Connoisseur catches up with Rock N Roll Hall of Fame inductee and one of the world’s most notable guitar collectors, Rick Nielsen, as he recounts selling guitars to Jeff Beck and Paul McCartney, why budding collectors should be aware that all things vintage weren’t made equal, and the guitars that got away in his 50+ years as a serious guitar connoisseur.
Cheap Trick’s raucous new album, In Another World, reached the top position on Billboard Magazine’s Rock Charts when it was released in April, a first for the group in their storied 44-year recording career. “Somebody called to say we were Number One and I was like, ‘It’s got to be a fluke,’ Nielsen says, of the album’s success. “I don’t know if the pandemic made people feel comforted by rediscovering, or reliving their past or what, but more people seem to be interested in what we’re doing. I don’t think we’ve had this kind of reaction from any record we’ve done before.”
The group, known for their indefatigable touring regimen, are eager to bring the new album’s songs to audiences worldwide, but as we reach Nielsen at his home in Rockford Illinois, he’s cooling his heels after a string of Australian tour dates were abruptly cancelled the day before the band was scheduled to depart. “They closed the country,” Nielsen says. “We were about to get on the 18-hour flight to go there, and then to sit in quarantine for 14 days where we couldn’t even leave our hotel rooms. We had had to do our nose swabs for Covid tests while on Zoom, with special couriers standing by to take our snot to the lab. It was a lot of work. Oh well!”
The collector’s collection
The global pandemic may have put a damper on Nielsen’s travel plans but it hasn’t prevented him from adding to his vast guitar collection, which numbers in the hundreds. The guitarist purchased Geddy Lee of Rush’s former 1959 Les Paul shortly before quarantine and has since acquired any number of ‘TV Mode’ double-cutaway Gibson Les Paul Juniors. Most recently, Nielsen has trained his sights on the early-Sixties, P-90 equipped Epiphone Coronets that were marketed under the ‘Dwight’ brand and sold exclusively through Sonny Shields music in East St. Louis, IL. Favored by Small Faces and Humble Pie frontman Steve Marriott, the rare Dwights are exceedingly collectible, and have more than one fan among high-profile guitarists.
“I just bought one from Paul Weller of the Jam and Style Council,” says Nielsen. “So now I have five with the three-on-a-side headstock and four of the later ones with the ‘batwing’ six-on-a-side headstock,” he says. “I think they made 47 of them in total.”
Nielsen becomes noticeably excited as he talks about his recent acquisitions, his words crackling with an enthusiasm that seems not to have waned since he discovered his passion for collecting several years before ever picking up a guitar.
“My grandmother collected stamps and coins and I loved the artwork,” he says. “Have you seen the Standing Liberty dollars and half dollars? Just so beautiful. And with stamps, I collected what was called ‘blocks of four.’ It was like the corner four of a whole sheet that had the serial number on it…. I was into serial numbers early!” he laughs.
From there, Nielsen graduated to collecting baseball cards, but like so many fledgling rockers of his generation, found his true calling when he saw the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.
“I had been a drummer, and guitar didn’t really appeal to me until I saw the Beatles and the Stones,” Nielsen recalls. “I knew that George Harrison played a Gretsch Country Gentleman, so I had to go check one of those out, but it had those mutes on there and crazy strings on it. Not for me.”
“Then in 1965, I got my first Les Paul, a 1955 Gold Top that I still have,” he says. “I found it at the A Bookstore in Rockford and it cost $65. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know if it was supposed to be an acoustic semi-hollow body or what it was, and then when I saw it it’s like, ‘Oh, this is good… and it’s heavy too!’”
From then on, Nielsen was hooked and tracking down used guitars became something of an obsession. “I just liked them, and they smelled good; musty and like a basement or something,” he recalls. “And because they were played, I could get them cheaper. Shortly after I got the Les Paul, I paid $70 for the ’51 Telecaster that [Cheap Trick vocalist] Robin Zander played at the At Budokan shows and still uses today. They were $200 new, which was too much money for me.”
Although Nielsen’s parents owned a musical instrument store, Ralph Nielsen Music House in Rockford, few instruments of interest came through the shop. “Back in those days, people didn’t have guitar collections,” says Nielsen. “So if you wanted a new guitar, you traded the old one in. And so my dad would take trade-ins occasionally. But he was a Martin dealer, so people weren’t usually trading in what I wanted to get their new Martin! Where I actually found a lot of guitars through the years was at car dealers,” he continues. “One was a guy was buying an Edsel and he had a Gibson Les Paul that he gave as part of the down payment. Then the auto place had no use for a guitar, so they would call around. And given that I never had a real job, I got really good at chasing stuff like that down.”
Because his parents were in the music store business, Nielsen was also able to develop relationships with the owners of other mom-and-pop retailers in the area. “They’d let me go in the back room and look through stuff, and I’d find parts and pickups and broken cases, stuff that they didn’t even want,” he recalls. “I would say, ‘How much for this stuff?’ And they would answer, ‘Oh, just take it,’ or, ‘Here just give me $10 for the whole box.’”
When he wasn’t rifling through stock rooms, Nielsen was poring over newspaper classifieds. “You’d call the number in the ad and the guy would say, ‘I got a guitar that says ‘Guitar’ on it, but it’s only got five strings,’” Nielsen says. “‘Oh, you mean Gibson? Well, since it only has five strings, you can’t charge me too much for that. It’s supposed to have six.’ It’s like people had stuff under their bed they didn’t play. I’m sure there’s still stuff that’s around that nobody’s ever discovered.”
Not all’s made equal
It was during this time that Nielsen not only developed his skills as a guitar tracker, but also his ability to discern that all instruments, no matter what their vintage or brand, are not created equal. “I’ve gotten in trouble for saying this before,” the guitarist says. “But it used to be that everyone knew that maybe seven out of 10 vintage Strats were any good. You used to have to put matchbook covers in the neck pocket to shim up the necks and get the action playable, stuff like that. I mean, they weren’t all perfect. Now nobody would dare say that a vintage guitar is not great. It’s always, ‘Oh, this is the best playing one I’ve ever had.’ Okay, whatever. I’ve had 1959 Les Pauls that sounded terrible. The PAF was no good.”
Speaking of 1959 Les Pauls, Nielsen has owned more than a dozen, all documented (along with every guitar he’s ever acquired) in meticulously maintained databases. His two favorites? A 1958 example (serial number 8-1948) with zebra (bridge) and double creme (neck) PAFs that he’s used on virtually every Cheap Trick album since he acquired it in 1975, and a 1959 (9-0655) purchased in Canada that became the basis for the Gibson Custom Shop’s limited 2016 run of Rick Nielsen Custom Shop guitars. Nielsen has also at times been known to throw some of his catches back into the wild. He famously offloaded a 1959 Les Paul for $350 to his hero Jeff Beck in 1968 after the latter’s guitar was destroyed by a clumsy roadie and sold a left-handed 1960 example from his collection (0-1182) to Paul McCartney.
Here comes Hamer
In 1972, when Nielsen was a struggling musician living in Philadelphia and he and his wife were expecting their first child, he made a deal with an Illinois Postal Service worker (and fellow vintage guitar enthusiast) named Paul Hamer.
“I knew Paul because he had seen my bands Fuse and the Grim Reapers play and because he knew what I knew. He knew about the pickups and the old cases and all that cool stuff,” Nielsen recalls. “I didn’t have insurance for the baby being born and Paul, who had hair braided down to his ass, came to Philadelphia and offered me $2,500 for a ‘Burst, which was lot at the time, so I took it. He resold it and I think that was seed money to open Northern Prairie Music in Wilmette, IL with his partner Jol Dantzig.”
When Nielsen returned to the Chicago area in 1973, he reconnected with Hamer when he visited Northern Prairie, which had already gained a local reputation as the go-to place to have a vintage Gibson or Fender repaired. “They were the guys because they knew about the ABR-1 bridges and the right screws, the right truss rod covers.”
Thoroughly unimpressed by the guitars being produced by Gibson and Fender at the time, Hamer and Dantzig had also begun building their own Hamer guitars that aimed to incorporate the best aspects of 50s guitar construction into their designs. A first prototype Flying V bass featured no serial number at all. A second instrument, a Gibson Explorer-shaped guitar augmented by a bound, flame maple top, was built for Hamer himself and boasted serial number 0000. “They brought it to me to check out and I wouldn’t give it back to them,” says Nielsen.
“I said, ‘This is me. This is what I’ve been looking for.’ They made it so beautifully; It was like having a sunburst Les Paul except now with this body shape that nobody was too keen on at the time. But I was keen on it right away. All of the parts were from vintage Gibsons, including the truss rod cover, which says ‘JSK’ on it. I used to joke that the guitar had belonged to John S. Kennedy.”
Nielsen would also purchase Hamer number 0004 (another Explorer-shaped ‘Standard’) and become one of the growing brand’s most visible early adopters. He also liked to push the limits of feasibility with some of his custom requests, like the iconic checkerboard Standard pictured on the cover of the band’s 1979 Dream Police album, a hulking orange 5-neck guitar featuring fretless and 12-string necks, and ‘Uncle Dick,’ a doubleneck crafted in the guitarist’s likeness.
“I kept upping the ante on them,” says Nielsen. “I would say, I want a checkerboard guitar and then they had to figure out how you could do it. There was no Internet, there was no Photoshop, there was none of that stuff. I think they made up stuff as they went along.” And as for the checkerboard knobs and pickups that adorn both the Standard and its companion V? “They hand painted all that extra stuff,” he says, still visibly impressed. “Like with the Flying V, the checkerboard one, when you see the back, it’s got the same face as I had on my early picks, except blown up. How’d they get that? Like I said, I don’t even tune the guitar anymore let alone know how they did all this stuff.”
1981 Hamer five-neck
The idea for the iconic five-neck, another feat of luthiery that involved sawing the wings off and joining together the bodies from five of Hamer’s double-cutaway ‘Sunburst’ models, came to Nielsen because of his nightly practice of strapping on several guitars at once one to perform his take on the obligatory ‘guitar solo’ that punctuated all rock concerts of the era. “Yeah, yeah. I did it as sort of a joke,” says Nielsen.
“Instead of having multiple guitars, why not just have one with multiple necks? I had a bunch of different configurations I was thinking of, like a six-neck that would spin like a roulette wheel. But then ZZ Top came out with their spinning guitars and I was like, ‘Well, we can’t do that, or they’ll think that I copied them.’ Now other people like Trey Anastasio of Phish have played five-necks live. They do it when they’re trying to be ridiculous. But I was the original ridiculous!”
Even when he’s not commissioning them himself, Nielsen has always prized guitars whose beauty is in part a function of their oddity. So, when pressed to pick which instruments he considers to be the crown jewels of his collection, the guitarist is quick to mention his 1963 Guild Merle Travis.
“Only three were made and they cost $2000 new, which was the price of a nice car back then,” Nielsen says. “But it’s the coolest of the coolest with maximum ornamentation.”
Nielsen spent more than three decades in pursuit of the rare Guild, and ultimately located one in Nashville. “I finally got George [Gruhn] to admit to me that he had one,” says Nielsen. “But it was smashed into more than 25 pieces, so I had the original craftsmen from Guild restore it. That repair cost me some serious money!”
The million-dollar ‘58 Explorer
Gruhn was also the source of another Nielsen treasure, one of the two 1958 Gibson Explorers in his possession. Due to low demand, only 19 Explorers were made when the guitar was introduced, and examples fetch upwards of a million dollars today.
“Gruhn used to have an inventory sheet that he mailed out, and that’s how I found my first Explorer in 1976,” says Nielsen. “It was in excellent condition with the original case and they were asking $4,000. So that was like triple what a 1959 Les Paul was going for. I knew it was rare, so I ended up trading probably five or six guitars for it.”
Nielsen’s second Explorer came to him in 1980 from Strings West, a Tulsa, OK, guitar shop owned by Larry Briggs. “I paid $5,000 for that one, and couple of years later I brought it to the Dallas Guitar Show and was offered $75,000 in cash for it on the spot,” he recalls. “Believe me, I could have used the money at the time, but I just couldn’t do it. Good thing, too!”
While on the topic of Explorers, Nielsen also mentions that he is still haunted by a third Explorer that he let slip between his fingers. “It was listed for $20,000 on page five of a 1987 inventory list from Guitar Trader in New Jersey. There was no picture of the guitar and I missed it,” he says, with palpable regret.
Ah yes, “the one that got away…”’ In the final analysis, perhaps it’s a good thing that Nielsen didn’t score that third Explorer. Maybe it’s the guitar that evades us that somehow serves, in its absence, as the most important piece in any serious collection, an ever not-present reminder that it only takes a moment of inattention or distraction for the axe of a lifetime to drift out of reach. Perhaps, 60 years into his collecting journey, Nielsen remains such an avid guitar hunter precisely because like the rest of us, he can’t always get what he wants, but isn’t about to stop trying.
Cheap Trick’s In Another World is out now.
All images featured in this article are by longtime Cheap Trick photographer Mike Graham.