STEVE OLSON DEMONSTRATES THE 1957 LES PAUL STANDARD

LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) – When you step foot into Elderly Instruments in Lansing’s Old Town neighborhood, you’re not just perusing any old music shop.

You’re treated to a sizable stash of rare vintage instruments that can fetch prices close to a quarter million dollars from the right collector.

Repair shop manager Steve Olson was able to give a break down on a handful of the rarest and most desirable electric guitars in Elderly’s vault, as well as a 1924 Gibson F-5 Lloyd Loar mandolin valued at $120,000.

Most instruments of this caliber come through consignment deals, where the owner of the instrument sells it at Elderly and the store keeps a portion of the profit.

These private sellers have made the difficult, yet lucrative, decision to part with what may be a celebrated heirloom or a prized possession loyally held onto by a family member for decades.   

The most valuable instrument in Elderly’s possession is a 1963 Gibson Explorer marked for $218,000. What makes it so pricey, Olson said, is its status as a rare historical oddity.

STEVE OLSON WITH 1963 GIBSON EXPLORER

The Explorer model was introduced by Gibson in 1958 alongside the Flying V. The Explorer was not successful during its initial release, and very few were produced by Gibson.

This particular Explorer was partially constructed in 1959 but wasn’t finished until 1963 when Gibson was clearing out old stock to fulfill new orders, Olson said. Another uncommon appointment on the guitar is its custom ordered Bigsby vibrato tailpiece.

Because the Explorer was discontinued in 1963, and did not return until 1976, the few original models out in the wild are incredibly valuable.  

“People didn’t care about these. They would be stored in a garage or something else. But it’s a solid guitar and people are desiring them now,” Olson said.

The 1957 TV Yellow Les Paul Special, listed for $15,500, is an especially clean specimen. Despite its age, it maintains an impressive sheen. The name TV yellow comes from the black and white days of television, the yellow finish was said to stick out better on a black and white broadcast ala “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

“There was one model below the Les Paul Special that was the entry level for students. This one is a little fancier, but still a flat slab of beautiful mahogany with a finish that was supposed to show up better on black and white TV,” Olson said.

Prior to 1976, Gibson produced its guitars in Kalamazoo. By 1984, all guitar production was moved to Nashville, Tennessee.

Being produced in the original factory is one of many sticking points with collectors, whose rigid criteria on what makes a vintage guitar more desirable can help determine its value.  

(Left to right): A 1957 Les Paul Special, a 1957 Les Paul Standard and a 1956 Les Paul Custom.

A step above the Les Paul Special are the Les Paul Standard (commonly referred to as just Les Paul) and Les Paul Custom, which had some fancier appointments like the curvature carved into the surface of the body, akin to an archtop.

Elderly’s 1957 Les Paul finished in gold top is being sold for $80,000. Olson said this particular guitar is especially sought after thanks to its “Patent Applied For” humbucking pickups.

The tone produced by PAF humbuckers is synonymous with countless rock ‘n’ roll legends and modern guitar manufacturers are still trying to replicate it.

Olson said vintage guitar collectors have developed some extremely niche preferences on what is considered “best.”

Something as simple as the color of the plastic used for the pickups can make or break a guitar for a picky expert.  

Olson with the 1924 Gibson F-5 Lloyd Loar mandolin.

The 1956 Les Paul Custom in Elderly’s collection, marked at $38,500, sports several electric guitar innovations that were cutting edge at the time.

Olson pointed out its staple P-90 neck pickup, which had adjustable pole pieces that allowed the player to further customize their tone.

Elderly also has rare pieces from Gibson’s biggest competitor and eternal rival, Fender. Its early-1964 Fender Stratocaster, selling for $22,500, is no slouch.

Featuring a sunburst finish, which has an unfortunate bit of overspray on its upper horn, this Stratocaster is one of the coveted “pre-CBS” Fenders.

In 1965, Fender founder Leo Fender sold the company to CBS – yes, that CBS – for $13 million. CBS ran Fender until 1985, when it was purchased on the cheap by its employees.

“CBS were buying quite a few things. The Rhodes piano company was rolled into there. Gibson also traded hands with different corporations through the decades,” Olson said.   

While you wouldn’t find one onstage with Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton, Elderly’s 1924 Gibson F-5 Lloyd Loar mandolin has some serious cool factor of its own.

At $120,000, it’s the second most expensive instrument at Elderly Instruments. Olson said this model is considered the Stradivarius equivalent for mandolins.

It is closely associated with Bill Monroe, the singer and songwriter widely credited with creating bluegrass. Olson said that makes the instrument extremely desirable.

“It’s the association with the development of bluegrass and Bill Monroe. They had mandolin orchestras when this was produced. You’d have 20-30 people lined up, and 15 of them would be playing these,” Olson said.

Though the prices are certainly eye-catching, its these instruments’ history as tools that shaped the course of music that make them most valuable.

For those who have made music their life, these vaunted guitars seem to radiate an awe-inspiring aura.  

“It’s pretty cool to hold it in your hands and just think about its history. It’s a beautiful thing,” Olson said.