Greetings fellow guitar enthusiasts. I am writing on my way to Sydney, Australia. I’ve always had an infatuation with the former British bastion for the criminally adept and socially unfit that were unceremoniously shipped off to paradise—as mandated by law—as far away from cold and dreary England as possible.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk guitars and, in particular, a very special guitar that found me two years ago but only recently came into my life: a late-1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard in factory sunburst finish that for most of its life only had one owner. To put the 1960 Les Paul Standard into perspective we need to start with what was going on at the time. Sales of the Les Paul model basically went into free fall just at the start of what we guitar geeks call the Holy Grail period of electric guitars: 1958 to 1960. It’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when Gibson rested the Les Paul model for almost a decade, but by the autumn of 1960, the Les Paul as we know it was toast and the remaining inventory was being sent to anyone who would take it. One of the territories where Gibson sent the last batch of sunburst Les Pauls was Australia. It’s almost like this great guitar was suddenly banished to lands far away, hopefully never to been seen or heard from again. Sound familiar?
This is when the story of one Wendy Johnson becomes interesting. Apparently, Wendy walked into a music store in New South Wales in early 1961 and bought Gibson Les Paul serial number 0-8089, complete with the import-only “Made in the USA” impressed stamp above the serial number. She played the guitar for almost 50 years until she saw a television special around 2008 about vintage guitars with an emphasis on the values of these 1958, 1959, and 1960 sunburst Les Pauls. She realized she owned a special guitar that was worth a lot of money and sold it to my friend Dominic for a very fair but still life-changing price.
On a rainy afternoon in the autumn of 2012 at the Palais Theater in Melbourne, Australia, Dominic shows up with this very clean Les Paul. The guitar is not for sale and is only there on a show-and-tell basis. We immediately plug the guitar into my rig and blast it at 115dB. It sounds great and has this high-end snap that all late-1960 ’bursts have to my ears. I think it’s a combination of a slightly shorter neck tenon and the skinny neck that gives them this pinging sound. Think Cream and the solo on “I Feel Free” or Joe Walsh’s tone in the mid 1970’s and you’ll get my drift. These 1960 Standards sound visceral and angry.
How is this a Guitar Safari if the guitar wasn’t even for sale? Well you see, some guitars are worth the wait, some guitars are worth more than what the book value says they are worth, and sometimes you travel a long way to find something that you didn’t expect to fall in love with but you do at first sight. All of that happened to me on that rainy day in Melbourne. I finally purchased the guitar from Dominic for what I call the “Love It Forever” price late last year. Why? Easy. It’s about the preservation of history—both Australian and American—as well as the fact that a guitar traveled so far, only to come back stateside after 55 years abroad. It is one of my most cherished instruments, and I am honored to own it. One day I plan to take it on the road and maybe pass through Kalamazoo, MI, so it truly can go back home, even if only for a little while. And hopefully Wendy can come hear it at the State Theater in Sydney the next time I play in town.