One of the most legendary and sought-after guitars in the world.
In 1952 the Gibson Guitar company began to sell a solid-body guitar. The guitar was a collaboration with “The Wizard of Waukesha” guitarist & inventor Les Paul. The Gibson Les Paul guitar was created as an answer to the Fender Telecaster, created two years earlier becoming the first mass produced solid-body guitar. Despite some initial success Gibson sold fewer and fewer Les Pauls over the next 5 years. By 1958 Gibson decided to redesign the style of the guitar and turned to the sunburst finish of their hollow-body electric guitars for inspiration. They replaced the Les Paul’s gold painted finish with a cherry sunburst finish. This was the dawning of “the Burst”, some of the most famous guitars ever made.
The 1958-1960 era of Gibson Les Pauls are some of the most collectible guitars in the world but they didn’t start out that way. Officially called the Gibson Les Paul Standard, but nicknamed the “Burst”, the guitar went relatively unnoticed until 1964 when a young Keith Richards bought a 1959 Burst from Selmer’s Music in London. He used it to record many of the Rolling Stones’ early hits including Satisfaction, Get Off My Cloud, and Let’s Spend the Night Together. Perhaps as importantly Richards was also seen with the guitar – in publicity photos, on tour, and in 1964 during the Rolling Stones appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Because of the great sound the guitar produced, other early blues-rock guitarists wanted to try it. Richards lent his 1959 sunburst to Jimmy Page (then a studio musician, pre-Led Zeppelin) as well as to Eric Clapton. Later the classic combination of Gibson Les Paul played through a Marshall amp was created by Clapton who used the combo on the highly influential 1966 album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. Whether Clapton used a 1960 sunburst or a 1959 is an item of debate.
Soon other musicians wanted the sound & style of the 1959 sunburst. The problem was supply. In 1959 Gibson only made 643 Les Paul sunbursts. Even the whole of the sunburst run from 1958-1960 only produced somewhere around 1406-ish guitars. So by the late 1960s lots of musicians wanted one, but there weren’t enough to go around. This began a storied history of 1959 sunbursts being bought & sold, changing hands, and creating some very famous (and extremely valuable) guitars.
While the guitar itself is a great guitar, the who’s who of rock guitarists who have played 1959 sunbursts adds to their value. The provenance of these guitars is what makes them famous.
- Keith Richards: In 1967 Keith sold his sunburst to Mick Taylor, who had replaced Peter Green in John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers (… who had replaced Eric Clapton in the Bluesbreakers). The “Keith Burst” would rejoin the Rolling Stones two years later when Taylor was brought in to replace Stones’ guitarist Brian Jones. In 1971 the guitar was either stolen, or maybe sold, but around 1977 it was sold to Bernie Marsden of Whitesnake who held onto it for about a week before selling it to Mike Jopp. In 2004 it went to an anonymous Swiss collector who supposedly paid $1 million for it.
- Peter Green: Purchased around 1965 from the same shop as Keith Richards’ sunburst, Peter Green’s 1959 sunburst “Greeny” can be heard on 1967’s A Hard Road by John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. The guitar went with him to the newly formed Fleetwood Mac and can be heard on their early blues-based albums including 1969’s Fleetwood Mac in Chicago. In the early 1970s he sold it to Gary Moore of Thin Lizzy where it can be heard on their albums. Moore sold it in 2006 for perhaps £300,000 or somewhere between $750,000-1.2 million, depending on the story. It further traded hands and most recently was sold in 2014 to Metallica’s Kirk Hammett. As for the price, it’s been reported that Hammett bought the guitar for $2 million but he’s said “I made a deal with the person I bought it from that I would never say what I paid for it. But it wasn’t $2 million. It wasn’t $1 million. It wasn’t even $500,000. That’s all I’ll say about it.”
- Jimmy Page: The guitar that Jimmy Page calls his “Number One” is the 1959 sunburst that he bought off of Joe Walsh in 1969 while on tour in America. Incidentally after Joe Walsh joined the Eagles in 1975 he and Don Felder both played sunbursts including on the band’s biggest hit Hotel California. As for Jimmy Page his “Number One” has become one of the most iconic versions of the guitar. It can be first heard on 1969’s Led Zeppelin II. Page went on to own more than one 1959 sunburst and used them throughout the band’s career, part of which can be seen in their 1973 concert film The Song Remains the Same.
- Billy Gibbons: Founder and front man of ZZ Top, Billy Gibbons purchased “Pearly Gates” from a rancher outside of Houston, Texas in 1968. After hearing Eric Clapton play a Les Paul sunburst he knew he had to have one. Gibbons named the guitar after a former car which in turn was named because it miraculously survived a drive from Texas to Hollywood. He’s played “Pearly Gates” on every ZZ Top album since. At one point he was offered $5 million for the guitar but declined.
- Duane Allman: While Allman was more famous for his 1957 gold top Les Paul, he sold it in a deal to buy a 1959 sunburst. That sunburst is most famously heard on the Allman Brothers Band’s 1971 live album At Fillmore East. Today it sits in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- Joe Perry: Unsure exactly who he traded guitars with, or when, Joe Perry ended up with a 1959 sunburst at some point in the 1970s. He played it on the early Aerosmith albums and can be seen playing it on the album art for Aerosmith’s Live! Bootleg album. Around 1982 Perry needed money and sold it for $4,500. It changed hands a few times, eventually going to Eric Johnson who offered to sell it back to Perry for what he paid for it, but Perry didn’t have any money and declined. It was sold again and by the time Perry had the money and went in search of his old guitar it was owned by Slash of Guns N’ Roses. The Joe Perry Les Paul can be seen in the November Rain video. In 2000 as a surprise 50th birthday present, Slash gave Perry back his old guitar.
Because of their iconic status the 1958-1960 Les Pauls have inspired many knock-offs. Some 1957s were refinished to look like 1958s, while others are just very convincing fakes. This leads to variations of the joke that between 1958-1960 Gibson made around 1,500 sunbursts and there are only about 3,000 left.
Of the sunbursts the 1959 is still the most valuable. The “Holy Grail” of guitars, the 1959 sunburst is so popular that Gibson currently makes a reissued version of it which you can buy new for just around $7,000. This is relatively inexpensive given that original 1959 sunbursts, even those with no particularly interesting provenance, sell for a few hundred thousand dollars each.