In 1950, the ancestors of Fender Telecaster (Fender Esquire and Fender Broadcaster) were introduced to the musical market and solid-body electric guitars became a public craze. In reaction to market demand, Gibson Guitar president Ted McCarty brought guitarist Les Paul into the company as a consultant. Les Paul was a respected innovator who had been experimenting with guitar design for years. He hand-built a solid-body prototype called “The Log”, often suggested as the first solid-body Spanish guitar ever built. “The Log” was given its name from the pine block running through the middle of the guitar whose width and depth are a little more than the width of the fretboard; conventional hollow guitar sides or “wings” were added for shape. Although numerous other prototypes and limited-production solid-body models by other makers have since surfaced, it is known that in 1945–1946, Les Paul had approached Gibson with “The Log” prototype, but his solid body design was rejected.
In 1951, Paul, McCarty and his team at the Gibson Guitar Corporation began work on what would eventually become the Les Paul Model. Early prototypes are very similar to the final version. The new Les Paul guitar was to be an expensive, well-made instrument in accordance with Gibson’s reputation at the time. Although recollections differ regarding who contributed what to the Les Paul design, it was far from a replica of rival guitar manufacturer Fender’s models. Additionally, Gibson’s president Ted McCarty stated that the Gibson Guitar Corporation approached Les Paul for the right to imprint the musician’s name on the headstock with the intention of increasing sales; in 1951, Gibson presented Paul a nearly finished instrument for approval. Subsequently, McCarty claimed that design discussions with Les Paul were limited to the tailpiece and the fitting of a maple cap over the mahogany body for increased density and sustain, which Les Paul had requested reversed. However, this reversal would have caused the guitar to become too heavy, and Paul’s request was refused. Paul states that the original Custom should have had the maple cap and the Goldtop was to be all mahogany. The Custom did not appear on the market for another two years following the introduction of the Goldtop; it is possible that Gibson had planned a full model range of guitars (with a roll-out over the course of several years) at the time when initial specifications were being set. Les Paul’s contributions to the guitar line bearing his name were more than cosmetic, but certainly included them. For example, Paul specified that the guitar be offered in a gold finish, not only for flashiness, but to emphasize the high quality of the Gibson Les Paul instrument. The later-issue Les Paul models included flame maple (tiger stripe) and “quilted” maple tops, again in contrast to the competing Fender line’s range of car-like custom color finishes.
The 1952 Les Pauls featured two P-90 single coil pickups, and a one-piece, ‘trapeze’-style bridge/tailpiece with strings fitted under (instead of over) a steel stop-bar.
A second Les Paul model was introduced in 1953. Called the Les Paul Custom, this black guitar with gold-plated hardware was dubbed the “Black Beauty.” Various bridge and tailpiece designs were added in 1953 and 1954, including the popular Tune-o-matic bridge. The Goldtop and Custom models continued without significant changes until 1957. In 1957, P-90 pickups were no longer offered on Les Pauls. New humbucker pickups designed by Seth Lover in 1955 (U.S. Patent 2,896,491) debuted on Les Pauls in 1957. This innovation in pickups became the flagship pickup design most associated with Gibson. Many other guitar companies followed suit, outfitting their electrics with versions of the humbucking pickup.
In 1958, the Les Paul saw its first major design change. A new model, called the Standard, retained most features of the 1957 Goldtop. However, Standards featured a cherry-red sunburst finish. These guitars were priced higher than the Goldtop models, but lower than the Customs. At this time, Gibson instruments were marketed toward an older, jazz-oriented audience rather than young burgeoning guitarists. As a result, over the three-year period of production, only c. 1,700 Standards were made.
These Les Pauls were considered to be too heavy and old-fashioned, and they initially did not find favor amongst guitarists. In 1961, Gibson stopped producing the traditional Les Paul in favor of a lighter redesign which was later called the SG. The mid-1960s, however, brought a resurgence of interest in the Les Paul Standard. In 1964, The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards began using a sunburst, 1959 Les Paul Standard – becoming the first “star-guitarist” to play a Les Paul on the British scene. The guitar, outfitted with a Bigsby tailpiece, served as one of the guitarist’s prominent instruments and provided the first impetus to the use of Les Pauls during the British blues boom. In 1965, Eric Clapton began using Les Pauls because of the influence of Freddie King and Hubert Sumlin, and played a 1960 Standard on the groundbreaking album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. In America, Mike Bloomfield began using a 1954 Les Paul goldtop while touring with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and recorded most of his work on the band’s East-West album with that guitar. A year later, he traded it for a 1959 Standard with which he became most identified. Concurrently, artists such as Peter Green, Jeff Beck, Paul Kossoff, and Jimmy Page began using sunburst Les Paul Standards in the late 1960s. Responding to this influence and increased pressure from the public, Gibson reintroduced Les’ single-cutaway guitar in July 1968.
ECL AND NORLIN-ERA (1969–85)
In 1969, Gibson’s parent company (Chicago Musical Instruments) was taken over by the conglomerate ECL. Gibson remained under the control of CMI until 1974 when it became a subsidiary of Norlin Musical Instruments. These ownership changes, often called the “Norlin Era,” caused Gibson products of the time to decline in quality. Les Paul designs were altered and a reinforced upper neck volute to decrease headstock breaks was added. Neck woods were changed from one-piece mahogany to a three-piece maple design. The body was also changed from one-piece mahogany with a maple top to multiple slabs of mahogany with multiple pieced maple tops. This is referred to as “multipiece” construction, and sometimes incorrectly referred to as a “pancake” body. The expression “pancake body” actually refers to a body made of a thin layer of maple sandwiched between two slabs of mahogany, with a maple cap. The grain of the maple was placed at 90 degrees to that of the mahogany. The “pancake”-like layers are clearly visible when looking at the edge of the guitar. This process is also known as “crossbanding”, and was done to make use of less expensive and more readily available thinner mahogany. Crossbanding was phased out by 1977.
In this era, Gibson began experimenting with new models, such as the Les Paul Recording. This guitar was generally unpopular with guitarists because of its complex electronics. Less noticeable changes included, but were not limited to, optional maple fingerboards (added in 1976), pickup cavity shielding, and the crossover of the ABR1 Tune-o-matic bridge into the wide “Nashville” bridge. During the 1970s, the Les Paul body shape was incorporated into other Gibson models, including the S-1, the Sonex, the L6-S, and other models that did not follow the classic Les Paul layout.
MODERN LES PAULS (1986–PRESENT)
In January 1986, Gibson again changed ownership and began manufacturing a range of varied Les Paul models. The 1980s also saw the end to several design characteristics, including the volute and maple neck. However, because of consumer demand, the Gibson Les Paul guitar is available today in a wide array of choices, ranging from guitars equipped with modern digital electronics to classic re-issue models built to match the look and specifications of the guitar’s earliest production runs from 1952 to 1960.
In 1986, to respond to the high demand for vintage models, Gibson formed a “Custom Shop” division. Originally, the Shop began producing accurate reproductions of early Les Pauls as well as one-off orders. Today, the Custom Shop produces numerous limited-run “historic-spec” models, as well as signature artist models. The first Custom Shop artist guitar was the 1996 Joe Perry Les Paul.
MODELS AND VARIATIONS
Standard (1958 – 60, 1968 – present)
In 1958, new Standard model retained most specifications of the 1957 Goldtop, including PAF humbucker pickups, a maple top, and a tune-o-matic bridge with a stop tailpiece or Bigsby vibrato tailpiece. The gold color used since 1952 was replaced by a cherry-red version of the Sunburst finish long used on Gibson’s flat-top and archtop acoustic and hollow electric guitars. Since the maple cap was now visible, tops were made either with a solid “plaintop” piece of maple or two bookmatched pieces of figured (curly or quilted) maple. To differentiate from the earlier Goldtop model, the new Les Paul was referred to as The Les Paul Standard. Specifications during 1958–60 varied from year to year and also from guitar to guitar. Typical 1958 Les Paul Standard necks had a thicker neck, thinner frets and lower fret height, which changed during the course of 1959 to develop into typical 1960 necks with a thinner cross-section and wider, higher frets.[note 6][note 7] Original production of the Standards lasted from 1958 to early 1961. Only about 1,700 of these early models were made and have subsequently become highly valuable.
Production ended when, in 1961, Gibson redesigned the Les Paul to feature a “double cutaway” body, which has subsequently become the Gibson SG. Because of high demand, Gibson resumed production of Les Paul Standards in 1968.
The post-1954 Les Paul guitar line included two models: the Standard (nicknamed the Goldtop), and the Custom (which offered gold hardware and a more formal black finish). However, advancements in pickup, body, and hardware designs allowed the Les Paul to become a long-term series of electric solid-body guitars that targeted multiple price-points and market levels.
Goldtops, the first Les Paul model, were produced from 1952–1957. Early 1952 Les Pauls were not issued serial numbers, did not have bound fingerboards, and are considered by some as “LP Model prototypes”. However, later 1952 Les Pauls were issued serial numbers and also came with bound fingerboards. Interestingly, the design scheme of some of these early models varied. For instance, some early Les Pauls were fitted with black covered P90 pickups instead of the cream-colored plastic covers that are associated with this guitar. The weight and the tonal characteristics of the Goldtop Les Paul were largely due to the mahogany and maple construction.
In 1953, the trapeze tailpiece was dropped, and a new stopbar design was added. This design combined a pre-intonated bridge and tailpiece with two studs just behind the bridge pickup. This increased the sustain of the Goldtop noticeably; however, the intonation and string height adjustability were limited. A new design, the Tune-o-matic, replaced the stopbar in 1955. It consisted of a separate bridge and tailpiece attached directly to the top of the guitar, combining an easily adjustable bridge with a sustain-carrying tailpiece. This design has been used on most Les Pauls ever since.
Custom (1954–60, 1968–present)
The Les Paul Custom features gold hardware, multilayer binding including the headstock, ebony fingerboard, real mother-of-pearl inlays and two or three-pickup layout. 1950s Customs were all-mahogany, rather than the mahogany-with-maple-cap of the Goldtop. The original Customs were fitted with a P-90 pickup in the bridge position and an Alnico V “staple” pickup in the neck. In 1957, the Custom was fitted with Gibson’s new PAF humbucker pickups, and later became available with three pickups instead of the usual two. The traditional Les Paul Custom was discontinued in 1961 and its name transferred to the custom version of the then-new Gibson SG.
In 1968, Gibson reintroduced the Les Paul Custom as a two-pickup-only model. The headstock angle was changed from 17 degrees to 14, and a wider headstock and a maple top (in lieu of the original 1953-1961 mahogany top construction) were added. White and two sunburst finish options were added to the color palette in 1974. Also new in 1974 was the optional TP-6 fine-tuner tailpiece, allowing for micro-adjustment of string tuning from the bridge. The mahogany neck was replaced with a three-piece maple neck in 1975 (though mahogany still saw limited use) with this change lasting till around 1982. Popular colors, such as wine red and “silverburst,” were added in the 1980s. Gibson currently produces several Custom models with various finishes and pickups.
Junior (1954–60, 2015–present) and TV (1955–60)
In 1954, the Les Paul Junior debuted, targeted the beginning or student guitarist. The Junior is characterized by its flat-top “slab” mahogany body, finished in sunburst. It had a single P-90 pickup, simple volume and tone controls, an unbound rosewood fingerboard with plain dot-shape position markers, and a combination bridge/tailpiece unit similar to the Goldtop.
In 1955, Gibson launched the Les Paul TV model, which was essentially a Junior with what Gibson called a natural finish. This finish was more of a translucent mustard yellow through which the wood grain could be seen, and was not unlike the finish that competitor Fender called butterscotch yellow. The idea behind this TV Yellow was that white guitars would glare too much on early black and white television broadcasts, whereas TV Yellow guitars would not cast a glare yet still appear white onscreen.
Gibson made a radical design change to their Junior and TV models in 1958: to accommodate player requests for more access to the top frets than the previous designs allowed, these electric guitar models were revamped with a new double-cutaway body shape. In addition, Juniors were now available with a cherry red finish, while the re-shaped TV adopted a more yellow-tinged finish.
Special (1955 – 60)
The Les Paul Special was released in 1955, featuring a slab body, two soapbar P-90 single coil pickups, and was finished in a color similar to TV Yellow (but not called a TV model).
In 1959, the Special was given the same new double-cutaway body shape as the Junior and the TV received in 1958. Around this time, Les Paul decided to discontinue his affiliation with Gibson; the model was renamed “SG Special” in late 1959. However, when the new design was applied to the two-pickup Special, the cavity for the neck pickup overlapped 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 designers moved the neck pickup farther down the body, producing a stronger joint and eliminating the breakage problem.
Les Paul SG (1961 – 63)
In 1960, Gibson experienced a decline in electric guitar sales due to strong competition from Fender’s comparable but much lighter double-cutaway design, the Stratocaster. In response, Gibson modified the Les Paul line. For 1961, the Les Paul was thinner and much lighter than earlier models, with two sharply pointed cutaways and a vibrato system. However, the redesign was done without Les Paul’s knowledge. Although pleased with the sound, he hated the design, so he asked Gibson to remove his name from the instrument until they fixed the design issue. This separation occurred in 1960, but Gibson had a surplus stock of “Les Paul” logos and truss rod covers, and so continued to use the Les Paul name until 1963. At that point, the guitar’s name was finally changed to “SG”, which initially stood for “Second Generation”, contrary to popular belief it did not originally mean “Solid Guitar”. In addition to the SG line, Gibson continued to issue the less expensive Juniors and Specials (and the Gibson Melody Makers) with the newer body style. These, together with the Firebird, were the standard Gibson solid-body models until the reintroduction of the Les Paul Standard Goldtop and the Les Paul Custom guitars to the market in 1968.
Deluxe (1968 – 84, 2005 – present)
The Deluxe was among the “new” 1968 Les Pauls. This model featured “mini-humbuckers”, also known as “New York” humbuckers, and did not initially prove popular. The mini-humbucker pickup fit into the pre-carved P-90 pickup cavity using an adaptor ring developed by Gibson in order to use a surplus supply of Epiphone mini-humbuckers. The Deluxe was introduced in late 1968 and helped to standardize production among Gibson’s U.S.-built Les Pauls. The first incarnation of the Deluxe featured a one-piece body and slim three-piece neck. The multipiece body (a thin layer of maple on top of two layers of Honduran mahogany) arrived in 1969. In late 1969, a reinforcing neck volute was added. 1969 Deluxes feature the Gibson logo devoid of the dot over the “i” in Gibson. By late 1969/early 1970, the dot over the “i” had returned, plus a “Made In USA” stamp on the back of the headstock. The Deluxe could be specially-ordered with full-size humbucker pickups; such full size versions of the Deluxe were “Standard” spec. By 1975, the neck construction was changed from mahogany to maple, until the early 1980s, when the construction was returned to mahogany. The body changed back to solid mahogany from the pancake design in late 1976 or early 1977. Interest in this particular Les Paul model was so low that in 1985, Gibson canceled it. In 2005, the Deluxe was re-introduced.
In 1978, the Les Paul Pro Deluxe was introduced. This guitar featured P-90 pickups instead of the “mini-humbuckers” of the Deluxe model, an ebony fingerboard, maple neck, mahogany body and chrome hardware. It came in ebony, cherry sunburst, tobacco sunburst or gold finish. It was discontinued in 1983.
The Gibson Dark Fire
A variant of the Gibson Les Paul, was an electric solid body guitar produced by Gibson Guitar Corporation. It was a second generation Robot Guitar, using an updated version of the Powertune self-tuning system produced by Tronical Gmbh. The Dark Fire also introduced Gibson’s Chameleon Tone Technology, a system consisting of onboard electronics designed to simulate various guitar tones. Additionally, the guitar included an audio interface called the Robot Interface Pack or RIP.
Pickups: the Dark Fire had one Burstbucker 3 humbucker in the bridge position, a P-90H at the neck, and a special Tronical-designed piezoelectric tune-o-matic sat in the place of the bridge. The Burstbucker 3 and P-90H were selected via the three-way selector switch. The piezoelectric could be activated via the MCK, blending the magnetic and piezoelectric together under a standard 1/4″ guitar cable. Gibson supplied a TRS stereo cable that allowed the piezo signal and the magnetic signal to be split between two different amps.
The Studio model was introduced in 1983, and is still in production. The guitar is intended for the studio musician; therefore, the design features of the “Les Paul Studio” are centered on optimal sound output and not on flashy appearance. This model retains only the elements of the Gibson Les Paul that contribute to tone and playability, including the carved maple top and standard mechanical and electronic hardware. However, the Studio design omits several stock Gibson ornamentations that do not affect sound quality, including body/neck binding. The first Studios from 1983 to 1986 were made with alder bodies rather than mahogany/maple. The current Studios come with a chambered mahogany body with either a maple or mahogany cap. The entry level Les Paul Studio “faded” has a chambered mahogany body and top and a satin finish.
Gibson released the ES-Les Paul in 2015. It is a semi-acoustic model with f-holes and two Alnico humbuckers. The neck is mahogany, but the sides and back are laminated maple and poplar. A mahogany block runs throughout the body to increase sustain.
Until his death in August 2009, Les Paul himself played his personal Les Paul Guitar onstage weekly in New York City. Paul preferred his 1971 Gibson “Recording” model guitar, with different electronics and a one-piece mahogany body, and which, as an inveterate tinkerer and inventor, he had modified heavily to his liking over the years. A Bigsby-style vibrato was of late the most visible change although his guitars were formerly fitted with his “Les Paulverizer” effects.
The Gibson-owned Epiphone Company makes around 20 models of the Les Paul, most are similar copies of Gibson-made models. Made in places outside the U.S., the Epiphone Les Pauls are made from more commonly available woods using less expensive foreign labor and have less hand detailing than the Gibson models, and, as a result, sell for a lower price. Epiphone Guitar Co. has been owned by Gibson Guitars since the 1950s.
Epiphone also makes several less common models of the Les Paul such as the Les Paul Goth, Les Paul Ultra/Ultra II, Les Paul Prophecy, and Les Paul Tribute Plus.