What type of guitar did Blind Willie McTell play? Not a bajo sexto (literally from the Spanish ‘lower sixth’) the mainstay of Mexican mariachi bands. With its six pairs of strings this instrument does resemble the standard 12-string guitar although it is tuned an octave lower. The Mexican bajo is in fact a development of the Texan baja which first came to prominence in the 1920s as a more portable instrument capable of playing the band parts normally written for piano in the then emerging Tex-Mex music scene. There are slight variations in the tuning on either side of the border.
No, even though he might have come across the baja (if not the bajo) in Georgia the instrument of choice for William Samuel McTell was a Stella 12-string, manufactured by the Oscar Schmidt Company in New Jersey. He was photographed with 3 (or possibly 4) different Stellas. He also had at least one Regal and several different Harmony 12-strings. "Blind Willie" liked the image of always having a ‘new’ instrument. He used to trade them in for a new one every so often at a music store he frequented on Decateur Street in Atlanta, Georgia where many of the early bluesmen busked. When Oscar Schmidt was no longer making Stellas, Willie settled for the 12-strings that Harmony was selling after they acquired the brand name "Stella", circa 1938-39. The last 12-string guitar that McTell had was a Harmony model #922 which he used on the ‘Last Session’ recordings he made for Ed Rhodes in Atlanta on New Years Day 1960.
Huddie Ledbetter also played the blues on Stella 12-string guitars. This is Leadbelly’s axe and these are the type of Stella guitarsthat Blind Willie McTell would have played.
All this digression stems from the suggestion by PETER PRICE whom The Driver and Me saw last Saturday (11th) that BWMcT might have played a bajo. Shame on you Peter, you who know so much! Indeed he does but unfortunately he tends to cram it all in to one performance and having seen him perform two or three times previously it all starts to get a little samey. That’s not denigrating his powerful voice and interesting guitar playing though.
I’ve already written a couple of pieces on Peter – look in the archive – so this time I’ll just stick to the pictures.
So here goes,
Blind Willie McTell/Mississippi Fred McDowell
Hawaiian via Latchford Laguna
All the other Johnson boys. And Willie Moore
More Uilleann Pipes
And the rest! (of course the Zim and Tom Waites were in there too).