The history of the Gibson Les Paul

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Gibson Les Paul
Gibson Les Paul

The Gibson Les Paul was first produced early in 1952, the Les Paul was the very first solid body guitar to be produced by the Gibson Company, and was created due to the fact that Leo Fender had proven the viability of such a product with the Fender Telecaster.

With Ted McCarthy at the helm, the Gibson Company wanted to make sure they acquired a share of the solid body market, and came up with the concept of approaching a well known musician, Les Paul, to design a range of solid body electric guitars. Interestingly, Les Paul had already approached Gibson in 1945 with some designs and ideas for an electric solid body guitar, and had been ridiculed by Gibson.

There is some ambiguity over just who designed which parts of the original Les Paul, with Les Paul himself telling a very different story to the Gibson employees at the time. In the Gibson version of the story, the company had already completed the design of the 1952 Les Paul before Les was approached to endorse it, the only modifications he made to the design were bridge and the name itself. The story told by Les himself is a little different, he tells that he already had the ideas for the Gold Top and the Black Custom, and Gibson gave him the final say in every part of the design process.

The original Les Paul design later came to be known as the Gold Top, due to the actual finish of the guitar. Most Les Paul guitars produced in this period came with a maple top that was gold coloured, with the back left natural. Hence gold on top, or Gold Top. The actual finish of the guitar was accomplished using a bronze powder, and over time, this took on a greenish due, resulting in the unmistakable vintage Gold Top look.

A matter of contention was the original Trapeze tailpiece, which was implemented incorrectly by Gibson according to Les Paul. Les had intended for the strings to wrap over the tailpiece, not under as the production models came out. This made playing using right hand dampening techniques virtually impossible. In 1953 Gibson finally decided that Les was right, and changed the tailpiece, as well as the angle that the neck joined the body. This resulted in a vastly improved playing experience. Although these changes worked to a degree, the design still had problems with intonation, and a year later the design was changed again to incorporate the tune-o-matic bridge we find on every Les Paul model, except those with a tremolo fitted, up to this day.

In 1954 Gibson added two new models to the Les Paul line up. The Les Paul Custom and the Les Paul Junior. The Les Paul Custom featured an ebony fret board, and the finish of the guitar was somewhat more detailed. It also featured gold coloured pickups and other hardware, and a glossy black finish. Instead of the duel P90 pickup of the Gold Top models, the neck pickup was swapped out for a single coil pickup, a much louder pickup overall. The Les Paul Junior was a budget model, and had a flat, unmolded body, with no trimming. It used just a single P90 pickup, and strangely incorporated the original, flawed tailpiece design of the original Gold Top.

Arguably the largest change to the Gibson Les Paul design came in 1957, when the P90 pickup was replaced for the humbucker pickups. Designed by the technician Seth Lover, these offered a much higher sound output and a far fuller tone with less treble. These pickups eventually become known as PAF’s as they were patent applied for. Because the PAF pickups were handmade, some pickups would be slightly different, either the person manufacturing them would add more or less windings, or there was a slight difference in raw materials. This meant that the Les Paul sound would be subtly different between individual guitars and this lead to musicians coveting those extras special guitars that seemed to have the better tone.

In 1958 the Gold Top was slowly phased out, to be replaced by sunburst models. The process of creating the sunburst effect. The guitar body would be sprayed with an ultra-violet active dye, and exposed to varying levels of ultra-violet. Again, not 2 guitars came out exactly the same, making some more cosmetically pleasing than others. These early sunburst models are now among the most sought after guitars in the world.

Throughout the period between 1958 and 1960, the Les Paul Sunburst models went through a range of very slight changes. The fret wire was changed, to a thinner, more durable material and the neck profile was reduced. This made the Les Paul Sunburst (often named the Les Paul Standard), the most playable of all the Les Paul models produced since the inception of the design. This is another reason why these sunburst models are so eagerly sought after Oddly enough, the sunburst Les Paul models were not particularly successful at the time they were first introduced. There were only around 1,700 of them actually produced and they were dropped form the Gibson product catalogue entirely in 1960.

It was not until almost a decade later, in the late 1960s that the sunburst model became popular, and it was frequently used by influential guitar players of the age. Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton both used a Les Paul Sunburst alongside their more usual fender Stratocaster. Although it was Jimmy Page who finally put the Gibson Les Paul firmly on the map.

Modern Les Paul guitars follow the same exacting manufacturing process, making them one of the most well put together instruments available. The design has changed very little from the original sunburst days, and the finish is reproduced using modern materials, to create a guitar that appears almost vintage, straight out of the box. Still popular with guitar players across all styles, the Les Paul sound is distinctive and powerful.