The Riot Act's Christian Clarke: Guitar Heroes of South Florida

For most musicians, an instrument is very simply a tool. A necessary vehicle of expression that is often romanticized, but a tool none-the-less. Then, there are people like the Riot Act's Christian Clarke, a man whose relationship with the electric guitar stems into a mythical respect for it and its history, and a relationship which has spiraled over the years from childhood fascination into an all-consuming obsession.

Clarke has spent the better part of his adult years hoarding and caring for an astounding collection of rare, unique, and, above all, inspiring, vintage guitars and amplifiers -- each with its own tale and curiosities, each containing its own voice, and each as compelling as the next. We met with Clarke to take a closer look at his collection and to speak at length about his passion for the instrument, what makes vintage guitars such special beasts, and the influences that put him on a path to six-stringed nirvana.

See also: Orbweaver's Randy Piro: Guitar Heroes of South Florida

How did you get into playing guitar?

I always wanted to play the guitar, and when I was about 14, I started hounding my mom to let my buy a guitar with my own money, and she thought it was going to be a gateway to drug use and devil worship because I was listening to Metallica and Metal Church and Guns 'N Roses at the time, and finally, she made a deal with me that I could buy a guitar with my own money if I promised to go to church group on Wednesdays after school.

So, I said. "Yes, yes! I'll do it!" and of course I never went. But I bought a shitty, sky blue Strat copy, some Japanese Strat copy from a pawn shop. I didn't have an amp for the longest time, so most of my teenage years I spent in my bedroom playing unplugged with the shitty Strat. So, basically, why I got into guitar was Kirk Hammett and Slash.

How does one graduate from a "shitty" pawn shop Strat copy to such a wild collection of vintage guitars?

My second guitar was a 1973 Les Paul Deluxe. It should have had those shitty mini humbuckers, but some guy had routed it out and put Dimarzio humbuckers in. It was a wine stain guitar -- fucking gorgeous, man! Just, checking in the finish and stuff. Somebody put a brass nut on it and it just would not stay in tune. I eventually traded it in as I was getting other gear. And after that, I bought a hot pink Kramer guitar with a Floyd Rose tremolo. My Dad helped me buy that one. It had a single humbucker at the bridge, and I traded that in when I discovered Stevie Ray Vaughan and bought that white Strat.

How old were you?

I was 16. I had the Strat and the Les Paul, and I was like "That's perfect. That's all I'll need for the rest of my life." I traded in the Les Paul later when I was in college to help my brother get started, to help him buy an acoustic -- a really beautiful Alverez Yiari. I just had that Strat for years and stopped playing for years and years and years. And then, I picked it up again when I moved to Florida, and my eye was drawn to vintage gear, and I bought a Melody Maker, that '62 Gibson Melody Maker double-cut. I was just in love with that guitar. Then, I bought a reissue of the Johnny Thunders TV yellow Les Paul Jr., and then shortly after that, I thought, "for almost the same amount of money, I could buy a real Les Paul Jr." and then I started looking into those and front there it just snowballed!

I got into those old P-90s and just couldn't let go. When I first got that big green Gretsch, it was more because of Poison Ivy and the Cramps, not so much Brian Setzer. I just thought she looked so hot with that big assed Gretsch guitar, and I found a really good deal on that Gretsch -- it's a '64. And later in life, my brother bought me my Bassman amp. It wasn't like "I gotta have all this shit right now!" It was just a slow process and all of a sudden, I have all of these guitars I never thought I would have! I really should cull down the herd a little bit.

Tell me the story about your Fender Bassman.

I bought a '61 Bassman in college for $500 and let my brother borrow it when he moved to LA, and it got stolen. So, cut 2 years later, he replaced it for me -- finally bought me one -- it's a '62, and I can't remember what shop he bought it from, but he bought it for my birthday and since then, it's like the magical sound. That and just about any guitar -- turn it up and go!

Then I found the Tremolux and other shit, and Billy Gibbons just justified my belief in the blonde and oxblood amp combination because he was saying that that's like his favorite amp, too. I guess he's got a bunch of those oxblood Tremoluxes!

Can you explain the magic of vintage equipment to people that might think a guitar is just a guitar and an amp is just an amp?

Well, a couple of things: From an economic standpoint, they will never lose value. They will never ever be worth less than what you paid for it. Ebay is not necessarily the best indicator of what the value is for something because some rich slob could just want that amp or guitar right now and pay whatever, and people see that some guy paid $10,000 for something and think that whatever they have in their closet is worth ten grand, and it's not.

Really, not so much amps. The guitars... It's just the feel and the sound. People think that it's old wood or it's the old pickups. I don't know if it's a combination of both -- but, you just can't replicate that old sound, especially from those old P-90s -- modern ones just do not sound like that. Despite what all the boutique pickup dudes saying that they have found a way to replicate that sound; they haven't! I don't know if it's because the pickup, or the wood, or the thin layer of nitro on there...

...It's just a magical thing.

It is! But, for me, because I'm running my shit through the same setup on the floor, it's more about the feel of it. You just can't replicate that feel: The feel of the neck, the strumming wear on the pickgaurds or on the body itself, it's all that shit!

Who would you cite as your top influences as a guitarist?

Oh man... That's hard! It changes. Right now, Josh Homme is my man! He's got that like Jimmy Vaughan way of exaggerated finger release and I think that plays into it.

Nick Curran was someone that was real special. He took a lot of that blues flavor and mixed it with some Angus Young and punk shit, and he just came away with the jump blues style that was just so electric, it was like he was coming out of his shoes.

People that create energy are really attractive to me. I think that's what I loved about Stevie Ray Vaughan so much as a kid. Even though I haven't listened to any of his shit in a really really long time in-depth, that was what really attracted me: His energy playing. It was just like it was coming through him and he couldn't help it... He just could not fucking help it.

As a fellow Stevie Ray Vaughan fan, I've always found it funny how many people get so obsessed and entranced with what Stevie was that they eschew honing their own personality in a quest to assume his sound and aesthetic.

I definitely feel like I've taken some stuff from him, but I would never try to duplicate it because there's a million guys playing in blues bars around the country that are trying for that exact sound. I want to rock out a little more.

The combo of Slash and Izzy Stradlin probably still do it more for me than anybody else, as far as creating a sound. Shit man, in regards of energy and feel, I think Jack White gets brushed under the table a lot from a lot of guitar aficionados. He is on that same line with Josh Homme for me. He has that same uneducated musical flavor where it seems like they weren't interested in taking guitar lessons, they just wanted to try to capture the sound in their head as quickly as they could and that energy sort of comes through in their playing I think. Jack White live is amazing tour de force!

With all of the incredible gear you've amassed over the years, what do you consider the most important piece in your collection? What's the most inspiring bit of kit?

That's hard, because I would love to think that I could get a sound out of a brand new hot pink Kramer! Shit man, that fuckin' TV yellow Gibson... I remember when I first got that, I didn't even put it away when I went to sleep! It was just on the bed next to me when I first got it! I just loved looking at it, I couldn't peel my eyes away from it! Everything about it: The design of it just looks spectacular in a way that makes you want to play it!

And that black Silvertone hollowbody that I have. I've never even changed the strings on it! It sits in my living room and that's the guitar I've written almost every song on. It feels good, it resonates loudly and I can play it unplugged in my house. It's a guitar that makes you want to play it and makes you want to come up with sounds. And that's what those guitars do: They make you want to pick 'em up and not put them down. That's what's important when you're trying to come up with something original, you don't want to put the guitar down.

I know that yellow Les Paul Jr. has been through a lot. Could you tell me a bit more about its personality?

It's got weather checking like you would not believe. It's just got so much grit and sweat on it, and that's before I got it! And now it's got a ton of sweat all over it. The pole pieces on the pickup are rusted over, I changed the pots because they wouldn't turn, but I was sort of expecting that just from the look of it. It's really the feel of the neck on that thing, and the way you can wrap your thumb around it and just be totally comfortable on every bit of the neck. It's the most comfortable guitar hands free, you know, just resting against your body standing up. The weight of it's perfect.

It's lost its head a few times, yeah?

Yes, yes it has. It's been repaired twice that I know of. There's something about those wrap-around tailpieces, they're the most comfortable thing to put your right hand on while you're playing, it's just so comfortable to leave your palm on that tailpiece. It's just the most comfortable bridge out there. That Strat is not conducive to my playing style with my right hand.

You're a very aggressive rhythm player and have to make a lot of noise being in a duo.

Yeah, exactly right! The palm muting is important because I don't fuck with the volume knob while I'm playing, so palm muting is really important, so I really like those wrap-around tailpieces.

But really, that yellow Jr., and the red one, are really like the complete package as far as the age and the feel of them, and they're blessed with that P-90. The combination of those is just incredible.

Is liberating playing vintage guitars that have already been through major repairs and are not quite so precious?

Absolutely! I don't mind sweating on 'em! I don't mind gigging with them! I don't necessarily broadcast to people when they come up to me at gigs, I tell them they're reissues! But, I don't need people necessarily knowing the age of my gear! But, I do like the fact that they headstocks have been broken off and that they're not worth five times what they're really worth.

The reason I got that green SG Melody Maker was because Lenny Kravitz plays a Pelham blue '65 SG, and when we went to go see him live down at the Fillmore last year or the year before, I was crossing my fingers that he would come out playing that and he did! And we were like, ten feet away, and that guitar is so glorious, but you look at the backside and the head has been completely snapped off! There's a bunch of repair work done on that guitar. And I bet you that's the reason he initially got that, because he's had it for ages.

As a distinctly retro-centric guy, how do you feel about the current state of guitars and rock 'n' roll in general?

That's a hard one, because the combination of Jack White and Dan Auerbach playing on the old gear that they have has really changed the scope of cheap vintage guitars. Forget about trying to get an old Harmony or an old Silvertone nowadays, especially if it's something that Dan Auerbach has played! Forget it! He was buying pawn shop guitars for next to nothing and now they're worth two grand! Forget that! For what were always cheap guitars? That's hard. And now, Eastwood has come out with reissues of all those guitars and the market has changed.

When you buy a guitar and have it shipped to you -- an old guitar -- the first thing you do is tune it up and you play it without an amp. And dude, these old guitar resonate like you would not believe! And those old Gibsons resonate as loud as an acoustic, they are so loud unplugged! You can't help but sound good when you do plug it in.

The other thing is that almost all of my guitars were student guitars. All of those Les Paul Jr.s and Melody Makers were student guitars, and they were cheap back then, but they were still built with care and pride in Kalamazoo. Those guys putting those student guitars together were the same guys putting together '59 Les Paul bursts, and so, it wasn't like they were putting less care into the student guitars, they just happen to be cheaper guitars with the same components, the same pots, the same horse hide glue, the same wood. But the cheap guitars now are so bad that it's discouraging. So, it's a tough thing.

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