When Joe Ganzler found Gladys, it was love at first sight. She had a curvaceous body and graceful neck. When he held her in his arms and turned her on, she filled with electricity and purred.
“The belle of the ball,” Ganzler said.
Ganzler, 51, has been married three times but has fallen for just one guitar. Gladys, as a former owner named it, is a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard with a sunburst finish. Ganzler keeps it in his Orange County garage, in a massive safe that looks as though it could withstand a bazooka attack.
For good reason. Only about 1,500 Bursts, as they are known, were made between 1958 and 1960. They were a commercial flop. But today the Burst is considered the Stradivarius of solid-body electric guitars. Its distinctive, syrupy sound, mythic back story and cherry-and-gold wood finish have made it the world’s most sought-after ax.
Amid a bull market in collectible guitars propelled by baby boomer wealth and nostalgia, the price of Bursts has soared. One in mint condition with a desirable finish can fetch more than $500,000 -- 10 times as much as a decade ago.
“It’s the Holy Grail of guitars,” said Dan Yablonka, a Laguna Beach musician who fondly recalls the one he owned for a few weeks 30 years ago before flipping it for a nice profit. “They sound like they are being played by the finger of God.”
Even spare parts are revered like gemstones. An original cream-colored ring that fits over the rhythm/treble pickup switch -- essentially a washer -- was recently offered on EBay for $1,200.
Original price of the whole guitar: about $280.
That Les Paul Bursts have gone from pawnshop castoffs to expensive antiques surprises nobody more than 92-year-old Les Paul.
“It’s crazy,” said Paul, who lives in New Jersey, where he has about 300 of those pickup switch washers in a box somewhere. “But I’m very gratified. We worked hard to make it the most beautiful instrument there is. It’s your mistress, your psychiatrist, your bartender -- everything you could dream of in one instrument.”
Paul was a successful guitarist when he began working with Gibson to design a solid-body electric that didn’t create feedback at high volumes the way hollow-body instruments did. California inventor Leo Fender was already selling one.
The 1950s proved to be the golden era of electric guitars. Old World craftsmanship fused with new technologies to create instruments that have yet to be surpassed. The Burst wasn’t created so much as it evolved.
Paul’s first Gibson guitar made its debut in 1952, formed from a slab of 100-year-old Honduran mahogany. Each subsequent model brought new components and design tweaks. A refined bridge that could easily be adjusted with a screwdriver. “Humbucker” pickups, which utilize two tightly wound coils of copper wire to cancel out humming caused by electrical interference. Changes in the shape and angle of the neck. Even the glue and lacquer contributed to the guitar’s sound and ability to sustain a note.
Finally, there is the flame. Early Les Paul Standards were painted gold. In mid-1958 the sunburst appeared, a finish that showcased the colors, grain and ripples in the guitar’s maple veneer. The play of color and textures evokes fire. Each Burst has its own personality based on the size and pigment of the flame. No two are alike.
Plugged into an amplifier cranked to the max, the Burst explodes with a fat, rich sonic boom. Unfortunately for Gibson, rock musicians of the day weren’t interested in the guitar’s earthy power. The Burst was a bust.
“When I started out in this business . . . nobody wanted them,” said George Gruhn, a Nashville instrument dealer who began collecting electric guitars in the early 1960s. “I got a bunch at $100 and sold them for $250. They’ve been going up ever since.”
Two men are credited with reviving the Burst: Mike Bloomfield and Eric Clapton. One was from Chicago, the other England. But both were young white guitarists who merged rock with hard-core blues -- loudly.
As rock music turned up the volume, the Burst became the weapon of choice for a legion of guitar virtuosos, including Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Duane Allman. Musicians inspired by them -- onstage or in the garage -- lusted for a Burst.
Ed King, a former guitarist with the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, acquired his first Burst in 1970 at a Virginia bar.
“I traded a guy a guitar and some cash for it,” he said. “There’s a real reason why these guitars are so valuable, and it goes far beyond the famous people who have owned them. They have a sound that can’t be replicated.”
As the legend grew, demand for Bursts quickly outpaced supply. Prices rose and collectors squeezed out the average (read: broke) musician, who resented anyone who would rather display than play such a fine instrument. By the late 1980s, Bursts were fetching $10,000 -- a lot of money, it seemed, for a used factory-made guitar.
King kept a close eye on his Burst. Someone else was watching too. In 1987, King says, he was robbed at gunpoint in his home. His Burst was the only thing stolen.
“He knew what he was after,” said King, 58. “He knew it was valuable.”
Ten years later, while flipping through a book at a Dallas guitar show, King did a double-take over a photo of a Burst with a bright red spot around its toggle switch.
“It was like, ‘Wow! That’s my guitar!’ ” King said. “Each one is very distinctive from one another. . . . I always thought that I’d run into it again.”
The guitar had reportedly landed in a Hollywood music store within days, and later found its way into a private collection. King eventually got his Burst back. Today he keeps it in a vault.
Billy Squier, who gained fame in the 1980s for his powerful guitar licks, is still searching for his first Burst, which was abducted from a locked New York studio more than 20 years ago.
“It was like somebody stole my child,” said Squier, who has offered an unspecified reward -- no questions asked -- for the guitar’s return.
“I was distraught, not because of the value of it but because it’s just such an exquisite instrument. I know it sounds melodramatic, but I’ll never get over the loss.”
Squier’s guitar disappeared into the Burst underground, where buyers and sellers remain anonymous, urban legends abound and forgeries dupe the uninformed.
Hundreds of Bursts, each with its own serial number, remain unaccounted for -- lost, destroyed, buried in Grandpa’s attic, sequestered in private collections. A handful surface each year. The reaction is akin to tossing chum into a pool of sharks.
“The people who want these things are fanatic, relentless. They’ll hound you forever,” said Max Baranet, a former custom guitar maker who lives near Phoenix and is shopping a documentary he made on the history of the Burst.
Baranet is proud of his work making replica Bursts and restoring originals. But he is guarded when asked whether he owns one himself. “I don’t tell anybody what I have. Who wants to be bothered with someone sticking five hundred grand under your nose? You might actually let it go -- and then you’ll regret it later.”
Others have no regrets.
When David Bonsey last year received an e-mail from a Minnesota man who said he had inherited a Burst from his father decades ago, the antiques expert was curious but circumspect.
“Sometimes these things are bona fide, sometimes not,” said Bonsey, director of fine musical instruments for the Boston auction house Skinner Inc. The man sent pictures. Bonsey flew to Minneapolis and drove in minus-25-degree weather down a narrow road far into the country.
The guitar’s owner was a retired police chief. His kids were grown. He and his wife loved to fish. They owned some land but lived in a trailer.
“We’ve always wanted to build a little log home,” he said.
Bonsey set him straight. “You’re going to be able to build a very nice log home.”
Bonsey recommended they seek between $120,000 and $160,000 at auction. The guitar sold for $293,000. “Nobody had any idea it would go for so much,” he said.
The man and his wife got their log home. A plaque on it reads, “The house that Les Paul built.”
Bonsey isn’t the only expert surprised by the escalation in prices in recent years.
Mac Yasuda grew up in Japan a fan of American country-western music. Today, the 58-year-old Newport Beach businessman owns one of the world’s largest collections of vintage guitars and banjos -- some 600 instruments valued at more than $10 million that he stores in a Tustin warehouse.
Ten years ago, a broker who said he was representing the Rolling Stones bought two of Yasuda’s Bursts for $30,000 each. A month later, he wanted another. He didn’t flinch when Yasuda, who had done some research, raised the price to $50,000. Soon the broker was back, plunking down $100,000 for another Burst on behalf of a Canadian banker.
Yasuda says he isn’t selling the four Bursts he still has -- including a 1959 model so pristine it could have been sent from the factory via time machine. But he gets offers all the time.
“I used to loan them out to musicians, but I can’t anymore. They’re too expensive,” Yasuda said. “A lot of the new guys who are buying are successful businessmen who made money in the Internet. They have a dream, and they have the money.”
Pure investors are elbowing out the average collector, the guy who once could convince himself that spending as much for a guitar as a new car made sense.
“When the price of one guitar is more than your house, most people who collect guitars can’t do it anymore,” said Gruhn, the Nashville dealer.
Joe Ganzler got in the game just before he couldn’t, buying Gladys for $175,000 from a Texas dealer in 2002, before the most recent run-up in prices. Today, he believes he could get more than three times what he paid.
“I was very picky. It was like I was shopping for a wife,” said Ganzler, a New Jersey native who made his money in information technology before being squeezed out by outsourcing. “The minute I saw it, I knew it was my guitar.”
Ganzler’s passion has segued into a business authenticating and brokering Bursts, ferrying guitars and suitcases full of cash across the country.
“A lot of these feel like drug deals,” he said. “I’ll go anywhere in the world on 24 hours’ notice to be involved in one of these deals.” He recently has been in conversations with a potential buyer, “a guy in Portland who made his money in Internet porn.”
“If I ever bought another one,” he added, “I’d be buying to sell it. How many wives do you want? Gladys is my guitar. Of course, if I needed a kidney, that would be different.”
He closed the bedroom window so he wouldn’t disturb the neighbors, plugged Gladys into a Marshall amp and launched into Bad Company’s 1970s anthem “Good Lovin’ Gone Bad.” The room was engulfed in sound.
Cuz I’m a man
I got my pride
Don’t need no woman to hurt me inside
Ganzler would never claim to have the chops of a baby boom guitar hero. But with his shoulder-length gray hair and the growling Burst cradled against his middle-aged waistline, he looked the part.