Elvis Presley’s most well-known guitar, his Gibson Ebony Dove, which was a gift from his father Vernon Presley, will be sold at auction on January 7, 2016.
“The King” played the guitar in dozens, if not a hundred performances, including the “Aloha from Hawaii” concert, which was televised worldwide on January 14, 1973, and the documentary concert film “Elvis on Tour Carolina.”
“It carries with it so much weight because he played with it onstage probably more than any other guitar,” says Jeff Marren, consignment director at Graceland Auctions. “It’s his heaviest-used stage guitar. It has that great one-two punch: A significant item with rock solid provenance, which makes it a great auction item.”
The well documented story goes that Vernon Presley came into Guitar City, the store across the street from Graceland, wanting to buy a guitar for his son to commemorate his achieving a black belt in Karate. He selected the Gibson, a steel-string flattop acoustic with a solid spruce top, maple back and sides, and three-ply binding. The black pickguard has a white beveled edge and the adjustable rosewood saddle features mother-of-pearl dove-shaped emblems. The rosewood fretboard has rolled edges and split-parallelogram inlaid fret markers.
But Vernon Presley wanted more and requested a list of customizations, including the custom inlaid fretboard, which reads “Elvis Presley,” a custom jet black finish, done at Guitar City, and a decal from the Kenpo Karate Association of America, which was founded by Ed Parker, Elvis' bodyguard and Karate instructor. Based on the serial number: 539461, the guitar was built near the end of 1969.
The fretboard inlays were done by guitar craftsman Randy Wood at Gruhn Guitars of Nashville. An Elvis Presley Payroll & Expense Fund check, cataloged in the Graceland Archives and dated September 9, 1971, is made out to Mike Ladd’s Guitar City and is signed by Vernon Presley. The memo field reads “Gibson Dove.”
“Elvis played it for dozens if not a hundred shows between then and 1975,” Marren says. “It gets put away for a while in ‘74/’75, and then he famously throws another guitar into the crowd in mid ‘75. And because of that, he pulls out the Ebony Dove again.”
During a show in July of ‘75 in Asheville, NC, during the first song, Elvis walked over to the front row and handed the Ebony Dove to a man in the front row.
“We have photos of the guy holding it later in the show,” Marren says. “He looks terrified! Later in the show, Elvis walks over to the guy, who thinks he’s going to have to give the guitar back. Elvis leans down and says: ‘That’s yours. I gave you that guitar for a reason. Maybe it will help you out someday.'” Since then the guitar has been stored in a bank vault and shown just a few times at family events.
Marren says the guitar was played a lot and has some distinctive scratching on the back. “We assume it’s from Elvis’ outfits, with the rhinestones and metal that would have been on his belt,” Marren says.
There are very few instruments that can be associated with Elvis Presley on such a consistent basis, Marren explains, and this one will be accompanied by a letter of authenticity from Graceland Authenticated. Prior to the auction, the value of the guitar was estimated at between $300,000 and $500,000.
“For as much as he was a public figure, there’s a weird idiosyncrasy to his life in the ‘70s,” Marren says. “There wasn’t a ton of film or photography done at a professional level. There are a lot of things he may have used or touched, but there is very little record of it. This is such a well-known guitar, and it’s in private hands. The vast majority of what he owned is in Graceland and it’s never going to see private hands.”