Les Paul was a musician, inventor and obsessive tinkerer. His signature six-string became the instrument of choice for a Mount Rushmore of guitar heroes: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
But there is something else Paul was known for. He was notoriously frugal, even cheap. If he paid people at all, he often didn’t pay them much.
That’s why Michael Braunstein, the executor of the late guitarist’s estate, was baffled when he heard a guitar given away by the legend would be auctioned this month as “the most important Les Paul guitar of all time.”
“What is this?” Braunstein asked Russ Paul, the guitarist’s son.
“Oh, that,” Russ told him. “That’s just a broken-down guitar.”
Rebuilt beautifully by owner and former Les Paul assistant Tom Doyle, the Gibson Les Paul Custom guitar hits the market at a time when famous axes once belonging to Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia can score as much as $1 million. The Feb. 19 auction at Guernsey’s in New York has already piqued the interest of deep-pocketed collector Jim Irsay, the owner of the National Football League’s Indianapolis Colts. At the same time, the sale has sparked controversy within the Paul family and the circle of historians generally known as the world’s leading experts of Gibson-brand guitars.
They say the claims made about the guitar are overblown, and they’re horrified that Guitar Player, the glossy monthly that’s the most widely read publication for enthusiasts, has been promoting the instrument in the lead-up to the auction. The magazine’s February cover calls the black 1954 model “The Grail!” and declares that it was “The Genesis of All Les Paul Guitars to Come!” This is despite the fact that the first Les Paul came out two years earlier, in 1952, and that those models, not the Custom, evolved into the instrument embraced by Page, Clapton and other guitar gods.
“That article is absolute bull, and the whole thing’s as crooked as can be,” says George Gruhn, a longtime Nashville guitar dealer and author who has sold dozens of Gibsons to Clapton, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Neil Young. “It’s an attack on everything I’ve worked on for over the last 50 years.”
The “Grail” debate has exposed what classic rocker Steve Miller admits is a “mess” left behind by Paul, the only member of both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and National Inventors Hall of Fame. Paul was Miller’s godfather and one of his heroes.
But Miller saw Paul’s “guys,” as he calls them, largely left to fend for themselves after the guitarist’s death in 2009. That’s why Miller wrote the foreword in the Guernsey’s catalogue — against Braunstein’s wishes.
“Is Tommy hyping it up a little bit? Hell, yeah,” Miller says. “But is this guitar an important guitar? It’s an electric guitar, it’s made by Gibson, and it was Les’s guitar. That’s what makes it a great guitar.”
The vintage-guitar market, Miller says, is ridiculous, with castoff instruments selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars to collectors who wouldn’t know a single coil from a humbucker.
“Hell, I hope the richest, dumbest f---ing lawyer in the United States pays a fortune for it,” Miller says. “And Tommy Doyle can say, ‘Thank God I can go get that colonoscopy I need.’ That’s what this is all about. It’s about surviving. There should have been a plan to take care of these guys.”
The Les Paul Custom, referred to in the auction as “Black Beauty,” was given to Doyle in 1976 by Paul in lieu of payment for other work.
Doyle, now 72, had repaired Paul’s guitars for decades, as well as serving as his soundman, driver, even backstage barber. Members of Paul’s inner circle and guitar experts describe Doyle as a good man who worked hard for an always-demanding boss.
They have different feelings for Doyle’s business partner, Max Stavron, a California-based guitar dealer 20 years younger.
“P.T. Barnum,” says Edward Ball, a guitar historian who has had dealings with Stavron. “He’s been motivated to create a buzz about this guitar simply to inflate the guitar for auction.”
Says guitarist Lou Pallo, 80, a longtime member of the Les Paul Trio: “I love Tommy, just love the guy. But I think he’s going down the wrong path with this guy Max.”
Lester William Polsfuss, born in Waukesha, Wis., in 1915, was known for a playing technique steeped in flash, a clear sound and precision. In the 1940s, the electric guitar was a recent invention, not a mass-produced commodity. Eager for a model that suited his needs, the guitarist, now working under the stage name Les Paul, began a lifetime of experimentation, often taking to instruments with a hacksaw and screwdriver.
The master tinkerer became a star in the 1950s, scoring a pair of No. 1 hits, “How High the Moon” and “Vaya con Dios” with then-wife Mary Ford, and a regular television spot.
Gibson signed Paul to endorse its products, and in 1952 it released the Les Paul Model, an electric guitar with a mahogany body and gold finish. It sold for $249.50, including the case. Gibson introduced the Les Paul Custom in 1954, the higher-end black guitar preferred by Paul.
That’s what bothers the experts. It was the first guitar, the “goldtop,” that was remodeled in the late ’50s as the cherry-red, sunburst Les Paul Standard. In the 1960s, the Standard became Gibson’s most famous model when it was adopted by Clapton, Page, Mike Bloomfield and Keith Richards.
“Ludicrous,” says author Walter Carter, another Nashville dealer who was Gibson’s former historian, about the claims being made by the auctioneer and magazine.“The guitar that became the icon for rock-and-roll was the Les Paul Standard.”
Doyle and Paul met in 1966. By then, Paul had fallen off the charts and gone through an ugly divorce with Ford. The pair grew closer as Paul revived his career and began playing the weekly gig in New York City that he would maintain through his 90s. Paul kept Doyle’s workshop stuffed with a stable of guitars.
For this, Doyle typically received very little.
“Everybody would say, ‘How can you keep working like this?’ ” Doyle says today. “I’d say: ‘You don’t understand. I do. I’ve been given the position to be with this great man my whole life.’ ”
One day in 1976, Paul brought by a black guitar that he had been messing with at home. This guitar wasn’t playable. It had been gouged full of holes and didn’t include any electronics. But Paul gave it to Doyle for repairing another guitar. Paul told Doyle that he had played the guitar on television appearances and in recording sessions.
“Someday,” Doyle says he remembers Paul telling him, “this is going to be worth a lot of money.”
Doyle’s repair skills are well known, which is why nobody is surprised he was able to make “Black Beauty” auction-ready. What Doyle says he has always struggled with, though, is telling his story. Enter Max Stavron.
As Doyle’s partner, Stavron rewrote Doyle’s Web site, calling him “Luthier to the Stars” and Paul’s “close friend, confidant, co-inventor, ear, sounding board and fixer . . . ‘The man behind the man.’ ” They are working together on Doyle’s memoirs.
Stavron’s presence has driven a wedge between Doyle and the Paul family.
Braunstein, representing the Les Paul Foundation, asked that Doyle tone down his redone Web site. Russ Paul says he is upset with how the guitar is being pitched — it’s not that special.
More historically important Les Paul guitars, he says, can be found at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville and Discovery World, a science and technology museum in Milwaukee.
Robb Lawrence, an author who lived with Les Paul for a year as part of his research for a two-volume Paul bio, fell out with Stavron over material on Doyle’s Web site. He also asked Doyle about his relationship with the dealer.
“I said to Tommy: ‘This is your guitar. I don’t know what Max has to do with a gift from Les Paul,’ ” Lawrence says.
Stavron and Doyle met in 1983 in New Jersey, fell out of touch, and then reconnected in 2012. That’s when Stavron learned that Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills was auctioning off a white, 2002 Gibson Les Paul. He called Doyle.
“I said, ‘Jeez, that’s the guitar used on the cover of his book,’ ” Doyle recounts, referring to a photo on Paul’s 2009 autobiography, “In His Own Words.” “ ‘If you can buy it, you should buy it.’ ”
Stavron did, paying just over $7,000 at the auction. He then tried to sell it on eBay for $500,000. Darren Julien, the auction-house president, said he forced Stavron to take the listing down because it wasn’t accurate.
“It’s not worthless,” says Drew Berlin, a guitar enthusiast known as one half of the “Burst Brothers.” “But he was claiming it was Les’s favorite guitar. I followed Les to his gigs for 30 years. I never once saw him play that guitar.”
Then, in 2013, Stavron took the guitar on CNBC’s “Treasure Detectives.”
It was a tense shoot, says co-host Catherine Knebel, the only time the show had to hire a security guard.
Told on camera that his guitar wasn’t worth what he had hoped, Stavron snapped at host Curtis Dowling, going on an expletive-laced rant.
“You just think I’m some toadstool that fell off a f---ing turnip truck?” Stavron said. “. . . You got a lawsuit on your hands.”
Stavron isn’t surprised by the controversy over the auction.
“There are so many haters coming out of the woodwork,” he says. “And because they bought a $100 Les Paul Junior at a pawn shop when they were in high school, they’re experts.”
And Doyle doesn’t apologize for Stavron. In fact, he says that he needs him. In the years since Paul’s death, Doyle says he has been disrespected by those who claim to have been closest to the late guitarist.
“Look, if you’re being attacked from all directions, you’ve got to have a Patton,” Doyle says. “I’m an easygoing guy, and they’ll take advantage of that along the way. Max is a very, very passionate guy. And to divide us in any shape or form is not going to work.”
There’s nothing shocking about two guys trying to hype a guitar they’re bringing to auction. The Gibson historians say they’re more disappointed in how the material in the Guernsey’s news release spread unchecked.
In January, it ran in a slew of publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly and Britain’s Guardian.
The article in Guitar Player particularly upset Gruhn, the Nashville guitar dealer, and Tom Wheeler, the former editor of Guitar Player and now a journalism professor at the University of Oregon. Wheeler wrote a lengthy e-mail, circulated to a variety of experts and Doyle, detailing why the article contradicted everything “we know about the development of the Les Paul.”
Over at Vintage Guitar magazine, Ward Meeker just shook his head and thought of Guitar Player editor Michael Molenda.
“Why would Molenda fall for it?” he wondered.
Molenda says he didn’t fall for anything. Sure, the “Grail” declaration was “overzealous” and he wishes he had asked Gruhn, Wheeler and others about the guitar before running the piece.
“But do we trust that Tom, working closely with Les, had the story and would be okay?” Molenda says. “Yes.”
Molenda doesn’t think that Guitar Player’s coverage will boost the Les Paul’s value.
“The guitar’s going to sell for what it’s going to sell for,” Molenda says.
And Irsay, the Colts owner who paid $957,000 for Jerry Garcia’s “Tiger” in 2002 and $965,000 in 2013 for the Fender that Dylan played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, plans to be in on the bidding.
“I really can’t list it as the Holy Grail, but I do think it’s worthy of one of the most important guitars that has ever gone to auction,” Irsay says .
Doyle calls the “Black Beauty” he’s selling “the Mona Lisa” of guitars. He hopes whoever buys the guitar donates it to a museum. He just can’t afford to.
“I’d like to retire,” he says. “I worked on the bench for 50 years.”
So is “Black Beauty” the Holy Grail?
“They can call it whatever they want to call it,” Doyle says. “I don’t make up titles. I just know what the guitar was to him. This was a particular guitar he loved. That’s my interpretation. They weren’t there. I was.”