The History Of Neil Young’s Famous Guitar, “Old Black”
Fact: Neil Young has been playing the same guitar for almost 50 years. This guitar, a 1952 Gibson Les Paul model, was given to him in 1968 by Buffalo Springfield band mate Jimmy Messina. Chances are if you’ve listened to any of Neil Young’s rock oriented recordings you’ve heard Old Black’s signature sound. He’s played the guitar on almost every Crazy Horse recording, and has played it at almost every Neil Young and Crazy Horse concert. It’s the one he played on classic songs such as “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, “Southern Man”, “Cinnamon Girl”, and “Like A Hurricane”.
Over the years, Neil Young’s Old Black has gained quite the reputation amongst guitar fans, with numerous companies selling replica Old Black guitars, and comments all over Neil Young videos with users saying that they would do anything just to play one note on Old Black. The guitar’s storied history plays a big part in its beloved reputation. Here I’m going to break down as much of the history of Old Black as possible, to give you an idea of why people rave about this guitar.
When Neil first received the Les Paul, it was clear to him that the guitar was not originally black, but more likely gold and painted black by the original owner, or someone else down the line. The black paint had already started to wear away by the time he had gotten the guitar, and it already had a good bit of its signature beat-up look. In addition to the color modification, there were also chrome-plated metal pickup covers and pick guard upgrades that were not included on the original Gibson gold tops, but had been added later, presumably by the same person who painted the guitar black. Right from the get-go Old Black was special, and that was before Neil Young even did any recording with it.
In his book Waging Heavy Peace, Neil Young talks about some of the recordings he made with Old Black, and how he loved the sound it produced so much. The first time he used the guitar was on his first album with Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, then on a couple songs from After The Gold Rush. After those recordings, the guitar was producing a loud humming noise when he was trying to play, forcing him to hold the guitar a certain way to avoid drowning out the notes. I imagine it’s something like when an aux cord starts to crap out, and you have to twist it all around just to get the sound to come from both speakers.
Anyway, to fix the humming, he gave the guitar’s pickup to this guitar shop in LA. A little while later when he returned to get Old Black, the shop had closed down without a trace, taking the pickup with them. To replace the lost pickup, Neil added a Gretsh pickup that didn’t quite sound the way he wanted it to, but it stayed that way until Larry Cragg found an old Firebird pickup and installed it. Then Old Black was restored to its former glory and wailed on, and that Firebird pickup is still installed on the guitar today.
According to Neil, the best example of Old Black’s tone can be found on the studio version of “Like A Hurricane”. Apparently the master recording that was released in 1975 was the first run-through of the song, when Neil was just showing Crazy Horse how it was played. He ended up liking that guitar part the most, and used it on the final cut. He attributes this to the phenomena of a great-sounding performance that you just can’t repeat, no matter how hard you try. Something was just right about it, he says, despite the mistakes in his playing.
All of this combined with Neil Young’s epic legacy leads up to the legendary status of his tried-and-true Gibson Les Paul, Old Black. I’m sure he’ll be playing this guitar until the day he dies.