Arlen Roth on Holy Grail Guitars
It’s real nice to know that there are certain real “Holy Grail” guitars out there still to be found, and I even found one lately, but what does it take to truly be considered a “Holy Grail?!” There are so many incredible instruments that mean different things to different people, and the “grail” label seems to be an ever-expanding description.
For most Gibson fans, a true “Holy Grail” would be an amazingly clean ’58, ’59 or ’60 “burst”, but who is to say how I may react if I were to find a ’65 Firebird equivalent, or a Flying V, or a mint ’57 Goldtop? I have several guitars now that I would certainly classify if not “grail-worthy” certainly right “up there” with the best of them. I also consider a guitar a Holy Grail piece if it’s something so rare as to be literally a one-of-a-kind. I have such a Gibson archtop from the mid ‘30s that has a headstock with the “Bella Voce” Banjo headstock inlay, that I certainly must be a one-off! It possesses extraordinary tone, is beautiful and certainly is unique, so therefore, it’s gotta be a “grail!”
Some guitars attain this status later in their lives, as they begin to really become legends in their own right. For example, I’d never part with my ’52 Les Paul, but now that is was signed by Les himself over 20 years ago, and it was truly my first great guitar, it too is now what I would consider a “Holy Grail” piece…. especially to me!
I have a J-185 from the early ‘50s that to me is one of the prettiest Gibsons ever made, yet its “grail” status to me, comes from its amazing volume and its incredibly sweet tone. After all, it’s the sound we are after, and this is why so many kinds of guitars can be “holy Grails.” I certainly would never base that status on only an instrument’s “clean” condition, because that guitar may just not “have it” in the sound department. This is how all the great guitars have attained this status, and sometimes it may be the most beat-up and heavily played guitar that is actually the best. I have found this to be true, and I believe guitars just simply get better as they are played, not just because of their age!
We all love different guitars for different reasons, and those “Grails” are still out there waiting for us to discover them. It just takes an open mind, eye and ear to know just what might end up being a “Holy grail” guitar to you!