Keith Richards’ 1959 Gibson Les Paul “Keith burst”

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This guitar, often referred to as the “Keith-Burst”, was first seen on August 13, 1964 [The Rolling Stones Performing at the Palace Ballroom in Douglas Isle]. It was substantially seen in September 1964 during the Live at ABC Cinema gig (photo below), and at the band’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on October 25th, 1964.

Keith weilding the 1959 Les Paul prior to the second US tour. The Rolling Stones Live at ABC Cinema, Hull (September 1964).

The Keith Burst Origins

Keith purchased the guitar at Selmer’s Music Store in London. It was allegedly previously owned by John Bowen. Going by that story – before Bowen sold the guitar to Salmer’s, he had a Bigsby vibrato fitted on it – which is how the guitar was when Keith bought it.

The guitar was bought new in 1961 from Farmers Music Store in Luton (U.K.) by John Bowen, who played with aspiring English popsters Mike Dean & The Kinsmen. Bowen had a Bigsby vibrato fitted at Selmer’s music store in London before trading it for another guitar in 1962. Soon after, a young Keith Richards, playing guitar in a little-known band called The Rolling Stones, walked in to Selmer’s and bought it.

Keith Richards’ Favorite Gibsons

This story is however probably false. As far as one can find, it originated from John’s brother, Dick Bowen, who told this story to Guitarist magazine (original issue number needed). For this story to be true, the guitar basically had to spend two years sitting at Selmer’s without nobody paying any attention to it, therefore allowing Keith to buy it in 1964 (which based on the chronological history of his guitars is definitely when he got the guitar).

A different version of this story, originating from Greg Prevost and Larry Kulai, states that Ken Lundgren of The Outlaws was the original owner of the guitar and that it belonged to him until around 1962. John Bowen could’ve purchased it then, but he wasn’t the person who installed the Bigsby, as it already came with it from Ken – as confirmed by the photos.

Ken Lundgren (far left) with a Les Paul Standard equipped with a Bigsby. Circa early 1962.

This second theory certainly makes more sense, especially if you read everything that Greg pointed out, and the fact the there are photos of John Bowen with the guitar dating to 1963 (for full story on this please visit gregstackhouseprevost.com – the story about the Les Paul is on the bottom of the page)

The Usage

By October 1964, the band had released their second album and were touring across US for the second time. Keith used the Les Paul as his main guitar during this tour, although when he arrived back to England he was still occasionally seen with the Epiphone, most likely serving a purpose of a back-up guitar at this point [Rolling Stones – Thank Your Lucky Stars, January 13th, 1965]. It is somewhat safe to conclude that at that time, those were the only two electric guitars in his possession.

As far the studio usage, the guitar was likely used at least partially on The Rolling Stones, Now!/The Rolling Stones No. 2, although those albums were recorded over couple of different studio sessions so it’s nearly impossible to tell precisely [The Rolling Stones, Now! album info]. On the next album –
Out Of Our Heads, recorded mostly at the RCA Studios in Los Angeles, the Les Paul was likely used to record most of the songs.

This recording session of course included the band’s hit song I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction), which was recorded on May 11-12, 1965. Based on the photos available [Keith Richards at RCA Studios, May 12-13, by Bob Bonis], Keith had the Les Paul with him on those exact dates, although the Epiphone was still around and was possibly used both in the studio and for gigs played around that period. However, the most popular theory is that Keith played a Gibson Firebird VII, freshly supplied to him by Gibson.

The Demise of the Keith Burst

Keith continued using the guitar throughout 1965 and likely in the early 1966. At that point he moved onto using a 1960s Guild Freshman that he played throughout June–July 1966 North American tour, and later switched to a black Gibson Les Custom. The ’59 Les Paul Standard seemed to have been somewhat of a short lasting affair – just over a year of use and it was already out of the picture.

Interesting to note, on July 31st, 1966 Eric Clapton appeared with what looked like Keith’s Les Paul while performing with Cream at the 6th National Jazz & Blues Festival, the Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival in Berkshire, England. This is however not definitive, as Clapton himself never confirmed using Keith’s guitar specifically, but many have speculated that this was Keith’s guitar.

It appears though that by this time Keith no longer shows interest in using the Les Paul, and he most likely didn’t even bother bringing it on the North American tour in late 1966 (if you happen to come across something denying this assumption, please do send it). The Les Paul is from then on probably taken care of by Ian Stewart, the band’s manager and a founding member, who is mentioned as an intermediary in the process of selling the guitar years after this.

A new home with Mick Taylor

Keith let go of the Les Paul sometime in July 1968 and it ended up with Mick Taylor, who at the time played in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. The dates are based on the quote from Mick, who said that he bought the guitar when the Stones were making Beggars Banquet album at Olympic Studios, London. The sessions were wrapped up by July 25th, 1968 [The Rolling Stones Chronicle 1968], and the guitar was last seen on July 1st at Olympic Studios in the hands of Mick Jagger (note that the guitar no longer has a pickguard). The subject however requires more research, as the dates are not definitive.

The interesting thing about that one, that guitar, is that I bought that guitar from Keith Richards two years before. I’ve got an idea why he wanted to sell it, but I remember going down to the studio. It’s interesting, because I don’t remember actually meeting him then, but I met Ian Stewart, their roadie who also plays piano. I met him, and I told him I was looking for a Les Paul, because the other one had been stolen. And he said, “Well, we’ve got one for sale. Come down to the studio and have a look at it.” I think it was when the Stones were making Beggars Banquet.

Mick Taylor on the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, and Playing Guitar – Jas Obrecht Music Archive

Please note that in the same interview Mick mentions removing the Bigsby tremolo from the guitar after he acquired it. However, there doesn’t seem to be any photographic evidence confirming this. He certainly couldn’t have done it before late 1969 when the guitar was last seen (photo is linked two paragraphs below), and no photo of Mick from that period shows him playing a Les Paul with exposed screw holes left from removing the Bigsby (admittedly, these would be hard to spot).

Following Brian Jones’ departure from the band, Mick Taylor joined the Rolling Stones in May 1969 on recommendation from John Mayall. The guitar once again returned to the Rolling Stones, but now of course is played by Taylor. He first appears with it on his debut concert with the Stones played at Hyde Park on July 5th, 1969.

Mick Taylor with The Stones in the Hyde Park July 5 1969. Screencap YouTube

Taylor continued using the guitar with the Rolling Stones throughout 1969 which included the American tour at the end of the year, although, for him, his Gibson SG still seemed to have been the main guitar. Keith also occasionally picked up his old Les Paul during this period, and was seen playing it at Madison Square Gardens in late November 1969. Based on the photos available, this is the last time the guitar was seen on stage.

Year 1970 finds Keith oscillating between his Les Paul Custom and a Dan Armstrong custom-made guitar, and Mick mainly stuck to using his Gibson SG. As said, the 1959 Les Paul Standard slowly begins to disappear from stage use, and by the August–October 1970 European tour it is nowhere to be seen.

The Keith Burst gone and Current Whereabouts

According to Dave Hunter’s book [The Gibson Les Paul: The Illustrated Story of the Guitar That Changed Rock by Dave Hunter, p. 48], there are three plausible theories that would explain the guitar disappearing from 1970 onward. It was either stolen from the mansion Nellcote in southern France where the band was working on Exile on Main St., stolen from the Marquee Club, or given (or sold) to Heavy Metal Kids guitarist Cosmo Verrico to replace a guitar of his that was stolen.

After looking through all of the photos that exist and were taken at Villa Nellcôte while the band stayed there, it’s clear the guitar doesn’t appear on any of them. Note that the story that some of the band’s guitars were stolen from Nellcote is true, and it happened on October 1st, 1971 [The Rolling Stones at Villa Nellcôte]. By then, the band had already spent a few months at the villa working on Exile on Main St., and it is likely that at least some of the photos were taken prior to the theft, therefore allowing the Les Paul still to be photographed.

Villa Nellcôte, southern France. Screenshot from the 2010 documentary Stones in Exile.

It being stolen from the Marquee Club also doesn’t seem to be the likely explanation. That gig took place on March 26th, 1971, and both Keith and Mick Taylor weren’t playing the said guitar at the show. The Les Paul was either stolen before the show, or wasn’t stolen at all. At least not there.

The third theory seems to be the one that would make most sense. According to Dave Brewis (RockStarsGuitars.com), Cosmo Verrico had told him that he got the guitar from a guy at Atlantic Records:

He told me he’d got the guitar when he was in a band called the Heavy Metal Kids and was signed to Atlantic Records. He told his guys at Atlantic that he needed a Les Paul and was presented with this guitar by someone called Phil Carson, who ran Rolling Stones Records out of Atlantic. It was a ‘the band has no use for this guitar now, you can have it’ sort of thing.

Guitarist’s Legends of Tone: Gibson, p. 38

According to the info and dates on Heavy Metal Kids website [Who are the HEAVY METAL KIDS and how did they get here?], this was likely sometime in late 1974. Around this time the band was signed to Atlantic Records, and Cosmo had returned to the band playing the guitar after a short hiatus. However, it’s not exactly clear if Phil Carson was close with the members of the Stones, as he’s most often mentioned in relations to other bands of the era [Wikipedia – Phil Carson].

The story doesn’t sit right with everything of course. Based on the said theory, the guitar had spent four years from 1970 to 1974 being played and touched by nobody, and apparently taken care of by the guys at Atlantic Records. Would they simply give away the guitar previously owned by Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, and possibly played by Eric Clapton? Who knows. It doesn’t make much sense looking back, but apparently that’s what happened.

Be that as it may, couple of more people had their hands on the guitar before it ended up with Mike Jopp (guitarist – Affinity), who apparently owned it from 1974 [Guitarist’s Legends of Tone: Gibson, p. 38]. You’ll notice that that’s the same year when Cosmo allegedly received the guitar from Phil Carson, so it is likely that someone got their dates mixed up, or there’s more to this story than meets the eye. In late 2000s it was finally sold to a private collector from Switzerland, who now owns the guitar.

The Historical Significance and Impact of the Keith burst

The guitar is certainly one of the most significant and most iconic Les Pauls in the history of rock and roll. Keith was one of the first people to ever pick up a 1959 Standard, which at time was an almost insignificant model discontinued by Gibson in 1960. It was then replaced with a double cutaway model, which has subsequently become the Gibson SG. Following Keith’s popularization of the model, guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Paul Kossoff, and Jimmy Page, all picked up a 1959 Les Paul Standard as their main guitar.

The fact that all those guys played basically the same version of the Les Paul, further popularized the model and eventually made it one of the most sought-after guitars. Originally costing less than $300 including a case (around $2,500 in today’s value), the Les Paul Standards made in 1959 now usually go from $200,000 and up. Today, the 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard is usually considered the “holy grail” in the electric guitar world.

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