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Gibson Les Paul: Exploring the Legacy of an Icon

Gibson Les Paul: Exploring the Legacy of an Icon

As many guitar players know, Gibson has been topping the list for decades as the guitars to own. Spanning centuries, Gibson has provided some of the sounds that guitar players dream of and has cemented itself as a staple of rock and roll, from Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Guns and Roses, ACDC and beyond. The Gibson Les Paul is just one model of many in the Gibson Brands family, and it's the one we turn our attention to now. But first.

A brief history of Gibson

The history of Gibson starts in 1894 when Orville Gibson started to build arch-top guitars and mandolins. These early models clearly demonstrated Orville’s mastery of building stringed instruments that would not only stand the test of time but also create a sound, tone and playability that would impress all the greatest players at the time and in future. 

Gibson was purchased by Chicago Musical Instruments in 1944 and later purchased again by what is now known as the Norlin Corporation in 1969.

During these changes, Gibson guitars retained their integrity making small changes to models where manufacturing was concerned yet still producing excellently built, high-quality guitars.

Gibson has produced some incredible designs over the last century which included the phenomenal Gibson Les Paul, SG, Flying V, Explorer, Firebird and a whole slew of models which had influenced pretty much all of the guitarists that are now considered legends. 

The Juszkiewicz years

In 1986, Henry Juszkiewicz and a group of investors bought Gibson again and the brand grew in its popularity. In more recent years, around 2006, the Gibson brand started to receive poor reviews on the quality of their products, this was due to changes and direction within the guitar industry.

Reports of poor finishing on many of the standard Gibson models and the inclusion of different yet unwanted technology built into the guitars pushed them further from the guitar-buying public as the prices and quality were noticed heavily.

On May 1st, 2018, the Gibson company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as a direct result of poor business decisions and sub-quality instruments. 

Gibson reborn

As of 23rd October 2018, Gibson announced new president and chief executive office (CEO) James Curleigh and new chief merchant officer (CMO) Cesar Gueikian.

From this moment, the Gibson brand was revamped and promised to deliver guitars that harkened back to the golden era of electric guitar building.

Gibson President and CEO, James "JC" Curleigh

During 2019, Gibson appointed Mark Agnesi to assist in the creation of the new Gibson guitars, Agnesi had become a figurehead in the guitar industry due to his time working closely with Norm Harris of Norm’s Rare Guitars in Tarzana, California. 

Agnesi demonstrated that his passion for cool guitars and likeable personality meant he was clearly the best person to have onboard for Gibson to rebuild from the damage done in previous years. 

The newest line of Gibson models that we stock here at Dawsons Music is testament to the direction that Gibson is embarking on.

Gibson Les Paul models of the '50s

The Gibson Les Paul model first hit shelves back in 1952 with the ever-cool Goldtop model, so-called due to its gold finish which is still desired by many guitar players to this day.

Les Paul was a famous guitar player from the 1940s that had a knack for inventing electronics and recording equipment. Les Paul’s pioneering inventions are responsible for many of the songs you’ve heard over the years as he was instrumental in double-track recording and many other inventions for amplified sound and recording. 

The Les Paul guitar has changed very little since its creation, the model has had cosmetic changes, however. The construction changed and involved the now legendary humbucker pickups in 1957 which was created by Seth Lover. 

The first ranges of Les Paul Models in the late 1950s were: 

Goldtop: Originally fitted with P90 pickups and a variety of bridge configurations, all gold finish. Later models were fitted with humbuckers after their creation in 1957.

Custom: More lavish than the gold top as the guitar included mother of pearl inlays, front and back triple bound body, ebony fretboard and gold hardware. This was the guitar of choice for big band players as it would match their tuxedos. Later models in 1959, included an extra pickup in the middle position.

Standard: These models came with a book-matched, flame maple, carved top and were finished in the iconic cherry sunburst finish. These featured humbuckers, an ABR-1 bridge and a stop tailpiece. 

Special: The Special was a cheaper version of the Les Paul model yet still included specifications of the more expensive models minus the aesthetics and came in single and double cutaway versions throughout the 1950s.

Junior: A stripped-down, affordable, student model that was designed for the younger generation of players that needed a beginner’s guitar. These would feature the bare minimum of features, one P90 pickup, one volume, one tone and a single wrap-around tailpiece. 

Any example of an original guitar listed above would start from £5,000 for a good condition Les Paul Junior and upwards of £200,000 for a Les Paul Standard from 1959.

The influential 1960s

The 1960s was an interesting time for music and for Gibson also, the Les Paul line ceased in 1960 and the model was picked up by such players as Eric Clapton who managed to find one in London just prior to joining John Mayall and his BluesBreakers band, the rest is guitar history. Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, George Harrison and Peter Green also found a home with the Gibson Les Paul slung around their neck and the Les Paul model began to get noticed a lot more. 

The Gibson Les Paul Custom and Gold Top arrived back in the Gibson catalogue in 1968 and the popularity for Gibson guitars began to grow again. Nowadays, a Custom or a genuine gold top are only available through the Gibson Custom Shop division. 

Since 1968, the Gibson guitar company has included the Les Paul models and have sold over 3 million guitars bearing Les’ name.

Gibson Les Paul: the current range

As of 2019, Gibson managed to restore many of its models to their former glory. For those of you who have experienced less than desirable issues with previous models, you will be relieved to know the following on the new models...Gone are the models with the tuning system of which we will not speak that you will find many of clogging up your Reverb or eBay feed, the new Les Paul Standards are back to the good old days, let’s take a look at the Gibson Les Paul Standard models and compare some of the specifications…

How are they constructed?

The new line of Gibson Les Paul Standards come with a solid mahogany body, rosewood fretboard and a carved maple top...just like the good old days. This is a response to the calls from players that didn’t like the chambered body of the models from the past decade.

The response was that if you wanted to emulate the tone that you associated with a great Gibson guitar, you needed a weighty, solid piece of mahogany for fantastic sustain and thick, rich tones. The models prior had included a chambered body which lost sustain and overall tone. Albeit allowing chiropractors a rest from their regular, Les Paul playing patients…

2019 also saw the electrics return to their former glory, gone are the circuit boards that were made in China with plug-in electrics and returning to the cavities were CTS pots and Switchcraft jacks with the correct braided wire. It would seem that players spoke and Gibson listened with this one.

These “new” electrics are exactly the same as the electrics that you’d find in a vintage 1959 Les Paul Standard...still working after all that time. Meaning the new electrics have a long, trouble-free life ahead of them. 

The guitars have correct neck angles allowing for perfect string tension and more resonance in playing. 

The humbuckers in the latest models include BurstBucker 61R and 61T units that are specifically vintage voiced with alnico 2 magnets. These pickups have received favourable reviews from industry, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

Gibson has also gone even further with this range by adding P90’s as an option on the 50’s standard. You too can now have a solid gold top Les Paul with a screaming pair of P90’s without having to take out a loan. 

These are all now hand-wired with orange drop capacitors, named as they are brightly coloured in orange and give a greater tonal range when using either pickup or mix. 

The new Les Paul Standard guitars also come with a choice of neck profile.

1950’s or 1960’s neck

This option is to suit the player’s hand, the original models from the 1950s were fitted with a fairly large and rounded neck profile which suited some and not others. 1960’s Gibson guitars came with a slightly slimmer neck profile which was loved by some and not others. It’s a matter of taste and hand size that’s a factor here. Both necks are available on each guitar with subtle differences in appearance. 

The easy way to tell which model has which neck without playing or holding is to check the control knobs on each Les Paul, the 50’s profile ones have the all-gold knobs and the 60’s ones have the gold knobs with the silver insert on the top. 

Let's talk about hardware

The latest models have returned to using good quality hardware with a cast tailpiece and a Nashville bridge. This isn’t to be confused with the ABR-1 bridge which many retailers seem to think is included on this model. 

The Nashville bridge sits in two threaded collars that are embedded into the guitar’s body. The ABR-1 is the method where the posts that the bridge sits on, are drilled directly into the body with no collar. 

The ABR-1 is commonly seen on older guitars and vintage reissue models whereas the Nashville bridge is the most cost and labour saving. 

Elsewhere on the guitar, you can find the excellent Grover Rotomatic-style machine-heads. These have proven themselves over time to be a fine machine head on a Gibson guitar, Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield can’t be wrong. 

Over the years, the Les Paul model has gone through numerous changes and the change at the end of 2019 has been one of the greatest changes since the Les Paul Standards from the early 2000s. 

Flame on!

Gibson has also opted for a gloss nitrocellulose finish for all of the new Les Paul Standards and it literally is like holding a piece of Gibson history in your hands. 

It’s not thickly applied and has that sweet scent that only nitro-finishes can give. 

You’ll find that the new Standards come in a variety of finishes to display the beautifully matched AA flame tops that have been used in the new range. Except for the gold tops, but hey, you get P90’s on those, so can’t complain too much!

The finishes available are as follows:

'60s Les Paul Standard

Unburst: Think Paul Kossoff, Free Live at the Isle Of Wight 1970

Iced Tea: Think Jeff Beck, Truth Era 1968

Bourbon Burst: Think Duane Allman, Live at the Fillmore East 1970

'50s Les Paul Standard

  • Gold Top: YouTube clip of Slash playing the Godfather theme in Japan, badass!
  • Heritage Cherry Sunburst: Jimmy Page-style
  • Tobacco Burst: Think Ace Frehley in Kiss’ early years

Case closed

To transport your new arrival, Gibson has returned to the glory days once again and is no longer using alternative case manufacturers.

Gibson Les Paul’s from the 1950s were sold with Lifton cases which were a light tan colour with a plush, pink interior. These cases are a work of art, each was made by hand and they have all aged as beautifully as the guitars contained within. 

Over the years, Gibson started using different companies in the ’60s and '70s where the, now sought after “Chainsaw” cases appeared. During the ’80s through to 2006, Gibson used a company called TKL to make the cases for their guitars. These were tan and pink-lined once again and are great cases. 

Gibson started to use a black and grey interior case on the early 2000 range of guitars, these were still manufactured by TKL.

Later in 2006, Gibson began using a white plush lining in a black case, this was initially well-received until it was noted that the case would inherently pick up the sweat from the strings and eventually leave a rusty, brown stain on the inside of the case where the strings lay.

The latest cases included with the 2019 range include a TKL case in a brown and pink colourway. Thank you, Gibson, for listening.

Now that we've convinced you...

To conclude, Gibson is back in top form making great guitars again, these new Les Paul models are a testament to that, if you’re still in doubt, go and check one out for yourself at Dawsons Music.

If you’re as sceptical as I was, you’re about to have your mind changed with a well-built, beautifully playing Les Paul Standard. These guitars are not only a joy to play, but they are also a pleasure to own.