Kiefer Sutherland: The Gibson Interview

Kiefer Sutherland had more than 50 films to his credit when he created the iconic character of Jack Bauer on the hit television series 24. Regarded as one of the finest actors of his generation, Sutherland has distinguished himself with his ability to inhabit and dedicate himself to a role. It is with this same passion that he approaches the guitar. A lifelong player, Sutherland has channeled his love for music into championing the players he most admires. With his Ironworks studio in Los Angeles, Sutherland has nurtured the careers of such talented performers as Rocco DeLuca, Jude Cole, Ron Sexsmith, and Mozella. 

A dedicated fan of all things guitar, Kiefer has amassed an incredible collection of vintage Gibsons. Drawing on favorite aspects of these incredible instruments, Kiefer worked with the luthiers of the Custom Shop to design a stunning Inspired By model, based on a Custom CS-336 that he fell in love with. Throughout the process, Sutherland was humble and enthusiastic, dedicated to working with Gibson Custom to design a guitar that would draw on some of the greatest Gibsons of all time, while appealing to players of all ages and skill levels. The result is the beautiful and distinctive KS-336, a unique addition to the Inspired By series. 

“I’m the guy who is playing for the joy of it, for the pleasure,” Sutherland says. “When all the professional musicians leave my studio, late at night, that is when I go in with one light on, and get lost playing for hours, because I love it.” 

How did the process of developing the KS-336 with the Custom Shop come about?

At Ironworks, we have an amazing relationship with Gibson that just kind of developed. I think at one point we had a couple of guitars that were used on 24. Somebody found out that I had a collection and we just started talking about the different guitars that I’ve got, which are primarily Gibsons—numbering close to 60 of them (laughs)

One of the guitars that Gibson sent me to try out was a CS-336, which I really love. One of the things that I found so amazing about the guitar is that it had a lot of the characteristics of a Les Paul, and a lot of the characteristics of a 335, which I think are uniquely different guitars. It sustained like a Les Paul, and yet it had the range of a 335, and it was lightweight, and it was in this small package. I thought, “This might be the perfect utilitarian guitar.” If you were gonna have just one guitar, you could actually turn this into the perfect guitar that could allow you to do so many diverse things. 

Working on my other guitars, I fell in love with the ’57 Classic pickup. And I had a ’68 335 that had this unbelievable weird gold patina to it, where all the cherry paint had come off and it had come down to the primer. I think it had been left in the sun in a store window forever, for 15 years. And I thought, wouldn’t a 336 with all this be cool? So I started talking to the folks at Gibson about it, and they I think they, in their mind, had already actually put the guitar together. And I think because I called them, they let me put my name on it (laughs), which was really gracious, really gracious. 

You have a pretty incredible collection of vintage Gibsons. Any favorites?

I have a ’59 Les Paul, which is obviously the top of the collection. It has one of the most beautiful flames. I’ve got 335s, 345s, five mint ’50s Les Paul Juniors, TV Yellows and Sunbursts, Les Paul Specials, a Firebird which is totally original, a huge collection of SGs, which is one of my favorite guitars as well. I have a really rare early ’60s burgundy sparkle SG Junior. That thing screams. And you know what? That 336 keeps up just fine. And there is something just so beautiful about that guitar. 

Me and a photographer friend of mine, who does so much music stuff, were taking pictures of it, and he said it was one of the most beautiful guitars he had ever seen. Just the breaking down of the patina in the gold paint that the guys at the Custom Shop did—and I know it took them forever to master that—is just something else. It stands out in the context of the collection, and it stands out when other guitar players come into the room. It is one of the first guitars that they pick up. 

What started you off on collecting?

I started collecting because I had a couple friends, Jude Cole and Ron Aniello, who were incredible guitar players who had no money. They were dead broke, and they just didn’t have the guitars they should have had to tour with. So I picked up a couple of things, a Les Paul and a Junior that I really liked, and I had an old 335 that I lent them. So I was just collecting these guitars, and I would lend them to them. And these guys had a lot of pride, so they wouldn’t take anything. But I would say, “You guys need to borrow this, take it on tour, and bring it back.” 

And they managed to hold on to them, and they made a few records with them, and both these guys did really well. And Jude was the first one to call back and say, “Hey I’ve got all these guitars that are yours, do you want ’em back?” And I said, “Yeah!” So he gave them back, and Ron gave them back, and I realized I had two or three racks of guitars! But it was a disorganized collection. There would be an Explorer, and a Les Paul, and a 335. And I thought, “Well, all I need is two more Juniors and I could fill that rack of six with Juniors that would be mint!” (laughs) And so I got those, and then Jude came into the studio one day and picked up one of the Les Paul Juniors and said, “That is one of the best playing guitars I have ever seen.” And so then I got competitive with him and his collection, and he with me, and that is when the whole thing just went all to hell. (laughs)

I’m still always looking for beautiful old Les Pauls and Les Paul Juniors. I love Les Paul Specials, TV Yellow ones, and 335s. I’ve got one 335, it is probably one of the most valuable guitars in the collection; it’s a rare ’58 with an unbound neck. It is just a stunner guitar. Dark sunburst, so stunning, and it just resonates. 

See, that’s what is amazing about PAFs. I’ve got the ’59 Les Paul and the 335—I think they are the only two guitars I have with original PAFs—and they’ve got more body and depth to them than any pickup in anything else. But they are so uniquely different. The characteristics of how the PAFs respond to the semi-hollowbody of the 335 and the solid body of the Les Paul change the dynamics extraordinarily. That’s a real tribute to the making of these guitars. 

You’re recognized as one of the most popular actors of your generation. How do you balance that with being a musician? 

Well, you know what? I’m a bigger fan of musicians than I am a musician. I wouldn’t want to go toe-to-toe with a guitar player like Jude, but I love playing. 

One of the interesting things for me about making a guitar is that I’ve got a couple of guitars that, for various reasons, a serious player would love, but for a real recreational player, and for someone who just wants to fit into a guitar, they are hard for me to work with. And so when I wondered, “Why would I be someone Gibson would ever talk to about designing a guitar?” I came to the conclusion that I’m the guy who buys guitars. I’m the guy who is playing for the joy of it, for the pleasure. 

When all the professional musicians leave my studio, late at night, that is when I go in with one light on, and I can get lost playing for hours, because I love it. Not because I am trying desperately to write a hit, or because I am under this kind of pressure to finish a session, but simply because I love it. 

So there are certain characteristics for me that I find when I am looking for a guitar, that I started to notice professional guitar players weren’t really looking for. I was looking for necks that weren’t as fat, and middle-sized frets that I can still really bend the note on, but were not gonna put me out of tune when I was playing a lot of chords. So it was a balance of all these things. That’s why I say utilitarian. We were trying to make this perfect utilitarian guitar that I could play from the time I was 12 years old and absolutely have for my entire life and progress with. 

See, I first started to play guitar I was about 12 years old. Unfortunately, I was about 18 years old when I ran into Jude Cole and a bunch of those guys and realized I was never gonna be able to play like that. But I haven’t stopped trying (laughs)

So this guitar, for me, and why I’m really proud to have been a part of it, is because it really represents a guitar that a professional can pick up and play, and absolutely manipulate and use to its highest performance, and someone like me can pick up and play, and its gonna fit me, and its gonna feel comfortable, and I’m gonna be able to work that guitar without the kind of duress of some other guitars. I’ve got an Explorer that some players absolutely love, but it has got the fattest neck. I mean, it is fat as a baseball bat. And that is really hard for someone who isn’t as confident to work with. So there is a balance of all these attributes with the 336, and I really do think that matters. 

Who inspired you to start playing?

Oh, I would have to say Jimmy Page. I had an older brother, so most of the music I had listened to, whether it was the Beatles or Elton John, were old records of my brother’s that he would let me have when I was a kid. It wasn’t until I heard the first Led Zeppelin record—and 12 was the perfect age to hear it—where it just made you want to fight everything (laughs). So I remember that, and I also remember Tom Scholz from Boston. He had a sound that I remember just being amazed by, just how powerful it was, how one guitar could carry an entire tune like that. People were creating these signature sounds with these guitars. And I was a huge fan of Angus Young, and T. Rex as well. There were an awful lot of players that I loved, and they always had an edgier, dirtier sound. 

Did you have a specific guitarist moment, when you realized, “Hey, I’m good at this”? 

Yeah, it was with the first Jimi Hendrix song I learned to play. It was either “Little Wing” or “Wind Cries Mary,” one of the two. That impressed my classmates for a moment. That was the first time I remember playing something and thinking, “Oh, this is going to be all right.” But see, my biggest problem, what hurt me the most—and I wished I had just tried instead of being embarrassed—was that I can’t sing, but I wouldn’t even really try to. So I would learn half-songs, till I got bored, because what is the point of playing the verse three times if you’re not gonna sing it? (laughs) So to anybody out there who is trying to learn, I truly suggest it. No matter how bad you think you sing—detune the guitar if you have to, get in a really low register—but play the song all the way through. 

Your parents are both actors. Is there something about playing music that feels like it is more your own?

Absolutely. I was raised in a very creative environment, but acting was not something I wanted to do. Even though I had started in the theater at a very early age, I wanted to do something that was going to be mine. I loved being able to put together three or four chords, and put together a song, and put down some words. I loved that. But again, I didn’t sing, and there were points in my studying of guitar where it got very hard, and that’s the point when the great guitar players push through it. And I would get distracted by a girl, and I never finally got where I wanted to be. Also, when I hear some of these amazing guitar players, there is a God-given talent there that may not have been bestowed on me (laughs). But it wasn’t for a lack of really loving it. When I see the sacrifice that great guitarists have made to really understand music on the level that they do, and to be able to play that instrument the way that they do, my respect is the deepest in the world. 

So who would you rather be for a day, John Lennon or James Dean?

Oh man, I’d rather be John Lennon, easy. Without hesitation. James Dean needed a crew of 90 people and a script to make a film. And John Lennon only needed a guitar to make a song. And the song could get written in a day, and recorded in a day, and the film would take you 50 days. So if I only had a day, John Lennon. 

All right, then: Beatles or the Stones?

For me, the Beatles. For the craftsmanship and the impact they made on music—on a lot of different genres of music as well. But man, you’re asking me to pick between two of the greatest bands of all time! There was just something about the combination of Lennon and McCartney that was a magical thing. It was lyrical, their voices were incredible, and it just affected me in a different way than the Stones do. The Stones for me are really visceral. Like, if I’m sitting in a bar—which happens (laughs)—and I hear a Stones song, that’ll get me moving. Absolutely. But I could drive across the country and listen to The White Album the entire way, and try to figure out what they hell they were thinking, and how they got into a position to write the songs they wrote.