The success of a company will drive its competitors to innovate in order to keep afloat in the market place. In 1951 rock n’ roll was just around the corner, and the extraordinary success of the Fender Telecaster was Gibson President Ted McCarty’s signal to come up with something new. He called in none other than Les Paul, the successful recording artist and renowned tinkerer. They had met the year before when Les approached the company with his new invention “The Log”. The Log was a lap type, solid body stringed instrument with an electronic pickup. It was basically a block of pine that was around 2 inches wide thus the name. The Log was turned down but connection paid off when Les was called in as a consultant. The fact of the matter was that Les’s name on the guitar was more of a promotional tactic than tribute to a major contributor. Les’s actual contribution is still rather controversial though it is agreed that it was minimal. His discussions on the topic were pretty much limited to advice on the trapeze tailpiece and the color. He liked gold because “it looks expensive”, and black because “it makes your fingers appear to move faster on the box”, and “looks classyólike a tuxedo”. It is also said that Les advised Gibson on a solid maple body with a curved mahogany top… wait a second… that’s backwards. Gibson reversed it saying all that maple would be too heavy.
The first Les Paul electric guitars came out in 1952. They were the Goldtops. Two p-90 single coil pickups, Les Paul’s trapeze bridge and tailpiece and the mahogany body/maple top combination with the glued and fitted neck, these were the Rolls Royce to Fenders Tin Lizzy. They were expensive too. The second wave of Les Paul guitars was in 1954. The Gibson Les Paul Custom was an entirely black guitar nicknamed the Black Beauty. This version was later made with three pickups.
In 1954 Gibson released the Les Paul Junior as a beginner’s guitar though it’s design held its own in professional use as well. The Junior sported a single P-90 pickup, the usual volume and tone controls, and bridge.
In 1955 Gibson launched the Les Paul TV which was essentially a Junior with a “natural” finish, a translucent mustard yellow thin enough to see through to the wood grain. The idea was to reduce the glare that white guitars had on early black and white TV. The Les Paul Special was released in 1955 as well featuring two soapbar P-90 single coil pickups, finished in a TV Yellow variation (but not called a TV model).
In 1957, Gibson introduced the humbucker pickup, kind of like two single coils except one is flipped around, the result is a beefier sound and a cancellation of the 60 cycle hum associated with single coil pickups.
In 1958 Gibson developed a new double-cutaway body shape for the Junior and TV. The Junior also got a new cherry red finish and the TV got a new yellowish finish. Gibson also changed the top finish on the regular Les Paul model from the gold color used since 1952 to the Sunburst finish already being used on their arch top acoustic and hollow body electrics. These were later referred to as Les Paul Standards to differentiate them from the earlier Goldtop. The hardware was the same as the ’57 Goldtop featuring the new humbucker pickups.
In 1959, the Les Paul Special was given the same new double-cutaway body, however, when the new design was applied to the two-pickup Special, the cavity for the neck pickup overlapped with the neck-to-body joint. This weakened the joint to the point that the neck could break after only moderate handling. The problem was soon resolved when Gibson’s designers moved the neck pickup farther down from the neck to produce a stronger joint.
In 1960, Gibson experienced a decline in electric guitar sales due to their high prices and strong competition from the Stratocaster. So, Gibson modified the Les Paul line and 1961 the Les Paul was thinner and much lighter, with two sharply pointed cut-aways and a vibrato system. This redesign was done without Les Paul’s knowledge and when he saw the guitar he asked Gibson to remove his name from the instrument and parted ways with the company. Gibson however had a surplus stock of “Les Paul” logos and truss rod covers and continued to use the Les Paul name until 1963 after which the guitar’s name was changed to SG, which stands for Solid Guitar. In addition to the SG line, Gibson continued to issue the less expensive Jr’s and Specials with the newer body style. These were the standard Gibson electric models until the reintroduction of the Les Paul Standard Goldtop and the Les Paul Custom in 1968.
In 1964, Keith Richards obtained a 1959 sunburst Les Paul with a Bigsby tailpiece. It was one of his main instruments for several years. In 1966, Eric Clapton also started using a Les Paul (particularly the 1958-1960 Standard sunburst models). Other notables such as Peter Green, Mike Bloomfield, Mick Taylor and Jimmy Page began using Les Pauls too. These 1950s models had the original humbuckers known as “Patent Applied For” (PAF) pickups. These PAFs were designed by Seth Lover while working for Gibson in 1955 (U.S. Patent 2,896,491). This innovation became the standard for Gibson and soon, everyone else started making copycat humbuckers, altering the design slightly to avoid infringing Gibson’s patent. Gretsch had the Filtertron pickups, Fender got on the bandwagon in 1972 with their Wide Range pickup. The big pickup companies like DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan appeared after Gibson’s patent had expired.
Now days a 1959 Les Paul in good condition can cost between $200,000 and $750,000, even by the mid 1960s prices for Les Pauls had begun to increase. With this value in mind, and with increased pressure from the public, Gibson re-introduced the single cutaway Les Paul in 1968.
Over the years the Gibson Guitar Company has gone through ownership changes and subsequently so did the Les Paul electric guitars, most notably, the change to the neck volute or angle of tilt on the headstock. Les Paul electric guitars had a reputation of breaking at neck joint. A straighter volute strengthened the neck where it joined the headstock. The neck woods were changed from mahogany to a three-piece maple design to give it more strength as well. Also, the body was changed from a one piece mahogany with a maple top into multiple slabs of mahogany with multiple pieced maple tops.
In the 70s, Gibson also began experimenting with new models such as the Les Paul Recording. The Recording featured low-impedance pickups, many switches and buttons, and a highly specialized cable for matching impedance to the amplifier. We also saw the Les Paul body shape incorporated into other Gibson models such as the S-1, the Sonex, the L6-S, and other experimental models.
In the mid 1980s, Gibson changed ownership and began manufacturing a range of Les Pauls. The 1980s also saw the end to several design characteristics that were classic to Les Paul electrics, including the volute and maple neck. Today the guitar is available in an array of choices, ranging from models equipped with digital electronics like the Robot to classic re-issue models built to match the look and specifications of the earliest production runs from 1952 to 1960.
What’s your favorite?