Jerry Cantrell: Blue Dress

cantrellbluedress
Cantrell signature guitar

I am a huge fan of Alice in Chains, from the opening of Facelift they had me. Think Jerry McGuire and Zellweger saying “You had me at hello” except it was more like “Take another Hit and Bury Your Brother.” You cannot imagine the smile on my face when I first heard Layne Staley call that line out and Jerry Cantrell answered with that awesome droning B note pedal riff. Performed on the G and L Rampage named “Blue Dress”. A guitar that has been with Cantrell since the beginning, see the interview here where he talks about his first G and L. Man in the Box, Bleed the Freak, the afore referenced We Die Young and all of the album Dirt feature that guitar. Before I go too far, I just want to pay my respects to Layne Staley, the world lost an immeasurable talent in that man when he passed. Heroin is bad kids, don’t do it, like ever.

cantrellbluedresstoday
original “Blue Dress” today

Oh, about the nudity, the image above is the perma-art added to the replica G & L created for Cantrell in 2006. The graphic on the original is quite destroyed (see right) after decades of touring with it.  The pin-up art was created by Alain Aslan and originally was part of Aslan’s 1973 contributions to “Oui” magazine. The Blue Dress was June’s artwork that year. Numerous other stickers festoon the stratocaster derived body shape. Leo Fender founded G and L guitars with longtime friend and industry peer, George Fullerton, hence G and L. That guitar, fed through Reinhold Bogner modified Marshall JCM amplifiers created an absolute monster tone.

I remember when I discovered AIC, it was 1990. I was living in South Deerfield, Massachusetts and since I had no car at the time, I walked everywhere. On my Sony Walkman (oh yes, cassette with auto-reverse) I listened to Facelift back to front over and over going to work, getting groceries, just a real LOT. It remains my favorite album by AIC to this day. Sure, the most commercial success was the Dirt, Jar of Flies and Unplugged albums but it was Facelift that shaped them. I saw them headline the 1993 Lollapalooza Tour. 40,000 souls bouncing to Them Bones was exhilarating and incredible. I will hold that concert as one of the best I’ve ever seen. Somewhere I have a picture of a kid, the bottom of his feet are 8 feet in the air after being tossed straight up via a blanket trampoline, if you will. Okay, okay, back in the now, the guitar.

Purchased on layaway at the Dallas guitar store Cantrell worked at, the 1984 Rampage has a soft maple body and hard rock maple neck with ebony fingerboard. Jerry’s choice of tremolo unit was a Kahler 2320 which, unlike the popular Floyd Rose, uses a cam mechanism to affect the vibrato. The system is less prone to tuning difficulties compared to Floyds and Cantrell’s heavy hand was better served with a non-floating bridge. Floyd Rose trems employ a system that balances the tension of the strings with body anchored springs that run parallel under the pickups on a knife edge and are very sensitive in use to drifting flat or sharp. Kahler systems are not as well suited to “dive bomb” tremolo usage and for some, like me, it was not preferred as I wanted the strings to go completely slack. I had a Randy Rhoads Jackson (#985) with a Kahler, why o why did I sell it? Jerry’s Blue Dress Rampage had a locking nut designed by Leo Fender but Jerry modded the neck to fit a beefier Floyd Rose locking nut. A model of simplicity, the single pickup is a Seymour Duncan JB with one volume control and no tone control. Extra jumbo frets adorn the fretboard.

nickelwear
worn nickel frets

A bit about frets or the lack of. Frets vary in size from those found on a guitar like the vintage era Telecaster (very small, called “medium”) to those found on a modern shred guitar (huge, called “extra jumbo”). The material they are made from varies as well with most builders using nickel-silver (copper-nickel-zinc alloy that contains no silver) blends and a small number using stainless steel. The nickel-silver are the same metal used in guitar strings and therefore wear out over time since they constantly have friction between the string. Nickel also tarnishes in open air as do guitar strings, since one doesn’t change frets like we do strings, over time the frets get “divots” and in extreme cases, no longer can reliably fret a note and require replacement (see picture, those marks cause issues with intonation, especially with chords, and playing). This can get pricey depending on the neck.

stainlessfretStainless steel is harder than nickel-silver and does not tarnish. The fretting, to me, is slinkier on the stainless variants and the tones a bit brighter as harder material tends to absorb less of the string vibration. Down side is that strings wear out much quicker with steel since they absorb the full cost of the friction since they are softer. I prefer the sound of nickel-steel but enjoy the feel of stainless, such a quandary. Back to the gear. Jerry is partial to Bogner amplifiers and is not a big user of guitar effects outside of his signature Cry Baby wah pedal made by Dunlop and a hand wired Ibanez Tube Screamer. He uses Marshall cabinets loaded with Celestion Greenback speakers.

AIC, along with fellow Seattle alumnus Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Nirvana created the grunge movement that stole the limelight from the big hair, neon colored and outrageously technical guitar sound that had dominated airwaves for a decade. Ironically, Cantrell is actually a technical guitarist though rooted in blues rock a la Van Halen (Jerry is known to reference EVH as a huge influence) and other LA players. This was common among grunge band members, they simply “played down”, Mike McCready from Pearl Jam is one of the best guitarists out of that era and he is incredible.

I do feel very lucky to have seen Alice at the pinnacle of their abilities. As Layne’s addictions got worse, his ability to perform went down and Alice in Chains performed their last show live on July 3rd, 1996 opening for Kiss in Kansas City. Despite this impediment to touring, AIC continued to create great music, always featuring the haunting and powerful vocals of Staley. His singing with Cantrell’s harmonies is instantly recognizable and spawned so many derivative copies, none equaling the original. One thing to be said, and it should resonate, is that Cantrell and Sean Kinney especially, never stopped trying to assist Staley. Unfortunately, original bassist Mike Starr and Staley did have the same master, heroin and were drug pals. Starr was with Layne the day before he died (estimated to be April 5th, 2002), celebrating the bassist’s birthday. Coincidentally, Starr died from an overdose in 2011 at his home in Salt Lake City.

As with many taken early, we are left with thinking what could have been and assuredly, the surviving members of AIC felt the same and left the public eye after Layne’s death and did not perform or record any music. This hiatus ended in 2005 when the band resurfaced to play a benefit for the Boxing Day Tsunami victims. This lead to speculation of their imminent return though it would take another 5 years before they reformed with a new singer named William DuVall and released Black Gives Way to Blue in 2009. Cantrell continues to tour with the Blue Dress guitar to this day in support of AIC’s latest album, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here. Join me next time when I tackle the iconic stratocaster wielded by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Number One. Thanks for stopping by.

KSK January 2017

 

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