The Vintage Room in Guitar Center's Hollywood store and the nationwide vintage department see a lot of amazing guitars pass through. You'd think the people who work there might be passé about them, but you'd be very, very wrong. They geek out just like the rest of us, especially when an unusually rare piece comes along. That's even more true when it has an interesting back story. Such is the case with a three-pickup 1963 SG Custom that recently crossed their path.
It's rare enough to find a guitar that's had a single owner for 55 years, but when that same instrument was a custom factory order in a rare cherry finish, that's a very special guitar indeed. The fact that the original owner lived just down the street from the original Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan only adds to the aura. "In 25 to 30 years, I've only seen three." says Jack Hetherington, Guitar Center's Director of Used and Vintage, "This is about the most complete provenance package that we’ve ever had."
1963 was a milestone year for Gibson. Two years previously, they had introduced the slender, beveled-edge, double-cutaway, all-mahogany version of the Les Paul electric guitar. In 1963, the sobriquet was dropped (Les Paul hadn't cared for the redesign, and famously said that he thought players would hurt themselves on the sharply pointed "horns" of the cutaways), and the body style was renamed the SG, for "Solid Guitar."
The SG Custom was the flagship of the newly renamed series. Like the earlier 1958 Les Paul Custom, it was given three humbucking pickups, a deluxe ebony fingerboard with mother-of-pearl block inlays and a split parallelogram headstock inlay. The unique wiring of the three pickups provided a distinctive out-of-phase mix of the bridge and middle pickups in the middle switch position, possibly intended to compete with the Fender single-coil sound that was so popular at the time. In fact, Ted McCarty designed the SG body style partially in response to having heard that Fender was referring to Gibson as "old fuddy-duddies." Most SG Customs, like the ones played by Keith Richards in the early '70s, Lenny Kravitz and Jimi Hendrix, had Gibson's Polaris White finish. A bare handful — nobody seems to know just how many, and fewer than a half-dozen examples have come to light — were made with the Gibson Cherry finish that was the usual finish on the SG Standard. That finish alone would be enough for this example to stand out.
The original owner of this guitar, located in Kalamazoo, the site of the original Gibson factory, placed a custom order for this guitar in 1963, taking delivery directly from the factory in early 1964. Over the five-and-a-half decades in which he owned the guitar, he managed to hang on to much of the original ephemera that came with the guitar, including the original hangtag with serial number. Just about the only thing that's not original about this is that the gold plating on the pickup covers was re-done sometime in the 1970s. But even that is a personal touch. The owner's family owned a jewelry store and the pickups were re-plated there, most likely to restore the covers, as the very thin gold plating frequently wears off. We can't think of a guitar we've seen that comes closer to reflecting its owner's history.
A one-owner guitar of this vintage is an extraordinary find. "A lot of them have traded hands," says Nick Conte, Guitar Center's manager of vintage acquisition, "so to see a guitar that is an original owner that has all the provenance that this does — catalogs, tags, photos, newspaper articles and you know … It’s just, that’s rare. And I mean, the guitar has some anomalies and we were a little bit sketched out by them. If you look at the back of the headstock, it’s got two serial numbers." That seems odd, but Conte goes on to explain. "I've heard that’s what they did sometimes when they repurposed a body. So that could have started off intending to be a Standard and it was sitting on the rack. They had the custom order come through so they were like, 'Okay, we’ll make a Custom out of it and redo it.'"
The original owner playing the 1963 Gibson SG Custom Cherry live in the mid '60s with his band "The Casuals"
Photos, band posters and newspaper articles that the owner kept remove all doubt as to the guitar's original configuration and add to the romance of a guitar that was played in multiple bands over the years while being lovingly maintained. All that material also made it easy for Conte and Hetherington to make the decision to purchase the guitar. "It kind of sealed the deal right there," Conte says, "and you can’t argue with it … I mean, everything looks right on it. The checking’s right, the heel’s right. You can’t fake patina." Hetherington chimes in, "Yeah. I mean he even filled out the warranty card and the warranty card’s missing. So it’s been registered with Gibson.”
When it came to purchase time, the owner was hard on one point — he wanted a Gibson logo T-shirt thrown in as part of the deal. That detail was no problem, and Conte and Hetherington knew exactly who would want the SG. They sent pictures of the guitar, along with the back story, to noted collector and guitarist, Joe Bonamassa, a serious guitar geek. "He loves the history of these guitars," Hetherington says. "When a guitar comes through like this that’s totally, completely rare and he’s seen only pictures on the internet and it has, you know, the name of the band, and it’s got pictures of the dude playing when he was young … Just, he’s a real, true lover of all things guitar and the stories behind them. His dad had a music shop, so he grew up seeing those stories happening all the time. It’s just, you know, it’s informed his adult life."
The original owner in 2018 at the time of sale to Guitar Center Joliet
Like Joe Bonamassa, we're pretty much in agreement that vintage guitars are amazingly cool, but whether you're already collecting, looking to start, or have vintage gear that you're looking to sell, Conte and Hetherington have some advice to offer, based on the 150,000 vintage pieces they've looked at over the past seven years. "If it says Gibson or Fender on the headstock and it’s old, it’s pretty much money of some sort — some more than others," Conte explains. "I mean, if you're rummaging around your grandfather’s basement or attic and you come across something like that, take it to a trusted reseller. It’s the same thing when you're going to buy — buy from someone that you trust. Get it verified. And then make sure that they have a good return policy, because the difference between a guitar that's worth $20,000 and $10,000, [can be just] one tiny thing."
With a dedicated vintage team and incredible experience, plus the ability to network with hundreds of vintage guitar experts around the world, Guitar Center's Hollywood Vintage Room is legendary for a reason, and the team takes pride in finding the cleanest and the coolest vintage pieces for players to geek out over and make their own. So, if you're looking to sell a treasured old instrument, or looking to add something special to your guitar arsenal, Guitar Center Vintage is a great place to start.