The most valuable Les Paul in the World

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It’s a battered, roadworn ’59 Les Paul Standard with some questionable moth, yet it may be the most prized Les Paul in the world. Why? Because it was owned and played by both Peter Green and Gary Moore. Now it belongs to a wealthy American collector but is in the hands of the guitar’s ‘official custodian’, Londoner Phil Harris, who takes us through the story of what some call the Holy Grail of Les Pauls. Gary Cooper goes on a quest.

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When Phil Harris called to say he was now the official custodian of the original Peter Green, later Gary Moore, ’59 Les Paul standard -and would we like him to bring it into our studio, how long do you think it took to to say ‘ye?? And then add a breathless ‘please’ as we remembered our manners!

Harris is one of the characters on the London guitar scene and probably the most knowledgeable Les Paul aficionado in the UK. Way back in issue four, Phil kindly brought one of his own ’59 Les Pauls into the studio so that we could let Michael Casswell pity_ homage but this time, he had excelled himself.

 

 

The story goes that one day Harris had received a phone call from a wealthy US collector who, in 2012, had bought the original ’59 Standard that had launched Peter Green’s career with John Mayall and which he had later sold to Gary Moore. This was the guitar that was used on most all the early Fleetwood Mac tracks and had gone on to be enshrined as perhaps the most screaming Les Paul ever, on Gary Moore’s Parisienne Walkways and other tracks.

Phil tells most of the story in our video, including how, as a kid, his band had ended-up accidentally supporting the newly formed Fleetwood Mac (where he got his first sight of the legendary `Grcenyburse), how he went on to his own professional career (including playing, albeit briefly, with Thin Lizzy) knew Gary Moore well and has had a passion for this particular guitar, ever since he set eyes on it.

“I go to know Peter quite well when he made his comeback and he told me that when he got the gig with the John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, he’d decided he had to get a Les Paul, because Eric, who he was replacing in the band, had one.” Harris says “So he bought this guitar, the ’59 Standard, secondhand from Selmer’s in London’s Charing Cross Rd for 60 guineas (a mere £63 during a trip CO Germany in 1970. For years afterwards he remained a recluse, but slowly returned to playing in the 1980s and has had what can best be described as a sporadic career since.

 

 

It’s important to draw a distinction between the ‘Greenyburse (as some have dubbed it) La Paul and Peter Green’s own playing. As Harris says, a lot of the time when Fleetwood Mac was new, listeners – even players – would hear a track and just assume they were listening to Green’s Les Paul when, in fact it could have been recorded with his ’50s Strat. The man’s magic was in his fingers – as Green himself has acknowledged – there never was a ‘magic La Paul’.

There was, however, Certainly a unique sound to that particular Its Paul, as Harris explains in our video. And here the mystery seems to deepen. Harris reveals that it was a repair undertaken at the Selmer shop that resulted in the unique sound that Green exploited so well. People have called it an ‘out of phase effect but what it really is, is the result of the neck pickups’ magnets having been replaced the wrong way round. Some people have speculated that the mistake happened when the guitar had been built, but, in fact, it was simply due to a bungled repair!

If that sounds unlikely, you have to realise that in the mid-1960s guitar repairs (particularly electric guitar repairs) were still a black art. Jimmy Page’s immortal Telecaster, featured on the first Led Zeppelin album, was retired in part, he once told me, because it never sounded the same after a repair. Great guitars were being wrecked back then, while others were being created.

 

 

But even beyond the famous pickup anomaly, Green’s Les Paul still has even more secrets. like something out of Raider of the Lost Ark.

“I took the guitar to someone who is an engineer of the highest degree and got him to measure it, Harris says. “In that process, 1 took the pickups out and found the dodgy plastic lead from the bass pickup – that was done at the same time the guitar developed its unique sound…”

But not only are the bass pickup’s pole pieces reversed, Harris says that the routing of the bridge pickup is ‘flawed’ too.

“I also went to sec a guy who, like me, is a complete anorak – another 39 owner – and we checked it against ours and we both came to the same conclusion, that the routing was wrongly done when it was built – maybe an anchor point went adrift during manufacture? It was under the bridge pickup, no one was going to see it, but it’s something unique to that guitar.

“There’s more, too. If you go over that guitar and measure it with a micrometer, its way outside the tolerances or any other La Paul that has been measured professionally – and that’s over 200 of them. That guitar is an enigma. I’ve owned 37 Standards and I can tell you this isn’t the same and it’s a visible difference.”

 

 

No one is saying that the Gibson sounds the way it does because of any of these ‘faults’ – but there’s no doubt it has a unique sound and the likelihood is that every small factor incrementally adds to its overall tonal character. Coupled with Green’s talent it became a magical weapon.

Eventually, the guitar was sold to Gary Moore, with whom Harris shared managers at that time. Moore, Harris says, had wanted the guitar badly for years and had pestered Green repeatedly to sell to him, eventually successfully.

Harris says that there was the suggestion in the original deal that if Green had ever asked for the guitar back, Moore was supposed to have sold it back to him but adds: “I heard this from the man’s own mouth – had Peter asked for it back, the answer would have been, ‘no. Gary later sold the guitar on….” Here Harris goes into some details which UK libel laws make it inadvisable to repeat. Suffice it to say that Moore got far less than the guitar was worth and that it was soon being shown on the US vintage guitar show circuit with a variety of incredible price tags.

Does he know why Moore sold the guitar in the first place?

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“The last time I met Gary was in ’88 or ’89. He was buying a lot of Les Pauls – in fact the one he died with, the one he called ‘Stripe’, I sold him. 1-k bought a 58 from someone else, he bought a ’57 Gold Top from a friend of mine – so at one point he had two 59s, a 58 and a ’57 – so he had no shortage of original guitars. He then started selling them off, including the Greenyburst – and he didn’t get a lot of money for it!”

What is it worth today? No one is sure but Harris admits the instrument, which is kept in a bank vault when not being demonstrated, is insured for $1,000,000.

“The guy who now owns this guitar said he wants it back in the country not where it was made but where it was made famous and my job as curator, or custodian, is to look after and publicise it.”

Most recently (on 306 March 2013) the Greenyburst Les Paul was being played by Joe Bonamassa at London’s Royal Albert Hall (currently there is a YouTube available of this but who knows whether it will stay there?). Where will it end-up? No one knows, but on• can only hope that like vintage instruments worth real money (just Google the value of a Stradivarius or Amati violin – they make guitars seem cheap!) Peter Green’s Les Paul will continue to find itself in the hands of successive generations of great players.

Our thanks to Phil Harris for his time, patience, generosity and transparent love of the subject!

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