As Many Guitars: Wilco’s Nels Cline has amassed a quirky and curious assortment of guitars.
By Mac Randall | Photo by Justin Borucki
I'm really not trying to buy any more guitars,” Nels Cline says in a tone that’s not entirely convincing. “I’ve never bought anything super costly—I can’t go there—but this year I did buy a very fabulous guitar that just had to be purchased, even though it was not financially the time to do so. I think that’s probably a sign of illness. Sometimes I try to justify it by saying that the U.S. government encourages musicians to invest in their work: ‘It’s a tax deduction!’ But then I start to worry about the guitars I already own that aren’t getting played.”
Cline pauses to scoff at himself. “Oh no, I don’t care for material possessions. Not me! People are going to read this and think I’m a jerk.”
That seems unlikely, given that the magazine he’s speaking to is called Guitar Aficionado. However, a lot of people do think that Cline is one of America’s finest living guitarists. He started out as a jazz player in the Eighties, working with the likes of Julius Hemphill and Charlie Haden. But for the past decade he’s been a member of the great American alt-rock band Wilco, and this has changed the tenor and size of his guitar collection. “The guys in Wilco have become my enablers,” he acknowledges. “Mr. [Jeff] Tweedy is a very bad influence on me.”
At this point, Cline owns close to 100 instruments, a number he describes as “terrifying.” Many of them reside in a Los Angeles house that the native Californian rarely visits anymore. A dozen or so are in the Chicago loft that’s central HQ for Wilco. The rest—about 35—can all be found in the four-story 19th-century brownstone in New York’s West Village that’s the setting for today’s interview and photo shoot. Cline shares the house with three people: his wife Yuka Honda of the band Cibo Matto, singer, multi-instrumentalist, and model Charlotte Kemp Muhl, and Muhl’s longtime boyfriend Sean Lennon. Yes, that Sean Lennon.
“It’s a temporary-living situation that’s been going on for almost four years,” he says with a slight grin. “At some point, Yuka and I are going to have to find something more permanent, but this is such an amazing place. I could never afford to live in this neighborhood myself, so every morning that I wake up here, I just go, ‘Yeah! ’ I’ve loved New York ever since I was a boy, but it took me a while to make a home here.” (Cline is now 58, although looking at him—and for most people that would involve looking up, as he’s well over six feet tall—you’d swear he was at least a decade younger.)
As one might expect in a house shared by four musicians, there’s a lot of gear to be found. The drawing room/dining room space on the first floor, a classic full-building railroad construction divided in two by pocket doors, is crammed with instruments and studio equipment. Part of the screened-in back porch has been converted into a recording booth. Amps, drums, effect pedals, and analog synths line metal shelves on both sides of the room. There are some whimsical touches: an eight-foot-tall Steiff stuffed giraffe stands a tad forlornly between the front windows, and a taxidermied ring monkey lies on its side by the Bösendörfer baby grand.
Most of Cline’s gear occupies the floor and wall of the room’s northwest corner, opposite the piano, but he’s also carved out a practice space for himself toward the back, near the computer and outboard racks. That’s where you’ll find his main New York guitar, a well-worn 1959 sunburst Fender Jazzmaster, resting on a stand. Cline is, funnily enough, one of the few guitarists ever to play jazz on a Jazzmaster, and he’s famously devoted to them. He owns 12, many from the late Fifties and early Sixties. A 1961 with a new, clear finish hangs on the wall as a backup.
“I was inspired to pick up the Jazzmaster first by [Television’s] Tom Verlaine and then by [Sonic Youth’s] Thurston Moore,” he says. “I liked the look of them and the fact that you’ve got all that accessible string length below the bridge. Before I got a Jazzmaster, though, I bought a ’66 Jaguar. At the time, I didn’t know the difference between the two models, and some people told me later that I paid way too much for that guitar. But I’ve still got it, and I also have two other Jags now.”
Jerry Jones guitars make up another substantial percentage of Cline’s arsenal. He owns 10 of them, including an extremely unusual white 12-string/baritone double-neck (currently in Chicago) that he plays on the road with Wilco. “That’s a real attention-getter,” Cline notes. “Jeff loves to make fun of it when it gets pulled out onstage. He’ll say it’s trying to steal the spotlight from him.”
One of the real prizes in Cline’s New York collection—and the guitar whose purchase earlier this year he described as a sign of illness—is a weathered 1937 National Duolian that was previously owned, and decorated in striking fashion, by Curtis Rogers, a Tennessee traveling musician. Rogers painted his name on the fingerboard and added rhinestone inlays that continue up to the headstock. He also painted the face of a woman on the body underneath the strings. When TR Crandall Guitars in New York acquired the instrument a few years ago, its fretboard was so worn that it had to be replaced, and Rogers’ designs were painstakingly replicated for the new one.
“I still have the original fretboard,” Cline says. “Crandall sold it to me along with the guitar.” He slips the National’s original jute strap cord over his shoulder and starts to play. The sound is incredible, deeper and less clanky than a typical steel guitar, with each note bathed in a rich, lingering echo.
Two more guitars with custom paint jobs also catch the eye: a Sixties Crown solidbody given a phantasmagorical finish by L.A. performance painter Norton Wisdom and a late-Nineties DeArmond Bajo Jet baritone fancifully decorated by Cline’s housemate Mr. Lennon. The body of the latter is emblazoned with the images of Zed and Consuella, the characters played by Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling in the bizarre 1974 sci-fi flick Zardoz. “Sean gave that to me as a birthday present four years ago,” Cline explains. “Zardoz is kind of my joke obsession. I’ve probably seen it more times than any film.”
Other notable instruments found amid the clutter include a gorgeous, orange short-scale Kay solidbody from the Sixties (“I don’t know what it’s called, all I know is it’s orange and has three very distinctive tones”); a 1965 Gibson Barney Kessel (“great for a fake jazz player like me because of the two humbuckers and double cutaway”); a futuristic Italian-made Wandre/Davoli Cobra; an Oahu koa acoustic from the Thirties; and four lap steels, including one made by Moog. “There’s no reason for me to have so many lap steels,” he admits, “but they’re like neckties to me. I rarely wear neckties, but I love them.”
Cline has also loved the chimey sound of an electric 12-string ever since first hearing the Byrds as a kid. Most recently he has preferred a Fano equipped with two Lollar P-90s that he ordered online a couple of years ago. It’s all over Macroscope, the latest release by Cline’s own instrumental band, the Nels Cline Singers — so much so, in fact, that he thinks he may need to bring it on the road, along with the Jazzmaster, when he tours in support of the new album. “I’ll have to pay the extra bread to take two guitars on our flights,” he says with a sigh, “but I forced the issue by recording so many 12-string tracks. I couldn’t help it. I absolutely love the Fano.”
Occupying a stand near the Jazzmaster and Fano is Cline’s BilT Volare, a curvy variation on Fender’s short-lived semi-hollow Starcaster model. Founded by luthiers Tim Thelen and Bill Henss, BilT is a small company based in Des Moines, Iowa, that has built several guitars for Cline (including a Jazzmaster-style Zaftig that he also keeps in the New York house). “Tim approached me at a gig when I was touring with [Minutemen/Firehose bassist] Mike Watt and said he wanted to build me a guitar,” Cline recalls. “The first one was an all-rosewood Zaftig. He and Bill showed up with it finished at a Wilco show in Lawrence, Kansas. It was mind-blowing, and they charged me so little for it that I felt I had to buy more. They guilt-tripped me into it!”
Inside the Volare’s case is a note that attests amusingly to the passion shared by great luthiers and great players. At the top of the page, its builders have written: “Nels, please play this guitar a lot. Love, Bill and Tim.” To which Cline has appended a brief response in orange crayon: “OK. Nels.”
This is a story from the July/August 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. To purchase this issue, which includes features on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, travel and guitar shopping in Tokyo, new gear and more, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.