A prototype guitar developed by electric guitar pioneer Les Paul that was known as Black Beauty could sell for over $2 million.
NEW YORK — Guitar Player magazine mentioned Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend of The Who, and Peter Frampton. Arlan Ettinger, the president of Guernsey’s, an auction house on the Upper East Side, mentioned more: Paul McCartney and George Harrison of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Carlos Santana, Sheryl Crow, Lenny Kravitz.
None of them would have achieved their fame, Ettinger said, without Les Paul — and without the guitar that Gibson Guitar began manufacturing in the 1950s to Paul’s specifications. Bob Marley not only owned one, he was buried with it. (Not to mention a Bible, a soccer ball and some marijuana.)
But before there were all those guitars, there was one, a prototype that came to be known as Black Beauty. Guernsey’s is preparing to auction it on Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. at Arader Galleries on Madison Avenue. The auction catalog does not list a presale estimate, but Ettinger said it could sell for over $2 million.
It was, in fact, the second prototype, said Thomas Doyle, a luthier who worked with Paul for more than 30 years. Paul had declared the first unsatisfactory, even unplayable.
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But Paul was a tinkerer — he had made his own solid-body electric guitar in 1940 or 1941 — and he told Gibson what he wanted. Paul’s godson, Steve Miller, said the result was “literally part of the lexicon and fabric” of music history. “Without this very guitar, no other Les Paul guitars could exist in the form that we have come to know and love,” he wrote recently. “From the mid-50s right up until this moment, every guitar hero and rock star we have all ever listened to that played one of Les’ masterpieces would literally not exist.”
A mixer that Paul used — the 16-track soundboard from the club Fat Tuesday’s in Manhattan, where Paul often performed in the 1980s — will also be sold, as will recording machines from his home studio, microphones he used, even handwritten set lists for a half-dozen Les Paul Trio appearances in the 1980s. A guitar made for Chet Atkins in 1956, known as Dark Eyes, is also on the bill.
As for Black Beauty, it has a mahogany neck, ebony fret board and something called a Tune-O-Matic bridge. It even has a jack for a microphone, which Paul wanted so he would not have to lean into a microphone on a stand.
“Ted McCarty was certainly the manufacturer, and his engineers certainly developed it, but they did what Les asked,” said Doyle, referring to the former president and chief executive of Gibson. “Les used to stop by Ted McCarty’s house and they would go to the factory, and you didn’t leave the factory until Les said he was ready.”
Ettinger said that Paul played more than 150 shows with Black Beauty from 1954 to 1976. Doyle, 72, remembered seeing “Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home” on television, sponsored by Listerine, as a child — and the memory of the Listerine commercials figured into how he came to own the guitar.
“I had seven or eight of his guitars at my shop, and I said, ‘Les, you owe me quite a bit of money,’” Doyle recalled. “He said, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘I’d really like the Black Beauty because that’s the one you told me you used on the Listerine commercials.’ He said, ‘That’s absolutely right’” — and offered to sell Doyle, for $1,100, copies of the TV programs that he had kept. Doyle said he replied, ‘I don’t want to end up in more debt, Les,’” and Paul replied, “‘It’s yours.’”
Black Beauty was made of mahogany. Doyle said that Paul loved the feel of the guitar, the way it fit his hands. Paul even thought about the look of the guitar on television.
“You could see his hands now because his hands were white against the black,” Doyle said. “He’s thinking people had to see his hands moving. That’s what he’s thinking. He’s thinking about these guitars. He’s thinking he’s got to sell these guitars. They’ve got his name on them.”