Les Paul's 'Black Beauty' guitar goes up for auction

An instrument that was one of the first prototypes of the electric guitar that would become one of the models of choice for rock's elite is going on the auction block. But some say its place in history is is overblown.

Original prototype electric guitar by famed guitarist Les Paul could set record

Original prototype electric guitar by famed guitarist Les Paul could set record 2:22

"Black Beauty" is one of the first prototypes created by famous guitar maker Les Paul, but a week before it goes up for auction, a debate is stirring about the guitar's real value. 

The guitar is part of a collection owned by Tom Doyle, Paul's former collaborator, manager and guitar maker. A press release from New York auction house Guernsey's calls it the "Holy Grail" of electric guitars, a sentiment echoed on the February cover of Guitar Player magazine.

"It was everything he wanted in an electric guitar on this one, so we call this the benchmark or the beginning of what guitars would evolve to being," Doyle said. 
Tom Doyle holds Black Beauty, which was given to him by Les Paul in 1976. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

Created in 1953 by Gibson, it was given to Les Paul in 1954, the third in a series he worked on with the company. The guitar featured heavily on the Les Paul and Mary Ford show in the mid-'50s.

Les Paul-designed guitars would eventually find their way into the hands of a who's who of legendary musicians, from Neil Young to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page to Bob Marley and Slash to Alex Lifeson

Doyle hopes the guitar will fetch a record price.

"[Les Paul] was the one who created the guitar players we have today, and most people don't really realize that," Doyle said. "Electric guitars were in their infancy and he was the one who showed you what could be done with it." 

A custom guitar played by Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia sold for $957,000 US in 2002, setting a record that was later eclipsed by a Bob Dylan guitar that sold for $965,000 US in 2013.

No reserve price has been set on Black Beauty, but Guernsey's president Arlan Ettinger believes its selling price could rival those. 

"This is not simply a guitar made famous by someone who played it, but a guitar that is at the root of the music from which, without this guitar, the music wouldn't possibly exist," Ettinger said.

Claims disputed

But a recent article in the Washington Post disputes those claims. It quotes music historians and even the Les Paul estate, which says the guitar's historical significance has been overblown to heighten its value at auction.

They say it was the first two prototypes created by Les Paul — the so-called "Gold-tops"— that were eventually adapted in the late '50s to become the model favoured by rock's premier talents.

Doyle doesn't dispute that those guitars laid the groundwork for future models, but said Black Beauty is special in its own right. 

"To me it's the Mona Lisa, you know what I mean, names don't mean much to me, it's where it came from and its providence," he says. 

Some critics have also pointed out that Les Paul was notoriously frugal, not paying employees like Doyle very well, hence the need to cash in now.

Doyle said Paul gave him the guitar in 1976 as payment for other work and that Paul told him it would be worth something one day.

"I'm 72 years old, I've been on the bench for 50 years," he said, adding that he hopes to see it end up in a museum.

"I've appreciated and loved these guitars, but it's time to show the world these guitars and what they were to Les and how he used them."

The guitar, along with other items from Doyle's collection, goes up for auction Feb. 19 in New York.

About the Author

Steven D'Souza

CBC News New York

Steven D'Souza is a Gemini-nominated journalist based in New York City. He has reported internationally from the papal conclave in Rome and the World Cup in Brazil, and he spent eight years in Toronto covering stories like the G20 protests and the Rob Ford crack video scandal.