Calling all guitar fanatics – Steve Clarke talks about the famous guitars he’s worked on

by Nicole Stephenson

Steve Clarke

Calling all guitar fanatics…assemble, unite, nestle in and prepare yourself for an absolute treat. When I found out that my second ever interview here at Northern Life was going to be with Steve Clarke who is a guitar tech to the famous, Mancunian musician, writer for The Guitar Magazine and has recently released a new book which shares details of his work, I could hardly believe my luck. Total ‘pinch me’ moment.

I’m a self-confessed nostalgic. Utterly obsessed with the 70’s and other past decades I never had the pleasure to live in. I’m 25 going on 65 and a true misfit in my own generation. I bore most people my own age banging on about 70’s music, fashion and basically anything retro at all. So, being able to speak to Steve who has rode the wave of musical movements like punk, felt the electrifying buzz of an age that was entering an exciting new sound and speaks with such high esteem for my favorite decade, I can’t tell you how much this satisfied my young-old soul…

Steve’s book ‘Famous Frets’ truly is a magnificent read even if you are not a huge guitar fan, it covers all bases, pardon the pun. It appeals to anyone who appreciates classic rock and roll, music in general or even those who want to hear never released anecdotes on their favorite iconic artists. Steve has been a guitar tech for over 30 years and a musician for over 40. During his tech career he has re-fretted, altered, repaired, customized, examined and dismantled some of the most famous guitars is music history. We’re talking George Harrison, Prince, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix and Marc Bolan to name just a few. He pays attention to the minute details of each guitar he works with. Fine combing over components which most wouldn’t bat an eyelid over, but this is what makes his analysis of guitars so cutting edge.

I’m greeted by Steve’s broad yet warm and clean-cut Mancunian accent. I dive straight in, conscious that I have 958578493 questions I want to ask him, first I want to find out what a normal day is currently like in his life. He takes a deep breath and I am hooked from the get-go. “Taking apart guitars really, taking phone calls from customers who have specific requests for their guitar, changing hardware or fixing faults with them.  I also communicate with Bonham’s auctioneers in London who I talk with about their guitars which come in for auction, famous guitars that is… hence the book” he jokes.

I try my chances and press Steve for any exclusives he may be getting his hands on, to my surprise Steve lets the cat out of the bag. It is likely they are getting in a guitar of Francis Rossi from Status Quo which will go to the December auction, so that will be a great thing. There may be a press release by the time you’ve finished this, so I can tell you…I think” he chuckles.

Another string to add to Steve’s bow. Wow. Steve’s focus on his seemingly niche hobby looks to have paid off with opportunities like this being given to him. It is heartwarming to see how humble Steve is about this. “I can’t tell you Nicole, I have been very lucky. I used to write for The Guitar Magazine. I was fed up of seeing the same old thing, shiny guitars that cost more money than we would love to pay, and I just thought it’s getting a little bit safe. I had a brain wave, I was at the train station and I phoned up the magazine and said let’s try something different, they said go ahead and do what you can, Suzie Quattro was the first one that I kind of impressed them with,  I stuck my neck out,  they thought I was insane and of course when I got it and found out the information they ran the story”. The irony of this however is quite amusing…

Famous Frets
Buy from Amazon

Nowadays, Steve is tracking down these famous guitars from classic records and musicians are handing them over whereas in Steve’s gigging days it seemed to be the opposite. “I was in two bands, a punk band in Manchester called The Drones and the other one was called Taxi. We used to rehearse just down the road from where The Hacienda used to be, on Little Peter street. It’s quite famous. At the time that was the only place that you could rehearse at that was half decent. We had a big PA, The Buzzcocks were next door and they’d quite often knock on and say can we use a microphone, or have you got any speakers cos we’ve got a gig tonight” How many people can say that?! As Steve is sharing this quirky little anecdote it’s not difficult to sense that he is filled with many more nostalgic tales from music history.

As much as I would like to ask him all day long about stories of the past, I’m keen to learn about the technical side of his job, and how the different measurements, weights and parts of guitars matter to its sound. I am pleased that he puts it in layman’s terms for me. “From model to model it’s a bit like a car, you will get one car that simply won’t perform the same as another car. There are many factors that come into it: the weight of it, the hardware, the metals, the pickups, the output. It is a science. The Holy Grail is the late 50’s guitars, all the glue has dried, the wood has matured and there is no moisture left in them anymore. They have been played a lot, so the wood adapts and changes over time. Manufacturers today desperately try to get that incorporated in their new designs, they try all sorts of methods to speed up the process of aging, because they know that’s where the magic happens.”

This really got me thinking about a quote which I had read in his book. Steve had written…‘There are some well-known guitars that have produced memorable riffs over the years that are embodied in the history of rock music.’ I wanted him to explain the relevance of the riff to the guitar because I thought an iconic riff can be played on any guitar and would still sound… iconic.  Steve gladly enlightens me “The difference is, if you take for instance Paul Kossoff from a band called Free. If he was to play his iconic riff on a relatively cheaper guitar, he would still sound like Paul Kossoff, funnily enough, as it’s the character, it’s the personality that can make that guitar what it is. People go out and buy a Gibson Les Paul or a Fender Stratocaster to sound like Hank Marvin or whatever but they get disappointed that they don’t sound like that artist, it is down to that individual, It’s the character and the style and the way it’s interpreted” It makes sense really. I think there may be a Northern phrase in there somewhere…all the gear, no idea.

I quiz Steve as to what he thinks the ultimate guitar is, with not a nano-second of hesitation he blurts “59 les Paul standard, that’s the Holy Grail. There’s only just over 1700 made.” I naively ask if he has one, he falls into a roar of laughter “no, no… you’d be paying around £250,000 upwards for one of those”. Well, if you sell enough books, might be on the cards eh, I joke…to which he chuckles, “I don’t think it’s going to be 50 shades of grey my book. It’s a guitar book so it will have its market, but I’d have to sell enough books”. Either way, I’m rooting for him. I don’t think anyone would quite appreciate that guitar more than Steve.

Of course, to satisfy my own soul I need to discuss Steve’s favorite decade in music, even though after reading his book the answer screamed from the pages, I wanted to hear him talk about it, people’s faces light up when they talk about the glorified past. Steve’s whole demeanor embodied nostalgia as he opened up…“It’s the 70’s for me, simply because it’s a period of invention and classic rock and great talent, it doesn’t matter whether it was rock, reggae,  pop or folk all the genres of the music in that period were really on it, there were great singers and great performers hence why today those classic records are still played. The Rolling Stones, Free, Rod Stewart whatever, all these classic bands are still relevant, and it is very hard today to find anybody that matches up to that” Just as I suspected, I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

I wish I had the words to express how much passion Steve exudes not just in his words and his tone and but in his whole presence. It truly radiates from him and I was awe inspired maybe more so than most because his words struck a personal chord with me. I was previously in a totally different career before I decided to drop it all to pursue writing which had only ever been my hobby. I didn’t tell him this during the interview but instead I asked him about how lucky he must feel to have turned his hobby into a full-time career and asked what his advice would be to a person trying to do the same…

Steve’s reply is one which left a lump in my throat and had my eyes filling a little.  I’ve sound clipped the quote to play as a morning podcast! It is something I want to leave you all, the readers with, as I’m sure it won’t just resonate with me… “Just simply don’t give up, don’t lose heart, you’re going to get so many knock backs. You are going to feel like nobody wants to know, or its not interesting or it is just a waste of time, just believe in what you’ve got, be sure that somebody else will want to read it whether it’s a book on butterflies or logs of wood , it doesn’t matter. Just make it interesting, just be focused. Tell them, why it’s different, as soon as you draw them in that you have spent your time money and effort to make it happen, then that will help you,  you’ve just got to believe in it, go for it, don’t give up.”