Gibson’s classic electric guitar, the Les Paul, is rightly titled the Mother of Rock Guitar. Jimmy Page, Slash and Gary Moore and countless others made rock history with this beast and immortalized it with their legendary recordings. And even if vintage guitars are more coveted than ever, Gibson luthiers have not compromised the tradition and know-how and continue to master their craft.
Here are 10 things that you may not yet know about this work of art called the Les Paul…
Gibson’s first “Solid Body” guitar
Les Paul was the first solid body guitar made by Gibson. It appeared on the market in 1952 and was still equipped with single coil pickups (P-90). A few years earlier, in 1946, a well-known guitarist of that era, Les Paul, proposed the idea of a solid wood guitar to Gibson, but received only a chuckle and a smile. It wasn’t till Fender succeeded with the Broadcaster that the concept of Les Paul began to be put into production.
The body size
The Les Paul’s body didn’t originally have the standard size we know today. It was supposed to have the shape and size of semi-acoustic models, but after the first prototypes were made it was clear that the guitar would be way too heavy. Therefore, only a smaller body could be suitable for such a project.
The 1952 Les Paul Goldtop began with a sale price of $210. Compared to today’s prices for 1950s-made instruments, which can sometimes be found in the 5-figure bracket, this sounds like peanuts. At the time, however, the average income in the United States was $265 per month, so it took a full month’s salary to afford one of these beasts.
Double coil pickups “buck” (or stop) the hum caused by single-coil pickups, hence their most common name, the “humbucker“. They were developed by Seth Lover in the mid-1950s and were labelled “Patent Applied For“. In the early ’60s they were replaced by the Patent Number pickups, essentially a refined version of the PAF. These days, Gibson and other manufacturers still make the PAF, as closely as possible to its original construction.
The Golden Years: 1958 – 1960
The Les Paul with two humbucker pickups later became the “Les Paul Standard” and appeared on the market in 1958 and was available for $247.50. Between 1958 and 1960, 1712 instruments were made by a small team of 12 luthiers in Kalamazoo, Michigan. These instruments are now considered to be the Holy Grail of all Les Pauls and are very sought after. In recent years, Gibson has been making (virtually) identical guitars, with all the original specifications, in the Custom Shop.
A little break: 1961 – 1967
It’s hard to believe that Les Paul guitars were not selling well in their early years. In 1961, production was even forced to stop. It wasn’t until the mid- to late-60s, when British rock bands like Cream and The Rolling Stones made rock ‘n’ roll history, that production picked up again.
Les Paul – SG
The new “and improved” model of the Les Paul came to replace the Standard with it’s double cutaway shape, which we now know as the “Gibson SG“. For the first two years it was still called the “Les Paul – SG” but Les Paul didn’t want to be associated with this model. He didn’t like the shape with two pointed “horns” and didn’t want it to be branded with his name. In the end, the decision was made to simply call the guitar the “SG“.
Well-known Les Paul models
Like the Fender Stratocaster, there are certain “legendary” models of the Les Paul, which, next to their instrumentalists, have a place in rock ‘n’ roll history. First of all there is Peter Green’s 1959 Burst called “Greeny” with which most of Fleetwood Mac’s albums were recorded. Jimmy Page, in the meantime, had a “Black Beauty” with three pickups and a Bigsby vibrato; with which he started his session work in the 1960s and with which he recorded on Led Zeppelin’s first album. The guitar was stolen at an airport and, despite the promised reward, has been considered missing since. Similarly, Eric Clapton’s Les Paul “Beano”, a 1960 model, with which Clapton recorded John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers album, also disappeared. The British guitarist Bernie Marsden (UFO, Whitesnake) owns the “Beast”, also famous thanks to Joe Bonamassa who borrowed it for some of his concerts.
The very mundane explanation for the Beast’s enormous output level
Sometimes small accidents make an instrument what it is. When Bernie Marsden visited the Gibson plant, he talked to an elderly woman who wound the pickups for Gibson. When he asked her about the secret of the very high output of her pickups, the lady gave him an unbelievable answer: after lunch break, someone may have wound the pickup and didn’t notice that it had already been partially wound. Therefore, the pickups have been wound with a little more wire than expected and therefore have more power.
Fitting the strings over the tailpiece
A little trick to improve the feel of play, especially with thicker strings, is the Top Wrapping method. To do this, the strings must first be turned backwards so that the locking wheel is on the pickup side. Then you bring the string back over the tailpiece and guide it to the mechanics. This reduces the angle of the strings to the nut, which supposedly gives more sustain and also a better feeling of play. Joe Bonamassa swears by this variation and uses strings with a gauge of .011 – .052.