Sam Irlander’s Fascination with The Beatles Has Led to a Collection of 30 Fab Guitars

August 28th, 2014

This is an excerpt from the all-new SEPT/OCT 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on the Gretsch Custom Shop, a Fab Four collection of guitars, Ron Wood, Elliot Easton, Alton Brown and much more, check out the SEPT/OCT 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado, which is available now at our online store.

Magical History Tour: Real estate guru Sam Irlander’s fascination with the Beatles led to a collection of 30 guitars and assorted Fab Four memorabilia.

By Mac Randall | Photo by James Toppin

On February 9, 1964, when the Beatles made their U.S. television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, nine-year-old Brooklynite Sam Irlander was one of the 73 million or so watching, and he was hooked. He watched them when they returned to Sullivan the next Sunday, and the Sunday after that.

Eventually, he became so enthralled with the lads from Liverpool, and rock and roll music in general, that he asked his parents to buy him a guitar. Almost five decades later, he still clearly remembers his mother’s response. “She said, ‘Why don’t you go in the closet and pull out the accordion that I bought for your brother and that he never played?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to play accordion, I want to play guitar!’ That was the end of the discussion.”

Irlander never did learn to play guitar, or accordion, or any other instrument, during his youth. Instead, he went to college and got into real estate, which has treated him well for the past 41 years. Today, he’s the president and CEO of the commercial firm Parker Madison Partners and the author of several widely used textbooks on real estate sales. But even as he moved upward in business, he maintained his love for music in his spare time by becoming a DJ and spinning records at clubs around New York, including the fabled Studio 54, in the Seventies and Eighties. “That’s how I got my frustrations out,” he says. “It was a way of staying close to music, even though I couldn’t make it myself.”

And then, in 2001, Irlander’s father died. “I felt an emptiness, and I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he recalls. “I thought, You know, I’ve always wanted to learn how to play an instrument. Why not do it now?” First he started taking guitar lessons; then he started buying guitars. One day, at the Sam Ash store on Manhattan’s West 48th Street, he spotted a 1967 Gibson J-160E sunburst acoustic/electric, which looked almost exactly like the early Sixties ones his boyhood heroes John Lennon and George Harrison had used in the Beatles. He loved it, and upon being reassured by the store’s management that this was one of the “good ones”—the model’s plywood tops make them inconsistent—he purchased it.

Less than a week later, he walked into another Manhattan shop, 30th Street Guitars, and saw a 1966 Hofner 500/1 violin bass in beautiful condition: a right-handed model, just as Paul McCartney’s was when he bought it in Hamburg, Germany. Irlander purchased that too. “All of a sudden it hit me,” he says.

“How cool would it be to try and replicate the backline of those Ed Sullivan Show performances in 1964?”
So began an obsession that has now gone well beyond that original brief. Yes, Irlander does own several guitar models associated with the 1964 Beatles, including a 1962 Gretsch Tennessean and a 1964 Gretsch Country Gentleman, the latter featuring a pair of mute pads controlled by toggle switches just like Harrison’s. But he also owns instruments that connect with the band’s later eras. As he puts it, “I’m one of those guys who has to go all out when I do stuff. I can’t have one guitar; I’ve gotta have 30!”

That explains the presence in his collection of a 1965 Gibson SG Standard and 1966 Epiphone Casino, much like the ones you see Harrison and Lennon, respectively, playing in the video for “Paperback Writer.” (The latter guitar still has the same strings that were put on it at the Epiphone factory. “They’re totally dead,” Irlander acknowledges, “but they’ve been on there nearly 50 years and I just can’t bring myself to change them.”) Then there’s the 1964 Epiphone Texan, just like the one McCartney used to play “Yesterday” on the Beatles’ fourth Ed Sullivan Show appearance, in 1965. Irlander also has a 1966 Rickenbacker 360-12, with rounded cutaway horns like the second one acquired by Harrison. Think “If I Needed Someone” rather than “A Hard Day’s Night.”

True Beatle gear junkies will crow that while Irlander’s guitars are indeed the proper Fab makes and models, most of them don’t date from the same exact years as the band’s own axes. To Irlander, however, the fact that they were all made during the period of the Beatles’ existence is what matters most, and the relative rarity of these instruments is also worth noting. A good case in point is his 1966 Rickenbacker 325 Capri in Jetglo black. The guitar has an f-hole, as do all vintage 325s, ¬except for the eight made in 1958, its original year of issue, one of which was bought by John Lennon. Still, f-hole or no, old 325s can be hard to come by. Irlander’s 1966 is one of only 40 that were built that year.

This is an excerpt from the all-new SEPT/OCT 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on the Gretsch Custom Shop, a Fab Four collection of guitars, Ron Wood, Elliot Easton, Alton Brown and much more, check out the SEPT/OCT 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado, which is available now at our online store.

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  1. Posted by Derek Belbin on August 28th, 2014, 19:32 [Reply]

    While I admire his devotion and love of everything Beatles(I too was 9 on Feb. 4,’64 and got my first guitar in March for my 10th birthday)mostly thanks to non playing nouveau riche Chinese hoarders,I have a real problem with non playing collectors of any kind.There are fewer and fewer good vintage guitars with each passing year, people like Sam Irlander keep beautiful out of the hands of true musicians who also would love the guitars for what and who they represent,but who also will be using the guitars for their real purpose and that’s being played.If he is so fanatical about the Beatles,he shouldn’t have any problem being motivated to learn guitar,I can guarantee that his appreciation of them would increase tenfold,if not he should sell them to guitar playing Beatle fanatics.

    BTW: I am a professional musician and collector with a fairly modest collection of 33 guitars,several of them are “Beatle” guitars.

  2. Posted by Stephen Bufferd on August 29th, 2014, 07:25 [Reply]

    Curious about the right handed Hofner story. Never saw Sir Paul playing a right handed model. Did remove the pick guard but its was always the lefty. Please elaborate?

  3. Posted by Marko Wallace on November 12th, 2014, 13:21 [Reply]

    re: right-handed versions & hoarding, etc….evidence actually points to Sam PLAYING, not just hoarding by any means. If he is easy on the equipment, well, it never seemed to displease his friend and neighbor Sid Bernstein. Sam conserves them alright, though, but they are not closet queens. Sid loved just sitting there around all this stuff whenever guitarist/producer/engineer Joe Berger and I would come by too. Joe can play whatever he thinks…. so it was real pleasant being there together. ‘Hope this helps you get what the true situation of these great instruments actually is. I love playing them, and I agree that ideally everyone serious and appreciative would own one/more too. I already wrote Santa for you….and for me too.


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