Joe Perry by Neil Zlozower

Some guitars are unforgettable — even for Joe Perry, who’s had more six-strings pass through his hands than most of us will ever play in our lifetime. His 1959 tobacco sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standard is such an instrument.

The guitar, the “Joe Perry 1959 Les Paul” is the newest historic instrument produced in a limited run by the Gibson Custom Shop. The original accompanied Aerosmith’s musical kingpin into the studio and on tour throughout the late 1970s, appearing on the classic albums Rocks, Draw the Line and Live! Bootleg, and accompanying him on stage for every show during those years. Check the inside cover of Live! Bootleg for a photo of Perry brandishing this brawny beauty.

“It’s got everything a great Les Paul is supposed to have.” Perry relates. “The neck isn’t quite as fat as, say, a ’54 Gold Top, but it’s still got a good meaty neck. Its not a high output guitar, so it’s got a lot of tone. It’s got a chimey kind of ring to it when I play it on the clean side, which is where I like to play anyway. And it’s got all of the natural sustain and warmth, and when you turn it up it growls. All the buttons and whistles are right where they should be.”

Perry doesn’t remember exactly how he acquired the guitar, but believes it was in a “midnight swap.”

“Back then, that kind of thing happened constantly,” Perry explains. “One night we played a show with the New York Dolls and I remember trading Johnny Thunders a guitar for a two-pickup TV Model with P-90s. I loved the way it sounded, and I had something he liked so we just swapped. That went on all the time.

“I didn’t have many guitars back then. At one point I had a white three-pickup Les Paul SG that somebody leant me. Once I got that ’59 Les Paul, it was my Les Paul. I only had one that I really counted on. I had a couple Juniors and a three-pickup black one that came and went. 1959 Les Pauls are spectacular instruments and this was my first one.  

“Apparently the majority of Les Pauls made in 1959 have been accounted for. [Noted guitar collector] Perry Margouleff tells me about 80-percent of them have been located and people track down more of them every year, but most of them are in collections and aren’t going anywhere. But every one of these guitars has a story. They are 54-years-old now, so that’s a real lifetime of experience for a person or an instrument.”

An important part of the story of Perry and this gorgeous Les Paul is a 35-year separation. And Slash, Eric Johnson, jazz guitarist Gerry Beaudoin and Boston rock legend Billy Loosigian all figure into it, too.

Stories of how the guitar left Perry’s hands differ. He recalls needing cash and selling it $4,500, but is unsure of further details. Others, including Loosigian, suggest that it was sold to the owner of now-long-gone Cambridge, Massachusetts music shop East Coast Guitars, along with some other gear, by Perry’s first wife Elyssa after their divorce.

Loosigian strolled into the Elliott Street shop one day, where he’d worked for a time, and saw the guitar on the counter. “I recognized it as Joe Perry’s immediately,” he says. “I bought it for $4,200 and a trade-in Firebird 1. I restored it. It had pits all over the fingerboard, Japanese style plastic tuners and brass speed dials. Also, there were no covers on the pickups. I fixed all that, put on Kluson tuners and Gibson pickup covers and had it refretted.”

Loosigian played the guitar on Andy Pratt’s 1982 album, Fun In The First World, and recordings by Boston punk legend Willie Alexander, whose groundbreaking band was Loosigian’s regular gig.

In March 1987, after acquiring another 1959 Les Paul, Loosigian sold the Joe Perry Les Paul to Beaudoin, a highly respected jazz guitarist, instructor, and guitar dealer. Several days later, Loosigian spotted the instrument at a guitar show and saw Eric Johnson playing it. The guitar went home with Johnson, which is where Perry resumes the tale.

“In 1984, when Aerosmith got back together, we decided to do the ‘Back In the Saddle Tour,’ ” Perry says. “I got a call from somebody representing Eric Johnson who told me that Eric had heard the guitar was mine and he offered to sell it back to me for what he paid. I didn’t have the money at that point. The band had just gotten back together, I’d just gotten married and my wife was pregnant. I thanked him, though, and said I really appreciated the call.

“A few years later we were working on the second album with Bruce Fairbairn [1989’s ‘Pump’] and I started to have enough extra cash to begin building up my guitar collection again. I thought it would be great to have that Les Paul back,” he continues.

“I decided to track it down so I started to make some calls, and some friends started looking for it, too. I was talking to Brad [Whitford] about it, and the next day he walks into the studio and says, ‘I know where your guitar is.’ He shows me an issue of Guitar Player magazine, and there’s a story on Slash’s guitars, and right in the middle was a picture of the guitar. Not too much detective work involved in that.”

The guitar was instantly recognizable thanks to the ring worn into the wood surrounding the top volume pot, one of the details that the Custom Shop has painstaking reproduced for the Joe Perry 1959 Les Paul.

“I called Slash to talk to him about selling it back to me, and he said, ‘Oh man, please don’t ask me that.’ I said, ‘I understand how you feel, but I’d really like to get it back.’ We talked for a few minutes and before I hung up I said, ‘Let me know about it.’

“After a while, the calls between me and Slash started to get further apart. We are good friends, so I figured it had to do with my trying to get back that guitar. Every time we’d talk, I dropped a hint, and I think he didn’t want to keep saying ‘no.’ So when Steven [Tyler] and I sat in with Guns N’ Roses at a huge show outside Paris, I told Slash, ‘Man, if you ever want to sell that guitar to me, let me know, but I promise I’m not going to bug you about it, because I don’t want anything to get in the way of our friendship.’”

What Perry didn’t know is that Slash was already part of a friendly conspiracy to get the guitar back in the saddle with him. In 2000, as Perry was about to take the stage with his friends in Cheap Trick at his 50th birthday party, he was handed the guitar and the message “Slash says, ‘Happy Birthday’”

“I freaked! And I guess you know which guitar I played for the rest of the night,” Perry recounts. “When I picked it up it all came back to me. I could feel the bare wood under my pinkie where the volume knob is. It triggered something. I instantly knew every inch of the guitar again without having to look at it after 35 years.

“I guess Slash had only played it in the studio,” Perry says. “When I called him to thank him, which I guess I did too many times, he told me three weeks after he gave me the guitar he’d gotten back one of his favorite top hats — it had been stolen — in the mail.” Karma.

Since then the guitar hasn’t been far from Perry’s hands. In fact, it accompanied him on stage during this winter’s Aerosmith tour, which included a concert in Nashville and a stop at the Gibson Custom Shop.

“They’ve done an amazing job of reproducing this guitar,” Perry says. The only visible difference is that Perry’s ’59 has one peg with just enough of a key grip left to tune, and the reproductions have pristine pegs. “It’s also less blonded than most ’59 tobacco bursts, like Duane Allman’s,” he observes.

The Joe Perry 1959 Les Paul is being built in a run of 50 aged guitars hand-signed by Perry, 100 aged guitars, and 150 finished in Gibson’s VOS process. The re-creation starts with a solid, one-piece premium lightweight mahogany body married to a hand-selected maple top. The guitar is finished in an exclusive Faded Tobacco Burst with Historic “Vintage” dye on the back, sides, and back of the neck. The hand-aged examples show characteristic wear that authentically matches the playing wear on the original, while the VOS guitars display a gently aged patina in the finish and hardware. The neck is carved from a single piece of quarter-sawn mahogany and profiled to a full and sweetly rounded ’59 shape derived from precise measurements of the original, then topped with a one-piece rosewood fingerboard inlaid with period-correct cellulose trapezoids. A set of Kluson Deluxe tuners, a lightweight aluminum stopbar tailpiece, and an ABR-1 bridge complete a period-correct hardware complement, while vintage cream binding, gold Top Hat knobs, and a cream plastic pickguard enhance the guitar’s vintage looks.

The limited edition’s pickups are Custombuckers designed to closely match the original PAFs in Joe’s guitar. Each is made with an Alnico 3 magnet and wound with accurate plain-enamel 42 AWG plain-enamel wire to specs determined by close measurement of the original pickups, with a neck pickup that reads around 8k ohms and bridge pickup that’s slightly hotter at 8.5k ohms.

The Joe Perry 1959 Les Paul is the third model of the guitar made by Gibson to be associated with his name. There’s also the Joe Perry Boneyard Les Paul and a Signature Model no longer in production.

“This reissue is a tip of the hat to the history of this specific guitar, not a signature model — although I am signing 50 of them,” Perry says. “I look at it as a salute to the longevity of this guitar. In the long run, we’re just borrowing things anyway. It passed through my hands and came back, and it will pass on into another’s hands after they pry it out of my cold dead fingers.”

Perry’s love affair with Les Pauls began in the late ’60s, before the formation of Aerosmith. “Jeff Beck was coming to Boston to play a weekend of shows, and I took the time off from my job to see them all,” he recounts. “By the time I got back to work on Monday, I was thinking, ‘It’s time to get a Les Paul.’ ”

Perry traded the semi-hollowbody he was playing for a Les Paul Gold Top with P-90s that was hanging on the wall of a music shop in Lawrence, Massachusetts. That same guitar — and a second Gold Top with P-90s owned and played by Whitford — was used in the recording of Aerosmith’s eponymous debut album.