It's no secret that investing in guitars can be very lucrative. Over the last six decades or so, in the time that the electric guitar has gone from novelty item to a dominating instrumental force in popular music, the guitar market has proven itself to be a pretty safe place to put money. If one educates oneself, purchases the right instruments, and can hold steady until an opportune time to sell, a tidy profit can be made flipping fine guitars. If you're a player as well, and not just a wealthy, non-musician schmoe, it's also a pretty good way to make investing fun. Of course, there's always the chance that you'll get attached to your "investments" and not want to part with them, but that's a separate issue. Self-control is of the utmost importance if you want to make the game work.
Workingman's guitar investing can be fun and rewarding, but for the one-percenters, things can get significantly more interesting. As you might expect, high-rolling players in the guitar market typically focus on rare vintage instruments, and instruments that have some kind of distinguished provenance, such as having once been owned by a famous musician, or having been used for a famous recording or live performance. Guitars such as these can range in price from tens of thousands, to upwards of a couple of million dollars. The upper tier of this range consists of instruments that most of us would be very lucky just to see in a museum once, much less pick up and strum a chord on. We can still dream, though, can't we? Here are the ten most valuable guitars ever sold.
#1 "Reach Out to Asia" Fender Stratocaster, $2.7 million
Let's just go ahead and start at the top, with the legendary "Reach Out to Asia" Strat. Most guitars that fetch hefty bids at auction do so because they were owned or used by a famous player, but this particular Strat, the most valuable guitar in history, subverts that paradigm. This guitar was auctioned off to benefit Reach Out to Asia, a charity formed to help the unfortunate victims of the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It earns its nearly three million dollar price tag by virtue of having been signed by nearly every living legend of rock guitar (plus a couple of other famous guys), including Clapton, Richards, Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, David Gilmour, Brian May, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler, Pete Townshend, Angus and Malcolm Young, Tony Iommi, Sting, Ritchie Blackmore, Liam Gallagher, Paul McCartney, Bryan Adams (who coordinated the whole project), and the members of Def Leppard.
#2 John Lennon's Gibson J-160E, $2.4 million
This guitar is the most recent addition to the "most expensive guitars" list, having sold at auction quite recently, in November of 2015. Lennon's Gibson J-160-E acoustic-electric was lost for decades, with the incredible provenance of the instrument remaining unknown to its owner until 2008. The guitar was originally acquired by Lennon in 1962 at Rushworth's Music House in Liverpool, and it was used on the Beatles first single, "Love Me Do"/"P.S. I Love You," as well as the band's Please Please Me and With the Beatles albums. Other Lennon guitars have brought substantial auction prices, but the long-lost J-160E is unquestionably the most important and earliest of these instruments, as well as being one of the most significant pieces of Beatles memorabilia ever.
#3 Jimi Hendrix's 1968 "Woodstock" Fender Stratocaster, $2 million
Hendrix's performance at Woodstock changed electric guitar forever, with his rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" being particularly transcendent. The guitar he used for what many would consider his most defining live outing was an Olympic White 1968 Fender Strat with an alder body and a maple neck. Hendrix purchased the guitar brand new, and subsequently played it at many of his most well-known concerts, including the Newport Pop Festival and his last performance at Fehmarn, Germany in 1970, just days before his death. The guitar was ultimately sold to Microsoft's Paul Allen for a reported 2 million dollars, and now resides at the Experience Music Project in Seattle.
#4 Keith Richards’s 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard, $1 million plus
One of Keith Richards’s earliest instruments, a '59 sunburst Les Paul Standard fitted with a Bigsby vibrato, is quite likely the third most valuable guitar of all time (though the sale was carried out privately, so details cannot be confirmed). Sold to an unknown European collector in 2006, reportedly for upwards of 1 million dollars, this '59 LP was used regularly by Keith from 1962 through 1967, appearing with him on TV shows, like Ready Steady Go, as well as classic Stones recordings, such as "Satisfaction." It changed hands several times over the decades, having been owned at one time or another by fellow Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, Whitesnake's Bernie Marsden, Cosmo Verrico of The Stones's label-mates Heavy Metal Kids, and several private guitar collectors in the U.K. and Europe.
#5 Bob Dylan's Newport Folk Festival Fender Stratocaster, $965,000
There are a number of Strats on this list, and one of the most significant to the history of rock n' roll is the guitar that Bob Dylan played at his infamous first electric performance, at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25th, 1965. Regularly cited as one of the most pivotal and controversial musical performances of all time, it's no surprise that the instrument used by Dylan for his legendary three-song electric debut should be incredibly valuable. The Newport Strat appeared on PBS's History Detectives show in 2012, and was auctioned off in 2013 by Christies.
#6 Eric Clapton's "Blackie" Fender Stratocaster, $959,000
No list of most expensive guitars would be complete without several entries from Mr. Clapton. His lofty position in the pantheon of living rock guitar deities, as well as his proclivity for auctioning off his instruments for charity, explain this phenomenon. The most highly valued of Clapton's guitars was his numero uno throughout most of the ‘70s and ‘80s, a mixed-breed Fender Stratocaster called "Blackie." Blackie was reportedly assembled from three different sixties Strats that Clapton acquired at the Sho-Bud guitar shop in Nashville, Tennessee for 200-300 dollars each. It was used nearly exclusively from '74 to '85, appearing on many of Clapton's most enduring hits, including "I Shot the Sheriff," "Cocaine," and that beloved prom night anthem, "Wonderful Tonight." It was auctioned off by Christies in 2004, to benefit Clapton's Crossroads Center, a drug and alcohol rehab facility.
#7 Jerry Garcia's "Tiger" by Doug Irwin, $957,500
Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia was well known for his array of unusual and custom instruments, and the most valuable of these is "Tiger," a guitar built by ex-Alembic employee Doug Irwin. Tiger was actually Garcia's number two, after another Irwin axe referred to as "Rosebud," but because Rosebud was in the shop at the time, Tiger was the last guitar Garcia played live before his death. It's a very unique instrument, indeed, built from a hodgepodge of different woods laminated together, with brass binding and inlays. It was also incredibly heavy, weighing in at over 13 pounds. Tiger was left to Irwin in Garcia's will, and in 2002 Irwin sold the guitar at auction to Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts (and, apparently, a big Deadhead) for $957,500.
#8 Eric Clapton's '64 Gibson ES-335, $847,500
Before he switched denominations in the seventies, Clapton was a Gibson guy. He was often seen with various Les Pauls, a Firebird, the distinctive SG with the psychedelic swirls, and this cherry-hued ES-335, which he used in the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Blind Faith, and most famously, on Cream's farewell tour and last album, Goodbye. Clapton hung onto the guitar, and it became a stage and studio favorite of his during the ‘90s, appearing at a number of large concert events and TV specials. It was auctioned off by Christies in 2004 to benefit the Crossroads Center, and for a time was the third most valuable guitar in the world.
#9 Eric Clapton's 1939 Martin 000-42, $791,500
Yep, another Clapton guitar auctioned off for the Crossroads Center. Even casual Clapton enthusiasts will recognize this guitar as the instrument used by ol' Slowhand for his MTV Unplugged set. The guitar even appeared on the cover of the accompanying CD release, which went on to win three Grammy awards and sell 26 million copies, marking the second coming of Clapton as a commercial force in the music industry. It also served as the blueprint for Martin's Eric Clapton signature model, the 000-42EC.
#10 Jerry Garcia's "Wolf" by Doug Irwin, $789,500
The Wolf was Jerry Garcia's first custom instrument, built by luthier Doug Irwin, who was an Alembic employee at the time. Garcia received the Wolf in 1973, and was so pleased with it that he immediately commissioned Irwin to build him another guitar (the aforementioned Tiger), giving him free reign to do whatever he liked, with no expenses spared. Garcia willed the Wolf to Irwin upon his death, and Irwin subsequently auctioned it off through Guernseys in 2002. At the time of its sale, it was the most valuable guitar in the world.