The equipment of Terry Kath

By Tim Wood

The original version of this article first appeared in the Chicago True Advocates publication Scrapbook)New information added 9/5/2001.

Fans of the original lineup of Chicago are familiar with the extraordinary playing of guitarist Terry Kath. The guitarist whom Jimi Hendrix said was "better than me" fused numerous styles and influences into a truly original style of playing.

But while Kath's musical approach was innovative, his use of instruments and equipment was no less groundbreaking. In many ways, his use of various types of guitars, effects pedals and amplifiers was as original as his playing.

For a horn player, an instrument is an instrument. Obviously, the better-made instruments have a better tone than the economy-priced student models. But a trumpet still sounds like a trumpet - at least to most listeners.

Electric guitars are a different story. Electric guitars vary widely in design and thus have different tones. Further affecting the sound are a guitarist's choice of effects pedals and finally, the amplifier.

Guitarists use combinations of instrument, effects and amplifier to develop their signature sound. Among professional guitarists, rarely do two have the same sound.

Terry Kath was a master at using electronics to develop groundbreaking sounds. In examining his technique, we'll start with his guitars.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, there were two dominant makers of solid body electric guitars - Fender and Gibson. Kath used instruments made by both companies.

The two companies took radically different approaches to guitar design. Gibson's guitars were inspired greatly by the very fine arch-top jazz guitars it made in the 1930s and 1940s. Fender, fueled by the practical approach of Leo Fender, produced more down-to-earth instruments. Neither approach was necessarily superior to the other; choice was a matter of taste.

One major difference was in the type of pickups. Fender guitars originally stuck to single-coil pickups, which produced a bright sound, but had problems with hum and low output. Gibson guitars usually sported humbucking pickups, which had two coils wired together to produce more output, less hum, but a sound that didn't cut through as well as a Fender.

Fender's primary two models were the Telecaster, the first solid body guitar to be marketed successfully on a large-scale basis; and the Stratocaster, which followed the Telecaster and had three pickups, a vibrato bar and a space-age design. The Telecaster first was produced in the late 1940s. The Stratocaster came along in 1954. Arguably, the Stratocaster is the most popular electric guitar ever made. Most guitarists use Stratocasters, or very similar guitars made by different companies. Current Chicago guitarist Keith Howland uses a Stratocaster-type guitar.

The Stratocaster was Jimi Hendrix' guitar of choice and saw extensive use by Kath as well. In a Guitar Player magazine interview published in the ealry 1970s, Kath said he started off with a Kay guitar and later bought a Stratocaster, which he played at least through the time of the interview.

Several concert photos of Chicago in the early 1970s show Kath with a white Stratocaster equipped with a rosewood fingerboard. The shape of the guitar's headstock indicates that it was probably a 1960s model. The liner notes of Chicago Transit Authority indicate that "Free Form Guitar" was performed with a Fender Stratocaster guitar. Whether it was the same white one depicted in the photographs is unknown. The "LIve in Japan" gatefold picture also shows Kath with a white Stratocaster.

But Kath also played Gibsons. The photo of Kath in CTA shows him playing a Gibson SG, a double-cutaway guitar with humbucking pickups. A 1969 photo of Kath that is available on Dave Zimmerman's Chicago home page shows Kath with a triple-pickup SG.

At the time of the Guitar Player Magazine article, Kath was using his Stratocaster and a Gibson Les Paul Professional. Both of these guitars are visible in the LIJ gatefold picture. The Les Paul also is the guitar Kath is shown with in the mammoth "Carnegie Hall" wall poster that many long-time fans remember so well.

Many guitarists play a Gibson Les Paul; however, the most popular model is not the same model that Kath played. The Les Paul guitar was designed by (no surprise here) Les Paul, the legendary guitarist who teamed with Mary Ford for numerous hits in the 1950s. Les Paul also pioneered multi-track recording.

The most popular Les Paul guitars feature standard humbucking pickups. Guitarists such as Jimmy Page favor the traditional Les Paul model. The prized 1959 Les Paul Standards command enormous sums on the used guitar market.

But Terry's model was actually a more advanced Les Paul model that never caught on - but not because it was a bad instrument. Kath's Les Paul featured low impedance pickups, which had a line-level output that easily drove long lengths of cord and which could be plugged directly into studio equipment. For use with standard guitar amplifiers, an adapter was required.

Kath said in the GP article that he liked the clean sound of the Les Paul Professional. Les Paul himself today plays a variation of the Professional model with the low impedance pickups.

At some point, around 1973 or 1974, Kath started using the guitar that is most often identified with him. He started playing a heavily-modified Fender Telecaster that sported numerous Pignose amplifier decals and other markings.

This guitar may have represented the best of both worlds - Fender and Gibson. The guitar's standard single-coil neck pickup was replaced with a Gibson humbucking pickup. The bridge pickup was unchanged.

Telecaster bridge pickups are among the classic pickups of rock, country and blues music. The pickup carries a tremendous high end and can cut through about any band in a solo.

Based upon a study of photos of Kath with the guitar, it appears that the bridge was replaced as well. The stock Telecaster bridges of the time had only three saddles for six strings, which limited intonationadjustment. On Kath's guitar, the stock bridge was replaced with a six-saddle bridge for better intonation. The bridge may have been a tremolo bridge. There may have been other modifications to the guitar, but those are the most visible.

This guitar gave Kath the option of a Gibson or Fender sound. A search of various concert photos available on the Internet and elsewhere don't show any other guitar in Kath's hands after around 1974. This isn't to say he didn't use other electric guitars; but it appears that he certainly favored this instrument.

As mentioned before, the guitar is just part of the tools used by rock guitarists. Kath took an innovative approach to his special effects and amplifiers. According to the CTA liner notes, Kath did Free Form guitar on a Stratocaster plugged into a Bogen PA amp, run into a Dual Showman amplifier. Kath probably used the Bogen to overdrive the preamp of the Dual Showman, thus creating sizzling distortion and loads of sustain.

A prime example of that sustain is in the beginning of "Listen" from CTA. Kath sustains a note seemingly forever. Today's guitarists would have no trouble doing that with the equipment available; however, it was almost unheard of in 1969.

In the 1970s, many guitar amp makers discovered the benefits of overdriving the preamp and the "master volume" control was born. Kath was ahead of his time.

According to the GP article, Kath's amps of choice were the Dual Showman and a 60-watt Knight amp. Of course, it's possible he changed amps in later years.

According to CTA engineer Fred Catero, "Free Form Guitar" came about when Kath was fooling around with his amps during a lunch break. Kath was generating incredible sustain and distortion. Catero rolled the tape, opened up the mikes and recorded several minutes of incredible guitar manipulation.

Among the techniques heard on "Free Form Guitar" is a form of two-handed tapping. In the late 1970s, a young guitarist named Eddie Van Halen would popularize this technique and influence a whole generation of guitarists. Again, Kath was ahead of his time.

Part of Kath's signature sound was the wah-wah pedal. In the GP article, he mentions using a Cry Baby wah-wah pedal, a popular model still available today.

According to one source close to the band, Kath used a Knight Heathkit Tube Amplifier, 35 watts. It went into a custom made speaker cabinet with six 10-inch speakers.

He used an Italian-made Binson (spelling may not be correct) echo device, and on the floor, he used a Maestro phase shifter, a Cry Baby wah wah and sometimes a Fuzz Face. This is very similar to the effects setup used by Hendrix.

The Chicago VI and VII albums have Kath adding more pedals to the arsenal. Several cuts on those albums feature an effect that could have been generated by either a flanger or a phase shifter. Kath also used a device known as Leslie, which featured the "rotating speaker" effect.

Neither Kath's Telecaster nor Les Paul appeared to be equipped with a vibrato bar; but his Stratocaster was. He used this feature to good effect in "Free From Guitar" and on both of the recorded versions of "A Song for Richard and His Friends." In the GP article, he mentioned a desire for an improved vibrato, or whammy bar. Had he lived into the 1980s, his wish would have come true with the advent of the Floyd Rose and Kahler devices.

Another area in which Kath was ahead of his time was in his association with the Pignose Amplifier company. This company marketed a battery-powered practice amplifier in the 1970s. While such amplifiers are common today, it was a radical invention for the time. The extent of Terry's involvement with the company is unclear, but he did appear in advertisements for the product and his Telecaster was covered with Pignose decals.The Pignose company went through several ups an downs, but today the original Pignose amplifier remains available.

In the liner notes of the original "Group Portrait" boxed set, Jimmy Pankow said that Kath was producing unusual sounds out of his guitar and amps long before that style had become popular. "Noise Guitar" is becoming popular in Japan and was the subject of a major GP article recently.

Terry Kath was doing all of these things and more. There have been huge leaps in guitar technology since Kath's utimely death in 1978. Were he alive today, he no doubt would be fascinated with the technology - and he'd probably be using it to create sounds way ahead of their time.


Copyright 1997 Timothy M. Wood All rights reserved. Reproduction, re-transmission and storing without permission is prohibited.

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