What’s the world’s most expensive guitar? The vintage market is to musical instruments what antiques are to the furniture industry. The word actually originates from winemaking and simply refers to the year of the grape harvest. However, the current usage isn’t that far from the original meaning, because – like wine – vintage instruments from certain years are considered to be very special and fetch extremely high prices. The same goes for instruments once owned by famous players. Check out our list of the 18 most expensive guitars.
Let’s face it – many of us are still hunters and collectors deep in our hearts. Consequently, a huge vintage sector has emerged in the used instrument market, where guitars that were originally created for making music are sold at horrendous prices and traded like exhibits at an art auction. Find out what the vintage hype is all about and which legendary guitars are fetching the highest prices on the second-hand market.
Most Expensive Guitars: Quick Facts
Whether an instrument is considered “vintage” and becomes one of the world’s most expensive guitars depends on many factors. Nostalgia, famous previous owners, legendary concerts, and rarity can sometimes play a bigger role than quality, age, and sound. In order to become a collector’s item, a guitar should ideally be in original condition. Replacing any of the original components (except the strings, perhaps), can have a detrimental effect on the selling price. Generally speaking, guitars from 1950 to the early 80s are considered “vintage” instruments. Among the most expensive guitars are vintage Gibson Les Pauls, Explorers, and Flying Vs, with 1958 to 1960 models fetching the highest prices. Likewise, Fender models from the pre-CBS period (1950 – 1964) are also highly sought after. However, that’s nothing against the outrageous prices achieved at auctions for instruments previously owned by guitar legends.
What makes a guitar a sought-after collector’s item?
Interestingly, not every instrument that reaches a certain age automatically receives the “vintage” label. Conversely, there are also some younger instruments that nevertheless fall into this category. While one would assume that it’s the combination of high quality and old age that makes a guitar a collector’s item, that isn’t always the case.
Various criteria are important, such as craftsmanship, sound, materials, the history of the instrument, and, of course, the old free-market rule of supply and demand, or how much very wealthy people are willing to invest in such an instrument.
For collectors, the original condition of the instrument is of utmost importance – especially if the instrument doesn’t have any other unique features like a famous previous owner. Two otherwise identical guitars of the same brand and age can fetch completely different prices if, for example, one has been “refined”, got a new tremolo, or even new frets. This is where collectors differ from players, because an original condition obviously doesn’t automatically mean great playability.
Nostalgia also plays a very significant role. Factors like the (former) owner of the guitar, the recordings and concerts it was used for, and whether the artist is still alive all contribute to making an instrument one of the most expensive guitars. As it’s obviously very hard to put a price tag on these factors, it ultimately comes down to the personal significance of a particular instrument to the potential buyer, and how much they are willing to pay.
At what age does a guitar become “vintage”?
What falls into the vintage category is defined very loosely. While some use the term for any instrument older than – for example – 30 years, others use it to describe everything that was built before 1980. Looking at the increasing prices of the early Fender Squier JV and SQ series, which were built in the early 80s, or even early Charvel guitars, it’s clear that even some instruments of the 80s absolutely fall into the collector category. For electric guitars, one could probably say as a rough rule of thumb that models from 1950 to the early 80s are traded as “vintage” if some or all of the above requirements are met.
What guitars are hot collectibles and the most expensive?
Among electric guitars, solid-body Gibsons from the late 1950s are considered to be the vintage top dogs. The legendary ’59 Gibson Les Paul has been the talk of the town ever since Spinal Tap, but Les Pauls from 1958-1960 with Cherry Sunburst finish, also known as “Bursts”, are also highly sought after, as are Flying V’s and Explorers.
Looking at Fender, all instruments from the period from 1950 to 1964 can be counted among the top collector instruments. Connoisseurs speak of the “Pre-CBS” era, since these guitars were manufactured before the company was acquired by CBS. Nevertheless, even 70s Strats of the CBS era aren’t exactly a bargain and are sometimes traded in the five-digit range.
Popular acoustic guitars are, for example, D-45 dreadnoughts by Martin from the 1930s or Gibson Jumbo acoustics like the J-45.
The world’s most expensive guitars
Kurt Cobain’s Martin D-18E – $6,010,000
The world record for the most expensive guitar is held by Kurt Cobain’s Martin D-18E, which was sold at Julien’s Auctions in 2020. This guitar was used for Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance in 1993, a year before Kurt Cobain’s death.
David Gilmour’s Black Stratocaster – $3,975,000
This black 1969 Stratocaster owned by David Gilmour can be heard on monumental albums like “The Dark Side of the Moon”, “Wish You Were Here” and “The Wall”. The proceeds benefitted the environmental organization ClientEarth, which fights against climate change.
Reach Out to Asia Stratocasters – $2,700,000
This is a charity project that raised money for the victims of the tsunami in 2004. The guitar is decorated with autographs of famous artists, including Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Brian May, David Gilmour, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler, Pete Townshend, Tony Iommi, Angus Young, Sting, Ritchie Blackmore, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and many more.
John Lennon’s Gibson J-160 E – $2,410,000
This 1962 Gibson J-160E was allegedly played by John Lennon on songs like “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” After being lost for a while, the instrument resurfaced in 2014 and was sold for a handsome sum. Incidentally, John had allegedly bought it for just 161 pounds back in the day.
Peter Green’s and Gary Moore’s ’59 Les Paul – $2,000,000
1959 Les Pauls are no bargain to begin with, but when Peter Green and Gary Moore were the previous owners, one can justifiably speak of a legendary instrument. Metallica’s guitarist Kirk Hammett acquired this model for two million dollars.
Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 Fender Stratocaster – approx. $2,000,000
Jimi Hendrix’s legendary Woodstock guitar was acquired by Paul Allen for two million dollars, who placed it in the Experience Music Project Museum in Jimi Hendrix’s hometown of Seattle.
Jerry Garcia’s Wolf – $1,900,000
Jerry Garcia, singer and guitarist of The Grateful Dead, had this guitar made by instrument maker Doug Irvin in the early 70s and christened it “Wolf”. In 2017, this guitar was auctioned off for a whopping $1.9 million.
Bob Marley’s Washburn Hawk – $1,200,000
Bob Marley is said to have owned only seven guitars, including a Washburn Hawk, which was definitely one of the earliest models made by this company. The instrument was bought by the Jamaican government and is now in a museum.
1958 Gibson Korina Explorer – $1,100,000
Unlike most of the instruments on this list, this Explorer wasn’t owned by a well-known rock icon – yet it became one of the world’s most expensive guitars. The 1958 Gibson Explorer, made from “Korina” wood, sold for $1.1 million at London’s Denmark Street Guitars – partly because Gibson only made 10 of these.
Keith Richards’ 1959 Les Paul – $840,000
Another ’59 Les Paul, this time owned by Keith Richards. This model became famous when Keith played it on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.
Bob Dylan’s Newport Strat – $965,000
Bob Dylan caused some controversy at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival by playing this guitar. Previously, he had only ever been seen with an acoustic guitar. His use of the Strat really upset the purist folk music fans at the festival, some of whom even booed.
Blackie Strat, Eric Clapton – $959,000
The “Blackie” is arguably the most famous and most expensive of Eric Clapton’s guitars and he played it for 15 years. In 1970, Clapton bought six Strats, some of which he gave away to Pete Townshend, Steve Winwood, and George Harrison. He then went on to take the remaining ones apart and assembled “Blackie” from the best individual components.
Jerry Garcia’s Tiger Guitar – Price: $ 957,500
Like the “Wolf”, the “Tiger” was made by instrument maker Doug Irwin and was Jerry Garcia’s regular tour companion. In 2002, the instrument changed hands for nearly a million.
1964 Gibson ES-335, Eric Clapton – $847,500
This guitar was used by Clapton during his time with the Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and was auctioned off at Christie’s in 2004.
1939 CF Martin, Eric Clapton – $791.500
Known for “Tears in Heaven”, this Martin OOO was Clapton’s main guitar between 1993 and 1995 and rose to world fame through his legendary MTV Unplugged performance. Similarly to the 1964 Gibson above, this model was auctioned at Christie’s in 2004.
“Lenny” Fender Strat, Stevie Ray Vaughan – $623,500
This ’65 Stratocaster was a birthday gift from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s wife Lenny and also received her name. The guitar was acquired by Guitar Center in 2004 and is on display in Austin, Texas.
Gibson SG, George Harrison and John Lennon – $570,000
This Gibson SG was used by George Harrison on the album Revolver and later by John Lennon on the White album. That clearly helped make it one of the world’s most expensive guitars!
Brownie Stratocaster, Eric Clapton – $497,500
Once again, it’s Eric Clapton who scored a record-breaking price. Clapton’s 56 Sunburst Strat can be heard on the Derek and the Dominoes hit “Layla”. The price achieved at Christie’s in 1999 makes it one of the world’s most expensive guitars.
More about Guitars
- How to make a cheap Squier play like an American Fender
- How to set up your guitar: Beginner’s guide to guitar setup
- Best Guitar for Beginners: Acoustic or Electric?
Note: This article about the world’s most expensive guitars was originally published in German on bonedo.de.
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