Adam Baldwdin at home in Nova Scotia. Courtesy of Matt Williams.

Instrumental: Adam Baldwin’s Backbreaking 1970 Gibson Les Paul

Not too far from beautiful downtown Dartmouth, Adam Baldwin is puttering around the house on a sunny day—not a common thing this January—with his tiny dog, Darla, out beside the Atlantic Ocean. Painted flowers abound, conjured by his partner, Jesse Dunleavy, and things are calm, what with his kids at school. Here in Nova Scotia, we’re able to sit down together for this interview, thanks to low COVID-19 numbers. Things are relatively, mercifully breezy here right now.

Of course, that hasn’t always been the case during this pandemic—Halifax endured a brutal outbreak at a north end nursing home early in 2020 and Nova Scotians have watched from afar as friends and family in other provinces and around the world have been isolated with no real idea of when they’ll be able to see each other in person again. When things first started falling apart, Baldwin, who had regular gigs at a number of spots in downtown Halifax—on top of frequent touring—wasn’t sure what to do. So he kept playing for everyone, safely, online, and created his 15-episode Cross Country Chin-up concert series. The last one aired six months ago. What was special about them, from the beginning, was their off-the-cuffedness—when you tuned in, it just felt like Baldwin was hanging out in your living room, belting his own gutsy rock ‘n’ roll tunes alongside classics by artists like Springsteen and Elton John. Almost every show dealt with a technical issue, but it didn’t matter, because we were all desperate for connection, and the hiccups only humanized the whole thing, creating a vibe that pushed it beyond just some live stream on YouTube and toward small moments of intimacy.

Understandably, for someone who just couldn’t stop playing—he’s taken every chance he’s gotten to play live, safely organized shows in the Atlantic bubble—Baldwin is restless still. “I just want to play guitar with my friends,” he tells me, more than once. “I desperately miss cramming into a van with my buds and loading gear in and turning our stuff up way too loud, and just seeing people stuffed into a building. It’s such a great feeling, to tune 800 people into one thing for a couple hours.”

Hopefully, it’s not too long before that’s a possibility again. In the meantime, Baldwin made do with a long chat about six-strings, a Hawaiian crooner named Don Ho, and even the ‘90s class divide between different types of sweatpants.

Although he’s shredding a Rickenbacker here in the “Salvation” video, Baldwin assured us the studio recording of the song’s solo is all Les Paul.

Do you remember your first guitar?

Yeah, it was called a Montana. They were really cheap. But it had a pickup in it, and I was so ignorant about electric. I knew so little about it that this acoustic guitar had a pickup in it, so I just thought it was an electric guitar as well. I thought they’d behave the same way. So I plug it into a Marshall amp and, and try to make electric guitar sounds with my shitty acoustic. I came to learn that’s not how it works. But if you distort a 20-year-old Montana guitar, it sounds gnarly. It was this scummy sunburst colour red, and it might still be around somewhere. My mother may have it still at her apartment or something, but it was a piece of junk. I always wanted a sunburst Gibson Les Paul. I feel like that’s the first guitar you ever learn about when you start playing electric guitar.

Did you kind of have it in mind as a goal to one day own this Gibson?

Yeah, for sure. And for Christmas one year, maybe my birthday, my birth father bought me an Epiphone Les Paul, which I still have. It was sunburst. And at the time, a Gibson Les Paul was out of the question. I probably turned like 18 or 19 or something, and there was no way I was getting a Gibson Les Paul ever in my life. You know, $2,000 for a guitar seemed outrageous to me then. And I didn’t. I didn’t want it or need it—an Epiphone would have been fine. Those were 600 bucks, and even that seemed like a lot of money for a kid with no job. So I loved that Epiphone, and I had it for however long and then I met a kid with a Gibson Les Paul. And that was it. Like, I could feel the difference in my hand and the sound and everything, and then the Epiphone, pretty quickly, became like, the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever owned. His was vintage, too. We were kids, and the first band I played in, these guys had Gibson guitars and Fender guitars, and I’d never seen one in real life before. It was like meeting a celebrity. For my buddy Evans, it was like a 1970 or ’72 Les Paul Deluxe, black with gold pickups. It was beautiful. And heavy, man. It was so heavy. You put that thing on and you felt pretty cool. So that kind of sunk the hook, you know? “I will own one of these things.”

The difference is palpable, eh?

It’s like when I was in elementary school. You felt like an asshole if you had two stripe sweatpants instead of the Adidas three stripes. So ridiculous. My mom and dad would buy the Costco Kirkland brand black pants with two white stripes and I felt like such a shithead. And it was the same idea with guitars. I was like, “I can’t go on stage with an Epiphone.”

How’d you wrangle the Gibson?

I had a 1970 Gibson Hummingbird. It was really nice, but a lot would argue that by that time Gibson was making them not so well. I found it on the internet, and just the sight of it—I had to have it. So I got that guitar. I had it for many years. Long story short, a dear friend of mine had borrowed it while we were on the road, to take to some hotel party, and the next morning, as he was walking through the hallway with it, he had the strap over his shoulder and the strap let go and my Hummingbird fell down onto the floor of the lobby of the hotel and broke the neck off. So we got home and I took it to a guitar shop around here and just said, “I need to get the neck put back on this thing, and I have to go on the road, so the sooner the better.”

I had to pick it up after my tour because they didn’t have it done in time for the tour. I got home a couple months later and I’m in the shop and I open the case up and my Gibson Hummingbird isn’t a Hummingbird anymore. The Hummingbird pickguard was off the guitar and I asked the guy, “What happened?” And he said, “Oh, I broke it off. I just replaced the pick guard.” And I said, “You can’t just replace the pickguard on a Gibson Hummingbird!” Anyway, we had at it for a little while, and he wanted his money and I didn’t want to pay him his money, because he had done such a shoddy job. So, while I was storming around the store, I caught sight of this Les Paul and I made him a deal. The guitar that was on the wall they wanted two grand for it or something. And I said, “Okay, I’ll give you $1600 and we’ll call it even—$800 for that Les Paul up there and $800 for the guitar repair or whatever. And I walked out of there with it. It was a super impulse thing. I hadn’t even played it. I just saw it and then walked out of the store with it. Then I owned a Les Paul. It was my dream come true. But I’d never even played a chord on it.

Adam Baldwin’s backbreaking 1970 Gibson Les Paul. Photo courtesy of Matt Horseman.

You were just like, “This is my chance.”

I got home and I was looking at it. I started playing it and it was great. It was heavy, and it was beat up, and it’s a workhorse. I was like, “I was supposed to be with this guitar.” And I felt good about my Hummingbird being busted and whatever. I wasn’t mad anymore. Then I saw on the truss rod cover it said “Don Ho” on it. I was like, “Who’s Don Ho?” So I googled it. I’m not sure if he’s alive or not, but he had a hit out of Hawaii in the ’60s called “Tiny Bubbles.” He was a bit of a big deal. So I listened to that song, and I was like, “Man, did this guy own this guitar at some point?” I’ve been trying to kind of track down photographs of anybody in his band playing a Les Paul to no avail. But I can’t imagine putting “Don Ho” on your guitar if you didn’t… like, who would pick that guy? This thing had to have come from somebody in Don Ho’s band, which is the furthest thing from rock ‘n’ roll music, which is what I play on that thing, obviously. And I love that. That instrument has run the gamut, you know? That thing has played everything from “Tiny Bubbles” to “Stand Down at Sundown.”

Was there any sort of learning curve when you got it? Did you have to figure out some intricacies?

No, not really. I’m such a boneheaded guitar player that I don’t have any intricacies anyway—it’s all just ham-fisted, beating the snot out of the instrument, hoping that it works. And sometimes it does. A lot of times it doesn’t. I put a Bigsby on it to kind of help with that, but there’s nothing I had to learn. Except for now that as I get older, I just can’t play that guitar very long, because it makes my back hurt. It’s a heavy rig, and you just kind of get worn down hanging on to that thing for any length of time, which says more about me than anything. It’s probably time to hit the gym.

Has it ever wound up in any precarious circumstances?

The only precarious position it’s ever been in is in my possession. That’s a pretty dangerous spot for an instrument to be. I used to do this thing—I’m such an idiot. I like to do this thing to Matt’s guitar tech Lucas, where for the last song of the night I’ll pitch my guitar all the way across the stage for him to catch. Nobody’s ever dropped it. It’s like a fight or flight thing I think. You have got to catch it. And he always catches it. Knock on wood. But I did it once with the Les Paul—which, again, is a heavy instrument to be heaving around. I just didn’t quite throw it hard enough. And Lucas really had to work to catch it. So I won’t do it. I won’t throw that one around anymore. My Telecaster is really light. I could throw it a country mile. It’s pretty easy to catch. But the Les Paul, it’s got the Bigsby hanging off of it, and it’s heavy, it’s just an awkward thing. It hits a terminal velocity and it’s comin’ at you pretty quick. That’s as precarious a position as it’s ever been in. It would probably just bust right through the floor of the stage. Sink like a stone.

What does it represent for you?

I got to a point in my career where I could buy that guitar. It represents achievement for me—more than awards or anything like that. It’s like, I worked hard enough to make enough money in my line of work, that I can own that now. When I look back at all my guitar cases before a gig or something, I’m like, “I bought that. I bought those because I got reasonably good at what I do for a living. And I get to play them all the time.” They’re not just hanging on my wall collecting dust—they’re tools that I use every day and I’m really proud of them. But that Les Paul, that was the dream guitar. The one I own is nothing, it’s not special, there’s nothing special about it. Except that I bought it with money that I earned. And you know, guess it’s those small victories that you have to take in this business. It feels good to strap that thing on every night and just beat the shit out of it. Because I can. I earned it.