The Devil, the Burst, and the Death Dream: Exploring 3 Mysteries in Guitar Culture

In the age of the internet and, certainly, even long before it, questionable anecdotes about popular figures have been getting passed around and mangled habitually in a bad game of cultural telephone. For as many urban legends that start from a kernel of truth or even a half-truth, some of the best myths in our collective hive mind have sprung from—well, total bullshit.

That doesn't mean they can't be fun to re-tell, or that it isn't useful to try and figure out what the actual truth is.

Over the years, a number of out-of-this-world urban legends have sprung up in guitar culture, centered around some of the biggest musical figures of our time. For every plausible myth that makes the rounds, there are even more that are so obviously questionable that it is truly mind-blowing that people don't just roll their eyes in disbelief when reading them.

With that in mind, we've decided to take on three of the biggest and most perplexing urban legends in the guitar world, focusing our efforts on the blues. If you are a fan of Robert Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Satan, or reclusive billionaire Les Paul collectors, you'll want to give this piece a read.

Robert Johnson Sold His Soul to the Devil

Any "rock 'n' roller" or blues player worth their salt knows the legend of Robert Johnson and the crossroads.

It's been the inspiration for countless pieces of timeless art and media—and it's been told in more ways than your dad's favorite campfire story. For the uninitiated, however, the myth goes as follows:

Robert Johnson, a painfully shy aspiring bluesman, went from menacing the Mississippi Delta with mediocre blues-ing to being the best picker and singer in the country, after skipping town for a short period of time. Fellow players were stunned at the transformation and swore there could be only one reasonable explanation: Robert Johnson must have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Robert Johnson

While in our more modern world, this kind of tall tale may get you laughed out of the room or checked into a mental hospital—back in the early to mid-20th century, it was an effective marketing tactic for an aspiring blues man of mystery.

For one, religiosity and fear of the devil was high in 1930s America and the blues was considered the "Devil's music." With that in mind, it would only make sense that the truly talented of the time sold their souls to the devil to obtain such skills—as opposed to putting in the effort and hours of practice needed to get better.

According to history, Robert Johnson was not alone on the crossroads when he looked to sell his soul—and if the legend were true, he wouldn't have been the first to do so.

The crossroads myth as a marketing tactic in music and the blues took its roots from another Johnson of no relation, bluesman Tommy Johnson, who was famously depicted in 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou? by blues musician Chris Thomas King. A number of people were unaware of the existence of Tommy Johnson and thought this character was based entirely on Robert Johnson because of his overwhelming association with the crossroads story.

To be fair, this mistake is forgivable. In popular culture, Robert Johnson is considered the forefather of the crossroads myth and it is mostly rightfully so that he is. He absolutely intentionally helped perpetuate it more than any other blues musician, with songs like "Crossroads Blues" and "Me and The Devil Blues," and by even telling fellow musicians that that's how he improved so dramatically.

Over the years, that tall tale spread farther and wider than any real truth about him—but this is as much a result of the lack of actual credible documented information about Robert Johnson as it is the power of the crossroads myth.

Robert Johnson

In many ways, Robert Johnson himself is more of a myth than man at this point. Even Robert "Mack" McCormick—the foremost researcher on Johnson's life—essentially admitted this prior to his death. Per McCormick, much of what we know about our idea of Robert Johnson, outside of limited recollections from family and musical collaborators, is essentially a hodgepodge of stories and tall tales.

To start, there were a number of Robert Johnsons in his lifetime and even some of them were allegedly Delta-based blues musicians as well. This led to anecdotes about numerous Robert Johnsons getting swept up into the mythmaking, which McCormick helped to perpetuate in his initial research. Most notably, according to McCormick, there's even a question of whether Johnson, the pioneer of the "27 Club," actually died in 1938 at the age of 27 as long claimed.

McCormick based these doubts on the circulated death certificate, which cited the cause of death as syphilis (whereas the mythological death says he was poisoned). And first-hand accounts of collaborators state that Johnson may have been playing as late as 1941.

Interestingly enough, this unpublished theory would have had him as alive (potentially) when Alan Lomax traveled down to the Delta to try to locate him for recordings, only to discover and record a young blues musician named McKinley "Muddy Waters" Morganfield instead.

In one of the more fascinating twists from McCormick's unpublished research, there were also allegedly people gigging under the name "Robert Johnson"—openly covering his songs well past 1941 and prior to his explosion as a global musical and cultural figure in the early '60s.

Add to this the fact that we could very well have been listening to Robert Johnson's recordings at an incorrect speed and pitch for the better part of a century, and we truly have to ask ourselves just how much we really know about the man.

Keeping all of this in mind, the actual truth of Robert Johnson's development was less him selling his soul to the devil, and more of him leaving town, practicing religiously, and finding a musical mentor in Isaiah "Ike" Zimmerman. As it is known through family anecdotes, Ike took Robert into his home and under his wing and taught him as much as he could on guitar and harmonica in a span of a couple of years.

It has also been stated that many of Robert's formative jams with Zimmerman during this time took place at local graveyards in the dead of night to avoid waking Zimmerman's family. A number of Johnson devotees have speculated that the "Devil" that Johnson had been referring to in his songs and promotional hyperbole was possibly a metaphor for Zimmerman all along.

Robert Johnson - "Robert Johnson's Cross Road Blues"

Beano and The Elusive Burst Collector

Moving on from Robert Johnson, we arrive at a story that involves Johnson's biggest and most successful superfan—and his stolen axe. Of course, we are talking about Eric Clapton and his iconic sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standard, better known as Beano.

For our regular readers, you may remember our last dive into the theft and whereabouts of Beano in "Still at Large: 6 Famous Stolen Guitars that have Yet to be Recovered." To catch everyone up to speed: Eric Clapton's '60 Les Paul Burst, which he first got in his John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers era, was stolen shortly before the debut of Cream in 1966 and hasn't been seen since.

Eric Clapton with "Beano"

Regardless of your preferred fandom, Clapton's use of Beano undeniably helped cement the sunburst Les Paul in many players' hearts as a definitive "blues guitar" of the '60s and for all time. This is in spite of Clapton only having had possession of the instrument for around a year before its theft—and the fact that he played it before ever achieving his global acclaim with Cream. On sound and aesthetic alone, it is one of the most famous guitars of the era. When you factor in the mystery that surrounds it due to its theft, it elevates the guitar to a mythic level in its own right.

Over the years many guitar nerds, Burst enthusiasts, and Clapton fans across the world have speculated on the whereabouts of Beano. As mentioned in our last article, noted guitar addict and blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa had the last public word about the famous Burst, stating rather cryptically that while he had not seen the guitar personally, he claimed, "It is in a collection on the East Coast of America. That's all I can tell you—and that's all I will say."

Though the comments were made back in 2016, when reprinted in our article they created quite an uproar with a number of our readers who wanted to see Beano returned to Clapton. Some were so blinded with emotion that they even speculated that Joe was the Machiavellian mystery owner himself.

In fairness to Bonamassa, it is safe to say that he is assuredly not the secret owner of Beano. While Joe has since clarified his comments—even stating that he regrets making them entirely—his speculation on its whereabouts does offer a few clues of who could be the owner, if you pay attention to collecting. A number of our readers fall into that category and had a solid guess of who that could possibly be...

Which leads us to Dirk Ziff: New York-based billionaire, publishing heir, investor, and Les Paul Burst collector. No one can say for sure except for Dirk, but it has been alleged countless times in the online guitar community that he is in fact the East Coast collector currently in possession of the legendary Burst. What makes this theory deeply compelling is Dirk's own secrecy over his prolific Les Paul collection.

Perry Margouleff posing with Dirk Ziff's private collection

To start, it has been said that Dirk Ziff alone has hundreds of Les Paul bursts made from '58-'60 in his private collection and was mass-buying them for a period, to the point where it has been publicly estimated that he has roughly 10 to 20 percent of all original burst LPs ever produced.

Furthermore, it has been reported that Ziff's New York City-based collection includes Bursts that are meant for playing and display and then Bursts that aren't meant for playing and open display. These guitars are reported to be so secretive that they are stored away "in a vault you could only enter after donning one of the felt jumpsuits at the entrance," according to a one-time visitor quoted in this 1997 story in the Nashville Scene.

Ziff has ended up with a stolen Burst of famous origins in his possession before. While we are in no way alleging Ziff had anything at all to do with the theft, when Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Ed King had his '59 Burst stolen, it ended up in Ziff's collection. Per that 1997 article in Nashville Scene:

The Beauty of the 'Burst - Yasuhiko Iwanade

In March, he [King] attended a guitar show in Dallas—the last trip his doctors allowed him to take. He stumbled upon a booth promoting the book The Beauty of the 'Burst [which, incidentally, was printed only in Japanese]. After thumbing through the first 15 pages, he recognized his guitar by a distinctive red blotch near the toggle switch. At first he couldn't believe it, but he returned the next day and bought the book. "I didn't have the serial number with me, so I spent the weekend just looking at the photo saying, 'There's no other guitar that looks like this.' I just knew it had to be mine. ...

King returned to Nashville and matched the guitar's serial number in the book with the one on an old inventory list. Unfortunately, the New Jersey State Police couldn't help him because the statute of limitations had expired on the stolen instrument. So he decided to focus on Perry Margouleff, the collector featured in the guitar book.

"Before he went any further, King called a guitar expert in Florida, who told him that Margouleff acted as the chief procurer of guitars for Dirk Ziff. [Sharon] Brock [King's girlfriend] quickly returned to her computer to find out more about the billionaire, who she soon learned was an avid guitar collector and player. ... Armed with this knowledge, King called Margouleff, who said he purchased the guitar in 1988 from Hollywood-based Voltage Guitars for $9,500 and had then traded it to a friend. "Would that friend be Dirk Ziff?" King asked. Confirming his suspicion, Margouleff offered to help get the guitar back; he wouldn't, however, accept any further calls from King.

Long story-short, after writing Ziff a personal letter about what the guitar meant to him and an insurance battle over the guitars rightful ownership, Ziff ultimately returned the Burst to King upon his request—and fair enough!

After this incident, it is alleged that Ziff became more secretive about his collection and had his Burst photos removed from future printings of The Beauty of the 'Burst. To that effect, you'll be hard-pressed to find any public photos of Ziff's collection past the era of his encounter with Ed King as well.

As this event shows, if a prolific collectors buys rare guitars en masse, it's possible that stolen pieces may make it into their collection, especially in the pre-internet era.

John Mayall Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton - "Little Girl" (1966)

Now again, we are not saying that Dirk Ziff is the current owner of Beano, but we were interested in putting the question to him personally.

With that in mind, we attempted to reach out to Ziff for more background on his collection and to ask him about some of his rumored pieces, including Beano. Though multiple requests for comment were not returned, the interactions alone in our attempt to reach him were memorable.

After contacting a number personally and directly registered to Ziff available via public records, the anonymous subject who answered the phone told us that we had "the wrong number."

After a text follow-up where I apologized for the errant call and explained that the number we reached out to was publicly registered to Ziff, we received two callbacks, the first of which was almost immediately cancelled. On the second callback from the number registered to Ziff, the subject asked who we were, and what we wanted. Ultimately, the last words we received from this figure were an abrupt and forceful, "... I'm not promising you anything."

All in all, this contact promised nothing and we received nothing in terms of a comment on this article. For this author, the brief calls I participated in only raised more questions in my mind than it answered. In truth, only time will tell what exactly happened to the Beano Les Paul and what collection "...on the East Coast of America" it resides in.

If Dirk Ziff or the mystery man on the phone call ever happen to read this article, we'd only hope that they would help us put this rumor to bed. And either way, we hope that Ziff opens up about his epic collection of Les Pauls in good time.

Stevie Ray Vaughan Foresaw His Own Death

Our final urban legend of guitar is one of the freakier myths to make the rounds, but also seemingly one of the lesser-known. It is based around fellow saint of the blues and American guitar, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the last days of his life.

According to legend, the day before his demise Stevie had a nightmare in which he attended his own funeral. Spooked by the dream, he reportedly told his bandmates and crew about it on the eve of their last show together.

Stevie Ray Vaughan

As Hollywood as this myth can sound, it has been repeated in guitar publications like Guitar World, on entertainment sites like UpRoxx, and even in biographies about the late guitarist like Soul to Soul. Because of the years of repetition, the story is almost accepted as a concrete fact now, and it does seem to check out when you initially look into it.

In spite of this, it still is truly hard to believe.

When people do try to speak more in-depth on the legend, it is usually followed by an explanation of a stage accident that inspired the dream where "Stevie Ray was almost killed a month before his death." This is a story in particular that gets mistold a lot.

No, Stevie was not almost killed in the accident. A number of his guitars were gravely damaged in this accident, including his famed Number One stratocaster, but he personally was not harmed, nor was he ever in any physical danger during this incident at the Garden State Arts Center on July 7, 1990, in New Jersey. With that said, Stevie was concerned in the moment that his touring luthier/tech Rene Martinez was injured in the accident, though he turned out to be unharmed as well.

The story gets its legs from a number of related comments and claims from people who were around him in the days prior to his death. It is particularly hard to find proper attribution to the specific story about his funeral nightmare, and it doesn't appear that any of his bandmates have backed up this claim on record. With that said, there is a very detailed account from rock photographer Robert M. Knight in regard to one of their final conversations from Stevie's last days that seems to fantastically echo the legend:

Stevie and I just hung out. We were talking about life and death and synchronicity. I said, "Oh, did you know that Otis Redding died over here?" [Redding's plane had crashed in Madison.] Vaughan said he and Redding had a manager in common. It was a spooky, morose conversation...

Stevie and I started talking about life and death, and he said, "You know, I don't think I have much longer to live." I asked why he would say that, and he replied, "Well, listen, when I was in Switzerland I basically had, like, an overdose in the street. I was throwing up blood. I basically died, was taken to hospital and came back to life."

He said that was when he knew he had to go sober. He said he didn't know how much more time he had left. He wanted to help young people understand that you don't have to be part of the party.

We continued talking about life and death and he said that Dr. John had told him he was gonna die. I said, "What?" and he said, "Dr John told me I don't have long to live."

Counter to this, his bandmates like Chris Layton and others have said that Stevie was actually in an upbeat mood on his final day—and that he had not relayed this heavy feeling to any of his bandmates, if he had it at all. While Layton noted that Stevie was particularly sentimental towards his bandmate on the day of his death, Layton pushed back quite mockingly on the notion that Stevie was speaking so surely of his demise in his final hours. In response to the comments by Robert M. Knight and his anecdote:

No, I never heard that. I've heard people say things like, "I was at that show and Stevie wasn't even standing on the stage, he was actually floating like, two feet up in the air. And he had a purple halo around him," something to do with Jimi Hendrix Purple Haze. You know, the mind is a funny thing because in our own heads and because of emotions and God knows what other factors, people start conjuring all sorts of things.

I'm not gonna say that Robert made all that up. I just never heard anything about it. I can't confirm what somebody else thinks they know.

And this is where this piece of folklore falls apart for a more skeptical fan. If Stevie was so deeply troubled by death in his last days that it was haunting his dreams, wouldn't his bandmates and collaborators have insight into that? Afterall, according to the tale, Stevie told his bandmates about his death dream… and according to Knight, Dr. John said SRV was going to die soon too. Right...

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble - "Pride And Joy" (Live at Montreux, 1982)

The thing that makes this type of supernatural myth-making harder to believe is when you get to this part of Knight's personal anecdote:

So I shot the show and he comes out for the encore and it's "Voodoo Chile," and as I'm shooting, both my arms turned to ice blocks and my camera felt like a piece of frozen ice. It wasn't a cold evening. I kept shooting for two or three minutes but I couldn't take what was happening to my hands, and I left in the middle of the song and went backstage.

Backstage, I think it was Alex Hodges, said, "Robert what are you doing? Stevie wants you to shoot the encore." I told him there was something wrong with my arms. There was only a minute or so left.

Stevie came off, walked up to me, and said, "Why did you leave?"

I rolled my sleeves up and said, "Steve, look at my arms." I had goosebumps that looked like they were frosted. Stevie said, "Look at mine" and he rolled up his sleeves and he had the same thing.

Now, maybe all of this did happen and Knight's recollection is accurate, but it is a bit difficult to believe even for this diehard and easily excitable Stevie fan. Stating this, parts of Knight's account ring potentially true given some of Stevie's documented comments post-sobriety.

To Knight's credit, there are quotes of Stevie in his last year saying that he felt that he was living on borrowed time and that everyday sober for him was a second chance. All together though, it does seem like it is possible that Knight was potentially engaging in some myth-making himself at the time of his comments.

About the Author: Casey Hopkins is a Brooklyn-based writer and songwriter/guitarist for The Advertisers. Aside from writing for Reverb and pursuing music, Casey is a recovering guitar salesman, assembler, and history major. Follow @CaseyHopkinsGuitar on Instagram to keep up with him.

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