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Oh, stuff that Gibson

“If Eric Clapton had personally played all the guitars with his name on them, he would never have had the time to become famous.”

(Boring guitar chat alert)

Anyone who has an interest in life is going to want to share it with friends. It’s one of the penalties of friendship, that your friend could waste good drinking time droning on about fishing flies or his divorce or the golf or the latest version of Windows or Harley Davidsons or the price of property or Manchester United’s waning fortunes – and you would put up with it, for the sake of your friendship.

So, I happen to have an interest in guitars. So now you do too. And what I wanted to drone on about does in fact have wider relevance. It’s this:

Why are people so daft?

Now, I’m no expert. I bought my first guitar, or rather I persuaded my granny to buy it for me, when I was eleven years old. That was over half a century ago. I started a little pop group at my preparatory school, just three guitars, and we played Cliff Richard and Elvis covers, assuming they didn’t run to a fourth chord.

I gave up playing the guitar five years later, after a disastrous gig one night at my public school, when I just couldn’t play a note right. I hate to be embarrassed like that. And four years later, my friend Terry Milewski hocked my Hofner V3 to finance his escape to Canada, just ahead of the Doncaster police. There followed 32 years of serial marriages, during which there were to be no little personal luxuries.

Finally, four years ago everything came to a head. Freshly divorced, I was able to cash-in a long-ago paid-up pension plan; my father died, and left me some of his mother’s jewellery, which fetched a bit of money at auction…. at last, I was free and able to afford a guitar – which I had decided to take up again, only because I wanted to be a jazz singer but nobody else would play with me.

Now, as I said, I’m no expert – either as a player, or as a connoisseur of fine guitarware. I am learning all the time. And what I have learned is depressing, obviously (or it wouldn’t qualify for a mention on this, muh bogl).

What I have discovered is that if an old guitar has the word Gibson written on the headstock, the twiddly bit at the top end of the stick, then it will probably fetch between £2.4 and £24 THOUSAND, although it may well be made of plywood, as hollow-body Gibsons tend to be.*

But if it doesn’t bear the magic Gibson name, you can’t give the bloody thing away.

I discovered this, when I tried to sell my 1962 Epiphone E452T ‘Sorrento’ (see Posts passim). In 1956, Chicago Music, which owned the Gibson brand, acquired the Epiphone company. For ten years, Gibson remained the budget version of Epiphone, whose guitars were considered to have more cachet in the market. A number of models were created in parallel, using the same materials, dies and blanks, in the same factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and were sold under both brand names. They were identical, other than in some of the detailing and the quality of the fittings.

The E452T is, in fact, the slightly superior version of the Gibson ES125TC, which has been described as the ‘student’ model. But, thanks to clever rebranding, the 1960s Gibson nowadays sells as a collectors’ item for anything between £1,800 and £2,500, while I cannot even get an offer around £800 for my superior but otherwise identical Epiphone, which is in remarkable condition for 52 years of age and made by exactly the same people, in the same place, to the same design, from the same bits of plywood and metal, because it has the name Epiphone written on the twiddly end of the stick, and not bloody Gibson.

Guitars sell for even more, don’t they, when the name on the headstock is allied with that of some celebrity endorser. A good rockstar signature is often worth an extra few tens or hundreds of pounds, and makes for a story to attach to the product publicity. This usually tells of how the Gilded Demiurge has worked tirelessly for years in collaboration with craft elves of unrivalled artistry to design the perfect instrument for all of that stellar dexterity to rub-off on 15-year-old you, alone in your lonely room and dreaming of fame. If Eric Clapton had personally played all the guitars with his name on them, he would never have had the time to become famous.

Worse, is the dealer markup. I had to pay the dealer £1,400 to acquire my Epiphone. I fell for it two years ago, out of sheer boredom while attending a weekend jazz workshop. Amid another thirty or so foolish old men flourishing their cherished plywood Gibsons out of their plush coffins, many costing upwards of £10,000 (see, it gets worse!), to spend the hours before lunch dutifully strumming the changes from Sweet Sue under the jaundiced eye of a weary virtuoso, I could not stop my other self buying it. It had a wonderfully slick playing action and a great jazz tone, it played me for about an hour and I just had to have it…. I checked with Mister Internet, and found only three others for sale in the UK, not necessarily in such good or original condition, yet all costing more. It seemed like a fair price for a unique item: a ‘collectible’….

But every time you buy a ‘heritage’ guitar from a dealer, beware. He will be charging you twice what the instrument is worth, were you to presume to sell it again. And if you offer it back to a dealer, he will give you half of what you gave for it  and sell it on again for four times as much. No-one else will be very interested in buying it at any price: there are tens of thousands of secondhand guitars languishing on sales websites the world over. (To the hallowed halls of guitar fame, many are called, but, as I discovered on stage that night in 1965 in front of an audience of 200 uncomfortably shuffling schoolboys, few are chosen.)

You can never win, with a dealer. (They do, after all, have overheads. You don’t. Living is optional.)

And you can never win, if you fail to understand one thing about the magical quality invested in a brand: that graphic expression of people’s blind faith in meaningless symbols of power and prestige:

It doesn’t half improve your playing.

Postscriptum

The Friday-evening email Bulletin of Earthly Delights arrives from Guitar Guitar, a sales website not unknown to me, to provide a perfect example of what I am saying, innit.

There is a particular design of guitar called a ‘Les Paul’, doesn’t matter what that is. There was an original, once. Just to say that a pre-owned Les Paul-style guitar made by a company called Westfield is listed at £125, while the virtually indistinguishable-looking pre-owned Gibson ‘1959 edition’ Les Paul above it, signed by the rock god Paul Kossoff, is ‘Only £7,995’)….

Made, of course, from pure Martian crystal, inlaid with hens’ teeth; strings handspun by especially blinded fairies from Madonna’s personal hair….

*Hang on, I’ve just found a 1937 Gibson jumbo acoustic guitar online, advertised at a tad under SIXTY thousand… Blimey.

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