In May of this year, Gibson released its Collector’s Choice #28 STP ’Burst—an authentic replica of my long-time friend Ronnie Montrose’s famous 1958 Les Paul. Now owned by an anonymous German collector, this fabled guitar once belonged to the renowned German studio musician Peter Weihe. It was almost mine.
But first, a little background…
Ronnie was born in San Francisco in 1947, moved to Colorado with his family, and found his way back to San Francisco with a flower in his hair in 1968. He was hired by Van Morrison to play on Tupelo Honey in 1971, and, in September 1972, he was recruited to join the Edgar Winter Group shortly before the epic recording sessions for They Only Come Out at Night. At this time, Ronnie decided to acquire his first “real” instrument—a 1959 Les Paul Standard, bought from J. Geils for the then-princely sum of $800. This was the guitar used on “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride.”
Ronnie Montrose performs live at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in 1975.
The very next month, the ’59 was stolen right off the stage during an Edgar Winter Group concert in Dudley, Massachusetts, on October 20, 1972. Ronnie desperately sought its return, but his immediate priority was finding a replacement. Happily, a Memphis guitar dealer named Robert Johnson located a 1958 sunburst, and things were really about to heat up with that baby in Ronnie’s hands.
On February 3, 1973, Sammy Hagar saw Ronnie perform with the Edgar Winter Group at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Several months later, when Sammy heard Ronnie was looking to form his own band, he went straight to Ronnie’s home in Sausalito, California.
“Do you have any songs?” asked Ronnie.
By the end of that good day, Ronnie and Sammy had written the Montrose classic, “Space Station #5.” That summer, Ronnie, Sammy, drummer Denny Carmassi, and bassist Bill Church went into the studio to record Montrose, and the ’58 sunburst was the sound of that world-changing debut album. (There was one exception: a red ’58 Les Paul Junior set up for slide was used on “Bad Motor Scooter.”) Ronnie would also use the ’58 on the band’s superb second album, Paper Money in 1974.
So it was no wonder my heart was racing when I walked into Leo’s Music in Oakland, California, in 1977, and watched salesperson Bill Acton climb high up on a ladder to pull down a ’58 Les Paul they had for sale. I knew immediately it was Ronnie’s sunburst.
As I sized up the guitar, I was surprised by its weight—it felt like a feather compared to a new 1977 Les Paul. It had been refretted with jumbo frets, had overlay binding installed on the neck, and the original tuners had been replaced with Grovers— which were de rigueur for the late ’70s. I later learned some of this work had been done by Ronnie’s luthier, Glen Quan. There were also a couple of gouges in the finish at the base of the guitar— the result of a Bigsby that had been removed. Ronnie himself had changed out the original Volume and Tone knobs for a set of early 1950s Gibson “barrel” knobs.
Moreover, an STP sticker had once been placed near the toggle switch—years before Ronnie purchased the guitar—and, after its removal, what remained was a red silhouette on the guitar’s faded cherry-sunburst finish. This was later the basis for the guitar’s nickname: the “STP ‘Burst.”
All told, the guitar had an amazing mojo to it.
Every Collector’s Choice #28 STP ’Burst ($6,332 retail) is crafted with the full cooperation of Peter Weihe, Leighsa Montrose (for the Montrose estate), and the current owner, and includes a Certificate of Authenticity, Ronnie Montrose commemorative picks, and a USB drive with exclusive video of the guitar’s history.
Leo’s had set a price of $2,500 for the guitar, and that was a whole lotta coin in those days (approximately $10,000 in 2014 bucks), so I told Bill I would be back on Monday to pay for it. He suggested a down payment to hold the instrument for me, but I declined. This was a monumental mistake.
When I went back to get it, there was simply an empty hook where Ronnie’s guitar had once hung. Yikes!
Fast forward to 1979…
I was inside a San Francisco guitar store carrying a recently acquired 1958 Les Paul sunburst of my own when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was none other than Ronnie Montrose. I was predictably speechless.
“What year is your Les Paul?” Ronnie inquired.
He was already opening the latches before I could say, “It’s a ’58. Want to see it?”
As Ronnie looked it over, he told me the story of the ’59 that had been stolen in Dudley seven years earlier. I could tell he still really wanted to recover it. As I was a collector, I promised I would keep my eyes open for the lost ’59.
Ronnie and I became very close friends after that chance meeting, and, years later, I did locate the whereabouts of his ’59 Les Paul. Unfortunately, he never recovered it during his lifetime. He was understandably saddened by that fact until the day he died.
I guess I felt somewhat the same about missing my opportunity to buy his 1958 STP ’Burst from Leo’s. That guitar really had it all. It was used to record one of the greatest rock records ever, it was owned by my all-time favorite guitar player, and that player became one of my closest friends. It truly was the one that got away.