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Cowtown Guitars acquires and authenticates a piece of rock history: a Hendrix guitar

<p>Cowtown Guitars co-owner Jesse Amoroso holds a 1963 Fender Stratocaster once owned by Jimi Hendrix. The shop is the official broker for the guitar. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES</p>

Cowtown Guitars co-owner Jesse Amoroso holds a 1963 Fender Stratocaster once owned by Jimi Hendrix. The shop is the official broker for the guitar. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES

A sound engineer named Skip Juried owned one of the most remarkable unremarkable guitars in the history of American rock ’n’ roll: a white 1963 Fender Strat, almost identical to any other white 1963 Fender Strat, save a few MacGyverish modifications, almost exclusively used as a studio guitar at New York’s Juggy Sound and seldom seen in the daylight. In its prime, it was the oft-used session guitar of a former Little Richard backing instrumentalist named Jimmy James who’d continue to haunt Juggy Sound — and even after James decided Jimi Hendrix was a better moniker, the guitar stayed with Juried until the day he died.

A will bequeathing and a high-dollar auction later, that white Strat ended up in the hands of Jesse Amoroso, owner of downtown’s Cowtown Guitars. It started as a typical buy. A collector came in to snag a couple of cheap axes. Then he asked if Jesse could sell some guitars for him, vaguely calling them kind of collectible. The next day he rolls in with Eric Clapton’s 1957 Birdland and Keith Richards’ Gibson ES-350T, two crazy-cool guitars without their rock legend attachments. They sold fast. And then the owner invited Amoroso to his house to show off the rest of the collection, in hopes he could broker a deal for some of his, by all accounts, really cool shit. What Amoroso found, behind an exorbitant amount of security, was a collector’s dream house: historical documents, movie and TV props, and somewhere around 200 guitars. And the piece de resistance, the guitar-nerd centerpiece, was that ’63 Strat, beaten up, fairly unremarkable but glowing with the same aura you’d expect of the sword in the stone.

“Anything Jimi Hendrix is rare, but his earlier Strats … no one knows where the hell they went,” Amoroso says. “He smashed stuff. He burned shit. He wasn’t a guy attached to one particular guitar. They were tools, tax write-offs.” So to find a guitar in shape, without unimpeachable signs of Hendrixizing, is a guitar-sleuth jackpot. Which might be what makes the guitar so interesting. It wasn’t the Woodstock Strat. Or the burned Monterey Pop Festival Strat. If we were talking baseball and not rock ’n’ roll, it’d be like a bat George Herman Ruth used as a Baltimore Oriole, not Babe Ruth’s first home run bat from Yankee Stadium. And since it hasn’t been studied obsessively, the documentation and verifying of this guitar is still happening in real time. In fact, Amoroso’s own research and handiwork were still leading him to find new things about the guitar other experts looked over. “Everyone in the industry has seen it by now,” Amoroso says.

Let’s start externally and work inward, the same way Amoroso did. The guitar is the same color and model that Hendrix was known to play. Hendrix was a left-handed guitar player, and the Strat in question is for righties. But the nicks on the neck of the guitar, made by bulky rings, are on the top instead of the bottom edge — as well as the scuffs and marks from strumming the opposite direction of the stringing. Even the nut, the piece of slotted material at the top of the neck, was able to slide out and be turned around to accommodate reverse stringing. And the deepest search, beneath the back plate protecting the guitar springs, reveals a broken screw and black paint from before the guitar was painted white (something Leon Hendrix said would be there when he was flown in to figure out if it was his late brother’s guitar).

“This is by far the most forensic I’ve gotten with a guitar,” Amoroso says. “I’ve taken the guitar apart several times, shot videos of me taking it apart, run it under black lights. We had it a month before advertising it, and that was just the process of me putting it to the grindstone to find B.S. around the guitar. … Short of someone finding DNA evidence to disprove it, it’s his.”

Now the guitar’s up for sale: $1.2 million. Amoroso’s had nibbles for the media-shy collector’s toy. Former Hendrix road techs, Italian media men, a (alleged) Russian firearms manufacturer have all voiced some interest. Eight serious appointments total. “I’d like someone like the EMP [museum] to end up with the guitar so it could be on display,” Amoroso says. “It’s a piece of history, the most influential guitar player in rock ’n’ roll history if not guitar history. … It’s a motherfucker of a guitar, dude.”