The $500,000 guitar

Original Les Paul sunburst guitars are going for $500,000. When does a guitar become too expensive to play?

Every time I read a guitar-porn article like yesterday's piece on Les Paul sunbursts in the L.A. Times, I'm reminded of the scene in Spinal Tap when Marty DiBirgi (Rob Reiner), the "documentary" maker, gets a guided tour of Nigel Tufnel's (Christopher Guest) guitar room. At one point, Marty notices a guitar that has never been played, and Nigel quickly shoos him away from it: "Don't touch it!...Don't point. It can't be played."

I'm sure these original sunbursts sound great, but I'd never know--I've never seen anybody play one live. (Jimmy Page's sounds pretty good in the Led Zeppelin DVD.) The folks who are rich enough to collect them aren't gigging musicians, I guess, and the musicians who have one are probably too afraid to get them ripped off on the road.

I think of instruments the way a wine collector once explained expensive wines to me: a $500 Bordeaux might not be objectively "better" than a $100 Bordeaux, but each is unique, and sometimes you can only get that exact taste from that exact bottle. With guitars, the price disparity is even greater: I've seen hacks try to work their way around brand new $3,000 axes at Guitar Center, and one of the best guitarists I've ever played with coaxed remarkable sounds out of a 40-year-old Danelectro Silvertone. Those guitars were considered cheap starters, and originally sold exclusively through Sears, and they go for about $300 on eBay these days.