The Guitars Of Gabor Szabo
by Jimmy Stewart

Gabor Szabo’s sound was extremely unusual. That, coupled with his Hungarian field, made him one of the premier guitarists during the mid 60s and early 70s. Part of that sound came from his hands The other part of the sound came from the type of instruments that he used.

One of his favorite instruments was the Martin D-45. This guitar was made by Martin for Gene Autry, the famous country singer in 1933. That model continued. It was basically called the Martin Dreadnought. Another guitar Gabor liked to play was a Martin D-285. These two guitars were big round-holed guitars and were usually associated with the troubadour singers of the thirties. But the sound itself, whether it was amplified or not, was very, very distinct and very, very full.

To capture this sound electronically, a company called Rowe came out with these series of pickups called the DeArmond series. Gabor Szabo used a pickup made by DeArmond, placing it in the center of the round hole and adjusting it so he could have an excellent balance between the bass strings and the treble strings.

While I was working with him, I would see him continually adjusting that pickup so it was offset just enough to balance the bass strings and the treble strings. Later on the pickups used a screw adjustment so you could tune in the volume for each string itself. The DeArmond pickup he used was model #210 and it was primarily made for flattop guitars. Also, they made a 12-string model used for the 12-string guitar. The other DeArmond pickup was used for the f-holed guitars.

So the round pickup in the center of the round hole on the Martin D-45 was the real basic sound for Gabor Szabo.

During the period of time I knew Gabor, he had also played some other guitars. One was a Gibson 1965 round-hole, a J160E. This guitar has a single-coil unit that sits at the end of the fretboard. He didn’t use that guitar much, very seldom in person. It did appear on one recording LP of his.

At one time I had heard him play a Fender Stratocaster without the tremolo bar, using the front-position pickup (or the jazz pickup). It was amazing to me that he seemed to get his sound out of that instrument too, by adjusting the volume controls and tone controls. But that Fender Stratocaster looked awfully funny on Gabor. He was also using a Fender amp. He refused to use the tremolo bar, which I thought was a smart thing for him. What would he do with that?

Another guitar that he liked and I had it in my possession for a while was a Howard Roberts Epiphone. Although that guitar did have a small round hole, it did have a pickup that was placed up close to the fingerboard. I don’t really think it gave Gabor the sound that he wanted.

This was a period of time when things did change for Gabor, as far as the guitar. But the sound remained the same. I remember this event happening in San Francisco. We were at the Trident and a man came in. His name was Charlie Kaman. He was a gentleman who was an engineer who running a helicopter operation in Connecticut, but a lover of the guitar and a rhythm guitarist himself in big bands; quite a smart man. He and his engineers had designed a guitar out of space age materials. That was the first time I had seen an Ovation Custom Legend acoustic guitar. Charlie Kaman had come in and heard the performance and gave Gabor the guitar. At that time, that guitar was strictly acoustic. But because of the DeArmond Model 210, Gabor was able to quickly transfer that pickup to the Ovation guitar. And he really, really took to the Ovation guitar.

One of the many nice things about the Ovation Custom Legend is the fact that it could travel well. With the Martin, with all the different changes in weather and being a beautiful piece of wood, there would be some problems. Sometimes the guitar wouldn’t be alive in a room as we would want it to sound. Gabor had always basically worked from the premise of an acoustic sound first and amplifying it that through the amplifier.

Gabor at one time also played the Coral sitar. He actually tried some sitar on Jazz Raga, although the sitar is an extremely difficult instrument for the guitarist. He didn’t use the sitar on the bandstand, but he had it to use if he wanted to.

Go to Picks