Stradivari v Les Paul

This is the “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius. Built in 1727 and formerly owned by Lord Byron’s granddaughter, it sold at auction for just under $16 million. Nice fiddle but out of my price range.

This post is meant to get you thinking, not to educate you as to the astonishing value of an iconic musical instrument. I don’t have the requisite knowledge to assess how much any violin is worth but I have done some research into what makes violins made by Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati and a few others worth as much as $20 million. Can you compare a 300 year old handmade violin to what is essentially a mass produced guitar? I think you can and the conclusions might surprise (or at least entertain) you.

There have been a fair number of blind comparison tests between these iconic violins and the violins of the best of contemporary builders. The results are mixed but, not infrequently, the modern violins come out on top, even when judged by the worlds top players. So, the idea that a Stradivarius or Guarneri is simply the best sounding violin ever made is put to rest. Fast forward 259 years or so. Is the Les Paul standard the best sounding guitar ever made? It could be but the value can’t be due to that factor because a 58 gold top can be had for less than half the cost of a sunburst 58. I’m pretty sure you won’t argue that a sunburst and a gold top will sound any different. So, what other factors can we look at?

Well, if a 58 gold top is a $125,000 guitar and a 58 sunburst is a $250,000 guitar (I’m using averages here), and the only difference is the top, then can we conclude that the top is the reason a sunburst is worth so much more? Possibly but the we have to consider the huge differences between tops on Les Pauls. Clearly, the figuring is a huge factor. The fancier the top, the more valuable they are. Originality is also a big factor. I currently have two mostly original Les Pauls in my shop with beautiful tops. The refinish probably takes $100,000 off the value of each. One is renecked as well. Knock off another, what, $50K? So, the top alone can’t be the biggest factor. It is worth noting that nobody really cares about what the top of a Stradivari built violin looks like. They also don’t care nearly as much about originality.

Nearly every 300 year old violin has been re-necked. The necks made before around 1715 are rather different than modern necks and few players play the “baroque” neck. Stradivari was the builder who modernized the baroque violin by making the neck angle steeper and made structural changes that made the violin louder and more aggressive. Beyond the change in neck design, it is common to re-neck a concert violin periodically. Many multimillion dollar violins have been refinished and repaired as well. While there has been a lot of speculation about the varnish used on these violins, it has been generally accepted that the original varnish is not the the main factor in their tone. It is, by many accounts, the wood harvested during what is called the “Little Ice Age” lasting from 1300 to 1870 that makes these violins so special. That makes sense but tens of thousands of other violins were made during that period and, I’m sure, many others from the wood grown during that period and they aren’t worth many millions of dollars.

So, when you are out to buy a multimillion dollar Italian violin from the 1700’s, you don’t have to worry so much about re-necks, refinishes or repairs. You do worry about provenance, authenticity (there are thousands of copies) and tone. When you are about to buy a six figure electric guitar from 1958-1960, you look for great tone but it simply isn’t the main factor. I’ve heard equally great tone from more than one 1959 ES 345 which is a $20,000 guitar. What so many focus on is the appearance, mainly the figured top. Next, you pay attention to the finish-it must be original. With the violin, the finish is likely to have been redone or at least repaired. With the LP, you make sure the neck is original. With the violin, it is almost a certainty that it is not. Clearly, they are judged by only one common factor but do I therefore conclude that tone rules in both cases? Nope. It’s a big factor but while a refinish knocks $100K (40-50%) off the value of a Les Paul, a good but not great sounding all original Les Paul might be priced less than a great one. But, if the top of the just OK sounding Les Paul is heavily figured, and the one with the superior tone is plain, the ok sounding one will cost you more.

The violin’s provenance is a big factor in determining whether the tone is good. If it has been played on the concert stage by a big name player, you can be reasonably assured that it is a great sounding violin. The same can certainly be true of that Les Paul you have your eye on. In fact, if a big name player has previously owned your burst, you can bet the price will go up by a lot. But, and it’s a big but, most of the 1500 or so Les Pauls built weren’t played or owned by anybody famous and yet they will still set you back six figures worth of your hard earned money.

This is a lot to process. The more I think about this, the less sense it makes. There are so many logical reasons for these instruments NOT to be priced this high. Rarity (they aren’t all that rare), tone (I’ve played plenty of non Les Pauls that sound as good as any Les Paul), provenance (most weren’t played by anybody famous) and appearance (lots of R9’s look as good as any 58-60 burst). I’ve never bought a burst but I’ve spent six figures on more than a few guitars and I can safely conclude that there is one big factor that will keep bursts selling at high prices for years to come. Bragging rights. Guys love bragging rights. Just ask any Ferrari driver. Or Stradivarius player.

What’s this one worth? This is Pearly gates, one of the most famous bursts out there. A million bucks? With the sale of the Gilmour Strat at close to $4M, I would guess that some billionaire would spend that much and more. Does that make provenance the most important factor? Maybe but it’s got a nice top too, so maybe add on an extra million.

7 Responses to “Stradivari v Les Paul”

  1. RAB says:

    Great discussion! I played violin from age 5 before taking up the guitar at 15 because of the Beatles and because few girls would think a violin player was cool. Graduating from a smaller student model I had a very nice German violin made in the 1930s that played, sounded and looked nice. Since then I’ve collected and played mostly vintage Gibson, Epiphone and Fender electric guitars for the past 51 years. These have included quite a few Bursts, PAF Goldtops and Customs and ES models, Broadcaster and 50s and 60s Strats and Teles and Esquires. They were all very nice playing and sounding instruments (or I wouldn’t have bought them!!) and a handful were exceptional. The only LP I truly miss was a ’57 darkback PAF Goldtop. Strats, a ’57 hardtail. ES, a first rack ’59 345. I sold off valuable mint examples because they were too clean to gig. I won’t have a guitar I can’t gig. I don’t really care about bragging rights but think Charlie is right about that being a big part of the value equation. If you’re a super rich guy or gal having a mint flame top Burst along with your classic Ferrari and stable of Arabian horses might be cool to you and your rich friends. Me, I wouldn’t be too impressed unless you could actually play the hell out of it at the local dive bar!

  2. Nelson Checkoway says:

    First, Charlie, thank you for another year of thought provoking and informative columns and best 2020 wishes to you and yours!

    I think you’re right on the money with “bragging rights” as a chief motivator in the value of the top shelf vintage guitars. With Stradivari, “worthiness” of the player may come more into play than with modern electric guitars. More than not, Stradivari are owned by institutions or wealthy patrons and then loaned to famous or “worthy” players. On the other hand, there are plenty of wealthy amateurs or semi-pro players who have the resources and opportunity to obtain a valuable vintage guitar.

    While all Strads are “players’ grade” instruments and most are in the hands of great players, the qualities that affix the highest price tags on vintage guitars–originality, condition, aesthetics–seem to align more with antique collecting. Replace a broken leg on a Chippendale sideboard or refinish a Nakashima coffee table and you’re knocking thousands off the sticker price.

    From the ability to show off a great guitar to ones peers, to the solitary pleasure of “having” such a thing of beauty, it seems that the collector’s mindset is the ultimate driver of “stradospheric” (sorry) value in the vintage guitar market.

  3. okguitars says:

    The bragging rights angle won’t make me very popular with the burst set but I’m an outsider there anyway. I think the Les Paul is a wonderful guitar and I’m very impressed with the tone and playability of the three I am selling. But I’m a tone/playability guy and it still makes little sense that a monster first rack near mint ’59 345 is, on a good day, $25K and a Les Paul that sounds and plays about the same is $350K (and it won’t be near mint at that price). And the 345 is rarer.

  4. RAB says:

    Yup, they don’t call ‘em Burst Killers for nuthin!

  5. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Charlie – I would add that the 3*5 series is probably the most innovative guitar produced in Gibson’s golden age. The solid body guitar was not new in 1953 (see, “Broadcaster, Fender”) and the design of the Les Paul is simply a conventional Gibson archtop pattern rendered in solid wood. On the other hand, a semi-solid guitar with a solid sustain block and hollow sides was truly revolutionary.

    Consider this irony: Despite HIS bragging rights, Les Paul almost nothing to do with the design of his namesake guitar, yet “The Log”–his 1940s hand-built prototype that he claimed had inspired development of a solid body guitar–was a solid center sustain block mounted with pickups that he mated to a pair hollow Epiphone archtop f-hole wings.

    He didn’t invent the Les Paul–he invented the ES-335!

  6. RAB says:

    Nelson, most insightful! The 335 IS a Les Paul Model! Happy New Year y’all! RAB

  7. DaveK says:

    Great post to start the year Charlie and some well thought out comments from Nelson and RAB.

    These conversations get me thinking about my relatively modest collecting motivations over the years.

    My collecting history sounds much like RAB’s – mainly better ‘player quality’ golden-era Fenders and Gibsons. So my minty stop tail 59 Blonde 335 had to go a year ago mainly because I didn’t dare play it out and the similar quality custom colour 65 Strat will go the same way this year.

    But I love to gig my refin 53 Blackguard, early 60s SGs, and 50s P90 Les Pauls, and I don’t recognise much ‘bragging rights’ in my motivation in having them.

    My 3**s, which are closest to my heart, have more complicated motivations. As a long-term 335 nut I’m pretty stoked to have my holy grail of a very nice cherry stop tail 64 and courtesy of Charlie a great sunburst stop tail 59. These two and their 300, 345 and 355 siblings get gigged with care(!) so I’m not keeping anything that doesn’t get out of the house.

    But I have taken some of them to guitar shows to display alongside other collectors with (much more valuable) vintage guitars. My groups of 4 golden era cherry 3**s or 4 sunburst 3**s looks very cool and I end up having really interesting conversations with some higher end collectors and players. I’m not there to sell, so I have to admit to some small scale bragging motivations!!

    Enough soul-searching! My final observation is my gratitude that the market’s skewed the way it is in favour of Bursts because I couldn’t get close to owning my best 3**s if it was the other way round.

    Happy New Year Charlie and the multitude of other 3** nuts who frequent this great place.

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