So many of the most indelible images from the quaintly named Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held 50 years ago this August, come from the epic concert film that came out in 1970 and featured electric guitars being wielded at full throttle: Alvin Lee of Ten Years After boogieing with his red Gibson ES-335, Pete Townshend alternately mauling and windmilling his Gibson SG Special, Carlos Santana squeezing out sparks from his SG Special, and of course Jimi Hendrix coaxing interplanetary magic from his gleaming white Fender Strat.
But there were also many important acoustic guitar moments in the film, and no doubt some of those are burned into your mind, as well: Richie Havens playing so hard it looks like his guitar might blow apart, Country Joe McDonald strumming a singalong, John Sebastian’s delightfully stoned-out solo reverie, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, in just their second performance, introducing their unique sound to 400,000 people sitting in the mud.
In thinking about the admittedly overhyped 50th anniversary, it occurred to me that the acoustic guitars that were played at Woodstock have never been adequately cataloged, so I set out on a mission to track down as close to every example from the festival I could find. With my typical overconfidence, I thought this would be a cakewalk. After all, there was the Woodstock movie to consult, and even some of the less-known acts had a song or two on the expanded DVD/CD released ten years ago, on the 40th anniversary, or can be seen in footage that has found its way to YouTube. There were also some of the best music photographers in the world documenting every act onstage, including Jim Marshall and Henry Diltz. I figured the internet would be rife with interviews with the various musicians talking about their guitars.
What I found, though, is that there are relatively few shots in the film or bonus footage that show acoustic guitars clearly—the performances are overwhelmingly dominated by close-ups on faces—and just about all of the night footage is fairly indistinct, even in the close-ups. I consulted colleagues to join me in trying to see if the headstock of this or that guitar in the film or photos suggested a specific brand; occasionally it did, mostly it didn’t. I went down dozens of rabbit holes trying to suss out the guitars played by the principals in the Incredible String Band, for example, until I found some folks in Europe via Facebook who could help me in my quest. I lucked out when I learned that the guitar Tim Hardin played was also used by John Sebastian. And, not surprisingly, Martin had an index of the artists who had played their guitars at Woodstock.
What follows is the most thorough accounting I could come up with, plus a few anecdotes.
DAY ONE (Friday, August 15, 1969)
Richie Havens was already a pretty big deal in 1969, though the Woodstock album and film are what truly launched his long career into the stratosphere. He had emerged from the early-’60s Greenwich Village folk scene, and his 1966 debut album, Mixed Bag, heralded a truly unique interpreter of then-contemporary tunes by everyone from the Beatles to Bob Dylan to Gordon Lightfoot, as well as a capable songwriter. His visceral and riveting Woodstock performances of the anti-war “Handsome Johnny” (which he co-wrote) and his improvised-on-the-spot “Freedom/Motherless Child” medley captured some of the zeitgeist of the times.
Havens was not scheduled to open the festival but did so after the producers begged him to—so many performers were having trouble getting to the concert site (including Havens’ bass player, who arrived right as he started his set), he reluctantly but graciously agreed to go on first. “I just saw color to the top of the hill and beyond,” he recalled in Joel Makower’s excellent 1989 book, Woodstock: The Oral History. “When my eyes went from the foot of the stage up to the top of the hill and beyond, I went right up to the sky…. They said they heard it ten miles away in every direction, because they put those towers up there and it bounced through those mountains. We not only did it for the crowd there, we did it for the whole countryside at that point. So it was a modular saturation level of vibrations into the planet.”
At Woodstock, Havens played a Guild D-40; indeed for most of his career Havens played Guilds, in part because of the company’s strong New York ties and his personal relationship with founder Al Dronge (and later, son Mark). Guild put out Richie Havens signature D-40s in both 2003 and 2010. Havens’ loyal guitar mate beginning even before Mixed Bag, Paul “Dino” (or “Deano”) Williams, also played a Guild at Woodstock. My best guess (judging by the fret inlays) is that it was a D-55.
Havens died in 2013.
One of the most forgotten figures to play the festival, 20-year-old Bert Sommer was semi-known on both coasts at the time, having played a key role in the New York and Los Angeles productions of Hair, which was all the rage. A native Long Islander, he had a new album out produced by Artie Kornfeld, who was one of the producers of Woodstock—hence, Sommer’s slot on the first day. “I was the new kid on the block,” he said many years later. “They asked me to open. I was petrified, so Havens, professional that he is, said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll open.’ . . . It was the first time I ever played; that was my debut in front of an audience.” During his ten-song set, Sommer played a Guild F-50, a jumbo with maple back and sides.
Alas, Sommer’s career never quite took off, though he made a few more albums and managed to gig up until his death in 1990 at the age of just 41.
By all accounts, Tim Hardin was not in good shape when he appeared at Woodstock. Another veteran of the ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene, he was revered for having written such songs as the much-covered “If I Were a Carpenter,” “Reason to Believe,” “Misty Roses,” and “Don’t Make Promises,” and had cut a few well-regarded albums. But he was also an addict whose habit definitely had a terrible impact on his life and career (he eventually died of a heroin overdose in 1980).
For his Woodstock appearance, Hardin put together an interesting small band that included a cellist, two other guitarists (including a young Ralph Towner, who also played piano), a bass player, and a drummer. Hardin played a spruce-and-mahogany Harmony Sovereign acoustic.
Melanie (Safka), another product of New York’s 1960s folk scene, was a virtual unknown with one album to her name when she was booked as a solo performer at Woodstock at the age of 22. In a recent interview with Jeff Tamarkin for the BestClassicBands.com website, Melanie said she was “terrified out of my mind” to be playing at the massive event, and was actually happy when it started raining hard during the set that preceded hers: “Ravi Shankar went on and it started to rain and I thought, that’s it, I’ll be saved because people are gonna go home now, because it’s raining. Of course, they’re going to go home! I mean, they’re not gonna sit there in the rain.”
As if! She went on, armed just with her Goya nylon-string guitar, and she was ecstatically received for her seven-song set. One of the songs she played, “Beautiful People,” brought her considerable notice at the end of 1969, and then a song inspired by her Woodstock experience, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” became a worldwide smash hit in 1970. She had two songs on the 1971 sequel to the original Woodstock album, which also helped make her one of the most popular female artists of the early ’70s.
Recently, Melanie told me the story of her Goya: “Up until the age of 16, I played a baritone ukulele. My dad, a retailer for one of the first discount stores—Two Guys from Harrison, where they sold Goya guitars—surprised me with one for my birthday. As my career and visibility began to grow, Goya contacted me to endorse their guitars. At that point I didn’t know any other guitars. I was given a factory tour and asked to pick out any one I would like, and so I did. I found out a little ways into it that Goya was not as well-respected as other guitar makers. Nonetheless, I love that my Goya is the guitar that got played at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight Festival, Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, the Met, and Sydney Opera House. My original Goya came to a sad end; another story. But I have an exact model replacement Goya that someone gave me!”
I think of Arlo Guthrie as being very prominent in the original Woodstock film, but when I watched his segment again recently, I noticed that very little of him performing appears onscreen. Oh, his wonderful, set-opening dope-smuggling anthem, “Coming into Los Angeles,” is heard in full, but the visuals during most of the song are of a grinning Guthrie arriving at the festival and a montage of people in the crowd and backstage imbibing to their heart’s content! (That song also appeared on Side One of the original three-disc soundtrack.)
Guthrie was already a counterculture folk hero by then, widely known for his hilarious 18-minute story-song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” (which he did not play at Woodstock). Arlo’s guitar that night, he tells us, was “a Candelas guitar made by luthier Porfirio Delgado & Sons in Los Angeles.” When I reached luthier and current head of the company, Tomás Delgado—grandson of company co-founder Profiro Delgado and son of Profiro’s luthier son Candelario—he noted that Guthrie owned both the Candelas 12-string and also a six-string. He added that the Woodstock 12-string appears very briefly in the film Alice’s Restaurant (filmed in the fall of 1968 and released a few days after the Woodstock fest), in the touching scene in which Arlo and Pete Seeger visit and play for the dying Woody Guthrie (portrayed by an actor) in a hospital.
Also playing acoustic guitar onstage during Guthrie’s set was his longtime musical foil John Pilla (d. 1988), who played a 1956 Martin (model not known).
Folk icon and social activist Joan Baez closed the Friday night concert with an inspired 11-song set that began after midnight and mixed solo numbers (voice and acoustic guitar—such as “Joe Hill”—or a capella—“Swing Low Sweet Chariot”) with a couple of powerful tunes featuring acoustic guitarist and singer Jeffrey Shurtleff (as on “Drugstore Truck Driving Man”) and electric guitarist Richard Festinger. Baez played the 1929 Martin 0-45 she bought for $200 in 1962, which became famous in recent years for another reason: “When it went in to be fixed in 1996, the repairman took it apart and found a scroll inside which said, ‘Too bad you’re a communist,’” she told the UK’s Acoustic magazine in 2018. “It must have been done by a repairman years ago who disputed my politics. When the 0-45 was replicated for a 1997 edition, a backwards label bearing the same slogan was adhered to the inside of the soundboard so that it could be read with an inspection mirror.”
As best as I can tell from the slightly hazy videos, Shurtleff also played a Martin, but it looks to be a late ’20s or early ’30s 0-45, with a torch inlay on its slotted headstock.
DAY TWO (Saturday, August 16, 1969)
Country Joe McDonald
OK, what passes for controversy in the Woodstock historical narrative is that Country Joe McDonald—he of the infamous “Gimme an F!” cheer preceding his stirring antiwar “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” singalong that is a total show-stopper in the movie—has always claimed that he directly followed Richie Havens on the first day of Woodstock. That’s where his narrative appears in the Makower oral history, and even concert co-producer John Morris supports that view in the book.
But in 2009, when the expanded Woodstock: 40 Years On box came out and included the complete set lists for every act in order of their appearance for the entire festival—presumably based on tape logs and other records—they put Country Joe’s nine-tune solo acoustic set as the second act of the second day, after the long-forgotten band Quill.
Whatever the reality (and I trust historians over a guy who was probably on psychedelics the entire weekend), here’s McDonald’s account, from an interview a number of years ago: “I was just sitting on the stage grooving, and watching Richie Havens, and when he stopped, someone asked me if I wanted to do a solo set. I was really nervous about playing by myself in front of that huge crowd, so I started making excuses. I said, ‘I don’t have a guitar.’ That’s when someone found me that Yamaha—an FG-150. To this day, I don’t know where they got it. Then, I said, ‘I don’t have a guitar strap.’ So they cut a piece of rope off the rigging, tied it to that Yamaha guitar, and said, ‘You’re on, pal!’ Well, you can hear in the movie and on the record that the FG-150 sounded really good. That guitar could project, man. I really feel like Richie Havens and I took the acoustic guitar to another level that day at Woodstock. We started a new style of really loud, powerful rock ’n’ roll acoustic-guitar playing. My life would have been totally different if someone had handed me a typical $100 acoustic. I thank my higher power they handed me a Yamaha FG-150!”
On Sunday, McDonald played an electric set with his band Country Joe & the Fish.
Former Lovin’ Spoonful founder and leader John Sebastian was, like Country Joe, brought onstage to fill some time during one of the interminable delays caused by inclement weather and god-only-knows what else. Unlike McDonald, however, Sebastian was attending only as a spectator, dressed head to toe in tie-dye. His first solo album, John B. Sebastian, was about to be released, so he did have some material to draw from during his spaced-out but utterly charming solo set. As he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper in 2009: “[Organizers] Artie Kornfeld and Chip Monck said, ‘We need somebody to hold ’em with one acoustic guitar, and you’re elected!’ I was running around, trying to find a guitar. Timmy Hardin loaned me a very serviceable Harmony Sovereign.”
As for his rather obvious impairment, he said, “I hadn’t gotten thoroughly psychedelicized, as people love to suggest. But I was definitely glowing a bit, as a result of nipping at this pill that I was told was like THC. It really wasn’t that marvelous. If you’re playing for such a big audience and you couldn’t be less prepared, though, how blown is your mind going to be anyway?”
He obviously did fine—he was a highlight of the movie and the various albums that came out later.
Incredible String Band
I have to say, had I been at Woodstock that Saturday, I would have been jazzed to see what was once described as England’s “gypsy, vaudeville, jug band, Celtic” group, the Incredible String Band, who had made an album I truly loved called The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. But most of the Woodstock audience had no idea who they were, and as the quartet’s multi-instrumentalist co-leader Mike Heron put it in a documentary about the band, “It was just millions of people sitting in the mud and us on this stage, kind of twinking away at instruments. We didn’t really make much impact. In fact, we didn’t make it to any of the Woodstock films.”
True, but they did make the 2009 box. Heron and co-leader Robin Williamson sported two of the more obscure acoustic guitars played at the festival. Williamson’s was made by the venerable Swedish guitar-making company Levin (long popular in England). According to a missive passed along to me by email from Wolfgang Rostek, “The guitar Robin used from the first album until the early ’70s, as far as I can tell is a one-off custom version of a Levin model LM-26 [a “Goliath” dreadnought]. Williamson’s Levin had a carved scroll violin-type headstock, whereas the standard model has a more usual flat headstock.” At some point in the late ’60s, Williamson had his guitar stripped and painted with colorful designs, and that is how it appears at Woodstock.
Raymond Greenoaken, whom I located via Facebook, adds that Williamson’s Levin “had previously belonged to Bert Jansch. There was a period in Edinburgh when Williamson and Bert Jansch shared addresses and sort of co-owned it. Bert actually suffered a nosebleed once while playing it, and according to Robin, his bloodstains remained in the soundhole for many years afterwards.
“As for Mike’s guitar,” he continues, “all I can tell you is that it was made to his specifications by [English] luthier John Bailey, who also made the guitar Roy Harper used around the same time. Both have very distinctive timbres; presumably that was a Bailey trademark.”
DAY THREE (Sunday, August 17, 1969)
Woodstock was essentially a hometown gig for the Band (who actually lived in Woodstock, where the festival was originally supposed to take place, before it eventually landed in nearby Bethel, New York.) In 1989, group leader Robbie Robertson recalled to Rolling Stone: “After three days of people being hammered by weather and music, it was hard to get a take on the mood. We played a slow, haunting set of mountain music. We lived up there, near Woodstock, and it seemed kind of appropriate from our point of view. We did songs like ‘Long Black Veil’ and ‘The Weight,’ and everything had a bit of reverence to it. Even the faster songs sounded almost religious.”
Though Robertson mainly played electric guitar during the group’s 11-song set Sunday night, he did break out his Martin D-28 for two songs: “No More Cane on the Brazos” and their FM hit at the time, “The Weight.”
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
The final and probably most significant acoustic performance of the Woodstock festival, this was just the supergroup’s second-ever gig. No wonder Stephen Stills told the crowd, “We’re scared shitless!” Crosby Stills & Nash’s eponymous debut album had just come out and was a national sensation—it would be one of the most influential albums of the late ’60s, with its exquisite harmonies, shimmering guitars, and accessible confessional songwriting. Neil Young, Stills’ bandmate from the earlier Buffalo Springfield, had recently launched his solo career, and became a sort of adjunct member of the group as the trio (augmented by bassist Greg Reeves and drummer Dallas Taylor) began working on their Déjà Vu album that summer.
CSNY’s one-hour set was divided into a CSN acoustic segment, a couple of Neil Young acoustic numbers, and then several electric songs. For the acoustic tunes, Stills might have played two different guitars: a prewar Martin D-28 and a Martin D-45 which he told Music Radar he had purchased, along with a Ferrari, “when we first got money in the Buffalo Springfield.” Echoing that sort of idea, Nash recently told the Intelligent Collector website, “We [CSN] had money, and the first thing you do when you have money [is] you want to buy better equipment. We each bought D-45s from Martin. That was 1969, and so right before Woodstock, we bought these guitars and took them to Woodstock.” Young, too, played a D-45 (and also possibly a D-18), and then there was David Crosby’s somewhat unusual 12-string: “I played my D-18 converted to a 12-string,” he told us. Indeed, Martin released a signature version of that Crosby 12-string in 2009.
And, finally, there is this, for all you completists: For a mere $800 you can buy the limited edition Woodstock—Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive, which includes 38 discs (containing 267 previously unreleased songs) and is billed as “a near complete reconstruction of Woodstock clocking in at 36 hours, with every artist performance from the festival in chronological order.”
It goes without saying that you should probably still steer clear of the brown acid.
Peace & Guitars Martin celebrates Woodstock with two new models
Not long ago, Chris Martin IV, the CEO and chairman of C. F. Martin & Company, got to thinking about the 1960s, its cultural trends and, naturally, the role that Martin guitars played in the music of this revolutionary decade. With the 50th anniversary of Woodstock approaching, Martin decided to release a pair of guitars to commemorate the occasion: the DX Woodstock and the D-35 Woodstock.
The original red Woodstock poster, designed by the graphic artist Arnold Skolnick and emblazoned with the slogan “3 Days of Peace & Music,” is among the most iconic concert artifacts of the era, so it was a no-brainer for inclusion as a design element in the Martin project. Robert F. Goetzl, an artist who has worked with Martin on special-edition guitars like the cannabis-themed D-420 and DX420, used the poster as inspiration for the DX Woodstock. This relatively affordable 14-fret dreadnought, with a street price of $599, has an HPL (high-pressure laminate) body, its red-painted soundboard embellished with the original typography and dove-perched-on-fretboard image.
Martin’s D-35 was a relatively new guitar at the time of Woodstock, having been introduced in late 1965. Given the instrument’s popularity in the 1960s, it was a natural fit for the project. Martin based the Woodstock edition of the D-35 ($3,499 street) on its recent Reimagined series model and borrowed from the 1969 poster in subtler ways than on the DX edition. Here, the dove motif appears as a headstock inlay; the design repeats, along with commemorative text, on the pickguard.
For Chris Martin, the Woodstock guitar duo isn’t just a loving tribute to one of the most significant events in the history of popular music, but a means of reconnecting with the music of his youth. “In 1969, I was 14 years old, and there was no way my mom was going to let me go,” he says. “But I had the record, and I played that thing till it wore out.” —Adam Perlmutter
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.