photographs by Kevin Scanlon except where noted
A couple years ago, I got a voicemail from a friend. “Kevin, Ryan here. Give me a call, I have a really, really interesting story for you.” A year later, I got to play a $2,410,000 guitar.
Ryan told me that his uncle, John McCaw, a construction contractor from San Diego, was at a guitar lesson and picked up a copy of Guitar Aficionado Magazine. The cover - an image I photographed at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles with Ryan as one of my photo assistants - was of Dhani Harrison, the son of Beatles’ guitarist George Harrison. Dhani appeared in the issue with many of his father’s famous guitars: the 1961 “Rocky” Fender Strat, the 1968 rosewood Fender Tele, and the 1962 Gibson J-160E acoustic - a guitar that matched another that John Lennon used until it mysteriously disappeared after a concert in London in December, 1963.
Dhani Harrison holding his father's Gibson J-160E.
McCaw opened the magazine and saw a photo of Harrison holding the J-160E and thought, “Huh, that looks a lot like my guitar,” as in, the very guitar he brought to the lesson. He read further. Harrison’s was made in 1962. “So was mine.” Harrison’s serial number was 73161. McCaw checked his serial number: 73157. Holy shit. What was he holding? What was this guitar that he bought from a friend in ’69 for $175? What was this guitar that he’s been strumming in his San Diego home for 40+ years? Could this actually be John Lennon’s long-lost acoustic??
John McCaw purchased this Gibson J-160E from a friend in 1969.
McCaw contacted experts who compared the wear marks and wood grain of his guitar to that of Lennon’s and sure enough, it was an exact match. Given the historic significance of the guitar - Lennon co-wrote songs like “I Saw Her Standing There,” “She Loves You,” and “All My Loving,” recorded songs like “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You,” and performed live with the guitar - McCaw knew he couldn’t keep it. He decided to put the guitar up for auction.
The back of McCaw's guitar reveals its serial number: 73157
A month before the auction, the guitar was on display at the Grammy Museum. I met McCaw there to photograph him with the J-160E for Guitar Aficionado. My friend, Ryan, was there, only not as my photo assistant, but as a co-executive producer of a yet-to-be-released documentary film about his uncle’s journey with the famous guitar. I snapped images of McCaw with it and shot details of the wear marks that helped identify it. Ryan held the guitar for a few shots too. After I photographed what I needed for the magazine, Ryan pulled me aside and asked, “Do you want to play it?” Holy heck, how could I say no?
John McCaw with his Gibson J-160E at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.
So I played “She Loves You.” I played “She Loves You” on a guitar that would soon be auctioned for $2.41m. I played “She Loves You” on the very guitar that John Lennon used to co-write so many Beatles hits. I played “She Loves You” on the very guitar that rang from the Beatles records my sister and I listened to when we were kids.
Throughout my 15+ year photography career, I've had the good fortune to work with many legendary musicians, and I've photographed some iconic guitars: the minty Fender Jaguar prototype (owned by former Fender CEO Larry Thomas), an 1867 Torres classical guitar, the Slingerland May-Bell that Les Paul learned how to play guitar on, Mike Campbell's c-1950 Fender Broadcaster that he used on many Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers recordings, and even Eddie Van Halen's red-, white-, and black-striped "Frankenstein." But the story of John Lennon's Gibson J-160E, the lost "Jumbo," is a story I'll be telling for the rest of my life.
Yours truly with the Gibson J-160E once owned by John McCaw and John Lennon. (photo by Karl Clinger)