Meet Eliot Michael, owner of Rumble Seat Music, a premium vintage guitar store in Nashville. We're honored to have been invited to sit down with Eliot and talk about his passion for the guitar, history of the shop, and the "hunch" that keeps his dream alive. We've also got a compelling history lesson and fun facts on the inimitable '59 Les Paul Standard. Words by Desmond Smith.
It’s the first of March, and I am on my way to meet up with Eliot Michael, owner of Rumble Seat Music in Nashville, TN. We’ve arranged for a little get-together to talk about his shop and lifelong relationship with the guitar. I am, admittedly, a little excited, and also very hopeful that he’s going to present a particularly valuable Gibson guitar from the late 1950s as an example of where it all started for him.
Eliot Michael grew up in Brooklyn, New York. It has been a number of years since he last lived there, but he has not forgotten how to sound like he’s from the city—his accent is hypnotic. I could have sat next to him and listened to him talk all afternoon, and part of me really wanted to. He’s a busy guy, though, these days. Since moving all three of his Rumble Seat locations to the store in Nashville, the staff is selling more guitars than ever. Ricky Sanchez, one of Rumble Seat’s guitar experts explains, “We’re finally in a location that has a music scene, and a ton of really great local players.”
The “Holy Grail” V. The Flute
Eliot Michael knows guitars. He’s been playing guitar professionally since the age of 16, when he first left home. That’s also around the time he bought his first 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard. For a lot of guys growing up in the late 1950s, and through the 1960s, seeing Elvis Presley playing guitar on TV and in movies was “cool,” Eliot recalls, “But seeing the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones on the Ed Sullivan show, that’s what really knocked me out.” By 1968, he was catching bands like the Jeff Beck Group, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix, at the famous Fillmore East. It wasn’t long after witnessing these performances that Eliot decided to quit school to start his own career as a professional musician. That leap-of-faith would take him all over the world playing guitar for nearly twenty years before retiring in the mid 1990s. It wasn’t just the rock and roll bands on TV or the ones he saw at the Fillmore East, there was a guitar that also “knocked him out” all those years ago, too.
Eliot’s brother had a friend who played guitar, “He played in churches all over Brooklyn, and it was the first time I ever saw a Gibson Les Paul Standard with a flamey top. It was my dream guitar, and it still is.” Back then, a Gibson Les Paul from the late 1950s wasn’t exactly the rarest guitar on the block, but it was nowhere near as common as seeing a Fender guitar from the same era. There just weren’t that many “bursts” that were made to begin with. “Everyone wanted one,” recalls Eliot. “It was the guitar to have, especially if you were playing electric blues and rock and roll.” It was 1970 when Eliot bought his very first 1959 Standard. His brother's friend had quit playing guitar and was playing flute. Eliot remembers, “He just had the guitar at home in a closet. So I gave him $300 bucks for it and the deal was done.” This would prove to be a life-changing event for him.
The War Is Over, A Solid Body Guitar Is Born
The end of World War II saw one of the greatest technological shifts in factory production that the world has ever seen. Men and women all over America were enjoying a rapidly growing economy, steady employment, and a renewed sense of purpose. The musical landscape was also changing. Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, music was getting louder, bigger, and becoming more commercially available than ever before. Radio was enormously popular and by the 1950s, and television was taking American households by storm.
Throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, hollowbody guitars were commonly outfitted with pickups along with the rise of amplified music. However, these early electric guitar models could only be turned up to a certain volume before they would begin to squeal and howl. Inventors like Paul Bigsby, Leo Fender, and Les Paul were all working on their own versions of a solid-body guitar. By 1950, Fender had introduced his Telecaster model, and Gibson was working with Les Paul to create a solid-body guitar that would have his name on the headstock. Les would be the guitar’s ambassador—a walking, talking, guitar-playing, marketing campaign. He would also contribute to several of its design features, most notably, its gold color.
Though it was officially introduced in 1952 as the Gibson Les Paul model, it would take a few years for the guitar to come full-circle. The mid 1950s “Goldtop” model would go through several changes that would include the removal of the trapeze tailpiece for a more stable stop-bar tailpiece, and the eventual addition of the Tune-O-Matic bridge. In 1957, with the help of Seth Lover, Gibson introduced a revolutionary pickup design, replacing the guitars stock P-90 pickups with Patent-Applied-For humbuckers.
By the summer of 1958, the Gibson Les Paul model was getting yet another make-over. It would now feature a gorgeous flamed maple top that would officially replace its traditional gold finish. In 1959, the Standard would adopt a slightly thinner neck, but with larger fret wire, making the guitar a much more “playable” instrument. These are some of the key features that make 1959 models the most sought after. However, much to Gibson’s surprise, they were not selling very well, and by the end of 1960 the Les Paul model was all but replaced with Gibson’s radically designed SG model. In total, an estimated number of 1,600 Gibson Les Paul Standards shipped from 1958 to 1960.
The Gibson Les Paul was perhaps a few years too early, too futuristic, too ahead of its time. It was initially intended for Jazz guitarists, but had found popularity among blues guitar players in the ‘50s. This would later become a direct correlation of the models’ rejuvenated popularity throughout the mid-1960s, and what would eventually cause this sacred guitar to skyrocket in price and collectability.
The British Invasion with American Guitars
In 1964, a very young and dapper looking Keith Richards appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, equipped with a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard complete with an added Bigsby vibrato unit. Richards fondly remembers seeing pictures of American blues musicians Freddie King and Hubert Sumlin wielding Les Paul guitars from the mid-1950s, which undoubtedly inspired him to get his own. That now iconic, colorful image of Keith and his 1959 Standard from the Sullivan performance will be forever associated with the guitar’s mystical appeal.
By 1965, Michael Bloomfield was seen using a Les Paul Standard that was on loan to him. He was clearly aware of what the guitar could do and was on the prowl to find one for himself. Just over the pond a young guitarist by the name of Eric Clapton, was revolutionizing heavy blues and rock guitar sounds with a flamely Les Paul Standard, and this would only be the beginning. In 1967, Bloomfield finally acquired a very flamely 1959 Standard that he bought from his buddy Dan Erlewine, and would go on to use it throughout his time with The Electric Flag. In 1969, Jimmy Page bought a 1959 Burst at the behest of American guitarist Joe Walsh.
Becoming A Guitar Dealer
Those late 1950s Gibson Les Paul models were becoming an overnight sensation among professional guitar players. Back at Rumble Seat, Eliot remembers fondly, “We just knew they were special. We knew that something really great was going on with them. They had the magic—most of them did anyway—about 98% of them are really great.”
Eliot Michael would know. He’s owned close to thirty of these guitars over his lifetime as a guitar player and vintage guitar dealer. Most people are lucky if they even get to see a ‘59 in person, let alone the opportunity to play one. These days, you have to be in a whole other tax bracket to own one. Really good examples can fetch upwards of $350,000. That’s basically the equivalent of deciding whether to buy a really nice house, or a really nice guitar.
Back in the early 1980s, Eliot had a hunch that the vintage guitar market was going to become a “thing.” And so he got in when the getting was good, “You could go out on the road and visit mom-and-pop guitar shops and buy really great, old guitars, and hardly pay anything for them. And back then there was no internet, so people would just sell them for whatever they had paid for them back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. No one really knew back then that those old guitars were going to become so valuable,” explains Eliot.
It’s been a long journey, and Eliot Michael has seen his share of ups-and-downs. He still loves the guitar more than anything, and he loves seeing how happy it makes people to find a guitar that will bring them so much joy and inspiration. He’s played a very important role in helping a lot of musicians and collectors find the guitar of their dreams. Guys like Joe Bonamassa and Brian Setzer are long-time friends and customers of Rumble Seat, and Eliot takes a lot of pride in cultivating those kinds of relationships.
The next time you’re in Nashville, be sure to stop by his store at 1805 8th Ave S, and say, “Hello” to Eliot and his wonderful staff. You can also check them out online at rumbleseatmusic.com.
Desmond is a professional guitar tech and Original Fuzz's secret weapon from Tupelo, Mississippi. He currently resides in East Nashville, TN. Catch him on the road, or in our shop, and follow him on the internet at @desmachine.