“Designer” Guitars… Does Anyone Actually Play Them?

Every now and then, I indulge myself with a bit of fantasy guitar shopping. I’m sure all guitarists have done it at some point or other… You set an imaginary budget and trawl the internet looking at the guitars you could afford if you had the wherewithal to buy them. Sooner or later you settle on the “perfect” instrument for you & start wondering just how much cash you could raise by selling a kidney.

Last week I found myself looking at some of the more exotic Gibson Les Pauls currently available. I’ve been a habitual strat player for many a year, but as I get older I’m beginning to hanker after that iconic single-cut design more & more. Whilst perusing the guitars on offer at a well known online music retailer, I came across this guitar, the Gibson Custom Shop Billy F. Gibbons Les Paul Goldtop Aged:


This guitar costs over six and a half grand (in UK Sterling). I’m sure it is a fantastically built instrument, and the phoney wear & tear is really convincing (if you like that sort of thing). But one question keeps niggling away at me every time I look at it: Who would buy such an instrument? And Why?

Would any jobbing musician who, like me, relies on their guitar as a professional tool spend £6K+ on a guitar which lacks a pickup selector, and individual tone controls? Also, would you dare take it out and gig it? You heart would be in your mouth every time some staggering inebriate tottered toward the stage. And you can bet that if it got damaged or stolen, even if it happened when the guitar was in your home, the insurance company would raise an eyebrow or two at the claim you put in. Then the next years premium would be like being robbed all over again, in all probability.

So if this kind of guitar is unlikely to be bought by working a working musician, then you begin to realise just who it is who buys this kind of expensive trinket. I would bet that the guitar in the photo will end up either in a bank vault as an investment, or having ham-fisted open-position chords bashed out on it by some hedge-fund manager from one of the big merchant banks, his bonus burning a hole in his pocket. He always wanted to play the guitar as a teenager, but never got round to it. Now he’s indulging his mid-life crisis by buying a Harley-Davidson, getting a tattoo and learning the guitar. Even if he doesn’t master the F chord, and eventually gives up, it’ll still look pretty cool in a glass display case in his chic loft apartment in the Isle Of Dogs.

You also have to ask, where has the money been spent? How do Gibson justify this kind of asking price? In terms of supply and demand, I suppose they can say it’s worth whatever someone is prepared to pay. But the trouble is, they don’t actually say that. Any expensive guitar manufacturer will bang on at length about craftsmanship… painstaking attention to detail… only the finest timbers etc. etc. Really? Well, if we’re talking about master craftsmen building something out of the best possible raw materials, then what about a comparable piece of furniture?

A quick Google search for “handmade furniture” reveals the following: You can buy a bespoke dining room set, consisting of an oak table (yes… OAK!) and six oak chairs, hand crafted in the UK for under fifteen hundred quid. Consider the workmanship involved in…

Each chair or table leg being carved into the requisite curve by hand; each mortise and tenon join between every piece of wood being expertly executed by a skilled artisan; the sheer amount of high quality timber used; the number of hours required to sand and finish the whole thing. The list goes on & the longer it gets the more you realise that the Gibson guitar in question is one piece of mahogany for the neck, a strip of rosewood for the fingerboard, more mahogany for the body, and a maple cap to sit on top the body slab. So, nowhere near the amount of timber, and nowhere near the amount of effort involved in the build, yet it costs over four times as much & I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why. Sure, an electric guitar is more than just wood… there’s the pickups, frets & wiring too, but that isn’t going to make up the price difference, surely?

Looked at purely in the terms that Gibson (and to be fair all boutique guitar manufacturers) use – craftsmanship & quality of materials – to justify the eye-watering price tag of such instruments, you cannot escape the conclusion that such guitars are ridiculously over-priced. Especially when compared to other items manufactured using much the same skills & raw materials. But then again, who cares? These guitars, even though they undoubtedly are fine instruments capable of being used as serious professional tools, will be unlikely to ever see a stage. They will be bought mostly by collectors and rich wannabe musos more interested in buying “a genuine piece of rock ‘n roll heritage” than anyone who would actually use them as the pro-quality musical instruments they are. I find that a little bit sad, to be honest.

Anyway, back to my fantasy guitar shopping… In my quest for the ultimate single-cut, twin-humbucker, set neck, mahogany guitar, I settled on the Indie ILP523, a stunning single-cut for less than a tenth of the Gibbo asking price and just look at the review (click here). Maybe I won’t have to put a kidney on ebay, after all…

Until next time, have fun!



John Robson Guitar Tuition

The John Robson Jazz Project


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