In the first half of the 20th century, the guitar changed from being predominantly a rhythm instrument to being an instrument that was very much suited for leads and solos. Guitars were still large, hollow ‘boxes’ in essence: a strengthened acoustic guitar with a pickup attached to it. With the rise of bigger bands, the need for more volume increased.
Unfortunately more volume would also mean more feedback! In order to combat the feedback, many players started to come up with home-brewed solutions. For instance, many players stuffed the inside of their guitar with soft padding to reduce feedback. But when the guitar’s manifestation as a solo instrument became even strong, with the rest of the band as a backup for the voice of the guitar, the need for more volume and the corresponding need for more silence rose.
The young guitarist Lester Polsfuss had the idea that the feedback was due to the huge chambers in the guitar, and that a way to cut back the feedback was to use more wood to fill the voids: in essence, making a hollowbody guitar a semihollow. He approached several companies, only to be rebuffed. His ideas were ten, 15 years ahead of their time! Since nobody was willing to create what he needed, he took matters into his own hands. He took the sides of a guitar, screwed them onto a huge 4×4 piece of timber, bolted a neck to that piece and started playing it. This guitar was lovingly dubbed ‘the Log.’
In the meantime, a radio engineer in Fullerton, California, started creating guitars too. His customers needed of a guitar that could handle high volumes, and in order to get a cheap, easily assembled guitar, he decided to make a guitar with a flat body without chambers and a neck that was to be attached with screws. This guitar was later to be known as the Broadcaster (renamed the Telecaster in 1951). According to popular belief, this guitar proved to be such a huge hit, Gibson couldn’t be left behind and started the development of their solidbody guitar, later to be known as the Les Paul model.
The biographies of Les Paul and Ted McCarty, the CEO of Gibson at the time, give a slightly different picture, though. The development started already at the end of the 1940s and not when the Broadcaster was released by Fender. Gibson started making the first prototypes and handed them over to Les Paul in 1951. Les Paul loved the concept: a solidbody guitar with luxury appointments such as binding and inlays! After several iterations, the guitar was released as the Gibson Les Paul. I think it would be nice to see some prototypes and how all their appointments were later incorporated in the guitar that was later sold to the public.
In this picture we see Les Paul with several gold top guitars, all equipped with P-90s. The guitar he’s holding and the guitar in the back on the far right have the output jack mounted on top of the body instead of on the side, as we have nowadays. The tailpiece that holds the strings in place is not the tailpiece that was designed by Les Paul himself. He used that tailpiece on those big, hollowbody guitars and had no issues with them whatsoever, but these tailpieces didn’t work on a Les Paul guitar. The angle with which the neck was mounted into the body was too shallow. This resulted in not enough pressure on the bridge. To negate the problem, the strings had to be passed under the tailpiece, making palm muting virtually impossible. This design was soon to be abandoned in 1953 with the wraparound bridge. A Les Paul with this exact configuration can be seen on the cover of Jeff Beck’s award-winning record Blow by Blow, albeit in an oxblood finish. These tailpieces that can be seen in this picture are Gibson’s own version. A close up of the bridge itself can be seen in a picture later on.
Here we see Les Paul and Mary Ford, playing two goldtop Les Pauls, also clearly prototypes. Les Paul’s guitar has binding on the neck, where Mary Ford’s guitar doesn’t. Also, Mary’s guitar has the jack mounted on the top, as seen before. Many reasons can be assumed as to why there were changes. Maybe they didn’t like the look of the jack on top? Maybe having the cable protrude out of the top was prone to damage? The truth is: we do not know for sure.
This is one of my personal favorites when it comes to prototype Les Pauls. Not just because of the lovely curly maple top or the P-90s, but because it shows a possible shape. This prototype has many features we come to expect in Les Paul guitars nowadays: the carved top, two pickups, the electronics. But there are also some notable differences: the inlay of the neck (dots instead of trapezoids or blocks), no binding on the neck, a height adjustable bridge (but without the possibility of intonating the guitar!). But the thing that struck me most was the Florentine cutaway. A sharp cutaway on a guitar is called a Florentine cutaway and a rounder cutaway is called a Venetian cutaway.
It is again unclear why they opted to go for the Venetian style cutaway in stead of the Florentine. It isn’t stated in the biographies what the huge appointments were that Les Paul wanted to have changed, but it is clear that he didn’t ‘design’ the guitar as the complete package as we know it today. Ted McCarty was hugely influential in the design stages. As stated in the article about the various headstock designs, Paul Bigsby shouldn’t be left out in a treatise about guitar design. The guitar he built for Merle Travis was to influence almost all electric guitars to come in one way or another and we owe him a major dept of gratitude.