Jimi Hendrix’s 1960s Fender Duo-Sonic

Just before his nine-month gig with The Isley Brothers in 1964, Jimi, at the time known as Jimmy James, got 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. This was probably just after Jimi joined the band, following his audition in February 1964.

Unfortunately, Jimi played this Fender for a very short time. Allegedly, someone stole it just a couple of months later.

Specs

Jimi’s Duo-Sonic was likely from the early to mid-60s. Definitely not older than late 1964 which is when the model went through some major design changes. The guitar had a 22.5-inch short scale rosewood neck, two single-coil pickups, a fixed bridge, and a white pickguard.

The finish on Jimi’s guitar is something that’s less clear. It looks as though it’s lighter than the standard 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 looks white. The problem is – white color only became available on the Duo-Sonic II model, introduced in mid to late 1964.

This second version of the Duo-Sonic also featured many other changes to the original design. The metal plate beneath the volume/tone controls, different body and headstock shape, and different control layout altogether – among others. The point is – all these changes made the two versions 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 rare Duo-Sonics that left the factory in a custom color. Such guitars resurface very rarely nowadays but there are a few that left the factory as early as 1962 with a finish other than light brown. One of these Duo-Sonics was recently sold over at Vintage&Rare [Fender / Duo-Sonic / 1962 / Candy Apple Red / Guitar]

Another theory is that the guitar was actually light brown but appeared to be white on the photos. If you compare this finish to Gibson’s ‘TV yellow’, which by design appeared white on black and white cameras, you’ll see that this theory is very likely.

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

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 this is the same tremolo from 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 about this guitar begins with the recent auction and the photos of the guitar in its most current state. One would expect that the guitar would have screw holes left from the tremolo that was once fitted on it. But that is 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.

The guitar from the auction also doesn’t appear to be a refinish, which would of course cover up the holes. Also, Michael Heatley [Jimi Hendrix Gear, by Michael Heatley, p.46] notes the Duo-Sonic was stolen in March/April 1964.

So, based on all this, these have to be two different guitars, and we’ll leave it on that.

Taking a Look at the 2010 Duo-Sonic Auction

Since the guitar from the 2010 auction is likely not the one that Jimi played with the Isley Brothers, where does that guitar fit in then? Is it another Duo-Sonic that Jimi happened to own at that time, or is there something else at play?

The website of the auction house that was behind the sale is now offline. But, the info from the sales page is still accessible through other means. It is worth noting that the reason for the website being offline is that the auction house was found guilty of fraud in 2014. [Cameo Auctioneers found guilty of fraud – BBC.com]

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

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.

found on the original auction page

They do mention that the guitar had a tremolo but do not explain the absence of the holes. Furthermore, Chas Chandler, who is the person from which the guitar originated from, died in 1996. This 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 that. Nothing stated before is a fact, at least not until we’re able to get tangible proof. Given that the guitar sold for $246,000, we assume proper research was done before the sale. We also assume more details about the guitar’s history were available to the potential buyers.

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