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Southern Pride: Guitar Collector Ronny Proler on the Southern Rock Tribute 1959 Les Paul

Russell Hall
|
07.09.2014

Ronny Proler

Since getting his first Les Paul four decades ago, the Houston, Texas native has amassed a collection that would be the envy of any enthusiast. Along the way, the 60-year-old musician/collector has cultivated friendships with some of the most acclaimed musicians of our times. Billy Gibbons, Charlie Daniels, Joe Bonamassa and Warren Haynes are just a few of the guitar greats that Proler counts among his friends.

Small wonder, then, that when Gibson Custom decided to design a guitar that would pay tribute to Southern Rock, Proler was one of the first people the company consulted. Several months later, the collaboration among Gibson Custom, Proler and several high-profile “ambassadors” of southern rock yielded the Southern Rock Tribute 1959 Les Paul—without question one of the standout a standout instrument that honors one of rock's most important genres.

“I’ve been collecting guitars since I was 17, for 43 years now,” says Proler. “I have quite a few collectible Les Pauls, and a lot of my friends have the 30 or 40 greatest Les Pauls in the world. That’s one reason Gibson asked me to be involved. My passion is guitars. I’m happiest when I’m either in front of a Les Paul, watching someone play—or behind a Les Paul, playing myself.”

From his home in Houston, Proler spoke about southern rock, the Southern Rock Tribute 1959 Les Paul, and an event earlier this year that saw some of the greatest legends of southern rock come together for a once-in-a-lifetime “summit” gathering—specifically to celebrate the launch of this remarkable instrument.

What springs to mind when you think about the roots of southern rock?

Southern rock came largely out of the Delta blues and the chitlin’ circuit, the area from Houston to Memphis and New Orleans, and then up to St. Louis. It was based in the southern Mississippi Delta blues. That’s where my own roots lie—being a Houston, Texas guy. There was all that black Baptist gospel and blues. That’s our music, the Delta blues. You throw it in some flour, fry it, toss on some gravy, and you’ve got southern rock. Southern Rock is sort of like a mix of country and rhythm ‘n’ blues on speed.

Why was the Les Paul the go-to guitar for so many southern rockers?

There’s nothing else like the sound of a Les Paul plugged into a Marshall amp, especially a Les Paul Standard with PAFs, the big pickups. The explosion in popularity for the Les Paul really happened in the mid ‘60s, when someone thought to plug one into a Marshall. There was the Bluesbreakers album that Eric Clapton played on, and then Jeff Beck … Mike Bloomfield … Keith Richards. I just finished reading Galadrielle Allman’s book about her Dad. One of the most significant moments is when Duane says, “Well, I finally got a Les Paul.” I’m not sure what year that was, probably around ’67 or ‘68. All the other southern rock guys followed suit. Whenever you think of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker or Billy Gibbons, there’s one instrument that always leaps out, and that’s the Les Paul.

What triggered the idea for the Southern Rock Tribute 1959 Les Paul?

Rick [Gembar] and I had been working together for about three years on the Collector's Choice™ series. About a year ago, Rick said, “You know, I’m thinking about doing a Southern Rock Tribute guitar. Would you work with me on that?” He said it had to be something different. I’ve always loved the dark cherry sunburst, so I told Rick, “Well, I’ve been seeing, in my head, the shape of a heart, in the center. What if we start with really dark cherry on the outside, and then have it fade out down by the pickups, where it will just stop altogether and just be honey-colored. And then we’ll put a heart right under the treble pickup.” That’s the heart and soul of the guitar, where the treble pickup is located. Rick liked the idea, so that’s how it got started.

How much time was put into the project?

I’ve been doing this all my life, so you could say it took 60 years to get this guitar made. It’s been a lifetime for me, in that sense. With Gibson, it was probably about eight months. Gibson is making such great guitars now, the best guitars they’ve made since the late ‘50s. You can ask Joe Bonamassa, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks … any of the guys I hang out with. Together we play old guitars and new guitars, and it’s clear the guitars Gibson is making today are as good as those from ’58, ’59 and ’60. The company is in one of those magic portholes of time, another golden age for guitar-making.

What are your favorite features of the Southern Rock Tribute guitar?

I would have to say the neck and the pickups. And of course I love the way it looks, the dark cherry sunburst. The first time [Lynyrd Skynyrd’s] Gary Rossington held the guitar, he put his hand up and down the neck and said, “Well, that’s a ’59. It feels just like ‘Bernice.’ Of course Bernice, Rossington’s original ’59 Les Paul, is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now. I said, “Well, Gary, one of the specs was that this guitar would be a ’59 Gibson Dark Sunburst like Duane Allman’s.” All of this goes back to Duane. Without Duane Allman, you and I wouldn’t be talking. These guitars have smoking pickups as well—that magical PAF sound. They’re very clean when you want them to be, when you want to hear every note ring, but then when you want to fill things up with that “neutron breath,” it’s got that for you, too.

What was it like getting the Ambassadors together—all those southern guitar giants—for the special launch event?

It was rock and roll heaven. To be able to look over and see Gary Rossington, Rickey Medlocke, Charlie Daniels … all these greats in one room, was amazing. Charlie already had his flaming Les Paul back in ’70 or ’71. He was a young guy in a cowboy hat making that big, balloon-floating-through-the-room sound, just like Duane did, or like Toy Caldwell did on “Can’t You See.” The high point, for me, was watching Dickey Betts play “Ramblin’ Man.” Watching him play my guitar, a guitar I helped design, brought tears to my eyes. Betts was the first guitar player I ever saw perform live. The Allmans came to Houston in 1972, after Duane had died, when Betts was their only guitar player. I had never met Dickey prior to the Southern Rock Tribute Guitar “summit.” He and I talked for 15 or 20 minutes prior to the gig. He’s a really special, wonderful guy.

I understand you’ve loaned out your own Southern Rock Tribute ’59 Les Paul?

I gave it to Dan Vickrey, of Counting Crows. Dan is a good friend of mine. As of about two weeks ago, it’s become his favorite guitar. He said, “Proler, I love you, but I can’t return this guitar to you. I don’t know what it is about it, but I can’t put it down.” He was playing in Atlanta the night we had this conversation, so we named the guitar “Peaches.” I told him it meant the world to me that he loved it so much. “That’s my Number One guitar,” I told him. “You just keep it and play the hell out of it.”

Do you foresee a great future legacy for the Southern Rock Tribute guitar?

The way I see it, Gibson has gone out of its way to elevate this guitar to a spiritual plane. When Duane Allman was playing his Les Paul, it was only an eight-year-old guitar. Today, Les Pauls of that era are like elder statesmen. I think it will be the same way with the Southern Rock Tribute guitar. I’ve yet to play one that isn’t wonderful—the neck shape, the pickups, everything. They’re amazing instruments. I think 20 or 30 years from now, they’ll be regarded as even more phenomenal.

Related:

Southern Rock Tribute 1959 Les Paul

The Story of Southern Rock

Charlie Daniels on Southern Rock, Les Pauls & Doin’ It Dylan

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