Peter Frampton: The Phenix


Nope, not a typo, that’s the name of the triple pickup, black, 1954 Les Paul Custom that graces the cover of eponymously named Frampton Comes Alive. The Phenix, like its’ namesake, went through fire only to be born again. An amazing story spanning more than 30 years but should take less than 10 minutes to tell.

1976 was the year that saw Wozniak and Jobs come together in a blend of technical wizard and charismatic idea man that became Apple Computer; the world met Rocky Balboa as Sly Stallone directed and starred in the Oscar winning movie. (Let’s hear your best “Yo, Adrian”) And, that same year, Peter Frampton asked us “Do you feel like we do?” when he released a live double album laced with hooky songs and voicebox laced riffs. Frampton hadn’t had much luck on the 4 solo albums he released after (and during) Humble Pie but the live offering, opined by many as the best live album of all time, changed everything. The album went on to sell 10-12 million copies world wide (depending on who you ask) and was the best selling live album for a while, the current top dog is Clapton’s Unplugged.  Just a side note, I much prefer the Allman Brother’s Live at Filmore East (we’ll make our way to Duane Allman soon) but Frampton is okay in my book.

single cut body style

As stated, the Phenix is a 1954, black, Les Paul Custom. This places it at the forefront of the model named for the crooner from Wisconsin. The body is old growth Honduras mahogany with a single cut and had NO maple cap, just solid mahogany and is considered “light” for a Les Paul at just about 8 pounds. A single cut means just one side of the fretboard has access to the upper registers of the strings. There is decidedly more sustain with this style guitar over a bolt neck like the stratocaster as the neck extends under the first pick up. The neck was mahogany with an ebony fingerboard with mother of pearl block inlays (fretboard markers). The guitar features gold hardware and a binding (a ribbon of layered plastic) on the front and back of the body, the neck and headstock. The extra binding (a Les Paul standard only has binding on the front of the instrument and the neck), block inlays, gold hardware and ebony fingerboard made it “Custom”.

The Phenix originally had been stocked with 2 P90 single coil pickups which are similar to Fender single coil pickups but tend to have a lot more “growl”, a pronounced midrange bump, due to additional wraps of copper wire. They also used a different magnet type (Alnico 3 compared to Alnico 5) and configuration (a bar magnet that spanned all 6 strings as opposed to the rod magnets Fender used). Despite their unique tone, the P90 was eclipsed rather quickly by the PAF pickup invented in 1955 which lacked the hum P90s had. The owner before Frampton (Mark Mariana) had the guitar routed for three humbuckers by Gibson and refinished since Mariana had sanded the body and neck extensively and the original finish was long gone. The black Les Paul Custom was known as a black beauty and was quite revered. By the time Mariana gifted (yes, gifted) the ’54 to Frampton, it sported 3 white Seymour Duncan humbuckers and custom wired controls. The bridge and neck humbuckers were controlled by the traditional 3-way toggle and one volume control  (traditional wiring with 2 pickups has volume controls for both) and the center pickup by the second volume control. It gives the guitar a very unique sound and rounds out the guitar. Frampton, in those days, played the guitar through Marshall amplifiers and made extensive use of the Heil voicebox (to make the guitar “talk”).
framptoncomesaliveFast forward a few years, to 1980 and Frampton is touring South America. The band and Frampton are flying out of Caracas, Venezuela and their gear (like, all of it) flies out separately on a cargo plane. Except the plane crashes on takeoff, the pilot and co-pilot are killed and the entire cargo goes up in flames or so we’re told. Truth was a little different. Yes, the plane crashed and burst into flames and the crew lost but not all the cargo was destroyed. Untold pieces of gear survived the fire only to be stolen by a security guard in the payroll of the cargo company. Two guitars of Frampton’s were proven to still exist, a white stratocaster and the Phenix albeit a touch scorched.

The guitar had been stolen, sold by the guard (or his fence) to a musician in Venezuela where it stayed for more than a decade and was sold again to a musician from Curacoa where it remained until 2002. The it was brought to a shop to be repaired for it was in poor condition. This shop happened to be fully aware of the guitar and stripped it down, took gut shots and sent them to Frampton’s web site. Lo and behold, the guitar is verified to be the one and the same Les Paul Frampton played for a decade and thought gone forever. After extensive, and most likely costly, negotiations, Peter was reunited with his lost guitar and subsequently, some 34 years after getting the guitar from Mark Mariana, he named the guitar, The Phenix.

Frampton reunited

I’ll say that my wife adores Frampton much more than I do and I know directly of her destroying 2 CD copies of Frampton Comes Alive from playing it all the time. Who knows how many copies she went through of the vinyl and cassette tape versions (outside of the time her father accidentally threw away her cache of Frampton music). Tracks such “Baby I love your way“, “Do you feel like we do” and “Show me the way” were in permanent airplay then and now on any classic rock station worth their salt.

Frampton tours today with a replica built by Gibson and the original is locked away for safe keeping and playing. That’s all I have, see you next time when I tackle Keith Richards’ “Micawber”

KSK January 2017

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