Last November, John Lennon‘s Gretsch guitar, the instrument the rock legend used to record the Beatles‘ 1966 classic “Paperback Writer,” hit the auction block, with TracksAuction, the company selling the instrument, calling it “the most significant of John’s guitars to come onto the market in the last 30 years.” Lennon’s cousin, David Birch, had owned the instrument since 1967, but pulled the iconic guitar from auction after it failed to reach its $600,000 reserve.
It was hardly the end of the story, though. For months before and after the auction, Chris McKinney, the guitar curator for Indianapolis Colts owner and collector Jim Irsay, had been in contact with Birch, hoping to avoid the auction and buy the guitar directly on behalf of Irsay. When the instrument didn’t sell at auction, Irsay paid $530,000 for the Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins hollow body.
“The John Lennon guitar used on ‘Paperback Writer’ and other sessions with the Beatles is a significant piece of history,” Irsay tells Rolling Stone. “John Lennon’s guitars are as special as it gets. Instruments like this rarely become available, so anything John Lennon used is some of the most important historical musical archives that exist on the planet.”
McKinney admits that Birch originally didn’t want to sell the instrument for less than $600,000. “He’s a feisty old Englishman,” McKinney says. “It took about 15 figures paddled back and forth before everyone agreed to the $530,000 figure.”
After taking four months off, the Beatles entered EMI Studios on London’s Abbey Road on April 6th, 1966 to begin sessions on their seventh studio album, Revolver. The band recorded “Paperback Writer” on April 13th and 14th, having already taped “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Got to Get You Into My Life” and “Love You To” the week before.
Lennon gifted the guitar to Birch in 1967 upon Birch’s visit to the musician’s home. While the two cousins were talking in Lennon’s music room, Birch, hoping to start a group of his own, asked Lennon if there were any guitars he no longer needed. “I was just cheeky enough to ask John for one of his spare guitars,” Birch said in a statement accompanying the original auction. “I had my eye on a blue Fender Stratocaster that was lying in the studio, but John suggested and gave me the Gretsch as we were talking.”
Last month, Irsay added to his collection of 175 guitars with the purchase of Black Beauty, Les Paul’s 1954 black Custom guitar that became the prototype for guitars used by Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, among many others. Irsay paid $275,000 for the instrument, far less than the $850,000 he paid for Tiger, Jerry Garcia’s main guitar from 1979 to 1989, or the $965,000 shelled out for Bob Dylan’s Fender Stratocaster used at Newport Folk Festival (the famed “Dylan goes electric” guitar).