The Gibson Les Paul remains one of the top selling guitars of all time. It attracts young and old alike, and whether it’s early Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, or relative newcomers like Slash, the Les Paul seems to transfer mojo from deep within the Mahogany itself directly into the player. However, in the 1960s not all was rosy in Les Paul-land. This article is not about one particular guitar, but an entire line that, for a time in the 1960s, was not the iconic instrument it is now. What happened to the mighty Les Paul some 50 years ago? And how did it come back?
Back in my day…
OK, not really back in my day, unless it includes Pop Rocks and Atari, but more like a generation before mine: There was a guitarist named Les Paul. Yes, this is the guy that we have all seen pictures of holding the the guitar that bore his name. Les Paul was a relentless tinkerer, inventor, and a really amazing player. Besides holding several patents (his earliest while still in his teens), he should probably be known more for bringing multitrack recording to the world in 1948 than for the guitar that brought his music to the masses.
Les Paul also refined the idea of a solidbody electric guitar at the dawn of the 1950s, bringing it first to Epiphone and then to Gibson. Remember, Epiphone was a separate company at the time, and Les worked with Epiphone to develop his famous ‘Log’ guitar at the time.
Gibson was interested, and started showing Les some of the guitars incorporating ideas in the early 1950s. These early Les Pauls had a combination bridge/trapeze tailpiece and P90 pickups. Les liked the guitar so much that he agreed to put his name on it, and use this guitar exclusively. His guitar was an extension of his jazzy pop playing of the time- probably more in tune with the parents of the first teens exposed to rock ‘n roll in the mid 50’s.
In the later 1950s, the Les Paul (guitar) gained the famous PAF pickups, designed by Seth Lover, and used on most Gibsons at the time. However, a new kind of music was brewing with the kids, and those kids wanted instruments that looked as radical as this new-fangled rock n’ roll music sounded.
Into the 60s
Here we are in America, at the dawn of the space race, pre-Fab Four, and music consisted of vocal groups and this new exciting mostly instrumental music called Surf. Les and Gibson’s design didn’t get these new twangy sounds, and Les Paul’s (the man & the guitar) was a victim of the new music and culture sweeping the nation. Sales fell sharply, and Gibson was concerned.
There was a new kid in town, and Fender took advantage of the newer generation’s affection for flashy colors, radical shapes (for the time), and colors that seemed to be stolen from the hot rods of the day. Gibson, at the time, still built guitars the way they have since the dawn of the century, and their instrument’s Old World craftsmanship and association with the Jazz bands of the 1920s-40s made these guitars utterly unappealing to the rocking teens in 1961.
Gibsons were so out of style then, that there are routinely reports of used 1959 Les Pauls selling for $150US in the papers back then. Nowadays, you would be lucky to find a 1959 Les Paul for 1000 times that.
So what happened to the Les Paul in 1961?
Gibson, knew the guitar in its current pre-1960 form had to change. Competition from this new upstart Fender was fierce, and Fender got their guitars into the hands of the day’s stars. Gibson redesigned the Les Paul in 1961, and presented the new Les Paul to the man himself, who, apparently hated it. Besides looking nothing like the guitar he helped Gibson design, it had a new ‘innovative’ sideways vibrato system to compete with the fulcrum system that had appeared on Stratocasters for several years.
Les Paul rarely appeared with this guitar, and within a year or so, Les Paul terminated his agreement with Gibson and Gibson kept producing the new Les Paul under a new name: The SG (which stands for, the very original ‘Solid Guitar’). There were no more Les Pauls produced until the late 1960s.
In 1968, Gibson & Les Paul started working together again. Funny, as there wasn’t a model called a ‘Les Paul Standard’ available, but there was a Les Paul Deluxe (with mini-humbuckers), a Les Paul Custom with block inlays and humbuckers and Les Paul’s curious Personal and Recording models featuring things like low-impedance pickups and XLR microphone connectors on the upper bout.
And I would have gotten away with it too…
The Les Paul didn’t vanish as much as fade away. It eventually came back in a pretty big way (Eric Clapton made sure of that in the Bluesbreakers), and the popularity has soared beyond what Les and Gibson had envisioned.
The rebranding and eventual discontinuation of the Les Paul in the early 1960s was a business decision from Gibson. The British Invasion was happening, and smaller brands without ties to older generations became much more popular among the guitar-buying public. Now Les Pauls are the cornerstone of the Gibson brand, and most people who buy one never heard a single note by the guitarist whose name is on their headstock. Check him out sometime…he was really good!
What is your favorite model of Les Paul? Who is your favorite Les Paul-wielding guitarist?