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Music

Steely Dan’s Walter Becker was a gearhead’s gearhead. Now his entire collection is up for auction

Those entering the Julien’s Auctions showroom in Beverly Hills on a recent weekday could be forgiven for mistaking the space for a high-end music shop. Vast walls held hundreds of guitars in rows. Dozens of display cases were packed with a wild array of effects pedals, distortion boxes and one-of-a-kind tone generators. Basses and banjos. Amps and monitors. Drums and keyboards.

The gear, however, was hardly a random collection, but the precisely curated result of musician Walter Becker’s decades-long pursuit of instruments and gadgets as co-founder of 1970s jazz-rock aesthetes Steely Dan. On Friday and Saturday, the late multi-instrumentalist’s estate will auction the tools of Becker’s trade, and the sale has generated a lot of buzz in the guitar-collecting and the Steely Dan-loving communities.

A musician’s musician, Becker, who died from cancer in 2017 at age 67, collected instruments with an eye toward beauty and an ear toward sound. He played both bass and guitar with the band, teaming with Steely Dan co-founder Donald Fagen and various expert session players to create supple, striking, meticulously crafted hits, most of them recorded at Village Recorder a few miles west, including “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Peg,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and dozens more.

Touring the auction preview, music specialist Jason Watkins, who helped catalog and research Becker’s holdings, said that the artist was obviously passionate about guitars. “It was a profession and also kind of a hobby, as you can see,” Watkins says. “He would stop in any guitar shop he saw and pick up things from all over the world.”

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Such as: A Cardinal Magpie electric guitar with a “spalted sycamore” top and matching pick-up covers. Another oblong Cardinal with a maple top. A 1959 Gretsch Tennessean hollow-body guitar signed by Nashville legend Chet Atkins. Flying Vs, Telecasters, Songbirds, Rickenbachers, Hofners, Stratocasters, Les Pauls, Bluesmasters. A Pensa-brand seven-stringed guitar.

And: rare effects pedals and systems including a coveted Klon Centaur overdrive pedal, an Echoplex four-channel tape delay, a few Becker-designed audio racks, clavinets, MiniMoogs and custom tube amplifiers. In all, Becker’s estate will auction nearly 1,100 items.

It’s a singular collection, Watkins says, and includes “the weirdest rare boutique pedals that you’ve ever seen” and tailor-made, intact pedal board setups that Becker used in various locations. Watkins adds that the batch reveals “how excited and passionate he was about honing his sound and constantly developing it for 30 years.”

Steely Dan
Walter Becker, left, and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan in 1977.
(Chris Walter / WireImage)

And Steely Dan has singular fans, many of whom have followed the band’s various breakups and reconciliations over the decades. Drawn to a distinctive sound that mixed obscure jazz chords and odd tunings with gymnastic time signatures and accents that rewarded deep listening, those fans who weren’t musicians themselves were liner-note readers who appreciated the band’s musical quirks and poetic way with a lyric.

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The band, which continues to perform with Fagen as its leader, just commenced a six-night run at the Beacon Theater in New York. Earlier this year Steely Dan performed an extended Las Vegas run called “Reelin’ in the Chips.”

Its post-Becker life hasn’t been without drama. Shortly after Becker’s death, Fagen filed suit against his late partner’s estate, which is controlled by Becker’s widow, Delia Becker. In it, Fagen cited a 1972 agreement with his bandmate that stipulated that in the event one of them died, ownership of the Steely Dan name would be transferred to the remaining member.

In its legal response, the Becker estate dismissed the claim and offered a counter-argument that the agreement was drafted 45 years ago and “was not in effect at the time of Walter’s death.” The suit has yet to be resolved.

Legal issues won’t have a bearing on the auction, which will be held at Julien’s in Beverly Hills and broadcast online. Martin Nolan, the company’s executive director and chief financial officer, says that 97% of Becker’s items already have bids, and that “hundreds of thousands” of people have viewed the online listings. Thousands have already bid on items. Conservatively, the pre-auction sale estimate is between $1.25 million and $2 million, but he expects more. “I think we could do $4 million on a good weekend.”

The interest, Nolan adds, “speaks to how important this auction is to other collectors and other musicians. They want to own something from this collection because it’s functional, it’s quality stuff and it’s Walter Becker and Steely Dan.”

Nolan says the response to the Becker auction reminds him of the 2012 sale by guitarist and multi-track recording innovator Les Paul. According to Julien’s, that auction earned just under $5 million.

If social media buzz is any indication, fans and collectors are paying attention. On Monday, The Times posted a short clip from the press preview, and within two days it had been viewed over 100,000 times. Commenters expressed envy and awe and highlighted specific makes and models.

One member of the swarm, though, warned of making available to the public one particular vintage box, noting that “the guitar nerd value of Walter Becker’s Centaur pedal constitutes some sort of ultra-dangerous-audio-nerd-singularity and it should be housed in an underground bunker somewhere in order to protect humanity and the planet.”

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Hopefully it lands with someone who can handle it.


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