Janis Ian is known as a legendary singer-songwriter (her debut hit 1967 “Society’s Child” and 1975 hit “At Seventeen” are in the Grammy Hall of Fame) and more recently, an acclaimed autobiographer (she won a Grammy this year for Best Spoken Word Album for the audiobook version of her memoir Society's Child) and children’s book author.
But she’s also a terrific guitarist, and has now decided to prune her collection of valuable instruments in order to raise money for future projects.
“I looked up one day and realized I had 27 instruments here at home, and at 62, the chances of my playing all of them enough to keep them happy are more and more remote,” says Nashville-based Ian.
“So I've just put six primo instruments up for sale via Robin Weber's Guitar Gallery. Any money I make will be used to fund album and book projects I want to do over the next year two years. They're not cheap, but they are really wonderful instruments, and I want to see them go to good homes!”
Searching the store’s website under Ian’s name yields descriptions, sound samples, specs and videos for her 1975 Gibson Les Paul Custom model, Ryan Abbey parlor guitar, Takamine TB10 acoustic bass, 1931 National Duolian steel, 1900 Martin 0-28 and 1991 Ernie Ball EVH Music Man electric—all grouped together as the Janis Ian Collection.
“I'd always loved the sound of a Les Paul, but was convinced my hands were too small to handle one,” she says of the 1975 Custom. “When I tried out this beauty, I realized how completely wrong I'd been. Plus, the tone was so flexible, so malleable, it could do so much more than I thought my acoustic could! I was in love.”
With it she came up with the interesting intro to "Sunset Of Your Life": “Everyone thinks those first few bars have a bass in them, but it's really just the Les Paul front pickup.” She also used it to record the “very long sustained screaming note” for “Tattoo.”
Ian adds: “I played it loud for years whenever I got angry about something—with appropriate ear protection! Of course, everyone thinks their Les Paul is special, and I'm no different. Fretboard like butter, too.”
A 12-fret cutaway, her Ryan Abbey was built for her out of Brazilian rosewood with Adirondack spruce. It has “an unbelievable tone” and is signed by Kevin Ryan and has Ian's own signature and logo at the headstock, with her logo also appearing up and down the fretboard. She used it to write and record much of her 2006 album Folk Is the New Black, including "Jackie Skates," “because the rich bright top end lent itself to the guitar part.”
Noting that “I sing off the bass [which is why] so many of my songs have guitar parts centered around a detuned low E string,” she says that the Takamine acoustic bass satisfied her “secret ambition” to play an upright bass on a record, namely, her 2000 album God & The FBI.
“I love the feel of an upright under my hands, and the low rumble it drives through my body when I lean against it,” she says, “and I've played this one a lot, so the wood's broken in.”
The National Duolian, she says, “is in well-played condition and sounds other-worldly.” The Martin 0-28 “is a beautiful little guitar, surprisingly flexible for one this old. I used her all over my second Janis Ian album , as the gut string on ‘That Grand Illusion,’ and the nylon guitar on pretty much every CD I've done since. I've also used it as a high-strung for well over two decades--any time you hear an open tuning high strung on one of my records, it will be this guitar.”
As for her EVH Music Man, she used it as the main guitar on Breaking Silence's  "Guess You Had to Be There" and on Revenge’s  "Take Me Walking in the Rain." “A musician who will forever remain nameless knocked the guitar off its stand and onto my DI [direct input unit], resulting in a gash in the finish that remains to this day. Didn't spoil the sound, though, and I kind of like that even a famous player can trip over their own feet!”
In her latest newsletter, Ian notes how she “realized a bit late that I really am in my sixties, and it's time to begin letting go of things I acquired ‘as a hedge against my sixties,’ so I'm starting to consider what I can live without.”
“Much to my shock, I can only play one guitar at a time, wear two earrings--okay, three earrings--read one comic book, or sing into one microphone!”
Noting that she’s just donated “a boatload” of furniture and clothing to friends and charities, she concludes, “I'm actually enjoying the thought of having less ‘stuff.’”
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