Maybe the giant neon guitar that stood at the entrance of the Hard Rock Cafe Las Vegas on Paradise Road isn’t the flashiest neon sign ever created by Young Electric Sign Co., which has been producing signs in Las Vegas since the 1930s.
Rick Juleen, YESCO Las Vegas vice president of business development, still ranks it among the company’s best.
“There are, arguably, more famous signs. The ‘Welcome to Las Vegas’ sign. Vegas Vic, which we did,” he says. “But it’s one of those that you know where you are even without having to read the name. It’s such an iconic piece and, at the time, it was the only big neon guitar. Arguably, this is one of the most iconic, well-known signs in the country.”
Still, when the Hard Rock closed on the last day of 2016, there was no guarantee that the sign wouldn’t go the way of so many hotels and historic artifacts in Las Vegas — to dust. But thanks to YESCO’s donation of the sign to the Neon Museum, the restored guitar one day will again rock on.
The museum is conducting a crowdfunding campaign to raise the estimated $350,000 needed to refurbish the guitar and display it. For those intimately acquainted with the sign, the prospect of its eventual resurrection elicits relief and evokes a sense of nostalgia.
“This is probably one of my favorites, absolutely, just because of what it was,” says Ed Stagner, a 38-year YESCO employee and the assistant sales manager for sales, leasing and maintenance who was the original salesman of the Hard Rock Cafe sign. “It was a great project, and this brought the Hard Rock to Las Vegas.”
The guitar soars to 72 feet on its own, and to 86 feet when you include its base. The original drawings don’t do justice to the colorful piece of kinetic artwork the sign became after its 1990 unveiling. “You can see all these dashed lines,” Stagner says, tracing the evenly spaced horizontal marks on the side of the guitar’s body. “All of that is neon.”
Stagner points to the markings that denote the guitar’s strings. “The strings are neon,” he says. “See? The strings were animated, and animated really well, I might add.”
Designers used a Gibson Les Paul owned by Pete Townshend of The Who as a model for the sign. Stagner says it took about four months to convert the design on paper to colorful reality.
The sign here marked the first time that the Hard Rock used a guitar image as a sign, notes Jeff Young, YESCO chief marketing officer.
Guitars eventually became the Hard Rock’s signature signage, appearing, with variations, at other locations. But Young says nobody expected that the Las Vegas sign would become a part of pop culture, appearing in “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid,” “Entourage” and other TV shows and movies.
“We dream big on our side. We think every sign we build will pass the test of time,” Young says. “But you never know and, looking back, it’s hard to imagine how iconic this sign has become.”
When the Hard Rock’s closing was announced, “it would pain us to no end to think the sign would be discarded,” Young says. Ultimately, YESCO — which owned it — arranged with the Hard Rock to remove it from the property. The now-in-pieces sign is being stored at YESCO’s campus until its relocation to the museum and its subsequent refurbishing.
The sign was “very well-maintained by YESCO over the years,” Juleen says, and “that, combined with the fact we live in the Mojave Desert, means the sign was very well-preserved.”
However, more than a quarter-century of exposure to the sun, an electrical infrastructure that will require a complete replacement and meeting of new code standards, broken neon and the need to refinish the sign’s surfaces will make for a exhaustive revamp.
The museum’s fundraising effort likely will take several months. But, Juleen says, “we love that guitar, and we’re going to protect it wholeheartedly until the Neon Museum is ready.
“We know these crowdfunding programs take some time, and we’ll be patient.”
The Neon Museum’s “Save the Hard Rock Guitar” campaign goal is $350,000. Donors of $100 or more can have their names on a plaque at the base of the sign, and donors of $250 or more will be invited to a light-up party. Find more at neonmuseum.org/hard-rock