John Lennon’s 1962 Gibson J-160E jumbo acoustic-electric, the guitar he used on the Beatles’ earliest recordings, is going to auction this November, where it is expected to fetch a record high price.
The guitar had been lost for more than 50 years and represents a rare and significant instrument in both Lennon’s and the Beatles’ history. Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills will offer it in the Icons & Idols: Rock n’ Roll auction on November 6 and 7.
Lennon and fellow Beatle George Harrison ordered Gibson J-160E acoustic-electrics from Rushworth’s Music House in Liverpool, and received them on September 10, 1962. The next day, the Beatles returned to London to record the songs for their debut single, “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You.” It’s presumed that Lennon and Harrison used their J-160Es on these recordings. Lennon undoubtedly used the guitar on other Beatles recordings through 1963, including “This Boy” and select tracks on their first two albums, Please Please Me and With the Beatles.
Lennon was fond of the J-160E and used it when songwriting, as well as for recording and performance. He reportedly used it to write numerous early Beatles hits, including “Please Please Me,” “From Me to You,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “This Boy.” Lennon and Harrison also used their J-160Es to mime their performances in the videos for “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “This Boy,” recorded on November 22, 1963.
Then, in December 1963, Lennon’s J-160E was stolen while the Beatles were performing their Christmas show, a variety stage production featuring themselves and other groups, at the Astoria Cinema in Finsbury Park, London. The show ran for 16 nights, from December 24, 1963, to January 11, 1964. Shortly afterward, Lennon replaced the J-160E with a 1964 model that he continued to use over the years.
Interestingly, Lennon’s first J-160E got switched with Harrison’s at some point after the guitars were purchased. The J-160E in Harrison’s estate has the serial number of the guitar sold to Lennon, meaning that, technically speaking, it was Harrison’s jumbo, not Lennon’s, that was stolen.
Some 50 years later, the stolen 1962 jumbo turned up in a second-hand shop in the U.S. A buyer named John McCaw purchased it, and the guitar’s authenticity was confirmed by Beatles gear expert Andy Babiuk.
Given its history, Lennon’s J-160E is one of the most significant guitars to come to auction. It has never been modified or refinished and has no hardware or electronic changes. Telltale marks on the guitar, as well as the woodgrain pattern in the spruce top, confirm its identity.
Lennon and Harrison at Rushworth’s, where they bought their Gibson J-160Es. Though the photo is meant to show them purchasing the guitars on September 10, 1962, it was likely taken the following October as a series of promotional images for the Liverpool store. Other images from this shoot show the guitars with straps and numerous smudges, suggesting they had already seen use. Mersey Beat newspaper editor Bill Harry also confirmed the image was shot in October.
While it’s assumed that Lennon and Harrison played their J-160Es on “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You,” the songs featured on their first single, Babiuk points out in his book Beatles Gear that this may not be the case. Both songs were recorded on September 4, 1962, before the guitars were purchased, and again on September 11 (with session drummer Andy White filling in for Ringo Starr), the day after they were received. Babiuk notes that, to his ears, the guitars sound similar on both recordings. (He also believes the sound is similar to that heard on a June 6, 1962, recording of “Love Me Do” made with drummer Pete Best.)
So if Lennon and Harrison aren’t playing their J-160Es, what are they using? Possibly Lennon’s Rickenbacker 325 and Harrison’s Gretsch Duo Jet, says Babiuk. Lennon and Harrison always played their jumbos through their Vox AC-30 amps, which is how they would have recorded them on “Love Me Do”/“P.S. I Love You.” Notes Babiuk, “If one plays a J-160E, a Rickenbacker 325 and a Gretsch Duo Jet today through an AC-30, it’s relatively easy to get the same sound quality from all three guitars—essentially a very clean and full tone.”
Whatever the case, Lennon’s J-160E is a prized guitar. Darren Julien, owner of Julien’s Auctions, said its sale could top the $965,000 auction record set in 2013 by Bob Dylan’s 1964 Fender Stratocaster. Dylan used that guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival on July 25, when he caused controversy by performing with a full band using electric instruments in an environment where acoustic instruments were the standard.
Prior to going on sale at Julien’s in November, Lennon’s J-160E will be on display at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, from June 13 to 29 for the opening of the Grammy Museum. It will then be displayed at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles from July 2 to September 7 and at Julien’s Auctions Beverly Hills from November 2 to 6.
For those keeping count, another Lennon-owned guitar—a Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins—sold in March to Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay for $530,000 after it failed to make its reserve price at auction. Unlike the Gibson J-160E, the Gretsch was rarely used by Lennon, and is thought to have been played by him only for the recording of “Paperback Writer” in April 1966.
In addition, a Maton Mastersound electric guitar played briefly by Harrison in the summer of 1963 sold in May for $485,000.
For more about the auction, visit JuliensAuctions.com.