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Quest for the perfect guitar

October 9, 2009 | 10:00 am

It may not be an Arthurian tale of Sir Percival in pursuit of the Holy Grail, but Tony Bacon’s "Million Dollar Les Paul" (Jawbone: 288 pp., $19.95 paper) is still about a romantic quest.

The object of his interest? The 1959 sunburst Les Paul electric guitar -- an instrument used by Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield, Billy Gibbons, Peter Green and many other knights of the rock round table.

Its craftsmanship, explains the author (whose other books include "The Fender Electric Guitar Book" and "Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia"), borders on the mythic:

Instruments built in that year are seen ... as the peak of perfection. ... Everything came together. ... Ever since that time, guitarists, guitar makers, and guitar nuts have wondered how Gibson achieved such an extraordinary mix of mahogany, plastic, maple, rosewood, metal, and even, some say, magic.

If you’re a weekend ax-meister, you’ll understand what this magic refers to: The sound of a Les Paul knockoff pales next to the rich, meaty tones of the original. That’s one reason collectors pay huge sums.

Bacon surveys the history of the guitar’s creation, which dates to Les Paul’s experiments in the 1930s with solid-body, electric guitars with names like "the log," and then to Gibson’s marketing of its first solid-body in 1952. Between 1958 and 1960, Bacon reports, Gibson produced 17,772 Les Pauls, with the sunburst design making up only about 8% -- quite low, quite rare, making its price-tag soar.

But seven figures? The author never finds one sold at this price, although he does come up with others selling for $200,000 and beyond. In one 2007 sale, he reports, "a very flamey one-owner 1959 in excellent condition" went for $525,000.

"Million Dollar Les Paul" is more about the hunt -- which makes for an entertaining, fascinating glimpse into guitar culture, including talks with players such as Gibbons and the late Paul, as well as collectors such as Joe Ganzler, who authenticates original Bursts.

Often the author turns philosophical, musing on why this particular guitar appeals to so many collectors. He finally realizes that it’s partly nostalgia -- because it’s "a reminder of their youth" -- and this idea puts us back into the world of myth and all those quests for immortality.

"Just what is it about these guitars that makes them capable of reducing grown, hirsute men to jelly?" wonders Elliot Easton of the Cars. He gives up, conceding that the best explanation for "the beauty and desirability of the late-'50s sunburst Les Paul cannot be adequately expressed on paper."

In this book, Bacon comes pretty close.

-- Nick Owchar

Photo: A 1959 Gibson Les Paul sunburst. Credit: Richard Derk / For The Times