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Gibson Les Paul

Gibson Les Paul
Manufacturer Gibson
Period 1952 - 1960, 1968 - present
Body type Solid
Neck joint Set
Body Mahogany, Maple
Neck Mahogany
Fretboard Ebony, Rosewood
Bridge Fixed
Pickup(s) 2 Humbuckers (originally single-coils)
Colors available
Various (often natural-type finishes)

The Gibson Les Paul signature model is among the most recognized solid-body electric guitar designs. It was developed in the early 1950s and has become one of the most enduring and popular musical instrument models in the world. Its design has been left virtually untouched for nearly 50 years.


The Les Paul model represented a design collaboration between Gibson Guitar, under president Ted McCarty, and the pop star, electronics inventor and accomplished jazz guitarist Les Paul. After the debut of the Fender Telecaster series of guitars, in 1950, solid-body electric instruments became a craze, and Les Paul was brought in by the company as an innovative and respected figure who had experimented with them on his own. An early hand-built prototype of his, called 'The Log,' was once widely considered the first solid-body Spanish (as opposed to 'Hawaiian,' or lap-steel) guitar ever built, although numerous other prototypes and limited-production models have since resurfaced. Paul had earlier, in 1945 or 46, approached Gibson with this prototype, and had been "shown the door."

The new guitar was to be an expensive, well-made instrument in Gibson's tradition, in response to the plain, bolted-together construction of the Fender guitars. Recollections differ on who contributed what to the design, but Gibson had offered electric, hollow-body guitars since the 1930s, and provided at minimum a basic set of design cues, including a more traditionally curved body shape than that of Fender's futuristic-utilitarian models, and a glued-in ("set") neck, rather than Fender's bolt-on design.

As to Paul's contributions, Tony Bacon in his book "50 Years of the Gibson Les Paul" minimizes Paul's contributions to advice on colour (Paul preferred gold as "it looks expensive", and black, as "it makes your fingers appear to move faster on the fretboard", and "looks classy - like a tuxedo") and advice on the trapeze tailpiece. According to Gibson's president Ted McCarty, Gibson showed Paul a nearly finished instrument in 1951, and Gibson was mainly interested in having Paul's name on the headstock, as it would increase sales. Discussions with Paul were on the fitting of a maple cap over the mahogany body for increased density and sustain (which Paul wanted the other way around, but according to Gibson the guitar would become too heavy) and the tailpiece. For flash's sake, and to drive the point home that the Les Paul model was a quality instrument Paul also specified that it be offered with a gold finish. Later models included "flame" and "tiger" maple finishes for the top, as on fine furniture, and again in contrast to Fender's range of car-like custom body paint jobs.

Models and variations

The 1952 Les Paul featured two single-coil pickups, and a one-piece, 'trapeze'-style bridge and tailpiece, in which the strings were fitted under, instead of over, a steel stop-bar. It was a very heavy instrument (around 9 pounds), and an expensive one, yet it had phenomenal sustain and a smooth, rich tone. Both the tonal characteristics and weight owe largely to the Les Paul's construction of mahogany and maple, both quite heavy woods. The 1952 model also had no serial number(s)and are considered by some as LP model "prototypes". These early models are beginning to gain more collector interest and associated pricing.

The guitar had some bugs to be worked out, and subsequent models saw the trapeze tailpiece changed to a standard Gibson design. (Les Pauls have always had their strings mounted on the top of the guitar body, as on Gibson's hollowbody instruments, rather than through the body as in Fender's designs). More advanced pickups were developed and fitted, and the Les Paul soon became a family of guitars; the Standard, Custom, and Deluxe, each with different options and finishes, and a different trim level. The Deluxe featured "mini-humbuckers" (also known as "New York" humbuckers) which did not initially prove popular, and for this reason the model was short-lived, though it has recently (2005) been revived. In the 1980's the Les Paul Studio appeared, which was of similar construction to other Les Pauls, but which did not feature binding on the body and neck, and some of them had small "dot" neck inlays, all of which made for a more affordable instrument, bridging the gap between more budget-oriented Les Pauls (such as Juniors and Specials, both of which have flat-topped mahogany bodies without the carved maple top) and the Les Paul Standard.

For various reasons (declining sales due to the high price, and strong competition from the popular, double cutaway design of the Fender Stratocaster), the Les Paul Model received a complete make-over in 1960. The model became thinner, and received two pointy cut-aways. This was done without Paul's knowledge, and when he saw the guitar, he asked Gibson to remove his name from the instrument. In 1963, the name of this model changed from "Les Paul Model" to "Gibson SG" (which stood simply for "Solid Guitar".)

In the 1960s, artists such as Mike Bloomfield, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton realized the potential of the late '50s Les Paul guitars (particularly the 1959 model) and gave them wide exposure. These guitars featured the thicker, more sustaining tone of Gibson's "humbucking" pickups (the original units are also known as "PAF" - "Patent Applied For" - pickups). The PAFs were designed by Seth Lover while working for Gibson in 1955, and debuted on Les Pauls in 1957. This became a standard design for Gibson and many other companies. After Clapton and Bloomfield, other guitarists quickly jumped on the bandwagon, and over the years 1950s Les Pauls have become some of the most desirable and expensive electric guitars in the world. A 1959 Les Paul in good condition can now easily bring prices between $100,000 and $250,000. The model was reintroduced in 1968, with minor changes.

The Les Paul is available today in a baffling array of past and present variants, and has been played by a good portion of the most important guitarists of the past half-century. At 90 years old, Les Paul himself still plays his personal Les Paul (which, as an inveterate tinkerer, he has heavily modified over the years) onstage, weekly, in New York City (As of Sept. 2005 Mondays at the Iridium jazz club> at 51st St, & Broadway). Paul prefers his 1972 Gibson 'Recording' model guitar, with different electronics and a one-piece mahogany body.

Ad featuring the Les Paul.
Ad featuring the Les Paul.

Now hundreds of copy versions of the guitar shape are made in both the U.S. and overseas. During the mid-70s and early 80s, Japanese companies, such as Tokai made superb high quality replicas of the 1957-59 vintage Les Pauls and are still highly regarded guitars. The copies share the same body shape, but generally Gibson's own more recent (expensive) Les Pauls are considered of better make, materials, and components.

Notable guitarists who are Les Paul users

Notable players of the Gibson Les Paul include: Duane Allman, Martin Barre, Marc Bolan, Al Di Meola, The Edge, Peter Frampton, Ace Frehley, Robert Fripp, Billy Gibbons, Scott Gorham, Peter Green, Steve Hackett, Kirk Hammett, George Harrison, Warren Haynes, James Hetfield, Steve Jones, Mick Jones, Phil Keaggy, Mark Knopfler, Paul Kossoff, Alex Lifeson, Gary Moore, Joe Perry, John Petrucci, Randy Rhoads, Brian Robertson, Mick Ronson, Gary Rossington, Tom Scholz, Slash, Adrian Smith, Mick Taylor, Pete Townshend, Zakk Wylde, Snowy White, Neil Young and Frank Zappa. Many other electric guitar players have played it at one time or another.

Low-end variations

In a mode designed to widen the market still further for solidbody electrics, Gibson issued a Les Paul model in 1954, the Les Paul Junior. It was designed for and aimed at beginners, although over time it has proved itself well enough suited to straightforward pro use. Although the outline of the Junior's body was clearly reminiscent of the original Les Paul, the most obvious difference to its partners was a flat-top "slab" mahogany body, finished in traditional Gibson sunburst. It did not pretend to be other than a cheaper guitar: it had a single P-90 pickup, simple volume and tone controls, and the unbound rosewood fingerboard bore plain dot-shape position markers. It featured the stud bridge/tailpiece as used on the second incarnation on the gold-top.

In 1955, Gibson launched the Les Paul TV model, essentially a Junior in what Gibson called a "natural" finish - actually more of a murky beige. Also that year, the original line-up of Les Paul models was completed with the addition of the Special, effectively a two-pickup version of the Junior finished in the TV's beige colour (but not called a TV model).

In 1958, Gibson made a radical design-change to all three of these Les Paul models, as well as a cosmetic reaction to another that would later take on enourmous importance. They were revamped with a completely new double-cutaway body shape, apparently as a players' requests for more access to the top frets than the previous designs allowed. The Junior's fresh look was enhanced with a new cherry red finish. The TV adopted the new double-cutaway design as well, along with a rather more yellow-tinged finish. When the design was applied to the Special during the following year, the construction was not a complete success. Gibson had overlooked the fact that the cavity for the neck pickup in the Special's new body severely weakened the neck-to-body joint. In fact, the neck could potentially snap off at this point. The error was soon corrected when Gibson's designers moved the neck pickup further down the body, resulting in a stronger joint.

The new double-cutaway Special was offered in cherry or the new TV yellow. Famous users include Mick Jones of the Clash, Chris Ballew of the Presidents of the United States of America, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Document License
It uses material from the Wikipedia article - Gibson Les Paul