Growing up in Herefordshire with a Wurlitzer jukebox in his living room meant that Neil Ivison’s relationship with music was cemented at an early age. Although he distinctly remembers Little Richard’s scream kickstarting an obsession with the crackle of old vinyl records, his “lightning bolt” moment came on 16 December 1991 – “I still remember the date!” he admits – when his mother and DJ father took him to see the mighty Status Quo at Birmingham NEC.
“I went to school for the next 18 months, wearing the Status Quo t-shirt my dad had bought me from the gig, it was my prized possession,” Neil remembers. “Coincidentally, at the same time, the music teacher started a guitar club, teaching guitar after school. I was straight there, first in line, with a list of Quo songs, ‘I just need three chords to play these, don’t worry about the rest!’”
Then at high school, members of staff that had their own band helped Neil and some fellow students put a group together, mentored the fledgling act for a summer and organised an end-of-term concert. Playing in front of 300 screaming kids was mind blowing,” he recalls. “At that moment, any chance of academic qualifications went straight out of the window, I was obsessed!”
By the time Neil left school, he’d already been playing in function bands for about three years. “I’d already got a ‘job’, so to speak. I did go to college and get a diploma in sound engineering but, in rural Herefordshire, I didn’t really have many options available to me so I ended up selling parts for tractors for three years while doing three or four gigs a week in the evenings. Then, by chance, I got a call from a guy I knew who needed a guitar tech urgently for a gig at Download Festival. So I jumped at it.
“It was on the main stage on a Sunday morning and the lead singer sang the whole set suspended above the stage with four meat hooks in his back! Then the guitarist smashed his guitar and set it on fire… that was my introduction to guitar tech’ing! Another tour followed and I realised I absolutely loved being on the road, regardless of if I was playing or as crew, so for the next 15 years, I juggled both.
“I love the travel, the camaraderie, the panic when things go wrong, the thinking on your feet or the elation of a great gig that we made happen against the odds. And with this came the need to learn how to set up, repair and maintain instruments for a variety of different players. Through playing music and touring, I have met some amazing people and have been to some amazing places over the years. In fact, I would say, bar school friends and people I grew up with, most of my friends I have met directly or indirectly through playing guitar, including my wife! So I really do credit the guitar with forming my adult life.”
Given that his collection betrays a love for no-nonsense, workhorse instruments such as Telecasters, Juniors and Specials, we wonder how far Neil’s personal gear choices have been informed by his experiences as a guitar tech. “It just came from my need for a functional guitar when playing myself,” he says. “I’ve never been one for lots of switching because, nine times out of 10, I’m the frontman/singer too so, the less to confuse me the better – I’m easily confused!”
Although primarily a fan of single-pickup electrics, Neil is “learning to love” the neck pickup on his ’65 Telecaster: “I was watching That Pedal Show when they did a vintage guitar episode and Dan [Steinhardt] was playing a ’64 which sounded great, so I decided I needed to find one and this one came up at the right time. It just sounds spectacular through any amp you put it through. It’s pretty raunchy – almost like an SG if you dig in with some dirt. I love it! The week I got that, four songs seemingly just fell out of it so I’ve nicknamed it ‘Magic’! My pal Charlie Starr from Blackberry Smoke loves that guitar too, I took it up to a show in Birmingham for him to use and he fell for it big time, so he has first dibs!”
When it comes to influences, Mick Ralphs was a major one for Neil: “I’ve always been a massive fan and he used a Les Paul Junior for most of the Mott The Hoople and the early Bad Company albums so a Junior was a no-brainer, really. I’ve had a good few now, both single- and double-cuts but the single-cut Les Paul Junior, for me, is the perfect marriage of style and functionality. It literally only has the bare essentials to function, needs nothing else and just sounds otherworldly!
“A great, microphonic P-90 can really scream but just wind the volume back and it’ll clean up to a whisper and sound almost like an acoustic. Even where the volume and tone controls are placed is perfect for me. That big 50s carve mahogany neck fits my spade hands perfectly and a good Junior will just vibrate in your hands… I’ve had a couple that you’d be in danger of getting RSI from! Plus, that 50s two-tone sunburst just stirs my loins! As does TV Yellow… and Cherry Red!”
All that said, Neil doesn’t own a 1950s Junior at the moment. “I sold my last one to fund something else,” he admits, “but I do have a ’57 Special that came to me with a bizarre silver/gold poly finish so I restored that back to its original TV Yellow. That guitar has the quintessential late 50s neck carve which just feels like home and the P-90s are some of the most expressive I’ve ever heard, they have this top end, almost three-dimensional sparkle to them.”
Vintage Juniors are rising in price, and this was in part the motivation for Neil to build his own tributes, under the Ivison Guitars banner. “The other part being that I’m totally obsessed with Juniors and Specials!” He laughs. “So I’ve started hand building vintage-accurate guitars from the measurements taken from 50s Juniors and Specials that I have owned in the past.
“I’ve had a ’55, ’56, ’57 and a couple of ’59 double-cuts and I meticulously measured each one so I could get as close to a vintage-feeling guitar as possible. The idea being that a gigging player can take these out and gig them without worrying too much about having a £5,000 guitar in tow that may get damaged, or worse. It’s taken a long time to get them sounding how I want but I’m confident they are as close, in feel and tone, to an old Junior as you can get with modern materials.”
The 1989 Gibson ES-335 in Neil’s collection has a storied history linked to Rockfield Studios in Wales, where Neil has recently been recording with his current band, Americana outfit Stone Mountain Sinners. “There’s a shop in Hereford called Head, Hands & Feet that was literally a porthole into the music world for us young guitar players from the outlying villages.
Pete Overend Watts from Mott The Hoople would often be in there with some weird and wonderful vintage guitar he’d found at a boot sale or flea market getting it repaired.
“One day I was there, I was 16, and a chap who happened to be Noel Gallagher’s guitar tech came in to drop off a guitar. The shop used to hire guitars and amps to Rockfield Studios and this 335 was a regular down there in the early 90s. The Charlatans, The Bluetones, Teenage Fanclub and Bryan Adams had all used it previously and then Noel Gallagher had hired it for the Morning Glory sessions. He needed a guitar with a Bigbsy and loved it so had asked for it again to use for some of the Be Here Now sessions, too, which was when I first saw it.
“I wasn’t into Oasis at the time at all, I was actually into punk bands especially the Backyard Babies and The Yo-Yos. Those guys all used 335’s but when I asked to have a look and opened the case, my immediate thought was ‘Chuck Berry’! I have to have it! Alas, Colin the owner said it wasn’t for sale. So I just spent the next two months badgering him until he relented and begrudgingly sold it to me! And I’ve had it ever since.
“I just wish I had some written provenance of all the records it’s been on! The thing I find with a 335 is that it is incredibly versatile. It’ll do jazz and blues… even country. But if you wind it up through a Marshall or what have you, it’ll out-rock a Les Paul… in my humble opinion, of course!”
When it comes to amplifiers, Neil’s tastes are similarly fuss-free, prioritising simplicity, build quality and reliability. Despite “slipping down the pedal rabbit hole for a while and coming out unscathed,” he doesn’t use many stompboxes these days. “I like to get one great, edge-of-breakup sound from the amp and then use the guitar volume knob to clean up,” he explains. “Personally, I think the more parts an amp has in it – the more switching, gain boosts, mid cut, deep switches, whatever – it just robs them of tone.
“As with guitars, I like an amp that has just enough parts to function and function well – this might be a throwback to my time as a tech, the ‘there’s less to go wrong’ mentality, but I just find that a simple amp sounds better to me. The boutique amp builders seem to follow this trend, too, so it just confirms it to me. I like the fact that you can contact the builder directly if there’s a problem, you don’t have to email ‘customer services’, you go direct to the organ grinder.
“I remember when my pal Graham got a Matchless DC30 and it was just the most beautiful looking amp we’d ever seen, it was built like a tank and just sounded incredible! And there was barely anything on it in terms of controls compared to a multi-channel combo. It just had what you needed and nothing else. I took me 10 years to be able to afford my own, but I did!”
Neil’s number one amp for the last decade has been a Bad Cat Black Cat, “which is essentially a DC30 that Mark Sampson built after leaving Matchless,” he says. “In fact mine is one of the very first and it is full of Matchless-branded parts! That’s the number one ‘go to’ amp. I’ve just picked up a Matchless Lightning Reverb that is outstanding too.
“I’m also a big fan of Top Hat amps. I have a love/hate thing going on with the tweed sound currently, the Lazy J 20 is exceptional – I’ve had four J 20s and two J 40s over the years! – but I find it’s not suiting what I’m doing at the minute so I’m heading back to EL84s again. Another amp that I’ve probably had the longest of all is one of the first runs of the Orange Tiny Terror. Again, it’s so simple and reliable and just sounds great! And it cost me less than the flightcase for the Bad Cat! We’re a funny bunch, us guitar addicts!”
The aforementioned Mick Ralphs influence is a big one for Neil, to the extent that he now owns a pair of the star’s guitars. “I have a 2002 R8 Les Paul that was his main guitar for about 10 years – the guitar he was playing the first time I saw him live actually – and a pal from The Fretboard forum alerted me to an ’86 Esquire that was for sale in London so I bought that unseen.
“I was on holiday at the time and had to wait two weeks before I could get it! Mick is a notorious tinkerer when it comes to guitars – he loves to try out different pickups, wiring et cetera like we all do – it has upgraded pots and a killer bridge pickup, I’m not sure what it is but it sounds great! Anyway, when I got it I took the scratchplate off – Mick had hand-painted it black to match his original ’57 Esquire – and underneath he’d written ‘Property of Mick Ralphs, Bad Company. Piss Off!’ I don’t think there’s more authentic provenance of ownership than that!”
As our conversation draws to a close we ask the inevitable question: what are you looking to add to your collection next? “Well, it’s not so much a ‘collection’ in the truest sense, more a collection of instruments that all get used regularly and gigged,” says Neil. “It’s just unfortunate for my bank balance that I generally prefer vintage guitars! There’s nothing I dislike more than having a guitar on a stand, covered in dust and not getting used.
“I’m on the look out for another 50s single-cut Junior if anyone has one… but the holy grail would be Mick Ralphs’ ’57 Esquire. It was used on my two favourite albums and on the song we had as the first dance at our wedding… but I don’t think that’ll happen any time soon! You know, at the minute, I’m actually pretty content with what I have. Ask me again next week, though…”
Tones Of Home by Neil’s band, Stone Mountain Sinners, is released on 1 October. Visit www.stonemountainsinners.co.uk to find out more