Jerry Donahue has had quite the career. Playing with folk rock bands such as Fotheringay and Fairport Convention, and working with artists like Robert Plant, Joan Armatrading, The Proclaimers, Elton John, George Harrison, Hank Marvin, Cliff Richard, and Roy Orbison just to name a few. Add The Hellecasters to the mix and you’ve got one very impressive catalog of work. His preference of the Telecaster shape, and his mastery of string bends has helped give him the title “Bendmaster of the Telecaster.”
We thought we’d ask Jerry a few questions about his influences, his signature Seymour Duncan pickup, and his new signature Fret-King Black Label JDD Guitar.
You’re known as the “Bendmaster of the Telecaster.” Who influenced you when it came to string bends, and how did you develop your signature sound?
Thank you! The guys who influenced me the most re on-the-fretboard bends were Albert Lee, Clarence White and Amos Garrett. Gerry McGee (Delaney and Bonnie, The Monkees, John Mayall, The Ventures, etc., etc.) was the first guy I saw reach behind the nut to bend a string and that moment changed my life forever. I was just 13 or 14 at the time, and he showed me how to do it. He executed it on a banjo tune he was performing in a Hollywood nightclub called The Sea Witch in order to emulate a Scruggs peg. When he’d said that was the one he thought of for a specific purpose only, it was apparently no “biggie” to him. To me however, it was probably the most inspiring single lick I’d ever heard/seen and that’s what set me off.
If I have a “signature” sound, I believe it is because, through the years of my development as a guitarist, I drew influence and inspiration from a wide variety of heroes. I’d “borrow” elements of all their styles and throw them all into a melting pot – I would be inspired to the point of learning their licks, phrases, etc. and come up with variations, turning them inside out and finding multiple applications, so that in the end I guess I was doing something unrecognizable as anyone else’s. The fact is, though, that without these heroes of mine, this would certainly not be the case – I owe so much to them and the bonus is that most of them have become close friends, as well!
What is it about the Telecaster design that calls to you?
I actually didn’t get into Teles until nearly ten years after I started playing the guitar. I started on a Goya classical, moving on to a Jazzmaster as my first electric. When I moved to England in ’61 I swapped for a Strat when I heard and saw The Shadows play. That was my choice until I started working at London’s Selmers shop in ’67/68. When no Strat was immediately available when I needed to demonstrate an amp for a customer, the closest approximation was a Telecaster leaning against the wall. I thought that would probably serve the purpose at hand. Well when I heard the lead pickup sound, it just knocked me sideways. I missed the neck pickup most from my Strat, which is why I use the Seymour Duncan SS2-JD pickup for the neck position on my guitars now. Those two pickups on one guitar is a marriage made in heaven!
You have your own signature Seymour Duncan pickup, the Jerry Donahue Tele Lead APTL-3JD. It’s based on the sound you get from your prized ’52 Telecaster. What is it about this guitar and pickup that really sing to you, and how well does your Duncan model replicate the same tone on different guitars?
There’s a punch and strength from this pickup that is missing on many 2-pickup guitars of this kind and totally missing in the bridge position on almost ALL 3-pickup designed guitars – at least for me. A pickup that close to the bridge needs special attention in its development to counter the inherent thinness and piercing quality that exists there. The APTL-3JD nails it for me and is the only pickup I found to match a good Strat pickup in the neck position, in terms of output, eq and, most of all a tone that kills!
It’s better. Through the years I’ve sought to improve on various features of the guitar that I found to be lacking to a degree – neck shapes, general playability, and especially the five positions on my switch. Though that basic design has existed on all its predecessors, we’ve honed in on a far more optimized version on this one. Guitarist magazine in the UK gave it an enviable 4.5 (out of 5) star rating, proclaiming it to be my best yet (in its opening heading)! No extraneous positions on this switch! Together these five selections afford me the blazingest tones from the three most popular solid bodies of the last six-plus decades! I couldn’t be happier!
What kinds of strings/amps do you use?
I’ve used Ernie Ball strings since the early ’70s and, in the last 20 years or so, have used their stainless steel strings in the following gauges 10 13 17 24 32 42.
Though I’ve enjoyed many different amps through the years, my favorite has always been the original JMI AC30. That’s what I had in the 60′s moving away only when the craze was all about stacks for a few years. Since 1970 I’ve been back to the basic combos, but since JMI sold the company the Voxes didn’t sound the same until many years later. Now that the current ones under the Korg umbrella are now of the quality and tone of the originals, I’m very much back on board, using the AC 30s AC 15s and even the unbelievable AC 4, which just cranks at small to medium sized gigs!
Equipped with all of the aforementioned I am more satisfied than ever with the sound I receive these days!