Bernie Marsden’s treasure trove of acoustic guitars includes vintage Gibsons and a century-old Martin

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Even for the most devout worshiper of the electric guitar altar, there is something deeply personal about the connection between flesh, wood and string that occurs when playing a great acoustic instrument. The resonance, the spectral halo of harmonics that surround the notes and the lack of places to hide – this is the most exposed, direct and visceral guitar playing.

The strange events of 2020 have seen many of us reconnect with our acoustic guitars and come to appreciate them like never before and, although he is best known for wielding his 1959 Les Paul Standard to hard-rock anthems such as Here we go again and crazy for your love, Bernie Marden is no exception. Although he doesn’t consider himself an acoustic specialist and eloquently cites Martin Simpson as an example of a “real” acoustic guitarist, Bernie’s collection contains an array of stunning vintage acoustics and he knows definitely his way around them.

A beautiful vintage Gibson J-200 from Bernie’s collection. All photos: Eleanor Jane.

We visit the former Whitesnake man at his home in Buckinghamshire, where he ruminates on his past and explains that it wasn’t always this way. “I guess it was the same for everyone like me,” he says. “When you started, you persuaded your mom and dad to buy you a guitar.

“I guess it was the same FOR everyone like me. When you started, you persuaded your
mom and dad to give you a guitar. When you were a teenager acoustic was the only way because you could buy one for a few pounds”

“When you were a teenager acoustic was the only way because you could buy one for a few pounds, maybe five pounds. And that’s what happened to most of us. I never really cared about acoustics because I never considered myself a very good acoustic guitarist.

mermaid song

Decades and many record sales later, Marsden was the proud owner of a fine collection of electric guitars, but a friend and owner of a guitar shop in Pennsylvania managed to lure him down the path of unplugging. . “Jim Singleton of Jim’s Guitars in America really drew me to the beauty of the quality of these things, and that maybe the collection was going to become something,” Bernie says.

Gibson J-200 Dewey Dillon
One of the most stunning acoustics in Bernie’s collection is this sunburst J-200 with a unique double pickguard emblazoned with the Dewey Dillon name. “It was made for his 21st birthday in 1959”, explains Bernie, “commissioned by his mother”.

“A lot of people like me skipped them to get the next Firebird or Les Paul Junior or Stratocaster. He kept saying, “Play that.” I went to his house and in his basement he had some nice J-50s and J-45s. He said, “You know they’re not expensive. I have two in my shop right now. And they weren’t expensive, not really. And what you get is a musical instrument that was handcrafted by two or three people, whether it was in the 1930s or 1950s. And that’s how I got into it. »

1920s Martin Coletti
This European-made 1920s Martin Coletti parlor guitar was given to Bernie by the family of a local Buckinghamshire slide guitarist who had followed Marsden throughout his career. The Coletti was first signed by legendary bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards, before being adorned with the autographs of Gary Moore, Peter Green, Graham Nash, Johnny Winter, Billy Gibbons and dozens of other luminaries.

Old Gibsons were the gateway drug, and soon he had one of his own, in the form of a 1955 Gibson L-5: “I found the L-5, and it transformed me. I thought, I’ll take a few more. Then, about 25 years ago, I probably started not looking for them, but I didn’t dismiss them too quickly.

“And I quickly started to realize that instead of four or five, I had 20. Then I became a bit of an acoustic demon, which is why I have the Martins and things that come up so rarely But when it comes to acoustics, I’ve been a boyfriend lately, really. I like to play them. There’s a J-45 around the house and I leave one in the studio.

Bernie Marsden's Gibson L-5
This beautiful Gibson L-5 – one of only five of its type shipped in 1955 – was discovered decades later in a small sheet music shop in Cheltenham, and helped rekindle Bernie’s interest in acoustics vintage and archtops.

While gigs aren’t exactly for everyone these days, when Bernie hits the stage with an acoustic guitar, he tends to leave the collectibles at home and opt for something more modern.

“I support Alvarez right now,” he reveals. “I haven’t had a chance to promote them as much because of the lockdown and stuff, but they’re working well and the guys I’ve worked with are very helpful. I also have a six string and a nice 12 string.

1920 Martin 1-21
This 1920 Martin-style Model 1-21 sounds almost unnaturally big for its size and comes with a letter of appreciation from former Martin historian Mike Longworth, dated February 28, 1984.

“You don’t want to take vintage acoustics on the road, they’re too good to risk damaging or losing them. And I don’t want to start cutting them up to put microphones in them. I know you can do it very subtly these days, but I don’t need to. I have very good modern guitars with great pickups that sound great through the sound systems. So I’m a bit torn between the two, really.

L00 by Bernie Marsden
Bernie picked up this 1930s L-00 in the USA about 10 years ago. “I recorded some stuff with it,” he says. “It’s good for fingerpicking, that’s for sure. You can imagine crossing the Mississippi in the 1930s with her strapped to your back. It weighs nothing.”

old soul

We often notice that big old guitars sound like records, so we suspect that Bernie – a man whose extensive vinyl collection speaks of a deep love for classic pop, rock and blues recordings – has had his of similar bulbs during his journey into the world of vintage acoustics. Sometimes it can even be quite strange when you pick up a vintage guitar for the first time and its voice is eerily familiar.

Marsden agrees. “You go into non-standard tuning and play a Steve Stills song and it’s instant,” he says. “You say ‘Oh, he was using one of those.’ And you find out it was. Or James Taylor playing his old J-50. You grew up with that kind of stuff not thinking, “Oh, what a beautiful acoustic guitar,” but subliminally, it was trotting your mind. head. “

The Gibson L37
Bernie calls this 1930s Gibson L-37 “John”, after Piedmontese blues legend John Jackson, who once played this guitar when he visited Marsden’s house.

By the time Bernie was in the recording studio during the heady days of Whitesnake, acoustic guitars took over humbuckers and Marshalls. When it came to tracking acoustic parts, he rarely used his own guitar.

“I think I had a Yamaha back then. Mickey [Moody] had the acoustic guitars for him to bring his acoustic and usually I played his. Especially if we were doing a double track, we would just be using the same guitar.

Bernie Marsden with his 1953 J-45
Bernie currently owns three J-45 models, from 1953, 1959 and 1963. Seen here with his ’53, he says, “They’re so great for recording. Once you record it with the right microphone, they just stay in the mix and that’s really your building block. There’s a kind of sonic simplicity about them. They stand the test of time wonderfully.

“Surprisingly, they sounded quite different, between the two of us. I think he had a D-18 – the Whitesnake stuff would have been done on Micky’s Martin. I certainly had nothing as luxurious as he then; I was spending my money on Firebirds!

Although Bernie still has a fondness for a beautiful Firebird, these days he’s just as likely to ogle pre-war archtops and century-old parlor guitars. And if the snippets of guitar playing he gives us during our photo shoot are anything to go by, there’s still plenty of new music and inspiration to be found in these wonderful old machines.

Delve even deeper into Bernie’s guitars in Tales Of Tone And Volume, a deluxe hardcover book available now via berniemarsden.com.

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