Q: Mike, if you were stuck on a desert island and could only have one electric guitar, what would it be? Let’s assume that your favorite amp is also on the island with you.
A: This is my wish and my island, right? I just want to make sure because it will be a different answer for each person you ask…so this is MY choice, not a recommendation.
I hate to choose a nice Vox AC-30 Top Boost with a humbucking beast, but it’s always worked for me.
I was tempted to say a Marshall Super Lead Plexi, because with no neighbors, I don’t have to sweat the volume being up on 8 or 10 for that beautiful natural tube distortion, but hell, I don’t want to be deaf in 3 weeks, or have to stuff coconut husks in my ears. So I will take my AC-30 Top Boost (if I wait for an affordable Dumble OD special to pop up, I’ll never get to my island).
So, what of the guitar? At this point, (and maybe very rightly so) most everyone will say:
“A 1959 Les Paul, or a Fender Blackguard Tele, 1957 Strat, Hendrix’s Woodstock Olympic White Strat, Clapton’s Block Marker, George Harrison‘s Rosewood Tele, Eddie Van Halen‘s Frankenstein or…Keith Partridge’s Ovation Breadwinner!!!!”
While I’d take anyone of those, please, even the Breadwinner (no, not really), I’ll try to keep this realistic and pick one from my own collection, not a collector’s item beyond my reach.
Though I have 17 Guitars, I am more of a player than a collector. But I do own some guitars you might call “collectors’ items.” When I get a guitar, I have two rules: If I don’t love to play it, I don’t buy it. If I buy it, I keep it.
One of the guitars I have owned for the longest time is a quilt top Les Paul, which was made around 1981. It is one of the first “re-issue” ’50s type guitars Gibson made. I’m not 100% sure of exactly what its official model name is or if it even has one. I don’t think anyone else knows either. It has Tim Shaw humbuckers (PAF style) and a ’50s neck angle, headstock shape, and pitch. It has the “return to thin binding” in the cutaway and proper 59-ish neck shape. It does not have the giant oversized, but loveable baseball bat reissue necks of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, nor the thin carve of the middle 80’s style reissue, but a real ’59 feel (a lot like what Gibson is doing now).
Guitars like this must have been custom order, based on the dozens I’ve seen. Each one is different in some way or another. Also, no such guitar appears in the early 80’s Gibson catalog with the exact specs mine has. Mine came with a no wire ABR-1 (but did have holes for a wire), flower pot box tuners, and a proper dish top with a center seam. It’s finished in Laquerre and has a one piece neck (rare in 1979-82). It also has the plastic input jack plate. It is not a Standard ’80, or a Standard ’81 or ’82. It is not Heritage Elite. It’s a lot like a 1959, but would never be mistaken for one (color, the type of south western maple quilt top…). It’s something unique.
I was told it was ordered for Jimmy Crespo during his time in Aerosmith, when he was taking Joe Perry’s role as lead guitar from ’79-’84. Crespo turned it down, due to the quilt top, rather than straight flame. I was told that he said “I want one with so many stripes, that one more will make it explode.”
I don’t know if Mr. Crespo ever got his wish, but I got his cast away. I love this guitar. Not because it’s a simply great Les Paul, or a rare one, or even that it is very loosely connected to Crespo. It’s the first guitar I ever played that brought me to tears. It was beautiful when it was new. Oh so beautiful. It plays like a dream come true (for me anyway, everyone is different). I’ve been told the neck is perfect by every tech I ever brought it to (until I learned how to work on my own gear).
I first saw it at age 16. It was an astronomical $1200 brand new, hanging on a wall, next to a normal Les Paul Standard in plain sunburst ($709 with tax). I made a promise to the universe if I could get the quilt top 50’s style Les Paul, I’d never love another more. This is where fate (or luck, or something) lends a hand. Needless to say, I was not able to afford the one I begged the universe for. I bought the one next to it for $709.00. It had a three-piece top, three-piece neck, fat binding in the cutaway, Nashville bridge, typical of end-stage Norlin Gibson. It was not the guitar I’ve been describing, not by a long shot, but I did love it a lot.
But my new Les Paul didn’t last long. It was stolen during a break-in. Thankfully, insurance covered it. Still, I was on the lookout for it. I looked at the ads in the back of the newspaper and the local penny saver ads (remember kids, there was no internet yet), hoping to catch the bad guys and get my guitar back.
I never found my stolen standard, but I did find the $1200 special order I begged the universe for. It was for sale used! I recognized it immediately and confirmed it was the one I saw, hanging on the wall, for $1200.
The seller had a cast on his arm from a skiing accident. He explained that he bought it on a whim and didn’t play it. I used the insurance money and I got my dream guitar. The seller also tossed in a Tom Sholz Rockman, that I promptly traded of for a Vox Wah (the Rockman was not part of my deal with the universe, you see).
The Les Paul is now 39 years old. I am 54. The Guitar is part of my soul, in a way that is impossible to explain to anyone who never loved an inanimate object the way a musician loves their instrument or a son or daughter loves a deceased mother’s locket.
Together we have been to hell and back, and we are both a lot worse for the wear. It fits my hands, and feels like an extension of myself. The guitar taught me in a way, punishing me with dreadful tone when I got it wrong and completing me when I got it right. It risked my life when I ran into a burning building to retrieve it from becoming a pile of ashes. I also ran past a police barricade into a NYC building said to have a terrorist’s bomb inside to save it (thankfully a hoax). I have defended it from would-be thieves in some of NYC’s badland neighborhoods. In return, it has saved and gave me life, by keeping me focused on what I love and giving me purpose — music of all kinds (except 80’s metal and the music of Anthony Newley, which I can’t tell apart).
Like I said, I don’t know this custom order Gibson Les Paul ’50s style guitar’s true model name. I just call it “My Cherry Burst.” It will come with me to the desert island. No question.
Oh and…I kept my agreement with the universe and I’ve never loved another guitar more.