“It’s called Roman because of the Roman numerals I etched into the back”: James Hetfield owns five ’59 Gibson Les Paul Standard ’Bursts – and he’s carved a massive ‘12’ into one of them

James Hetfield with a 1958 Gibson Les Paul Burst and Roman, his 1959 Les Paul Standard
James Hetfield with his 1958 Gibson Les Paul Burst and (right) Roman – his 1959 Les Paul Standard (Image credit: Jeff Yeager / Metallica / Scott Williamson)

There are players who curate and coddle their electric guitars – and then there are players who make them their own. James Hetfield’s new guitar book Messengers showcases perhaps the ultimate example of the latter: a 1959 Gibson Les Paul ’Burst that has been inscribed by the Metallica frontman.

In the book, Hetfield reveals he owns five ’Bursts and showcases four of his Golden Era Gibson guitars, all of which rank among the rarest and most valuable models in the firm’s history: a ’58 Korina Flying V, a ’58 Korina Explorer and two 1959 Les Paul Standards, dubbed ‘Rick King’ and ‘Roman’.

The former LP is named after the vintage Gibson dealer/broker who helped Hetfield to find and inspect the guitar. 

However, it’s the latter, Roman, (serial number 9-2339) that immediately caught our attention – largely due to the fact that Hetfield has carved an enormous ‘XII’ numeral into the rear of the body.

James Hetfield’s 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard ‘Roman’’ (Image credit: Scott Williamson)

“With the Roman, I was fortunate enough to go to a friend that had quite a large collection of Les Paul Bursts,” writes Hetfield in Messengers

“He allowed me and a few other guitar players that he respected to come in, play them, and pick one. I brought my half stack to his place, he laid them all out, and I played them one by one.

“I narrowed it down to four, then kept plugging them all back in until I arrived at this one. 

“It's called Roman because of the Roman numerals I etched into the back. It's the number twelve, because that was the twelfth guitar that I played out of all the ones I was very fortunate enough to try out.”

From the storied OGV, to ‘Uncle Milty’ (a modded 1973 Les Paul, with an embedded Iron Cross), Hetfield has a long and brilliant history of graffitiing and decorating his guitars. 

James Hetfield 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard ‘Roman’’

(Image credit: Scott Williamson)

As such, the bold move is in keeping with Hetfield’s long held approach to ownership. However, it’s hard to think of another contemporary example in which a guitarist has so significantly altered a ’Burst. 

There were certainly plenty of mods made to instruments from the rarified 1958-1960 ’Burst era before they acquired their reputation – such as the Bigsby-equipped Bolin ’Burst, now owned by Joe Bonamassa – but it’s vanishingly rare to see one intentionally carved by a current owner, particularly in the era of half-million price tags. 

Indeed, it raises a debate about the nature of ownership of historic instruments. Are ’Burst buyers owners or custodians? We’ve seen plenty of examples of players who regard themselves as the latter.

Joe Bonamassa is said to own 10 ’Bursts, but his collection – while toured and played – has a focus on preservation and restoration. Indeed, he has previously hinted it will wind-up as a museum exhibit, once he passes on.

Hetfield’s onstage partner, Kirk Hammett, meanwhile, owns one of the most famous ’59 Les Paul Standards of all time, ‘Greeny’. 

He has teamed up with Gibson for a range of exhaustive reproduction models, most recently the Epiphone Greeny Les Paul. Hammett also recently listed for sale a remarkably clean ’59 Les Paul dubbed ‘Sunny’ via Gibson’s Certified Vintage program.

Regardless, the news of Hetfield’s extensive ’Burst collection also adds further context to the story that the Metallica frontman passed up an opportunity to purchase Greeny himself

That, in itself, raises one hell of a ‘what-if?’ scenario. Even Papa Het would not have put Greeny under the chisel… would he?!

For more (utterly fascinating) insight into Hetfield’s astonishing guitar collection, we highly recommend you check out the full Messengers tome.

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

Matt Parker

Matt is a staff writer for GuitarWorld.com. Before that he spent 10 years as a freelance music journalist, interviewing artists for the likes of Total Guitar, Guitarist, Guitar World, MusicRadar, NME.com, DJ Mag and Electronic Sound. In 2020, he launched CreativeMoney.co.uk, which aims to share the ideas that make creative lifestyles more sustainable. He plays guitar, but should not be allowed near your delay pedals.