Idles just tore a whole in the Rockefeller Center on Wednesday when the British post-punk tornado performed Gift Horse on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and watching Lee Kiernan and Mark Bowen ripping it up was a reminder that it takes a certain kind of electric guitar to survive in this band.
What are those qualities? Well, Mark Bowen recently joined Guitarist magazine for a video segment addressing that very subject, in which he shared his top three go-to guitars for stage and studio, and how his playing style places inordinate pressures on his instruments.
For a start, there’s always a lot of movement on stage, and the guitars don’t always make it out in one piece. Bowen explained how his 1972 Fender Stratocaster, a longstanding workhorse his father gave him, got split in two when it collided with Kiernan’s guitar onstage, but that, in the grand scheme of things, that was the least of its worries.
It was so worn in and stewed in Bowen’s sweat that it had begun to rot, with Bowen’s pick attack allied to damage from having stickers on the lacquer had opened it up for moisture to get in.
“It’s still moderately disgusting but it used to be a lot more disgusting,” he says. That is true. We have seen this guitar in the flesh, back in 2018, when it looked like the headstock was being held together with electrical tape. It was already bearing the scars from Bowen’s pick.
“I used to tape slogans on [the body], like ‘This machine kills fascists’, but it gradually wore off the varnish and because I am crap at playing guitar, I’d scraped away all the wood, and it was soaking in really bad,” he says. “The skunk stripe at the bad had come loose. The neck was completely battered.”
The ’72 Strat has undergone a few mods over the years. One of the first things Bowen did was remove the tone pots. They would just get in the way. A set of high-output Creamery electric guitar pickups replaced the original single-coils.
But Bowen admits that there came a point where a full restoration was required, and it was put in for some TLC with Reuben Gotto from Fairlane Guitars (formerly Providence) in southeast London.
“The restoration he did is incredible,” he says. “The neck is all back to normal but it’s all original. All the metalwork and all the hardware, that’s all the original stuff. The wood, they impregnated it with some resin so it would stop soaking stuff in. It’s my favourite guitar. I play it a lot less now. I’ve got more beastly things these days.”
Beastly things? That is his cue to offer us a closer look at his acrylic-bodied, aluminium-necked Series 2 doublecut from Kevin Burkett’s Electrical Guitar Company. The Travis Bean inspiration is obvious from the materials and headstock design. The weight is ungodly. Fifteen pounds was the guesstimate in the video. But Bowen insists that the tone is it worth it.
“With the neck, it just has this resonance to it that I saw someone describe as an angry piano, which I love,” he says. The pickups are wound to within an inch of their lives, they just keep going. I love it. It’s a great sound. It’s insanely heavy. It’s hard work live. But every time I pick up a different guitar our sound engineer is like, ‘No, don’t! Keep this one.’”
The EGC Series 2 is a through-neck with a twist. The neck extends into the asymmetric body down to the bridge, with the pickups mounted onto the neck.
“It’s great for feedback as well because it is so resonant,” says Bowen. “These frequencies that come out of it are great.”
Rounding out his top three is a bespoke baritone guitar he ordered from Fender after tracking most of 2020’s Ultra Mono on a baritone T-style. The Big F doesn’t presently carry a baritone Stratocaster in the lineup, which is definitely a gap in the lineup and something it should consider for the Strat’s 70th Anniversary. But you can buy a baritone Strat neck (£329, with pau ferro or maple fingerboards), and it looks like that’s what they did for Bowen.
It is one of the few guitars in his collection that has stock pickups, and for good reason. Bowen says he wants the baritone to retain that twang, the sort of old rock ’n’ roll sound you’d associate with Duane Eddy, or his heroes Dick Dale and Link Wray.
“Normally it has got to be to my spec, or really hot stuff and all that, but I think with baritones specifically, being too hot is a dangerous territory because you start to go into a bit of bassiness, not where you want it to be,” says Bowen. “You want it to sound like a baritone guitar so actually the twangier and American kind of [sound] you’d associate with typical Fenders is the best kind of vibe. The best thing about a baritone is it is twangy and it is also meaty at the same time. When I play guitar on Tangk, this will be my main guitar.”
And you can hear that baritone Strat in action above, live from NBC’s Studio 6B, and on Tangk, which is out next Friday 16 February via Partisan. Tangk is available to preorder now.