Words by Bob Wootton, Images by Richard Ecclestone

Words by Bob Wootton, Images by Richard Ecclestone

Vault

In his third column, London-based collector Bob Wootton talks about the acquisition of all acquisitions: a Holy Grail ‘58 ‘Burst. 

Hello again, all. True to my delayed promise, I’m going to talk about my Holy Grail guitar this time: my ’58 sunburst Gibson Les Paul. 

I grew up in London, UK, and when I was coming to music in my early teens, the British Blues Boom had peaked and progressive rock was emerging. 

The story of how a bunch of young, white, mainly lower-middle class British teenagers found, adopted, rehabilitated, repackaged and returned the declining blues format to its birthplace must be one of the most interesting stories in the history of music. 

Aside the high priests like Yes, Genesis, and Emerson Lake and Palmer, many UK prog bands grew out of the blues boom and were blues-based. Some of the music was excellent but some was pretty second-rate. There was a lot of extended riffing around. Even the second side of Black Sabbath’s seminal debut album evidences this. 

Many of those bands passed almost without trace, though their vinyl recordings now fetch high prices as they were very often pressed in small numbers. There were parallel streams of jazz and folk-influenced music too, but it was blues that really hooked me. 

John Mayall stood at the very centre of things—the crossroads if you like! A succession of his gunslinger alumni gave direct or indirect rise to Cream (Eric Clapton), Fleetwood Mac (Peter Green), Led Zeppelin, Free (bassist Andy Fraser) and many more. Another alumnus, Mick Taylor, replaced Brian Jones in The Rolling Stones (whose Keith Richards sported one of the very first ‘Bursts in the UK). 

The blues and ‘Burst flames 

The scene was also very small and concentrated. Based around a few hub venues in London, like the Spice of Life pub and The Marquee Club in Soho, and clubs like the Speakeasy, the Café Des Artistes and the Scotch of St James, site of Hendrix’s UK debut in 1966. And the Watford Gap service station on the country’s only motorway at the time, where bands met up frequently en route home from gigs in the provinces. 

And, of course, in the US, Mike Bloomfield, Duane Allman and The Reverend Billy Gibbons were also keeping the blues and ‘Burst flames alive. 

As I was discovering this exciting music and the people who played it, my bible was the weekly music industry newspaper, the Melody Maker, which carried band news, album and concert reviews, gig listings and classified ads for gear and job vacancies. 

Virtually every top player featured—including personal favourites like Jeff Beck, Gary Green of Gentle Giant and later Dzal Martin of No Dice—was pictured with what I soon learned was a Gibson Les Paul guitar. Usually, a sunburst one even if the publication was resolutely monochrome in those days. 

Gunning for a Gibson 

Thus a lifelong ambition to own one was sown, which only blossomed as I listened and learned more. (My teenage bucket list also included a Ferrari, realized and sold recently, and a work by 60s British Artist Robyn Denny, just acquired at last). 

After playing zealously through school for a couple of years, my dear dad got me my first Gibson. He wouldn’t buy second-hand but funded a new SG Deluxe from Selmer in Charing Cross Road, the UK Gibson importer where many luminaries such as John McLaughlin and Paul Kossoff had worked. 

That was 1972—as I know now, not a great period for Gibson (or Fender) as the craftsmanship of yore had been subsumed by corporate interests following their acquisitions by Norlin and CBS respectively. 

I loved that SG despite its shortcomings, playing it constantly as I rehearsed and gigged where and whenever I could. But the more I did, the more I realized that it was some way short of my ambition. 

By now, I’d left university and entered the world of work. I dedicated most of my time to climbing the greasy pole so guitar took a back seat. 

Japanese ‘lawsuit’ guitars and then numerous independent boutique US and UK makers came to market. More than a decade passed before the first PRS guitars came up for sale in the UK in ‘88, and I bought one of the first five which I still own. It rekindled my interest in playing, for which I’m forever thankful. 

Searching for the Holy Grail 

By the late 90s, I’d started a family and got used to running a family budget. My thoughts returned to Les Pauls. By then I’d played many post-‘68 models belonging to friends, none of which floated my boat. So I started to look for an old one. 

I decided a ’57-’58 Goldtop would be the one for me. Rarer than the later Sunbursts, but with identical appointments, good enough for Dickey Betts, Clem Clempson and Snowy White and around half the price. 

But I didn’t know my way around the vintage market and prices were already getting quite serious, so I needed help—and a bit of luck. 

I approached the UK’s vintage dealers, seeking their help as much in educating me as just selling me something. That proved too big an ask for most, but one responded very positively and introduced me to all kinds of great vintage stuff and other owners so I got a crash course in what to look, listen, feel (and smell!) for. 

One day he turned up with a ’58 ‘Burst. It was out of my league, but he left it with me for a few days, during which I realized this was it. So with my wonderful wife’s kind agreement, I remortgaged the house…

My ‘Burst had little provenance, having been brought over with another from the US in the early 90s by a member of a touring band’s entourage. This is how many old Gibsons crossed the pond. Ian Hunter and Mick Ralphs of Mott The Hoople are probably responsible for half the singlecut Juniors in the UK! 

I was told that it had once belonged to Tom Keifer of big hair band Cinderella who owned several ‘Bursts back in the day, but I haven’t been able to reach him to confirm. If you’re reading this, Tom, look me up? 

It was, and is, completely original, but for three things : 

  1. The original pickguard’s bottom sheer edge has been very slightly rounded (I don’t now why?) 
  2. The switch tip was intact but cracked 
  3. The ABR1 bridge showed very slight signs of dropping, something I learned is quite common 

I fixed the bridge very carefully and it hasn’t moved since. The switch tip finally broke in use and a replacement original was sourced for me at a considerable cost at the Arlington show a decade ago. This, alongside the broken original, lives in the correct four-latch Lifton case (the more-coveted five latch cases tend to accompany later examples). A modern replica tip lives on the guitar for day-to-day use. 

It has a bit of figure in the wood under bright light, but isn’t really flamey, though the medullary lines are quite pronounced. It’s faded to what they call ‘teaburst’. 

I understand Mark Knopfler prefers these ‘plainbursts’. One of his—which I’ve played but don’t ask how—is only seven serial numbers from mine and very, very similar, except for the huge frets he puts on a lot of his stuff. 

It’s quite an early one—there aren’t many earlier on burstserial.com. It has a big C-shaped neck and the original thinner frets which Gibson used until they were changed for fatter ones in ’59 as the neck profile flattened slightly to a full ‘D’ profile. (Necks then thinned to the ‘blade’ profile a few months into 1960). 

These details, along with the amount of flame in the top, are the main drivers of the different values. ‘59’s are considered the top of the bunch, then ‘58’s and then the skinnier ‘60’s. If, like me, you believe from experience that a lot of a guitar’s tone comes from its neck, then you’ll favour the ’58 despite the skinny frets, which you get used to.  

The PAF (patent applied for) pickups aren’t too hot and have a very detailed sound, and the guitar sustains for a long time. Think Peter Green playing Greeny with The Bluesbreakers. 

But the miracle of these things is what happens when you pair them with a really good overdriven amp. The notes bloom, sustain increases yet further and harmonics pop out.  Listen to Clapton’s overdriven Les Paul at the end of ‘Steppin’ Out’ on the Beano album. The overtones are so rich it almost sounds like he’s overlaying another chord, chiming out of key. 

Les Pauls are relatively heavy as they’re thick slabs of wood, but of course it’s some way lighter than a modern one (unless weight-relieved and that’s a whole other debate). 

The finish is very thin, brittle and lightly-checked whereas most modern Les Pauls feel like they’re wrapped in plastic to me. 

It immediately surprised me how bright and acoustically resonant it is, not at all like most later Les Pauls which I find dark. It almost sounds like it’s feeding back even when unplugged, perhaps because the crystallization of the woods encourages harmonic overtones. Many folks say a good ‘Burst is like an old Tele on steroids, and they’re not wrong. 

So it’s been with me a long time now. It gets played very frequently and I’ve even gigged it carefully. 

As I got to know more about it, I was surprised to learn Les Pauls had been discontinued in favour of Gibson’s new solid guitar or SG line in 1960 because of declining sales! 

But the market decided by the mid-late 60s that these guitars were selling for more than new ones as the best players realized they were better. Much better. That price gap has remained but now widened almost unimaginably. 

Some friends have been successful enough to collect classic cars which can be very valuable indeed. They confer their owners with a ticket into another world. So, in their own way, do these guitars. 

Blues machines and collectors’ dreams 

Thus I’ve got to meet quite a few very serious players and fellow owners and their guitars.  This has reassured me mine is a good one and in pretty good shape too. 

One friend has a very flamey one with a very low 1960 serial number which has completely faded to a yellow ‘lemonburst’. It has all 1959 characteristics and is a very special guitar indeed. Louder, perhaps a bit brasher, more of a superlative rock guitar to my blues machine. But blues is where I spend most of my time. 

I check the value from time to time. I’ve been told I shouldn’t even consider any offer of less than a quarter of a million. Scary but irrelevant as I’m nowhere near wanting or needing to sell it yet. Just as with homes here in UK, nobody I know could afford to buy the place they now own. Seems it’s the same with this guitar. 

My hope is that one day I will find it another equally loving home with someone else who will treat it well and use it—not put it in a glass case. 

For now it’s my hard-earned turn to love, cherish, play—and gig—it. 

Some of you might recall I’m on the prowl for a really good early Tele, ca.’52. I’ve not been having much luck as asking prices are off the scale. 

Pandemic lockdowns saw many people turning or returning to hobbies. Instrument sales and prices soared, some new ‘masterbuilt’ instruments’ asking prices now more than vintage pieces. 

I understand that the walk-in public, from whom the vintage market has hitherto sourced much of its inventory, have been largely absent from recent high-end guitar shows. 

Instead, dealers have been buying from and selling to each other.  This has created a spiral, but it’s unsustainable. The market is heading for a correction like it saw after the peak feeding frenzy of 2007. See also the glut of pre-owned Pelotons now on offer. 

Feedback welcome as ever, but until next time, all the best and happy playing. 


www.rockbeareguitars.com