Left: Me with Tim McGraw’s beautiful 1953 goldtop Les Paul, purchased for $500.

Fifteen years ago, in a pawnshop in Billings, Montana, I bought a ’59 Les Paul Special—yellowed, battered, and beautiful—for $500. A month later, in the same shop, I picked up a ’61 Les Paul in perfect shape with the original PAFs for $600. Sadly, both the Gibsons were sold shortly after I bought them to cover diapers, rent, and put food on the table. However, four years ago I lucked out again and bought a 1946 Martin D-18 at City National Pawn in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for $1000. It had a DeArmond pickup nailed to the soundhole, an input jack screwed to the side, and a split bridge that left the guitar unplayable. After some intensive (and expensive) surgery, it’s the best-sounding Martin I’ve ever heard. It now makes it to every session I do.

Finding a Holy Grail guitar, even if you don’t manage to keep it, is an incredible thrill. When you hold that neglected treasure in your hands, you can’t help but feel something almost ineffable—it is like you’re touching the actual mojo, grit, jubilation, and heartache that the instrument made. Here are a few amazing, jealousy-inspiring stories of some Nashville players finding their Holy Grail guitars.

’53 Goldtop
I recently played on an awards show and ran into Tim McGraw. He was holding a beautiful goldtop, almost green with age. I was staring at this well-worn LP the way most men stare at Megan Fox’s cleavage. I finally asked, “Is that a ’53?” McGraw replied with the following story.

“About 15 years ago, my career was just getting going. This guy from my hometown had just gotten out of prison. He must have heard my music while he was serving his 20 years. He looked up my mom and told her he’s down on his luck, needs money, and would like to sell me an old electric guitar for $200. My mom called and asked if I wanted to help the guy out and I said, ‘Sure. Give him $500.’ I pretty much forgot about it until a while later when I was visiting my mom and she showed me the guitar. I could not believe it. There it was: a 1953 Les Paul in the original case. The guy’s name is scratched into the headstock. I wish I knew where he is—I’d pay him more.”

The Korinas
Rick Vito—guitar slinger extraordinaire, former member of Fleetwood Mac, solo artist, and an integral part of the sound behind Bob Seger, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and many others—told me the best Holy Grail story I’ve ever heard. I’ll let him tell it.

“I was on tour with Fleetwood Mac in 1990 and had an off night the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. The bellman at our hotel told me about a great band, and I decided to go see them. As it turns out, to my amazement, the guitarist was playing a real vintage Explorer! I cornered him on a break and learned that he was the original owner, having bought it new in ’59. I asked how he’d managed not to have sold it in all those years. He said no one had ever offered him cash, and also that he’d been thinking of selling it. He then told me, ‘There’s just one condition—you would have to buy my Flying V too!’ I scraped together the money and bought both Holy Grails the day after Thanksgiving. I had, and still have, much to be thankful for!

“After buying the guitars, I realized the Flying V could possibly be the sleeper of the two, and indeed a very rare guitar. I noticed there was an additional pickguard on the left side, additional fret markers on the right side of the neck, and extra strap buttons indicating that it had been set up at the factory for a left-handed player. I later found out that the original owner (the brother of the man I bought the guitars from) was a lefty! No expert I have talked to in all this time has ever seen a ’58 V with these unique factory appointments, yet all agree that the guitar is completely original. A rare find, to be sure.”

Well, there it is: three guitar players with some truly lucky finds. Go out there and find your own Holy Grail, then try and hold on to it.

John Bohlinger
John Bohlinger is a Nashville guitar slinger who works primarily in television and has recorded and toured with over 30 major-label artists. His songs and playing can be heard in major motion pictures, on major-label releases, and in literally hundreds of television drops. Visit him at:youtube.com/user/johnbohlingerorfacebook.com/johnbohlinger.