As a professional session musician of almost 60 years, Ray Russell has many guitars in his collection. But few are as treasured as a rare instrument gifted to him by none other than the Beatles’ George Harrison. Little did Russell know, though, that the six-string had a heartstopping price tag attached to it.
The historic Battle Abbey in the English county of East Sussex is not a place you’d normally necessarily associate with music. Besides the chanting monks who first occupied the site millennia ago, this landmark has seldom been troubled by balladeers or raconteurs. But in 2020, a musician graced the abbey with melodies of an intriguing variety.
In spring, the crew of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow descended on the abbey to film an installment of the series. Among the locals who turned up in the hope of having their valuables appraised was Russell, whose friend had pushed him to visit the set. What did he want the experts to look out? Well, he had brought with him one of his most prized possessions: a special custom-made guitar.
Now Russell was no stranger to music history. Since the age of 15, the virtuoso had been playing guitar professionally and worked with recording legends such as Van Morrison and Tina Turner along the way. But the story that came with the guitar was truly special. As Russell explained, none other than George Harrison had given him the instrument.
Of course, George Harrison is a musician who needs no introduction. As a member of the Beatles, the Liverpool-born legend helped change the course of music forever. And as a guitarist, his use of arpeggios, elegant slide playing and fluid soloing left a mark on later guitarists. In 2015, Rolling Stone even ranked him the 11th-greatest axe player of all time.
Throughout his career as a Beatle and a solo artist, Harrison came to be associated mainly with Rickenbacker 360/12s and Fender Stratocasters. But the musician had a wide array of unique and unusual axes in his collection as well. And it was one of these pieces that Russell had brought along to the abbey that day.
At first glance, it was clear even to non-musicians that this guitar was one-of-a-kind. On most six-strings, a series of frets run up and down the neck that enable fingers to shape notes. But this example had a completely bare fretboard, which allowed players to explore exciting new possibilities.
In the gardens of the abbey, Russell gave a quick demonstration of the guitar’s idiosyncrasies. He began by playing a descending note on the fret, one that sounded like the glissando produced by a slide. Then, the musician showed off the psychedelic potential that this unique sound had by playing a bluesy riff similar to that of the Beatles’ “Come Together.”
Just as interesting as the instrument’s sound was its manufacturing history. Originating in the mid-1960s, the guitar was produced by Bartell, a short-lived company founded by Paul Barth and Ted Peckels. In the five years that it was active, the company made as many as 2000 six-strings – some of which can be seen played today by musicians such as John Frusciante.
Even though they only had a small company, the duo still got the attention of some of the era’s top players. Among their admirers were Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, who were both given their own funky fretless guitars. But first on the list was Harrison, who snapped up the premier copy in 1967.
When the axe traded hands, Bartell ran an ad in the Los Angeles Free Press newspaper enthusiastically announcing the name of its new owner. Yet for months the guitar went unused by Harrison, who was puzzled by its design. It left his bandmates stumped too. During a 1968 interview with radio presenter Kenny Everett, John Lennon described it as a “mad guitar.”
But the instrument would eventually get its day when the band recorded “Happiness is a Warm Gun” in 1968. Craving a suitably psychedelic sound, Harrison and Lennon dug out the guitar to add woozy slides to this trippy classic. Scholars at the Leeds Beckett University and the University of Kent have speculated the Bartell was used on “Helter Skelter” and “Savoy Truffle” as well.
In the end, though, the fretless guitar’s stint with the Beatles would be short lived. After countless years of infighting and creative differences, the band that defined pop music split up in 1970. Now free to work on his own material, Harrison packed up all his equipment – including the Bartell – and made the first steps towards a solo career.
The decade that followed did truly see Harrison flourish professionally. Just months after the Beatles’ split, the musician released his debut album All Things Must Pass to critical acclaim. Soon afterwards, he made music history by organizing two landmark charity gigs to give aid to refugees from Bangladesh.
By the end of the decade, Harrison was spent with music. Finding himself drawn more towards movies than melodies, the guitarist founded his own production company, HandMade Films, in 1978. And it was here that Russell came into the picture: looking for a gig, the session guitarist began working with Harrison on his films’ soundtracks.
It was while scoring the film Water in 1984 that Russell first came across the Bartell. As the session came to a close, Harrison dug out the fretless oddity and presented it to his fellow guitarist. “George said, ‘I’m not sure what to do with this,’” Russell recalled on the program, “‘but you have a go.’”
So Russell took the instrument from Harrison’s hands, plugged it in and played a few bars. Watching from the sidelines, the former-Beatle was impressed with the sound his friend was managing to pull from the guitar. What’s more, Harrison realized that Russell – in the few seconds he spent with the Bartell – had achieved a level of mastery over the instrument that had alluded him for 20 years.
From the grounds of Battle Abbey, Russell remembered the moment when Harrison found the Bartell’s new owner. “He said, ‘Yeah, you’re definitely getting more out of it than I am,’” the musician recalled. “‘It’s doing better for you, why don’t you have it?’” And just like that, Russell had a special new guitar to add to his collection.
As the years went on, both Harrison and Russell continued down their own musical paths. After a return to music in 1987, Harrison formed the Traveling Wilburys with fellow icons Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. For his part, Russell would pursue his own solo career with a series of respected jazz rock albums.
And for all that time, the Bartell remained a treasured part of Russell’s collection. But despite the six-string’s obvious worth to collectors, the guitarist kept the instrument out of a sentimental connection – one that would have likely grown larger after Harrison’s death in 2001. “I never really thought about value as George being a mate and all that,” Russell admitted.
Even then, there was the condition of the instrument itself to think about. Due to its strange design, Russell considered the Bartell “not the greatest of rock and roll,” guitars and something that would be of more interest to diehard slide players. But on this point, the show’s expert Jon Baddeley begged to differ.
With 20 years’ worth of experience on Antiques Roadshow, Baddeley was quick to put a stop to Russell’s modesty. First judging the Bartell’s worth as an instrument alone, the expert reminded the musician that it was a “very rare” model. But then there was also the added fact that its former owner was a member of the Beatles.
Certainly, Fab Four memorabilia has always managed to fetch a high price at auction. For example, the first pressing of 1968’s self-titled “White Album” has always been a Holy Grail for Beatles collectors. When it was finally discovered among Ringo Starr’s possessions, the copy became the most expensive record ever sold when it was auctioned off for $790,000 in 2015.
If that seems like a fortune, then just wait until you hear what instruments handled by the Beatles have earned. In 2006, the guitar that Paul McCartney learned to play on sold for a whopping $614,000. Nine years later, that figure was blown away when an acoustic guitar originally belonging to Lennon made a historic $2.4 million at auction.
That’s all well and good, but how much have Harrison’s guitars managed to raise at auction? Well, many of the Quiet Beatle’s most iconic six-strings have sold for big bucks, including a Gibson SG for $567,000 in 2004 and a Rickenbacker 425 for $610,000 in 2014. So what about an instrument as unique as the Bartell?
Considering that few photos or film have been taken of Harrison with the fretless guitar, it has a lower profile than these more famous examples. But given the Bartell’s rarity and its place in pop history, there was no denying its value. Even so, it floored Russell to find out what it was worth.
After deliberating on the six-string’s merit throughout his chat with Russell, Baddeley finally gave his estimation. “I would suggest,” the expert began, “that at auction, I wouldn’t be surprised if it made between…” As Baddeley paused to make a final assessment, the tension in the abbey was palpable. But it was soon broken when the antiques appraiser gave his stamp of approval, “£300,000 and £400,000 (about $420,000-560,000).”
Just as quickly as Baddeley made his valuation, the crowd watching breathed out a collective sigh of surprise. Russell too – sideswiped by the realization of his $560,000 goldmine – looked completely shocked. Yet the musician’s astonishment soon gave way to a huge grin as he showed his thanks to the antiques expert, saying, “Would you like a drink?”
For all Russell’s gratitude, Baddeley reminded him that this was all thanks to the musician’s own good fortune. “It’s a good thing you were there on the day, in the recording session and [Harrison] gave it to you,” the expert opined. And with that, he asked the guitarist to play the segment out on the newly valuated instrument.
But this wouldn’t be Russell’s final appearance on British television. Shortly before his Antiques Roadshow episode aired, the musician received an invitation to come on the The One Show. Weirdly enough, his appearance coincided with what would have been Harrison’s 77th birthday and Russell gladly played “Happy Birthday” on the Bartell in the icon’s honor.
As for the Bartell itself, the instrument received amazed reactions from the show’s fellow guests. Sitting next to Russell on the sofa, Antiques Roadshow host Fiona Bruce revealed how she and her team “couldn’t believe” how unique the guitar was when it first came to them. Meanwhile, rock legend Jon Bon Jovi was both awed and intimated by it.
Asked if he wanted to have a play of the instrument himself, the singer jokingly declined. “I’m afraid of it,” Bon Jovi deadpanned to Russell and the audience’s delight. Clearly, the guitar would be just as big of a hit at auction houses as it was at television studios. So given the Bartell’s worth and reputation, what exactly was Russell’s next move?
In spite of the fortune that he would likely reap, the session musician was hesitant about selling the instrument on. First and foremost, there was the bond that the guitarist had made with the six-string over 35 years of ownership. Plus it served as a memento of his dear departed friend.
“I don’t know,” Russell replied when quizzed about the guitar’s auction future. “It’s very difficult, emotional value and all.” That being said, the musician admitted that the fretless guitar’s recent valuation had definitely changed his relationship with it. “When things get expensive, you can’t leave them at home,” Russell stated.
It wasn’t just Russell who had an interest in the guitar. According to the Liverpool Echo, fans of the Beatles had proposed that the session player give the guitar away to a museum so that others could enjoy it too. And on this point, Russell had to agree that eventually all things must pass.
Speaking to the newspaper, the guitarist elaborated on his decision to give the Bartell away. “When I realized how much it was, I knew I had to let it go and for it to become property of the people,” Russell stated. But rather than donate the unique instrument, the musician decided to hazard an auction.
In October, Russell approached the auction house Bonhams Entertainment Memorabilia Sale with his beloved Bartell. Of course, the organization was overjoyed to take the piece from the session musician’s collection. And later that month, it was put up for sale alongside another odd-looking guitar previously played by Joy Division’s Ian Curtis.
For Bonhams, receiving such an iconic instrument was beyond an honor. “It is a privilege to offer two guitars owned by two much-loved British musical heroes,” head of memorabilia Claire Tole-Moir said to Northern Life. But despite being “an important part of British musical history,” the fretless six-string didn’t quite meet its initial estimation.
In the end, the Bartell sold to an unnamed bidder for $324,500 – nearly half the amount of Baddeley’s maximum appraisal. Still, if Russell seemed disappointed by the sale, he certainly didn’t show it. On the contrary, the musician expressed excitement about traveling to a far-off country to meet the mysterious bidder in person – provided they lived outside of England, of course.
If one thing’s for certain, though, it’s that the Bartell’s new owner will treat it with the reverence it deserves. As a part of Harrison’s collection, the guitar helped create some of the most famous sounds of pop music. But for Russell, it will always be a reminder of the generosity of an icon many knew as the Quiet Beatle, but he knew as George.