The "Black Betty" Les Paul story

April 17, 2020

For years, people have been posting off and on about the video for the song "Black Betty" by the group Ram Jam, wondering what the guitar was the the lead vocalist/guitarist was playing. After much digging, I was able to get in contact with the man himself, Bill Bartlett, who had a land line phone, and was not really into surfing the internet. Once I was able to get in touch with Bill, he was extremely helpful, telling me the entire story of his guitar, and also having a friend take digital pictures and sending them to me. Below are the video for "Black Betty," and the original unabridged question and response from my Ask Zac column in Vintage Guitar Magazine, followed by photos of the guitar in its current state.

I recently saw an old clip of the band Ram Jam playing their hit “Black Betty” and am trying to figure out what kind of guitar he is playing. Searching on the interwebs, people seem to think it is some type of modified ‘70s Les Paul, or an Ibanez. So what is it? Jan Anders

It took some digging, but we tracked down lead guitarist & vocalist, Bill Bartlett to get the full story of the guitar. According to Bill, the guitar started its life as a 1954 Les Paul gold top with a wrap tail bridge and P90’s, serial # 4 0755. It was in mint condition when he bought it, trading a 1956 Esquire plus $50 to make the deal. The instrument was used heavily and soon would begin getting modified, and having necessary repairs performed on it. First off, Bill did what was then a common modification, he took some woodworking chisels, routed out the pickup cavities, and installed a set of patent # humbucking pickups. The P90’s were donated to another project he was undertaking, converting a Mosrite 12/6 to an octave/6 like his hero Joe Maphis used. The next modification was the gold finish that was oxidizing. Bartlett indicated “The gold on the Paul started to look green, so I removed the paint, only to find a really ugly maple top made of many pieces.” He then went about removing the maple top, making a jig so he could make a replacement of the same dimensions, but with “birdseye maple similar to what Paul Bigsby used in the 1950s.” A repair was also in order, as Bill had been inducing feedback by pushing his Les Paul’s headstock against his Marshall, a la Jeff Beck, and in the process had cracked the headstock. Bill decided to address this by removing the damaged portion of the headstock wings, and adding his own, then shaping them to give the Gibson more of a Mosrite flair. He also inlaid abalone in the headstock, added a first fret marker, and replaced the rest of the inlays in the fretboard with abalone. Next, he decided to add a gold tailpiece, an Alembic brass bridge that he bought from their factory, gold stairstep tuners and changed the pickups to gold “Gibson” embossed humbuckers. This is the instrument that is seen in the “Black Betty” video. In the process of sharing about the guitar, Bartlett also had some interesting tidbits to share about his amps, the video for “Black Betty,” and the negative response he received from the NAACP about the song. First off he indicated that he used a “white knob Fender Twin into a Marshall 4-12, or a 2-12 Marshall combo,” and that “in the video, I am the only person who had anything to do with the recording of the song.” He also wanted to share that “To me, Black Betty was about Bettie Page. She always wore black, and I loved the pin-up of her with the black whip.” After Ram Jam ran its course, Bartlett changed the pickups to Carvin M22 pickups, moved the pickup selector switch to where the neck pickup tone control was, and added 3 mini toggles to split coils for each pickup, and for polarity reversal “to get that tone like Mickey Baker got on Love is Strange.”

The "Black Betty" guitar as it is today.

The re-worked headstock

Note Carvin pickup, and Alembic bridge. Bill added: "the single knob on the guitar is a master volume control. Eddie Van Halen influence."

Bill added; "Also, maybe obvious, the single knob on the guitar is a master volume control. Eddie Van Halen influence. I have to add that my favorite guitarists are Cliff Gallup, Scotty Moore, James Burton, Joe Maphis and the King of them all: Danny Gatton whose talents were/are beyond description. Maybe outside the scope of your article, but I had to mention those players."