News From The Pit

This Old Guitar
By Jimmy Brown

First let me begin by wishing everyone a Happy New Year! I hope our readers have gotten as much pleasure out of reading this column as I have out of writing it each month.

This month I've been asked to share a "famous person" story associated with This Old Guitar. As I write this, it's December 18, which happens to be Keith Richards' birthday, so I'll share a birthday story.

This one ties together not one but two famous people, one old guitar, and not one but two birthdays. Plus, through the birthday gift, the bond is strengthened between the king of the delta blues, Robert Johnson, and today's reigning king of hard riffs, Keith Richards.

Robert Johnson, the personality behind the movie Crossroads, was the person who, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil. He was a guitar prodigy who influenced countless guitarists and helped shape today's music. Though he was killed in the mid 1930's while still a young man, his influence is still being felt.

For Keith Richards, Robert Johnson was one of the main influences - talk about role models! Johnson penned at least two of the Stones' classics - "Love in Vain," and "Stop Breakin Down." Open tunings, bottleneck guitar, fingerpicking, it's all there.

It was during the Steel Wheels tour in the fall of '89 when I received a call from someone in the Rolling Stones camp about getting Keith Richards a guitar for his birthday on December 18, one like Robert Johnson played. About this time, recently found photos of Johnson were cropping up, and for the first time, a guitar could now be associated with the myth and legend. Up to this point little was known about this guitar.

I suppose it was late November, cause it all happened very quickly. We received a phone call from an elderly man in Pennsylvania who said he had an old 1920s Gibson L-1 guitar for sale and we had been recommended to him. Why us, and not someone more local to him, I'll never know. But we spoke briefly and he described what seemed to be the real McCoy.

Bear in mind, that in the late 20's - early 30's, Gibson's focus was on building arch top guitars, banjos, and mandolins. Flat top guitars were farther down the musical food chain and were just beginning to have a greater impact. We didn't want to take a chance so we encouraged the man to please ship his guitar to us immediately. He was very kind and trusting, and did just that and in a day or two, we got his guitar.

There it was: an extremely fine, late 20s Gibson L-1 flat top with the original hardshell case. These instruments are very scarce today. Their carefully crafted, lightweight construction has caused most of them to have been heavily damaged or destroyed by now.

Though it was a very simple guitar, one in good shape is still a great guitar. Shaped like a miniature Gibson J-200, they are small mahogany bodied guitars with 12 fret necks (the early ones) and the Gibson name silkscreened on the headstock.

To give you a better perspective, in 22 years of business at our shop, The Guitar Emporium, we have had three of these guitars. For whatever the reason, within a week of receiving the request for one from the Rolling Stones, we received as nice an example as anyone could hope to find, a truly remarkable guitar.

It happened that the Stones were scheduled to play in Indianapolis on December 7 and it was decided around December 1 that the Indy show would be the time to get together. How wonderful, as it that happened to be my birthday! What a great way to have a birthday.

I was given the guest treatment, and they were such great hosts. Of course, the Gibson L-1 had to remain a secret, so it was all the more fun to participate in all of this. Keith bought several guitars and always has a story or interesting comment. One of the guitars cost $1,700, and I remember Charlie Watts saying it was such a nice guitar for $17,000, not $1700!

It was a fun-filled holiday occasion for two of December's children. I had a great birthday to remember, Keith got a great guitar, and I'm sure the legacy of Robert Johnson will live on with Keith on that Gibson L-1.

Until next time, keep rockin.