Finding the Holy Grail
Tales of rare finds
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
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.
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
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 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