Strats and Strads

Remember this scene in Antonioni’s “Blow Up”? It’s one of my favorites of all time. David Hemmings wanders into a performance space where a band is playing to a somewhat dazed looking small audience. One of the players is having trouble with an amp, and, well, see what happens next…

It’s such a great scene for a lot of reasons, one being that the band is actually the  Jimmy Page/Jeff Beck Yardbirds, one of the most iconic and influential in the history of Rock and Roll, with Beck smashing his axe in the scene.

But it’s the “treasure to trash” ending of the scene I really like. In the context of the show, the busted up guitar is treasure worth fighting for, but a minute later, out on the street, it’s just junk. It has no intrinsic value, just the perceived value of the people watching the show.

When you think of the value that certain violins have to collectors, e.g. those made by Amati or Stradivari, you can see something different. They are valued for their craftsmanship (the techniques and skill of the maker can’t be replicated), their rarity (no more will be produced), their provenance (who has owned and played them), and, most of all, their sound. Those violins are meant to be played. Of course, most of the great players can’t afford the instruments, but the people who can afford them will often purchase them with the objective of having them played by an expert. Yes, they have great value as museum pieces, but they also have intrinsic value to the musician.

Of course, there are some violins that are valued entirely for their provenance, irrespective of their quality. For, example, the violin on which “Nearer My God To Thee” was played as the Titanic went down. According to this site, it was discovered in an attic in England, had its history verified, and was last sold for $1.7 Million.

titanic

But the most expensive violins are valued for their sound as much as their history. Here are a couple of examples from the same site (click to enlarge):

To be sure, there are famous luthiers and manufacturers whose products are also valued for their sound and playing characteristics, and some of their guitars are quite expensive.

But the most expensive guitars are simply the most famous ones, i.e. owned and played by the most famous musicians. They are typically made by companies still in business today: Martin, Gibson, and Fender, and, although often customized for the particular player, could easily be reproduced to the original standard. They are not meant to be played or even touched, but rather admired and either re-sold for a profit or given to a museum.

The Fender Stratocaster on which Jimi Hendrix played The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock was purchased by Microsoft founder Paul Allen for $2 Million. If he plays it, he doesn’t do it in public, at least to my knowledge.

jimi

Will this particular instrument increase in value over the centuries? Only if Jimi’s fame and the Woodstock moment endure. I’m not saying they won’t, but anyone who wants a guitar of identical sound and build quality, could have one made today for a lot less than $2M.

The highest price ever paid for a guitar does not yet match the highest price ever paid for a violin, but the gap is closing. The Reach Out To Asia strat sold for $2.7 Million, not because it’s a great instrument, but because a lot of legendary players signed it for a charity auction, held for relief for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami victims. (Click on the link to find out who).

tsunami

An electric Washburn owned but rarely played by Bob Marley, was given away to his tech, Gary Carlsen, and ultimately sold for $1.2 Million. It is now enshrined in Jamaica as a “National Treasure”.

marley

Bringing it all back around to the Yardbirds, this 1964 Gibson ES-335 was used by Eric Clapton in his time with the band (before Page and Beck), as well as with Cream, Blind Faith, and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.

clapton

It sold at auction at Christie’s in 2004 for $847,500, at the time the third highest price ever paid for a guitar. A nice axe, to be sure, but who knows what David Hemmings and Michelangelo Antonioni would do with it.

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