Photo: Matt Bellamy and Matthieu Lucas off Matt’s Guitar Shop with Jeff Buckley’s 1983 Telecaster. Courtesy of https://www.mattsguitar.shop/en
Jeff Buckley’s famous ‘Grace’ guitar has rarely been out of the news of late. Last month, it was revealed that Muse frontman Matt Bellamy had bought the guitar and was using it on the trio’s next record.
“I haven’t bought it to hang it on the wall with a picture of Jeff saying, ‘Look what I’ve got.’ I’ve bought it to actually attempt to use it and integrate it and keep this guitar part of music,” he told Guitar World, “I’d like to believe that’s what he would have wanted.”
Then, last week, Bellamy spoke of the dramatic moment when he had to flee his studio, selecting his three most important guitars before leaving, including the 1983 Telecaster that Jeff Buckley had used to record the legendary ‘Grace’ album.
Bellamy told his online followers: “Looting starting on the West Side, LA. Rich Costey and I clearing out studio nearby. Managed to rescue my three most important guitars there, my main Manson and acoustic I’ve used on every album and Jeff Buckley’s Grace guitar.”
He posted a tense video clip of himself leaving the studio alongside the post on his Instagram page. https://www.instagram.com/p/CA3vkm5DTx6/?utm_source=ig_embed&utm_campaign=loading
Bellamy was indeed right that Buckley, who died tragically on May 29, 1997 while swimming in the Mississippi River – it’s thought he was hit or dragged under by a passing tug boat – would have approved. Janine Nichols, who originally loaned the guitar to Jeff, wrote a letter to the last seller imploring them to find a buyer who would use rather than display it as a museum piece, as she felt that would be what Jeff had would have wanted.
So, aside from being the guitar that Buckley created such a revered album with, what’s so special about it? Well, while the brand of the Fender Telecaster is well known enough – everyone from Joe Strummer to Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine have used them – the version that Buckley owned is part of a very rare breed indeed. In fact, it’s estimated there are only 200 in existence.
A product of a push to raise standards in Fender, whose reputation among guitar lovers was falling at the time, the 1983 model was only in production for just over one year and isn’t like any other type of Tele.
For starters, its strings are fed through the bridge saddles rather than what is typical of Teles, through the body. Designed by Dan Smith, this type of bridge is called a top-loader.
It’s one element that gives the model its own unique, distinctive sound, a ‘ringing’ character that sets it apart from other guitars. Another big factor in its bell-like sound is a highly unusual type of neck pickup that differs from standard Telecasters.
The series was extremely short lived – most made in 1983, although a handful trickled into 1984 – and the Fender brand’s owner at the time, the CBS corporation, sold the Fullerton Factory, generally agreed by guitar lovers to be the place where their instruments were manufactured, shortly afterwards.
“Jeff’s Telecaster was a 1983 reissue of a ’52 Telecaster in Butterscotch with a maple fretboard,” we’re informed by guitar expert Jon Klein, former guitarist with Siouxsie & The Banshees and Specimen and currently playing with jagged post-punksters Micko & The Mellotronics. “Apparently those have wide, flat neck profiles, so fairly easy to play. The Telecaster first appeared in 1951, so this was a reissue of one of the first ever electric guitars. I would say it’s a slightly souped-up Telecaster. Telecasters are generally known for their very attacking biting sound, often seen played in Indie, punk and particularly country music bands.” Significant, because Buckley drew on an almost unprecedented array of different music styles to create his own, more of which later.
“To me, it means Led Zeppelin I, Elvis, country,” Buckley once said of his Tele, “Without them there’d be no James Brown, no Prince, so it’s kinda a perfect guitar.”
Buckley himself came across the guitar in his early days in New York, having started to regularly visit the city from 1990. He made his public singing debut at a tribute concert for his father – the singer Tim Buckley, who he met once and who died of a drug overdose in 1975 – called ‘Greetings from Tim Buckley’ at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn on April 26, 1991. He had initially rejected the idea of being associated with his famous father. The difficult relationship would re-surface later in an incident on a visit to London to promote his first EP. As the Radio 4 documentary ‘The Grace of Jeff Buckley’ explains, he destroyed a car radio on the way to an interview at Radio London when an announcer rather prematurely mentioned they’d be talking about his father.
But his eventual involvement in the St Ann’s concert and the people he met through it would become key moments in his career.
This is where he hooked up with former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, who became a regular co-writer and collaborator. He became part of Lucas’ band Gods and Monsters but as the band began gigging, in March 1992, he left the line-up.
The concert also put him in contact with Janine Nichols, program director of Arts at St. Ann’s, and having discovered Buckley had recently lost all his musical equipment when his Los Angeles apartment had been cleaned out by burglars, she loaned him the 1983 Telecaster.
He began using it to perform solo at various small venues around Manhattan, but the Sin-é club in the East Village became his main venue. First performing there in April 1992, he quickly built up a repertoire of diverse covers from standard rock gods like Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen whose ‘Hallelujah’ classic would become one of his best known recordings, to Édith Piaf, The Smiths, Bad Brains and Siouxsie & The Banshees. Songs by the sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who Buckley described as “my Elvis” would also appear on the set list on a regular basis, alongside original Buckley compositions and songs co-written with Gary Lucas.
The guitar originally featured a white pickguard, but Janine had already changed it to a mirror one, supposedly inspired by Pretenders singer and guitarist Chrissie Hynde who had played a similar guitar back in the days of punk.
As well as re-fretting the guitar with ‘jumbo’ frets, Buckley made another modification sometime around the end of 1994 or early 1995 and after the ‘Grace’ sessions, with the original bridge pickup replaced with a Seymour Duncan Hot Lead Stack. This would have made the guitar sound beefier, fatter and heavier, much in evidence on this gritty live version of ‘Eternal Life’.
Although the guitar has become synonymous with Buckley’s only studio album ‘Grace’, die hard fans point out that its beauty can be best observed on the solo recordings collected on ‘Live At Sin-é’, originally a four track EP but later expanded to a double CD.
Buckley went on to tour the world with the ’83 Telecaster, including an appearance at the final day of 1994’s Reading Festival, appearing on a side stage between indie also rans Archers of Loaf and Morphine. It’s here that a young 16-year old Matt Bellamy witnessed him in action and left inspired, reportedly changing his vocal style as a direct result of encountering Buckley’s soaring falsetto voice, feeling emboldened and confident enough to sing in a higher register and develop his now world famous vocal style. Bellamy even adopted, for a while, similar headgear to Buckley’s, namely a porkpie hat. The similarities between their musical styles are particularly evident on this recording of Muse playing Paris in 2001.
The guitar was returned to Nichols following Buckley’s untimely death in 1997, before she sold it to New York guitar store Chelsea Guitars, where owner Dan Courteney estimated the guitar’s value as $50,000 in 2011.
It was bought in an auction soon after by a guitar collector who remained anonymous, but then sold on to Matt’s Guitar Shop in Paris, France in 2017. This is where Bellamy first encountered it, initially residing in the ‘not for sale’ section. Bellamy was apparently so taken with it in 2013, he personally requested that should the shop ever want to sell it, they should contact him.
In 2019, the shop posted a clip of the guitar being played to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of ‘Grace’.
The guitar did get another recent live outing, too. It was loaned by Matt’s Guitar Shop to Myles Kennedy for a show at L’Olympia in Paris in December 2019, a venue that Buckley had played back in the 90s. This clip of Kennedy playing ‘Hallelujah’ at the show shows the evident emotion of the moment.
Then, unexpectedly, the guitar that was not for sale suddenly was. “Out of the blue, about six months ago,” said Bellamy recently, “Matt contacted me and said, ‘Oh, by the way, I am maybe looking to move this guitar on, if you’re interested.’” No price has been disclosed, but we do know that Bellamy conducted extensive due diligence to establish the guitar really was Buckley’s, including interviewing members of his family,
“To cut a long story short, it’s got an extremely glassy, bright sound, and it doesn’t really sound like any other guitar I’ve used before,” Bellamy said, adding that while examining its internal electronics, he uncovered another mystery that might have contributed to the one-off sound of this particular model. The pickups on the neck and body seemed to be slightly out of phase with each other, potentially lending it yet another individual quirk.
We can only speculate, but one feels that Jeff would approve of its new owner, especially as he himself had spurred a fledgling Matt Bellamy on all those years ago. It’s also ironic that the guitar that found its way into the hands of Jeff Buckley back in 1991 as a result of a burglary in Los Angeles, would need to be urgently evacuated from a studio in the city last month to avoid a similar fate.
The Muse frontman says he may be too scared about the risk of damaging it to use it live, but will see and decide for sure when the time comes. Nevertheless, we can be pretty certain this is not the last we’ve heard of the ‘Grace’ guitar. If anything, its legend simply continues to grow.
- Special thanks to Rajiv Mahabir for his extensive assistance in researching and creating this article.