Premier Guitar

Last Call: Picassos and Les Pauls

December 11, 2013


Many Les Paul aficionados rank Yasuhiko Iwanade’s The Beauty of the ’Burst: Gibson Sunburst Les Pauls from ’58 to ’60 as the definitive book on these coveted instruments. Carefully researched and offering hundreds of gorgeous photos,
this tome belongs in every Burst-o-holic’s library.

They say you shouldn’t drink alone. (In my defense, I only do when no one’s around to stop me.) Perhaps this warning stems from the dangerous decisions one makes while in altered states. I need a sensible somebody nearby warning me away from my more FUBAR choices.

For example, here’s an incident from last week: What started as a bit of late-night, buzzed eBay tire-kicking turned into an all-consuming obsession over a guitar I cannot afford. If somebody told me 10 years ago that I was actually considering spending over 7k on a Stratocaster, I would have smacked them across their big, fat, lying face while shouting, “You crazy fool.”

A purchase of this magnitude would catapult me into financial ruin, yet I almost convinced myself this was not a terrible idea. Yes, this is a see-through rationalization, but we—the guitar-geek demographic—see great guitars as a reasonable investment ... akin to buying fine art, but much more fun and sexy. When you think about it, classic guitars are far rarer than fine art, yet owning a classic guitar is within reach of most employable people, while fine art remains the domain of the über rich. Allow me to expand on my hair-brained theory with a very limited compare-and-contrast example.

According to curators at the online fine-art gallery, picassomio.com, Pablo Picasso created a lot of artwork during his 75-year career:

100,000 prints or engravings

34,000 book illustrations

13,500 paintings

300 sculptures and ceramics

The vast majority of Picasso’s extensive work remains in museums and private collections. Okay, there was one bleak, absinthe-fueled period where Picasso lost roughly a dozen works, but even these may be in private hands. In an article on zimbio.com, art agent Curt Butler writes: “An insider at the Picasso Foundation … claims that the Picasso family is well aware of these paintings and quite embarrassed by them since they reflect a bad time in their family history, and they have more than once pressured executives at the foundation not to acknowledge their existence.”

Which means, it’s unlikely any of us will find a Picasso at a Boy Scout swap meet.

By comparison, not that many Holy Grail guitars were made, yet many remain unaccounted for. Let’s look at the 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard and visit several fanatical forums for more insight. On mylespaul.com, one clever (though perhaps overly fixated) senior member named “The Greek” really got my wheels spinning when he began to calculate the odds of finding a ’59 Burst.

To summarize The Greek’s observations, some collectors estimate that roughly 1,700 Les Paul Standard “Bursts” rolled off the line in 1959—a modest number by Picasso standards—and 663 of these precious guitars are registered with burstserial.com. Over the past 55 years, some of these unaccounted-for guitars inevitably have been incinerated in house and bar fires, destroyed in tornadoes, lost in floods, eaten by dogs, and smashed by idiotic, clumsy, and mean-spirited philistines.

My hope is that when that fickle Lady Luck puts an unappreciated, significantly underpriced old Strat—or, dare I dream, ’59 Les Paul—within my reach, I’ll have the Dough Re Mi to bring it home.

Plenty of lucky Burst owners choose not to register their guitar and keep their treasure secret. Let’s play fun-with-estimating: Let’s say 100 Bursts were destroyed, and 500 Burst owners are well aware they own a wildly expensive guitar, but keep their lamp under a bushel. Even with these generous estimates, that leaves 437 out there waiting to be discovered. They’re hiding under your weird uncle’s bed, or being played by a blind Inuit bluesman in his melting igloo, or forgotten in a sweet old widow’s attic awaiting a church rummage sale in Toad Suck, Arkansas.

This means we all have a chance of owning a ’59 Les Paul. How cool would it be if while on vacation in the Caribbean you come across a ’50s-era Les Paul like Peter Frampton’s 1954 Les Paul Custom? (Lost in a cargo plane crash in 1980, the guitar was presumed destroyed until it was spotted on the Dutch island of Curaçao and ultimately returned to Frampton.) Granted, there’s a better chance we will be run over by a beer truck, but the optimist in me likes these odds.

Speaking of odds, although I’ve never been a Strat guy, of late I’ve had an overwhelming feeling that would best be described as lust for pre-CBS Stratocasters. For the life of me, I can’t find an accurate estimate on how many pre-CBS Strats were made, but Fender had to roll out a whole lot of them between 1954 and 1965.

So my friends, this means our chances are even better of finding one of these darlings in some unlikely place. This thought ran through my head like a mantra during the recent sleepless nights I wasted bedeviled with thoughts of the old Strat I was aching to buy. Ultimately, I could sell one of my questionable kidneys to buy this guitar, or I could drop the obsession and let dumb luck lead me toward one in a Honduran flea market or at an off-the-grid pawnshop whose owner hasn’t yet heard of eBay. As with most things, I’m betting on dumb luck.

The old maxim remains true: Guitars are worth what somebody is willing to pay. The market will rise and fall, but fortune smiles on us all eventually. My hope is that when that fickle Lady Luck puts an unappreciated, significantly underpriced old Strat—or, dare I dream, ’59 Les Paul—within my reach, I’ll have the Dough Re Mi to bring it home. Like those great 20th-century English poets said, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Honestly I have all the guitars I’ll ever need, but I keep hoping to find the one I want.