Duane Allman

Most of the guitarists featured in this Legends of the Les Paul series appear are here because of the inextricable link between the artist and one iconic guitar. For Duane Allman, however, the case is a little different: Allman will forever be associated with pure Les Paul tone, and credited with having helped to establish a genre of trenchant, musicianly southern rock that is likewise almost unimaginable without the thick, sweet sound of the Les Paul behind it. But, while there might be one particularly hallowed ’Burst that is most revered in the Allman arsenal, Duane’s iconic performances were achieved on a selection of different late-’50s Les Pauls, as well as one notable outlier.

Allman Brothers

The Cherry Sunburst

During his tragically brief life and career, Duane Allman bought, borrowed, and swapped so many guitars that it has often been difficult to document which model went on what studio recording. What is beyond a doubt, however, is how the best-remembered examples of his touch and tone are classic Les Paul—and that’s the guitar with which we will always most closely associate him. Recently, as part of a project conducted for Gibson (which was documented alongside the release of the Custom Shop Duane Allman Cherry Sunburst ’59 Les Paul in 2013), guitarist and Country Songwriter Hall of Fame inductee Lee Roy Parnell wove together the threads of a scattered, myth-riddled story to give credit to what he concluded was Allman’s most-recorded guitar.

“We believe that this particular guitar [the ’59 Cherry Sunburst Les Paul] was the one that Duane had used most often to record and perform live,” Parnell told Gibson. “However, because Duane’s life and career were so short, much of his fame was coming just as he passed away. There are a lot pictures of Duane over a short period of time, which made it difficult to determine which guitar he was playing on any given recording.”

Duane Allman

Tobacco ’Burst or Goldtop?

For some, Allman is most associated with the tobacco-sunburst Les Paul that makes an appearance in a great many of those pictures, but the current thinking—from Parnell, and other corners—is that the majority of Allman’s most notable recordings was done on the cherry burst, a guitar he owned during a period of heavy studio activity (brief though it might have been), before acquiring the tobacco-burst LP.

Allman also frequently played a goldtop 1957 Les Paul early in his career with the band, which he swapped to guitarist Rick Stine of the band Stone Balloon for the ’59 with cherry sunburst, just a week before the latter made its Allman Brothers debut at the Fillmore East in New York City on September 23, 1970.

That Allman Tone

Whatever the history, and whichever guitar was used when and where, the sound of Allman’s playing on has long been held up as a prime example of superlative Les Paul tone. Listen to any of Allman’s most notable recordings—live or in the studio—and tracks like “Whipping Post,” “Melissa,” “Midnight Rider” and “One Way Out”—or Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla,” for that matter, exhibit iconic old-school Les Paul tone. Duane’s touch, dynamics, and unbridled musicianship harness a tone that’s never particularly heavy or over-distorted, but always brimming with character.

Of course, he had a little help from a 50-watt Marshall head or 100-watt Showman (and sometimes both) and a glass Coricidin medicine bottle that he used for slide—and a certain lead-guitar partner by the name of Dickey Betts (also profiled in this series). Allman also liked to “top wrap” his strings around the Les Paul’s stopbar tailpiece, enabling the bar to be adjusted down tight to the guitar’s top—a practice still in use today by guitarists who feel it enhances resonance and sustain. Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Georgia, on October 28, 1971.