A gift from Les Paul, with no strings attached: Musical pioneer's guitars up for auction

More than 100 signed instruments were intended for the world's biggest stars. But almost half were never claimed and are to go on sale

He has as good a claim as any to have given the world rock'n'roll. The name Les Paul is synonymous with both the musician and the guitar; from AC/DC to ZZ Top. He not only gave modern bands their most potent instrument in the form of the eponymous Gibson guitar, but also pioneered the recording techniques that made it possible to capture the music that resulted. But, unknown to many, Les Paul also gave scores of signed guitars to some of the world's biggest stars. Now, for the first time, more than 50 are due to be auctioned in London this October.

Originally destined for Madonna, Sting, Prince and Jon Bon Jovi, among others, they are the instruments that never got to their intended recipients. Now members of the public will have chance to appreciate what the stars spurned.

What began in the 1990s as a small custom between Paul and some of his rock friends in Boston would later develop into a huge tradition, with more than 100 signed guitars being given out to the biggest names in showbusiness. Paul would present signed replicas of the guitar he first owned as a teenager to the artists, via his long-time friend, the musician and producer Ron Lovely.

However, the guitar – usually a Troubadour acoustic – had to be delivered by Mr Lovely in person; otherwise the recipient could not have the guitar.

Mr Lovely has handed out these guitars to some of the world's most famous musicians, including Keith Richards, Elton John, Smokey Robinson and B B King. It is not just musicians who have received the gifts, however. Actors such as Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis and Johnny Depp have one of the signed instruments.

"It was Les's way of sending postcards to his friends," Mr Lovely said from his home in Boston. "It then became a tradition. Whoever was coming to town, Les would sign one, laugh and say 'here Ron, go say howdy to so and so...' However, some asked for them to be shipped. We wouldn't do that – it was against Les's wishes." Many artists would also ask Mr Lovely to give the guitars to their agents, something which Paul saw as a bit of a snub.

Time is running out for Garth Brooks, Bob Dylan and Lindsay Lohan, among others, who all have instruments in their name waiting to be collected. The guitars, due to go to auction in October, via the Fame Bureau internet auction site, are expected to fetch between £2,000 and £100,000 each.

Les Paul died last year aged 94. Despite being widely recognised as the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar and a whole range of studio effects, he was also a prodigious player. Such was his physical dexterity playing the instrument, he became one of only a handful of artists with a permanent stand-alone exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Ted Owen of Fame Bureau said: "Les Paul is a musical icon known by all. He loved music in all forms and gave out hundreds of dedicated signed guitars to an array of artists and luminaries. This collection is both historic and poignant. These are the guitars that never actually got to be presented. No other guitars from Les Paul have ever come up for sale, making the auction unique."

With love from Les

More than 100 signed guitars have been handed to stars by Ron Lovely on Les Paul's behalf. But, amazingly, many intended recipients have failed to take receipt. Mr Lovely revealed last week that it was often not for want of trying on his part. When he attempted to give one to Jon Bon Jovi at a gig in Boston, he was ejected by a security guard and escorted back to his seat, despite his protestations. Similarly, Bob Dylan, despite being a great admirer of Paul, doesn't much care to meet people.

Another problem Mr Lovely encountered was the dreaded PA or agent. Who knows if they passed on details of Paul's gifts. Madonna, Steven Tyler, and Lindsay Lohan may still not be aware that a signed gift from one of music's pioneers is out there awaiting them.

Others missed out because they asked for their gift to be shipped to them, against Paul's wishes. Perhaps, after reading this, a few more will be alerted to what they have missed.

Others likely to lose out when about 50 unclaimed guitars are sold at auction later this year include the multi-platinum-selling country star Garth Brooks; Prince – whose free guitar is inscribed to "the artist formerly known as"; Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash; and the actress Natalie Portman.

The guitars are mainly acoustic but vary in size and specification: some are 12-string and some electric. Mr Lovely said auction proceeds will fund a documentary about Paul as well as a museum. "My goal is to get Les's stuff seen in Europe," he said. "His family came from Germany. He would love to have his things shown in museums."

Gifts to the stars...

Brad Pitt

At a party in 1998 to celebrate the end of filming 'Meet Joe Black'

Pitt went to Paul's birthday party in 1997 and Paul wanted to do something special for him. Lovely said of Pitt: "He was the biggest Les Paul fan I've ever met. He was dumbfounded when he saw Les play."

Dennis Quaid

New York, 2000

Quaid was playing with his band the Sharks in New York. This picture was taken backstage at his gig, where Ron Lovely surprised him with the guitar after the show was finished.

B B King

New York, 2004

King and Les Paul had been friends for many years. Lovely was sent as Paul's emissary to catch up with him and say hello from Paul. King received a replica of Paul's first guitar, whereupon King, such was his admiration for Paul, said: "I'm not worthy ..."

Elton John

Providence, Rhode Island, 2006

John told Lovely the first record he ever heard was Les Paul's 1951 hit "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise", saying: "It was the first song I ever really remember."

Jimmy Page

Backstage at the Boston Garden arena, 1995

Les Paul wanted to congratulate Jimmy Page for getting back together with former Led Zeppelin bandmate Robert Plant and asked Lovely to present this guitar.

Bruce Willis

On the set of a commercial in Los Angeles, 2000

Willis, a fellow New Jersey native, worked on an album with Lovely. The guitar was a gift for the work he did on that album.

Sir George Martin

At Berklee College of Music, Boston, 2003

Though Les Paul had many admirers, there was a great mutual respect between him and the Beatles' producer. According to Lovely, Paul thought George Martin was "a genius".

Smokey Robinson

Atlantic City, 2002

According to Lovely, Smokey Robinson said the Motown musicians idolised Les Paul. When Paul learned of the admiration, he wanted to give Robinson a guitar from his collection.

Keith Richards

In his suite on the Rolling Stones' Bigger Bang Tour in Boston, 2005

Keith Richards and Les Paul had been long-term friends. Paul loved the Rolling Stones and once went backstage during a tour of theirs in the late 1980s.

Phil Collins

At the Boston Garden arena, 2006

Les Paul had never met Phil Collins and wanted to send him a greeting. He offered him a guitar when Collins came to Paul's home town of Boston.