NOTICE | PHILIP MARTIN: Financial instruments

Last September, during the mid-season opener of the Showtime series “Billions”, American rocker Jason Isbell appeared as himself, to play a benefit sponsored by Taylor Mason Capital. Later in the show, he visited the gallery of painter Nico Tanner (Frank Grillo), who is essentially kept as a pet by charming, evil billionaire Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis).

Isbell looks at Tanner’s paintings and makes approving noises. When Axelrod offers to consider commissioning a piece from Tanner, Isbell objects.

“I spend most of my money on guitars,” he says.

If you know Isbell’s concerts, you do not doubt the accuracy of this line; the last time he performed in Little Rock, he showed off tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of instruments on stage. In a (terribly edited) YouTube video posted by GQ as part of its “Collected” series a little over a year ago, Isbell opened up about his collection of guitars, which he says only contained era that 50 or 60 instruments.

In the video, Isbell shows off some 1953 Gibson Les Paul “goldtops” (instruments Reverb magazine lists at $13,205-$22,740), a pre-CBS ’65 Fender Telecaster (more or less $20,000), a ’60 Fender Strat ($33,000 to $75,000), a 1961 Gibson ES 335 ($25,995 to $41,995), a Gretsch White Falcon that belonged to John Prine, a 1950s Martin D-18 (3 $500; $6,500 in the current market) and the centerpiece of the collection, a 1959 Les Paul Standard Sunburst nicknamed Red Eye, which once belonged to Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Ed King. (Isbell has been coy about the price he paid for the guitar, bought from King’s widow, but estimates range up to $650,000. The 1973 Fender Stratocaster that King used to write and record “Sweet Home Alabama” reportedly sold for $450,000.)

We can be sure that in real life, Isbell spends most of his money on guitars.

Good for him. People spend their money on a lot of things, and I’d rather have classic instruments in the hands of musicians like Isbell than in the dampened safe of a billionaire collector à la Bobby Axelrod. This is where Ed King’s Redeye ended up after it was stolen from him at gunpoint in 1987.

For years, King called every music and pawn shop in every town he visited to try and get the guitar back. Then, 11 years later, he saw it in “The Beauty of the ‘Burst: Gibson Sunburst Les Pauls from ’58 to ’60”, a book by Yasuhiko Iwanade. Although the book has yet to be translated into English, King recognized his guitar by a distinctive red spot near the toggle switch. Fortunately, Iwanade provided the serial number of the guitar. It matched.

While the statute of limitations had expired for the theft, the book credited a collector, Perry Margouleff, as the current owner of the guitar. King dug a little deeper and discovered that Margouleff, while collecting guitars, often acted as a buyer of guitars for Dirk Ziff, the billionaire scion of the Ziff Davis Company, publishers of PC Magazine and Car and Driver, and a hedge fund manager who was one of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors.

(I can think of a number of reasons why a billionaire might prefer someone else to do their shopping for them – it might seem unseemly to haggle over a few thousand dollars when you’re worth more than Sri Lanka. Margouleff reportedly bought King’s guitar from a Los Angeles guitar store in 1988 for less than $10,000. Even then, it was a bargain.)

Ziff was also an avid guitarist who built his own studio with dozens of rare guitars lining the walls. He had others, locked in a safe where he asked visitors to put on felt coveralls before entering.

After months of negotiation and due diligence – there was some question as to whether King or his insurance company was the rightful owner of the guitar – Ziff agreed to return the guitar (then worth an estimated $40,000 $) or buy it from King. King wanted his axe, and he got it. He kept it and played it as his main stage guitar until his death in 2018.

Every time Redeye changes hands again, it’s likely to sell for a lot more than Isbell paid for it. Not only is it a Sunburst ’59 Les Paul, but it was owned by King and Isbell and has this great history of loss and recovery. It’s rare, and it has a tradition.

And it’s a great sounding guitar. Based on its sonic capabilities – Isbell can tell you all about how condensation affects the pots on old Gibsons to allow them to have more treble or something – its current owner claims it’s the best guitar in Nashville.

I don’t have a Gibson Les Paul – the headstock angle on Gibson products has always bothered me; I’ve always been afraid of breaking it, but I can understand why a working musician might want to have a lot of guitars. Every guitar has its own qualities, and when you’re looking for a sound, you might not be ready to compromise.

And guitars, unlike most things that idiots buy, tend to hold their value; some even like it. I have an eight-string baritone that some sites say is worth about $1,000 more than when I acquired it in 2016. (Part of the reason it liked it is because the model was discontinued. )

I will keep this guitar for a long time. He has a rich, raspy voice and something of a piano quality. I’ve never played it in public, but I’ve used it on some recordings. I can justify it as a tool.

And if I decided to sell it, I would have to be patient. I doubt I’ll find a buyer right away (if ever) and if I took it to a guitar or a pawnshop I’d probably get half or a quarter of what the experts say it’s worth.

It might be a stretch to call it an investment, but it’s probably better – or at least safer – than collecting baseball cards or sports memorabilia. Or all those Scotty Cameron hats that Titleist sent me back in the day.

Keep any guitar – no matter how crappy it is – long enough, and it will eventually become a collector’s item. If you know them and don’t overpay, you can build a decent portfolio over time. Maybe some of them will give better returns than Bitcoin or any of Nico Tanner’s paintings.

Maybe if you’re like the “Billions” version of Jason Isbell, who admits he never really feels good about money, it’s just a better investment.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at [email protected] and read his blog at blooddirtantangels.com.


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