The 8-stringed Woolworths Top Twenty
by Mark

During my time in the Automatons, I owned three electric guitars. The first was some horrendous, nameless piece of crap that I bought for £15 from a local second-hand shop. It had a wooden body that had been French-polished so it looked like a 1950s wardrobe, a fretboard that was verging on the concave and an action so high that you needed fingers like steel clamps to play a chord. This was fairly quickly superseded by a bright red Watkins Rapier 33 Stratocaster copy that I bought from a workmate, and this is the guitar that can be heard on the majority of the Automatons' tracks prior to Mic joining. As I understand it, this make and model of guitar has now become something of a collector's item, but I sold mine several years ago when times were hard and playing in a band was no longer an option.

The third guitar has a slightly more interesting history. Sometime shortly after the formation of the band, I was watching a TV documentary about The Blues. One of the artists featured was a guitarist by the name of Big Joe Williams. The thing that interested me particularly about Big Joe was that he played a - frankly - grotty old Sovereign acoustic guitar that he had customised and electrified himself. The main modification (apart from the pickup held in place with gaffa tape) was the fact that it had 9 strings. The guitar had a Gibson-style headstock (2 sets of 3 machine heads opposite each other), so Big Joe had drilled three more holes along the top of the head and attached 3 extra machine heads, and made three extra corresponding holes at the bridge end. The extra strings duplicated the first, second and fourth strings. The whole thing was then open-tuned to G (D-G-D-D-G-B-B-D-D, also known as "Spanish" tuning) and usually played with a capo on the first or second fret.

I have three photos featuring Big Joe's guitar (two include Big Joe himself and the third is from the cover of his LP "Nine String Guitar Blues"), and each guitar appears to be different - I can only assume that, given the length of his career (he made his first recordings in 1935 and died in 1982) and the cheapo nature of the guitars in question, they were replaced on a regular basis. Probably fell to bits, actually. Expensive guitars would have lasted longer but then again, if you'd paid $2000 for a real Gibson guitar, you might think twice about drilling holes in it.

As you've probably gathered from reading Protag's excellent treatise on our other equipment, this spirit of "buy cheap gear and frig about with it" lived on with the Automatons. I was in no way as knowledgeable or as inventive as Protag, but I was inspired by Big Joe Williams and his 9-string oddity. I bought a Woolworths Top Twenty electric guitar from another junk shop, and set about customising it.

Unlike Big Joe's guitar, this particular instrument had a Fender-style headstock (all 6 machine heads in a row). There wasn't really enough room for 3 extra machine heads, but two fitted nicely on the opposite side to those already in place. I then used a hacksaw to cut two extra grooves in the plastic nut and the metal bridge so that I could duplicate the two highest strings. To secure the strings at the metal tailpiece, I simply passed a pair of strings through each of the holes that would normally have accommodated the (single) top two strings.

Once the guitar was fully strung, I open-tuned it to E (E-B-E-G#-B-B-E-E).

(I also painted over the original sunburst finish with several coats of white household emulsion, but I don't think that added anything to the sound.)

I decided to duplicate the top two strings to augment the upper end of our combined sound since Protag's trademark loping polyphonic basslines pretty much dominated the lower register.

Much to my surprise, the 8-string turned out to be quite a versatile instrument. Putting it through my fuzzbox and (optionally) phaser pedal resulted in a sound that was about as close as the Automatons ever got to classic Punk buzzsaw guitar - this is the guitar that can be heard crunching its way through John's Vacuum Cleaner. The fretboard was flat and the action reasonably high thanks to the adjustable metal bridge (although not as high as the Post-War Wardrobe horror mentioned earlier), so with no fuzz but tons of echo and a stainless steel slide it could provide a Steve Hillage-type glissando layer. With effects turned off and plenty of amplification it became the perfect instrument for some ragged Jeremy Spencer-style bottleneck blues. If you speak to my parents or ex-neighbours they would probably still be able to tell you about the hideous racket emerging from my bedroom as I thundered my way through a version of My Heart Beat Like A Hammer or somesuch. My slide guitar playing never made it as far as an Instant Automatons recording which, on reflection, is probably a good thing.

As previously mentioned, the Watkins Rapier was sold in times of need. After leaving the Automatons I had a stab at customising the Utility Wardrobe guitar by sawing off all the non-vital bits of the body (producing a sort of Bo Diddley-style oblong plank). I painted it with black gloss that never seemed to dry properly and restrung it with 6 (yes, SIX) top E-strings - all tuned to top E. Once this thing (I hesitate to call it an instrument - I christened it "The Bacon Slicer") was put through a fuzzbox and amplified it produced a sound like nothing you've ever heard before - or, indeed, would ever want to hear. I used it on one recorded track with The Innocent Bystanders, but that was the only outing it ever had - I eventually gave it to Will Vigar, my partner in The Innocent Bystanders, and a couple of years later he lent it to someone who smashed it to pieces against the side of a house. Probably the best thing that could have happened to it.

And the 8-stringed Woolworths Top Twenty? In the same way that Protag has hung on to the floorboard bass come hell or high water, I still have the guitar. I've kept it for three reasons: firstly, I promised Kif Kif le Batteur that I would leave it to him in my will; secondly, I'm reasonably sure that no one in their right mind would actually want to buy it; lastly, and most importantly, it is a touchstone that links me directly to those hazy, crazy days of The Instant Automatons.

Photos of Big Joe Williams and his 9-string:
Big Joe 1 Big Joe 2 LP Cover (detail)
Photos of the Woolworths Top Twenty:
The Whole Thing Headstock Body

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