by Tom Beaujour | Photography by Jimmy Hubbard
When asked to pinpoint when they fell in love with the instrument, most rock guitarists reveal that the infatuation began in their early teens. But the affinity exhibited itself much earlier for Cars guitarist and avid ax collector Elliot Easton. “My mother always loved to tell the story about when I first saw Elvis on television in 1956, when I was three years old,” Easton recalls, relaxing in the backyard of his suburban Los Angeles home. “After the show was over, I brought her a comb and a glass of water and I had her comb my hair in a spit curl. I stood in front of the mirror with a Mickey Mouse guitar and never looked back!”
The young Long Island native was not only precocious—he was also left-handed. Easton quickly realized that while some lefties could simply adapt to right-handed guitars, he preferred to play instruments that were either purpose-built or modified to accommodate his southpaw. “First I had an inexpensive Japanese guitar that we bought in a department store,” he says. “I figured out barre chords upside down, and then I realized that there would be a lot of things I couldn’t do. So I took the guitar into a local mom-and-pop music shop and had them turn the nut and strings around for me. That’s when I really started learning.”
Easton’s first bona fide left-handed guitar was an acoustic made by Favilla, a firm that manufactured ukuleles and other stringed instruments in New York City from the 1890s until the company moved to Farmingdale, Long Island in 1962. (Entertainer Tiny Tim was one of their most notable ukulele endorsers.) “My local music store in Long Island was this place called Grayson’s Music, and they had a left-handed all-mahogany Favilla guitar in the store,” Easton recalls. “I rode my bike every day to a job at a bagel factory to earn the money for it.”
After logging many hours on the Favilla, it became clear to the young guitarist that if he hoped to accurately reproduce the sounds that he heard on his favorite recordings, he would need an electrified instrument—specifically, a Fender Telecaster. “I was crazy about the Band. My hero was Robbie Robertson, and he played a Telecaster,” Easton says. “I also loved Jesse Ed Davis with Taj Mahal, and Bakersfield country players like James Burton and Roy Nichols, and they all played Telecasters. So in 1971, I got a job washing dishes in a restaurant and saved up $225 for a custom-ordered lefty Fender Telecaster. I drove Grayson’s nuts, because I would call them every day to see if the guitar came in.”
Despite his appreciation for the Telecaster, Easton’s eyes (and ears) soon wandered to Les Pauls. “I was a Mike Bloomfield freak, and that Les Paul tone on the Super Session album was just the greatest thing I ever heard,” he says. “My high school band won a countywide battle of the bands, and our prize was a $500 gift certificate to Sam Ash. There were five guys in the group, so we each got $100 to spend. For whatever reason, there were several left-handed Gibsons in the store at the time, and I settled on a Les Paul Deluxe. I sold my Telecaster for $150, so that was $250 with the winnings, and my mom made up the rest. That Les Paul cost $297 with the case out the door, and I regretted buying it almost immediately because you couldn’t do all the pedal-steel bends and stuff you could do on a Telecaster. I wanted a Fender again, but because I could only afford to have one guitar at a time, I just went back and forth like that for years.”
By the time the newly signed Cars traveled to England to record their 1978 self-titled debut album with producer Roy Thomas Baker, they were generating enough cash from their Boston area gigs for Easton to have assembled a three-guitar arsenal: a Martin D-35 acoustic, a 1977 Les Paul Standard that he had refinished in red, and a new Fender Telecaster fitted with a Bartolini Hi-A mini-humbucker in the neck position. Armed with those, a Morley Echo Volume pedal and Roland Chorus Ensemble, the guitarist cut all of his tracks, including the impeccably composed and executed solos to “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” in less than two days. “That record took 12 days to make in total,” Easton says. “It was our club set and we knew what we were going to do, so we just went in there and regurgitated our parts onto tape.”
The Cars turned out to be a hit, and Easton’s new high profile dictated that leading manufacturers like Dean and Hamer were more than happy to accommodate his requests for special-order left-handed instruments. “Companies usually only offer their two or three most popular guitars in left-handed models, and that’s it,” Easton says. “But now I had a little bit of clout, because I was in a band that was selling records, and I could give a guitar company like Hamer or Dean some exposure if they built me a custom lefty”
In addition to acquiring new, custom-built instruments, Easton began to accumulate vintage left-handed examples, many of which were brought to Cars shows by local dealers. “That’s how it was in the Seventies and Eighties,” he says. “Vintage dealers would show up in the dressing room with guitars. They knew I was a lefty, so if they had a lefty in their inventory, they’d bring that to show me. I bought a 1964 Burgundy Mist Stratocaster that was unplayed, with the tags, the strap, and the payment installments receipt. It was in a white Tolex case that creaked when you opened it because the leather wasn’t broken in yet. That guitar was $2,200, which was a fortune at that time. I paid under two grand for a ’59 slab-board and $600 for a Lake Placid Blue ’65 Tele.”
By the time the Cars reconvened with Baker to record their second effort, 1979’s Candy-O, at Cherokee studios in Los Angeles, Easton had accumulated several dozen guitars, all of which were employed on the album. “I had all of them out on stands, and they just looked so cool,” he recalls. “Before I ever reached for a guitar or an amp or a pedal, I would visualize the sound for a given part in my head and I would inevitably go to the right guitar, the right effects, and the right amp.”
With that, Easton rises and leads us past the swimming pool and into his home, a Hacienda-style house that was built in the mid Seventies. The sun-drenched living room features a vaulted, A-frame ceiling and is decorated in immaculate midcentury mod style. “I’m a Sixties kid,” Easton says, explaining his preferred décor. “I always have been and always will be. Some of the Scandinavian modern designs from the Fifties and Sixties, with their clean lines and beautiful wood, are just perfect.
“If they could have frozen the world in 1966 or something, in terms of pop culture and cars, that would have been fine with me,” he continues. “And it’s not that I’m trying to live in the past; it’s just that I love some of those artifacts and the feeling that they generate. There was a sense of whimsy in the world, or at least in this country. We had plenty of money, and people were having fun. There were terrible things going on, of course, but it seemed like there was more of a capacity for silliness. Just think of things like Pillsbury Funny Face drinks like Goofy Grape, Jolly Olly Orange, and Choo Choo Cherry. We had such fun stuff.”
Most of Easton’s fun stuff—at least to guitar collectors—resides in a recently completed home studio that features wall-to-ceiling storage closets faced with richly figured Macassar ebony doors. More than 100 instruments are housed here. Some are rare vintage examples, while others are custom lefties built especially for him. (Factoid: After the Fender Custom Shop opened in 1987, two of the first 10 guitars it built were ordered by Easton: a Foam Green Telecaster Thinline and a Mary Kaye Strat with a bird’s-eye maple neck.)
While the collection remains vast, the guitarist has thinned his herd a bit over the years, and many of the instruments that he accumulated during the Cars’ Eighties heyday are now gone. Parting with instruments is not something that Easton relishes, not only because of the bonds that he forms with his guitars but also because unloading a lefty, no matter how rare, is never an easy task. “You have to find a very particular kind of customer to buy a high-ticket left-handed guitar,” Easton explains. “First, you have to find a lefty—there aren’t that many of us. And then it has to be a lefty who has the money to buy something like that.”
Easton is also quick to point out that because there is comparatively little demand for left-handed vintage guitars, their extreme paucity is also not reflected in their price. “You’d think that because there are so few lefty vintage guitars, they would be worth exponentially more,” Easton says. “It’s like, I have a mint ’58 Telecaster, lefty. How many of those could there be. Maybe three? If a righty is worth $30,000 and there’s thousands of them, this lefty has to be worth $100,000 because there’s none of them, right? But it doesn’t work that way, because lefties are harder to sell and have a much smaller market.”
And while he might have parted with a few of his favorite and most significant pieces in the years between the Car’s dissolution in 1987 and their reformation and release of an excellent new album, Move Like This, last year, Easton seems to have no regrets. He certainly loves the instruments, both new and old, that he has retained and continued to collect. As he opens one storage cabinet after another in an attempt to pick out a few guitars for our shoot, GA tells him to focus primarily on the instruments that he likes most.
“That’s the problem,” he says with a wide grin that’s almost certainly identical to the one he sported when first seeing his Telecaster at Grayson’s decades ago. “There isn’t a single guitar here that I don’t like!”
This article originally appeared in print as "Left the Good Times Roll."