Thursday, January 17, 2008

Impossible Objects....

If you were to try to buy any of the guitars described below you would find them all extremely expensive. I am not, however, so much interested in the monetary value; what holds my attention is not the 7 figure price tags dangling from them. Rather, it is how these instruments seem to embody a certain moment in 20th Century popular music, from the mid 1960s through the mid 1970s, that era in which the electric guitar rose to dominate, for better and worse, what rock and roll meant.

And it had to be the guitar. In early rock and roll the guitar wrestled with the piano and the saxophone for standing as the primary musical voice. But you can't toss a piano in the car or over your shoulder, and you can't play the sax and sing. Besides, both sax and piano meant lessons, and learning to read music, and months, or even years, before you became competent as a player. While that was necessary to work inside the complexities of jazz or classical music, rock and roll was emerging as a much simpler musical form, one that stressed the rhythm over the melody. Three chords and a basic understanding of how to tune the thing and in a matter of weeks you could have your own repertoire.

No matter what clever electronic devices show up, now or in the future, it is hard to imagine anything replacing the visceral experience of being fourteen and sweeping your hand across the strings of a $100 worth of a cheap electric guitar and an amplifier cranked up to create some distortion. In that noise, in those harmonic overtones and the squeal of feedback, there is some murky affective understanding of everything that's ever happened or ever will happen. For a culture like ours, one so openly hostile to history, it may be where we've hidden history until we grow out of those fears.

What I am interested in is looking at the individual guitars that seem to hold some collective sense of that inside them. Historically important, associated with musicians who have written chapters of their own in rock music history texts. The whole concept of "best guitar player" is a trap; there are more great guitar players out there today than ever before (click on the Scotty Anderson link). Guitar playing is like a virus that runs rampant through virtually every culture on the planet. The players below occupy positions of historical importance for various reasons, many having to do with being in the right time at the right place. I don't make any case for them as "best"; in many instances they don't even make my own personal list of favorites, for whatever that's worth. But anyone who has ever been moved by their playing must feel a certain twinge of desire at the idea of possessing these objects; letting your hand run over the strings, up and down the neck, as if, whenever time travel becomes possible, it will involve some incantation mumbled over a totem object like one of these.

#1 "Blackie"

In 1970 Eric Clapton went into a guitar shop in Nashville, Tennessee and bought six vintage Stratocaster guitars for a hundred dollars each. After giving one each to George Harrison, Pete Townshend, and Steve Winwood, he took the best parts of the remaining three (built in 1956 and 1957) and assembled "Blackie," so named for its black finish. It's this guitar, pictured above on the cover of his greatest hits album, Timepieces, that holds the current record for a historically important guitar sold at auction, bringing $959,500 in the Christie's Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Auction.* That auction, held to raise funds for Clapton’s treatment center, exceeded the expectations of all involved.

Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Lenny" received the second highest price ever paid for a Fender Stratocaster at auction, fetching $623,500. A new world record was also set for the sale of a Gibson guitar - Clapton's 1964 red Gibson ES-335 brought $847,500. It is almost impossible not to view these prices as an attempt by the wealthiest people of my generation to buy back some pieces of their youth. It is hard to avoid the argument that the generation who shouted the loudest about the trap of materialism is now trying so desperately to reconstruct some sort of lost authentic self from the materials of their past.

But, I digress.

At an earlier auction, when Clapton first decided to sell his guitar collection to fund his drug treatment center, his sunburst 1956 Stratocaster, the guitar that graces the cover of what many believe to be his best album, Layla, set the then-record for $497,500. At the same auction his 1958 Gibson Explorer, perhaps the rarest guitar offered and one featured with Clapton in photographs and advertisements, sold for $150,000. That may sound like quite a lot of money, and it is quite a lot of money, but the Explorer would have sold for that price had it belonged to me, while a 1956 Strat that never belonged to Eric Clapton might bring $50,000-$75,000 at auction.


I think it is the combination of Clapton's place in the popular pantheon of rock guitarists, plus his identification with the Fender Stratocaster, plus the association of the specific instrument with a segment of Clapton's career. The interaction of those three elements seems to produce these results. Given that, and the continual explosion of high-end collector prices, I would not be surprised to see a seven figure price tag dangling from the headstock of the Layla Strat should it come up for auction again.

#2 "Tiger"

The sale of Clapton’s black Strat broke the record that had been set a short time before by the sale of a guitar built by Doug Irwin for Grateful Dead guitarist, Jerry Garcia. That guitar, nicknamed “Tiger” after the inlaid tiger on the top and played by Garcia for 11 years, sold for $957,500 to Jim Irsay, the owner of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts.

Part of the value of those guitars is not only the fact that Clapton and Garcia - rock guitarists who have attracted sizable bodies of guitar mythology - owned them, but that they were played prominently and over a long period of time within those respective careers. When you listen to the Grateful Dead, if you listen to the Grateful Dead, or download a video off Youtube the odds favor that you will be listening to this one particular guitar. Irsay, who bought the guitar, also paid $2.5 million for the original "scroll" manuscript of Jack Kerouac's novel, On the Road; in addition to other guitars and objects, it is as if he is trying to create a private counter culture theme park in his Carmel, IN, mansion.

What's also interesting is the degree to which we mistakenly locate the origin of the distinctive tone of each player with the instrument, rather than the player and the unique and singular touch he brings to the guitar. This is demonstrated very well in this video of a jam session at a Mill Valley bar from the late 1980s. The crowded little stage has Commander Cody, Sammy Hagar, James Burton, Elvis Costello and Jerry Garcia. Garcia is playing what I assume is Costello's Fender Jaguar through a borrowed amp and manages to sound exactly like he did when he played the guitar pictured above. In other words - he manages to sound exactly like himself, regardless of the instrument.

#3 "Jimi's Woodstock Strat"

There are photos of Jimi Hendrix playing a variety of electric guitars throughout his too-short career but, like Clapton, he is most closely associated with the Fender Stratocaster, favoring right-handed models he would play upside down (like in the photo above).

Unlike Clapton or Garcia, Jimi was also known for smashing his guitars or setting them on fire on stage and no one guitar survived long enough to have the same lengthy associations as “Blackie” or “Tiger.” Perhaps the most important of Jimi’s Strats to survive intact is the white model he played at the Woodstock festival in 1969. The last public sale of this guitar was for $325,000 to an Italian collector. It was resold privately to Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen and is now displayed in his Seattle rock museum.

As I write this there is a similar white Fender Stratocaster leaning against the couch across from my desk, but, even if it were the same year as Jimi's, even if it were one digit in a serial number apart, it would remain a thoroughly impotent object. I doubt that I'll ever have the chance to hold Paul Allen's guitar in my hands, but I suspect one of two things would happen. Either I would be shocked by the power of the object - an effect like teleportation, suddenly standing on stage on Sunday morning in August 1969, playing the National Anthem - or, more likely, I would be shocked by the failure of the object to deliver on that imagined promise. I secretly suspect it would feel small and cold in my hands, even though I want to believe otherwise.

#4 "Old Black"

"Old Black" is the nickname given to Neil Young's 1953 Gibson Les Paul, originally a gold top that was painted black decades ago and whose distinctive squeal is, in part, due to a Gibson Firebird pick-up set in the treble position. On the collector's market a damaged and worn, repainted 1953 gold top missing its original pickups would likely have a value well under $10,000. Should this guitar ever be sold however, a price well in excess of $1 million would result from that combination of Young's artistic gravitas and the prominent role this one guitar has played for over twenty years of records and tours.

#5 "Jimmy Page's 1958 and 1959 Sunburst Les Pauls"

The most sought and valuable solid body electric guitar in the world is the Les Paul Standard model produced from 1958 to 1960.** These guitars all have a book-matched carved maple top finished in a "sunburst" (the color is darker around the edges and gets lighter as it nears the center) finish. Some maple is highly figured and produces an almost 3-D illusion of "flames" or of tiger stripes in the wood. On the collector market a price difference in six figures can result between two otherwise identical guitars if one has a highly figured top.

On their early tours and on the first Led Zeppelin album, Jimmy Page played the Fender Telecaster guitar that he'd played in The Yardbirds. But by the time of the second record this had been replaced by a 1958 Les Paul. Some time later Page was given a second Les Paul, a 1959 model, by guitarist Joe Walsh. These two guitars would be his primary instruments during his time in Led Zeppelin. The value of the Page and Zeppelin connection is added to the starting price of somewhere between a quarter and a half million dollars each guitar would have if it were owned by you or me. Who knows what a well-heeled Zeppelin fan might be willing to pay to play a classic Page riff on one of these guitars? No doubt it will be something that one of Jimmy's heirs will get to find out.

Pictured at the beginning of this post if Page playing his Gibson SG twelve/six string double neck guitar, both fitted with two humbuckers. The guitar Jimmy played on stage every time Led Zeppelin played "Stairway to Heaven." The link to that particular song could quite possibly push this guitar into seven figure territory as well.

#6 "Duane Allman's 1958 Dark Burst Les Paul"

The Allman Brothers Band had a fuller sound than most bands of their era, something they achieved by having two drummers and two lead guitarists. The twin guitar leads of Dickie Betts and Duane Allman provide the band its identity, especially live. Duane Allman is credited with introducing a style of single-note electric slide guitar playing, and the tone he achieved with that was due, in part, to the fat humbucker pick-up sound of his two vintage Les Pauls.

Initially Allman played a late 50s "Cherry Sunburst" model, one with a bright red color around the edges that turned to a yellow gold in the center. But in early 1971 he bought a second Les Paul, a 1958 Les Paul, with an exaggerated tiger stripe sunburst pattern and a dark brown tobacco sunburst finish sometimes referred to as a "dark burst" by collectors. The guitar had been owned by singer Christopher Cross, and was found for Duane by Billy Gibbons of Z Z Top. This was the guitar on the At Fillmore East and Eat A Peach albums. The guitar is currently on display at the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.

#7 "Pearly Gates"

Billy Gibbons' 1959 Les Paul ,"Pearly Gates," is the source of the Rev's heavenly sound. As a young musician weaned on blues and rock in southern Texas, Billy Gibbons' life was forever altered when he heard the sound of Eric Clapton's Les Paul and Marshall combination on the John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers album. Like a crusader in search of Holy Jerusalem, Gibbons set out eagerly on a quest for his first Les Paul. After stumbling across a few choice finds in the course of his search, including an original '58 Flying V, Gibbons finally found the guitar of his dreams several years later. Nicknamed "Pearly Gates" this '59 Les Pau fell in to Gibbons' hands through a series of strange circumstances and coincidences.

"In the early days of ZZ Top, we acquired an old thirties model Packard automobile," explains Gibbons. "That automobile served us well. It was huge, flashy and lowered, but not intentionally - it was just, plain old. Not long after we got the Packard, one of our girl friends decided to head to California to try out for a part in a movie. We gave her the Packard as a way to get there. Not only did she arrive, but she got the part. We named the automobile "Pearly Gates" because we thought it must have had divine connections."

According to Gibbons, the girlfriend sold the car to a collector and sent the money back to the band. Her timing couldn't have been better. "The very day that the money arrived a guy called me up wanting to sell an old guitar," says Gibbons. "It was a '59 Sunburst Les Paul. I bought the guitar and called the girlfriend to thank her for being so kind. She said, 'it looks like the car went for a good cause. Since the money that put the guitar in our lap came from selling the Packard, we'll lay claim to the name Pearly Gates. Now you can go make divine music.' Try as I may I haven't been able to find another guitar that sounds as heavenly."

Gibbons has played this brilliant burst on every ZZ Top album since their first, and its thick, sweet tones have confounded a bevy of guitar builders who have tried in vain to imitate its voice. The '59 Gibson Les Paul may be the one of the most desirable electric guitars, but Billy Gibbons 59 may be the most coveted Burst of all. [taken from Guitar World May 1997]

In the case of Gibbons we have a guitarist who lacks the top shelf heavy weight status of Clapton, Page or Hendrix, but who may have a guitar that alone has a value pushing $750,000.

#8 "The Mother of All Bursts..."

The photo is of Dan Erlewine in 1966 playing the 1959 Cherry Sunburst Les Paul that he sold to Michael Bloomfield. George Gruhn, the foremost authority on vintage instruments in the United States credits Bloomfield with single-handedly starting the market for collectable solid-body electric guitars. In the Paul Butterfield Blues Band Bloomfield played a Fender Telecaster and that guitar began to rise in popularity. Later he switched to an early 1950s gold top Les Paul and that guitar, which had been very unpopular with rock players, suddenly became sought and prices rose. When Bloomfield left the Butterfield Band to start The Electric Flag he acquired his '59 sunburst and I believe all of the sunbursts pictured above were originally bought by those players because of Bloomfield's influence.

Mike Bloomfield was, along with Jimi Hendrix, the finest blues-based rock guitarist of his generation. The guitar above can be heard in a perfect setting on "Albert's Shuffle" from the Mike Bloomfield/Al Kooper/Steve Stills Supersession album (and pictured on the cover) and can be seen in action with The Electric Flag at Monterey Pop here (though you may find yourself screaming at the screen "Show me the guitar! The guitar!!! before it can be seen clearly at the very end).

Bloomfield's guitar is owned privately by a collector and little is really known about how it was acquired. It would be very interesting to see what might happen if it were ever auctioned. I hope that Michael's guitar would be seen for the historically important instrument that it is.

#9 "Van Halen's Frankenstein"

Sometime in the late 1970s Eddie Van Halen got an idea for a guitar that sounded like a Gibson but played like a Fender. For $50 he bought a body from a pile of Charvel "seconds" and bought a neck for $80. He stuck a humbucking pickup in the bridge position and painted the body white with black stripes. Sometime later he took that body and repainted it red with black and white stripes (creating confusion among his fans that Eddie had two guitars when he really just had the one). Like many of the other guitars pictured above ("Blackie" "Lenny" "Old Black") Van Halen's "Frankenstein" has been reissued in a limited run of guitars that copy every part, every scratch and every cigarette burn (and sell for $25,000). The only guitar in this list that is from the next generation of guitarists, I'm sure Eddie's original guitar would sell in the mid-five figures; how much higher beyond that would be very interesting to watch.

#10 "Sir Paul's 1964 Höfner Beatle Bass"

The least expensive instrument on this list is also, hands-down, the most valuable; I should run that by Alanis Morissette and find out if it's ironic.

You might think that any list of the most valuable rock-era guitars would have a significant number of Beatles instruments on it, but it won't. Why that's not true gets back to the equation that adds up to the values of the instruments above. Both George Harrison and John Lennon played various guitars throughout their career with The Beatles, but if you think about that amazing body of work, there really are no specific guitars that dominate, or are even associated with particular songs.

The last live Beatles performance was the "Rooftop Concert" featured at the end of their film, Let It Be. During the Let It Be sessions and on the roof Harrison plays a Fender Telecaster custom-made with a solid rosewood body. From a collector's perspective one could argued that this guitar stands out in particular from all the guitars associated with George and John. The guitar was first offered for sale in a London auction in 1999 but failed to meet the $300,000 reserve price. The guitar was finally sold in September 2003 during an Odyssey Auction, live online on eBay, $370,000 (the total topped $434,750 when the 17.5% buyers premium was included), but that is still roughly less than half the value of all the guitars described above.

While George and John were fine guitarists, The Beatles were never known as a "guitar band" and whatever magic we suspect might live on in Beatle objects, those objects do not appear to be guitars.

With one very notable exception.

Unable to afford a Fender electric bass guitar, Paul McCartney selected a German-made Höfner "violin" bass, a left-handed 1961 model. As a left-handed guitarist he was initially attracted to the symmetry of the body design. In 1964 he received a new model (the 1961 bass was later stolen during the Let It Be recordings) and that 1964 Höfner electric bass guitar (with the set list for the Ed Sullivan Show still scotch-taped to the side) is the one instrument unquestionably infused with some major Beatles' mojo. When I think of the single most valuable and historically important instrument of the rock era, it is this one that always tops that list. I can't imagine the bass will ever come up for sale, there's no reason to believe it would ever leave the McCartney family, so it's actual value will never really be known which is probably more appropriate than anything else because that renders it priceless.

There are some other guitars that are possible additions to this list. Bruce Springsteen's Fender Telecaster/Esquire pictured on the cover of his Born To Run album comes to mind, as do the vintage Telecasters played by Keith Richards. These offer the same odd sense of rendering one's past somehow physical, material, capable of being tuched, held in your hands. There is something of that in every kind of collecting I suspect.

* In 2006 a Stratocaster signed by numerous celebrities including Eric Clapton was sold for over $2 and a half million dollars in a charity auction that raised funds for tsunami relief. That guitar represents a generous donation to a worthy cause but the instrument itself is of little value. It is akin to receiving a $15 DVD for pledging $250 to your public television station.

** The most valuable electric guitar would be the 1958 Gibson "Moderne" should one actually be found to exist. Designed by Gibson in a series of three "futuristic" guitars - the Flying V, Explorer and Moderne - most experts do not believe the guitar was ever actually produced, others believe it's possible that a small number of prototypes were built and are still out there, somewhere. Drawings for the guitar were found, and it is those that were used for the "reissue" built by Gibson in 1983. The original Moderne, should it exist, is the Maltese Falcon of electric guitars.


Anonymous said...

How about John Lennon's Gibson Jumbo? It was probably the single most identified instrument for him; save maybe the Rick.

Stan Denski said...

I think that guitar would certainly fetch an impressive auction price; the importance of The Beatles and the place Lennon has in the culture. But it is not AS identified with or as caught up in the mythology of The Beatles as Macca's Hofner.