This lavishly appointed Yamaha L-53 was custom-made for John Denver in 1977. Having previously played several stock Yamaha guitars, Denver ordered a matching pair of six- and 12-string instruments during a tour of Japan, and they were delivered sometime in 1978. During this period, Yamaha’s L-Series (“L” stood for “luxury”) was the company’s high-end line of guitars, available only as special orders.
Crafting a set of guitars for one of the era’s biggest stars was certainly a coup for Yamaha. Built by a small team of craftsmen in the company’s custom shop, the guitar was designed by Terrumi Nakamoto, who was also in charge of building instruments for Paul Simon and John Lennon. According to Yamaha historian Mark Kasulen, the instrument features a top made from rare ezo spruce (a species found only on the Japanese island of Hokkaido). The guitar’s back and sides are made of extraordinarily dark Brazilian rosewood, its fingerboard and bridge are ebony, and the instrument’s elaborate five-piece neck alternates strips of mahogany and ebony.
The guitar’s abalone purfling, multi-ring rosette, and large block-style fingerboard inlay are by no means subtle, and the back and headstock are truly breathtaking. Featuring Yamaha’s distinctive V-shape, the headstock is covered almost entirely in abalone. The back’s three-piece design is beautifully executed; a darker piece of rosewood was used for the center panel and abalone strips match the body’s purfling.
Denver used the L-53 extensively in concert and on TV (it’s featured on the cover of the popular album Denver made with the Muppets, A Christmas Together), retiring it in the early 1980s after it developed some cracks. According to Fine Guitar Consultants’ Richard Glick (who recently inspected and appraised the instrument), Denver returned the guitar to Yamaha for repair or exchange, and it is unknown how it changed owners from that point on.
This article was first published in the November 2003 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.