The Les Pauls of the Gibson Vault

Brand President Cesar Gueikian gives us the tour and brings a few guitars from his personal collection along for the ride – including a Burst that’s a close relative of one of the most famous Les Pauls of them all.

Since opening its doors in 2021, the Gibson Garage in Nashville has fast become one of the must-see destinations on any sightseeing tour of Music City. Just a 10-minute walk from the neon glow and raucous nightlife of Broadway – call it 15 minutes in the summer heat – the Gibson Garage offers players and fans much more than a purely transactional retail experience, with lessons, historical exhibits and frequent live performances on offer in addition to hundreds of guitars.

As if that wasn’t enough, if you are lucky enough to head behind the velvet rope and go backstage, you might even get a VIP tour of Gibson’s secret vault containing historic instruments from the Gibson archive. Featuring original examples of the company’s most iconic designs, it’s something of a greatest hits set from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and a reminder of a period when the pace of change in popular music was both mirrored and fuelled by dizzying innovations in the guitar industry.

Gibson Vault Les Paul
This 1959 Burst owned by Gibson Brand President Cesar Gueikian is within four serial numbers of Peter Green’s legendary Les Paul, ‘Greeny’. All images by Eleanor Jane

Our guide today is Gibson’s Brand President Cesar Gueikian. Born in Argentina to Armenian parents, Gueikian’s passion for music and guitars was cemented at an early age. These days, in addition to guiding the fortunes of Gibson Brands Inc, he’s a serious guitar collector. Indeed, one of the instruments he’s brought along for us to photograph today is in danger of stealing the show altogether.

Greeny’s twin

Even among the exalted ranks of sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standards manufactured from 1958-60, there are a handful of guitars that command a special level of reverence. Serial number 9 2208, aka ‘Greeny’, is one such instrument. Immortalised by Peter Green and later owned by Gary Moore and now Kirk Hammett, its beautiful faded flametop and ‘out of phase’ middle-position tone are instantly recognisable to millions. And yet, unique as it seems, Greeny has a twin.

Gibson Vault Les Paul
Like its sibling, the Gemini Burst features heavy checking and plenty of playwear

In mid-2021, when Gueikian added another Burst to his collection, he shared the news with Hammett and the pair discovered that Cesar’s Les Paul – 9 2204 – is within four serial numbers of Greeny. Further research revealed that no guitars were produced between them, with the intervening serial numbers likely used for Skylark amps.

Indeed, with the flame patterns and mineral streaks on both Bursts appearing to be very similar, it’s even possible that their tops were manufactured from the same billet of maple. At the time of our shoot, 9 2204 had yet to have been given a name. Our photographer’s suggestion of ‘Gemini’ obviously struck a chord, as that’s what Gueikian and Hammett have been calling it ever since.

Gibson Vault Les Paul
The Birthday Burst exhibits a tan line from the original toggle-switch tag, which was left on the guitar while it was displayed in-store

Fitted with Grovers decades ago, at some point Gemini also wore a non-factory Bigsby, and it’s also been refretted. Gueikian argues that, if you intend to play it, refretting a vintage guitar with worn frets is a perfectly acceptable modification. After all, you can’t drive around on bald tyres. And, make no mistake, this guitar is going to get played.

“It sounds as special as it looks,” Cesar enthuses. “I got it from a dear friend of mine who had it for 25 years. We started talking about this guitar before the pandemic and finally it’s become a reality. I really love my dark-back ’58 Goldtop as well but, in terms of my Gibsons made during the golden era, I have a feeling this one will quickly become my favourite. I played it just  acoustically first, for quite a while. It’s the most acoustically resonant guitar – you can feel it in your body. You can tell that it’s going to be a very clear-sounding instrument.

Gibson Vault Les Paul
This 1959 Les Paul from the Gibson Vault is one of several used as references for the Custom Shop’s Historic Collection

“And then when I plugged it in, it was magical. If you talk to Mark Agnesi, Mat Koehler, Jason Davidson – all of our team at Gibson – we all play them acoustically first. Sometimes for hours! Then, once we’ve had a chance to really experience that acoustic sound of a solidbody electric guitar, we plug it in.”

Before we enter the Gibson Vault, Cesar pulls out another brown Lifton case from his personal collection. The Burst inside, serial number 9 0418, is remarkably clean with lots of unfaded red pigment on its top. Look closely and you can even see a tan line from the original toggle-switch tag, which was presumably left on the guitar while it was displayed in-store.

Gibson Vault Les Paul
Studying vintage instruments from the golden era provides inspiration for the Murphy Lab

“This is one I’ve had for a while now,” says Gueikian. “It was featured on The Collection with Mark Agnesi on Gibson TV and it’s called the Birthday Burst. I got this one from Drew Berlin – it was played at what would have been Les Paul’s 100th birthday celebration at BB King’s Blues Club in New York. I was looking for something clean that had the red still on it, and when this one came up and I saw the pictures and the provenance I was very comfortable getting it.”

Having super-clean vintage instruments such as this on hand must be extremely useful for Gibson’s R&D process, particularly in the Murphy Lab. “These guitars are not going to sit in the case, they are going to be used,” Cesar says. “We’ve used it here quite a bit – we scan it, the team gets a chance to go through it, it goes to the Lab. It’s definitely very useful to us, especially in the context of the Historic Collection and the Custom Shop.”

Gibson Vault Les Paul
If Goldtops could talk, this 1957 example could tell a few stories

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Now we delve into the Vault, and from its display case comes yet another 1959 Les Paul, serial number 9 0871 and Gibson-owned. The guitar’s maple cap features vivid figuring, and is a real head-turner. “We got this one as part of our quest as a team to get some of the instruments that we made back in the golden era,” Cesar explains. “We got it through David Davidson. It’s a spectacular example of a Burst with beautiful flames – wider, more spread-out flames. It has a lot of mojo.

“This was the first one we got in our quest to get Bursts. We use all of the guitars, all of the Bursts, all of the Black Beauties as references for the Historic Collection. Scanning, photographing, Murphy Lab detailing, capturing everything in the Murphy Lab. It will probably be a never-ending quest to try to get more specimens in and have the ability to see more, to scan more and to photograph more.”

Gibson Vault Les Paul
Heavily worn original Goldtop finishes such as this are challenging for even the experts in the Murphy Lab to replicate

The next guitar we check out is a 1957 Les Paul Goldtop with the kind of wear that can only be the result of decades on the road. “We got this one from Albert Molinaro, who is a collector and vintage dealer,” says Gueikian. “We were looking for a vibey Goldtop. Mark Agnesi, Mat Koehler, myself and the team were looking for something really vibey. Say in the future we wanted to do a Gibson Vault Collection? We’re not going to do mint replicas. We want to make vibey Gibson Vault recreations in the Murphy Lab.”

We wonder if Cesar thinks that the Murphy Lab’s advances in guitar ageing technology could make future collections of vintage recreations more accurate, and more popular even, than Gibson’s acclaimed Collector’s Choice series. “I think so,” he says. “I think we’re definitely able to do more accurate representations with Tom leading the Murphy Lab, especially with the new reverse-engineered lacquer. We thought, ‘Oh man, it’s going to be a sin to scrape a little bit of lacquer off a golden-era guitar’. But that was really the only way to chemically re-engineer it.”

Gibson Vault Les Paul
Solidbodies don’t come much cooler than this 1958 Les Paul Custom with three PAFs and a factory Bigsby

Our final guitar of the day is another of Cesar’s own that is now part of the Gibson Vault collection – an outrageously cool three-pickup Les Paul Custom with factory Bigsby. “I was able to get a 1956 Goldtop and this guitar together, as a package, from Drew Berlin”, he explains. “We needed a Black Beauty in the Gibson Vault collection and the team was really excited about the fact that this one has a factory Bigsby. So we put it in the Gibson Vault as a specimen that we’ll continue to use as a reference point. It’s a ’58, which is cool – it’s close to the ’57 that we’re reissuing now.”

We’ve spend far too much time noodling on the Gemini Burst, so the remaining guitars from the Gibson Vault – a Les Paul Special, an original ’58 Flying V and several SG and ES models – will have to wait for another shoot on another day. If we had to choose one to sneak out of the door and smuggle onto an aeroplane? As breathtaking as those Bursts are, it would have to be the Les Paul Custom. Three PAFs… a factory Bigsby… more is more, right?

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