Back in 2016, REM bassist Mike Mills stood on the stage at Macon’s City Auditorium. In his hands was a relic of rock and roll that once belonged to one of his idols.
“This is Duane Allman’s guitar. I don't even know what to do with it!” Mills said between movements of the rock concerto he was performing with violinist Robert McDuffie.
Derek and the Dominoes’ "Layla" was a hit on the radio when Mills was 12 so he knew exactly what to do. He took his best shot at Allman’s stinging "Layla" lick on the 1957 Gold Top Les Paul.
There are some musical instruments that are as iconic as the musicians who played them, like Jimi Hendrix’s white Stratocaster or BB King’s Lucille. Instruments like that are usually kept behind glass. If you want to hear them, you are probably out of luck. But Duane Allman’s Gold Top is as likely to be heard as seen.
Evidence is all over YouTube. There’s Jason Isbell in Macon in the same year and venue as Mills.
Nels Cline of Wilco is a huge fan who has played the Gold Top a lot.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There's Warren Haynes, Vince Gill, Zac Brown ... the list goes on and on.
So how does this happen? How does a guitar that arguably belongs in a museum keep popping up onstage?
Before the McDuffie/Mills show in 2016, it was a kind of cloak and dagger thing. Behind the Macon City Auditorium it was dark except for some lights on the loading dock. Guitarist William Tonks, a sideman in the McDuffie/Mills band, was waiting when a man clicked open a guitar case by the back door.
The courier was Richard Brent of Macon's Allman Brother's Big House Museum. He rattled off the guitar’s CV before handing it to Tonks.
“Now, this guitar was used on the first two Brothers records,” Brent said. “Self-titled, Idlewild South and, of course, Derek and the Dominoes.”
And then William Tonks was taken back to high school.
“I remember being the guy who kept starting that record over and over at the party. And people were like, ‘Why do you keep playing those two songs?’” Tonks mused.
He took a second to smell the neck of the guitar to taking it inside and sneaking it onstage to Mike Mills.
Brent said even though he's done this maybe 60 times, the guitar has never belonged to the Big House museum. It was on loan by a largely anonymous owner. Brent said the owner has always wanted the guitar in the hands of people who can make it sing.
“Yeah, that was his mindset,” Brent said. “Just like me and a lot of other people, he hates just seeing a wonderful piece of wood sitting behind glass doing nothing.”
Of course, some fans think the Gold Top DOES belong behind glass. Brent said the first thing you have to understand is that in some sense this isn’t the guitar Duane Allman played. When the last owner found the Gold Top, it was stripped down to almost nothing.
“He paid for one or $75 on basically a chunk of wood that Duane Allman once owned and recorded a lot of great songs with,” Brent said.
The owner rebuilt it. And if it isn’t literally the same machine Duane Allman used for some of his most beloved art, it still clearly has the power to inspire.
So who does Richard Brent say sounds most inspired with the Gold Top in their hands?
“Derek Trucks gets the most out of it I would say," Brent said. "I mean he's able to just take it to another.”
In one YouTube video, Trucks is so lyrical in his slide guitar playing on the Gold Top that the man behind the hand holding the cell phone taping the show can only laugh.
Duane Allman’s Gold Top just sold for $1.25 million, a record for a rebuilt guitar. But Richard Brent said the new owner wants the performance tradition to continue. As to who might play it next? You’ll have to be on the lookout the next time you’re at a show.