The Le Domino guitar used by Elliott Smith while writing and recording his first solo album, 1994's Roman Candle, was bought last Thursday by a Seattle collector for $35,000.
The seller, JJ Gonson, a former housemate of Smith's currently residing in Boston, had bought the guitar from SE Portland's Artichoke Community Music in the early 1990s. At that time still a member of Heatmiser, Smith borrowed the guitar—small enough it's almost a novelty instrument—to experiment with the lo-fi recording process that created the distinctive sound of his debut record, which became enormously influential to a generation of singer-songwriters.
"Using this guitar and one microphone and a four track, he defined lo-fi do-it-yourself recordings," said Portlander Nathan Fasold, who brokered the sale. "It's a very peculiar instrument: vintage, with a domino motif around the sound hole and fret board."
Fasold says it's the first he's heard of any memorabilia belonging to Elliott Smith—who died 12 years ago yesterday—being sold.
The sale will occasion a brief a homecoming for the guitar in Portland. Fasold, owner of North Mississippi Avenue's Black Book Guitars, will display the Le Domino guitar to the public at his shop from October 22-24 and October 29-31, before delivering the instrument to its new owners in Seattle.
Fasold received a call from Gonson two months ago inquiring about his brokering services. "She was very emotional," Fasold says. "You can imagine the attachment she would have to this guitar. It's almost like selling the house that you've lived in all your life. It's a big deal. That's why I flew to Boston and hand-delivered the guitar back to the Northwest. I actually had to buy a separate plane ticket to have the guitar on the seat next to me."
Gonson had reclaimed the instrument from Smith after his first solo tour. "I mostly took it back so it wouldn't be destroyed," she writes in her note of authenticity.
"Afterwards, she wanted it to all stay together," says Fasold. "It still has the changed strings, the working lyric sheets, the pick-up for performing live, and it was kept in the case and stored."
The lyric sheets were withdrawn from the sale, but photocopies will be on display alongside the guitar at Black Book during the last two weekends of October, as a temporary part of the store's NW Showcase. The permanent showcase also features guitars from Mudhoney, Billy Rancher, the Dandy Warhols and Kurt Cobain (authenticated by Nirvana guitar tech Earnie Bailey with an estimated value between $60,000 and $100,000).
The typed and handwritten lyrics include songs from Heatmiser ("Collect To NYC", Bastard John") and an early version of the autobiographical "Some Song," later released as a "Needle In The Hay" b-side. "That's what makes this guitar special," Fasold says. "It really bridges the gap between Elliott Smith playing in a '90s alternative boy-band with loud guitars and the soft-spoken voice that we all know and love."
From the letter of authenticity: "I bought it because it was enchanting. Elliot loved its sound. It's strung wrong, with steel strings instead of gut. It is a darling instrument. It was in much better shape before Elliot recorded and toured with it. I mostly took it back so it wouldn't be destroyed. But it did not really get touched much after, so the bits [of paper] he stuck in the strings to stop them from buzzing are still there. Elliot loved the funny little guitar, as do I. XO"
GO: Elliott Smith's Le Domino guitar will be on display at Black Book Guitars, 3624 N Mississippi Ave., 236-2274, blackbookguitars.com on Thursday-Saturday, Oct 22-24 and Oct. 29-31.