Brought to Gruhn Guitars, an oddball brown Les Paul consigned by its owner in Minnesota caught the attention of a web-surfing Bonamassa. More fascinated than interested, he sent a link to his friend, Mat Koehler, guitarist/collector and Senior Director of Product Development at Gibson Guitars’ Nashville headquarters.
“Joe asked if I thought it was real, and at a glance I figured there was no reason to doubt it, especially since the knobs were painted to match the finish,” Koehler said. “I’m never fully confident judging only by photos, but the asking price seemed low for a custom guitar. I figured that even if it was a refinish, it was a cool refinish.”
The curio was soon on its way to Bonamassa’s Nerdville headquarters in Los Angeles.
“At first glance on the website, of course, I was thinking it was a refin,” Bonamassa recalled. “But once I had it in my hands, there was no doubt it’s original.”
Fast-forward one year. Gibson archives curator Jason Davidson is scanning shipping ledgers on behalf of Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, when, in the 1955 book he stumbles upon consecutive entries in unusual penmanship, with no serial numbers and listing colors he had never heard about – Nugget Gold, Platinum, Samoan Beige, Viceroy Brown, and Copper Iridescent. Wondering if they might have a connection to Bonamassa’s brown guitar, Davidson fired off a note to Koehler.
“When I saw that, I started researching the color names,” Koehler said. “Gibson was using Duco and DuPont car paints in the ’50s, and Rick Gould, a friend of Joe’s who’s very into vintage instruments, went online and matched some to Cadillac and Chevy colors.”
Old color charts are part of the game for guitar collectors, but none of these had been seen on a guitar.
“I recognized Viceroy Brown as a sunburst finish from the 1960s,” said Koehler. “But it appears to have been an opaque walnut-brown, according to ’50s car-manufacturer paint chips.”
His informed speculation was that Gibson had sprayed experimental finishes on five instruments bound for the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show, which would help explain their oddball ledger entries.
A new chapter in the mystery opened in 2018. Koehler was surfing the web one day when up popped an ad for a “1970s Les Paul Deluxe in Custom Brown.” Judging by the small photos, he thought it could be the same color as Bonamassa’s ’55. The seller listed little info, but the guitar looked to be in very good condition, its embossed pickup covers signaling it was from ’72. And like on the ’55, the knobs were painted.
“That was the 20th anniversary of the Les Paul, and Gibson did all sorts of special runs that year – Les Pauls, in particular,” Koehler said. “I guessed it was a nod to something they’d done in the past – maybe the same employee who helped create the brown ’50s guitars had something to do with this one. Or maybe someone in sales ordered it, perhaps as a tribute to the late Clarence Havega, who was beloved at Gibson and would’ve shown those first brown guitars at NAMM in 55.
“Sales guys dictated more product changes and one-offs than people realize, including with neck profiles and fretboard widths. There were changes driven outside of sales, but most of the major ones in the ’50s and ’60s came from the sales team.”
Anyway, as with the first brown guitar, the asking price for the ’72 was reasonable and posed little risk even if it wasn’t exactly as advertised. Besides, Koehler reasoned, if anything in the world belonged at Nerdville, it’s a pair of funky Les Pauls. For the next few years, all was right in guitardom.
Then, in 2021 Bonamassa got an e-mail from his friends Jay and Trevor Boone at Emerald City Guitars, Seattle, telling him they’d found a brown Les Paul with a 1955 serial number in Yuma, Arizona.
“Joe told me about it right away, and I was skep tical, because what are the chances?” Koehler said. “It was just strange that we found those entries listing these bizarre special orders… then they start to appear? But we went back to the ledger and there it was – ‘Special order, Copper, Hi Fi strings.’ I thought, ‘How much more provenance do you need?’ The whole thing was just too cool.”
Bonamassa certainly won’t argue.
“I would’ve thought a guitar made for a trade show was a unicorn,” he said. “But of course it was thrilling when the second one showed up and was exactly the same color. It just makes you go, ‘Holy cow!’ It’s a really odd story. One doesn’t have a serial number and was first sold in Minnesota, the other was found in Arizona after its owner moved from Minnesota…”
Describing Copper Iridescent, Bonamassa says, “From five feet, it looks brown. But in direct light, you see gold metalflake in the finish, and it’s just so cool. And it’s fascinating to think they kept the color around even though it never appeared on their custom-color charts. It’s just crazy how all three of the guitars came in different ways. They’re identical, and it’s the coolest trio you’ll ever see.”
Bonamassa was recently contacted by a nephew of the original owner of the first ’55, saying he had the amp his uncle bought with the guitar; the two-tone GA-20 is once again sitting alongside its partner.
“For mere mortals, stumbling upon a guitar like any one of these would be life-changing. But finding all three? It’s just another day in the life of Joe,” Koehler said with a chuckle.
Bonamassa adds that they offer a lesson for all guitar collectors.
“Never say you have the only one of something,” he laughed. “Because the chances are good you’ll be wrong.”
Speaking of, Koehler recently found a Copper Iridescent guitar listed in the 1956 ledger, prompting him to clown with Bonamassa.
“I texted an animated gif of Yoda saying, ‘No, there is another’ and a photo of the entry.”
Bonamassa says, “We have no idea where it is,” and insists he’s not on the hunt. If he waits, though, it’ll probably drift its way through time and space to land at Nerdville.
This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.