Prodigal Sunburst

Joe Walsh Reunites with a ’59 Les Paul Standard
Prodigal Sunburst
Guitar photos by Nate Westgor.

A master of delivering crystal-clear musical messages with an off-kilter wit, whether talking, singing, picking, or sliding on guitar, everything Joe Walsh does brings an undeniable charisma.

For decades, Walsh lived the ultimate rock-star life, wrote hit songs about it, emerged alive, sobered up, and all the while held on to his considerable musical skill. In April, he welcomed this ’59 Les Paul Standard back to his world.

More than most guitar superstars, the man responsible for showing Glenn Frey the warm-up lick that starts “Life In The Fast Lane,” swapped solos with Don Felder in “Hotel California,” learned slide from Duane Allman, and dished out heavy sardonicism in “Life’s Been Good,” Walsh is familiar with the nuances of vintage Les Paul Standards. What’s more, his taste in them played a major role in their extraordinary collectibility.

When Led Zeppelin toured the U.S. in 1969, Walsh’s band, James Gang, opened a half-dozen shows. One day, Jimmy Page told Walsh that for their next album, he wanted to step away from the tones of his Telecaster and into a “sunburst.”

“At the time, I happened to have two (’59s),” Walsh told VG in 2012. “One I liked better than the other, so I kept my best one and gave him the other, which had a slightly smaller neck. He liked it a lot, and it became the one he played on a lot of Led Zeppelin music – his #1.”

Page’s taste in Les Pauls had been formed thanks to his first – a 1960 Custom (VG, November ’20) that had a smaller neck with slight V shape, so the late-’59 from Walsh was well-suited.

After the Custom was stolen during a U.S. tour in 1970, the ’59 indeed became Page’s famous “#1.” Meanwhile, Walsh used the other to record with Barnstorm (formed after he moved to Colorado in ’72), and through his early days as a solo artist.
Amongst the throng of Walsh fans is Nate Westgor, owner of Willie’s American Guitars, St. Paul.

“I saw the Rolling Stones at Milwaukee County Stadium in June of ’75 – their first tour with Ron Wood, which was exciting because Ronnie was one of my guitar heros,” he said. “Rufus opened, then the Eagles played, and one of the things that really stands out in my memory was that they did a three-song encore, which was odd for a backup band. They came back out and said, ‘We’d like to introduce our friend, Joe Walsh,’ and the crowd went nuts. They played ‘Rocky Mountain Way,’ ‘James Dean,’ and ‘Take it Easy.’ Joe hadn’t yet been announced as a member, so it was a real surprise.

“I borrowed binoculars from a stranger to take a look at Joe, and he was playing a sunburst Les Paul with humbuckers; in ’75, that meant it had to be old, and I think it was this one.”

A happy Joe Walsh with his reacquired

It’s believed Walsh bought this guitar in the mid ’70s, and it became one of his primaries for writing and recording. While he can’t be certain, “I’m pretty sure I played it on the live [You Can’t Argue with a Sick Mind] album,” he said. A couple decades later, when the ’Burst market began to ascend beyond the reach of mortals and a figured top brought a super-premium, he sold this guitar “to get a prettier one with more flame, and hang tags.”

During the Arlington guitar show in 2003, Walsh (through a broker) sold this guitar to vintage dealer Eliot Michael for between $250,000 and $275,000. Soon after entering the realm of ’Burst collectors, it became known as a standout. Proprieter of Rumble Seat Music, Michael wanted it for his personal collection, and it instantly became a cherished piece.

“I bought it because it was Joe’s,” he said. “But, I fell in love with everything about it; I prefer the necks on 1960 Les Pauls, and this one was close, plus it had double-white PAFs.”

While he had every intention of holding it, in 2007, Michael took a call from recording engineer/studio owner John Kuker, asking about a ’61 Les Paul Custom listed in his shop’s ad. Kuker also asked about the Walsh guitar, and made a legitimate offer for it. At first, Michael resisted, but eventually, Kuker was talking numbers he couldn’t refuse.

The guitar then spent the next several years in Kuker’s studios. A revered homegrown engineer, he worked with Minnesota acts Semisonic and Jonny Lang in the late ’90s before opening his own studio, Seedy Underbelly. Circa 2004, he opened another studio in Los Angeles, then in 2011 bought and revived the well-known Pachyderm Studios, south of Minneapolis, which (prior to his ownership) recorded Nirvana’s In Utereo as well as albums by Soul Asylum and P.J. Harvey.

Kuker was just 40 when he died of a heart attack in February of 2015.

“John had golden ears,” said Westgor, who counted Kuker as a customer and friend. “He heard things other people didn’t, and because this guitar has killer tone, he invited anyone who would appreciate a ’59 Standard to use it. John was generous with his well-groomed guitar collection, so his guitars never sat in a closet.”

In late 2021, the guitar re-emerged thanks in part to a Rolling Stones tour stop in Minneapolis, during which Pierre de Beauport, the band’s engineer/producer and right-hand-man to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, was enjoying dinner with Westgor at Nico’s Tacos. It wasn’t long before they got to talking guitars.

“Pierre told me about how Eliot considered the Joe Walsh ’Burst ‘the one that got away,’” said Westgor. “I paused for a second, wondering if he was messing with me and somehow had found out that I knew the guitar was here in Minnesota, because I had only mentioned it to my closest friends. I said, ‘I know who has that,’ but he kept talking about how it wasn’t flamed but had magic tone. I tried again, saying, ‘It’s odd you bring that up. My friend bought it 15 years ago. Wanna see it?’

Walsh with the guitar during an Eagles tour stop in Houston, November ’76. Also enjoying the Les Paul party are guitar wrangler Brian Brock and Don Felder (left) with a ’58 ’Burst belonging to dealer Tony Dukes (right), who’s holding a rare two-pickup Custom “Black Beauty.”

“His hand went up; ‘Check, please!’”

They were soon bound for Willie’s, where the guitar and a few favorite tweed amps stood ready. “Any time I’d hand the guitar to someone, I’d remind them to really feel the neck,” Westgor said. “It has a slight V; it’s chunky, but not huge. You can tell it’s the work of a person, not the V shape hinted at by the CNC necks on reissues. And of course, old wood on a guitar that’s played as much as this one just sounds better – period.

“Pierre has great ears, and as he started playing, he clearly got lost in its charm. He would play, laugh, play more, laugh more. It was fun. And we were there out of complete serendipity, only because he’d mentioned it at dinner.”

While its resonance, weight (just over eight pounds), and neck make this ’Burst a joy to hold, the pickups are key to its musical magic; Walsh was known for favoring double-white PAFs.

“He was part of the cult that made people notice white-coil PAFs in the late ’70s,” noted Westgor. “I remember reading interviews where he’d talk about their tone, and this one really does have a crisp, defined magic; it’s beyond what you expect, even from a ’Burst.”

Former owner Michael agreed, saying, “It’s definitely in the top three of the 40-some vintage Les Pauls I’ve owned.”

In an interview with Vintage Guitar in 2012, Walsh recalled experimenting with the pickups in his Les Pauls.

“I went back and forth a lot about whether [removing the covers] made any difference, and in the end, I decided it did,” he said. “I also tried screwing the poles all the way down and bringing the pickup a quarter-turn below where it would cause the string to ring. I’ve always felt that gave the most signal.”

Before his passing, Kuker had spoken to Westgor about selling this guitar.

The tell-tale “twin lakes” of rift-sawn wood and circular clear-coat blemish at the waist help ID this as the guitar Walsh played in the ’70s and ’80s. The neck-pickup cavity (right) hints that the guitar has what collectors call a “dark burst” finish, the type noted in Yasuhiko Iwanade’s The Beauty of the Burst as a variation with a bit of blue added to the red pigment. As it fades, the lacquer yellows, giving a nearly imperceptible green tint.

“John’s true passion was recording. He’d owned this guitar for several years and loved it, but he also loved great recording gear, and classic Rupert Neve decks are expensive.

Sometimes, you let stuff go.“After he passed away, there was no real caretaker for the guitar, so selling it became logical to the family.”

Once the decision was made, Westgor set about finding a buyer.

“At first, we did a ‘slow show’ with it,” he said. “It’s kinda complicated, but there are collectors who will not buy a high-end item unless nobody knows about it. Once it’s advertised, they’re not interested.”

After conversations with a few potential buyers, he bought a full-page ad in VG.

“That was what really caught attention, and I’m pretty sure Joe’s eye,” he said. “Others started making inquiries, too.”

Walsh’s involvement reveals how even superstars are careful with – and experience doubts about – such purchases.

“The first time we talked, Joe said, ‘I want it.’ But then I didn’t hear from him for a few days,” Westgor recalled.

At a glance, a bad strike with the ink printer might lead one to think this is a ’58. But close inspection confirms it’s 9 1081.

“I went through a couple head trips when I heard it resurfaced,” Walsh confirmed. “At first, I wasn’t sure it was mine, so Nate sent pictures, and when I saw them, I saw that yes, it was. But the pictures were depressing because the guitar got the s**t beat out of it. The body and headstock are water-damaged, the pickup mounting screws are rusty.”

Understanding his aversion to impulse, Westgor gave Walsh more time, and fielded two legitimate offers. Then, he sent an impromptu video of Los Lobos frontman/guitarist David Hidalgo, playing it through a ’55 Fender Deluxe at Willie’s. Walsh called back.

“I thought, ‘You know what? [The Eagles are] having a great tour, and it will haunt me forever if I don’t get it. I finally said to Nate, ‘Let’s go.’

“I’d also called Rudy’s Music, in New York, and they had one in perfect shape – showroom quality – for about the same price. I arranged to play it for a couple days, but it had the smaller frets. So, I called Rudy and asked if I could give it back, and he said, ‘Sure,’ because he’s a buddy.”

“Joe was doing what all of us do when looking at a guitar,” Westgor noted. “That painstaking process of comparing it, considering the finish, the case, fretwear, and vibe.”

Another push may have come from the Willie’s website, which showed a page from A.R. Duchossoir’s Gibson Electrics, Vol. 1 showing Walsh in 1976 with Eagles bandmate Don Felder, each holding a ’Burst. Walsh has this one.

As the deal closed, Westgor was treated to a dose of that famous Walsh wit.

“He told me, ‘It does seem odd that Joe Walsh is paying a premium for a guitar owned by Joe Walsh.’ And it’s true, but in the end I think its prodigal-son story can only help its future value,” Westgor said. “The guitar is magic, and everyone who owned it played the hell out of it. It has earned its grey hairs, and I love the poetry of Joe getting it back.”

“It sounds great,” Walsh said. “The neck pickup isn’t too fat – it’s really clear. It’s just a beauty. I’m cleaning it up a bit. I got a lot of other peoples’ yuck out of it (laughs).”

And while the right hands could repair it with nary a trace, because the damage is cosmetic, he says, “I’m just gonna keep it, because it plays great. It’s a hoot, getting it back. It’s like meeting an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. I appreciate that Nate went out of his way to get it to me.”

Bloomfield, Clapton, Green, and Richards influenced a generation of budding guitar stars to chase “old” Les Paul Standards. But, Walsh giving Page his #1, combined with Page’s status as a superstar guitar hero, cemented the ’Burst as an icon. And while wire and wood do matter, Westgor reminds us that the human element is always foremost.

“Many see a ’Burst as a magic wand,” he said, “But, without the hands of a wizard, it’s just sculpture. So, thank you, Joe Walsh.”

Special thanks to Albert Molinaro and Brian Brock.

This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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