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Rescued from a Hurricane: Repair & Restoration Revives Katrina Les Paul

Ellen Barnes

In an industrial warehouse cast in the shade of an overpass bridge, Gibson Guitar’s Repair & Restoration shop lies in downtown Nashville, several miles away from the bustle of the corporate office. After being buzzed into the building, you come face to face with rugged workstations and racks of guitars earmarked for repair – some for minor touch-ups and others in need of total makeovers. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one such guitar waited in limbo in Gibson’s R&R department for several years before the terrific Todd Money, longtime manager of Repair & Restoration, adopted it as a pet project.

Money recently relayed the survival story of a Les Paul that floated in Katrina waters for nine days before it was retrieved. It is a testament to the durability of a Les Paul and to the miracles worked daily at Repair & Restoration. If you have a guitar that needs a helping hand, contact Money and the rest of the R&R guys at

How did the Katrina guitar come to R&R?

It was either sent or brought in by one of Gibson’s Entertainment Relations reps. He told us it had been given to an artist, that the artist had been a victim of the flooding from Katrina, and that the guitar had been floating around for nine days. We determined that with all the work required to put it back as close to new as possible, the cost would have been considerably more than simply procuring a replacement guitar for the artist. The rep apparently went the replacement route because the guitar was left with us and we heard no more about it.

How long did it sit in the shop? Where did you store it during that time?

The guitar sat in a rack out in the open in the middle of the shop for probably better than three years. Nobody knew what to do with it or particularly wanted to handle it so it just sat. After a while I think it became so much a part of the landscape that we didn’t even see it anymore.

What reminded you of the guitar? What inspired you to take on its repair?

Being a gigging musician as well as a builder and repairman, I think you’re always looking for new ways to approach both endeavors. At some point I looked at that guitar and got to wondering about whether it may have soaked up some mojo from all of the pain and suffering in that water.

How long did it take you to make repairs to the guitar?

Probably most of a year. I worked on it in fits and starts when I had the time.

What repairs did you make?

I didn’t want to do any more to it than was absolutely necessary to make it play. The maple top had split in a couple of places and was also coming up off the mahogany back. The neck joint had let go, the fingerboard split and the head veneer rolled up. The finish was bad everywhere. It was split and chipping off in many places. The tuners and other hardware were tarnished and corroded. Every surface, inside and out, was just plain nasty.

I started by cleaning the thing as best I could with various chemicals. It didn’t make it look any better but I felt a lot more comfortable handling it. I glued the splits in the top and re-glued the top to the back. I removed and replaced the old fingerboard and head veneer and re-mounted the neck to the body. Once it was all back together, I leveled and dressed the frets and installed a new nut.

I wanted to keep the appearance as it was, so the only things I did to the finish were to overspray the finish first with a special solvent we use, which softened up the finish and allowed it to lay back in place in the areas where it’s chipping. I followed that with one clear coat over the top to stabilize it and hopefully seal in any residual nastiness that the cleaning may not have removed. I then doweled and re-drilled the bridge post holes so that I could install an ABR-1 instead of the stock Nashville bridge – just a personal preference. I installed new tuners and new pots, jack and toggle switch but kept the original P-90s, which had come through it all unfazed.

Some people have theorized that the guitar sounds so good because of Stradivari’s submerged wood theory. Do you think that’s why this guitar sounds so lovely?

I know that there’s a belief that Stradivari [a famous 18th century Italian luthier] submerged the wood that he used, but there’s also a lot of timber that’s submerged at the bottom of the Great Lakes that’s been there for years and years. It’s old growth timber that’s been aged in that cold water forever and it’s super hard and extremely tuneful. I don’t think that’s the case with this one.

So, then, how do think this Les Paul ended up with such killer tone?

Obviously, the Les Paul is a great-sounding guitar and I didn’t hear this one before the flood, but the thing is that it’s such a head-turner. People pick it up, play a couple of chords and just look at me like, “What is up with this guitar?” I’d bet on it in any blindfold test. I’ve gotta go with my mojo theory.  

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