Howard Roberts' Personal Guitars

Epiphone Deluxe with a DeArmond pickup

This is the first professional level guitar owned by Howard Roberts. The following picture of this guitar is said to show Howard Roberts (at 19) and Pete Jolly (at 16) playing at a Local 586 Musicians Union party at the Mecca Lounge in Phoenix. The guitar was purchased by Al Flanagan of Phoenix just after H.R. sold it to a Phoenix music store in the late 40's. Since 2004 the guitar has been owned by his daughter Madelyn Roberts.

Gibson ES-175

This is the guitar he is pictured with on the front of the album Mr. Roberts Plays Guitar (picture is reversed actually). I'm not sure when he first got this but I believe this is the guitar he used up until the late 50's. This guitar was traded to Jim Hall for the black Les Paul that Jim Hall is pictured with on one of Chico Hamilton's albums. An interesting anecdote about the history of the black Les Paul comes from Ron Benson.
I bought that black Les Paul new that you mentioned in Equipment, from Tiny Timbrell ( good guitar player ) who worked at Fife and Nichols music store in Hollywood sometime in the fifties. I had a hard time playing it as the frets were too low and it felt stiff with heavy strings. I brought it back to Tiny after a few months and said I needed something else. Jim Hall was in the store at the time and we showed the guitar to him. He bought it and the rest is history.
Ron also mentions that H.R. owned another ES-175 and that he cut a square hole in the back of it for some reason.

Gibson L-10

Very little is known about this guitar. He is shown playing it in a recently published book of photographs taken by the photographer Ray Avery during the late 1950's. Here is a summary of some comments by the L.A. session guitarist Mitch Holder, who first brought this to my attention, and a picture of one of these guitars.

The pictures on pages 147 and 148 of the book Stars of Jazz by Ray Avery, JazzMedia ApS, 1998 show the Gibson L-10. These are the only pictures I've ever seen of it and I knew nothing about it before. From looking at the evolution of the instruments he played, I think it's the forerunner of the Black Guitar (see below). When Howard got rid of the ES-175, he TRADED it to Jim Hall for Jim's black Les Paul Custom (there's a well known picture of Jim playing it in the Chico Hamilton Quintet in the '50's). The fingerboard on the L-10 pictured in the book (22 frets with block inlays but on a longer scale than a Les Paul, so would have to have been custom made) and the shape of the cutaway (L-10 was a non-cutaway originally, by the way) make it look almost like a Les Paul. I surmise that he had the custom stuff done and liked the smaller body of the 175 better than the 17" size of the modified L-10 and then went and found himself another candidate to modify (the ES-150 of Herb Ellis) and the rest is history, as they say. Like I said, I may be way off, but if you look at the evolution, it seems fairly logical. I haven't run across anyone here that remembers the L-10, so maybe he didn't play it for long. Another mystery, where is that modified L-10?

The Black Guitar

Howard Roberts played a number of guitars throughout his career. I believe that he was most fond of the "black" guitar which he is pictured with on the opening page. This is a much modified early Gibson ES-150 guitar that he acquired from Herb Ellis. I love the sound of this guitar and I believe that I can always tell when he played it on a recording because of its distinctive tone. Howard discusses and plays this guitar in one of the interviews in Interviews.

Wolf Marshall, a Los Angeles based guitarist and educator, is now the owner of this guitar. Wolf kindly supplied the following pictures of the front, back and body and some detailed information about the Black Guitar. Also visit Wolf's site (see Links). This has some lessons concerning Howard Roberts' playing style. Wolf also has an excellent article "Howard Roberts and the Black Guitar" in the August 2000 issue of Vintage Guitar Magazine.

The Epiphone Howard Roberts Custom

This guitar (see pictures below) was commonly used by H.R. during the 1960's. In particular he is pictured with one on the front of the album Goodies. That guitar was stolen from him and I know he had a replacement for it. I do not know the whereabouts of either of these guitars.

The Gibson Howard Roberts Prototype

This cherry Gibson Howard Roberts guitar was commonly used by H.R. during the 1970's. Mitch Holder, a Los Angeles based studio and jazz guitarist, is the current owner and he has kindly supplied a considerable amount of information about the guitar and these photos of the front and the back. Pictures of the guitar occur on the cover of the albums Equinox Express Elevator and Sounds. Also there are pictures in the books The American Guitar by Tom Wheeler, The Jazz Guitar Book by Maurice Summerfield and Gibson Guitars: 100 Years Of An American Icon by Walter Carter. Here are some comments from Mitch about the guitar.
It is indeed the first Gibson version of the Epi model. The Epi version wound up in the Gibson price list in '69 and early '70, as Gibsons. They only shipped 3 or 4, according to my shipping data. The main differences is the top (laminated maple vs solid spruce) and fingerboard (rosewood vs ebony) wood. The scale length is the same (25 1/2) with two more frets (22 vs 20). Interesting thing on this guitar is that the neck is three piece mahogany (production models and the Epi Custom were maple). I found that kind of interesting as Howard thought that the mahogany on the neck of the ES-175 he had was too soft and easy to bend. So, here's this prototype that he played all those years with a mahogany neck, although it being three piece makes it pretty hard to bend. It's cherry red (60's color). They had this color available for the first year and then they went to wine red. The pickguard shape gives this guitar away in the pictures, it's Gibson shaped rather than the Epi shape. Howard changed the pickguard, originally it did have the Epi shape. The guitar is triple bound on the back and all the production models had 7 piece binding (like the front). The strap pin was added (possibly for the times HR might have had to stand up at a clinic or something, but I sure never ever saw him use a strap). The Grover Roto's are original and the first year or two they did use the Grovers and then went to Schaller's with the screw to the inside instead of the bottom.
Also Mitch points out that this guitar has only volume and tone controls while it originally had a third midrange tone control (see pictures of Gibson H.R. guitars below) but this has been plugged. Also the guitar has the word Custom written vertically on the truss rod cover which was not common with these guitars.

Interestingly this guitar is featured on the soundtrack to the movie Space Cowboys. The movie opens with a solo acoustic guitar piece called Espacio written by Clint Eastwood and beautifully played by Mitch. Mitch was told that this was going to be a session where a "Herb Ellis" guitar style was required and so he took this guitar along as the closest thing he had to an ES-175. Actually it turned out to be a session where an acoustic would have been appropriate but the H.R. Prototype really did the job. Here is a quote from Mitch describing the session.

We recorded the music at the tail end of a dialogue dubbing session with Donald Sutherland. Our calls are in 3 hour increments and I sat while Clint worked with Donald on his lines for a couple of hours. Then, with about 40 minutes left, Clint goes over to an upright piano and plays the tune for me. I wanted to write it out but Clint said I wouldn't need to, just listen a couple of times and do it (Clint likes to work FAST). Anyhow, they close miked the guitar and my main problem was remembering exactly how the first part of the melody went, had an odd length that was a little hard for me to catch and I was running it over when Clint told them to turn on the recorder. Seat of my pants, believe me. I still didn't really know the tune when I walked out of there and didn't remember most of it when I saw the movie last weekend. Was done REALLY fast!! Clint just told me to play it like I was a lonely guitar player out in the desert. I think the guitar actually turned out to have the perfect sound for it, a good flat top acoustic would have sounded more predictable, this had a little different flavor. All I did was change from the pick I use for jazz, a small heavy one, to a medium teardrop, (like a Fender Medium, made by D'Andrea) which I use on steel string acoustics and that brightened up the sound but, more importantly, put me in the right mind set to play that music on a jazz guitar. I'm really tickled that through the communication error, the HR guitar wound up on that movie, felt good to be getting it out there again. Think Howard was upstairs watching the whole thing go down and chuckling away. Thanx, Howard!!
If you have heard the music then you will probably agree that this is quite an amazing description.

Gibson Howard Roberts Custom - The Real Howard Roberts Guitar

This (front, back) is the guitar that Howard Roberts is pictured with on the album cover for the Real Howard Roberts recording. It is owned by jazz guitarist Jeff Sherman of Bellarmine College in Louisville , Kentucky. H.R. had Gibson install a second pickup and subsequently had a sound post installed. According to Jeff "The guitar is not the greatest for acoustic sound (with the sound post, laminated top and second pick-up in the top) but it will not feed back at any volume, plays great and has a real balanced sound in all registers." Jeff has used the guitar extensively in a variety of settings. Many thanks to Jeff for the details and Bill Marshall for the photos.

Gibson Howard Roberts Fusion

Undoubtedly he owned several of these but the one he is pictured with on Turning to Spring is now owned by Ken in Hawaii. Here is photo of HR playing this guitar.

Guitars Designed by Howard Roberts

Howard Roberts was also involved in the design of guitars and played many of these on his recordings. There were Howard Roberts models produced by Aria, Epiphone, Gibson (the photo above is of a Gibson Howard Roberts Custom - courtesy of Barry Worrell) and Ibanez.

Here is a gallery of photos and some information about the guitars that I know Howard Roberts was involved in designing.



Howard Roberts used very heavy strings on his guitars, even by the standards of most jazz guitarists. Considering that bends were an important part of his technique this is quite amazing. Mitch Holder, currently a professional guitarist in Los Angeles and who studied with Howard Roberts, supplied the following gauges from his records: .016, .018, .028, .038, .048, .058. Further details from Mitch indicate that these were Gibson Mona Steel, Set No. 240 and he had to get heavier gauge B & E strings (brand really doesn't matter on the unwound strings, all steel) to get the tension he was after.


Thanks to Patty Roberts I recently acquired some guitar picks from Howard Roberts' personal collection. Here is a picture of the back of the pick. It is a heavy pick, at least heavier than I was used to using. The gauge is 1mm and it gives a nice tone. The type of plastic seems to have something to do with this as well.