Even though Ronnie Van Zant wrote and sung the line “Handguns are made for killin’, ain’t no good for nothin’ else,” his younger bro Donnie started a band that ended up being named after a handgun. And that band (.38 Special) produced some great stuff tunes in the ’80s, not all of which were the southern pop-rock hits that made it to the radio.
The band was helped by something in short supply these days – really good musicians. Singer and rhythm/intro solo guitarist Don Barnes had (has) a great voice and was a great guit-slinger, and lead guitarist Jeff Carlisi had his own voice on the instrument.
He probably suffered a bit popularity-wise from not being fast and flashy in the “we all wanna sign bands with fleet-fingered guitarists” ’80s, but you could hum, sing and actually figure out his leads, which – just like the band’s tunes – were instantly recognizable.
Here’s what Jeff said about that, from this interview:
The main thing is to have a style or approach to your instrument that is unique to yourself. If you try to emulate what anybody else is doing, then you’re going to fail. What separates you from everybody else is something that nobody is doing. You’ve got to be true to your roots.
I’m by no means the best guitar player around, but I’m confident in making a statement with my instrument. Nobody out there plays like me, good or bad, whether you like it or not, there’s nobody that does it the way I do.
Part of making a style that’s recognizable is how you take the instrument you’re familiar with and do your best on it.
Although I couldn’t find an instance of where he outright said it, Jeff seems to have been heavily influenced by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
He grew up in Florida, and was one of the few “outsiders” to gain regular admittance to Skynyrd’s infamous “Hell House” rehearsal space, according to Ed King (note the story at that link about brewing psychedelic tea from cow crap mushrooms, then rehearsing).
Not only that, the Hamer-looking Rhyne Explorer Jeff used all the time back in the day “was patterned after Allen Collins’ original Gibson Explorer” (built by Atlanta luthier Jay Rhyne), according to Jeff’s official website. But when you see the specs of that guitar below, it’s not much like a Gibson….
Finally, he used Peavey Mace amps, just like the Skynyrd boys.
So here’s his signal chain, from Jeff’s website:
> Rhyne Custom Explorer – Solid maple body [heavy!], presumably a Brazilian rosewood board since the inlaid pickguard is made out of that wood, Dunlop jumbo frets, MOP hawk inlays in fretboard. DiMarzio Dual Sound in the bridge (Dual Sound is a coil-splittable Super Distortion) and a Super Distortion in the neck, Bournes pots.
> That was his primary studio guitar, along with a stock ’69 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe (Gold Top), used for the solos in “Hold on Loosely,” “Caught Up in You,” “Fantasy Girl,” “Rockin’ Into the Night,” “Like No Other Night,” and “Back Where You Belong.”
> String gauges (no brand listed): .010, .013, .016, .028, .036, .042
> Studio: MXR 10-band graphic EQ.
> Live: Boss Chorus, Boss Delay.
> Studio: Peavey Mace VT series (160w, six 6L6 power tubes, solid-state preamp), Marshall 4×12 slant cab with four 25w Celestion Greenbacks.
> Live: Same head, Marshall 4×12 straight cab with four K series JBL speakers [loud!].
More: Jeff’s Influences
From the above-linked article:
“My influences as a songwriter are the same people I listen to as a guitar player,” – the Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, Jerry Reed, Ry Cooder and Creedence Clearwater Revival. “People ask me ‘who are your influences as a guitarist?’ I think those people influence the playing style and that in turn affects the way you write songs.
“I think the one band that I owe the most credit to as far as really hitting my stride as a songwriter, especially when .38 Special started becoming successful in the early 80’s, was the Cars. I really owe Ric Ocasek a lot of credit as far as enlightening me into how you can create something different, very original and unique – that when you hear it on the radio for the first time it’s like ‘whoa, it’s that band.’ Some people say, ‘As soon as I hear your songs on the radio I know that it is .38 Special because nobody else does it that way.’”
More: Don Barnes Gear Info
> Don Barnes was never seen without his ’50s Les Paul Junior routed for a humbucker. Some have said the humbucker was a Super Distortion but he had a selector switch on a single-hum guitar so I’m betting it was a Dual Sound as well. Could not find info on his amp setup.
Here’s one with Don tearing it up, Donnie on vox.