One of my personal favourite bands in recent years has been The Shins, in no small part due to the amazing talent of frontman James Mercer.
As well as being, in my opinion, one of the finest lyricists of his, or any, generation, Mercer is a very gifted songwriter and skilled multi-instrumentalist.
Although the lead guitar sounds of the Shins often belong to Dave Hernandez and his Guild S-100, or lately Jessica Dobson and her Fender Elvis Costello signature Jazzmaster (below), Mercer is heavily associated with his own guitars, and they make up an important part of his personal sound, as well as the soundscapes of the Shins records.
Gibson Les Paul Special.
This has been James’ main guitar for the past few years and tours with The Shins, starting in 2007. A double-cutaway Les Paul Special. Likely a modern reissue from the early 2000’s judging by the body dimensions, pickup spacing and Tune-O-Matic + wraparound bridge combination.
This example is in TV yellow, a colour reportedly developed by Gibson because it looked white on black-and-white TV, without causing the camera glare their white finishes did!
On comedian Marc Maron’s podcast WTF with Marc Maron, James talked about loving the sound of P90 pickups, a fact many of his guitar selections support.
Heavily used by James for a long time.
“Recently I’ve learned that James has an equal fondness for both his Les Paul Junior (I believe that’s what it is) and his Guild Starfire. Possibly troubling to him.” – Joe Plummer (Shins drummer), ‘Drowned in Sound’ interview*
The “Les Paul Junior” to which he refers may be a mistaken reference to the LP Special, or it may refer to some of the following…
James’ main acoustic guitar. He has used this guitar on countless Radio and TV appearances, solo shows in support of Shins albums, and with Broken Bells.
Harmony Silvertone Stratotone.
The first guitar James ever bought with his own money.
During an appearance on 360 sessions **, James gave a small tour of his home studio, and showed some of his guitars. I cannot identify the guitar on the right, though other images of it show that the heastock bears a sticker which reads “Del Rock”, but the one on the left is a Harmony Silvertone, which I have heard referred to as both a Jupiter and a Stratotone. The bridge is non-original (and very similar to one I talked about in an earlier post about Elvis Costello’s Jazzmasters), and interestingly enough, although Jessica Dobson played a similar silvertone on tour with the Shins, it didn’t have this bridge (this can also be seen in the same 360 sessions.)
Les Paul Special.
Owned by James and used as his main guitar for a while, before being essentially replaced by the yellow double-cut in 2007. This is a single cut, in a red finish. It can be seen in a lot of 2006 appearances with The Shins, as well as the video clip for ‘Saint Simon’. Photos of Mercer’s studio in Portland in 2016 seem to suggest he still owns this guitar.
Green Vintage Airline.
‘This is an old Airline guitar that I got at a pawn shop in Albuquerque for 40 bucks. I think I tried to talk the guy down even lower, but he was like “Come on man, it’s 40 bucks.” It was a very cheap guitar. It was designed for kids to… ruin basically. And it sounds great. ‘ – James Mercer, 360 Sessions: The Shins .
There are a few images of this one in James’ home studio, and he’s been using it on tour with Broken Bells.
Then there are some oddities. Guitars with pictorial evidence that James has used, but which don’t necessarily seem to have belonged to him.
Gibson Les Paul Junior.
All footage and photos of James using this guitar seems to come from the same session for KEXP radio, so it could well be a borrowed instrument, but it does seem to foreshadow the double-cut special in TV yellow which he would acquire later. And remember Joe Plummer’s quote about the Les Paul Junior from earlier? Maybe there’s more to this one than pictorial evidence suggests.
Gibson SG Special.
All the images of James playing this SG seem to date (by clothes) to the same concert, so I presume it was borrowed, perhaps after a broken string.
Again, this guitar seems to have only been used at the one performance. I don’t recognise the band either, so perhaps it is another instance of borrowing.
In any case, the guitar appears to be a heavily reliced Fender Telecaster to 50’s specs in butterscotch blonde with a single ply black scratchplate.
At the time of writing, The Shins Instagram has been full of images from new recording sessions, so the future looks exciting!
* You can find the interview at http://drownedinsound.com/in_depth/4144596-the-shins–introducing-the-band