Trading guitars with Guns N’ Roses legend Slash is the kind of thing many of us would dream about doing just once. For New Jersey-based guitar player and collector Todd Puma, however, it’s something that’s been happening fairly regularly over the last few years – having now exchanged three instruments in total with the iconic cat in the hat.
Some Guitar World readers may already be familiar with the @gibsonmurphylab Instagram account Puma uses to showcase his rare and collectable instruments, which has a disclaimer in its bio to confirm that it’s not an official Gibson page but rather a Murphy Lab fan page centered around Puma’s personal collection. The fact that he’s followed by the Gibson Custom Shop account, Brand President Cesar Gueikian and Director Of Brand Experience Mark Agnesi – on the other hand – is enough to prove Puma is the real deal and an authority on both Tom Murphy-aged and ’90s-era Les Pauls.
It’s no Bad Obsession, however, but rather a healthy one – though we suspect his bank manager may very well beg to differ. It all began when Puma was 15 years old watching MTV with his brother, and the Paradise City video came on. Like many of us, his initial reaction was along the lines of “I need to learn how to play the guitar and be like that guy on the screen” and thus began a lifelong fascination with the numerous curvy single-cuts usually found on stage left at any Guns N’ Roses or Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators show.
“Slash is the person I built my collection after,” admits Puma, talking to GW from his home studio, with some of his most prized possessions hanging on the wall behind him.
“Every guitar I own is because of him, whether it’s one with his kind of finish or one he might have used in Velvet Revolver or one that ended up becoming a signature. It’s been a constant revolving door. That’s been my whole journey over the years and I ended up building an Instagram page based on my collection, which isn’t inspired by what I like – they’re based on things Slash likes!
“Fast-forward to now, and I actually own three of Slash’s guitars – ones that he loved and played onstage now live with me! It all happened so quickly, it was almost hard to believe at first. I was wondering if it was real life or if I’d died… that’s how excited I was. There was so much emotion, I didn’t know how to comprehend all of it.”
So how exactly did this self-confessed Slash superfan end up swapping guitars with his number one hero? As it turns out, Nicolas Riera – another Slash devotee, who uploads note-for-note covers from the YouTube account Niko Slash – was the person responsible for connecting the two Gibson enthusiasts.
The conversation initially began between Puma and Riera discussing Puma’s 1995 Les Paul Classic Plus, which had been sent to renowned restoration shop Historic Makeovers for their deluxe package to get turned into a replica of the Hunter Burst played by Slash from 1985 to 1986.
It was purchased by the Guns N’ Roses axeman from Guitars R Us and got its name from former owner Steve Hunter, who had famously worked with Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Jack Bruce and Peter Gabriel. It was sold on less than a year later, which was a decision that Slash later admitted to regretting in his 2008 autobiography...
“What I wanted was something just like the Hunter Burst,” explains Puma. “There aren’t many options for finishes like that. I sent it to Kim [LaFleur, CEO] from Historic Makeovers along with pictures of Guns performing in a strip club early on. You can see the dancers in the photos, plus Axl with his chaps on and his butt showing while Slash plays his guitar wearing gloves.
“They told me it would be a hard color because it’s not traditional and has never been made by Gibson – the Hunter Burst itself of course being a replica. But they were up for the challenge and were the only company who could have done it that well…
“I don’t know how Nico and Slash got acquainted, but it was definitely guitar-related. Slash actually said in the Gibson [The Collection] interview with Mark Agnesi how he sits there on Reverb going through guitars just like the rest of us. I think him and Nico ended up swapping photos and my name came up in conversation. Nico said something like ‘Doesn’t this look just like your old Hunter Burst?’ One thing led to another and it was suggested that we might be able to trade.”
When it was mentioned to Puma that Slash was hoping to acquire the guitar and wondering if there was any possibility in making that happen, there was only ever going to be one answer. And having pointed out that he wasn’t looking for money, when asked what kind of guitar from Slash’s collection he might be looking for, Gibson Custom Shop prototype AP #6 of the Gibson Custom Shop Joe Perry Signature Les Paul was the first thing that came to mind...
“Slash played that one live all the time,” continues Puma. “I bought so many guitars that looked like it, but none of them really did. Now I have the one that I always wanted – played by him, beat up by him, put through the Slash ageing process that only Slash can do. And it’s mine because of Nico. None of this would have happened without him.”
The guitar came with the original Gibson pickups in the case having been fitted with Slash’s go-to Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pros – wound by Maricela ‘MJ’ Juarez at their Custom Shop – plus a handful Guns N’ Roses and SMKC guitar picks, some of which were still attached to the headstock. When Puma took the guitar out of the case for the first time, his jaw quite rightly hit the floor…
“He could have turned around and given me anything,” shrugs Puma. “Most people would have been like ‘Awesome!’ because anything from Slash is cool, right?! But because I’m a fan and he cares, he decided to help me in my journey. What a kind-hearted individual.
“Slash isn’t much of a ‘me’ guy. He’s not about boosting his own ego or what he can do. He’s always sitting there supporting his fans first. He really cares. That’s the true Slash. And he’s never done trades like this before. Everyone wants something from him and in this scenario he was giving me something, almost as a thank you for all these years of support. It literally changed my life.”
Interestingly, Slash and Puma have never met or communicated directly. All of the correspondence came via Riera, and given the YouTuber’s attention to detail when it comes to Slash’s gear and techniques, it was all completely above board and legit.
“The process was always through Nico,” adds Puma. “I’ve never spoken to or met Slash, but he hasn’t been in the area I live in ever since we started trading. I’m hoping one day he might want to meet me and talk about guitars.”
If the story ended there, it would already be an impressive tale. Slash and Puma have since ended up trading twice again, however, the first swap being a Max Baranet-built Les Paul copy for an artist proof model of Slash’s rare Custom Shop Vermillion Brazilian. Sadly in the weeks following this interview, it was announced that Baranet had passed away, with Slash himself mourning the “legendary guitar luthier and friend” on his own Instagram page.
The Max Baranet guitar ended up being used on stage by Slash for some AC/DC covers as well as Appetite For Destruction fan-favorite Nightrain. In fact, the only one of Puma’s guitars that hasn’t made it on stage with Guns N’ Roses is the first one to have been swapped, which was now being referred to as the Puma Burst (“what a crazy honor!”).
“Originally I didn’t know the second guitar was a Max copy,” notes Puma. “I bought it off someone from Reverb, but just before I did, I sent it to [boutique builder] Joe Riggio asking ‘Hey, does this guitar look right?’ And he was like, ‘Nah, that’s not a Gibson, dude’. And I was like ‘What?!’ Joe knows everything. He’s a bit like Mat Koehler from Gibson. He can see within seconds whether it’s real or not. But he said, ‘Buy it right now!’ It had the most brilliant flame top and looked awesome...
“Again, it came to my attention that Slash would be up for a swap and interested to know what I might like in exchange. The Vermillion Brazilian was one I wanted because it had never been released. The only people that own a true original are Slash, Cesar Gueikian and myself – because these ones have a Brazilian rosewood fretboard. It never came out through the Custom Shop, only Gibson USA. It’s the most prized possession in my collection because it’s never been released.”
The third and final trade would involve Puma’s so-called Hudson Burst – another Historic Makeovers specimen that was originally a Lemon Burst Les Paul built in the late ’90s. Puma had originally intended to have it refinished in Tea Burst, though decided against it as the color had no real connection to his idol. It was Riera who suggested having Historic Makeovers turn it into a more Slash-approved Dark Burst.
In return, Puma asked for Slash’s #1 artist proof of his Brazilian Dream 1958 Les Paul, which he observes must have “mainly lived in Slash’s lockup as it’s less beat-up than the other ones” but still packs plenty of mojo.
“That last one, the Hudson Burst, ended up getting used for the song Better on the South American tour, along with the Max guitar for the AC/DC cover,” says Puma. “So both guitars were used in one set, in what I think is his B-rig. He must like them a lot. When I saw the footage, the Hudson Burst sounded so big and fat. It was cool to hear that Better riff, because I’m really into heavy metal. I love that kind of juice and growl. It almost has a Nine Inch Nails kind of feel to it that rips through your system!”
At this point in the conversation, we start wondering what else Puma has in the collection – after all, his Instagram page has a tendency to make Les Paul fans salivate like few others. And, suffice to say, he has the perfect answer. Among his vast collection of R8s and R9s in all kinds of eye-watering quilts and flames, as well as some very impressive ’90s models, he owns not one but two of the most expensive Gibson guitars ever made…
“I recently acquired two of the Murphy Lab Greenys from the Gibson Garage,” grins Puma. “My plan was to buy one and sell it later because it would be a profitability investment. But once I got it, I realized I couldn’t sell it. It felt like the best guitar I’d ever played in my life – from the wood to the pickups to everything else.
“So I decided to get a second because there’d be no way another could replicate how I felt about the first one. It never happens. But I got another and it was just as good. It seems like Gibson have this formula now, they know how to exactly reproduce a ’50s instrument and bring it to life...
“I’m going to end up begging Cesar to do a true Slash signature that’s up to the standard of Kirk Hammett’s Greeny. Because, it’s funny, I own Slash’s guitars, but I can’t play them. I’m so paranoid around those instruments. I can’t get too connected because I’m too afraid to touch them. Everything on those guitars has come from Slash. There’s even blood on one of them! But given what they’ve done with Greeny, the future holds so many possibilities...”