The Mysterious Disappearing Les Paul of the 1960s

deluxeThe 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…

Nice guitar you have there.
Nice guitar you have there.

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.

The Seth Lover model is designed to capture the warm sounds of the pickups Seth designed for Gibson.
The Seth Lover model is designed to capture the warm sounds of the pickups Seth designed for Gibson.

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.

It would take Eric Clapton to revive the popularity of the Les Paul in the mid 60s.
It would take Eric Clapton to revive the popularity of the Les Paul in the mid 60s.

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.

This doesn't look like the Les Paul I know. I don't like change!
This doesn’t look like the Les Paul I know. I don’t like change!

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.

M-m-m-my G-g-g-generation

The Les Paul Recording model has some pretty esoteric features.
The Les Paul Recording model has some pretty esoteric features.

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…

Pete Townshend used several late 60's LPs with the Who.
Pete Townshend used several late 60’s LPs with the Who.

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?

Join the Conversation

40 Comments

    1. not true…bad guitars that have warped necks and bad electronics will be extremely hard to play and will sound like crap..even if jeff beck played it..

  1. That time when you could not buy a new Les Paul Standard- only deluxes with the mini humbuckers or SG’s- that was the real birth of vintage collecting guitars. The 50s models were more carefully handmade and Gibson was cranking out crap in big quantities. Then everything else went vintage collectible too… Fenders Ricks Gretches and acoustics…mushroomed from there

  2. Billy Gibbon’s of ZZ Top really made the Les Paul sing with a little Texas twang in it. I always loved Gibson Les Paul’s for their unique sound. But I will also have to give Fender some credit as there is no other sound like the Stratocaster or Telecaster. I can appreciate both.

  3. I have a beautiful 60’s (exact year unknown due to the Kalamazoo fire) Gold Top that I cherish. I bought it used (mild belt buckle damage) when I was a teen and I still bring her out for those times when I want to hear those mini humbuckers warmth. The strings play like silk on that smooth ebony fretboard. It’s truly a one of a kind experience.

  4. Favorite Les Paul. Gotta be my Custom Shop 57 Black Beauty Reissue.
    Favorite LP guitar player?
    Porcell from Youth Of Today/ Better Than A Thousand/ Judge/ Shelter.

  5. The Gretsch White Falcon was much more expensive. I never saw a standard in the music stores at the time, you saw more customs and 335’s. They were not a popular guitar at the time they were made.

  6. I love my LP Studio with the push/pull pots, just so damn versatile. Of course to my ears Jimmy Page was the master of the LP, my favorite being his #3 in that funky purple-wine red.

  7. I still have an 80s wine-colored LP, but my fave was a ’75 gold top Deluxe that I sold in ’92. Wish I had it back. I interviewed Les one time for some liner notes and he told me that a ’75 god top was what he played at home.

    1. no one would trade you a current Gibson for an epi anyway…epi’s are cheap guitars….thin veneer top, cheaper electronics and wood..

      1. … of course not. But my epi is just fine in rotation with my American strat and my Sadowsky. I’m not an idiot. I like my Epi, it holds up to the standards set by my other, much higher end guitars. That seems to bother you.

        1. it seemed as if the spirit of your initial comment was to imply that epis are great guitars. I can see by your response that you do have things in perspective. Sadowsky makes some gorgeous guitars. Epi’s are what they are. They make great entry level axes, and some do sound very good. They aren’t made of the best woods nor best electronics…You also seem to have a problem w/current Gibby’s. I have a 2005 r7 thta’s not only gorgeous, it’s extremely well made. The paint work is excellent. I also have a 2010 r9 flying V in Burgundy, that although sounds great, they never bothered to polish the orange peel out. Ive seen the same quality issues w/custom shop fenders.

          1. Man you don’t know what your talking about there was a day when epiphones were made in the USA . Your a hater . Jack white airline guitar is made out of fiber glass and the reason he started playing it was to show people you don’t need an expensive guitar to make great music . You need to pull your head out . I hope I don’t become a hater when I’m 100 years old ? Get a life and stop spuing that caca out of your mouth . It stinks . I own 20 guitars that’s my limit 6 are les Paul’s and 2 are SG and flying V . I know les Paul’s are fun to play . One reporter told Ed Vanhalen that only pussies play les Paul’s because there easy to play and Stratocaster’s are hard to play , Edward said Guitar is supposed to be fun and easy . He played one for years , he has 2 1959 one he beat the shit out of and the other he keeps in the case and only does maintenance on it !

          2. u think that jack white has a good tone?….ok..to each his own. As for my comment on epi’s, i’m not a hater. I just don’t like them. They are not the quality of american made gibsons. The wood is cheaper, and i believe the maple cap is thinner..

          3. Hey guys, let’s keep it respectful. You can disagree on these sorts of things without insulting each other. There is no right or wrong when it comes to gear.

  8. My 1998 Standard is signed by the genius himself! I made a pilgrimage to The Iridium Club in NYC in 1999 and got it signed.
    Fave LP Players? LP, Jimmy Page, Steve Howe, Steve Hackett. Dickie Betts!

  9. Love my 1974 Gibson Les Paul signature bass guitar. Has the funny rattle they all have, but sounds as sweet as they get!

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