When I got home from the mountain bike park yesterday I saw an email from a friend telling me to watch the above video. “Is that a P-90/humbucker combination in Schon’s Les Paul?” he asked. “I’ve never seen that.” My off-the-cuff response was, “Well, it’s a Les Paul BFG combo, just like my Les Paul Gator.” But that was an obviously ridiculous response because the BFG wasn’t introduced until twenty years after this video was filmed.
So I decided to do a little bit of Internet (and actual book!) research to find out what was going on. The answer ended up being a sort of Seventies synecdoche, incorporating various sorts of concepts and tropes — from guitar-as-tool to Boomer-driven-nostalgia-control to plain-and-simple corporate ignorance.
At twelve and a half grand.
For a forty-year-old Les Paul.
For the actual guitar played by Neal “I’m Fucking Your Wife With My Enormous Wang” Schon on tour. The guitar that was probably used in the studio to record “Escape”. It was a no-sale at $12,500.
Just to put this in perspective, any run-of-the-mill 1960 Les Paul with no celebrity ownership history would sell for $200k right now. A brand-new Custom Shop R9 Les Paul with Murphy aging will run you $13k. The average Private Stock PRS goes for between eight and twenty grand, and I assure you that no PRS in history has ever been used to record a song anything nearly as good as “Stone In Love”. So what gives?
Let’s start with a three-sentence Les Paul history. The guitar was introduced in the early Fifties as a dual-P-90-equipped, trapeze-tailpiece unplayable piece of junk — basically a solid-body Gibson jazz guitar that nobody liked. In 1956 they fixed the neck, in 1957 it was equipped with the new “humbucker” pickup design, and from 1958 to 1960 it was produced as a “sunburst” variant with double humbuckers. Fewer than 2,000 of those “Burst” Les Pauls were made before the body style was changed in 1961 to what we call the “Les Paul SG” or “Gibson SG” now.
The Les Paul Model was pretty much a failure for its entire original production run. Outshone by the Fender Stratocaster, it was frequently criticized for being an overly delicate and complicated instrument that was more difficult to play than the Strat while also offering a weaker tone thanks to the short scale length and glued construction. But all of that changed when Eric Clapton used a five-year-old pawnshop Lester to record the original Bluesbreakers album, giving birth to the “CLAPTON IS GOD” phenomenon and sending thousands of would-be Clapton clones to their local pawnshops in search of a 1958-1960 Les Paul . Michael Bloomfield performed a similar resurrection of the instruments’s image in the United States. When Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page started touring with a Burst, the rehabilitation of the guitar’s image was complete. From zero to hero, an overnight success in just ten short years.
Gibson was annoyed by this Les Paul revival, and they didn’t like their brand being represented by a “vintage” instrument that bore no resemblance to what they were currently selling. Worse still, they’d thrown away the jigs for the old guitar a long time ago and had no idea how to make it. So when they finally got around to building the “real” Les Paul again, they did it in a completely half-assed fashion with the 1969 Les Paul Deluxe. It shared no dimensions or critical characteristics with the original 1958 Sunburst Les Paul and to make matters worse it came with cheapo “mini-humbucker” pickups that had been acquired when Gibson bought Epiphone a few years prior.
A few of the early Deluxe guitars were built reasonably well from leftover Fifties wood and components, but the vast majority had “sandwich” plywood bodies and necks made from multiple pieces of cheap maple or low-grade mahogany. The low-cost, high-density wood made them heavy, often hitting the scales at twelve pounds compared to the eight or nine of a 1958 model. (I could go into a 5,000-word diversion about “downslope mahogany” here but I won’t.) They didn’t look, feel, play, or sound like a real Les Paul.
Still, the fact of the matter was that the new-for-1969 Les Paul Deluxe was available in every guitar shop across the nation, while the real Sunburst guitars were lost, stored, or hidden in basements, under beds, and in private collections. No doubt that accounts for why Neal Schon chose the Les Paul Deluxe as his primary guitar for virtually all the Journey albums. It’s also no surprise that he had it extensively modified with a combination of old pickups from trashed Fifties-era Gibsons and a Floyd Rose tremolo so he could do the deep string bends that were popular in that era.
The “Stone In Love” guitar from the above video is a 1977 Les Paul Deluxe modified to have a humbucker and a P-90, with a Floyd Rose tremolo installed at the same time. It’s hacked-up and cut-up and beat up, but that tends to increase the value of a famous instrument. Journey has sold about 48 million albums and it’s a safe bet that the vast majority of them were recorded with this guitar. It should be worth more than twelve grand.
The fact that it isn’t should tell us a lot about how so-called “collectible” items are valued and priced in the modern environment. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s all about the Boomers. Their generation essentially froze the music business in place for the better part of forty years. Consider the fact that “classic rock” stations played ten-year-old music in 1980 — but in 2010 they weren’t playing the rock hits from 2000. No, it was still all about 1970. The music, movies, and art made by the post-Boomer generation has been relentlessly derided and criticized as “disco-era garbage” for my entire lifetime. Mick Jagger has been essentially canonized for making a fool of himself on stage; Neal Schon has become a punchline for the same kind of swaggering behavior. The only difference between the two is the fact that the Boomers were teenagers when the Stones were hot and they were callow thirtysomethings when Journey was selling records.
Our entire culture has been semi-permanently held hostage by the teenaged preferences of people who are now in their early seventies. A 1957 Bel Air became a classic car when it was seventeen years old, but a 2000 Impala is not a classic car now. Hollywood carpet-bombs the theaters with 65-year-old men “playing young” for action roles. Jimmy Page’s touring Les Pauls are worth maybe fifteen million dollars each; Neal Schon’s touring Les Paul was a no-sale at a thousandth that amount.
The guitar business, too, has been frozen in amber. Gibson has spent the last thirty years trying to build a Les Paul just like they were built in 1958. Each year brings a new refinement (Long tenon! Hide glue! Burstbucker 3!) that retreats the current state of the guitar-making art just a little closer to the past. Today’s top experts on vintage Les Paul construction weren’t even alive when the 1958 Burst appeared in stores. Fender’s most popular instruments are the “American Vintage” and “Classic Vibe” series that attempt to perfectly reproduce a particular Fifties or Sixties Stratocaster or Telecaster.
Even the car business has had its forward motion forcibly arrested by a series of “retro” designs that somehow always seem to recall the cars that the Baby Boomers wanted as teenagers. Everything else has to be sold under the shopworn banner of “irony”. If you are a big fan of 1967 Mustangs, you don’t need to wave the Irony Flag, but woe betide the person who expresses a fondness for the 1983 Mustang GT without the requisite amount of smirking and winking.
This may all seem like a trivial matter but I would like to suggest that depriving multiple generations of their own storytelling is far from trivial. It perpetuates the comfortable and enfeebling subjugation of Generation X to its parents. We sit around and listen to our parents’ music, watch our parents’ favorite movie stars, and indulge in feeble hopes that Mom and Dad won’t burn through every penny of their seemingly effortless post-war wealth before they die. Modern couples work one hundred and forty hours a week to live dim shadows of the lives their parents enjoyed courtesy of Dad’s 9-to-5. The California homes that Boomers bought easily on fifteen year mortgages are three-million-dollar bubble beasts today. There are no pensions, no retirements, no ends in sight.
The good news is that it will all come to an end, and remarkably soon. In ten years the Boomers will be effectively powerless. Their cherished possessions will be estate-auction junk, their oversized homes will sit empty, their taste-making abilities will dwindle to nothing. The much-derided Millennials will be the beneficiary of it. They’ll have the chance to reimagine their adult lives in their own images. They won’t be interested in your vintage Les Paul or your Yenko Camaro or your McMansion.
None of this means that Neal Schon’s guitar will be worth any more than it is (not) today. It just means that the spell will be broken, the winter will fade, and all the cherished old things of the Boomers will finally, at long last, just become old things again. The cultural clock will begin ticking for real. It’s cold comfort for my generation, because we were the pawns of our parents and we will become incidental to our children. But there is a certain satisfaction to be had in seeing the march of time begin once more. It’s going to happen. I promise you. Don’t stop believin’.