Guitars these days are almost as famous as the people that play them. The bright red Gibson SG Angus Young used to bring “Back in Black” into the world, the golden Les Paul with the odd wiring that everyone from Pete Green to Gary Moore has made their mark with, even the dragon-emblazoned Fender Telecaster Jimmy Page used to create the infamous solo from “Stairway to Heaven” are all the stuff of legend. These instruments have come to represent the music they helped create and are a defining aspect of a guitarist’s personal brand: they’re as integral as the music itself.
Even amongst these famous instruments, few are as recognizable or revered as David Gilmour of Pink Floyd’s all-black Fender Stratocaster. With him since 1970, the Black Strat is the stuff of legend, responsible for some of the most incredible sounds and pieces of music ever created. An instrument of such cultural value and filled with so much personal sentiment if fundamentally priceless, the sort of thing you’d never part with.
It’s quite the surprise, then, that Gilmour is putting the guitar up for auction in support of his charitable foundation.
The hallowed instrument is one of well over a hundred guitars that Gilmour is auctioning off. It’s an astonishing move: I can’t think of another instance where so many priceless instruments were sold off at once, certainly not from the collection of a single musician. While Gilmour certainly seems to have a sentimental attachment to these instruments, he does seem pretty ready to let them go. With so much musical history going up for sale, now feels like a good time to look back on Gilmour’s immense musical history, through the lens of the guitars that make it happen.
First, let’s look at the Black Strat itself. Gilmour bought this in 1970 from Manny’s music store in New York. Actually, it’s the second black Stratocaster he bought there: Pink Floyd went in a few weeks earlier to buy gear for their first US Tour, but a lot of it (guitar included) was stolen and the tour cancelled. The second guitar, bought just before returning home, is the one with which Gilmour made a name for himself. This guitar is the centrepiece of some of Pink Floyd’s finest recordings. The otherworldly wailing on their 23-minute epic “Echoes” was achieved with the Black Strat, as can be seen on Live At Pompeii, a 1971 live film that saw the band performing to an audience of noone inside an ancient amphitheatre in the famous city. A year later, the guitar would be used on Dark Side of the Moon, the album that turned Pink Floyd into legends almost overnight. Gilmour’s intro and guitar solo on “Time” are still some of the most extraordinary sounds to ever come out of a guitar, as are the swirling, almost Hendrix-esque tones of “Any Colour You Like.”
The Black Strat would follow Gilmour through Pink Floyd’s finest hours, as well as his solo career. The infamous four-note riff and intro solo to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” spilled out of it during a recording session at Abbey Road. The solo for “Comfortably Numb,” perhaps the most recognizable sound in rock history, is defined by that guitar as much as by Gilmour himself. In the past decade his two solo albums, 2006’s On An Island and 2015’s Rattle That Lock have the Black Strat sound all over them.
But in the mid 80s right through to the mid 2000s, Gilmour stopped using the guitar, partly for fear of such a valuable instrument getting damaged on tour. In its place, he bought some candy apple red Stratocasters (also up for auction), fitted with electromagnetic active pickups that gave him a whole new sound. This sound would push Pink Floyd in a new direction for this third incarnation of the band, led by Gilmour after the absence of Roger Waters. While a huge range of guitars were used in the studio, Pink Floyd’s live performances from this era are what define them. The 1995 live film PULSE is a great testament to Gilmour’s sound of the time: the clean, crisp ambience of “Coming Back to Life,” the guttural, subterranean howl of “Sorrow” and the throaty, bluesy charms of “What Do You Want From Me” are all definitive performances from a guitarist truly in their prime, exploring everything that they can achieve.
Also up for sale are instruments that, while not as prolific as the Black Strat or its red counterparts, have made a huge impact on Gilmour’s career. The serial number 0001 Stratocaster, one of the first ever made by Fender, is up for sale: the disco-influenced rhythm guitars for “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” were achieved on this guitar. The Gibson Les Paul with which he recorded the solo is also up for sale: it stands out amongst Les Pauls for its use of single coil pickups as opposed to larger humbuckers (which produces a softer sound) and the fact that it has a tremolo arm, an addition rarely seen on Gibson guitars. The 12-string Martin acoustic guitar, from which the hauntingly beautiful chords for “Wish You Were Here” came, is also in the auction.
These guitars have made history. In some ways, they’re as responsible for that history as Gilmour himself. I still can’t quite believe he’s willing to give them up, even if he is holding on to a precious few (an old Fender Esquire, with which he recorded the manic, delay-soaked cries of “Run Like Hell,” was deemed too precious to be gotten rid of). However, the Black Strat got a fitting end; in 2016, the final dates of Gilmour’s Rattle That Lock Tour took place in the very same Pompeii ampitheatre where Pink Floyd filmed their first live film. Gilmour’s playing and sound were on fine form and the renditions of some of Pink Floyd’s greatest hits were as good as they’ve ever been. As far as fond farewells go, Gilmour made sure the Black Strat went out with a bang. But given that the man is selling over 120 guitars, and will still have 20 or so to play with, he’s clearly willing to try out new things. One thing’s for sure, though: Gilmour has made it clear that he isn’t retiring. Whatever he decides to do next, I’ll bet it sounds completely different to anything that’s come before.