Their styles, approaches and attitudes may exist in total conflict with each other, but every guitar player has at least one thing in common with every other guitar player: the never-ending pursuit of the dream rig.
Whether it's a classic rock aficionado lusting after a 1959 Les Paul and a Marshall stack, a metal guru dreaming of a skull-and-bones ESP, or a flamenco revivalist in pursuit of a 17th century Stradivarius five-string, the only things more idealized than the musician's life are the musician's toys.
But just how far can things go? Instruments are just instruments, right? There's a limit to what any guitar – even those collector dream models – can command, isn't there? Surprisingly, there's isn't, and the price tag is only bound by how much you've got in the bank.
Behold! The Dragonslayer
Paul Reed Smith built its name by crafting some fine guitars and getting the thumbs-up from musicians across a wide spectrum of genres. While their instruments were always considered top-notch, PRS didn't entirely throw down the hammer until it first unveiled its Dragon series in 1991. Hand-built in an extremely-limited run of 50, the Dragon I featured solid gold hardware and a wrap-over bridge, but the real excess was in the neck: a 201-piece dragon mosaic inlay made of turquoise, abalone and mother of pearl. The later Dragon II (1993), Dragon III (1994), Dragon 2000 and Dragon Doubleneck (2005) models featured similar lavishness, mixing in gold, coral, malachite, onyx, mammoth ivory, agoya, rhodonite, sugilite and paua to the increasingly complex inlays. The II and III models saw production doubled to a still-slender 100, although only 10 of the doubleneck were produced. While the doubleneck commands a steep $30,000, and series I through III models sell in the $15,000 to $25,000 range, a Dragon 2000 and its 242-piece body inlay of politically correct mastodon ivory are a modest $10,000 on the auction market.
Good Taste, Amplified
No tusk of an extinct species can rock by itself, and for that a world of highly-coveted amplifiers exists to complement those solid gold pickups. Vintage Marshall Stacks, those great-granddaddies of arena-sized rocking, generally run from $4,000 for a 50-watt head to $7,500 for a 100-watt stack, and an all-original-parts, just-like-the-Beatles-used Vox AC30 Twin fetches $6,000 for its single-speaker, 60-watt action. But for the guitar player with the will to drop every last dime in their pursuit of rock power, the Fender Tweed Twin will set you back $17,500 for a mint condition 60-watt model. Interestingly, while many collectors agree the Tweed series is the pinnacle of vintage amps, it's unknown exactly who has ever recorded using which specific original model of amp. Fender reissued most of its more prestigious vintage models, but the originals remain both wildly expensive and ambiguously famous.
Pick Out Something Nice
With the amp and the axe firmly in place, it's time to look at actually turning that ivory and tweed into usable notes. Hands and fingers can turn an investment into a smudged mess in a hurry, making proper pick selection of the utmost importance. Those cheapo Gator grips simply won't do in this case, but luckily the folks at Australia-based Starpics know how to add luxury to what would normally be an afterthought. While Oregon-based Real Rock will sell a pick made of agate, crystal, jasper, quartz or bloodstone for $30 each, Starpics reaches for the stars – literally. Made from fragments of Gibeon meteorites recovered in Namibia, Starpics' plectra sell in the neighborhood of $4,500 USD. It's debatable how much effect pick construction can have on a player, but it may be worth the price just to be able to say things like "this music has traveled through space and time to rock your world" and actually be telling the truth.
Class Through the Wire
Most conventional instrument cables are made of copper by virtue of its relatively low cost and its better-than-average conductive properties. Mogami takes the obvious route and sells its hand-crafted 10-foot lengths of copper cable for $45 apiece, but to truly rub it in the faces of the Joneses and their band, nothing beats Zaolla Silverline. Using more expensive silver in place of copper, the additional shielding also reduces outside interference and material distortion. Seventy-five dollars for an instrument cable certainly isn't cheap in its own right, but after dropping $4,500 on a pick it's a downright steal.
As with any instrument setup, individual tastes may vary. Classical guitarists, for example, may prefer that $250,000 Stradivarius even though only two people in the world know actually what that instrument sounds like. More collectible-minded axemen might lean towards the only existing 1949 prototype of the Fender Broadcaster, which sold at auction for $375,000 to a private collector. And any self-respecting six-string connoisseur knows the true definition of spending is purchasing the famously teardrop-shaped one-of-a-kind D'Angelico New Yorker for $500,000; for the rest of the impoverished and cash-strapped masses, that squalid $30,000 worth of onyx and ivory will simply have to suffice.
Sadly, those gorgeous guitars all share one fatal flaw with the tens of thousands of lesser, run-of-the-mill six-strings out there: they still play those same boring notes, and they only respond to those same pedestrian scales. Could luxury in instrumentation actually be overrated? Could it be that you can't buy your way to better musicianship?
In some ways yes, but in most ways the question is strictly academic. No one drops thousands of dollars on obsolete electronics because they like practicing scales, and any instrument made out of a piece of an extinct animal is automatically awesome. And given the choice, it's probably safe to say no sane person would ever choose plain old hard work over hard work augmented by $4,500 worth of recovered asteroid.