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Thanks for the sound returns, Les Paul

A good guitar falls into that small category of things that manage to hold their value.

August 16, 2009|John Corrigan

For a teenage guitar slinger in the 1970s, it was the most coveted of instruments: a Gibson Les Paul. In the hands of Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Pete Townsend and countless others, it defined the hard-rock sound of the day.

I had to have one.

Trouble was, Les Pauls could cost nearly twice as much as other name-brand electric guitars. Crafted largely by hand and outfitted with hum-bucking pickups that hammered out sound with the effortless power of a Detroit V-8, Les Pauls were built for concert stages, not San Fernando Valley garages.

Still, where there's a will, there's a way. So one August day in 1976, I found myself on the doorstep of a second-story North Hollywood apartment, a wad of cash in my Levis, thanks to a gas station job. At age 19, a long-term lesson in guitar economics was about to begin.

The seller, as they say, was motivated. He had come from Arizona to make it as a rock musician in L.A., and it wasn't happening. Even worse, bus drivers for the RTD (forerunner of today's Metropolitan Transportation Authority) were about to go on strike. The Arizona rocker didn't have a car, and to buy one he would sell his prized Les Paul.

It was a beauty: a top-of-the-line 1971 Les Paul Custom with gold-plated hardware, sunburst finish and mother-of-pearl inlay on the fret board.

There was a quarter-size blemish of chipped paint -- belt rash -- on the back, courtesy of the first owner, the seller told me. Otherwise, mint. The asking price was $475. I carried it out his door for $440.

The return on my investment began almost immediately. The guitar was fun to play, so I played more, and became a better player. More advanced guitarists were happy to show me new riffs and, oh, thank you very much, take a few turns on the Les Paul themselves.

A punk band needed a paint-peeling lead guitar for a recording and asked me to provide it. (What they really wanted was that screaming Les Paul sound, of course.)

Whenever a chance to gig arose, it was always a thrill to pull the guitar out of the case; like driving up to the A&W in a cherry-red Corvette.

Years passed, and the Les Paul that was just a few years old when I bought it gained added status as a "vintage" instrument, worth at least $2,000, maybe $3,000 or more.

Not bad, although if I had taken that same $440 and put it in a mutual fund invested in a broad index of blue-chip stocks, my initial stake would be worth more than $10,000.

And on closer examination, my Les Paul doesn't seem to have gotten much of a premium for its age. You can get a brand-new Les Paul Custom for about $3,000; shouldn't a vintage instrument, 38 years old, be worth a lot more?

Not necessarily, said Ken Daniels of True Tone Music in Santa Monica, a specialist in high-end vintage instruments. To be truly valuable, he said, guitars generally have to be not only old, but rare.

Gibson put out only about 1,500 Les Pauls in 1959, he noted. With so few in circulation, those guitars sell for anywhere between $200,000 and $500,000. My Les Paul, built at a time when the Gibson factory was churning out guitars as fast as baby-boom rockers could snap them up, doesn't have quite the same cachet.

Nor is the guitar's value likely to grow following the death of its namesake -- guitar virtuoso and musical innovator Les Paul -- who passed away last week at age 94.

"It's hard to say, but my guess is no," said Daniels, who knew Les Paul and considers him one of the music industry's true giants. "It may increase the demand, but not the value." That's simple economics; even with Les Paul gone, the Gibson factory can make as many guitars as needed to meet demand.

So does that make a good guitar a bad investment? Daniels answers the question this way: What other consumer products can even retain their original value, let alone appreciate over time? "If you have a 10-year-old refrigerator, you have nothing," he said. "Just try to sell your old sofa."

"You didn't buy your guitar because you thought it would be a great investment," Daniels said. "You bought it because you wanted a Les Paul. And you probably got a lot of satisfaction from it."

Indeed, the old Les Paul has taken me to some interesting places over the years, proving that a good guitar falls into that small category of things that manage to hold value, and provide sound returns along the way.

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john.corrigan@latimes.com

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