By: Rick Landers
In this second part of our interview with The Burst Brothers, Dave Belzer and Drew Berlin talk about Julien’s Les Paul Legacy Auction and its support of the Les Paul Foundation, their relationship with Les Paul, their favorite guitars and the recovery of Tom Petty’s stolen gear.
Rick Landers: What’s your role in the Julien’s auction for Les Paul’s gear and some of his other items?
Dave Belzer: Back in the summer we were contacted. Julien’s got the rights to the auction and we were contacted by Laura Wooley. She’s running the auction. She had contacted us. She’s very good in the auction business. She knows her stuff, but guitars were a new thing to her. Someone had recommended us to her and she contacted us. We were just thrilled to be able to do this. Les means a lot to both of us.
Rick: Had you met Les Paul before?
Dave Belzer: I had back in ’89 in Guitar Center and actually was lucky enough to spend with Dave Weiderman about 45 minutes in Dave’s office talking to Les and his son, Rusty, put the whole thing on videotape.
We’re still looking for that tape. It was quite an experience. He was very friendly and open, just answered any questions I had. I had seen him a couple of times at the Iridium. Drew’s known him for awhile.
Drew Berlin: Yeah, since the ‘70s.
Rick: What do you think of him as, not so much a guitar player, because we can all go back and look at YouTube, but as a person? I found that he had a pretty cool sense of humor for someone who was 90 years old when I met him.
Drew Berlin: I thought he was a wonderful person. I was fortunate enough to get close enough to him to where he was like an uncle and he was extremely witty and funny. He was always cracking up or always busting on you. Very sharp, very witty, a very good guy. He would always share. He liked to talk and tell stories. Extremely interesting.
For anyone who is or has been a guitar player, I think they can all relate to Les. Les was kind of like the spokesperson and related to everybody musically through gear, and of course, let’s not forget probably the best thing he did to our culture was invent the multi-track recording. As great a guitar player as he was and in putting the Les Paul together, I think multi-track recording certainly changed the world in a big way.
Rick: When I interviewed him last, we talked about life and death, and when he was talking about death, I must have been smiling or something because he stopped and looked at me and said, “It’s not funny,” but he was actually trying to be funny with me. I was a little embarrassed.
Drew Berlin: I think he always had that sense of humor. It seems like he always had fun with whatever he did. He just enjoyed life, enjoyed people, really enjoyed music. He was really into talking about music and guitars and just an inspirational person who’s affected the lives of so many people in a positive way.
We think that through this auction and through the Les Paul Foundation that it’s gonna do a lot for kids for years to come with music in school, musical instruments for the school systems, which is what the proceeds of this auction are gonna go to, the Les Paul Foundation. He’s still doing great things even though he’s not here.
Les’s legacy will hopefully be remembered by everybody. He is someone that was a cutting edge person, way ahead of his time in his inventions, his passion, his drive for music and creating better tools for musicians. We feel very strongly about Les and what he’s done. The people at Julien’s are doing a great job with this auction, making sure that everything is represented correctly. I think it’s gonna be a big event where most people that are interested in music and guitars are all gonna want a little part of Les Paul, and there are enough pieces to go around.
Rick: I was a little surprised to see a couple of his passports are for sale. What are some of the more unique items on the list that you’re aware of? I don’t think I’ve seen the whole list.
Dave Belzer: They haven’t put out the whole list yet. As far as the highlights, obviously the ’50 Nocaster is the highlight, a Leo guitar. There’s a late ‘50s Les Paul Custom that Gibson did for Les. I believe he had four Les Paul Customs done in the ‘50s for him with flat tops, Bigsbys, flat tops on them. One of the white ones is in the auction.
Drew Berlin: There’s a miniature Les Paul Goldtop that’s unique, beautiful and in excellent condition.
Dave Belzer: Little mini Goldtop with a single P-90 in it, even smaller than a ¾ guitar.
Rick: I’ve never seen one of those before. I think he’s got a ’52 prototype, right?
Dave Belzer: There’s one ’52 Les Paul in there with changed tuners. Not particularly a prototype, but just a ’52 Les Paul.
Drew Berlin: Some of the more interesting pieces in the auction are one of the clunkers, an experimental guitar that he made changes through developing his Les Paul guitar using this clunker through pickup systems and electronic systems. There are a lot of guitars that were works in progress, where they were constantly being changed, upgraded and made better.
I think people are gonna find those really interesting to see guitars that Les was working on, using to improve and refine what he was doing. You can see a lot of his electronics and pickup systems in a lot of the guitars in the auction.
Rick: Are you anticipating any really high dollar bids like you had for Blackie and the others?
Drew: The early L-5s that he used as Rhubarb Red, I think, are gonna be big. As Dave said, the Nocaster is a piece that a lot of people are interested in because it did come from Leo and Leo signed it. That ties in Les with Leo. There are a lot of guitars that Gibson made for him that were award guitars that are significant and a lot of guitars that he used a lot.
I’m not sure if anything’s gonna reach the million dollar point, but I’m sure there are gonna be a lot of people that are gonna want a lot of Les’ guitars, recording gear and personal effects and so on. To what degree dollar-wise, I’m not sure, but I have a feeling there are gonna be a lot of people wanting something of Les’ for them to hold onto.
Rick: Are there any guitars that you bought over the years that you wish you’d kept for yourselves?
Drew: All of them.
Dave: Yeah, of course. Yeah, there’s a ’59 Les Paul that I sold many years ago, and even though I have other ones I’ve acquired over the years, I’m still looking to get that one back. It kind of stays with you (All laugh).
Rick: Was that in the States or was that in England?
Dave: No, it’s in the States somewhere. I’m still trying to pinpoint it (Laughing), but it is in the States, yeah.
Rick: Do you think Tom Petty will ever get his guitars back?
Drew Berlin: He got them back yesterday. All the guitars have been returned.
Rick: How did that happen? Do you know?
Drew Berlin: Thanks to Howie Hubberman who has a pawn shop. Howie was actually the guy who sold Tom the Rickenbacker in the first place. Someone came in with the guitars and Howie was able to get all the guitars back. They’re back with Tom. Happy ending to an unfortunate story.
Rick: That’s great, so he got all of them back?
Drew Berlin: Yes.
Rick: And the Rickenbacker. Wow, that’s pretty amazing.
Dave Belzer: Yeah, only in L.A. will somebody steal something from one Guitar Center and they’ll try to go to another one to sell it (Laughs).
Rick: Clever, clever.
Dave Belzer: That’s what will happen in L.A.
Rick: Well, it’s working in Tom Petty’s favor, and all of us, I guess. Do you guys have a dream guitar other than like a ’58 or ’59 Les Paul, or is that it?
Drew Berlin: I think the passion for those particular guitars is what brought Dave and I together as the Burst Brothers, but I think we both appreciate pre-war Martins. We both appreciate D’Angelicos and D’Aquistos and some of the finer guitars that were made. Even though we generally play Les Pauls, and I’ve been playing Les Pauls since 1970, but we do appreciate a lot of other guitars. We’ve been very fortunate to handle, buy, sell and look at a lot of guitars. I think we appreciate all of them.
There are so many great guitars through all the manufacturers. The guys in my band say if I’m cut, I bleed Les Paul, but I certainly love and appreciate all the other guitars as well.
Dave Belzer: With that question you can just ask my wife, because an Esquire just entered the house the other day.
Rick: Oh, really?
Dave Belzer: But you know, what Drew said is so on. I think for us because we have seen so many guitars and had so many guitars come through our hands, I think now for us it’s more finding that Strat or Tele that stands out. If you took 10 ’53 Telecasters and put them all next to each other, probably 1 or 2 of them are gonna stand out above the others. To me, those are the guitars that I’m always looking for. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a Les Paul. It could be an Esquire, a Tele, a Strat, but it’s gonna be something old and hopefully something very light and resonant and it just speaks to you. You don’t want to put it down. That’s the guitar we look for.
Rick: When you’re talking about the guitar that you would select, it’s more than just the look, because all the ’53s, ‘54s look pretty much the same, but the sound…
Dave Belzer: Yes, and I think one thing that separated Drew and I to some extent, at least in the situation we were in in the retail environment and the company we were working for is that when we went to a show or bought a guitar, we’re players. We play. We love them. We picked up every guitar and played it, and if it wasn’t a good guitar, if it didn’t say something to you or it just wasn’t a really good guitar, we’d probably pass on it and go find the right guitar. When you have that really special one, it’s so easy to sell. You just put it in the right guy’s hands. Am I right, Drew?
Drew Berlin: Yeah, one of the things I believe that contributed to our success as guitar brokers is we did know guitars very well, we play guitar, we own a lot of guitars and we know good guitars. People rely on us to find them good guitars. A lot of pro guitar players and collectors and producers and other people…we have a sense of finding guitars that not only are correct with the right appointments original from the factory, but ones that are particularly good ones. We have an eye and ear for spotting those. A lot of our success, I think, has been because of that.
Dave Belzer: Sometimes they don’t always have to be 100% correct. They may be a really special guitar, and it could be an acoustic that has a couple of cracks in it. Some of the best sounding acoustics we’ve bought, you would look at them and probably just walk the other way, but if you’d strum the guitar, whoa.
Drew Berlin: We wouldn’t pass on a guitar if it had a crack in it if it sounded and played great. We would take that into consideration. Some of the beater guitars that we’ve bought through the years were some of the greatest guitars. In that process, being able to buy and sell so many guitars and handle so many guitars has made us very fortunate. We’ve had a lot of the greats go through our hands through the years.
Rick: I’ve got about 12 guitars including a ’52 Les Paul and a bunch of others, but the guitar I pick up almost all the time is a ’66 Tele. Do you have a guitar that you always kind of go to at home?
Drew Berlin: For me I guess it would be my ’56 Les Paul Custom that I bought in 1970, used all over the world and still have. Dave and I were fortunate enough to have our own guitar line of guitars, Burst Brothers guitars, with Gibson Custom Shop. Those have become guitars for me that because we actually designed the feel of the neck and the look and everything. I use my old Les Pauls and my old vintage stuff and I also go to the new Les Pauls that the Burst Brothers [models that feel great to me. Kind of a little of both.
Dave Belzer: Kind of the same. I’ve been playing the Burst Brothers model a bit. I have a ’58 Strat Hardtail that’s a refinished Tom Murphy body. I’ve had that guitar for 20-something years. It’s not a very expensive guitar, but it’s one I can pick up any time and it always feels good. The band I’m playing with now, my wife is the lead singer, so I have to play a Les Paul. If I put any other guitar on and start playing it in the band, she goes, “What’s that? Put the Les Paul back on.” I tend to go back to that Les Paul.
Rick: Anything else you’d like to talk about as far as the auction?
Dave Belzer: Do you have all the times of the exhibits and dates of the auction?
Rick: I’ve got that link that’s on your website. Does it have that?
Dave Belzer: It should go right to Julien’s. Or just do www.juliensauctions.com, or I can get the link over to you. The auctions are on June 8th and 9th in Beverly Hills.
Drew Berlin: I think you probably want to let your readers know that at this auction there are going to be a lot of less expensive items that people will be able to buy, purchase and own that were Les’ that were used. Everything in the auction came out of Les’ personal house that he collected over a period of years. A lot of them have handwritten notes that Les did describing this guitar. It might need a pot or the fret might need an adjustment. There are a lot of things that aren’t the really high-end things that people can also look forward to being able to bid on and purchase at a really fair price. There are a lot of items. I would encourage everybody to try and get something of Les’ if they were really influenced by Les.
Dave Belzer: There are close to 300 guitars. They range from Korean prototype Les Pauls all the way to his 1950 Les Paul Flat Top. Like Drew said, there is something for everyone there.
Rick: How will people bid? You don’t have to be there in person, right?
Dave Belzer: No, you can bid online, by phone. I’m sure there’s even a write-in.
Dave Belzer: We’re gonna have Les Paul’s tubes, his picks, microphones. It’s pretty much everything. We spent quite a number of days in the house. This is stuff that is legitimately right out of Les’ house. Like Drew said, right out of his bedroom. All these guitars were lined around his bedroom.
Rick: A friend of mine is a photographer up there in New York.He was at Les’ house and he said, “There’s all this stuff.” He said it’s like everywhere. .
Dave Belzer: Les didn’t throw anything out, ever (All laugh).
Rick: That’s good for everybody, I guess.
Dave Belzer: Yeah, it’s good for everyone.
Rick: Are you guys gonna be bidding at all or are you not gonna be involved in that?
Dave Belzer: You know, there are a couple of things I know I’m interested in so I’m sure I’ll be throwing some bids in there. I’m sure.
Drew Berlin: One thing we want to remind you of is that all the proceeds do go to the Les Paul Foundation, so it’s all going to a great cause. It’s gonna generate musical instruments for the school system for kids to play. It’s a worthy cause and Julien’s is really a first-class auction house. It’s gonna be quite an event whether you’re there in person or bidding by phone or the Internet, I think it’s a good cause and great, great stuff. Like Dave was saying, you can buy a pick, microphone or tube. There are a lot of opportunities for great stuff. It’s not just for the high-end collector.
Rick: Passing the money to the Foundation is a wonderful legacy for Les, above and beyond what he’s done in his whole life I think.
Drew Berlin: This is what he wanted and this is what’s going to be. We hope his legacy lives on forever, and I’m sure it will.