How Counterculture Created a Guitar Worth $2m
In 1969, Jimi Hendrix stepped on stage at Woodstock and delivered one of the most famous live musical performance of all time. It cemented his status not only as a musical great but as an icon of 1960s American counterculture.
Woodstock itself has now become synonymous with the hippy movement, and, as a result, it’s easy to think of 1960s America as a time of peace, love and liberation. Whilst the seeds for social reform had been sown, the United States was embroiled in a war which proved to be the fourth deadliest conflict in its history. By the time Woodstock was held, public opposition to the Vietnam War was at an all-time high.
When Hendrix took to the stage at 8:30 am on the morning of Monday 18 August 1969, he played a discordant rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner to 200,000 people. For many, this became the ultimate act of anti-war activism, securing Hendrix’s reputation as a countercultural hero in the public consciousness.
The guitar Hendrix used was a Fender Stratocaster. In the 1950s, when Fender began making electric guitars, they were little more than an obscure Californian instrument manufacturer. By the end of the 60s, thanks to the likes of Eric Clapton, Hendrix and John Lennon, they were becoming one of the biggest guitar manufacturers in the world.
In the late 90s, about 27 years after Hendrix’s death, the Fender Stratocaster he used at Woodstock was sold at auction for $1.2 million to Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. At the time, this was the most expensive guitar ever sold at auction. What the guitar is worth monetarily, today, is said to be closer to $3,000,000, doubling its value since Allen’s purchase roughly 20 years ago. A symbol of counterculture had become a unique luxury product coveted by billionaires.
Hendrix the Brand
Somewhat like classic cars, vintage guitars became sought after because of their potential to rapidly appreciate. The most highly prized were totally unique or closely tied to people who hugely influenced pop culture. In 2015, John Lennon’s 1962 Gibson J-160E was purchased at auction for $2.41 million by an anonymous bidder. Two years earlier, Bob Dylan’s 1964 Stratocaster sold for $965,000. A Stratocaster belonging to Eric Clapton fetched $959,500. The Jamaican government reportedly purchased a guitar once belonging to Bob Marley for $1.2 million, stating it was a “national asset.”
The market wasn’t without pitfalls. Over the years, quite a few of Hendrix’s guitars found their way to auction, but none have come close to the price paid for the Stratocaster. Investors were left somewhat flummoxed. The association to Hendrix alone wasn’t enough to make the guitars worth millions. Guitars quickly fell out of favour as high-end assets. They were too “risky.”
You can see why this might have come as a surprise to some. At the time of his death, Hendrix was already a musical icon and the world’s highest-earning performer with a global fan base. Hendrix, the brand, was worth millions. It still is.
Here’s the important bit: the fact Hendrix sold millions of records is not why he remains so revered, nor is it the reason his Fender Stratocaster sold for a record sum. Instead, those 120 minutes on stage at Woodstock added something unquantifiable in terms of cultural value.
Brands could learn a lot from Jimi. He imparted a relatable, accessible message which resonated with how people felt. It was sincere and socially conscientious, cutting through the political noise.
Sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Hendrix just happened to use a guitar. And on that morning at Woodstock, it just happened to be a white Fender Stratocaster.
Ultimately, Hendrix demonstrated the importance of meaningful communication. That’s what adds value above all else.
Hendrix’s music and lyricism spoke directly to an entire generation. If you’re interested in refining how your brand speaks to its audience, you can contact us here.