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Playing The Celebrity-Guitar Market

Fittingly enough in the world of collectible celebrity guitars, there's nothing like a good story behind the instrument to drive up the price.

Though the condition of the instrument and the rarity of the model are also important, an interesting history is the key determining factor.

A one-of-a-kind Telecaster in mint condition will always fetch a good price, but nothing will drive that price up like the fact that John Lennon used it to write “Revolution.”

“With celebrity pieces, we look for its provenance, for who owned it,” says Kerry Keane, senior vice president at Christie’s auction house and department head for fine musical instruments. “If it comes from a revered collector or an iconic figure, there will be added value to that instrument.”

Recent auction results bear this out. There are few figures more iconic than the late Johnny Cash, and his black 1965 Fender Malibu sold for $72,100 at Christie’s in New York City.

This guitar was slung over his shoulder in almost every photograph in which he appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the Man in Black autographed it, adding the line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” from his classic song “Folsom Prison Blues.” These factors all contributed to the instrument’s high price.

Eric Clapton is another iconic figure, and two of his guitars have sold for exceptional prices. One is a 1956 Fender Stratocaster that he nicknamed “Brownie” for its brown sunburst finish. It can be heard on the song “Layla,” which is considered by many to be the guitarist’s crowning achievement.

“Brownie” was sold at a June 1999 auction at Christie’s for an impressive $497,500, but that haul was only about half that of Clapton’s most prized instrument.

That guitar, which Clapton calls “Blackie,” sold for $959,500 in 2004. It was his main stage and studio instrument for fifteen years, to the exclusion of almost all others, and it appeared on a string of successful solo albums in the 1970s and 1980s.

Other instruments with whopping price tags are not necessarily the ones played by the biggest celebrities, but those whose place in history is significant. (Take a look at some of the most expensive instruments sold at auction in our slideshow.)

Scotty Moore is not exactly a household name, but his 1956 Gibson Super 400 sold at a London auction for $106,256. Moore was Elvis Presley’s guitarist during the singer’s commercial zenith in the 1950s, and the instrument can be heard on such classics songs as “All Shook Up” and “Jailhouse Rock.” The songs helped provide the foundation for rock and roll, and a pedigree that more than justifies the instrument’s very high asking price.

One factor that must not be overlooked when considering a guitar as an investment is its condition.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve found a left-handed Gibson Firebird custom-built for Jimi Hendrix if the body is chipped, the frets are worn and a third of the original parts have been replaced.

A truly valuable guitar should look flawless, with a few light dings at the most and only minor wear from being played. This is a tall order, as most guitars associated with famous musicians have been played and played again all over the world as the owners lived their colorful lives.

But the rare instrument that a famous musician has taken great care to preserve will have a considerable price tag and represent an excellent investment opportunity.

Needless to say, finding a guitar of this stature is no easy feat, and you will not see one hanging in the window of the average Sam Ash store. (The average price range is $1000-$5000.)

Typically, a guitar of this quality passes from the musician who owned it to the private collector with the resources to outbid all others. (And there's plenty of stock-option millionaires out there to do that.)

However, if you’ve got the cash and you know what to look for, fine instrument auctions present opportunities to invest in bona fide treasures. Just don’t forget about one of the most important features of the guitar—the sound.

“People today are willing to pay top prices for a Martin OM-45 Deluxe,” says Keane, “simply because they sound better than any of the others.”

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