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40 Years Later: A Look Back at The SGs of Woodstock

Ted Drozdowski | 05.28.2009

Woodstock 1969

Forty-years ago this summer the second generation of rock and roll defined its musical borders in a cow pasture in Woodstock, New York.

On the, well, pastoral side was the acoustic magic of Crosby, Stills & Nash and Ritchie Havens. Opposite that was what Jimi Hendrix proclaimed the “electric church.” And some of its fieriest preachers at the August 15 through 17 tent revival for the love generation sermonized with Gibson SG guitars in their hands.

There were Les Pauls, Les Paul Juniors and one spectacular ES-335 at the pulpit, but with SG Specials slung around their shoulders Carlos Santana — whose band Santana had yet to release an album — and the Who made history, with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead nipping right at their heels.

Carlos Santana with his Gibson SG at Woodstock 1969

Santana’s performance was all fire and passion, spiked with such dramatic, unrestrained improvisation that his SG-slinging on “Soul Sacrifice” remains monumental and spellbinding four decades later.

Reportedly Carlos had also been spiked with psychedelics just before taking the stage, but he wielded the red SG Special with P-90s he also employed on Santana, which was issued on the heels of Woodstock, with ferocious virtuosity. That SG and another with humbuckers remained his main axes until 1972, when he opted for Les Paul standards and customs.

Pete Townshend with his Gibson SG at Woodstock 1969

As a pop band with big teeth and a lotta snarl, the Who were less improvisational by nature, but guitarist Pete Townshend’s compositions often led the group into unconventional terrain. So it was at Woodstock, where they played selections from the first rock opera, Tommy.

Townshend briefly transformed his SG Special — equipped, like Santana’s, with P-90s — into a weapon when Abbie Hoffman climbed on stage and grabbed a microphone to decry activist John Sinclair’s recent imprisonment. A good swing by the guitar’s sturdy neck and Hoffman’s speech ended as he fell from the stage. As luck would have it, the incident occurred as the camera crew was changing reels of film, but the audio can be heard on the Who’s box set Thirty Years of Maximum R&B.

Jerry Garcia with a Gibson SG at Woodstock 1969

The other prominent SG that appeared onstage at Woodstock belonged to the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. The humbucker-outfitted guitar was Garcia’s main instrument for periods of 1969 and 1970, and was also used for the concerts that were recorded for ’69’s Live Dead. Always a pedal fiend, at Woodstock Garcia augmented his SG most prominently with a phrase shifter and wah-wah.

With its high population of epic guitarists, there were plenty more great Gibsons on-stage at Woodstock, including:

  • Johnny Winter’s trademark ’63 Firebird.
  • John Fogerty’s Les Paul “Black Beauty,” used for “Bad Moon Rising.”
  • Leslie West’s Les Paul Junior, played on the brawny “Southbound Train.”
  • Al Wilson of Canned Heat’s ’50s vintage Les Paul Gold Top with P-90s and an “STP” sticker.
  • Alvin Lee’s “Big Red,” the famed customized Bigsby vibrato equipped ES-335 he played on the blazing “I’m Going Home.”

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