Most guitarists play a six-string made of wood that costs in the triple digits.
But his $25,000 vintage metal hollow-body instrument pales in comparison to a former guitar of the National brand that he once owned: Tampa Red’s.
In the early 1900s, Tampa Red was a famous and prolific bluesman, making 300 recordings of his own tunes and 400 accompanying other people. In addition, he pretty much invented the style of guitar playing known as bottleneck.
And in 1994, Clemons ended up with Red’s guitar.
After acquiring a taste for vintage instruments following the bluegrass circuit in the late ’70s and early ’80s — “The best time ever to be doing that,” he said — Clemons opened a vintage instrument shop in Belleville, Ill. He cast about for old guitars, especially metal ones. A woman called him about a six-string she couldn’t unload, not even for $65.
“I don’t know what brand it is, but it says ‘Tampa Red,”’ she said.
“And she hands me this guitar,” Clemons said.
It had the bluesman’s signature chrysanthemum design on the back, and Clemons knew he might have the famous guitar. He felt a mix of “confusion and elation,” because although the instrument was almost perfect, Red’s piece was reported to be gold-colored. The one Clemons held was emerald in color, but not in material.
“It was all green and corroded. I hit it for three weeks with polish,” he said.
But even polished, it wasn’t gold, so he verified it with an expert. Learning it was indeed the real deal, he was told to not tell anyone.
“In a way, that was my down fall, because I did talk to people,” Clemons said.
Although it may have shortened the time he owned the guitar, it introduced him to opportunities.
“I had no interest in playing before the public,” he said. “I loved music and guitars, but I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. But once I had this guitar, I started to hone my bottleneck techniques. I wound up doing several radio and TV shows.”
After all, when you’ve got what vintage guitar expert George Gruhn calls “the most significant National in existence,” you may get a bit of notice. With guitar in hand, Clemons met Dan Aykroyd (who wanted the guitar for his House of Blues chain) and played with Chuck Berry (“I hardly played a note,” Clemons said). The instrument was featured in magazines, which led to Clemons discovering some of the “dark aspects involved in the business world of upper-end vintage instruments.”
After three years with the piece, Clemons sold it to Washington’s Experience Music Project for $85,000.
“The guitar was worth twice that.
It’s a national treasure,” he said. “It would be somewhere where people could enjoy it. It resides behind glass.”
Tampa Red’s six-string left a mark on Clemons that remains priceless.
“The guitar opened me up in exponential ways. It opened me up to music from the dawn of recording,” he said.
He still plays a 1928 National that is “very much like Tampa’s minus the chrysanthemum” around town, occasionally busting out a few Tampa tunes on it — bottleneck-style, naturally.