There are nerds (or geeks) and there are guitar nerds (or geeks) and gear-heads and guitar fetishists were drooling in the first few minutes of Jim Jarmusch’s ultra-cool take on the vampire movie, Only Lovers Left Alive. Jarmusch is no traditionalist – although the movie does ooze retro/historical appeal – but what he does do is stuff his cinematic efforts with the things he loves. And in this style-over-substance tale of artistic undead lovers (not much plot to speak of but oh, what style!) music pervades.
The protagonist, Adam (Tom Hiddleston), is a musician; the soundtrack is supplied by Jarmusch’s own band Sqürl (drone-y post-rock), Jack White’s house gets a drive-by (they just drive past it, they don’t shoot it up), and one early scene features perhaps the best vintage guitar porn since Nigel Tufnel asked us not to even look at his sea foam green Fender Bass VI. Adam’s human familiar, a long-haired stoner called Ian who procures Adam’s every whim while simultaneously ripping him off, supplies him with a bouquet of 50s and 60s instruments which would leave any axe merchant in the auditorium with a damp seat. To be honest, because of age, provenance and the fact that some of them started out as cheapo starter guitars, they’re probably not all that playable but that’s not the point. The point is to establish Adam’s image early on with a selection of kitschy, cheesy, effortlessly cool six-stringed accessories; as follows…
Supro Dual Tone 1959
Valco was a fairly anonymous company that manufactured guitars and amplifiers under a variety of brand names, including Supro. The Dual Tone in the film has a perfect-looking finish (probably restored) and is the guitar we see Adam recording with a little later on. Supro were never the highest quality instruments, offering 50s space age looks for low prices although if you try to buy one these days, expect to pay four figures.
Also perceived as a cheap’n’cheerful manufacturer, the Swedish Hagström did for the European market what Supro offered the States: ultra-modernistic designs at a reasonable price. Hagström used to be accordion makers before realizing in the 50s that there might be more money to be made in electric guitars. Quaintly, they continued to use their accordion sparkle/pearloid celluloid lacquer on their guitar bodies – as Adam says reverently in the film, “Mother-of-toilet-seat.”
Early 60s Silvertone
Silvertone is the brand name for sound equipment sold by the Sears, Roebuck & Co catalogs and department stores. They started with a phonograph in 1915 and later moved into musical instruments. Cheap but well-made (for the price) Silvertones were a great ‘first guitar’ and have had a lot of famous fans, including Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Jack White, Beck, Pete Townshend, and Bon Iver. Several manufacturers were enlisted to make the Sears range including Valco, but Adams’ Silvertone comes with the amplifier built into the case and was probably made by Danelectro; original retail price: $67.95, price today: maybe ten times that.
Gretsch ‘Chet Atkins’ 6120 double cutaway
This is the high quality instrument in the blood-drinker’s collection. Gretsch made (and make) top line hollow body electric guitars used by everyone from Eddie Cochran to George Harrison to Malcolm Young. The company produce a range of guitars endorsed by Nashville country picker, Chet Atkins (or at least, he endorsed them while he was alive…) and with the Bigsby tremolo and the Filter´Tron pickups it’s a twangy beast. Vampire rockabilly, anyone?