Walking into Norman’s Rare Guitars on a sunny afternoon, Slash is a man on a mission. Specifically, this mission is to find a Gibson Les Paul ’59. And not just any ’59 Gibson Les Paul. He’s on the hunt for a Tobacco Burst – a rare and coveted finish on what is already a rare and coveted guitar model. “There are only two that I know of,” Slash says.
One of the two he owned – it’s the famous model he uses to rip solo in front of a church in Guns N’ Roses’ November Rain video. But it was Joe [Perry]’s and I gave it back to him,” he said.
Slash still has three 1959 copies in his possession – “One is basically a Lemon Burst, and the other two are faded Cherry Sunbursts,” he says. But he calls Tobacco Burst his favorite finish. “So I thought I should put the word out there. Because he’s not just gonna show up at my door.
That’s why Slash came through Norman’s door. Because if anyone in Los Angeles can find a rare guitar, it’s Norman Harris, who has been selling vintage instruments for over 50 years, and whose shop in Tarzana, Calif., is a go-to destination for artists, everyday guitar collectors and fans.
Harris, who is hosting Slash that day, doesn’t have a Tobacco Burst ’59 on hand (“That’s a tall order,” he admits), but he assures Slash he’ll put up some antennae. In the meantime, he has plenty of other vintage beauties to look at.
As for Slash, he admits to being a guitarist who doesn’t really go to guitar shops.
“They are overwhelming,” he says. “It’s like going to a restaurant where the menu is 30 pages.” That said, he’s been friends with Harris for decades, and when he wants to shop, Norman’s is his place. “I’ve known Norman for a long time, and he has one of the most comprehensive guitar shops around,” Slash says, then laughs. “I live in the area, and when I moved here, I was like, fuck, this is dangerous…”
And with that, we take a look.
As Slash walks along the rows of new and vintage high-end models, Harris directs him to a few choice items, including a rare Stromberg with a $40,000 price tag and a 1930s Larson Brothers Mauer, “one some of the fanciest acoustics you’ll ever see”. said Harris. It also spotlights a prototype Joe Bonamassa 1958 “Amos” Korina Flying-V from Epiphone, causing Slash to reminisce about the first Epiphone he ever owned, which he says was also his first “good ” acoustic.
“It was a 1930s Epiphone dreadnought,” he tells us. “When I was 15 I used to babysit, and in that house they had it hanging on the wall next to a mandolin. I said to the parents: ‘Can I play it when the child is sleeping?’ I was still playing it when they got home, and they ended up giving it to me. And I still have it – the goddamn tailpiece pops out of the body, but it catches on.
Despite Slash’s previous claim that he’s not much of a fan of guitar shops, he has a rich history with them. “When I was 17 or 18, I worked in a – Hollywood Music Store, on Fairfax and Melrose,” he says guitar world as we walk the perimeter of Norman’s.
“It belonged to Hiro [Misawa], a Japanese businessman who I think had a music store in Tokyo and then came to the United States. If I remember correctly, it was the only authorized BC Rich dealer in town. And that was my first good electric guitar, a BC Rich Mockingbird that I got there. Before that, I think I bought an Explorer for a hundred bucks and took it back and traded it in for a Les Paul. But these were only copies.
There’s another piece of Slash history attached to the Hollywood Music Store – it’s where he first met Izzy Stradlin.
“Izzy came over one day because he saw a drawing I had done of Aerosmith, and he was looking for the guy who had done it,” Slash recalled. “It was the first time we met. And then later we met and he played his demo to me [of pre-Guns N’ Roses band Hollywood Rose]. It was the first time I heard Axl.
As to whether he was a good employee?
“All things considered, yes, I was,” Slash says. “Although there was a ‘commission salesman’ mentality that was hard for me to understand. Like, ‘If you sell this, you’re going to get paid that percentage on it.’
“I remember one of the guys I worked with, his name was Phil, he was an older guy and he had been a commissioned salesman for Guitar Center. He came to the Hollywood Music Store and started working there, and he was great at it. He was from Texas and he had this kind of really cool demeanor – cowboy boots, plaid shirts, mustache…” Slash laughed. “He tried to show me the ropes. And I tried my best to do a good job.
During his days at the store, Slash recalled, “all these guys would come over while I was working, pick up guitars and play their latest Randy Rhoads stuff for two hours, just sitting on an amp. It was crazy. I was never that guy.
Despite regularly playing on some of the biggest stages in the world, and in front of tens of thousands of fans at a time, he says he “never liked playing in front of people in a store. So when I went to a store, I was always looking for something specific. Then I would tinker with it for a second and put it down, because I felt very embarrassed if someone else was there. I’m always like that.
And anyway, continues Slash: “I don’t buy guitars just to have guitars. It must be something that I will actually use. I have a few guitars that aren’t part of my regular stuff that you’re used to seeing me with, but I find they only interest me for a second, because they sound like “that”. Whatever they are, that’s what they look like. Which isn’t really what I’m looking for. I try to speak like me. So I end up not buying anything too crazy.
Of course, Slash is still, like all of us, a guitar lover. And that means that while he tends to be specific about what he’s looking for, he’s also likely to make purchases on a whim. “And that’s why guitar shops can be dangerous,” he says. “You look for one thing, then you see something else that you don’t necessarily need, but you feel you must have…and you end up buying it.”
During the pandemic, Slash walked into Norman’s to buy a few very special items, including a ’56 Les Paul Goldtop, Fender Deluxe amps and a mid-’60s six-string bass, “which is killer, and which I really needed,” he said.
For his visit today, Harris has set aside a few choice instruments, and so we head beyond the store’s showroom floor to a tight, narrow hallway at the back to check them out. . “We call this room our ‘secret hideout’,” says Norman. “It’s for the good friends of the store and people who know what it is.”
The first up? A 1963 Gibson J-45 that Norman describes as “pretty breathtaking”. The acoustic, he says, “has been sitting in my warehouse, where I have maybe a few hundred guitars, for probably 25 years. It’s barely been played, and it’s about the best example I’ve ever had. you’ll never have seen. Slash picks up the instrument, puts it on his lap, and strings together some bluesy single-note chords and lines before playing a series of arpeggios down his neck. A smile crosses his face.” See?” he said. “Dangerous.”
From there, Harris pulls out an immaculate 1923 Gibson F-5 Lloyd Loar, which he calls the “sunburst Les Paul of mandolins.”
“Some of them had a Virzi Tone Producer, which a lot of people didn’t like,” Harris says. “This is what they call a ‘pre-Virzi’. It is therefore the top of the range in terms of mandolins.
Finally, Harris looks at a row of black hardside suitcases piled on a high shelf and reaches out to pull out one in particular. “Since we’re talking about Gibson, this is a 50s L-4C,” he says, opening the case to reveal a gorgeous blonde archtop. “There are flat wounds on it and it is in near mint condition. It’s one of those guitars that almost feels like a time machine.
The blonde finish, Harris continues, is particularly chosen. “The problem with blonde guitars is that they had to use the best wood for them, because if there were any imperfections in the wood, it would show. Whereas if it was, say, a “a sunburst finish, they could just fade around it. And that’s why when guitars were priced, blondes were always more expensive. Because they couldn’t use imperfect wood.
Harris puts the L-4C back in its case and we return to the main showroom. But not before Slash comments, rather, uh, dangerously, “I might want to check that J-45 one more time…”
Since we’ve already killed most of an afternoon at Norman’s, it’s time to go. But not before making one more stop – the Les Pauls wall, of course. We each grab a Standard – Slash a rich Cherry Sunburst, ours plus a lemony hue – and spend a few minutes playing. Rest assured, no Randy Rhoads lick was attempted.
Then the guitars are put back on the wall and Slash packs up to leave. At the reception, however, there is something waiting for him – this 1963 Gibson J-45 from the “secret hiding place” room. Slash signs the bill, puts the acoustic back in its case, and heads for the door. He turns to give Harris a final wave, then heads out into the LA afternoon sun, his new mate Gibson at his side.
- 4 is now available through Gibson Records.