“There’s a special, romantic nature to the relationship between someone and their guitar,” Lukas Nelson confesses. “They’ll never leave you. It’s a very lucrative symbiosis—a tool for alchemy. What I mean by that is you’re spinning pain into joy. All the pain you have, you can pour into the guitar. Instead of shooting that darkness right back at you, it transforms the darkness into light. It’s the greatest relationship you can have.”
Lukas Nelson is riffing on the personal relationship he has with his guitars, and it’s a love affair that guitarists know all too well. His newest love is his Gibson USA Lukas Nelson ’56 Les Paul Junior, based on a guitar he purchased from guitar tech and collector Larry Cragg about seven years ago. “When I played it, I felt it immediately, and I bought it on the spot. And I’ve never stopped using it.”
The original ’56 is the main guitar he uses with his band, Promise of the Real, on projects with Neil Young and on the road alongside his father in Willie Nelson & Family. The new signature model recreates everything he loves about that particular instrument.
Gibson approached Nelson about two years ago (“around the time I was working with Bradley Cooper on the movie A Star Is Born”), with the idea of building a signature model based on the ’56. “Gibson has been nothing but incredible to me since I’ve met them. I hope a lot of other people get the same opportunity with this version of my guitar.”
The vintage ‘56 has a little more unique character than some of the other guitars he has in his modest collection. “This guitar had more of my own voice. It felt like it had the potential to give me a more unique sound, especially with combination of the amp. And it started adding a different element to the songs we were playing. I decided to make that my main guitar.”
Nelson grew up learning from the obvious guitar gods—”Stevie Ray, B.B. King, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton. And J.J. Cale and a lot of the country players, the Bakersfield guys.” And, of course, there’s his father, whose legendary Trigger acoustic guitar may have started Lukas’ penchant for naming guitars.
“There are only a few people I’m writing about in my songs. They all represent the impactful relationships I’ve had. Those relationships get immortalized in the music, so the guitars themselves represent the relationships and the ability to transform the lesson into love. My first guitar is named Bonnie, and then there’s Christina. There’s one called Eunice.
“The ’56 Les Paul is named Georgia but there’s another nickname—the Spanish Inquisition. Because nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” he laughs, referencing the classic Monty Python skit. “It’s light as a feather and feels like a plank of wood. But, ‘Woah listen to how it sounds!’ The tone is otherworldly.”
As bare bones as the guitar is—with its one pickup, volume and tone control configuration—Nelson is able to coax any type of sound and style from the instrument, whether it’s when he’s playing with Neil Young or his own band, who recently released Naked Garden, a 15-track collection which includes studio versions of fan favorites, alternate cuts and more.
“It’s like playing weighted keys on a piano. You can delicately press it up and it will express itself in a much different way. I’ve been able to get a range of tones with no effects at all, just by the way I play. That’s what I needed in a guitar. I’m the front man for my band and there’s no other guitar player right now. I have to be very expressive in the show.
“I can get a real Stephen Stills-y sound with this guitar. When I play with Neil, we get in each other’s grill. He loves to get up shoulder to shoulder. It’s full on rock ‘n roll. There’s a certain kind of abandon from cranking up a Les Paul Jr and just wailing. It’s got a rounded full tone that holds its voice through whatever you want to do. My guitar holds its own against his, and he’s got a wall of sound!”
Simplicity across the board is key to Nelson’s way of life and it translates to his guitar sound and playing style. “I don’t have many pedals, just a tuner and an MXR boost pre-amp. I’ve always been of the school that tone comes not from the equipment but from your fingers and the guitar, which is an extension of yourself. Guys like my friend Billy Gibbons can play through anything and it will sound great.
“Where I find that this guitar is the voice of my tone…is when I’m with my band, doing my thing. It fills the space really well and creates an atmosphere of rock ‘n roll but it also has twang that can lend itself to my country roots. It’s really special. It’s a great guitar.”