Beatles Collectors Revel in the Magic of Their Genuine Gear

April 13th, 2016

This is an excerpt from the all-new MAY/JUNE 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on Guernsey’s 2016 guitar auction, Dave Mustaine and his Mustaine Vineyards wines, Twisted Sister guitarist Eddie Ojeda and his new line of hot sauces and D’Angelico signature model guitar, and our Ultimate Luxury Products Guide, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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(left to right) 1966 Vox Kensington, Lennon’s 1964 Rickenbacker 325, Starr’s 1964 bass drum head, Harrison’s 1964 Gibson SG, Lennon’s 1963 Gretsch 6120

EVERY LITTLE THING: In search of the secrets behind the Fab Four’s sound, Beatles collectors discover the magic of the genuine instruments.

By Dan Epstein | Photos by Polina Osherov

“There are only four people who knew what the Beatles were about anyway,” Paul McCartney once said. And while it’s certainly correct that only Macca, Ringo Starr, and their late mates John Lennon and George Harrison could ever truly understand what it was like to be at the center of their musical whirlwind, that hasn’t stopped several generations of music lovers from trying.

Books, documentaries, reissued albums, archived interviews, and so on, all offer clues to what it was like to have been a Beatle. But there are some folks who believe that in order to fully grasp the essence of their enduring music, you must grasp the same instruments they used to create it. Here, then, are three men from three very different walks of life, united by their obsession with collecting Beatles-specific instruments.

THE NFL OWNER
While dozens of collectors focus on acquiring Beatles-related instruments, Jim Irsay—irrepressible owner of the Indianapolis Colts and avowed Beatles obsessive—takes it to a whole other level: He collects instruments actually played by the Beatles. Beatles-owned instruments aren’t the only things Irsay collects—he owns more than 175 historic guitars, including Jerry Garcia’s Doug Irwin Tiger and Bob Dylan’s 1964 Fender Stratocaster from his “electric” debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival—but they certainly are the focus and driving force of his impressive collection.

Of course, you need especially deep pockets to afford these kinds of hallowed artifacts. Irsay made headlines this past December when he bought Ringo Starr’s 1963 Ludwig black oyster pearl three-piece drum kit for $2.2 million at auction. The purchase was a nice capper to a year that also saw him snag Les Paul’s 1954 Custom “Black Beauty” for $335,000, Lennon’s 1963 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins (purchased from Lennon’s cousin David Birch for $530,000), and the bass drum head used by Starr during the Beatles’ 1964 U.S. performances, which alone cost him $2.125 million.

In addition, last year Irsay paid $910,000 for Lennon’s 1964 Rickenbacker 325 Fireglo, also known as the Rose-Morris “Beatle Backer” after the British distributor that commissioned six models from the U.S. guitar maker in 1964. Lennon bought the guitar in late 1964 as a temporary replacement for his damaged black 1964 Rickenbacker 325 and played it at Beatles Christmas shows that holiday season. He gave the Fireglo 325 to Starr in 1968 to cheer him up during the tense sessions for the White Album.

Irsay made his first major Beatles instrument purchase in 2004, when he bought George Harrison’s 1964 Gibson SG Standard at auction for $567,000. Harrison played the guitar on recording sessions from 1966 through 1969 and in promo clips for “Paperback Writer” and “Rain.” He later gave it to Badfinger guitarist Pete Ham, who played it on the group’s hits “Baby Blue,” “No Matter What,” and “Day After Day.” But documentation that Lennon had also played the guitar during the White Album sessions made the purchase especially appealing to Irsay.

“John is Jim’s guy in the Beatles,” says Chris McKinney, the curator of Irsay’s guitar collection. “Even though he grew up in football, Jim has always seen himself as the rebel. And in the Beatles, John Lennon was the rebel, so that’s always been his hero. He generally comes to the Colts’ Halloween parties as John Lennon.”

Other Beatles-owned guitars in Irsay’s collection are Harrison’s Harptone 12-string, which was used by the guitarist and members of Badfinger on the All Things Must Pass album (“It’s the guitar you hear on the intro to ‘My Sweet Lord,’” McKinney says), and a 1966 Vox Kensington prototype guitar, whose outlandishly shaped hollow mahogany body was fitted with push buttons that activated various sonic effects. Vox presented the guitar to the Beatles in 1967, and both Harrison and Lennon played it during the Magical Mystery Tour sessions, though it was never actually used on a Beatles track. Lennon later gave it as a birthday present to “Magic Alex” Mardas, the self-styled electronics wizard who ingratiated himself into the Beatles’ inner circle during their psychedelic period. Irsay bought the guitar at auction in 2013 for $408,000.

While Irsay’s ultimate “Holy Grail” is Lennon’s original 1958 Rickenbacker 325, which currently resides in the collection of Sean Lennon, McKinney says the Colts owner would also dearly love to add a McCartney-owned bass to his collection. After all, he’s got Ringo’s drums, John’s “Beatle Backer,” and George’s SG, so a bass from Paul would complete an instrumental Beatles “reunion” of sorts.

“Jim hasn’t revealed the full extent of his plans to me,” McKinney says, “but he’s mentioned that he’d like to have some sort of party where he’d get all the instruments together and get one of the best Beatles tribute bands to perform on them. When I was at the auction for Ringo’s drum head, I had Jim on the phone while it was going on, and that was his line throughout the auction—‘Man, we’re putting the band back together!’ So that’s kind of become his mantra.”

THE MOTORCYCLE RACER
Chris Haines doesn’t gig with his guitars, but he often ushers visitors to his home in Palm Springs, California into his music room, where he’ll give them a tour of Beatles guitar history and maybe invite them to jam with the instruments as well.

A semi-retired motorcycle racer with 15 Baja 1000 wins to his credit, Haines—a member of the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame—now runs companies that offer motorcycle tours of Baja and Las Vegas and provide off-road vehicle training for Special Ops troops. But in his spare time, he likes to deeply immerse himself in the Beatles’ music, whether by cranking 200-gram vinyl pressings of their albums on his old-school tube stereo system or by collecting and playing period-correct Beatles-related instruments.

“Because I’ve been involved with racing, I’m kind of an equipment person,” he explains. “I’ve loved the Beatles since I was a kid, but about 15 years ago I started getting really interested in what kind of equipment they used to make that magic.”

Haines’ collection reads like a roll-call of iconic Beatles instruments: There’s a 1965 Rickenbacker 360-12, a 1964 Sonic Blue Fender Strat, a 1964 Gibson SG Standard, a 1969 Fender Rosewood Telecaster, a 1966 Rickenbacker 325, a 1965 Epiphone Casino, multiple Gretsches (a 1957 Duo Jet, a 1962 6120, a 1963 Country Gentleman, and a 1964 Tennessean), a 1964 Framus Hootenanny 12-string (like the one Lennon used to record “It’s Only Love” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”), and a 1962 Gibson J-160E acoustic-electric. “Gibson made only 134 J-160E guitars that year,” says Haines. “I’ve read that Harrison and Lennon used those guitars for recording more than any other instrument, which makes this one really special for me.” For good measure, he also has a 1965 Vox Continental organ (like the one Lennon ran his elbows up and down at Shea Stadium), a 1964 Vox AC30 amplifier, and a 1965 Vox Super Beatle, all of which are maintained in excellent working order.…

This is an excerpt from the all-new MAY/JUNE 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on Guernsey’s 2016 guitar auction, Dave Mustaine and his Mustaine Vineyards wines, Twisted Sister guitarist Eddie Ojeda and his new line of hot sauces and D’Angelico signature model guitar, and our Ultimate Luxury Products Guide, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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Comments

  1. Posted by Roland Ditan on April 14th, 2016, 14:19 [Reply]

    Very impressive Beatles Collections. I love more stories about the Beatles.

  2. Posted by Ron OKeefe on April 14th, 2016, 23:01 [Reply]

    Nice article!

  3. Posted by MuckerBox on April 20th, 2016, 06:07 [Reply]

    What an amazing collection of amazing gear of the greatest band ever. Thanks for sharing.

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