From the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By James Rotondi
“I’ve been spending a lot of time catching up with all my guitars down here in Pandemic-ville,” quips Jimmy Buffett, relaxing at his home studio in Palm Beach, Florida. “Y’know, if you’re lucky enough to get to that point where you’re on the road and you’ve got a little money, in any town you pull into you’re looking at and probably buying guitars. The thing is, I buy them when I’m on the road, and then I send them back home. Now, since I probably only bring five or six of my real workhorses with me on the road, these other great guitars sort of sit at home. Well, suddenly I find myself with the time to really enjoy playing and caring for these great instruments. That’s been a silver lining in this whole damn thing.”
Buffett, of course, is the global musical avatar of sun-and-surf devotees everywhere, best known for composing modern island-infused standards like “Margaritaville,” “Come Monday,” and “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” not to mention his expansive current resume as a successful restaurateur, best-selling author, Broadway auteur, devoted philanthropist, and beacon to his legions of fans who dub themselves Parrotheads. The man has done very well, as they say. But even with his multiple projects and pursuits, he remains as passionate a guitar aficionado, player, and collector as you’re likely to meet. These days he’s been focusing on developing his Brazilian jazz chord and lick vocabulary, and, of course, hunkering down with his many rarified golden-era guitars.
Many of Buffett’s most cherished instruments found their way onto his latest album, Songs You Don’t Know by Heart, a fan-curated collection of his lesser-known songs rerecorded in solo or duo settings, many performed with his longtime writing partner, songwriter and producer Mac McAnally. His guitar choices for diamonds in the rough like “Woman Goin’ Crazy on Caroline Street” and “Death of an Unpopular Poet”—a remarkable song based on the tragic deaths of poet Kenneth Patchen and singer Richard Fariña—were equally deliberate, nods not only to each song’s provenance, but also to the guitars’ own histories, and the special demands of tracking live with guitar and voice at the same time.
A great example is Buffett’s 1939 Gibson J-100. “Those are not delicate guitars!” laughs Buffett. “Those guitars were built to be played loud, to create a big sound in a room, so they’re perfect for those times when you’re recording yourself singing and playing at the same time. I used it on this new version of ‘Woman Goin’ Crazy on Caroline Street,’ because the original version has that same kind of solo-act bigness to the guitar.” Great-sounding guitar, for sure, but wait until you hear Buffett’s story behind it.
“I was living in Aspen, Colorado, for the summer at that time,” Buffett recounts, “and the only guy I knew who had a Gibson Everly Brothers Flattop model was my pal J.D. Souther. But man, I really wanted one of my own. I just loved the look and sound of that guitar. I was finally able to find a 1962 Everly Brothers through a guy at a shop in Florida. A little bit later, J.D. came to Aspen to play a show, and we had a party for him. When he got there, I said, ‘C’mon over here, man, I want to show you something’ I got out my 1962 Everly Brothers and started playing it, jamming with J.D., and it was going great. Then J.D. stops and says, ‘Jimmy, I’ve got to talk to you for a minute. I didn’t tell you this, but my Everly Brothers got stolen about two months ago. And you’ve been playing it for the last ten minutes!’
“Well, I gave that guitar right back to J.D. on the spot,” Buffett continues. “And I contacted the guy in Florida that sold it to me—he sold Moroccan rugs, guitars, and hash pipes, as I recall—and I said, ‘I don’t know where you got that guitar you sold me, but it was stolen, and it belonged to a friend of mine, so I gave it back to him. So, unless you want to see federal investigators coming down here, you’d better have something for me of equal value that I can trace the numbers on to make sure it’s not stolen. And you’d better have it quick.’ Sure enough, he showed up a few days later with that 1962 Gibson J-100.”
Another high-flying guitar tale concerns Buffett’s semi-legendary “Painted Lady,” a 1969 Martin D-28 that he bought at George Gruhn’s original GTR shop in downtown Nashville in the 1970s, and on which Gruhn and repair tech Randy Wood had done some additional inlay work, along the lines of a D-45. “That was my ‘A’ guitar,” recalls Buffett. “Heck, I only had two guitars at the time—my D-18 12-string and my new D-28. Around that time I had begun hanging out with writer Tom McGuane and landscape painter Russell Chatham. We were kind of running around in the mountains in those days doing some psychedelics. Well, we were hanging around the lake with these girls who kinda looked like mermaids, and I said, ‘Russell, why don’t you paint a mermaid on my guitar?’
“Let’s just say our thoughts had cleared a bit by the next day, and when Russell asked me if I still liked it, I said, ‘Well, it kinda reminds me of the girl on the Herbal Essences shampoo bottle.’ [Laughs.] I’d envisioned some Old World scrimshaw sort of thing! But y’know what? When I moved down to Key West full-time, that’s the very guitar I wrote ‘Margaritaville’ on. It’s just my most trusted guitar for nearly anything I want to play, and on the new album I played it on ‘Love in the Library.’”
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Other gems from Buffett’s evolving collection include a 1951 Martin D-18 that he picked up in Paris and immortalized on his song “Rue de la Guitare”; a ca. 1887 Martin 0-28 that he played on “Tonight I Just Need My Guitar”; a cutaway Benedetto Andy 3/4-scale archtop that he likes to play through a Henriksen combo amp; an “incredibly loud-sounding” 1949 Epiphone Emperor that was a birthday gift from McAnally; and newer Martins, including a clutch of his own signature D-18s, the LX Jimmy Buffett “Little Marlin” Special Edition, and a “sweet” 000-28 with a built-in L.R. Baggs pickup system and tuner that Buffett plans to use for a series of socially distanced “boat shows” across the Southern U.S. coast in 2021.
Buffett extends his love of the instrument to the community. In addition to his long-standing work with the Singing for Change Foundation, he is working with Fender on a buyback program that would allow underserved youth to buy less expensive Fender guitars and eventually trade up, at very generous rates, to more premium instruments. He’s also offering many of his private collection instruments for students’ use at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi (“Southern Miss”), based on a merit system where the prospective use of these fine guitars helps motivate students to elevate their academic performance.
“I never really saw myself as being a guitar collector,” Buffett explains, “but after going to visit Vince Gill and later working with Mark Knopfler, they really got me into it. Not anywhere near their level, though. God almighty, Knopfler’s got a lot of guitars!” In order to house all his own lovely instruments, Buffett built a private studio at his home in Sag Harbor, New York. “When it was all built and done and I was ready to take it all in,” he recounts, “my property manager said, ‘No, Jimmy, you can’t go in yet. Just give me a little bit.’
“When I did go in,” Buffett recalls, “he’d put all of my dozens of guitars up on stands, all of them standing up in the house. Wow. I mean, just taking all of it in at that moment, I remembered exactly which guitars I’d written certain songs on and the feelings that drove those songs. It brought back exactly where and how I’d come by each of those guitars, and the incredible backstories behind them. It was truly overwhelming.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.