Meet Jim Irsay, the Man Who Bought Les Paul's Black Beauty

Jim Irsay has made a name for himself with music fans over the years as the owner of some very fine and famous guitars.
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Jim Irsay is known among sports fans as the owner of the Indianapolis Colts. But he’s made a name for himself with music fans over the years as the owner of some very fine and famous guitars.

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In February 2015, Irsay added one more such guitar to his collection: Les Paul’s 1954 Black Beauty, a guitar that Paul had tinkered with over the years in his ongoing quest for tone. Irsay paid $343,750, including commission, for the instrument at an auction presented by Guernsey’s in New York City.

The guitar now joins an esteemed collection of instruments owned by Irsay. And in the process, Irsay has again made people curious to know where this most sports-centric man developed his love of the guitar.

Irsay started playing music when he was young and growing up in Chicago. His father, Robert, owned the Colts, so football was never far from Jim’s mind. But he was also drawn to music. He studied violin from ages seven to 11 and then took up guitar after hearing soul and roots music on Chicago radio. Later, in college, he studied classical guitar and learned to play mandolin.

Shortly after Irsay graduated college, in 1982, his father moved the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis. Jim decided to join the family business, but he never lost his love of the guitar.

Over the years, as he settled into his career, he began rekindling his love of the instrument. And before long, he began buying guitars.

And he didn't stop.

As of last count, Irsay owns more than 90 vintage and special instruments, including 46 Martins, one of which was Elvis Presley’s, and another of which dates back to the 1850s.

As you might assume from his purchase of Les Paul’s Black Beauty, Irsay has an interest in celebrity guitars. And over the years he’s picked up some winners.

They include George Harrison’s cherry-red 1964 Gibson SG, which he bought for $567,500 at auction. The guitar has added value because it was also played by John Lennon, one of Irsay’s musical heroes, most prominently on the Beatles' White Album and in the video for “Hey Bulldog.” Irsay also owns a 1968 Harptone also owned by Harrison and used on his magnificent solo album All Things Must Pass.

But it’s Tiger, the guitar Doug Irwin made for Jerry Garcia in the late Seventies—and the last guitar the Grateful Dead icon ever played in concert—that is the prize of his collection. Irsay bid a winning $850,000 ($957,500 with commissions) for it in 2002 as part of a record-setting auction that also included Garcia’s Wolf ax.

Irsay is also that rare collector who doesn’t keep his instruments to himself. He has shared them with museums and loaned them to other guitarists. He's even opened his door to fans.

Once, when the wife of a Grateful Dead fan called to ask if her husband could see Tiger as a birthday present, Irsay was glad to assist. “The guy came out thinking he was getting free T-shirts or something like that,” says Chris McKinney, Irsay’s personal guitar tech and collection archivist. “They took him back to this room, and I’m standing there with the guitar—and the guy just freaks. He was just ecstatic. He got to play Tiger.”

Irsay says he tries to maintain “a fan’s perspective” with his collection. “It’s something you have to continually pinch yourself about and remind yourself of,” he says. “You have to continually acknowledge the privilege of being able to own these guitars and the responsibility of taking care of them and sharing them.”

Here, we present a small sampling of Irsay’s large and ever-growing collection.

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1979 Doug Irwin “Tiger”

Formerly owned by Jerry Garcia and purchased by Irsay for $957,000

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1964 Gibson SG Standard

A 1964 Gibson SG Standard previously owned and played by George Harrison

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1975 Martin D-18

A 1975 Martin D-18 once owned by Elvis Presley

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Super Bowl Martin

A commemorative Super Bowl Martin that was a gift from Stephen Stills