For me, LesPaul guitars are all about the 9 years from 1952 to 1960. Gibson introduced their first solid body electric and over the decade arrived at the pinnacle of
electric guitar design.
This article will trace the steps of the Les Paul’s evolution and serve as an introduction to the Les Paul models I
The Les Paul was not the first solid body electric guitar to hit the market. Eighteen years earlier, Rickenbacker released a lap steel guitar known as the “Frying Pan” that is widely considered to be the first solid body electric ever manufactured. Fender released the Broadcaster in 1950, two years prior to the release of the Les Paul. But even before these, some 60 years before the Les Paul, company founder Orville Gibson had designed the arch top guitar. In 1936, Gibson issued the ES150, their first hollow body electric guitar. When it came to designing the Les Paul, the company poured in decades of skills and craftsmanship and the result
was a guitar that was a work of art in itself.
Les Paul had been pitching his vision of a solid body guitar to Gibson executives since the 1940a. They rejected his designed, calling it “The Log” due to its solid center piece of mahogany. As Fender was experiencing success with the Broadcaster, it was time for Gibson to reconsider the validity of Les Paul’s early approach.
Gibson introduced the Les Paul Standard's forerunner, the Goldtop in 1952 with its renowned P-90 pickups, Gibson’s flagship single coil pickup since 1946. The Les Paul had an
intricately fashioned arch top made of maple placed on a solid mahogany body. It included a glued in neck with an adjustable truss rod and a pitched headstock. Also integrated in the deign were the accouterments that helped distinguish the leader in electric guitars from the rest like a bound fret board and raised pick guard that soon appeared in late ‘’52. However, the very first Goldtops had no neck binding and different shaped and routed control
Although the Les Paul took off from the very time it appeared on the market, the design was still in its infancy. The original ’52 Les Paul featured two P90 pickups and used a trapeze bridge that didn’t allow for palm muted playing.
Additionally, the ’52 had the neck set at too shallow an
angle, making for less than favorable intonation. The trapeze
tail issue was abandoned in mid 1953 and was replaced with a wrap around stoptail bridge. The early 1953 wrap-around models still had a shallow neck angle, limiting the downward
adjustment of the stop bar. But this had the added benefit of keeping the strings close to the pickups, making early 1953 models with wrap tails very loud guitars. But as 1954 approached, the neck angle increased allowing more downward adjustment of the wrap around tailpiece. Regardless, the 1953 stoptail Les Paul Goldtops had better playing action, and the tuning was more stable since the stop bar was now anchored to the top of the guitar allowing no movement side-to-side. The previous problem of right-hand palm muting was solved, as was the tuning problems from tailpiece movement. Although this was a big improvement on the 1952 design, it still had its limitations with respect to intonation.
Nineteen fifty four would see not only more improvements to the Goldtop and new bridge innovations, but the introduction of an entirely different, but related line of Les Paul, known as the Les Paul Custom. It is said that Les Paul himself always envisioned two lines of Les Paul. One would be the Standard, a Goldtop with nickel hardware, and the other would be a Custom model that would be the crème de la crème. The Les Paul Custom would be dressed in formal wear, like the tux a jazz artist might pull on for a major performance, with a high-gloss Ebony black finish, multi-ply binding on body and headstock, an ebony fingerboard with pearl block markers, a larger headstock with mother-of-pearl split-diamond inlay, and gold-plated hardware throughout. As for it’s electronics, the Custom model would sport a P90 at the bridge and an Alnico (Staple) pickup at the neck. But perhaps the biggest innovation was to be found in its new ABR Tune-o-matic bridge, designed by then Gibson CEO, Ted McCarty. The Tune-o-matic bridge worked in tandem with the existing stoptail and had individual string saddles for precise intonation adjustment, and easy height adjustment via a pair of thumb-wheels on its body-mounted bolts. By 1955, Gibson had made great progress in addressing issues of tuning, intonation, and overall playability.
In 1955 the Goldtop’s wrap around tailpiece and
accompanying studs changed slightly. The "ears" of the tailpiece changed in thickness from 3/16" to 1/4". The accompanying studs had to change also so the new tailpiece would fit the studs. This increase in ear thickness stopped the ears from cracking at the intonation adjustment screw, which was common on the thinner 3/16" thick ear tailpieces. Pickup spacing changed from 3 1/8" to 3"; this moved the bridge pickup towards the neck just a bit, putting more wood in front of the wrap-around bridge studs (because some models had problems with the wood cracking in front of the treble stud). By fall 1955 the Les Paul Standard changed from the wrap-around tailpiece to a ABR-1 Tune-o-matic bridge and stop tailpiece.
The 1956 Goldtop was now appearing with a stoptail and tune-o-matic bridge, a deeper neck angle, and complete body and neck binding. By 1956 Gibson changed to Sprague's "bumble bee" tube capacitors, which were black with colored value stripes (in the 1968 the same capacitor was again used on the single cutaway Les Paul standard reissues, but Sprague had changed the marketing name of the capacitor to “Black Beauty”). The Bumblebee caps were used from 1956 until 1960 for all pre-SG Les Paul models including Juniors, Specials, Standards and Customs.
Two developments were to come which would change the shape of the Les Paul from a wood plank with strings to a classic. In 1957, Gibson was still attempting like other guitar manufacturers to produce a totally noise free performance from the Les Paul. Around this time, designer Seth Lover entered the picture with his patented humbucking pickup. By placing two coils side by side, Lover discovered he could reduce the noise from hum and other electrical disturbances that single coils were so prone to. The result was a deeper richer sound, free of noise while retaining the full, warm, and sustaining tone that has come to
define the Les Paul.
Once the sound issues had been smoothened, Gibson proceeded to make another change to the Les Paul. This time the change was purely aesthetic. The carved maple tops were coated with a lush, semi-transparent cherry sunburst finish to enhance the beauty of the maple base.
The results were spectacular and the "Burst " as it came to be known as was not only the most stylish but also the most advanced electric guitar on the scene.
The Gibson Les Paul Sun burst guitar from 1958 1959 1960 is the top of the electric guitar heap. Still made today, but the original 58 59 60 Sunburst models are the originals that started it all. Some have a very plain "top" (the maple wood on the top side of the guitar), and some are very "flamey" (the figure in the maple wood that is often called fiddle-back maple). The attractiveness of the wood, the playability, the sound - all these things add up to a guitar that even today seems to be unsurpassed. Many famous players made this their standard guitar such as Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Duane Allman, Jeff Beck, Mike Bloomfield, Saul Hudson (aka Slash, a more modern player) and countless others.
Ironically enough, sales of the Les Paul were declining even as it was undergoing periods of incredible transformation. In 1961, the Les Paul Standard was changed to the flat topped design that we know now as the SG model.
The standard was hugely popular with a number of pop and jazz guitarists including the guitar's namesake Les Paul himself but it was only in the late 60s that the guitar would finally find its true place – in the hands of some of the greatest rock performers of all time. By the late 60s and early 70s, guitar legends like Jimmy Page, Peter Green and Mick Taylor were endorsing the Les Paul as their rock signature.
Although the Les Paul took a while to catch on, its popularity since has never really subsided. The Les Paul is in all its glory when accompanied by visionary artists and although that doesn't happen all too frequently, the magic that occurs when these two get together is worth the wait.
In the following pages, you will hear about a few of these visionary artists who used a Les Paul and you will see my collection of Les Paul guitars. Hope you enjoy.