By Christopher Scapelliti
John Lennon’s 1962 Gibson J-160E jumbo acoustic-electric flattop smashed world records when it sold for $2.4 million at Julien’s Auctions Icons & Idols: Rock n’ Roll auction on November 7. In doing so, it became the most valuable artist-owned guitar ever sold at auction, dislodging Bob Dylan’s 1964 Fender Stratocaster, which he played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
Left behind at a 1963 gig and considered lost forever, Lennon’s guitar turned up in 2014. It had been expected to fetch about $800,000, though pretty much everyone thought it would reach the $1 million mark, given its importance and history. What probably no one anticipated was that it would shatter expectations by taking in three times its estimated value.
With the word “sold,” Lennon’s J-160E joined the pantheon of the most valuable guitars ever sold at auction. Here are the six instruments that currently occupy that esteemed position.
1. “Reach Out to Asia” Fender Stratocaster: $2.7 million (2005)
This one-of-a-kind Fender Strat sold for $2.7 million on November 16, 2005, making it the current record holder for most valuable guitar ever sold at auction. What makes the guitar so unique are the signatures of many rock stars all over its body, including those of Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian May, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Pete Townsend, Mark Knopfler, Ray Davis, Liam Gallagher, Ronnie Wood, Tony Iommi, Angus and Malcolm Young, Paul McCartney, Sting, Ritchie Blackmore, Def Leppard, and Bryan Adams.
Funds from the guitar were used to provide aid for the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. The earthquake and its subsequent tsunami killed an estimated 230,000 people in 14 countries bordering the Indian Ocean, inundating shorelines with waves up to 100 feet high.
The guitar was auctioned by Sotheby’s. Henry Wyndham, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe and one of the most experienced auctioneers in the art market today, said of the event, “I have auctioned many items for charity in my life, but never have I witnessed the levels we achieved tonight. This will stay in my memory for a very long time indeed.”
2. John Lennon’s 1962 Gibson J-160E Acoustic-Electric: $2.41 million (2015)
John Lennon bought his 1962 J-160E guitar at Rushworth’s Music House in Liverpool for £161 September 10, 1962. It was one of two nearly identical 1962 Gibson J-160E acoustic-electric guitars purchased by Lennon and George Harrison. Lennon used it to co-compose (with Paul McCartney) such early Beatles classics as “I Saw Her Standing There,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “This Boy.”
Lennon's earliest known use of the guitar was during the Abbey Road recording sessions of September 11, 1962, when the Beatles—with Ringo Starr having recently replaced original drummer Pete Best—recorded “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You.”
After one of the Beatles' 1963 holiday concerts at the Finsbury Park Astoria Theater in London, the instrument was apparently left behind by the band's longtime roadie, Mal Evans, who would later recall the moment “when I lost John's guitar” as the lowest point in his early Beatles career. Lennon would occasionally tease Evans (who died in 1976), “Mal, you can have your job back as soon as you find my guitar.”
The next four years in the guitar's life are a mystery, but it resurfaced in 1967 at a San Diego guitar shop called the Blue Guitar, a popular hub of the city's burgeoning folk, rock, and bluegrass scene. Most likely taken as a trade-in (no one associated with the store then or now remembers who brought the guitar in, nor do any written records remain, and certainly no one knew of the instrument's significance), the Gibson was purchased for $175 by a young man named Tommy Pressley, a then-21-year-old carpenter's apprentice and bluegrass player who frequented the shop. Two years later and needing money for a move, Pressley sold the guitar for the same price to his childhood friend, John McCaw.
McCaw, a still-working contractor in the San Diego area, played the instrument off and on over the next four decades, though he admits it often stayed on his wall or in a closet. “What you see today,” he says about the scratched guitar, “is exactly the way it looked the day I bought it 46 years ago. All the little dents and nicks and dings that you see were all there.”
In April 2014, McCaw, who had resumed his musical avocation, had just completed a group guitar lesson at San Diego's Sanctuary Art and Music Studio when he noticed a 2012 copy of Guitar Aficionado magazine with George Harrison's son Dhani on the cover. Inside was a photo of George's 1962 Gibson J-160-E (still owned by the Harrison Estate). Noticing the closeness of the serial numbers, McCaw and Marc Intravaia, the studio owner and friend, contacted Beatles Gear author Andy Babiuk, who examined and authenticated the instrument as the missing Lennon instrument.
“It was at that point that I realized I can't keep the guitar,” McCaw says. “It's too big for me. It's not going to fit in my house anymore.”
McCaw placed the guitar up for auction with Julien’s Auctions, and on November 7, it sold to an anonymous bidder for $2.41 million. As part of an agreement, McCaw split the proceeds with Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, who will donate the entirety of her proceeds—approximately 50 percent of the auction price—to her Spirit Foundation. (Additional writing and reporting by Damian Fanelli)
3. Bob Dylan’s 1964 "Newport Folk Festival" Stratocaster: $965,000 (2013)
This is the guitar that Dylan played when he “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The event went down in history as one of popular music’s most infamous moments, one that signaled Dylan’s self-liberation from the folk movement through which he’d found early fame.
Dylan turned up for his Newport gig in 1965 with the Strat and an electric back-up band consisting of guitarist Mike Bloomfield, bassist Jerome Arnold, Al Kooper on organ, Barry Goldberg on piano and drummer Sam Lay. He performed “Maggie’s Farm,” his then-new hit “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Phantom Engineer,” an early version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”
Audience reaction was mixed, with many in the crowd appearing to be receptive to the use of electric guitars while a faction of traditionalists were opposed to it. Some boos can be heard from the audience on recordings of the event.
After performing the three songs, Dylan abruptly left the stage, returning only after emcee Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary, took to the stage and asked him over the P.A. system to come back. Dylan, with an acoustic guitar in hand, performed “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” before departing. He would not return to the festival again until 2002.
Dylan’s Newport Strat was lost for decades after his performance when he left it behind on a plane piloted by Victor Quinto. Dylan and Quinto’s daughter, Dawn Peterson, worked out a legal dispute over the guitar’s ownership, clearing the way for it to be sold by Christie’s auction house, in December 2013.
The guitar was sold to Indianapolis Colts owner—and noted guitar collector—Jim Irsay, for $965,000. Irsay is known for sharing his valuable guitars and loaned the instrument to the 2015 Newport Folk Festival to mark the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s concert. Irsay said in a statement, “[This guitar] is such an important part of musical history, and Dylan was our generation’s Shakespeare, so it’s our way to give back and share.”
4. Eric Clapton’s "Blackie" Stratocaster Hybrid: $959,500 (2004)
In 1970, after switching from Gibsons to Fenders, Eric Clapton purchased six 1950s Stratocasters for two or three hundred dollars each at the Sho-Bud guitar shop in Nashville, Tennessee. He gifted three of the guitars to his pals George Harrison, Pete Townshend and Steve Winwood, and then had Nashville Luthier Ted Newman Jones assemble a guitar from the best parts of the remaining three. This became Blackie, named for its black finish.
Clapton first played Blackie onstage at London’s Rainbow Theatre on January 13, 1973 at a concert organized by Townshend and others to help Clapton's recovery from addiction. Clapton continued to use the guitar onstage and off over the next decades and considered it a very special guitar.
“I feel that that guitar has become part of me,” he told Dan Forte in a 1985 interview published in Guitar Player. “I get offered guitars and endorsements come along every now and then. [A guitar maker] tried to get me interested in a fairly revolutionary guitar. I tried it, and liked it, and played it on stage–liked it a lot. But while I was doing that, I was thinking, ‘Well, Blackie is back there. If I get into this guitar too deeply, it’s tricky, because then I won’t be able to go back to Blackie. And what will happen to that?’
“This all happens in my head while I’m actually playing [laughs]. I can be miles away thinking about this stuff, and suddenly I shut down and say, ‘This is enough. No more. Nice new guitar. Sorry. You’re very nice, but…’ That’s when I drag the old one back on, and suddenly it’s just like jumping into a warm pool of water.”
Clapton retired the guitar after his 1985 tour and finally parted ways with it in 2004, when it was sold at a Christie’s auction to support the Crossroads Centre, Clapton’s drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation center. Blackie sold to music store chain Guitar Center for 959,500, setting a record at the time for the world's most expensive guitar.
5. Jerry Garcia’s Doug Irwin Tiger: $957,500 (2002)
In 1972, Garcia began a long association with luthier Doug Irwin when he purchased a guitar called Eagle from the luthier. Garcia liked the guitar so much that he placed a custom order with Irwin. That guitar—dubbed Wolf, for the cartoon wolf sticker Garcia had originally applied below its bridge—was completed in 1973. When Garcia went to pick it up, he was so impressed by it that he placed an order for another custom guitar before leaving.
Wolf became Garcia’s main instrument for the next four years, during which time he asked Irwin to make several modifications, including a buffered effect loop that let him wire his effect pedals to the guitar and bypass them with a switch. Eventually, though, Wolf was replaced by the guitar that Garcia had ordered back in 1973, when he’d received Wolf. That guitar was Tiger, which he received in July 1979.
Garcia had given Irwin total freedom with Tiger, and he was not disappointed. The guitar was beautiful, with contrasting layers of tone woods, including cocobolo, maple and vermillion. Detailed pearl inlays on the body’s back and fretboard heightened the guitar’s status as a work of art.
But Tiger was also a testament to Irwin’s technical innovation. The guitar’s coil-tap switches, five-position pickup selector, unity gain buffer, effect loop and other controls gave Garcia the freedom to craft a broad range of tones from the DiMarzio pickups, which included Dual Sound humbuckers in the middle and bridge positions and an SDS-1 in the neck (the Dual Sounds were replaced in 1982 with DiMarzio Super IIs).
“There are 12 discrete possible voices that are all pretty different,” Garcia said of Tiger’s electronics. That tonal power is the reason Tiger was his main guitar for the next 11 years, a continuous run longer than that of any other guitar Garcia played.
Tiger was sold by Guernsey’s auctioneers on May 8, 2002, for $957,500 to Jim Irsay, who also owns the second-place guitar on this list, Dylan’s 1964 Stratocaster.
6. Eric Clapton’s 1964 Gibson ES-335 TDC: $847,500 (2004)
Clapton purchased this guitar in 1964 and used it throughout his career, from his tenure with the Yardbirds to his stints with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, and Blind Faith, and long into his solo career, where it was one of his principal stage guitars during the Nineties.
His fellow Yardbird Chris Dreja was often photographed playing the 335, and Clapton was seen more often with his Les Paul when playing in the Bluesbreakers and Cream. He seems to have started using the ES-335 along with a Gibson Firebird I during Cream's 1968 farewell tour. He reportedly played this guitar on “Badge,” the track he co-wrote with George Harrison, on Cream’s Goodbye album.
The ES-335 was used extensively with Blind Faith in the studio and onstage, and Clapton said in a 1989 interview that it was also used on his 1989 rendition of Ray Charles' Hard Times, released on his Journeyman album. According to Lee Dickson, Clapton’s longtime guitar tech, the ES-335 was at practically all of Clapton's recording sessions from 1979 to 2004, whether it was used or not.
Clapton took the guitar back on the road for his 1995 Nothing But Blues Tour, using it primarily on Freddie King covers, and used it for the 1996 VH-1 Duets program with Dr. John and at the Prince's Trust concert in London's Hyde Park on June 29, 1996.
Clapton put the ES-335 up for sale as part of his Crossroads Guitar Auction held by Christies on June 24, 2004 in New York. Though it carried a presale estimate of $60,000 to $80,000, the guitar exceeded expectations by more than tenfold, selling for $847,500.