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The Indiana Jones of Vintage Guitars

Birmingham native John Shults turned his passion for vintage guitars into a career searching for some of the world’s rarest instruments

Like many young guys who grew up listening to classic rock, John Shults dreamed of becoming a guitar hero. There was only one problem—Rock star-level talent. 

Despite the revelation that Shults wasn’t destined to be the next Jimmy Page, bursting eardrums and dropping jaws with his dexterity on the fretboard, it never dampened his love for the instrument that makes rock and roll possible - the electric guitar.

“I was always obsessed with the guitar. It was the most special thing I had ever seen,” says Shults. “The coolest thing you could ever have was a guitar."

In particular, Shults’ fascination is concentrated on electric guitars built in the 1950s and 1960s by American guitar manufacturers Fender and Gibson. These brands are played by most of the great players from the classic rock era, such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, and B.B. King, to name a few. They are also sought after by collectors and serious musicians. 

They are also extremely rare, which is where Shults comes in.

Shults turned his passion for rare guitars into a business, True Vintage Guitar. Operating out of a funky loft space on First Avenue and 23rd Street North, the shop is crammed with vintage guitars, amplifiers, and other gear for sale to customers nationwide, including Grammy-winning blue rock artist and well-known guitar collector Joe Bonamassa. Part detective, part archaeologist, Shults is constantly on the trail, chasing leads, researching legends, and hunting for one-of-a-kind instruments.

Some of Shults’ recent finds are hanging on the wall, including a 1950 Fender Broadcaster, one of only 250 made, and a late 1960s Fender Telecaster made from heavier ash wood in which a large cavity was carved into the guitar's body.

"This was made during a few months in the summer of '67 when the guitars had been getting heavier, and so they were looking for ways to make them not quite so heavy," Shults explains. "They chambered it underneath the pickguard and put an opaque pickguard on top of it so you can’t see it, and it became known later as The Smuggler for rather obvious reasons. You can put whatever you want inside."

Recently, Shults sold a unique two-pickup 1958 Gibson Les Paul Custom to a collector after a two-year search and multiple trips to New Mexico before learning the potential seller had stolen it from its rightful owner decades ago. Shults worked with police to recover the guitar and return it to its rightful owner, who paid $50 for it in a pawn shop in the early 1960s. 

“We were able to set up a sting with the thief and recover it to its owner,” Shults says. “It took him a long time to decide to let go of it, but a big boy offer often helps.”

After years of hunting for a $50 guitar, working with police to return it to its owner, and another year with the guitar held in evidence, Shults finally purchased the instrument and sold it to an interested client in early 2024 for—brace yourselves—$325,000.

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“I was always obsessed with the guitar. It was the most special thing I had ever seen. The coolest thing you could ever have was a guitar.”