Richard Fortus is at his home in St. Louis, Missouri. He recently returned from a spate of club gigs with electronic rock experimentalists Headtronics and is currently in the midst of producing a new album for the Psychedelic Furs. After that, he’s heading back out on the road for an arena tour around the United States and Mexico with Guns N’ Roses, with whom he’s been playing since 2002.
While being immersed in such a broad variety of gigs over the years, Fortus has constantly strived to refine his tone and find inspiration with new sounds, often in the form of new guitars. After all, “We’re pushed and inspired by our own tone,” he reminds us. Fortus opened his home to offer Guitar Player a rare look at some of his favorite instruments, all of which are part of a jaw-dropping collection that could rival the inventory of many a vintage-guitar shop.
How did you amass such a great collection of guitars and amps?
It just seemed to have happened. I guess I have a problem! But I figure it’s better to put your money into what you know, investment-wise. I follow Joe Bonamassa’s posts on Instagram, and I’m just amazed at his collection. It’s staggering. How one person can amass that kind of collection is mind boggling. I don’t have the resources to go for the big-ticket items; I try to turn Axl and Slash on to the stuff that I can’t afford.
It’s fair to say Slash has a fondness for ’Bursts.
He’s got a few, including the first ’Burst ever made [serial number 8 3096 shipped on May 28, 1958]. There were two made on that day, but there’s no documentation as to which one came first. Gibson did a replica of it [the Custom Shop Slash 1958 Les Paul “First Standard” #8 3096]. It’s funny: I went to soundcheck one day and heard him playing, and I was like, Wow! What is going on with his rig? It sounded noticeably different. I was like, “Dude, you brought that out,” thinking it was the original. He said, “Oh, this is a replica Gibson just made. They just sent me one.” I asked him, “How accurate is it?” because it sounds so different from his normal guitars, probably because it doesn’t have Seymour Duncans in it. And he said, “It’s really, really close. I can tell, but if it was handed to me on a dark stage, I don’t think I’d be able to tell the difference.”
I really wanted to buy one, so I was like, “Can you get me one?” and while we were standing on the stage, he called the Gibson rep on the phone and asked him to hold one for me.
Do you play any other Gibson Custom Shop guitars?
I really like the look of the ’68 Custom reissues they were doing years ago with the nickel hardware [Gibson now offers the 1968 Les Paul Custom Reissue with gold-plated hardware], but I had to go through quite a few to find one I liked. They were so inconsistent. Gibson sent some to me, and I didn’t like them, so I sent them back. But I didn’t give up on it. I ended up going to Nashville and found two that I love.
I also have two original one-piece-body ’68 Les Paul Customs. I know they’re very valuable because it was the first year and they have the longer neck tenon. But, honestly, I prefer the sound of the reissues. The originals have those thin necks from ’68, and I don’t get along well with those. It just doesn’t sound right on a Custom. To my ears, a bigger neck makes for a bigger tone. Having said that, I don’t hate it on an Epiphone. I love Casinos. I have a ’64 that has a thin neck, but it sounds fantastic.
Do you like the sound of P-90s?
I’m a big P-90 fan. I love ES-330s and Casinos, but, sadly, it doesn’t really work for me with the GN’R setting because it seems to fight for sonic territory too much with Slash’s tone. P-90s have that throaty sort of vocal quality to them, and that’s where Slash’s tone really sits. I tried out a few different things, and it seems lower-output humbuckers and lower-gain amps work well, so that’s what I use. Filter’Tron Gretsches work great because they keep out of Slash’s sonic territory and seem to blend well with his tone. Teles work well, too, but I’ve mostly been using the Leo Scala guitars and Gretsches.
The Scalas all have lower-output pickups and, fortunately, I have the ability to try stuff out with Leo. We’ll go through five or six different pickups per guitar until we find the right one. It’s been a labor of love to meticulously keep going back and forth. It’s fun to work with someone who is as equally driven to find the perfect match.
What pickups do you tend to prefer in your Scalas and Gretsches?
I’m really into a pickup that Rob Timmons at Arcane developed using an Alnico 8 magnet. It’s a very strong magnet, but the pickup has very few windings, so the output is lower. It has a very open, broad sound to it. It’s not too compressed or midrange-y sounding, and I love the way it complements Slash’s tone. Arcane is the best. They pretty much make every pickup I use now. They have all the sonic elements I love about the Filter’Tron, but they’ve been brought up to around 7.5 to 8kΩ [original vintage Filter’Trons typically measure around 4kΩ DCR].
Are you a fan of vintage Gretsches?
I have friends who are Gretsch aficionados, and it seems that ’58 is the year to have. It was the first year of the Filter’Tron, and those are the shit. I have three ’58s, all in the Chet line: a 6120 [Chet Atkins Hollowbody], a 6119 [Chet Atkins Tennessean] and a 6122 [Chet Atkins Country Gentleman]. When I had the 6122 appraised, they were like, “Hey, that serial number is six guitars away from Chet’s!” I don’t have the 6121 [Chet Atkins Solid Body] - yet. I have to find that and my ’58 Chet collection will be complete.
If you had to keep just one guitar from your collection, what would it be?
The ’73 Gibson Les Paul Signature that I bought when I was 20 years old. That is my desert island pick. In my opinion, the Les Paul Signature is the most underrated Gibson ever. If I’m walking into a session blind, that’s the guitar I’ll bring, because it covers so much territory with the low-/high-impedance outputs, the phase switch and the mid sweep. They sound amazing through a cranked Marshall or direct. My wife asked me, “Why is it that the Les Paul Signature is so undervalued?” and I said, “Unless somebody uses it on an iconic album, they don’t have the same appeal.” People are always chasing a guitar they’re familiar with, or a sound that somebody else got playing it.
Do you have any other lesser-known models on your list of favorites?
I have a Silvertone  Chris Isaak model, and that sounds fantastic. Mini humbuckers are such a weird thing to me. They’re all over the map: Some of them are just phenomenal sounding and other times they just don’t work. It’s the same thing with Firebird pickups. I’ve got a ’63 Firebird V that I love, but I’ve always wanted a Firebird I. I think they’re the coolest Firebirds.
I love single-pickup guitars. I’ve got seven Juniors from the ’50s, both single-cuts and double-cuts, but you know how inconsistent P-90s are: You can have a bunch of Juniors and they’re all gonna sound completely different. I’ve got two ’59 TV double-cuts and I’ve got a ’55 TV single-cut that I played when I was with Thin Lizzy. I love that guitar. That’s my favorite-sounding Junior.
You can get a lot of different sounds from Juniors just by using the volume control.
Using the guitar volume control seems to be a dying art, but for Slash and me it’s imperative. We play a lot with our fingers - going back and forth between fingers and pick - and we’re always riding the volume. We’re constantly on our volumes, finding different sweet spots for that particular moment. Tonally, there’s so much available just on your guitar volume, so I need an amp that’s gonna really help that.
What amps are you currently using?
The Supro Black Magick and my Supro signature head. I’m just using a single channel with my pedals and riding the volume control. The Supro signature amp is 100 watts and is based on my ’73 Jose [Arredondo]-modded Marshall Super Lead that I bought from Mick Mars. I played through about six different Jose-modded amps at his house, all of them old Marshalls, and that one was just incredible. I played one chord and I was like, “Holy shit!” The clouds parted, the angels sang, and the light shone down. But eventually I decided I didn’t want to tour with that version any more, so I was trying to find somebody that could clone it.
Trace Davis at Voodoo Amps did a fantastic job. We tweaked it and tweaked it over the years, and then I did the same thing with Supro. I sent them the original Mick Mars Jose amp and they cloned it, and that’s what I’m touring with now. That’s what’s going to be the new Supro signature amp.
It’s all about refining your own sound.
We’re pushed and inspired by our own tone. It’s a private thing. It’s a communication and a conversation between myself and whoever I’m playing with. We’re gonna be playing better because we’re hearing what we want to hear and feeling what we want to feel. That’s why we keep searching for that extra one percent, right? Playing different guitars with different amps makes you play differently - which is how I think we justify buying so many! [laughs] I want it to sound the way I want it to sound. And I want to be inspired by that sound.
1. THREE CLASSIC 1958 GRETSCH CHET ATKINS MODELS
(from left) A 6119 Tennessean, 6122 Country Gentleman and 6120 Hollow Body
2. 1964 EPIPHONE CASINO
“When I bought this guitar, the neck pickup was considerably hotter than the bridge,” Fortus recalls. “I swapped them around and now it sounds amazing. I have a Gibson ES-330 as well, but this Casino sounds better.”
3. 1966 FENDER CANDY APPLE RED STRATOCASTER
“I bought this guitar from the original owner, who was a bit of legend in Minnesota. He bought it in ’66 and played it every day. It looks like it, and it feels like it!”
4. 1964 GIBSON SG CUSTOM, SG STANDARD & RARE 1961 GIBSON GA-79T AMP
“Surprisingly, the Custom sounds better than the Standard,” Fortus says. “The bridge pickup sounds particularly good.”
5. 1960S SILVERTONE 1446L “CHRIS ISAAK”
“We used this guitar a lot on the Psychedelic Furs’ new album. These are just great-sounding guitars. I love it!” This model has stock Gibson-made minihumbuckers and a Bigsby B3 vibrato.
6. 1961 MARTIN D-21 (FRONT) FLANKED BY TWO BRAZILIAN ROSEWOOD MARTINS
“The one on the right dates to 1908; the one on the left was made in 1911. They’re made to be played with your fingers, and I string them with D’Addario Silk & Steels.”
7. GIBSON LES PAUL TVS
This trio includes two 1959 double-cuts (the one on the left has been verified by Gibson as previously belonging to Steve Marriott) and the 1955 single-cut that Fortus used when he performed with Thin Lizzy in 2011.
8. PAOLETTI RICHARD FORTUS SIGNATURE MODEL & TWEED 1959 FENDER DELUXE AMP
Fortus’s signature Paoletti is made from 150-year-old chestnut wine barrels, and the completely original ’59 Deluxe is “my favorite clean amp,” he says. “I like to crank it up and back off my guitar volume.”
9. JAMES TRUSSART SNAKESKIN STEEL-O-MATIC SIGNATURE (LEFT) AND DELUXE STEELCASTER
Both models have custom-ordered left-handed necks and bridge pickups. Note the Steel-O-Matic’s “de-relic’d” playing wear.
10. 1953 LES PAUL MODEL (LEFT), 1973 GIBSON LES PAUL SIGNATURE (CENTER) AND 1954 ES-295 (RIGHT)
Three Golden-era Gibsons in all their glory.
11. 1960 ‘DOT NECK’ GIBSON ES-335
“I use this guitar every day,” Fortus says. “It’s my PAF humbucker guitar of choice for recording.”
12. 1962 FENDER JAGUAR & 1962 JAZZMASTER
“I love those matching headstocks,” Fortus says of this pair in Olympic White (Jaguar) and Lake Placid Blue (Jazzmaster). “The pickups are all stock in those guitars, but the Jazzmaster has different covers.”
13. 1960 SLAB-’BOARD FENDER STRATOCASTER
“This guitar has the best-sounding Strat bridge pickup I’ve ever heard.”
14. 1963 GIBSON FIREBIRD V AND EARLY ’60S CROCODILESKIN SELMER ZODIAC AMP
“A great-sounding guitar. That’s my go-to Firebird.”