It's feedback heaven at the axe auctions

Collecting: From Fender to Flying V, if you want to buy an instrument played by a guitar hero, there are plenty of opportunities
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The Independent Online

The reverence in which electric guitars belonging to rock music icons are held can border on the religious. "Can I touch it? Can I really?" asks a quivering, wide-eyed teenage boy handed Jimi Hendrix's famous "Flying V" axe to pose with.

The boy is at "The Vaults" in the Hard Rock Cafe in London. He is one of more than 300,000 people over the past three years to have visited a venue where the Gibson Flying V and other hallowed rock memorabilia are on show.

"It's like giving them Excalibur to hold," says Jimmi, the "Vaults Master", who is himself dressed in rock-regulation black leather clothing and silver jewellery. "Guys come in here, pose with the guitar and they're like: 'I wanted to be an accountant or a lawyer, but no, I'm a rocker!' "

Such guitars carry sacred prices, too. The Flying V, now worth an estimated £1.5m, was bought by Isaac Tigrett, one of the Hard Rock's founders, in the 1980s and is today the jewel in the crown of The Vaults.

Legend has it that the collection was started by Eric Clapton, who, in 1979, handed a red Fender guitar across the bar in a deal to reserve his favourite bar stool. Not wanting to be outdone, Pete Townshend of The Who then sent over one of his guitars within days for Hard Rock staff to hang on the wall.

As a collector, you'll have to put your hand rather deep into your pockets to get hold of an instrument played by the likes of Clapton or Townshend. Their rarity makes collecting electric guitars an expensive hobby.

However, many venerated rock musicians are still performing and top guitars from the six-string maestros do come on the market every year.

Probably the biggest sale in 2004 will happen in June at Christie's auction house in New York, where much of Eric Clapton's own collection will come under the hammer.

His guitar sale is in aid of his charity, Crossroads, an addiction treatment centre, and will include "axes" from famous friends.

The most sought-after instrument in the sale will be Clapton's "Blackie", a custom-made Fender Stratocaster that, in his own words, "has become part of me".

Estimates of its value hover between $100,000 and $150,000 (around £55,000 to £80,000), but since his iconic "Brownie" (the guitar he used for the classic rock record Layla) sold for £316,000 in London in 1999 against a previous estimate of £30,000, it's likely that this one could sell for at least double the estimated price.

Blackie features in the league of superstar instruments that are practically alter egos of their players. Clapton built the guitar himself, combining different components from three separate Stratocasters, and you can tell by the scuffs and scratches on the instrument just how much he loved and used it.

Usually with other types of collection - books, art or furniture, say - the value of items is dependent on their condition. But in the world of celebrity guitars, the more war wounds it displays, the higher the value.

Carey Wallace, a spokes- woman for Christie's, says Blackie's scratches and notches make it more desirable. "Collectors love to see the marks made by the owner," she explains. "A smashed-up guitar, if it was smashed up on stage by Pete Townshend, is far more valuable than one in a really good condition played by an ordinary musician."

But among the guitars donated by Clapton's friends are ones that will appeal to collectors who can afford to invest a couple of thousand pounds.

The worth of a signature SG Gibson guitar from Pete Townshend is estimated at $3,000 to $5,000 and includes "a bundle of accessories".

Other instruments include Queen guitarist Brian May's Les Paul ($1,000 to $1,500); blues star J J Cale's 1979 Stratocaster ($1,500 to $2,500); a Gibson ES-335 signed by blues singer Otis Rush ($2,500 to 3,000); and a Gibson BB King Lucille model, signed by blues legend King himself ($1,500 to $2,000).

Opportunities to buy classic electric guitars can be found here in the UK too, but the prices are as high as some of the notes the instruments once squeezed out. At the Magic Beatles collection sale on 5 May, you have the chance to pick up John Lennon's 1969 Vox Kensington guitar, this time at Christie's in London, for between £80,000 and £120,000.

It was played by Lennon during rehearsals for the "Hello Goodbye" video filmed in London in 1967, and used by George Harrison during rehearsals for the "I Am The Walrus" track on the Magical Mystery Tour film soundtrack.

In the meantime, if these prices are out of your range but you would love to own, say, a Gibson twin-neck guitar as used by Led Zeppelin wizard Jimmy Page, you can now do so for around £25.

At the ukguitars.com website, a range of nine-inch miniature famous guitars are up for sale, including a Hendrix Flying V for £24.99, a Paul Weller Telecaster for £22.99 and a BB King Lucille for £22.99.

Well, it's a start, and who knows how valuable they might be in 20 years?

ANOTHER SIX STRINGS TO YOUR BOW

Prices

Expect to pay around £1,000 for a guitar in good condition owned by a well-known musician, though more than £300,000 for a celebrity-owned, top-flight guitar.

More information

www.christies.co.uk - for information on the Clapton sale and other sales of electric guitars.

Events

5 May 2004: pop memorabilia collection (including John Lennon guitar) at Christie's, South Kensington, London.

8-9 May : The London Guitar Show, Wembley, London; www.londonguitarshow.co.uk

4-6 June: Crossroads Guitar Festival, Fair Park, Dallas - guitar exhibitions, master classes and a final show on 6 June featuring Eric Clapton, J J Cale, B B King, Carlos Santana and others

24 June: Crossroads Guitar Auction, Eric Clapton and Friends at Christie's, Rockefeller Plaza, New York (viewing: 21-25 May, Christie's, King Street, London).

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