Carl Perkins' Guitars and Amps

By Vince Gordon

Carl Perkins' 52/53 Gibson Les Paul
Carl Perkins with his
'52/53 Les Paul
The 'Honey Don't' guitar.

Carl Perkins' 55 Gibson Les Paul
Carl Perkins with his
'55 Les Paul w/Bigsby
The 'Blue Suede Shoes' guitar!

Carl Perkins' 56 Gibson ES-5
Carl Perkins with his
'56 ES-5 Swtichmaster
The 'Matchbox' guitar.

Carl Perkins CD tip.
There's a good CD with classic Carl Perkins recordings at the Rockabilly CD website.

Carl Perkins, the rockabilly king who played a thousand guitars...

As a rockabilly guitarist and fan of Carl Perkins, I always wanted to know what guitar he played. When talking to other guitarists, I learned that many were looking for this information, but no one really knew anything for certain. The reason being that Carl Perkins is seen playing so many different guitars in almost as many photos. I sat out to investigate this and got expert help from musicians having played with Carl Perkins, and Carls’ oldest son Stan Perkins, who was also a fellow bandmate of his dad. Most of the more important guitars that Carl Perkins played now belong to Stan.


Carl Perkins at Sun

Carl Perkins played a ‘52/’53 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top with two P-90 Pickups and a "trapeze" tailpiece through a small Fender Amp when he recorded “Honey Don’t” with "The Perkins Brothers Band" (Carl Perkins + his two brothers on upright bass (Clayton) and rhythm guitar (Jay) + W.S.Holland on drums).

The general understanding is that “Honey Don’t” and “Blue Suede Shoes” were recorded at the same session (Sun 234 rel. 1/56). In fact he recorded "Honey Don't" first, several weeks prior to the "Blue Suede Shoes" session.

The guitar that Carl Perkins played on "Blue Suede Shoes" is also a Les Paul Gold Top but a ’55 with a Bigsby. After “Blue Suede Shoes” became a hit, Carl painted the guitar blue and later his youngest son Greg Perkins painted it black. It’s currently in Stan Perkins' vault in Jackson, TN.

In early '56, after the massive success of "Blue Suede Shoes", Carl Perkins purchased an $800 blonde Gibson ES-5 maple-top with three P-90 pickups with separate tone and volume controls for each. He also got himself one of the hand built EchoSonic amps from Ray Butts out of Cairo, Illinois for $250 down and $250 on delivery.

The "All Mama's Children" / "Boppin' The Blues" session (Sun 243 5/56) was his first recording date after he got his new ES-5. I’ve been told though, that he started recording with it on the later “Matchbox” (Sun 261 rel. 2/57) session and onwards.

He didn't trade in the “Blue Suede Shoes”-Les Paul when he bought the ES-5 but kept it. He used it again to record "Her Love Rubbed Off” where you can hear him using the Bigsby vibrato.

Carl Perkins' Gibson ES-5 is currently on display at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland.


Sun 287 single
Carl's last single for Sun:
Sun 287 released 12/57.
Glad All Over/Lend Me Your Comb
Notice on the right it says:
Vocal Carl & Jay.

Carl Perkins' EchoSonic amp

From listening to his recordings it seems he used the EchoSonic for the first time - or at least the built in tape-echo for the first time - on "Glad All Over" / "Lend Me Your Comb", which was his very last single and session for Sun.


The guitar sound of Carl Perkins

It is important to notice that the split-second tape delay the Sun was famous for was never a part of Carl's sound and actually the echo from the EchoSonic amp didn't suit Carl's way of playing. Basically, if you want to sound like Carl Perkins, don't think echo.

When trying to define how Carl Perkins got his sound, it should also be noted that he loved turning the knobs on his LP and ES-5 to get different tones out of them. I guess that’s why his guitar sound varies so much on his Sun recordings compared to Luther Perkins’ (Played lead guitar for Johnny Cash) sound for instance.


Carl Perkins after Sun Studios

When Carl Perkins left Sun for Columbia in '58 he was still playing his ES-5 and Les Pauls (More than two – possibly three or four), so even though Carl Perkins has a reputation of having played 1000+ different guitars this is not the case with his most famous work that was recorded from late '54 to late '57 at Sun.


Carl Perkins' guitar closet

In Carl Perkins’ later years he played a G&L Broadcaster (renamed ASAT Special in '85) strung with Dean Markley Blue Steel 9-42's strings. This was reportedly his ultimate favorite guitar. His preferred amp and rider requirement was the ‘66 Fender Twin and the Fender Pro Reverb.

Among Carl Perkins' other guitars were (You can see them all in the gallery):

  • A 1995 Gibson Country Gentleman finished in 'Blue Suede' blue with an identification plate from Gibson/Nashville stating it's the only one of it's kind. This guitar is currently offered for sale.
  • A 1998 Special edition "Go Cat Go" Fender Telecaster with Bigsby. The only one of its kind.
  • A sunburst Peavey T-25 that he used on the legendary "Carl Perkins and Friends - Blue Suede Shoes: A Rockabilly Session" TV show from '85 where he performed with his two sons, Stan (drums) and Greg (bass), George Harrison (Who plays original Carl Perkins solos on a 1957 Gretsch 6120), Eric Clapton, Dave Edmunds, Rosanne Cash and Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom from Stray Cats among others. He also had a blonde T-60 and played Peavey amps as he was endorsed by Peavey at a time.
  • When playing for Johnny Cash, Marshall Grant fixed him up with a endorsement from Micro Frets guitars. As a result he had numerous Micro Frets guitars in different colors. The sound was nothing to brag about though. The Micro Fret company also gave Carl a 6 string bass for Greg Perkins to play.
  • A 1970 Martin D-35 given to Carl Perkins by Johnny Cash. This guitar is currently offered for sale.

I asked Jerry Elston, who played rhythm guitar in Carl Perkins' road band CP Express, why Carl changed guitars so many times, and Jerry's take on it was this:

Carl Perkins' G&L guitar
Carl Perkins with his G&L guitar

"He changed guitars several times looking for a sound and a look. No guitar up until he got the G & L ever really suited him in my opinion. He would use different guitars for different sounds.

He liked the sound of the Strats but did not like the centre pick up or the three control set up. The pick up got in his way because that's where he did most of his playing. The 'comfort zone' as he called it. The Tele's gave him part of what he wanted but the G & L apparently brought it all home."

Carl Perkins guitar gallery Updated!

Here you can take a look at some of Carl's many guitars. Just click this link: Carl Perkins' guitar gallery.


Two of Carl Perkins' guitars are currently offered for sale by Stan Perkins

I see guitars claimed to have belonged to Carl Perkins being offered for sale on a regular basis. However, it's the only time I've seen sone of the genuine items. I've done what I can to verify the authenticity of the guitars, including speaking to Stan Perkins who is the seller. The sale is being handeled by Robert Taylor, whom you are welcome to email if interested. He's also handling some memorabilia with ties to Elvis etc. but that's not really my area of expertise.

Right below this text you can see some of the material presented to me (Used by permission) relevant to the sale.

The first guitar for sale is the one-of-a-kind Blue Suede Gibson Country Gentleman that was given to Carl Perkins live on TV on TNN's Prime Time Country by Gibson. Bo Diddly and Chubby Checker were also present at this live broadcast. The guitar is described as being in near mint condition.

The second guitar is really interesting if you want to own a piece of music history, as it belonged to both Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash! It's a Martin D-35. This is some of the info I've been given:

Class of '55 CD
Class of '55 CD
Johnny Cash with the Martin D-35
Johnny Cash with the Martin D-35

"This Martin D35 was constructed on August 10th 1970 and handed to Johnny Cash who went on to record and tour with this guitar, during this time many of Johnny's shows were conducted with a very dear and close friend of his, Carl Perkins of Blue Suede shoes fame, both performers being original members of the Million Dollar Quartet.

The guitar was built by Martin guitars of the USA , it has a sitka Spruce top with Brazilian and Indian Rosewood sides and back.

One evening whilst recording the Class of 55 at Sun Records, Johnny handed this guitar to Carl Perkins as a gift. Carl went on to use and perform with this guitar up until the time of his death. The guitar then stayed in the Perkins family becoming the property of Carl's son Stan Perkins, the current owner. Stan played the drums for his father for 21 years and is in turn a Rockabilly star in his own right and still actively touring the world as a performing artist.

Johnny took possession of the guitar just after it was constructed on the 10th August 1970, the serial number is clearly printed on the inside but withheld for security reasons. Johnny used this guitar extensively up till the time he recorded the class of 55 at Sun Records."