Jimi Hendrix’s 1960s Fender Duo-Sonic

access_time First seen circa 1964

Just before his nine-month gig with the Isley Brothers in 1964 Hendrix (at the time known as Jimmy James) acquired his first Fender guitar. According to Michael Heatley [Jimi Hendrix Gear, by Michael Heatley, p.46], the guitar was a gift from O’Kelly Isley. We assume this was just after Jimi was accepted to the band following his audition in February 1964.

Jimi’s Duo-Sonic was likely made sometime between the early to mid-60s – definitely before late 1964 when the model went through some major design changes. It featured a 22.5-inch scale rosewood neck which was introduced in 1959 on this particular model, two single-coil pickups, fixed bridge, and a white pickguard. The finish is something we’ve been stuck on because it looks as though it’s lighter than the usual finish that was common on these guitars.

A vintage 1960 Fender Duo Sonic for reference. Note the color of the body is closer to brown than white. Photo by Myxi 2/Flickr
A vintage 1960 Fender Duo-Sonic for reference. Note the color of the body appears to be much darker than on Jimi’s guitar. Photo by Myxi 2/Flickr

The Color Confusion

If you look at Jimi’s guitar [Jimi Hendrix with the Duo-Sonic circa 1964] (note that this is a photo of a band called The Turkords which toured with the Isley Brothers) you’ll notice that his guitar appears to be almost white. The problem is that the white color only became available with the Duo-Sonic II introduced in mid to late 1964.

This second version (chronologically looking this was actually the third) of the Duo-Sonic also featured numerous other changes to the original design, including the metal plate beneath the volume/tone controls, slightly different body and headstock shape, and different control layout altogether among others. All these changes made the old and the new model very distinguishable from each other, so there is no doubt that Jimi’s guitar was, in fact, the old model.

There is a small chance that Jimi’s guitar was one of the extremely rare Duo-Sonic that left the factory with custom finishes. Such guitars resurface very rarely nowadays but there are examples of Duo-Sonics that left the factory as early as 1962 with a finish other than light brown (the official name for this finish appears to have been “Desert Sand”). One of these Duo-Sonics was recently sold over at Vintage&Rare [Fender / Duo-Sonic / 1962 / Candy Apple Red / Guitar]

Another possible theory and the one we’re most inclined to go along with is that the guitar was indeed light brown but appeared to be white on the photos. If you compare this finish to Gibson’s ‘TV yellow’, which was intentional designed to appear white on black and white cameras, you’ll see that this is indeed plausible.

If you have ever seen early black and white television footage from the 1940s and ’50s, you have probably noticed that white objects often appear unnaturally bright, “blown out”, haloed, or blurry.  To mitigate this problem, legendary inventor, guitarist, and TV star Les Paul (for whom the Gibson Les Paul® line of guitars is named) suggested a wheat-colored guitar finish. The color would appear white in live television broadcasts, but because it wasn’t actually white it wouldn’t overwhelm the cameras under bright lights.

TV Yellow – The Faded Origin of a Classic Guitar Color by Aaron Cheney, Warmoth.com

So even if Fender didn’t intentionally design the finish in a way Gibson did on their guitars, it is true that things that weren’t necessarily white appeared to be so if looked through a lens of an old black and white camera. If you consider the fact that the photos of Jimi with the guitar were also taken during a stage performance, where there would obviously be many light sources pointing directly at it, it is not that hard to see this theory as plausible.

Tremolo Added

Based on the photos available, at some point, Jimi installed what looks like a VMA-1 tremolo on this guitar. The interesting thing to note is that the same tremolo model was fitted on the 60s Epiphone models, so it is possible that Jimi himself fitted the tremolo on the Duo-Sonic from his old Wilshire.

The Mystery of the non-tremolo Duo-Sonic

The main mystery regarding this guitar begins with the recent auction and the photos of the guitar in its most current state. The thing is, one would expect that the guitar would have screw holes left from the tremolo that was once fitted on it, but that is certainly not that case with the guitar that appeared on the auction. You can see some of the photos of the guitar taken in 2010 over at MusicRadar – Jimi Hendrix guitar auction.

So given that the guitar that was auctioned off doesn’t appear to be refinished (which would of course cover up the holes), and that Michael Heatley [Jimi Hendrix Gear, by Michael Heatley, p.46] notes that the guitar was stolen from Jimi in March/April 1964 – the Duo-Sonic that Jimi used in early 1964 and the Duo-Sonic that was auctioned off in 2010 are very likely two different guitars.

Taking a Look at the 2010 Duo-Sonic Auction

Since the guitar that was auctioned off in 2010 quite possibly is not the one that Jimi was seen playing during his tenure with the Isley Brothers, where does that guitar fit in then? Is it just another Duo-Sonic that Jimi happened to own at that time that he was never photographed with, or is there something else at play?

The website of the auction house that was behind the sale is unfortunately offline, but we’ve been able to dig up a part of the info that was posted on the sales page. It is perhaps worth noting that reason being the website being offline is that the auction house was found guilty of fraud in 2014. [Cameo Auctioneers found guilty of fraud – BBC.com]

Jimi had at one stage fitted his Duo-Sonic with an Epiphone (Maestro) Vibrato unit but had later taken it off. The rumor is that this guitar went missing whilst on tour in the USA but contrary to this Jimi just tired of using it and it was put away for a while and resurfaced years later in Chas Chandler’s London studio. Chas Chandler discovered and managed Jim, and later sold the guitar in 1982 for £400 to Rod Weinberg, who in 1983 reunited the Animals for a world tour.

So given the recent news regarding the auction house, is it possible that there was some foul at play regarding the sale?

They do mention that the guitar was fitted with a tremolo but do not explain the absence of the holes on the guitars that they were selling (at least not in their online post). Furthermore, Chas Chandler who is named as the person from which the guitar originates from died in 1996, which makes the whole line of ownership somewhat less credible – unless of course, he signed a letter of authenticity when he first sold the guitar to Rod Weinberg.

In any case, making assumptions is fine, but only as long as we remember that they are just that. Nothing stated previously is to be taken as a fact, at least not until we’re able to get tangible proof. Given that the guitar was sold for $246,000, we assume proper research was done prior to the sale. We also assume more details regarding the guitar’s history were available to the potential buyers, one of them perhaps explaining the absence of the screw holes.

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