It’s been a while since Kirk Hammett bought Peter Green’s iconic 1959 Les Paul. As recording began on a new Metallica album back in May, upon which the guitar will be featured, Guitarist caught up with Kirk to see how ‘Greeny’ is faring...
It’s unusual for an instrument to become as famous as the players who have made music with it. In that respect, Peter Green’s Les Paul is in an extremely select group. Originally seen on stage with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the guitar has a singular aura around it as well as an amazing tone.
Many words have been written - some speculative, others informed - about what it was that made the instrument sound so different in the middle pickup position. Peter himself said he never touched the wiring when the guitar was in his possession and that the guitar sounded that way the day he bought it, inspiring many to believe it was inverted polepieces that were at the heart of the mystery, as opposed to the neck pickup merely being reversed. In any case, the Les Paul not only found notoriety within the Bluesbreakers, it also went on to feature in many classic Fleetwood Mac recordings and live appearances.
After Peter Green mysteriously quit the music scene in the early 1970s, the guitar found its way into the hands of another legendary player, Gary Moore. Gary told us in an interview that Peter just called him up one day and offered him the guitar, initially refusing payment.
In the end, it was agreed that Gary would give him the cash from selling the Gibson SG he was currently using and the deal was done. Over the years, the guitar went on to appear on many more recordings and live dates - often at considerably higher volume levels than before.
In the mid 90s, Gary paid tribute to his former mentor with the album Blues For Greeny and once again those plaintive ‘out-of-phase’ tones could be heard on re-readings of classic Peter Green material. Gary kept the Les Paul until around 10 years ago when it was sold and the guitar was temporarily retired from public life.
In Hammett's hands
All that was set to change, though, when the somewhat controversial sale to Metallica’s guitar player took place. Peter Green’s precious guitar in a heavy rock band? Whatever next!
But, setting all such prejudices aside, we have to say that Kirk is absolutely thrilled to be the guitar’s most recent owner. When we spoke he was on his way to the studio and positively frothy with excitement and extremely eager to share the details of how he came about this holy relic guitar.
“Well, you know it’s really weird because I didn’t pursue it like I have pursued other guitars in the past - really aggressively going after certain guitars and working out deals. This is more just a situation where I was sitting in my hotel room in London one day and I texted a friend of mine and he said, ‘Oh, I have a guitar I wanna show you,’ and I said, ‘Okay, sure. Bring it over.’
“And when he says he has a guitar that he wants to show me, more than likely it’s a vintage guitar and even more likely it’s a Les Paul Standard because this guy’s known for that type of guitar. So he came over with this other guy and they also brought over a vintage Marshall combo. My friend brought over the guitar case, opened it up, and immediately I knew what it was because I saw the pickup screws inverted.
“I was like, ‘Hey, hey, hey, hey. Wait a second here. Wait a second. I don’t have $2 million for this guitar,’ and my friend said, ‘Oh, that’s all poppycock. I don’t know where that came from. That was the original price maybe 10 or 12 years ago but that’s since been adjusted.’
“I said, ‘Great,’ and I plugged it into the vintage Marshall amp, turned it up and played it. After about 30 seconds, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is not your standard Les Paul…’ and I went to the middle position, because, you know, that’s the revered sound and I started ripping out and I thought to myself, ‘Holy shit, this is a total contradiction.’
“It sounded like an incredible Les Paul in the bridge position and in the neck position, but when you put it in the middle position it kind of sounded like a Strat through a 100‑watt Marshall stack!
“And then I got it. I got it. I understood completely what Greeny was all about. And you know the history side, the fact that it’s been on all these albums and all this great music, but aside from all that, the bare fact of the matter is that it’s just an amazing-sounding guitar. It just blew me away and everything just kind of made sense.”
Picking it up
How did you celebrate your ownership of the guitar?
“The first thing I wanted to do was play it on stage that night and play Whiskey In The Jar, because the likelihood of that guitar having played Whiskey In The Jar was already pretty huge. So when I played it that first time on stage it felt like I was bringing it back home to where it needed to be and wanted to be.
“And you know, to be quite honest, since then I’ve heard of other guitars, of other Les Pauls, that sold for way more than what I bought Greeny for. And so, to a certain extent, I was at the right place at the right time, because the owner needed a quick infusion of cash and I was able to do that and secure the guitar and then we worked out all the other matters afterwards.
“But having said that, once the news got out that I’d actually bought the guitar I started getting all these different emails from people I’d never even heard of or spoken to before about their experiences with Greeny.
“It’s just totally, completely amazing because this guitar has its own world, its own separate reality, completely separate to mine and I’ve never really owned a guitar that has its own personality. It’s completely independent of myself and I love that fact as well.”
What’s the guitar like to play?
“It’s fairly light for a Les Paul. I definitely own heavier Les Pauls, but the amazing thing is that the neck is pretty thick. I can play a thin neck, I can play a thick neck, I can play a V-shaped neck… I can play just about any sort of neck you give me; it’s never been a problem for me.
“When you pick up Greeny and you start playing Oh Well or Albatross, it sounds like the recording. It’s amazing. You play Oh Well unplugged, just acoustically, and it sounds like Greeny. It’s the most amazing thing. And the resonance is pretty outrageous. It’s pretty loud acoustically, it has a lot of body to it and the tone rings through even without an amp.
“Once I got the guitar into my possession, I handed the guitar to John Marshall - he was my guitar tech forever and he actually played with Metallica for a short period of time - I said, ‘Play Oh Well,’ and he started playing it and he goes, ‘Ah wow! It sounds just like it!’ and I said, ‘Exactly! Isn’t that incredible?’ And so there you have it, man. It truly is breathtaking.”
One careful owner?
Were you a big fan of Peter Green’s guitar playing?
“Yes, for sure. I really love his playing on the John Mayall albums as well as those Fleetwood Mac albums. I really, really love the track The Supernatural. I love it because when he hits those notes it says it all.
“And from time to time, I’ll pick up Greeny and I’ll play Black Magic Woman or I’ll play Coming Home or something and it feels there, the feel is just so there. I just can’t believe it. Another thing that really is amazing for me is the guitar was also played on Thin Lizzy’s Black Rose, which is one of my favourite Thin Lizzy albums.
“I just love Peter Green. I love his playing. If there wasn’t a Peter Green there might not have been a Carlos Santana. I see a direct correlation - there’s a direct influence there.”
So, you intend to keep using the guitar and not hide it away in a private collection?
“Absolutely. I’m not a guy who’ll buy a guitar just to stare at it and covet it; that is the death of a vintage guitar. Guitars are built to be played. The more they’re played, the better they sound. The more they’re played, the more reactive they are. I bought Greeny and, literally, by the next show she was up on stage in front of 40 to 50,000 people, being sweat on all over by me.
“I’m on my way to the studio right now. I texted my tech and said, ‘Have Greeny in tune, we’re using her today,’ and I’m going to try and use all of the three main sounds that are in her.”
Can you sum up what it’s like to own such a revered instrument?
“A really, really wacky thing is that whenever musicians come by and they know that I have Greeny, they always ask to have a picture taken with it. And it’s just kind of funny because it feels like how it might be if my wife was maybe a famous movie actress or something, with people constantly coming up to me saying, ‘Can you take a picture of me and your wife?’
“I’m constantly stepping aside and manning a camera. That’s what it’s like owning Greeny. I have taken more pictures of people with that guitar than just about any other guitar I’ve ever owned.
“Greeny has its own fanbase, it’s amazing. And lots of people have played that guitar: Jimi Hendrix has played that guitar, Rory Gallagher, Jeff Beck, George Harrison… I mean, the list goes on and on and on.
“The evening of the day I looked at it, I sent a message to Jimmy Page through a friend of mine saying, ‘Jimmy, what do you think of this guitar?’ And Jimmy’s reaction was, ‘I remember that guitar. You should absolutely buy it.’ So I guess I should throw that in for the record that I have Jimmy Page’s approval. When Jimmy says, ‘Yes, you should buy it, Kirk,’ then it doesn’t get much better than that!”