Johnny Thunders' Guitar
by Richard Benson

Johnny playing a Les Paul Special

The cover photo of the second New York Dolls album "Too Much Too Soon" is a great rock and roll statement. Johnny is playing a 1955 Les Paul Special with attitude! It was essentially a two pick-up version of the Les Paul T.V. (basically the T.V.'s older brother). The Les Paul Special only came in a "single cutaway" version in 1955 through 1958 then went to a double cutaway design till 1960. The production total for Specials in 1955 was 230 units. This 1955 Special was Johnny's main guitar for The Dolls first studio album and early tours until the Les Paul T.V. slowly became his workhorse guitar! It was easy to see why Johnny ended up playing Les Paul T.V.'s. The one pick-up, one volume control, one tone knob guitar fit Johnny's style more than the "upscale" two pick-up, two volume, two tone knob, three way pick-up selector of Les Paul Specials. When playing "messed" simplicity is the key! The denser chunk of wood in the T.V.s (due to the guitar only being routed for one pick-up instead of two) must have also provided a little more CRUNCH!

Johnny achieved his unmistakable tone from playing vintage guitars very loud and clean. The natural speaker distortion of an overdriven amplifier and his R 'n' R attitude provided more than enough beef. On top of other addictions Mr. Genzale will always be known as a late 50's Gibson Les Paul T.V. junkie. __(Not to be confused with the more common Les Paul junior of the same period.)__ From the middle days of the NY Dolls to the final gigs before his untimely death in 1991, it is believed that he played just two main Les Paul T.V.s. His first Les Paul T.V. which he first acquired while playing in the New York Dolls was stolen in late 1979 early 1980 while he was touring with "Gang War". Another one was purchased towards the end of 1980 in New York to replace his original. The "T.V." denoted the color of the guitar (a beautiful honey yellow) which was assumed to show up better on black and white television sets. Both guitars were the double cutaway versions which means they were produced between mid 1958 and 1960. It is my opinion that these guitars were 1958's due to the more squared off horns on each cutaway (the later 59's and 60's horns were a bit smaller and more rounded). The production totals of the Les Paul T.V. were 429 in 1958, 543 in 1959, and 419 in 1960. Gibson electric guitar aficionados will classify these years as the golden years of guitar making. These are now considered rare and collectible guitars. On top of it all, Johnny's guitars had the rarer tortoise shell pick-guard instead of the more common black pickguard. His only modification he did to the guitar was to put on modern Grover tuners (good idea). It is funny to hear people talking about Johnny always playing slightly out of tune. The "primitive" bridge set up of these guitars made it impossible to intonate perfectly. The imperfect tone was more a function of the guitar and his heavy handed playing. One of Johnny's T.V. guitars hangs proudly in the New York Hard Rock Cafe. It is a miracle that it was recovered after his death.

Not surprisingly, Johnny has been pictured with many other "one night" guitars. Just getting to the gig , with or without the axe, was sometimes a great feat. So yes, you can see him with mid 60's Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters, 70's Flying V's, 50's single cut Danelectro's, 60's Vox Teardrops, and even Ovation acoustics. Early on with the Heartbreakers (1975-1976) he did use a 60's Gretsch White Falcon (double cutaway, of course) for a fair part of the set. Below is a chronological order of the guitars Johnny has been either seen, pictured, or filmed with.

A Sampling Of Guitars Played By Johnny Thunders
1973 German T.V. Show (Musik Laden) Les Paul T.V.
1974 Debbie Harry & Stilettos and the NY Dolls Les Paul T.V.
1974 Olde Grey Whistle Test T.V. Show 60's White Vox Tear Drop
1974 Too Much Too Soon album cover Les Paul Special
1974 Don Kirshners Rock Concert Les Paul T.V.
1976 Heartbreakers Live 60's Gretsch White Falcon, Les Paul T.V.
1979 Johnny Thunders Allstars - London Lyceum Les Paul T.V. ,mid 60"s Fender Telecaster
1979 Live with Gang War Les Paul T.V.
1982 Swedish Newspaper Cover story 60's Gretsch Country Gentleman (where did he get that?)
1984 Spanish Television Les Paul T.V.
1985 Dead or Alive Video Les Paul T.V.
1988 Live in London Les Paul T.V.
1988 El Mocambo, Toronto Les Paul T.V.
1991 Blind Pig, Ann Arbor-Michigan (my last time seeing him) Les Paul T.V. (all night long)

Johnny playing a Les Paul T.V.

It should also be noted that the idea of Johnny having numerous Les Paul T.V.s over the years does not seem plausible. John Penny who played with Johnny on "Que Sera Sera" and "Copycats" makes special mention of the warped neck. A player doesn't continue to use the same beat up guitar unless they have a great attachment to the instrument. Also, the chances of owning numerous Les Paul T.V.s with the very rare "tortoise shell" guard are nearly impossible. It was also known that at least one of Johnny's guitars had a repaired neck crack. Thanks a lot Dee Dee! By the way, do not pay too much credence to the different sticker configurations on his Les Paul T.V.'s, the more tell tale signs are the wear spots on the guitar through the paint and down to the bare wood. These are very consistent from his New York Dolls days right up until the end (the wear patches were larger in the later years).

The other half of rock and roll sound should also get a nod. Johnny's main amplifiers were Fenders (main set up being one or two "black face Fender Twin Reverbs" from the mid 60's). Like the raw beast that his playing was, he mostly plugged straight into the amplifier with no tone altering pedals or fuzz boxes getting in the way. Just plug in, turn up and spank it. The high pitched squeals heard on both live and some studio albums at the end of some songs could only be from a late 50's P-90 pick-up and a Fender amp turned up very loud and set on "bright".

Prices today for late 50's Les Paul T.V.s in good condition (much better than Johnny's) are about $3200 US dollars. You have to smile at the fact that Johnny, back in the early 70's, was paying $75 for them at pawn shops! Johnny will always be known in the vintage guitar community as bringing the Les Paul T.V. to the forefront. It is even hard to find another accomplished player who used this guitar. Fucking guy was even ahead of his time in that department too.

Beautiful examples of how the guitar sounds can be heard on cuts like "Chinese Rocks" (the crunch of the opening RRIF and the elephant sounding slides up and down the fret board) and the wonderful harmonics and opening boogie chords of "Mystery Girls".

By the way, forget about the "budget T.V.s" (namely by Epiphone) out today. Nothing sounds truer to Johnny's tone than an old piece of wood with a hot vintage P-90 pick-up.

You're either Rock 'n' Roll or you're K-Tel.

Thanks for teaching me that lesson Mr. Thunders! Life is too short for garbage tone.

Richard Benson

Johnny Thunders Cyber Lounge:
Managed by Chris Ridpath:
Modified: April 7, 2001