Duane Allman 1946 - 1971
Main Guitar(s): Gibson 59 Cherryburst Les Paul & 68 Cherry SG
Main Amp: Marshall "50 watt bass head"
The guitar has been around for a long time. And there are few great innovative guitarists who manage to develop a totally different style of playing than anyone before them. One of the most emotionally charged players ever to have existed surely has to be Duane Allman.
Relatively unknown outside the USA, he had a short career in recording, from the first demo tapes recorded in 1966 up to his death in October 1971, but was one of the most prolific studio musicians of the period, cutting songs with, amongst others, Wilson Pickett, King Curtis, John Hammond, Johnny Jenkins, Boz Scaggs and Aretha Franklin, as well as his own band, The Allman Brothers Band.
His best performances were undoubtedly recorded with the Allman Brothers, but the most famous have to be his contributions to Eric Clapton's 1970 Classic album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
It is a common misconception that he played Slide and Eric played Lead guitars throughout the album, although this is not the case. Duane plays his most astounding lead work behind the vocals on "Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad", and crafts a stunning solo for a few measures before Eric joins in: two fantastic guitarists at their absolute peaks. The effect is magical.
In all the other songs, the easiest way to tell the differences are that Duane plays a Gibson Les Paul, and Eric plays a Fender Stratocaster throughout. Also, Eric plays a little slide over the endcoda to Layla with Duane, and he also plays slide on "Tell The Truth" with Duane.
The main causes for the development in Duane's technique and sound were his progress from a Fender Guitar/Amp combination to a Gibson/Marshall marriage. He started off using a Fender Telecaster with a Stratocaster neck, before moving on to a 1954 Fender Stratocaster, which he played through an assortment of Fender amplifiers (a Twin in particular).
In order to thicken out the sound a little, he used a Fuzz Face distortion box, which he insisted to be used in conjunction with nearly flat 9V batteries. His justification for this was that the sound takes on a slightly creamier quality when the batteries are flat, while the amp can then be used to provide the main raunch and overdrive.
He moved to Gibson guitars shortly after the formation of the Allman Brothers Band in 1969. During the recording of this album he used a Gibson ES-345, while co-guitarist Dickey Betts also used a variety of Gibsons, in particular an ES-345 and a 68 SG. It is highly likely that both Dickey and Duane occasionally swapped guitars with each other, and maybe took spares on the road with them.
From photo evidence though it can be seen that Duane switched between several Gibson guitars, although his favourite was a 1957 Les Paul Goldtop (serial number 7 3312) with PAF pickups. He part-exchanged this guitar in Daytona Beach, FL on the 16th September 1970, having played a concert with a local group there, (having also recorded the large part of Layla with it) for a plain-top 1958/59 cherry sunburst Les Paul that was then in the posession of the guitarist in the opening group; they were called "The Stone Balloon". The plain-top is the guitar he can be seen to play in the Fillmore Video; it is also the guitar that he used to complete the recording of the Layla album.
When he did that exchange, he also switched over the PAF pickups from the 57 Goldtop to the 58/9 Cherryburst - apparently he preferred the sound of the Goldtop's bridge pickup to that of the newer guitar, and consequently swapped them over in a Hotel Room after the concert where he found the Cherryburst.
Early in 1971 he bought, in addition to the other Les Paul, a 1958 vintage tobacco sunburst Les Paul, with an exaggerated tigerstripe sunburst pattern. This had been owned by singer Christopher Cross, and was found for Duane by Billy Gibbons of Z Z Top. This was the guitar on the "at Fillmore East" and "Eat A Peach" albums. Late in 1971 he began to use a 68 Cherry Gibson SG that had been used previously by Dickey Betts (who had replaced it in mid-1971 with a vintage '58 Gold-Top Les Paul, the guitar which Dickey gave Dan Toler in 1978, who had it refinished in a cherry sunburstcolour) exclusively for slide work.
Before this Duane had retuned on stage between lead and slide songs, although he continued to play slide in standard tuning in songs with both lead and slide parts (the only two Allman Brothers songs like this are Dreams, Mountain Jam, and very briefly Midnight Rider, which both feature Duane playing both lead and slide).
As far as amplifiers are concerned, he switched from Fender to Marshall when playing live at the same time as he switched from Fender to Gibson Guitars. In the studio he continued to use Fender amps occasionally. As far as Marshall amps are concerned he tried 100W heads, but switched to 50W soon after as he could push them to heavier distortion at quieter volumes (remember that these amps didn't have distortion channels like modern amps, but required natural volume to push the valves to overdrive)- although quiet is still relative (i.e. loud).
This is an interesting note when comparing his sound with that of fellow guitarist Dickey Betts, especially on the "at Fillmore East" album. Dickey used 100W heads, so the overdrive is still far cleaner when he played at the same volume as Duane. They both used half open modified Marshall 4x12 Cabinets, which were altered to use JBL-D120 speakers; these have a very different tone and character to the standard Celestion 25 watt speakers found on speaker cabs from that era.
There are many photos around of Duane using a Bass top cab, which he probably used to get the smoother, essentially bassier tone that he preffered. Because the amps do not feature a channel switch, both used the volume controls on their guitars to alter the clean/distorted texture when playing rhythm or lead. Duane, however, used the Tone and Pickup controls far more during his solos than Dickey did.
Duane's tone on the slide is unique due to a number of points that set him apart from his other contemporaries. Firstly, he played with a glass Coricidin Medicine Bottle. This is not actually long enough to cover the whole neck of a Les Paul, so he never played full chords with it, preferring never to reach beyond triads (3 string chords).
It also means that he had to position the slide differently as he moved across the neck. He held the slide in such a way that the inside rim of the bottle rested on the second knuckle of his ring finger, and he used the tip of that finger to position the slide over the frets. In order to keep the slide at the correct angle, he held the guitar high, and angled it up slightly higher than most guitarists do. He also put his middle finger across the strings behind the slide in order to mute the other strings and prevent unwanted overtones. This is difficult to do properly unless the action is set rather high, implying that Duane liked his guitars set up that way. His slides around the strings while playing normal fretted work also tend to imply that his guitars were set up with fairly low frets.
As far as Duane's fretted technique goes, he also had a number of idiosyncrasies that made his playing all the more unique. Firstly, he used a technique called circular picking, whereby the pick doesn't move simply perpendicular to the strings, but in a circular motion. Not only does this soften the attack, but it allows you to jump strings in a far more even, controlled manner. As he held his pick between his thumb and forefinger, he kept the other three fingers on his right hand virtually still, making his right hand seem almost motionless as his fingers moved the pick as opposed to his whole hand. This can be seen quite clearly on the Fillmore Video.
Also, Duane was in fact left-handed, despite playing the guitar as if right handed. This added strength in his fretting hand gave him a greater degree of control when bending notes or adding vibrato, plus it meant that his picking hand was not quite as strong, seeming to give him a very light touch. Listen to the version of Dreams from the debut album for an example of his extraordinary control over slow bends and slow vibrato. This also gave him added strength and dexterity with his pinky on his fretting hand.
Duane always used a pick when playing lead work, but also never played slide with a pick. Instead, he used his thumb, index and middle fingers to pluck the strings. He backed off the tone a little to prevent squeals from being audible, and he used a variety of pickup positions, depending on how high he intended to play. When his notes extended past the fretboard, as in "Layla", "Mountain Jam" and "Don't Keep Me Wonderin'" and others, he would use the Bridge/Treble Pickup (although with the tone backed off considerably). On most others, he used the Neck/Rhythm pickup, or both.
When playing fretted lead for extended solos, he used both pickups, and manipulated the tone controls extensively. The solos in "Whipping Post" and "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed" from the "At Fillmore East" Album are good examples of this. Note also that he would often end the solo for Whipping Post by getting gradually quieter - this let him reset the volume controls gradually lower to the required rhythm volume for the next verse - this was necessary since he had used both pickups at full wack.
In other songs with shorter solos, such as the first section of "You Don't Love Me" and "Hot 'Lanta", he would set one pickup to be quiet for rhythm work, and the other to be loud for solo work, and he could use the pickup selector as a sort of channel selector.
One of the most important parts of Duane's slide sound is his use of alternative open tunings. Of the tunes he recorded with the Allman Brothers Band with slide features in them, the tunings were grouped thus:
Open E - Statesboro' Blues, Done Somebody Wrong, One Way Out, Trouble No More (Live), Drunken Hearted Boy, Stand Back, Don't Keep Me Wonderin', and Little Martha.
Standard Tuning - Dreams, Mountain Jam, Midnight Rider, and Trouble No More (debut album version).
"Develop your talent, man, and leave the world something. Records are really gifts from people. To think that an artist would love you enough to share his music with anyone is a beautiful thing."
-- Duane Allman
by Julian Fothergill.