Peter Frampton’s “Phenix” Les Paul: The Guitar That Rose From the Ashes

Even if you’re not a fan of his music, you’re probably familiar with Peter Frampton’s Gibson Les Paul, “Phenix.”

It’s the “Frampton Comes Alive!” guitar; the one that he plays on the album, and the one that he’s photographed with on the cover.

If you were alive during the late 1970s, you probably remember how much of a big deal “Frampton Comes Alive!” was. Selling a mind-blowing 16 million copies, it was the record – along with KISS’s “Alive!” – that cemented the idea of a double live album as a viable rock n’ roll product.

Any self-respecting suburban teenager’s record collection wasn’t complete without “Comes Alive!” circa 1976, and that cover photograph of Frampton rocking that Les Paul became an iconic and enduring image.

For decades, it was thought that the Les Paul – along with most of Peter Frampton’s classic guitars – was destroyed in a tragic 1980 plane crash. But, 31 years later, the guitar and the guitarist were reunited in the most extraordinary of circumstances, truly living up to its phoenix namesake.

Today, we’re going to share the story of the iconic “Phenix” guitar; how Frampton got it, lost it, and finally got it back.

Frampton meets the Phoenix

Peter Frampton’ association with “Phenix” goes back to 1970 and Humble Pie’s run at the legendary Fillmore West in San Francisco.

On the cusp of big things at the time, the west coast shows were key to the band breaking the American market.

But Frampton was having guitar trouble, with his Gibson ES-335 to blame.

Frampton had recently traded a ‘62 SG for the 335, a decision he was now regretting. The semi-acoustic was fine for rhythm work, but gave him a fair amount of grief when it came to lead breaks. “Every time I turned up for my solo it just fed back and this was totally demoralizing,” he later remembered.

At the end of his wick by the time the second Fillmore set ended, Frampton was approached by friend Marc Mariana, who offered a lend of his Les Paul for the following night’s show. Frampton wasn’t a Les Paul fan, but, desperate for a useable instrument, he took Mariana up on his offer.

The guitar itself was a three pickup 1954 “Black Beauty” that Marc had modified to look like a ’57 Les Paul Custom. For Frampton, it was love at first play, and he ended up using the guitar for the entire Fillmore run:

“I tried it for both sets that night and then I tried it the next night and the next night… and at the end of the engagement at the Fillmore West, I gave Marc the guitar back and said to him, ‘I know this is a silly question, but do you think you would ever sell this guitar?’ and he said, ‘No… I want to give it to you.’”

With that, the guitar was Frampton’s… for the next ten years at least.

The plane crash

Over the next decade, the “Phenix” became Frampton’s number one axe. But, that all changed during a 1980 tour of South America.

Frampton and his band had just played in Venezuela, Caracas. They had a day off the following day, so flew ahead to Panama. The band’s equipment was meant to follow by cargo plane, but it never made it.

As the band later found out, the plane had crashed on take-off. The crew were killed and the gear apparently destroyed. 

“After I got over the shock of people losing their lives I began to think about the gear. Rodney [Frampton’s road manager] said, ‘Yeah, it’s all gone.’ It was a fireball. It was totally filled up with fuel and they couldn’t get near it for five hours. It was just like an H-bomb went off.”

Frampton sent his guitar tech down a week later to survey the wreckage, and sure enough, all that remained was a couple of wrecked Marshall cabinets and some burnt out guitar cases. 

The “Phenix” Rises

For 31 years, it seemed like the Caracas plane crash was where the story of Frampton’s “Phenix” ended.

Then, in 2011, the guitarist received a surprise e-mail from someone in Holland, by way of a part-time Luthier from the island of Curaçao (40 miles off the coast of Caracas). In the message, he claimed that the “Phenix” had been brought into his workshop. What’s more, he’d forensically photographed every inch of the guitar.

“He took the pickups off, the tuners, he took everything apart so you could virtually see inside the guitar,” Frampton said, “that’s how I knew it was mine, because I’d been inside that thing so many times.”

The “Phenix,” once believed to be a charred wreck, was still very much intact. Frampton started playing detective and finally put the story together. It turned out that four of his guitars (a ’63 Precision Bass, a ’55 Strat, a white Les Paul and the “Phenix”) had survived the crash, but had been lifted by one of the first people on the scene, who decided to sell them.

Someone who lived on Curaçao bought the Les Paul, intending to learn the guitar, but didn’t keep it up. The instrument ended up gathering dust in his house for years until his teenage son expressed an interest in playing. The guitar, by this point, was in terrible shape so the son took it to the aforementioned luthier. Said luthier, who also happened to be a customs inspector, knew what he had straight away and contacted Frampton.

After 31 years, Peter Frampton finally knew the real story of his “Phenix” Les Paul, but it would be another year-and-a-half before the guitar was returned to him. 

At first, there were problems with getting the kid to sell. It was 18 months before he agreed to part with the instrument. Then, there was the luthier’s own anxiety about handling the stolen guitar:

“The luthier was frightened that he could get arrested for receiving stolen goods,” Frampton remembered, “so instead of buying it himself, he went to the minister of tourism of Curaçao, who he knew because he was in the customs department, and explained the situation. So the government of Curaçao bought the guitar back for me for $5,000.”

Finally, after convincing the luthier that he wasn’t going to get the FBI involved, Frampton was able to arrange a handover in Nashville. 

“He brought the guitar in the room in the s--ttiest thin plastic cover, it’s not even a case. I knew before I even opened it that it was mine, it was wonderful.” 

And after being restored by the folks at the Gibson Custom Shop, the instrument went back into Frampton’s live rig, just in time for the “Frampton Comes Alive!” 35th anniversary tour:

Now, I use it on every show - the least I use it on is “Do You Feel [Like We Do],” but [you’ll hear it on] any of the songs from “…Comes Alive.” So, basically, it’s better than it was, except it’s a little banged up.”

 

Living up to its namesake, the “Phenix” is a guitar that rose from the ashes, becoming the stuff of rock n’ roll legend in the process.

Have you ever been reunited with a long lost, treasured instrument? What are your memories of “Frampton Comes Alive!”? Share your stories in the comments.



9 Responses

Casey Conroy
Casey Conroy

July 23, 2018

It’s a phenomenal story. Thanks for sharing it.

Growing up as a Catholic kid in Portland, Oregon in the late 60s/early 70s, I lived for the weekly folk mass: cool teenagers playing real guitars and drums – IN CHURCH. One member of the group was Jim Neer, a tall, shy and humble guy who was the guitar mainstay of the group. He was my first real-live music idol. My family also did some singing outside of church – on St. Patrick’s Day, in the parish variety show, and even for a local Sunday morning television show – and Dad recruited Jim to back us on guitar. I was over the moon.

Jim was later drafted or enlisted into the Army and came back from that much less shy and indeed an adventurer: sporting long hair and a long beard, driving an early 60s MG convertible (wearing goggles, of course), and doing cool stuff like hiking and rock climbing. One such adventure ended in his death in the mid-70s and it affected me profoundly.

Some years later, after I’d picked up guitar myself and had played at a reunion folk mass at the same church I grew up in, Jim’s former girlfriend, Therese, approached me and said she’d been keeping one of Jim’s guitars in case any of us kids ever started playing. It was an early 70s Yamaha 12-string acoustic in a composite cardboard case with the handle missing. And from that day til this one, it’s been mine. Though tough to keep in tune, I played that guitar a lot through the 70s and early 80s along with its 6-string FG-140 equivalent, which I’d bought for myself in high school.

Though not your classic reunion story, I got to hold and play one of Jim’s guitars, which in his hands had inspired me to play and sing myself. It remains a dear treasure.

/Casey

P.S. Sorry for the geeky detail question, but does anyone happen to know: in the pictures of the Phenix without the white pick guard, is is simply removed or did Peter swap it for a black one?

Doug
Doug

July 22, 2018

Sometime in the late 70’s, I picked up a 1965 Duo Sonic in Desert Sand. I used it as a second guitar, and it was really fun to play. One night our bus broke down and we had to leave it outside of the club that we were playing at until it could be towed and repaired.

Some bastards broke into our bus and stole my Duo Sonic, another guitar, and a bass. We reported it to the county Sheriff (it was in a rural area), but they told us it was very unlikely they’d ever find our gear.

Two and a half years later, I got a call from the Sheriff’s Dept. saying that they had recovered some instruments similar to the ones that we’d lost. They asked me if I could identify mine. Luckily, I still had the serial number with me, and described the guitar to a “T”. The Sheriff laughed and said, “Yeah, obviously this is your guitar if you know that much about it!”

I got it back a few weeks later. The scumbags that stole our stuff had been running drugs and got busted. Our stuff was still in the basement, untouched. The setlists from that night were even in the cases.

Hector
Hector

July 21, 2018

I remmerber as a teenager in the seventies in Atlanta Ga and Mother’s Finest,The Allman Brothers,Lynyrd Skynyrd were rocking at the Champagne Jam and my late buddy Larry said when we get home I have the new Peter Frampton album if you want to listen,we listened to that album every day for a year,learning guitar at the time I copied every lick I could.I asked my daddy for a les Paul ( he said no) I said when I get a job all I’ll spend money on is guitars and I have many.I still listen to Frampton Comes Alive atleast once a year,being a middle age man I’m about to develop line on my face..lol

Seth Diamond
Seth Diamond

July 20, 2018

I was in the audience at the Beacon Theatre on the evening when he first played Phenix after it was recovered and reconditioned by Gibson.
The show suddenly stopped, the stage went dark, and a single spotlight appeared on the guitar, resting on a stand… and the audience erupted into a 10-minute standing, screaming, whistling, cheering ovation for one of the truly iconic totems from the 1970’s Rock & Roll era. It was incredible… Franpton was almost in tears when he came onstage to retrieve his guitar and perform.

Butch Lawson
Butch Lawson

July 20, 2018

In the summer of 1964, I bought a new Gretsch Tennessean. With some money down, the store let me make monthly payments for the balance and things were fine until I received my draft induction notice in the winter of ‘65. With boot camp, training schools and an undeveloped sense of responsibility, the guitar was repossessed during my 42 month military career.
Upon discharge, with savings, a paycheck for unused leave and other pay, as well as a well-honed accountability nerve, I returned to the store where I had originally purchased the guitar intending to apologize and clear my guilty conscience. I told them I wanted to buy another new Tennessean and could pay cash. The store owner said that they had taken one in trade and it was in good shape. If I would consider a used guitar, he’d get it from the back for me to check out. When he brought it out in my old case with the same stickers on it and I opened it up and checked the serial number, I wept. The last three numbers are my father’s birthday date.
I still have and cherish it. It had given me years of great joy and while there are others in the inventory, this one is number one. I am its first and third owner.

George Hochstadt
George Hochstadt

July 20, 2018

Saw him many times with that guitar before the famous “Alive” album. He and that guitar were always great.

Greg Strickland
Greg Strickland

July 20, 2018

Had the pleasure of hearing them on Frampton Comes Alive ‘35… as good as ever

Deborah
Deborah

July 20, 2018

As a teenager in the late ’70s I remember well when “Comes Alive” was all the rage! Such a cool story with a surprise happy ending.

Fred
Fred

July 20, 2018

It’s an amazing tale! Glad he has her back!

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