[Editor's Note: We were going to put this piece up tomorrow, but today's "Google Doodle" is a tribute to Les Paul himself, who would've turned 96 today. Here's a catch...this doodle is interactive, and you can play with it just by running your mouse over the logo. How cool! You can record the track as well...here's my admittedly weak contribution.]
We all want what can’t have, and for lovers of electric guitar, the Stradivarius of the realm is the ’59 Les Paul. Estimates vary on what one costs today, but mid six figures is a good place to start, and like an expensive fine wine, they’ve gotten better with age.
Larry DiMarzio, founder of DiMarzio pickups, has a ’59 he bought in the early ‘70s, and in a video he put up on YouTube about his Les Paul, he called it “the finest guitar I’d ever played,” and added, “This was the best period for Les Pauls.” The Les Paul was introduced in 1952, and it went through years of development until it hit its zenith at the end of the fifties. “By ’59 the pickup balance, the neck and body construction were perfect.”
Norman Harris, owner of Norman's Rare Guitars, agrees. “They hit it right on the nose, he says. “It’s the entire chemistry of the guitar, sound, feel, sexiness, the color, how it looks onstage.” Indeed, the ’59 sunburst Les Paul is a beautiful looking instrument, and the “flamier” the maple flame top, the better (and the more valuable).
Norm bought his first ’59 in the late sixties for $800, “which seemed like all the money in the world.” By the mid seventies, they started getting up in the $5-6,000 range, and by this point, the ’59 was the model that initiated the whole vintage guitar market today.
Back in ’59, there was a lot more wood to go around. Supposedly the wood was purer and had more time to age, and quality was better because there wasn’t a crazy demand to pump out tons of guitars a month like there was after The Beatles hit and every kid had to have a guitar. Instrument quality wasn’t the same because companies didn’t have time to wait for the wood to age and mature, and because of the sudden demand, there were also people building guitars who didn’t have prior experience in the field.
Steve Lukather, guitarist for Toto and renowned studio musician, bought his ’59 at a small music shop in Arizona in 1979 for $4,000, “which at the time seemed a fortune,” he says. “I knew I needed to have one. I even bought it a seat on the plane to bring it home. It was my #1 go-to guitar for a long time.” Eddie Van Halen also bought two ‘59s from Norm when he first got his record deal, for about $5-6,000, one of them is worth $150,000 today, the other one’s worth $400,000.
Lukather used his ’59 on many hit albums and songs, including “Rosanna,” “Beat It,” Olivia Newton John’s “Physical,” Quincy Jones’ The Dude album, albums for Alice Cooper, Elton John, sessions with Paul McCartney, and many more.
George Harrison also played the guitar onstage at a benefit concert for the late Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro, and Harrison playing the guitar also increased its value. “We had just become friends and George is the reason I play the guitar,” Lukather says. “I brought it because he said he might come play when I asked him, and he did. It was surreal. I’m sure Jeff was smiling.”
When asked if he still gets worried about dropping or scratching a guitar that valuable, Lukather says: “Shit yeah.” It’s too valuable to use on sessions, and Lukather won’t play bring it on the road anymore. The last time he played his ’59 onstage was at a Les Paul tribute concert several years before Paul passed away, and it sounded incredible plugged straight into a Marshall.
So if you’re got the cash and you're ready to buy one, what's the exact price? It depends on the quality of the instrument, the condition, how original all the parts are, etc. The makers a ’59 Les Paul documentary The 1959 Burst claim that since they’ve been posting clips on YouTube, value for the ’59 has gone up from $400,000 to $750,000. Lukather’s ’59 is estimated to be worth $350-500,000.
Of course not many people can afford a ’59, so is there anything that can come close? Can modern technology one day recreate what’s great about a classic Les Paul? Lukather is uncertain. “At this point who knows? But like a woman, can you really make a fake one (laughs)? Fake is fake, ya know.” Harris feels the vintage reissues - where Gibson uses modern technology to recreate the old instruments as closely as they can - are good guitars, and in his view they’re 85-90% as good as the classics. Still, as Harris says, “It’s like driving in a Mercedes. Once you ride in one, it’s hard to get back in the Chevy.”