Multi-Billionaire, Investor, Inventor, Microsoft Co-Founder Adds "Rock Star" to His Curriculum Vitae
June 20, 2016
Seated inside the blue lounge, a plush private space within Seattle’s EMP Museum, Paul Allen deftly lets loose a barrage of notes on the legendary 1968 Fender Stratocaster that Jimi Hendrix played at Woodstock. “Hey!” Allen exclaims with all the joy, wonder, and ebullience of a six-year-old boy getting a Batman accessory belt for Christmas. “The neck on this thing is amazing! It is just so buttery, smooth, and fast to play. Wow!”
Surprisingly, it’s the first time Allen has played the guitar since he purchased it in a private sale in 1993 for a reputed $1.3 million. The storied Strat is one of the crown jewels of the collection at the EMP (Experience Music Project) Museum, the landmark rock and roll/pop culture museum that Allen launched in 2000. Normally the guitar is handled only with curatorial white gloves, but hey, it’s Paul’s guitar and it’s Paul’s museum.
A fine guitarist in his own right, Allen knows that guitars are meant to be played. Even cultural icons like the Hendrix Strat are, after all, musical instruments, and as such they can, and perhaps even should, be brought out and played—under the right circumstances. That’s why Allen let Kenny Wayne Shepherd play the Woodstock Strat on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and at New York’s Beacon Theatre as part of the Experience Hendrix Tour in 2010. That’s why the good folks at EMP have kindly taken the instrument off exhibit for a Guitar Aficionado cover photo shoot and interview with Paul. We are not worthy.
“The last time I held this guitar, the original strings were still on it,” Allen recalls. “They were all rusty, and the guitar was strung upside down, the way Jimi played it, left handed. This is the first time I’ve held the guitar in playable condition, and wow, this neck is just incredible!”
The Woodstock Strat is undeniably one of our culture’s most potent symbols of rock music’s crazy, freak-flag freedom, which makes it a bit weird to see this iconic instrument in the hands of a 60-year-old man dressed in meticulously pressed business attire. Despite his conservative-looking exterior, though, Allen has never lost touch with his rock and roll heart.
Abundant proof of this is found on Everywhere at Once, the new Sony/Legacy studio album that Allen recently cut with his band, the Underthinkers. A stomping slab of classic rock seasoned with all the right blues and country overtones, the disc features guest spots by some of Allen’s many rock-star friends. They include Joe Walsh, Chrissie Hynde, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, Ivan Neville, ace session drummer Matt Chamberlain, and guitarist extraordinaire Doyle Bramhall II, who produced several tracks on the album and co-wrote a couple of them with Allen.
Working with a few other co-writers, including longtime Underthinkers music director John Bohlinger, Allen came up with the lion’s share of the album’s lyrics and melodies. Highlights include “Divine,” previously introduced to the public on the soundtrack to the film Magic Mike, and Allen’s lone solo composition, “Inside Out,” featuring a stunning solo by Derek Trucks. Allen also plays some pretty damned impressive guitar himself throughout.
“Making this album was fun and rewarding for me,” he says. “We came up with more than 70 songs over the last year and a half. I’ve been fortunate in my life to play with some of the greatest guitarists and rock and roll musicians ever. It was an amazing thrill to have some of them play on the album.”
To say that life has been good to Paul Allen is an understatement. He co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975 and currently heads Vulcan Inc., with holdings that include Ticketmaster and the Seattle Seahawks NFL, Portland Trail Blazers NBA, and Seattle Sounders MLS sports teams. He’s also put his money to good use as an active, generous, and engaged philanthropist through the Paul G. Allen Foundation. With an estimated net worth of approximately $15 billion, Allen was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World and consistently ranks near the top of the annual Forbes 400 list.
And yet he still finds time for rock and roll.
“How can you not?” he says.
Allen is a quiet, self-contained man. Crisp one-liners seem to be his preferred mode of humor. He possesses an air of easy, understated command, and the people around him seem finely attuned to his moods, wishes, and preferences. Glistening, immaculately clean steel-framed eyeglasses enhance an overall impression of fastidious precision, but at times Allen can also seem slightly uncomfortable inside his own body, not unlike most computer software mavens when confronted with phenomena outside the realm of binary codes and programming languages.
“In high school, two things were central to my interest,” he says. “One was programming, which I got completely hooked on. The other was guitar playing. I ended up following the gravitational pull of programming, which became my avocation, but I never stopped playing guitar. Throughout the years when we were getting Microsoft going, I would program until three in the morning. When I came home, I’d still have a bit of adrenaline, so I’d put on a record and start playing along with it. Back in those days, it might have been Bad Company or Ted Nugent or whoever. Slowly, I’ve gotten better over the years, and I still am getting better.”
Allen started playing violin as a child but switched to guitar as the rock explosion of the mid Sixties happened all around him. A girl he knew introduced him to a record by the Monkees and, a year later, to Are You Experienced, the debut album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
“That was a life-changing moment,” he says of his virgin Hendrix encounter. “I think I was 14 when I heard it. That was just music from another planet.”
After witnessing Hendrix in concert at the Seattle Center Coliseum on May 23, 1969, Allen cemented his Jimi fixation and lifelong obsession with the guitar. It was the first rock show he had ever attended. Throughout his teens, he worked his way through a few cheap acoustics and electrics purchased by his parents. He studied classical guitar in high school but also jammed on the blues with schoolmates. In college, he got his first fairly serious guitar, a Sixties Danelectro Guitarlin “longhorn” model 4123.
“I started playing with a roommate in college,” he recalls, “a guy named Mike Haspert, who sold me that Danelectro for 50 bucks. He carved the peace sign on the pickguard and shaved off some of the neck finish because he wanted to see how many layers of paint were on there. We’d try to figure out songs like ‘Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo’ and ‘Funk #49.’ This would have been, like, 1971 or ’72.”
A few years later, shortly after starting up Microsoft, Allen got his first Fender Stratocaster, the instrument that would become his destiny in many ways. “There used to be a bunch of pawn shops on First Avenue in Seattle,” he recalls. “Evidently, Hendrix would go there and look in the windows at the Strats and whatever guitars they had. I’d go there as a teenager and think, Wow, Hendrix used to look in the window here, and now I’m doing it. That’s what I thought of when I got my first Strat, a blond, probably in ’76 or ’77.”
Today, Allen owns quite a few truly incredible vintage Strats, but for day-to-day playing and work with his band, he prefers recent production-model Fender Vintage Hot Rod Series Strats with maple necks and either Van Zandt Vintage Plus or Seymour Duncan Classic Stack Plus STK-S4 pickups. When he does go vintage, one of his favorites is a Fiesta Red 1963 Strat with a rare mahogany body, which he purchased years ago in London. “I just bought it because it played great,” he says. “It’s only later that we discovered the mahogany body and its rarity.”
However, man does not live by Strats alone, particularly a man of Allen’s station in life, which is one reason why former Eurythmics guitarist and close friend Dave Stewart presented Allen with a 1960 Gretsch 6125 Anniversary. “Dave likes to play a lot of different guitars,” Allen says. “He felt I should try out a Gretsch because they sound so different than Strats. He said that I should have a broader palette of sounds, which is specifically why he gave me that guitar.”
Nancy Wilson also gifted Allen a Gretsch, this particular example being a lovely orange 1959 Chet Atkins 6119 Tennessean. “Nancy and Ann Wilson used a couple of my studios to record different parts on two different albums, so Nancy gave me that guitar as a thank you,” Allen says. “They were both gracious enough to play and sing on ‘Straw into Gold’ on my new album.”
Allen maintains a number of world-class private recording studios that enable him to make music whenever he’s in the various cities where he spends most of his time. When he’s not using those studios, he frequently shares them with his musical friends. These facilities include studios in Los Angeles and Seattle, plus a few home studios and fully rigged rooms on all three of his yachts. The queen of this triad is the 414-foot Octopus, ranked the world’s largest expedition superyacht and equipped with a pool, basketball court, two helicopters, and two submarines. An avid diver and science geek, Allen likes to explore the depths of the world’s oceans and seas.
The studio onboard Octopus is configured as a single room with a few iso booths but no separate control room. It’s based around the world’s largest SSL Axiom MT console—a 96-channel mainframe with a 16-channel SSL 9k sidecar—plus Pro Tools HD and a slew of vintage analog processing gear and microphones. Monitoring options include systems by PMC Loudspeakers, Dynaudio, and Adam, plus the usual array of Yamaha NS10Ms and Auratones. Instruments include a Hamburg Steinway B grand piano, a Hammond B3 organ, a full drum kit, and lots of plum guitars and amps. Paul is particularly fond of 18-watt Marshalls and the Line 6 DT25. He cut his guitar solo for “Big Blue Raindrops,” from his new album, on Octopus and wrote many of the album’s songs there.
“You can’t write a really angry song on a boat,” he says with a laugh. “It’s hard to be angry when you’re floating around the ocean in the sun, relaxing in the tropics. If you want to make an angry album, you’re probably best off in a dark basement, not a boat.”
Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson, Dave Stewart, Bono, and the Edge are among the musical artists who have cut tracks in Octopus’ onboard studio. The vessel has also been the site of many star-studded parties, such as Allen’s annual shindig at the Cannes Film Festival. The host and his band usually perform at these events; one of the recording studio’s walls retracts and the space becomes a supremely equipped stage facing out onto the main deck. It’s all very Austin Powers.
These shipboard parties are often also the sites of impromptu all-star jams. One of the perks of being host is that Allen has gotten to jam with luminaries such as Mick Jagger, Carlos Santana, Buddy Guy, Ron Wood, Steve Cropper, Dave Grohl, Derek Trucks, Bono, The Edge, and a long list of others.
“It’s an amazing privilege to jam with these artists,” he says. “Music just flows out of people like that. There’s so much experience there. I got to jam with Bono once in Monaco on a boat and once in Morocco. Bono and I have always enjoyed hanging out together and talking about different things. I introduced him to Bill Gates. They had a lot of philanthropic discussions together.”
Bono returned the favor by presenting Allen with one of his custom red-sparkle Gibson ES-175 guitars from U2’s 1997–’98 PopMart Tour. “He wanted to give me something that was hot off the road,” Allen relates. “Bono often says that there’s a song in every guitar. I think he wanted me to find my song in that guitar. I haven’t found it yet, but I will.”
When asked which legendary guitarist he was most nervous about jamming with, Allen’s thoughts go back to an evening with Carlos Santana at a cancer benefit. “Carlos said, ‘We’re gonna do ‘If 6 Was 9’ at the end, and you’ll come onstage and jam with me.’ Nobody in the crowd knew that I play at all. He called me up, we started trading licks, and he went into this unbelievable, blazing Carlos Santana solo. Then he looks over to me and says, ‘Now it’s your turn.’ I thought, Okay, there’s only one problem with this: I’m not Carlos Santana. This is the end of the jam! I just played a little ending riff or something, and we got out.”
Allen came away with quite a nice little souvenir from the evening: a beautifully inlaid, custom PRS Santana Dragon guitar that Carlos presented to him backstage. Which brings up an interesting point: what kind of guitar do you give a guy like Paul Allen, who already owns several of the most iconic guitars in rock and roll history, including not only Hendrix’s Woodstock Strat but also Eric Clapton’s Brownie Strat? Peter Gabriel did quite well with the 1953 Fender Esquire that he gave to Allen. George Harrison also made a noteworthy impression with a custom guitar by luthier Bernie Hamburger, one of the former Beatle’s favorite builders, who also made guitars for Carl Perkins, Mike Campbell, and Andy Summers, among others.
“Imagine this,” Allen says. “I’m sitting in my office in Bellevue, Washington, one day, and the secretary says, ‘There’s a George Harrison on the phone. Would you take the call?’ I thought, Yes, I’m going to take that call! And it was George. Another musician had recommended that he talk to me. It was when Apple Corps were trying to decide their online strategy, and he asked me for advice on that. I gave him a little bit of advice, and in return he sent me a guitar as a thank you. I got to meet him a couple of times, so that was really special. In the guitar case, he included some incense and a book of spiritual writing [Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi]. George was a very spiritual person.”
While it wasn’t a personal gift, the Hendrix Woodstock Strat resonates very deeply with Allen. It was one of the first objects that he acquired for EMP during very early planning stages for the museum. “When I found out that the Woodstock Strat was for sale, I just had to have it,” he says. “We also got some of Jimi’s stage outfits and a black 1955 Les Paul Custom of his that [guitarist] Larry Lee played with Jimi at Woodstock. Then we acquired Brownie, the Strat that Clapton played on ‘Layla,’ from Eric’s first auction benefiting his Crossroads charity.”
Allen purchased Brownie on June 24, 1999, for $497,500, the highest auction price ever paid for a guitar at that time, although that benchmark was eventually surpassed in 2004 and has since been beaten several times over. In making the winning bid at the 1999 Crossroads auction, held at Christie’s in New York, EMP’s then-curator Peter Blecha exceeded the limit Allen had given him, but he was forgiven.
With high-profile acquisitions like these, Allen suddenly stepped into the limelight as a well-heeled and highly motivated guitar collector. “For me, the collection part of it is more about finding things to support the museum,” he says. “I’ve also had some amazing guitars given to me by legendary musicians. Unlike probably most of this magazine’s readership, I’m not really a guitar collector. I collect a lot of other things, like art and World War II airplanes, so I know the difference. Once you start collecting, whether it’s Impressionists, Moderns, or anything else, there’s always one more to buy, whether it’s the one that got away or the one that might be better than what you already have. There are things of amazing rarity in art, like a Seurat or a Monet. Some painters didn’t paint that many pictures, so you’re very lucky if you can own even just one of their works.
“But there is a similarity between collecting guitars and art,” Allen continues. “You shouldn’t buy a guitar or a painting that doesn’t speak to you in some way. Once you get too deep into collecting for the sake of collecting, I don’t think that same feeling of deep personal connection is there. It may become more of a ritual than something that speaks to your soul. With a lot of art, you can see it for the hundredth or thousandth time and it still speaks to you. It’s the same thing with a guitar that you like to play. I can go back and play that Woodstock Strat right now. And wow, it’s speaking to me!”