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Amped about this ax

The Burst guitar, with its lush finish and rich sound, has gone from pawnshop castoff to $500,000 collectible. Its devotees are 'relentless.'

August 21, 2007|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

When Joe Ganzler found Gladys, it was love at first sight. She had a curvaceous body and graceful neck. When he held her in his arms and turned her on, she filled with electricity and purred.

"The belle of the ball," Ganzler said.

Ganzler, 51, has been married three times but has fallen for just one guitar. Gladys, as a former owner named it, is a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard with a sunburst finish. Ganzler keeps it in his Orange County garage, in a massive safe that looks as though it could withstand a bazooka attack.

For good reason. Only about 1,500 Bursts, as they are known, were made between 1958 and 1960. They were a commercial flop. But today the Burst is considered the Stradivarius of solid-body electric guitars. Its distinctive, syrupy sound, mythic back story and cherry-and-gold wood finish have made it the world's most sought-after ax.

Amid a bull market in collectible guitars propelled by baby boomer wealth and nostalgia, the price of Bursts has soared. One in mint condition with a desirable finish can fetch more than $500,000 -- 10 times as much as a decade ago.

"It's the Holy Grail of guitars," said Dan Yablonka, a Laguna Beach musician who fondly recalls the one he owned for a few weeks 30 years ago before flipping it for a nice profit. "They sound like they are being played by the finger of God."

Even spare parts are revered like gemstones. An original cream-colored ring that fits over the rhythm/treble pickup switch -- essentially a washer -- was recently offered on EBay for $1,200.

Original price of the whole guitar: about $280.

That Les Paul Bursts have gone from pawnshop castoffs to expensive antiques surprises nobody more than 92-year-old Les Paul.

"It's crazy," said Paul, who lives in New Jersey, where he has about 300 of those pickup switch washers in a box somewhere. "But I'm very gratified. We worked hard to make it the most beautiful instrument there is. It's your mistress, your psychiatrist, your bartender -- everything you could dream of in one instrument."

Paul was a successful guitarist when he began working with Gibson to design a solid-body electric that didn't create feedback at high volumes the way hollow-body instruments did. California inventor Leo Fender was already selling one.

The 1950s proved to be the golden era of electric guitars. Old World craftsmanship fused with new technologies to create instruments that have yet to be surpassed. The Burst wasn't created so much as it evolved.

Paul's first Gibson guitar made its debut in 1952, formed from a slab of 100-year-old Honduran mahogany. Each subsequent model brought new components and design tweaks. A refined bridge that could easily be adjusted with a screwdriver. "Humbucker" pickups, which utilize two tightly wound coils of copper wire to cancel out humming caused by electrical interference. Changes in the shape and angle of the neck. Even the glue and lacquer contributed to the guitar's sound and ability to sustain a note.

Finally, there is the flame. Early Les Paul Standards were painted gold. In mid-1958 the sunburst appeared, a finish that showcased the colors, grain and ripples in the guitar's maple veneer. The play of color and textures evokes fire. Each Burst has its own personality based on the size and pigment of the flame. No two are alike.

Plugged into an amplifier cranked to the max, the Burst explodes with a fat, rich sonic boom. Unfortunately for Gibson, rock musicians of the day weren't interested in the guitar's earthy power. The Burst was a bust.

"When I started out in this business . . . nobody wanted them," said George Gruhn, a Nashville instrument dealer who began collecting electric guitars in the early 1960s. "I got a bunch at $100 and sold them for $250. They've been going up ever since."

Two men are credited with reviving the Burst: Mike Bloomfield and Eric Clapton. One was from Chicago, the other England. But both were young white guitarists who merged rock with hard-core blues -- loudly.

As rock music turned up the volume, the Burst became the weapon of choice for a legion of guitar virtuosos, including Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Duane Allman. Musicians inspired by them -- onstage or in the garage -- lusted for a Burst.

Ed King, a former guitarist with the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, acquired his first Burst in 1970 at a Virginia bar.

"I traded a guy a guitar and some cash for it," he said. "There's a real reason why these guitars are so valuable, and it goes far beyond the famous people who have owned them. They have a sound that can't be replicated."

As the legend grew, demand for Bursts quickly outpaced supply. Prices rose and collectors squeezed out the average (read: broke) musician, who resented anyone who would rather display than play such a fine instrument. By the late 1980s, Bursts were fetching $10,000 -- a lot of money, it seemed, for a used factory-made guitar.

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