By Mark Allen Baker
Since Les Paul’s death Aug. 12, 2009, many have reflected on the extraordinary life he led and the legacy he left behind.
A celebrated guitar virtuoso and pragmatic inventor, Paul’s ideas shaped 20th-century popular music. He looked not only for what was, but for what should be — counterintuitive to the thinking of even that of Albert Einstein.
Like every collector and music historian, a copy of his autobiography, “Les Paul: In His Own Words,” sits on my bookshelf. Filled with crib notes and “stickies,” the work always prompts two wishes: That I could own a significant artifact from the music icon — anything, even a vacuum tube — and that someone, anyone, might produce a deluxe-edition book filled with color glossy images of a majority of his inventions.
Leave it to Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills, Calif., to make my dreams come true. The auction house has partnered with the Les Paul Foundation to present Property From The Estate of Les Paul, an extraordinary property and collection of guitars.
The event will be held June 8-9, 2012, in honor of what would have been Paul’s 97th birthday. The 741-lot auction includes equipment, memorabilia, personal effects and instruments that span the entirety of Paul’s career.
Vintage guitar authorities Dave Belzer and Drew Berlin, collectively known as “The Burst Brothers,” are curating part of this offering.
Auction highlights include:
• 1968 Prototype Gibson Les Paul Custom Recording Model (estimate: $60,000-$80,000). White flat top with Bigsby tail piece and note in Paul’s hand reading, “Reward this is the property of Les Paul A.K.A. Lester William Polfuss … Mahwah, New Jersey USA …”
• 1951 Fender Nocaster, serial number 1751(estimate: $40,000- $60,000). Butterscotch with black pickguard, neck date “5-10-51 T.G.”, no body date, with original thermometer case. This guitar was personally gifted to Les Paul by Leo Fender, who signed the back of the headstock.
• 1927 Gibson L-5 Sunburst Cremona, serial number 87230 (estimate: $10,000-$15,000). Hole drilled through the original pickguard, back re-finished, no original case. This is one of the two L-5s purchased by Les Paul, then going by the name Rhubarb Red, at Gibson in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1933.
• 1952 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop (estimate: $14,000-$16,000). No serial number, Trapeze tailpiece, tuners have been changed to Grover’s, patent pending with original case. This is one of the very first Les Paul guitars produced. The back of the headstock is hand signed, “Les Paul.”
• Boss BCB-6 pedal effects in case (estimate: $3,000-$5,000). Six Boss pedals. The case also contains tools and a pair of Les Paul’s sunglasses. It has all of his settings recorded on masking tape.
• 1955 Steinway & Sons Grand Model B in ebony (estimate: $20,000-$30,000). Steinway & Sons piano from Les Paul’s legendary main recording studio in his home in Mahwah, N.J. This is the only piano used for recordings made in the house.
• Early 1970s Ampex MM1000 (estimate: $3,000-$5,000). Sixteen-track recording machine using two-inch tape, with custom VSO. Serial number 260, with AC cable and side block. This was the first Ampex 16-track machine and is one of the most sought-after 16-track machines to this day.
• Late 1960s API recording mixing console (estimate: $40,000-$60,000). This 28-by-16-inch console is believed to be one of the first few made with the desirable configuration of 28 mic-line input channels and 16 buss.
• Les Paul’s touring rig (estimate: $5,000-$7,000). Gibson LP1 guitar amplifier pre-amp controller serial number 1038. A prototype designed by Les Paul.
Ready, Set, Bid
Registration is required to bid in this live auction. To register, complete and submit the auction house’s absentee bid form, which can be found at the exhibition and auction, in the back of the printed catalog, downloaded online at www.juliensauctions.com or requested by calling (310) 836-1818. Fax completed bid forms to (310) 388-0207.
Bids can be placed in absentia; in person; online in real time via www.JuliensLive.com; or via telephone with an auction house representative.
About Les Paul
Born June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wis., Lester William Polsfuss (aka Les Paul) learned early on to solve his own problems. At age 10, Paul needed a harmonica holder, so he fashioned one with a coat hanger. Not only was it an economical solution, but it just seemed logical to the youngster.
When he wasn’t thinking about music, which wasn’t often, Paul was thinking about tinkering with it. In his own words, “curiosity — and I got a double dose of it. I’ve never stopped trying to figure out what makes things work or how to make things work better.”
For Paul, it wasn’t just about the notes, but how the sounds were manufactured. Bored with his Sears variety acoustic guitar (Richard W. Sears spent the last days of his life in Waukesha), young Les took it apart. He removed a pickup — a device that captures a mechanical vibration and converts it to an electrical signal — from a dismantled Victrola and inserted it behind the strings.
With the guitar reassembled, Paul turned on the record player and the device became an electric guitar. Rudimentary? Yes! Innovative? Certainly! Perfected? Well, far from it, as Paul spent decades — with everything from earphones to a dentist’s drill — trying to manufacture pickup perfection.
Generation dependent, we knew him as a house band conductor, inventor, early ’50s pop star or simply a name synonymous with a guitar. Each is an accomplishment on its own, and each provided an impressive contribution to Paul’s discipline.
It was during the early 1940s that Les Paul developed another prototype, “The Log” as he called it, or the most influential, if not the first, solid-body guitar. Attaching strings and two pickups to a wooden board with a guitar neck, it was the resonance he sought, despite the odd appearance. Because it lacked a conventional look, he hid the device inside an ordinary guitar.
The fabrication became one of the most widely played and recognized guitars in the world: the Gibson Les Paul.