“I’m not a gear man – never have been. Give me something with six strings, keep it in tune, and make sure it’s working!” – Jeff Healey

In all the years I knew him, no matter what rig he was playing through, whose borrowed guitar he was using, what band he was sitting in with… Jeff Healey, inevitably, unswervingly, always sounded like Jeff Healey.  It was remarkable.  I used to half-joke that his tone rested solely in his hands.

Now, a good deal of that is true.  Certainly, Jeff’s phrasing, his unique ability to pull off tremendous string bends and crazy vibrato with ease… his style, though rooted in familiar backgrounds, filtered through his own sensibilities to create that ‘Jeff Healey sound’.

For the most part, Jeff treated his instruments as tools.  There were times he had to be pleaded with to bring guitars out of the garage and into the house!  However, despite the above quote from Jeff, he did have some favourite go-tos amongst instruments and gear.  Due to an overwhelming amount of recent requests, today we are going to dig a bit into this aspect of Jeff’s career. (whilst leaning mostly on our good friend, Rob Quail, with a little help from guitarist Dan Noordermeer and Jeff’s long time tech, Bungie)

Now fear not, if you aren’t a ‘gear head’ or musician – you’ll still have Jeff’s own words, some cool memories, and some pretty pics to see you through… 🙂 ~Rog

***

GUITARS:

Rob Quail (friend/guitarist/bandmate):“His first ever electric was a maple (yes, maple: body, neck, even the fretboard) SG copy with no logo on the headstock.  His dad bought it for him at Hudson Music, a great little guitar shop that used to be in the west end of Toronto, not long before Jeff and I met.

Blue Direction (photo courtesy Jeremy Littler)

His second electric was a black Japanese ”SQ-series”  Squier Strat, with the big, 1970’s style headstock and a maple fretboard; he and I each bought identical guitars the same week in late 1983.  Jeff only owned his for a few months; I still have mine; his now belongs to a friend of his ex-manager.  Jeff bought that guitar at a store that used to be in Etobicoke, called Seagully Sound.

Blue Direction (photo courtesy Jeremy Littler)

His third was a Japanese Contempora Squier, red with two humbuckers. Nobody seems to have any idea where that went. As I recall he bought it at Musician’s Supply in Mississauga, Ontario.   That would have been in late 1983 or early 1984.  After he met Stevie Ray, Jeff started using heavier gauge strings, from a 10 or 11 gauge on the high E down to a huge 56-gauge low E.

L-R Jeff @ The Diamond Club, Jeff @ Chicago’s Diner (© Barry Snapper), & Toronto Star 1985 (© Raj Rama)

Then there was a tobacco-burst MIJ Squier bought in about 1985 from Millwheel Guitars in Toronto…

Tobacco Burst’ Squire, 1985

That was his first Japanese JV Squier, which is the type and model he used for much of his career.

‘Tobacco Burst’ Squire, 1985

But, during the commercial peak of the JHB, for the first few records and the movie Road House, he was using black JV Squiers with red single coil Evans pickups. They were solid alder.  Those Japanese Squiers were great guitars.

Much is made of the fact that Jeff played Squier guitars.  Jeff started playing Strats in the early 1980s when quality control of Fender US was probably at its all-time low; Fender was getting killed by import brands like Yamaha, Ibanez, and Tokai, and so they started their first offshore guitar manufacturing in Japan under the “Squier” brand to try to get prices down and compete with the imports.  Those early Squiers were great guitars.  Since then, the name Squier has been mostly associated with really low-dollar, entry-level guitars.  But the thing to understand is that in the early to mid 1980s, the best guitars with the “Fender” name on them, at least according to Jeff, were those early Japanese Squiers.

I never knew him to own or play a ‘70s Strat or mess with different pickup brands; in fact he hated Strats of that vintage, and very much preferred Japanese ones from the ‘80s.

Jeff stayed loyal to the Squier brand for most of his career.”

Jeff live in Germany 1989 (photo © Willi Kuper)

Jeff Healey: “They’re generally stock except that I’ve changed the pickups and put in some made by a fellow in Victoria, British Columbia, named Rod Evans, who’s made an improvement on the original things. His single-coil pickups to me, are the perfect combination of the standard single-coils and the humbuckers. I love them.  They sound wonderful.”

William Furlong (fan/guitarist): “The Rod Evans pickups started out as standard production units with the quick connectors on the back of each pickup. Then later on they were made hardwired with no connectors. The pickup wires went straight into the epoxy on the back, so Jeff could stand on his guitars and the pickups wouldn’t come out of their clips…”

The Evans Eliminators (photo © William Furlong)

RQ: “I played Jeff’s guitars quite a few times through that period through a variety of amps and I can say the Evans Eliminators he was using were “fat” sounding pickups with a lot of midrange and output. They were very impressive in terms of their ability to avoid background noise and hum, which was very important given Jeff’s tendency to use gobs and gobs of gain and volume to get his sound onstage.  Regular Strat pickups would have been unusable through his rig.”

Live in Germany, ’89

JH : (1989) “(I can get everything I want from one guitar), a black Fender Squier Strat that I have which is my favourite.  All of my guitars have the Canadian-made, Rod Evans pickups, but the black one is the guitar that I like most. …I tighten (the tremolo system) right to the body. I don’t like (locking systems). They’re a pain.”

RQ: “That black Squier Strat that most people associate with Jeff, with the red Evans pickups, is gone. As a part of his show he used to toss it around and jump on it and stuff. The body got re-glued back together so many times that it finally got scrapped. I don’t know where he originally purchased that guitar.”

Electro-Voice Ad circa 1990

RQ: “Jeff used wireless systems for a few years but didn’t like the tone loss so he went back to a cable.”

JH: “(It’s) the Electro-Voice wireless system which was just introduced to the market (in 1990 – Prior to that, Jeff was using a Nady Wireless System ~Rog).  I’m using a wireless implant in my six-string guitars; for my double-neck Jackson, which because of its many workings, has no room for an implant, I use a belt pack.”

***

RQ: “He also had a Jackson doubleneck (with joined headstocks), which he used onstage before he added a second guitarist to the touring act.”

JH: “I bought that in Los Angeles and that’s exactly what I said when I saw it!  It’s a beautiful thing and it has the best 12-string neck on it that I’ve ever experienced on any guitar.  I decided that I wanted to get one, and I went through several guitar stores in Los Angeles trying Ibanez ones and Rickenbackers, and I hated all of them.  I had almost abandoned the idea when I stumbled across this Jackson which was a make I’d never heard of.  So, I tried it out, it had everything on it that I wanted.  I could play both necks at the same time… if I had four hands… It’s perfect.”

Live in 1988 (Photo © Mark Weiss)

RQ: “It’s a Jackson Custom Shop “Siamese” Doubleneck. He bought it at a Guitar Centre in LA while they were recording the See The Light album and the Road House soundtrack. There are not a lot of examples of this particular model. The joined headstocks make truss rod adjustments complex, and the guitar weighs a ton. About 18 lbs.  Of course, because he played sitting down, weight wasn’t a factor for Jeff. (except when he was playing it behind his head! lol. ~Rog)

Warfield Theater, San Francisco – 09/09/90! (Photo © Clayton Call)

12/6 string, upper neck is the 12 string. The lower, 6 string neck is basically a Jackson Soloist, with an old Kahler double-locking vibrato and two humbucking pickups, originally Jackson pickups but later changed to Seymour Duncan SH-5’s. The 12 string neck is very unusual as 6 of the strings are configured normally and 6 are “backwards” with the ball ends in a little tailpiece at the headstock end and the tuners mounted on the guitar’s body.

The 12 string side has two single coil and one humbucking pickup, again originally Jackson pickups. Jeff changed the two single coil pickups for the red Evans ones he used in those days and put another SH-5 humbucker in place of the original bridge position humbucker. Jeff used standard tuning on all his guitars. He used DH strings; the same “JH” 10-56 sets he used all the time on the 6 string side and the 12s were just standard light 12 string gauge.

Jeff gave me that guitar about a year before his death.

The Jackson being set up before a gig in 1990

***

After the original black Strat got trashed, Fender approached him for a signature model, and they made a couple prototype Jeff Healey Signature instruments that were replicas of the black one, with Fender’s then state-of-the-art Lace Sensor pickups and Squier logos. Jeff didn’t like either of them and gave them to another close friend (and great guitarist) Pat Rush, who still has them today.

Jeff had and played a Les Paul for a while in the late 1990s but it was sold when they disbanded the Jeff Healey Band as part of the liquidation of the band’s assets.

From the Sept ’90 issue of Guitar School magazine. (Photo © Adrian Boot)

Later on,  from about 1999, Jeff switched to Contempora-bodied custom-shop-built Squiers with three humbucking Evans pickups (later switched to Seymour Duncan SH-5s)  in them and some pretty wild wiring that allowed him to coil tap individual pickups one at a time.  He could individually tap a single coil on any combination of the three buckers, plus there’s an extra switch that allowed him to get neck + bridge and all three pickups. Plus, there’s a “brightness roll-off” in place of the second tone control, designed by guitarist, Pat Rush.”

JH: “I’ve designed it over the last few years. It has three double-coil pickups, all of which can be split into single-coils. You can get a combination of any one, two, or all three. You can combine all sorts of Strat configurations – front and middle, back and middle…”

RQ: “Jeff had a friend draw up a schematic for this, his “dream guitar”.  He sent the schematic to Fender and said “this is what I would want as a signature model.” Fender made a couple and sent them to Jeff, but also said that there’s no chance that there would ever be a market for such a complex guitar, especially marketed as a Squier, and shelved the whole idea. “

JH: “I’ve talked to a lot of the major companies [about marketing it], but no one seems interested in picking up the idea. They felt that in order to do it, they’d have to put too much money into designing it that way, or that nobody would be too interested.”

RQ: “Jeff told me he thought they were nuts not to market it; that such a flexible instrument would be a huge commercial success. (Personally, with all due respect to Jeff, I’d side with Fender on this; it was a pretty intimidating guitar to try to figure out.)

Jeff’s guitar on stage at the 50th Celebration (photo © Vince Jones)

At the end, and for the recording of Mess of Blues, he used a conventional-bodied US-made Strat with the three SH5s and the same wiring config as above. For some reason he had the pickguard recessed so it was flush with the body; I didn’t discover this until after he had passed so I never was able to ask him why he had that modification done. “

Bungie (Guitar tech extrordinaire):  “I did that, as per request by Jeff, I believe he just wanted it to be more like the prototype Squiers he was working on!

We were trying to get that one as close to what he wanted to be able to show Fender exactly what he was thinking and he hated hitting the pick guard edge with his pick when going for it!”

RQ: “For Jazz shows, Jeff played a 1940s Gibson L12 archtop.  He kept that guitar on his porch all winter; I was always bugging him to store it in a heated, secure place, but to him it was just a tool.”

JH: “I’ve had it for about 10 years.  I added a pickup to it. It still has a nice acoustic sound, I just wanted certain “electrified” sounds, if you will.  I don’t remember exactly which pickup we put on it – it’s an old, large-looking thing.  (I run it through) a little Fender Pro Junior – it has your two basic controls – volume and tone.”

Cover of Jeff’s final studio album, ‘Last Call’ (photo © Mitch Ostapchuck)

***

PICKS:

RQ: “Jeff always used those huge, triangular picks, Fender heavy gauge.  I think they worked best for the mechanics of his picking technique, with the picking hand hovering over the strings.   He always had a couple of those picks in his pocket, I guess because regular shaped picks didn’t suit him, and he never knew when someone might hand him a guitar to play.”

A pick of Jeff’s from the mid-’90s

JH: “It’s just been comfortable for me.  Back when I was a kid, all that I ever used was a thumbpick and I never liked the smaller triangle picks at all.  But somebody left one of these big triangles on a stage I was playing when I was about 13 and my dad gave it to me after the show, just to say, “Look at this — this is funny.”  And I tried it and felt very comfortable with it so I continued to use it and started buying them.”

***

AMPS & Pedals:

JH: (1989) “I use Marshall 100-watt heads, and 4×12 cabs.  The effects are just a Tokai overdrive, a Boss EQ, and an MXR flanger.  As for playing live, I’m trying out a set of pedals at the moment made by DOD that they want me to use, and they’re great.  That’s overdrive, distortion, octaver, flanger, EQ, and digital delay as well as wah pedal.”

DOD Ad circa 1989

RQ: “As far as amps, Jeff used a Marshall JCM800 half-stack in those early days; then later a ProTube Twin, and a pro junior that he used with the Jazz Wizards. For a while Jeff had a Matchless Super Chief. He never liked it though and it was sold on eBay around 2005. In the very early days of Blue Direction, Jeff played a Traynor Guitar Mate.  Also Jeff owned a Peavey Bandit 112 for a few years, before he got is first Marshall.  That amp was a total piece of crap but Jeff was able to make it sing, because he could make anything sing.

Jeff hated reverb.  Any time he plugged into an amp with reverb, the first thing he would do is turn the reverb down to ‘0’.

People were always giving Jeff gear to try out or use, but most of that stuff disappeared. I remember being at a birthday party for Jeff where someone gave him an original TS808 Ibanez Tube Screamer Overdrive pedal. But as far as I know he never used it and it has since disappeared.

In his heyday, he played thru DOD effects (which he endorsed) then later he switched to BOSS pedals (Bluesdriver compressor/sustainer, chorus ensemble, digital delay, GE-7) and Vox wah, into Fender Protube Twins (or the Blackface ‘65 reissue Twins, when he was on the road and couldn’t find a Protube).“

Profile from an early ’90s guitar magazine

Dan Noordermeer (JHBB/Healey’s House Band Guitarist): “The pedal board in this pic is almost exact to what he still used up until his passing. R to L – Boss Power Supply, Boss Compressor, Boss GE-7 Graphic EQ, here is an Ibanez Tube Screamer(I suspect) later on to be switched out for a Boss Blues Driver, Boss Chorus and finally a Boss Digital Delay.”

RQ:  “Jeff always played extremely loud onstage and always set up his amps clean, but very VERY loud, and got all his grit from pedals. He liked to use extreme settings on the pedals so his signal would hit the input stage of his amps really hot.

Basically anything in the signal chain that could increase gain, Jeff cranked. Blues Driver, GE7 graphic EQ, compressor… Then he set up his amp, which in the final few years was a Twin, really loud and clean, and he sat close to it so he could get all kinds of outrageous feedback effects.

The way Jeff used his GE-7 graphic EQ tells you pretty much the whole story about how Jeff used pedals.  That pedal has a row of sliders, each of which can be used to cut or boost a different frequency, and then there is a “gain” slider on the right that just boosts the output overall.  Most people buy those pedals to sculpt their guitar’s tone; maybe boost some bass or cut some shrill highs out.  Not Jeff.  He kept all the sliders in the middle, in the neutral position, except the “gain” one on the right, which he put all the way up.  So basically, he used his EQ pedal as a “make it louder” pedal.

Jeff preferred the unusual (and very heavy!) Fender Protube Twins over the much more common 1965 reissue Twins. Partly because they sounded better, but also because they didn’t blow up as often.  I remember Dave Murphy saying something to me about how astonished he was at how often Jeff would blow up amps while they were out on the road.”

DN: “I felt Jeff preferred (the Twins) over Marshalls at this point when I was with him. He definitely blew up quite a few over the years. There was one occasion overseas where he had blown the main amp and was using the supplied spare amp, which he also blew! I immediately unplugged my guitar, gave him mine and sat in the wings for the rest of the show. No one’s paying to see me imitate Jeff while he just sings!

(As mentioned earlier) Jeff had a Boss Compressor on his board, which is traditionally used to smooth out your sound by squishing the high and low tonal spikes. He, however, had it set up to be dimed out and create sonic chaos into the preamp. Just turning it on would make his signal squeal bloody murder, but he had an incredible ability to use the mayhem quite creatively! I was never surprised, though, at the amount of times this fried the Fenders by the end of a wild night.”

RQ: “On the Live tracks of Mess of Blues you can hear the difference in tone between these two amps.  “How Blue Can You Get” and “Like a Hurricane” were recorded at Healey’s Roadhouse, through the Protube Twin. While there is plenty of distortion, there is a more controlled, focused sound.  The other live-in-concert tracks were recorded on the road, through rented 65 Reissues.  You can especially hear the amp begging for mercy and sounding for all the world like it is going to blow up at any minute at the end of the solo on Sitting on Top of the World.

The thing to appreciate about Jeff’s approach to electric blues-rock guitar is that, probably more than any guitarist since Jimi Hendrix, Jeff treated the guitar, pedals, and amp as a single instrument.  He was a wizard at controlling the strings.  That’s why he liked to set things up onstage the way he did:  amp very close by and pointed pretty much right at his hands, cranked way up insanely loud, with every pedal on the board that could possibly boost the signal cranked up all the way (many of us really worried about his hearing).  This way, he could take full advantage of the way the strings and the guitar’s body would vibrate sympathetically at these tremendous volumes, create sustain and feedback at will. Really allowing him to sculpt the notes.  

Mike Daley and I have shared stories about the few occasions where we attempted to play a little through Jeff’s stage rig as he had it set up, and all either of us could get was squeals of feedback.”

***

Jeff Healey quotes;
Vintage Guitar – June 2002 – Interview by Arlene R. Weiss
Guitar World – Sept. 1990 – Interview by Harold Steinblatt
Guitar Player – Aug. 1989 – Interview by Jas Obrecht
Guitarist – May 1989 – Interview by Rick Batey