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“I would really love to see Billy Gibbons’ Moderne in person. He is strangely secretive about that guitar, which makes me wonder. He did an article in Guitar World magazine in 1982 and they photographed it. The rarest guitar in the world, and all you see is a sideways photo in the front seat of a car? He didn’t even include it in his own book! My guess is that his guitar might have vintage-correct parts, but that doesn’t make it real. Not even the most ‘guru’ of vintage guitar experts has ever had the opportunity to inspect it. Billy gets any guitar custom made for him—why not a vintage-correct Moderne?”
Wood believes a genuine Moderne would have surfaced by now, but there’s always the possibility it hasn’t: “I used to think one would have appeared by now, but I started talking to some fellows on the mylespaul.com forum a while back, and one of them told me his grandma had some ‘old guitars that say Gibson on them’ up in her attic. She had no idea what they were, but they were old, perhaps from the ‘50s. It’s highly possible that someone has a Moderne and might not have a clue as to its worth. I remember a couple years ago, some guy bought a ’79 Flying V from Goodwill for $25!”
Wood says he would like to see Gibson reissue the Moderne again: “I’ve sent many letters to them asking for another reissue. I doubt they will make it again. The guitar was ridiculed in 1957, and only sold 183 or so in the early ‘80s. One guy I interviewed for the book said he was a member of the Gibson Custom Club, meaning that if you have enough money, they’ll pretty much make you anything you want, as long as it was based on a legitimate Gibson model. He asked for a Moderne and they couldn’t make him one.”
Can We Get Some Forensics on this Thing?
Deciding to go to the experts, I contacted George Gruhn of Gruhn Guitars, Stan Jay of Mandolin Brothers, and Buzzy Levine of Lark Street Music.
George Gruhn commented, “I have never encountered any original Moderne guitar made prior to their so-called reissue in the early 1980s, nor have I ever had a conversation with anyone who claimed [to me] to have seen one. I have significant doubts that they were ever made.”
Stan Jay said, “The common wisdom is that Gibson had a patent on the Moderne. I see it as a fantasy-based instrument from the 1950s space age. It just didn’t take off. The Moderne is like the Sasquatch of the vintage guitar industry, or those fuzzy pictures you see of UFOs. You can’t really tell what they are. I think it’s a wonderful thing to have some mystery. Every industry needs a mystery, and the Moderne is our mystery, our Sasquatch. The real story of the Moderne is the myth itself.”
Buzzy Levine remarked, “The only myth I know is that Billy Gibbons supposedly has one, but why hasn’t he shown it to anyone? Who wouldn’t want to make it public that he owned the rarest electric guitar ever made? If there were Modernes out there, they should have surfaced by now. I suppose there could have been one or two made.”
I Want to Believe
As someone who has done his own Moderne research and generally enjoys the “thrill of the hunt,” I would be remiss in not expressing my own opinion. I believe Billy Gibbons’ guitar is a copy, an Asian lookalike—maybe a prototype that got into this country, a custom guitar he had built, or perhaps a mongrel that contains some original Gibson parts. The headstock is the standard Les Paul or SG-style “open book,” not the “paddlestock” of the original design. It would not be unlike Gibbons, a secretive man, to keep the guitar a mystery to perpetuate the myth, mystery and mojo of the Moderne.
Although I would like to believe there’s an original Moderne under a farmer’s bed somewhere in rural USA, I honestly think one would have surfaced by now, given the vast common knowledge about rare guitars that exists today. Even pawnshop owners regularly refer to vintage guitar price guides, and I personally know several antique dealers in my area who are savvy about old guitars.
A verified, original Moderne would easily fetch seven figures. If I found one, it would most certainly go up on the block for sale. Finally, while I believe the Moderne did exist in prototype form, it seems most likely that all original examples were destroyed in the Gibson morgue by the early ‘60s. At best, some of the parts may have been stolen out of the factory and reassembled into quasi-Modernes.
The bottom line: an original Moderne exists only in the minds of those who believe the myth, but admittedly, it’s fun to believe otherwise and continue the hunt for the vintage guitar world’s Holy Grail.
For information on Glen Miller’s Moderne, Explorer and Flying V replicas, visit: wronashouseofviolins.com.
For additional information on Ron Wood’s book, Moderne: The Holy Grail of Vintage Guitars, go to: centerstream-usa.com.