod*, his friend and mentor from St. Albans, who is playing this very Gibson SJN.  There are also pictures of Mac with the same guitar on his own website, www.macmacleod.co.uk so is it possible the SJN was later given / sold to him after Donovan got his Gibson J-45?

SJN stands for Southern Jumbo Natural.  The Gibson Southern Jumbo (SJ) model dates from 1942 when it was available in sunburst finish only.  A natural colour option later became available (SJN) and the renamed SJN / Country-Western model started life in 1956 as a round/slope shouldered guitar similar to the J-45.  The shape was radically changed from round to square shoulders in 1962 when it also received a new "pointed" pickguard. Donovan's example seen here was either new or just a couple of years old in 1965.  

In America the SJN was priced at US$220 in 1965 without case (US$1,800 in 2021), while in the UK it retailed at 110 guineas** (£115.50), case extra.  That’s £2,250 today.

Sheryl Crow is a notable user of these post-1962 Gibson SJN / Country-Westerns and has her own signature model.

*Donovan apparently wrote the song “Hurdy Gurdy Man” for Mac MacLeod, who had formed a Danish power trio he called Hurdy Gurdy.  MacLeod also worked and/or recorded with John Renbourn, Dana Gillespie and Maddy Prior.  He sadly died from COVID-19 complications in November 2020. 

**See guitar #8 for an explanation of guineas.



Guitar #7 - Joan Baez’s Martin 0-45 

Just as Bob Dylan had done the previous year, Donovan borrowed Joan Baez’s pre-war Martin 0-45 guitar during his performance at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965.  

Joan had at least two of these small body guitars, one without a pickguard, which some experts believe could be the almost identical Martin 0-42. In 1998 Martin issued a signature edition of Joan's 0-45, with just 59 examples made.


*Donovan with Gibson J-45 and SJN / Country-Western behind

Guitar #8 - Gibson J-45 Cherry Sunburst

Arguably the most famous of all his guitars, Donovan bought this cherry sunburst Gibson J-45 (one of 3,951 shipped in 1965, fact fans) on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard with, as he wrote in the Hurdy Gurdy Man book, “the first money from my first record deal”.  He was pictured with the J-45 on the cover of the July 1965 issue of Fabulous magazine and probably the first time the guitar was seen in action was on the TV Show Shindig in August when Donovan performed “Colours”.  He fitted it with La Bella Silk and Steel strings, as recommended by Joan Baez.

The J-45 was then used on every album, hit single and TV appearance until it was stolen backstage at a concert in the early 70s.  Nicknamed “Cherry Red”, it was also the guitar Donovan took to India in early 1968 to study under the Maharishi with the Beatles, where it was played at various times by George and John.  

Later in 1968 Don's J-45 was heavily modified.  The pickguard was removed, the Gibson headstock decal was hidden, the white plastic button machine heads were changed several times (ultimately it ended up with a set of heavy-duty metal Grover tuners) and, in keeping with the times, the body and headstock were decorated with stars.  Probably the last time this guitar was seen onstage was during a BBC TV In Concert special in late 1972.  

The J-45 is one of Gibson’s most popular and longest-running acoustic models.  First introduced in 1942, it originally sold for US$45, hence the name.  A no-frills instrument, seemingly able to play any style of music, it has been dubbed “The Workhorse”.  In the early years, the J-45 was produced almost exclusively in tobacco (brown) sunburst, but between 1962-1969 the standard colour was cherry sunburst.  

A 1965 Gibson US price list shows this guitar at US$175 without case, which converts to around US$1,500 today.  In the UK the 1965 price was 88 guineas* (£92.40) without case, which is approximately £1,800 in 2021.  

In 2014 the Gibson Custom Shop issued a signature edition run of 100 replicas of Donovan’s 1965 Gibson J-45 priced at US$2,999.  Each came with a letter and a hand-signed label inside the guitar.  Donovan personally owns several of these reproductions, including one without a pickguard which was presented to him at the Gibson factory. 

*In the UK a guinea was the equivalent of one pound and one shilling (£1.05).  Even though the guinea coin went out of circulation around 1816, certain “luxury” items were still priced in guineas to give the illusion of status or class.  These included pianos, artwork, land, furniture, electrical equipment, white goods and, of course, guitars.  Although guineas disappeared when decimalisation arrived in 1971, they are still used to buy and sell racehorses today.



Guitar #9 - Fender Telecaster

Donovan has said he played a white Fender Telecaster on the track “Season of the Witch”, “chunking down on the chord pattern with a lot of echo” during the Sunshine Superman album sessions recorded between January and May 1966 at CBS Studios in Hollywood.  The guitar was bought for $300 on Sunset Strip. No other details are available.


Guitar #10 - Vox Custom “Kensington” 1966
It’s not clear how Donovan ended up playing this UK made guitar on a 1968 BBC TV show, but it’s an important instrument, with a strong Beatles connection.  A one-off model, it was presented to John Lennon by the Vox amplifier company and used by both Lennon and George Harrison during 1967 and 1968.  

The guitar was played by George during rehearsals for “I Am The Walrus” in the Magical Mystery Tour film and it later showed up in the “Hello Goodbye” promo film clip, where it was used by Lennon.  John later gifted it to Apple electronics founder Alex Mardas (aka Magic Alex) as a birthday present.  

The Vox Custom has been auctioned twice.  In 2004 Christie’s of London sold it for £117,250 (US$210,000) and in 2013 the guitar went under the hammer for more than US$400,000 at a Julien’s Auction at the Hard Rock Café in Times Square, New York.


Guitar #11 - Epiphone Caballero FT-30

A solitary mid-60s photograph is the only evidence of our man using this Epiphone Caballero.  It features on the sleeve of the 1970 Australian EP Barabajagal and also on the cover of the 10” UK LP Minstrel Boy issued in 1983.  The guitar is missing the pickguard which would have been silkscreened with the trademark Epiphone “E” Greek epsilon.

Made in Gibson’s Kalamazoo factory between 1958-69, the Caballero FT-30 was the Epiphone equivalent of the Gibson LG-0 model with the same mahogany top, back and sides.  Smaller than a full-size flattop acoustic, these are known as “concert size” guitars.  In 1966 this guitar was listed in the Epiphone UK catalogue for a very reasonable 73 guineas* (£76.65) without case.  That translates to around £1,500 in 2021.  

US-made Epiphones were equally as good as their Gibson counterparts in every way (sometimes better) until production was moved offshore in 1969, after which it became a budget brand. 

* See guitar #8 for an explanation of guineas.


Guitar #12 - Rickenbacker 1997 RM  

After the Beatles spearheaded the British invasion of America in 1964, sales of Rickenbacker guitars exploded.  To meet demand the company produced special versions of several popular models for export to the UK.  These were virtually identical to the US versions except for a few cosmetic changes.  Most notably the familiar “slash” shaped sound holes seen on American models were replaced with more traditional F-shaped sound holes for the export guitars.  These instruments became retrospectively known as the “Rose-Morris” models, named after Rickenbacker’s UK distributor.  

Pete Townshend was just one of several high-profile UK exponents of these “Rose-Morris” guitars and he played a Rickenbacker 1997 RM which was the export version of their 335 model.  

We first saw Donovan with his Rickenbacker 1997 RM in Fireglo finish on Top Of The Pops in 1966 performing “Sunshine Superman” and he was later pictured with the guitar at the 1967 Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival.  

The original 1997 RM guitar was in production only between 1964-67. Rickenbacker re-issued it in 1987 along with a Pete Townshend signature model.



Guitar #13 - Fender Stratocaster.

This Olympic White Fender Stratocaster with rosewood fingerboard was first seen in September 1967 at the Hollywood Bowl and it later turned up in photographs from an early 70s TV show. 

Following the CBS takeover of Fender in 1965, the Stratocaster underwent several cosmetic and structural changes.  The most obvious being the enlarged headstock which happened at the end of 1965.  Donovan’s Strat has the new “large peghead”, as it was known, so it must have been a very recent model when he started using it.  Don still owns this guitar, apparently.


Guitar #14 – Paul “Deano” Williams’ Guild F40

Donovan borrowed this Guild acoustic guitar from Richie Havens’ guitarist Paul "Deano" Williams for his impromptu performance at the Blind Faith free concert in London’s Hyde Park on June 7, 1969.  Don had previously met Havens in Greenwich Village in 1966, so they were already acquainted.  

The exact Guild model is unclear, but it was most likely an F40 or the almost identical F50 with a factory-fitted pick-up and control knobs on the upper bout.  It may even have been a one-off special order.  

Note how the strap runs under the body of the guitar and is then attached to the sound hole via a hook.  This method is more commonly seen on nylon string classical guitars which are usually played sitting down. Willie Nelson also uses this Mariachi style strap, as it is known.  Presumably Deano (who played sitting) preferred to attach the strap this way on his steel string flat top instead of drilling the guitar for a strap button.

Nine weeks later on August 15, 1969 Williams would use this very guitar to back Richie Havens at the Woodstock Festival.  Around 30 seconds into “Freedom” on the Woodstock movie, listen out for Havens calling to the sound mixer “Turn up the guitar mic, please.  Guitar mic”.  He’s asking for Deano’s guitar volume level to be turned up.  The camera then cuts to Williams who grins widely, flashes a peace sign and points to this guitar.



Guitar #15 - Paul McCartney’s Fender Stratocaster

In his Hurdy Gurdy Man book Don writes that during the recording of the Open Road album in early 1970 in Morgan Studios, North London, he borrowed Paul McCartney’s Fender Stratocaster to record the track “New Year’s Resolvolution”.  Paul was also in Morgan at the time working on his first solo album McCartney.  

This seems to be an undocumented McCartney guitar, however.  Is it possible Don was thinking of the sunburst Fender Esquire which Paul played in the late 60s / early 70s? 


Guitar #16 - Fender Telecaster Thinline 1969

This guitar was first seen at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 during the electric half of Donovan’s set with the Open Road band.  It was also used on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert TV broadcast in 1974.  

The Telecaster Thinline is basically a semi hollow version of the regular solid Telecaster with body cavities and one F hole on the bass side.  In fact, when it first appeared in the 1969 Fender catalogue it was listed as the “Semi Acoustic Telecaster” (with no mention of "Thinline") and priced at £255, which was £15 more expensive than a Stratocaster and a whopping £80 more than a standard Telecaster.

There have been several different Thinline versions over the years, although the original two are most recognisable.  At the IOW Donovan played a 1969 model with two standard single-coil pickups and a mahogany body.  Confusingly, the Thinline was updated in 1972 with two Fender Wide Range humbucking pickups and a natural swamp ash body to resemble the Fender Telecaster Deluxe.  Got that?  Good.


Guitar #17 - “HMS Donovan” Guitar

This beautiful hand painted guitar was seen in the 1972 Jacques Demy film The Pied Piper with Donovan in the title role.  The make and model is unclear but it’s a small bodied instrument similar to a “0” size Martin or an even smaller parlour guitar and looks to have nylon strings with old style wooden tuners. 

The guitar was painted by Scottish artist John Patrick Byrne who, under the name “Patrick”, designed the 1971 HMS Donovan album sleeve and this instrument subsequently became known as the “HMS Donovan” guitar.

Byrne also designed record sleeves for The Beatles, Gerry Rafferty, Billy Connolly, and The Humblebums.  In later years he became one of Scotland’s foremost TV writers, responsible for such works as The Slab Boys Trilogy.  


Guitar #18 - Gibson ES-350  

Donovan is pictured playing this big archtop jazz guitar on the cover of an unofficial CD recorded during a 1972 benefit show for the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders at Green's Playhouse in Glasgow.  It was a most unlikely choice for him and to my knowledge it was not seen onstage again.

The Gibson ES350 is a full depth 17-inch guitar with cutaway and two P90 pickups.  It should not be confused with Chuck Berry’s famous instrument, which was the similarly named ES-350T, with the “T” standing for “thinline”.  

The Gibson ES-350 was in production only between 1947-1956 (with a re-issue in 1994) and is associated with jazz players such as Barney Kessell and Tal Farlow. 


Guitar #19 - Guild F-212 – 12 string

Before the Zemaitis guitars arrived, Donovan used a 12 string Guild F-212 onstage for the songs “Cosmic Wheels” and “Maria Magenta”.  He played this guitar together with his trusty Gibson J-45 on a BBC In Concert TV special aired in November 1972.  The show was released on DVD in 2009 under the name Donovan: An Intimate Performance.



Guitar #20 - Zemaitis “Blue Moon”

The Cosmic Wheels guitar!  There are probably more pictures of this instrument in circulation than any of Donovan’s other guitars, including his cherry sunburst Gibson J-45 (see guitar #8).  Don owns at least three Zemaitis acoustics, the most famous being the “Blue Moon” model first seen on the cover of the Cosmic Wheels album in March 1973 - although an earlier photo exists of Alice Cooper guitarist Glen Buxton playing the guitar in Morgan Studios in November 1972 when Donovan guested on Alice’s album Billion Dollar Babies.

Built in 1972, it has a crescent moon sound hole with stars decorating the top of the purple/blue coloured body.  After the J-45 was stolen around 1973 this became Donovan’s main stage and recording guitar, lasting until 1996.  

“Blue Moon” was eventually retired from live work when Donovan began using the Ferrington “Kelly” guitar (see guitar #26).  In the 2008 documentary Sunshine Superman: The Journey Of Donovan, this Zemaitis can be seen undergoing repairs and a refinish by Danny Ferrington in his Santa Monica workshop.  I have it on good authority that the treasured “Blue Moon” guitar now hangs on the wall in Donovan’s house in Ireland, currently minus its strings!

Tony Zemaitis was a British guitar maker of Lithuanian descent.  He rose to fame in the late 60s and early 70s, making unique instruments of extraordinary quality and ornamentation for the likes of Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Greg Lake, Jimi Hendrix, Ron Wood, Ronnie Lane, Marc Bolan and George Harrison.  

Zemaitis ran a cottage industry producing no more than ten instruments a year, steadfastly refusing to move into mass production.  He would never make an instrument he did not want to, whatever the financial incentive, preferring to deal with friends and players, rather than dealers or collectors, saying that his guitar building started as “a pleasant hobby for an amateur player, and to the most extent remains so.”

Although Tony Zemaitis died in 2002, his name lives on with Zemaitis guitars now manufactured under licence in Japan.  Original 60s / 70s examples now change hands for enormous sums, especially the engraved metal-fronted Zemaitis electrics as played by Marc Bolan and Ron Wood.



Guitar #21 - Zemaitis “Green Heart” 

Another flat top acoustic similar to the “Blue Moon” guitar but this one is green with a heart-shaped sound hole and a somewhat larger body.  It was pictured on the cover of a 1981 German 7” single “Neutron”/”The Heights Of Alma”.


Guitar #22 - Zemaitis “Sun” 12-string

Donovan’s third Zemaitis is a 12-string with a sun decoration around the sound hole.  It replaced the Guild F-212 (see guitar #19) for onstage work in the mid-70s for songs such as “Cosmic Wheels” and “Maria Magenta”.  It was still being used in concert as late as 1981 when Don played the Vienna Folk Festival, using it on two early songs “Donna Donna” and “Little Tin Soldier”.  The guitar is pictured on the cover of a 1978 French single “Dare To Be Different”/”Sing My Song”. The Zemaitis 12-string pictured (right) belongs to erstwhile Eric Clapton band guitarist George Terry and is very similar to Donovan's.


Guitar #23 - Fender Stratocaster 

Another late 60s CBS-era Fender with large headstock, this sunburst Stratocaster with rosewood fingerboard was used on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert TV show in 1974.  It is also pictured on the sleeve of the 1975 Dutch single “Salvation Stomp”/”Moon Rok”.


Guitar #24 - Alembic Series I

Founded in San Francisco by Grateful Dead soundman (and their personal chemist) Owsley Stanley in 1969, Alembic specialise in highly ornate (and very expensive) guitars and basses built from exotic woods.  Celebrity bass users have included Stanley Clarke, Greg Lake, John Entwistle and John Paul Jones.

Donovan was seen playing this Alembic Series I guitar onstage during a 1976 US tour where he was backed by the band Jiva.

The Series I is perhaps the definitive Alembic model, introduced in 1972 and available with a range of body styles and appointments. 


Guitar #25 - Gibson J-45

Donovan was seen using a red J-45 with a white pickguard in 1995 while running through songs for the Sutras album with producer Rick Rubin.


Guitar #26 - Ferrington “Kelly”

Hand built by Danny Ferrington in 1996, Donovan’s long-time favourite guitar has been dubbed “Kelly”.  Distinguished by its bold Irish coloring, the top is stained bright green and the back and sides are red.  A horned stag is inlaid on the lower bout of the top and mother-of-pearl runes are inlaid on the fingerboard, representing the Vikings who invaded Ireland.  The design around the sound hole is based on the Book Of Kells, a twelfth century Irish manuscript.

Donovan wrote this about the guitar on his website “When I first picked her up, all she would play was Irish tunes.  So, I decided to trick her by writing my first song with her - half Irish, half Scottish, and half Donovan.  ‘Kelly’ being but a babe and not yet counting, it worked, and now she plays anything.  

“‘Kelly’ became my favorite guitar, though Rick Rubin insisted on my using ‘Blue Moon’ [see guitar #20] for Sutras [recorded 1996], for its more mature sound.  ‘Kelly’ needed to grow up.  But now she records beautifully.”  

Working from his Santa Monica studio, Danny Ferrington has built guitars for George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Dweezil Zappa, Richard Thompson, Kurt Cobain, Johnny Depp, Johnny Cash, Pete Townshend and others.

Including “Kelly”, Donovan owns at least four Ferrington guitars.


©Donovan Discs 2019

Guitar #27 - Ferrington “Atlantis”

Second only to “Kelly” in ornamentation, this beautiful blue Ferrington acoustic was dubbed “Atlantis”.  It was used at Janey Godley’s Big Burns Supper online event in January 2021 and can be seen in action on Donovan’s YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uo4zEnwxSc


©Donovan Discs 2019

Guitar #28 - Ferrington Custom Electric

Looking very similar to a guitar made for Richard Thompson in 1991, this two pick-up solid body electric is fitted with a mini humbucker in the neck position and a Telecaster style single coil pick-up at the bridge.  

Donovan used it onstage in 2016 at the Celebrate the Summer of ’66 Festival at the Royal Windsor Racecourse.  This was a 50th anniversary tribute to the 1966 Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival which took place at the same venue.  

This guitar features in the book Ferrington Guitars.


Guitar #29 - Ferrington Acoustic with Cutaway

Another Ferrington acoustic circa 2010, this one is blue with a cutaway. It was used at a benefit concert for the David Lynch Foundation at the El Rey Theater in LA, March 2010.



Guitar #30 - Fender Telecaster 

Butterscotch blonde with maple neck and a black pickguard, this Telecaster of unknown date was used onstage in the late 90s.


Guitar #31 - Ovation Legend

In 1966 Ovation turned the acoustic guitar world on its head with a revolutionary design feature which replaced the instrument's conventional wooden back and sides with a composite synthetic bowl made from a type of fibreglass.  

Donovan’s electro-acoustic, sunburst Ovation Legend with cutaway was seen onstage several times in the 90s, including a 1997 German TV show.


Guitar #32 - Ovation Balladeer

Ovation’s earliest and most popular model.  These guitars were hugely fashionable in the 70s and 80s, played by countless famous artists, including Paul McCartney, Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond and Glenn Campbell.  Donovan used his Balladeer onstage in the 90s.


©Donovan Discs 2019

Guitar #33 - Gibson J-45 True Vintage

This high-end J-45 was produced between 2006-2019 in traditional style with old style “banner” logo and “Only A Gibson Is Good Enough” on the headstock, as originally used during WWII. It has a vintage orange Gibson label visible through the sound hole.  Donovan bought this guitar “pre-loved” and it's now part of the Donovan collection.


©Donovan Discs 2019

Guitar #34 - Gibson Les Paul Standard Reissue

Strange to see Donovan with a Les Paul, but this sunburst reissue was used onstage a few times.


Guitar #35 - Gibson Les Paul Standard Goldtop

In 2011 a Gibson Les Paul Standard Goldtop was signed by many of the musicians and presenters who attended the Mojo magazine Honours List Awards.  The guitar was then auctioned for charity.  Those who signed the guitar included Donovan, Jimmy Page, Brian Wilson, John Lydon, Ringo Starr, the Arctic Monkeys and Primal Scream.


Guitar #36 - Fender Stratocaster 

This sunburst Stratocaster with large headstock and maple fretboard was used onstage in Italy in November 2019


Guitar #37 - Harmony H-45 Mars Stratotone 

This US-made solid body electric from the early 60s was used on a Joolz Juke blues project overseen by Donovan to mark the 50th anniversary of Brian Jones’ death.  Joolz is Brian Jones’ grandson (and Don’s adopted grandson).  The guitar is part of the Donovan collection. 


©Donovan Discs 2019

Guitar #38 - Gibson J-45 Standard

Also used on the Joolz Juke Brian Jones tribute.  The Standard sits in the middle of the J-45 line-up and is probably Gibson’s most popular premium grade acoustic flattop.  Part of the Donovan collection.


Miscellaneous Instruments:

Vega Whyte Laydie Banjo

In the Hurdy Gurdy Man book Donovan says this about recording his 1965 single “Colours”.  “I had bought a fine White Lady [sic] banjo on Cambridge Circus and accompanied myself in the style of Derroll Adams”.  The London music shop referred to here was almost certainly Clifford Essex, located at 20 Earlham Street, which runs from Cambridge Circus to Seven Dials in Covent Garden and the correct name of the banjo was a Vega Whyte Laydie.  

Clifford Essex were specialists in acoustic string instruments and they also published the famous BMG Magazine (Banjo, Mandolin, Guitar) which was the oldest music publication in the world, starting in 1903 and eventually outlasting the West End store, which closed in 1977.  Clifford Essex also published countless tutor books for these instruments.  

In the 1960s, before custom gauge guitar strings became available, Eric Clapton and other string-bending bluesmen would buy banjo strings from Clifford Essex to replace the high E strings on their guitars.  They would then move the other five strings across (so the original E string became the B string and so on), creating a homemade light gauge set suitable for blues soloing.  

The Vega banjo turned up many times throughout Donovan’s recordings, and is pictured on the covers of the two 1967 LPs For Little Ones and Wear Your Love Like Heaven


Although Shawn Phillips is credited with sitar on several Donovan records, the man himself also owned one in early 1966.  He was pictured with it many times, but it doesn’t seem to have been used onstage or featured on record.  

Virtually the only place in London where a sitar could be found in the 60s was Indiacraft, a store in Oxford Street, so it’s possible Donovan bought his there, as did George Harrison in 1965.

Interviewed about the trip to India with the Beatles, Don later said “John, George and Paul all asked me to teach them how to play the sitar because I had one in London when no-one else had seen one before.”  That reply may contain more than a pinch of the usual Donovan hubris, but it’s true he was an early adopter of the instrument.

©Nick Read - 1981

Cittern / Octave Mandolin

The Cittern dates back many centuries, but the modern version is a hybrid instrument developed in the 1970s primarily for playing folk music.  Most citterns have 10 strings (five courses of two) but some are made with eight strings which, tuning apart, makes them almost indistinguishable from octave mandolins. 

Donovan used an eight-string cittern / octave mandolin on the track “The Heights Of Alma” from the 1980 album Neutronica.


©Donovan Discs 2019


Like most UK folkies and blues players of his era Donovan favoured Hohner Echo Super Vamper harmonicas (aka harps) in various keys.  The Super Vamper was basically a European version of the famous Hohner Marine Band harmonica sold in America. Naturally, he used a harmonica harness around his neck to hold the harps while he played guitar. His first rack was a charming home-made affair with a fur neck covering constructed for him by his father (see guitar #2) but he soon graduated to a more professional, chrome-plated, store-bought harness (see guitar #4). Hohner recently gave Don his own signature harmonica model, pictured above.


Kazoos were popular in jug band music and folk / blues for many years with artists such as Jesse Fuller using them on his big hit “San Francisco Bay Blues.”

In keeping with his one man band image, Donovan used a kazoo in his harmonica rack, at least in his early Woody Guthrie period (Gypsy Dave is credited with kazoo on “Keep On Truckin’” from the first LP).  He soon outgrew it, though, and by the time of his second album the glorified comb and paper device was gone.  

Simple to play, plastic kazoos could be bought for a few pennies in 60s music stores, but serious folkies used the metal ones which might cost as much as a pound! 


Hamilton Capo

For the uninitiated, a capo (short for capodastro) is a clamp-like device used on the neck of a fretted stringed instrument (usually a guitar) to transpose and shorten the playable length of the strings - hence raising the pitch and enabling the player to use the same chord shapes in different keys.  This helps with guitar fingering and can also assist with vocal accompaniment.  

There are many weird and wonderful varieties of capo on the market today, but back in the 60s the choice was limited, at least in Britain.  We had the cheap and nasty elastic capos (wildly inefficient, since they were little more than a wide elastic strip and a plastic bar strapped to the guitar neck) and then there was the Hamilton capo.  Made from metal and virtually indestructible, the Hamilton was the capo of choice for most folkies in the 60s and Donovan used one from his earliest days with the Zenith Model 17 (see guitar #2).  

Technology has come a long way since then and the Hamilton capo with its Heath Robinson-style two-handed operating method now seems old, slow and clunky.  But they did the job just fine at the time - and still do.  I still have my original Hamilton capo from the 60s and it’s never missed a beat in more than 50 years.  

The Hamilton company has been around since 1883 and is still in business today, based in Middletown, Ohio, although they are now better known for their music stands.  The Monkees immortalised the company in their song “Circle Sky” from the 1968 Head album.  The line "Hamilton's smiling down" apparently refers to one of their music stands.

Many thanks to Les Lawson Bear for his advice and assistance with photographs
Find Les on Instagram: lrsbearuk or Twitter: lrsbearuk

Donovan's website: https://donovan.ie/

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