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Spider John Koerner - Koernering The Market

So Big Joe inspired John Koerner to start experimenting with extra strings on his guitar. What did he try first?

“I can’t remember the first time I put an extra string on. One of the earliest guitars I had was a [Gibson] Army & Navy, and I think I just had that as a six-string, although maybe at some point I modified it, but that was the beginning. That was just a nice old, well-made guitar, nothing fancy, that worked out fine. I don’t remember when I first started to change strings on guitars, but at a fairly early point I got into fooling around with instruments. I bought a twelve-string and it was all messed up, and I put a new top on, because I’m handy, and yeah, I went through a number of guitars that way.”

“At one time, I think it was that Army & Navy special got stolen. I went down to Johnson City, Tennessee, and I needed a guitar and I went to a hock shop there and they had this really bad guitar for $15, and here’s a clue, I wanted to turn it into a seven-string and I did it right in the shop. I hadn’t even given the guy the money. He thought ‘What’s going on here?’, you know. I went right down the street and got a drill bit or something like that so I could make a hole, put a peg and changed it all around and played him a couple of songs. But that indicates that the previous guitar must have been that way.”

Koerner at the Cambridge Festival, 1981
Koerner at the Cambridge Festival, 1981 Photo: Ian Anderson

“I had two G strings, but one was an octave above. Then I had a National steel body – one cone – when I got that the neck was made out of bakelite, or some kind of composite thing, and somehow the head had broken off and I got the super glue you could get back then, which is surpassed by now, and I glued it together. I was playing a job, and I was using the capo, and I had a habit of putting the capo on and giving it a little bang to set it in place, and I did that and the head fell off! But then I got a piece of maple and made a good one. But it was a bit much. It was very heavy.”

“I did try other arrangements. I had an eight-string at one point. I can’t remember what that was all about. And at one point I strung one up to be like a tipple – so you got two pairs and two triples.”

The guitar I most remember Spider John playing when he toured here regularly in the mid 1960s was an old 1940s Gretsch flat top with a slightly triangular, plectrum-shaped soundhole, similar to the guitar that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is pictured playing in the UK on his late 1950s visits. Ever since then it has been my dream to own one, but I’ve never seen one since, nor even a photo of Koerner with his, which has only added to my fantasies. How was that one strung?

“That would have to be a nine-string at that point. I don’t quite remember where that came from. See I’ve had two of ’em, this was a Gretsch model 75 or something like that. I played that for quite a while. That’s the one that I gave away when I quit music.”


“This was winter 1972, I was going through what everyone would call life-change thinking kind of stuff, and I decided to give up music forever. I played a job in Jack’s Bar, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I was going to sell it at the end of the job, and this guy came up and was going to give me $200, and I thought ‘Oh, hey, go the whole way’ and I just gave it to him, ‘Forget it’, with the case and a bunch of other stuff in the case.”

“And then I went to Denmark to live, I lived there for three or four years. I was a waiter in a bar for a while. I worked in a porcelain factory for a while. I was a slomper in a big department store, the guy that cleans up in the morning. When you get down to the bottom that’s what you do. It ain’t bad. I liked cleaning up.”

Enter another Gretsch…

From fRoots 325, July 2010 – incorporating some sections from an earlier interview published in fR150, December 1995


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