‘The Real Ones’ - A history of G&L


‘The Hellecasters’ models


Unlike for instance Collings Guitars, most musical instrument manufacturers like leveraging endorsement deals with well known artists. Usually they will build a so-called signature model with the intent for the artist to play their eponymous instrument in public, in concert, and on TV, hopefully creating interest in the brand and/or model. But there are not many bands nor (famous) guitar slingers strongly associated with G&L. There are single notable exceptions on both ends though. The player: Will Ray. The band: The Hellecasters, formed in the early-1990s as a trio of notorious Tele-wielding guitar slingers of which Mr. Ray not coincidentally is a prominent member, along with Jerry Donahue and John Jorgenson.

For John Jorgenson the relationship with G&L even goes back further. During his days with The Desert Rose Band in the late-1980s, he was introduced to the brand by Fred Newell, then guitarist in the “Nashville Now” house band and currently The Waylors. Known for his extraordinary capabilities in judging all things musical, John became one of the “testers” for the latest in Leo’s thinking on pickups while providing plenty of ideas in return. “Ordinary” customers have access to plenty of options for body wood, finish, bridge, neck, fingerboard and its radius, fretwire, nut width, binding, covers, and pickguard. But somebody like John might even have a little more pull. He talks about his early G&L guitars in an interview with Stephen Patt published as “John Jorgenson of The Hellecasters”. In a 4 part interview with Zac Childs in the Truetone Lounge, in particular part 2, starting at the 30:27 mark, and part 4, John talks about his relationship with G&L. His first, Natural Gloss ASAT is seen in this “Austin City Limits” performance with The Desert Rose Band, and now belongs to Brad Paisley. For any songs needing a vibrato, he would use a Comanche prototype. But for his main 1988 ASAT, which John holds for most of the video and used heavily while in The Desert Rose Band and all of The Hellecasters, he enticed G&L to apply a Silver Flake finish to add “... some sparkle to the guitar under stage lighting”. As if his riffs are not sparkling enough! Although G&L dragged its feet for the longest time, mainly because Californian environmental laws are not conducive to producing such a finish, John states they finally realized he did “... sent enough customers their way”. Hence G&L solicited the services of Marty Bell in Texas to get the finish done. Observe the Silver Flake on his ASAT now has more of a golden hue due to the aging of the nitrocellulose topcoat.

As stated above, John was not only a tester and endorser but also provider of some exciting new ideas. One of his ideas was to modify the 2 Jumbo Magnetic Field Design (MFD) single-coil pickup ordinarily found on an ASAT. What if one added a dummy coil underneath the Jumbo MFD for hum cancellation? This project had already started during Leo’s lifetime and the result was supposed to be the defining feature of a John Jorgenson Signature model. After Leo’s passing, Seymour Duncan was called upon to finish the development of this pickup, but unfortunately he was seriously strapped for time. When G&L wanted to bring out this new guitar during the January 20-23,1995 Winter NAMM, the main problem of output reduction of such a pickup still had not been resolved. Therefore they opted to equip the John Jorgenson Signature with 2 “ordinary” MFD pickups, Silver Flake finish (of course), and a clear pickguard allowing the finish underneath to be visible. After only few guitars, a laminate sparkle pickguard was used due to manufacturing challenges with the clear guard. Buyers had a choice between a rosewood or maple fingerboard. Even though he was not kept in the loop on these decisions, an injured John Jorgenson can be seen holding up one of his Signature guitars on the last page of Dean L. Farley’s “1995 Winter NAMM Show Report”. G&L even announced the introduction to their dealers in the May 1995 issue of the “G&L Craftsman” (see picture below). However, note that whereas both the George Fullerton Signature and Jerry Cantrell Signature models get a bit of a blurb, John is only featured in a picture playing his guitar. Just not the one they should have been releasing causing the endorsement deal to blow up. Watching part 2 of John’s interview with Zac Childs in the Truetone Lounge, starting at the 33:12 mark, or in reading “John Jorgenson Talks About Jango, Telecasters and Disneyland” (Part 1) by Rick Landers, one can “hear” the end of this story from the horse’s mouth. Not surprisingly, no more than about 190 Signatures were produced, only an estimated 10 with a maple fingerboard.

Finally, John is also the spiritual father of the ASAT Z-3 by providing the specs for a prototype of this model around 1994. He really liked the Z-coil MFD pickups on his unique prototype Comanche. And although G&L, now under ownership by BBE Sound, Inc., had temporarily halted production of the Comanche by 1992, John was curious how they would sound on an ASAT body so he would have a backup guitar. He talks about all this in the aforementioned interview with Rick Landers. Of course, the prototype is finished in Silver Flake!

Between 1996 and 2001, The Hellecasters were under contract with Fender, each with their own Signature model. Strangely enough, after that Fender contract expired, a similar story of a failed The Hellecasters endorsement repeated itself in 2004, now involving Jerry Donahue and his ASAT JD-5. Beyond the clear hint to the artist in the name, this model is chock-full of Jerry approved specs making it quite the exception within the line of G&L produced instruments. These specs range from increased roll of the fingerboard edges, 3-saddle traditional Tele-bridge, and (complex) wiring harness controlling the Seymour Duncan Jerry Donahue Lead Tele bridge pickup and Legacy CLF-100 neck pickup. The ASAT JD-5 was introduced at the June 23-25, 2004 Summer NAMM. Still, in early-2005 Jerry partnered with Peavey instead, causing the ASAT JD-5 to have a far lower total production (about 12) than the John Jorgenson Signature.

Not all endorsements failed though. Will Ray became endeared with G&L after he heard John’s ASAT and got his first in 1992. After the Fender contract, Will came back to G&L in September 2001 to start work on the Will Ray Signature model which was introduced at the January 17-20, 2002 Summer NAMM. Hence, its release was sandwiched between aforementioned 2 signature models of the other The Hellecasters members. And this time they got it right. With its Z-coil MFD pickups, including overwound middle and bridge pickups (bridge only later on), the Hipshot Will Ray ‘Helle-Bender’ B-bender/Saddle-Lock bridge combo, and Will’s favored Silver Metal Flake or Turquoise Metal Flake finish, both with mirror pickguard, this Signature model looks quite radical. Will was very much aware of that and hence it was also available in Clear Orange with Pearl pickguard for those with a more traditional taste. Both the USA version and import Tribute Series Will Ray Signature model were discontinued by the end of June 2015 although the latter was still visible on their website for another 2 years. Will in turn is still an enthusiastic endorser of all things G&L and his model in particular, playing it in concert, in the studio, and during (rare) G&L clinics. Even more, you can find him regularly contributing to the Guitars by Leo user forum!