It was the late 1920s in Waukesha, Wisconsin and a 13-year-old guitar prodigy was making a little income from playing his guitar at a local drive-in restaurant. Frustrated that people sitting in their cars couldn't properly hear his excellent sound, the young guitarist stuck an old phonograph needle on his Sears Roebuck acoustic guitar and wired it to a radio speaker [source: Ladd].
It was the beginning of a lifelong love-affair with inventing and perfecting electric guitars. The guitarist was Les Paul and over the following decades, that name would be attached to many of the most legendary guitars in the history of popular music. So pervasive was his influence and so iconic his status that collectors have fought over his personal guitars for years.
In 2015, a particularly special Les Paul guitar called the "Black Beauty" came up for auction. Some dubbed the instrument the "Grail" of electric guitars, since it was known to be Les Paul's main axe, which he continuously modified until it became industry standard. Some even consider it a kind of Ur-guitar, from which all Les Pauls are descended.
Whether this is true or not, the "Black Beauty" sold for a whopping $335,500, testament to the value many people place on the work of the great innovator.
Not all guitars — or guitar players — have the same weight as Les Paul, but many 20th-century guitar gods and goddesses still become attached to and even name their favorite axes. Following are 10 famous guitars and their owners listed in alphabetical order.
The Monterey Pop Festival, 1967. Jimi Hendrix is waiting backstage while The Who play their set. Hendrix intends to finish his performance with a grand gesture by smashing his guitar to pieces. But his plans are foiled when — to his intense irritation — he sees Pete Townshend not only destroy his guitar, but also shove the broken instrument's neck into an amp.
Frantically searching for a way to top Townshend, Hendrix manages to get his hands on some lighter fluid. Soon after, he's tearing up the stage like no other with the sheer virtuosic brilliance of his playing. At the end of his final piece, "Wild Thing," Hendrix pours lighter fluid over his instrument and ignites it. It's a moment that goes down in rock history — the day Hendrix sacrificed his beloved guitar to the gods of music. Or had he?
In 2012, it emerged that Hendrix had actually swapped out his favorite black 1968 Fender Stratocaster for a near replica moments before the burn. The real one, or one reported to be real, sold at auction for £250,000 ($289,562) in 2012 [source: Yaqoob]. Four years earlier it sold to a U.S. collector for nearly $500,000 [source: Lawless].
But maybe the buyers were duped. By 2017, doubt was cast on the authenticity of the legendary guitar when it was put up for auction again with other Hendrix memorabilia at Heritage's Summer of Love auction in Beverly Hills, California. Experts examined the instrument and were concerned it might not be the same guitar Hendrix played at the Monterey event.
In any case, the Monterey guitar wasn't even Hendrix's favorite instrument. That label belongs to his famous "Black Beauty," which he loved so much he was even reluctant to use it during performances. Since Hendrix's death in 1970, the whereabouts of "Black Beauty" remain mysterious. How much is it worth? Hard to say, but another of his iconic guitars, the "Black Widow" has been valued at nearly a million dollars.
Bonnie Raitt grew up in a musical family and when she was a kid, her grandfather, a Methodist minister, pulled out a Hawaiian lap-steel guitar and taught her a few hymns. But the godly path was not to be Raitt's. When she came across a legendary recording called "Blues At Newport," she fell instantly and hard for the blues. And it was on that recording that she first heard John Hammond playing "bottleneck guitar." Taking the name literally, she found a little cold medicine bottle, soaked off the label and put it on her finger. It was the beginning of her distinctive slide guitar sound [source: Piper].
At 3 a.m. in 1969, Raitt happened upon an unpainted Fender Stratocaster for $120. She bought it, raised the action and nicknamed it "Brownie." It became her favorite instrument — one she's played at every gig since [source: Piper].
As to where exactly Raitt was at 3 a.m. that morning in 1969, well the location remains mysterious. One thing's for sure — she has no plans to sell it. "Brownie's" value today? Immeasurable.
Prince was peerless at just about everything. Not only could he sing, dance and write songs better than nearly anybody else, he could also play pretty much every instrument known to pop music. Above all, he was a spectacular lead guitarist. And he loved his guitars. Probably no other guitar is more closely associated with his legacy than his "Cloud" guitar.
Back when he was preparing to make his legendary film, "Purple Rain," Prince walked into a guitar shop in his hometown of Minneapolis and commissioned a local luthier (stringed-instrument maker) named Dave Rusan to make him a special axe. The guitar, patterned on the design of a friend's bass, would be a crucial element of the film.
Prince gave very few instructions, so Rusan made the guitar he hoped the star would want. He got it right. Not only did the "Cloud" guitar star in the "Purple Rain," Prince loved it so much he commissioned copies and went on to play them for the next 20 years [source: Murphy].
A yellow version of the Cloud now resides in the Smithsonian as an important artifact of American culture. That one's not for sale, but a teal blue Cloud sold for $700,000 at auction in November 2017, the most ever paid for one of his guitars [source: AP].
Van Halen. The name alone conjures light-speed virtuosic guitar solos. But when Eddie Van Halen started out, he couldn't find the guitar he needed to make the sounds he heard in his head. So, he made one himself.
Van Halen took apart a Gibson Les Paul, a Fender Stratocaster and a Gibson ES-335 and combined them, adding a humbucker to boot. Then, with the help of some masking tape and spray paint, he finished the whole thing off with the "Frankenstrat's" now famous crazy red, black and white striped design [source: Project EVH].
Van Halen donated his iconic guitar to the Hard Rock Café in downtown San Antonio where it originally went on display. But in November 2017, somebody stole it. Although the famous axe was valued at $100,000, whoever took it would never be able to sell it without bringing the law down on their heads.
In any case, the guitar quietly reappeared at the Hard Rock almost before it was missed. Maybe somebody just wanted to see if they could shred it like EVH and when they realized that was impossible, they decided to do the right thing and give it back.
When Ann Wilson decided to cross the border into Canada to follow her draft-dodging boyfriend, her Heart bandmates followed. Because, what else could they do? Ann had a voice like no other. In the early '70s, it was one thing for a band to be fronted by a woman with an incredible voice, but there were absolutely no rock outfits with a woman on lead guitar. Except for this one.
Ann happened to have a sister who could play. Really play. Nancy Wilson was in university at the time, but Ann managed to convince her sister to come north and join her. When the two women joined forces, nobody had ever seen anything like them. Raised on acoustic guitar, Nancy slung a '63 Fender Telecaster in Lake Placid Blue Tele over her shoulder and made the transition. It's been her favorite electric ever since and the guitar most closely associated with her unique hair-raising sound [source: Kelly]. She even named one of her songs "Blue Guitar" in its honor.
Even in the South it gets cold in the winter. One night back in 1949, a young bluesman was playing a gig at a nightclub in Twist, Arkansas. The owners of the joint were heating it with a bucket of kerosene they'd lit on fire. The room was warm, the music was cool and all was going well until a fight broke out and the bucket tipped over. A river of burning kerosene streamed through the place and everybody fled for their lives including the musician.
But just as he made it outside, he remembered his guitar. It wasn't an expensive instrument, just a Gibson L-30 Archtop, but it was all he had. He rushed back into the flames, dodging the collapsing wood frame, grabbed his axe and made it out just in time.
The fight, he later learned, had started between two men battling over a woman named Lucille. The young musician was B.B. King and he dubbed his guitar "Lucille" to remind himself never again to be so foolish as to run into a burning building. Over the years, B.B. King has had many different guitars, but they always get the same name: "Lucille" [source: Bienstock].
With some of the greats, it's hard to know where to focus your attention. When young, Joni Mitchell had a three-octave vocal range, which helped make her one of the most extraordinary singers of her generation. Setting that aside, she's also an incredibly gifted lyricist who's penned unforgettable lines that have become part of the collective consciousness. Now, add on her songwriting skills, which have resulted in dozens of innovative, intricate and beautiful tunes.
Finally, top it all off with the fact that she can wield a guitar like few others (not to mention play mandolins, flutes, pianos, et al). One of the things that makes her guitar playing so distinctive is the unusual array of tunings she deploys. Apparently, when she was a child, Mitchell had polio, which weakened her left hand. Unable to play certain chord shapes, she adopted inventive tunings to compensate.
In 1966, a Marine captain returning from Vietnam, gave Mitchell a 1956 Martin D-28 that had survived a shrapnel hit. Mitchell loved the guitar more than any other and speculated that its amazing sound was due to the explosion structurally altering the wood. Sadly, in the mid-70s, somebody stole the legendary instrument from an airport luggage carousel and it was never seen again [source: O'Hara].
Jimmy Page blew the top off rock with his incendiary solos for Led Zeppelin. And he's also justly famous for beautiful, plaintive riffs like the intro to "Stairway to Heaven," which has become so ubiquitous that the guitar shop in "Wayne's World" famously banned it from being played.
When Page started with the Yardbirds, he strummed a Fender Telecaster, but in 1969, his friend Joe Walsh of the James Gang, insisted that he try out a Gibson Les Paul. Page liked it a lot, so Walsh handed it over for a reasonable price. The amount paid varies in the telling but it was somewhere between $500 and $1,200. This guitar went on to become Page's favorite, and he's played it on all of Led Zeppelin's major recordings and live shows.
Over the years, Page has bought and used other Les Pauls, which led him to dub that original instrument his "No. 1." He's said of it that it's both his mistress and his wife, with the added benefit of requiring no alimony [source: Graham].
Brian May's dad was a highly skilled electronics engineer who handmade all of the family's household appliances from toasters to TVs. The Mays were also poor with no extra pocket money to spend on expensive gifts. So, when, in 1963, his guitar-mad son wanted to graduate from an acoustic to electric, the two of them decided to build the perfect instrument from scratch.
They carved the neck from an old fireplace, repurposed mother-of-pearl buttons for the fret inlay and crafted the tremolo arm from a bicycle saddlebag holder and one of Mrs. May's knitting needles. "The Red Special" as it became known due to the color of its wood, never left Brian's side, even when he went off to London to get a Ph.D. in astrophysics.
But the instrument that brought father and son together in the making, soon tore them apart. It was in London that Brian met a budding rock star named Freddie Mercury and formed the band, Queen. To his father's intense disappointment, Brian's Ph.D. bit the dust, so to speak, as Queen took off. (He did finally earn that Ph.D. in 2008, and has even worked at NASA with other astrophysicists analyzing data from the Pluto New Horizons probe [source: Biography.com].)
Brian and his father finally reconciled years later when the young guitar god flew his parents to New York to see the band play Madison Square Garden. The Red Special, which also goes by the handles "Fireplace" and "Old Lady," has been the guitar-star of almost every major Queen song, and remains May's favorite [source: Huntman].
Early on, Willie Nelson played a Guild acoustic when he was trying to make it in Nashville in the '60s. Then, in 1969, a random boozer somehow managed to turn it into firewood.
On the lookout for an instrument that had the sound of his favorite guitarist, Django Reinhardt, Nelson bought a Martin N-20 acoustic sight unseen on the recommendation of his friend and guitarist, Shot Jackson. Stating that it was kind of like his horse, Nelson named the guitar after Roy Roger's steed.
Like B.B. King's "Lucille," "Trigger" has been rescued from fire. And it's even been spirited away to Hawaii to avoid seizure by the IRS. Willie Nelson has played his instrument so hard and so long that his pick has worn a hole right through it. It's a hole the legendary musician refuses to repair, saying it's a spot to rest his fingers. After 50 years of use, Nelson figures he'll play Trigger until they both "give out." Hopefully that won't be for a long time yet [source: Rolling Stone].
HowStuffWorks looks at some of the possible instruments of tomorrow at the Guthman New Musical Instrument Competition
Author's Note: 10 Famous Guitars
A list of 10 famous guitars can hardly be comprehensive. I had to whittle this down from a list that included the likes of David Gilmour's "Black Strat," Vernon Reid's "ESP Mirage" and Neil Young's "Hank." And what about André Segovia's "Hauser" and Peter Green's 1959 Les Paul Standard? Maybe a list of 100 could gather up the near totality of famous guitars, but anything less is just a swing of the axe.
More Great Links
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- Bienstock, Richard. "The Legacy of Lucille: The Surprising Story Behind B.B. King's Guitar." Rolling Stone. May 15, 2015 (July 29, 2018) https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/the-legacy-of-lucille-the-surprising-story-behind-b-b-kings-guitar-63896/
- Cahillane, Mollie. "Prince's teal blue Cloud guitar sells for a record $700,000 at a California auction house." Daily Mail. Nov. 6, 2017 (July 27, 2018) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5055521/Princes-teal-blue-Cloud-guitar-auctioned-700K.html
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- Gearnews. "Eddie Van Halen's original $100k FrankenStrat stolen!" Nov. 18, 2017 (July 27, 2018) https://www.gearnews.com/eddie-van-halens-original-100k-frankenstrat-stolen/
- Graham, Jonathan. "Forgotten Guitar: Jimmy Page Offers an Up-Close Look at His "Number 1" Les Paul." Guitar World. May 7, 2018 (July 29, 2018) https://www.guitarworld.com/gear/forgotten-guitar-jimmy-page-offers-close-look-his-number-1-les-paul
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- McLaughlin, Kelly. "Shop is sued over 'stolen' Jimi Hendrix's Black Widow guitar worth nearly $1MILLION." Oct. 11, 2015 (July 26, 2018) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3268694/Jimi-Hendrix-s-Black-Widow-guitar-worth-nearly-1MILLION-center-court-battle-musician-s-estate-owners-call-instrument-returned-claiming-stolen-former-Earth-Wind-Fire-member.html
- Murphy, Bill. "Dave Rusan: Building Prince's Cloud Guitar." Premier Guitar. June 10, 2016 (July 27, 2018) https://www.premierguitar.com/articles/24199-dave-rusan-building-princes-cloud-guitar
- O'Hara, Marc. "Joni Mitchell's Guitars and Tunings." The Unique Guitar Blog. Jan. 29, 3013 (July 29, 2018) https://uniqueguitar.blogspot.com/2013/01/joni-mitchells-guitars-and-tunings.html
- Piper, Julian. "Bonnie Raitt's 8 tips for guitarists." Musicradar. July 15, 2016 (July 26, 2018) https://www.musicradar.com/news/guitars/bonnie-raitts-8-tips-for-guitarists-640273
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- Yaqoob, Janine. "Hey dough!" Daily Mail. Nov. 28, 2012 (July 23, 2018) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2239775/Jimi-Hendrixs-favourite-guitar-switched-setting-cheaper-version-sells-250-000.html