Photography Eleanor Jane
A little over a year ago, Gibson Custom revealed its new True Historic series at the Winter NAMM show in Anaheim, California. With admission prices starting at £4,999 for the Goldtops and ’58 Bursts and rising to eight grand for a ’59 with heavy ageing treatment, we’re in the realms of the serious, insatiable Les Paul addict here, for whom even a recent R9 doesn’t get close enough to a fifties original.
To find out whether these really are Gibson’s most faithful Les Paul reissues to date or if everyone at the company has inhaled a few too many nitrocellulose fumes, we head to the Gibson Custom factory on Elm Hill Pike on the east side of the city. First, Gibson Custom’s Historic program manager Edwin Wilson talks us through the manufacturing process, then we take one of the guitars home and put it through its paces…
EW: “When I’m buying maple, there are specific tops that I know that I want on True Historic Les Pauls. They’re absolutely amazing, so I’ll mark them, and when they come in, our designation for the reissue tops is R9, but the special tops will have my initials on the side also. Goldtops are plain most of the time.
There might be a little something in it. On some of the aged Goldtops we did this year, they were really curly tops underneath. When Tom [Murphy] aged the guitars, I wanted to see some flame coming through, like on some of the originals.
“Our main criteria for mahogany is the size: it’s gotta be a one-piece body. And then, the weight. We don’t have criteria for the grain because we want to buy one-piece bodies. For the most part, I want straight grain and I want it more quartersawn-looking.
“I have a guy who matches the bodies and the necks so that the mahogany back takes the filler and the aniline dye colour as much like the neck as possible. The necks are all quarter-sawn mahogany. We ask the wood vendor to rotate the neck so that we get the longest section of grain right through here [the headstock transition] so that it’ll have the most support here, which is what Gibson did in the fifties.”
EW: “We’re using hide glue to glue the tops onto the mahogany backs, the neck to the body and the fingerboard to the neck. It has sound benefits, as well as making the guitar more historically accurate. Glues dry at different hardnesses. Titebond [used on regular Custom Shop instruments] dries very good and very hard, but it doesn’t dry as hard or glass-like as hide glue does. When hide glue dries it’s very strong and brittle, and it transfers the vibrations better.”
EW: “With True Historics, we changed the process. Now, on the True Historics, Historic Select, Collectors Choice and Artist Model guitars, they’ll go through and get the first carve. The body will go face down, they’ll rout the back, they’ll do the rout for the toggle switch, then they’ll flip it over, and it rotates on the fixture, then they’ll do the initial rout for the neck, then they’ll do the rout for the binding and the cutaway, then they’ll do the carving.
“The carving is based on 3D-scanned data that we’ve taken from original guitars. In the fifties, it’s all over the place! When we get an original guitar, what we’re measuring is something that’s been machined, sanded, finished, everything.
“What we would really need would be one that’s carved with nothing else done to it. That doesn’t exist. So when we approach it, we’re scanning a guitar that’s already had all this done, and we’re trying to recreate that shape as closely as possible.
“They’ll do the first process all the way up to the carve, then it’ll go over to our binding department, they’ll go rout it for the rest of the binding, they’ll bind the guitar then it’ll come back. Then it has the second carving process.
“We’ve eliminated the slack belt operation for this, because regardless of how good a slack belter is, they have an almost impossible job. They have two things they have to accomplish: number one is to get all of the carving marks from the cutters off the body. Number two is, they have to maintain that original carve shape. When it’s the machine doing it, we can compensate for that.
“It’s not a reflection on any individual, but when Gibson was making guitars [in the 1950s] you’re talking about a section of the United States where the main industry in that area was furniture, so you had woodworkers there.
“When a woodworker went to get a job at a guitar factory, he was a woodworker; he didn’t come from McDonald’s! The people that come to work at Gibson these days are typically younger and they have to learn the skills. Our customer will go, ‘yeah I understand all that, but I want the top like this’. This is how we get you the top like this.”
EW: “On original Les Pauls, the fretwire started out very narrow, medium height, then it went bigger. The original fretwire on ’59s was about 0.046-0.050” tall and 0.094-0.096” wide. For many years, that’s the size that we used on reissues. But on True Historic, we changed the height.
“The one thing that you notice on every old guitar that comes in that hasn’t had jumbo frets put in over the binding is that the frets have been dressed down; they’re somewhere between 0.033” and 0.036” tall, the width is still there, but when you feel the guitar and you play the guitar, the binding is rolled and all that and you don’t feel the fret ends on the guitar. Now we start out with 0.036”-tall fretwire, then the guitars get Plekked and they get finished out, so some of them are 0.034”, some are 0.036”.
“In 1999, Eric Johnson called and he wanted a Les Paul Custom, with very specific details. I’m working on the guitar and he called and said, ‘I have my own fretwire that I want to use’. I’d never really had a long conversation about fretwire with anybody like that! But he was explaining to me about this company that he had found.
“Their annealing process for the metal was like they used to do in the old days. So we tried some of their fretwire and it really was a different animal. We changed from that company because they were really small and they were going to go out of business. We used Jescar for a very long time. This year, we’ve changed to another company, but both use the same process and formula that this first company did.”
EW: “After the True Historics get sanded they’ll get filled. Our aniline dye is powder, and they’ll mix it with the regular filler and paint it on. It’s not just for the red, we’ve used it on the Goldtops this year for the brown. Between reds and browns, we’ve got about 10 different colours that we use.
“Colour is one of the most difficult things for us to deal with because we can’t use the lacquer that they did in the fifties, we can’t use the chemicals they did in the fifties, everything’s illegal! So we have to figure out a way around that. In the fifties, it looked like whatever it looked like.
“They weren’t trying to accomplish anything at all. They didn’t care what it was going to look like in 50 years’ time, they were thinking about Friday and they were thinking about retirement. I guarantee that if someone went into Gibson at that time and said, ‘these guitars are going to be the most awesome guitars in the world’, they would have said, ‘whatever! No they’re not! We’re not even going to be here in 10 years!’.
“After it gets all the base coats on it, they’ll sand it out and level the finish, then it’ll get the top coats. The aniline dye doesn’t lie on the surface, it actually floats into the different layers of lacquer, so when you sand it, it becomes airborne again. There’s a brief time when that red really migrates out of the mahogany and into the lacquer.
“Normally, everything sits on the guitar in layers. But if you take the finish off of an old guitar, when you pull some of the clear off, you see red in there, you see all of the colour in there as it all migrates up into it. If you do that with True Historics, it’s the same.
“The idea of getting colour on the guitar without adding material onto the guitar is huge for the overall sound of the guitar and how it rings. With this process, you’re getting the colour with something that doesn’t have that thickness to it, and whatever lacquer you put on is only to protect it.
“It’s still nitrocellulose, but it’s a different formula that dries a lot harder and a little slower. The average thickness of a Gibson finish is about 13 mil [thousandths of an inch] thick. On True Historic, the spec is 5 mil.
“The finish is thin on old guitars, usually 5-6 mil. We want the finish like on an old guitar but also, for the sound, the approach needs to be more like we’re building an acoustic. The purpose is to make the guitar as it would have left Gibson – it would have been a shiny guitar but not a glossy guitar.”
The ageing process
EW: “When you get a Fender aged guitar and you look at the finish, a lot of the time it just looks like cracked ice. That’s a chemical process that they use; they buy a specific type of lacquer called airplane lacquer that dries very, very hard, then they will shoot keyboard cleaner or something on it, and they’ll make it shatter. For us, since the very beginning, when we first started ageing guitars, we want the guitars to look like an old Gibson guitar. It’s not just a matter of making a guitar look beat-up.
“In the very beginning, when Tom [Murphy] started ageing guitars, he developed a process. All of the lines are done one at a time, by razor, by hand. Gibson used many different lacquer manufacturers. You can look at guitars from different eras and you can see how they wear, how they check, what the finish looks like. If we’re doing a guitar from the seventies, we would not do a bunch of tighter loops like on a fifties guitar, that’s not what the finish is going to do.
“If you order a True Historic guitar that’s aged, it’s 1959, Gibson’s making guitars, you want a Les Paul? You get what you get! If you wanted specific ageing on a guitar, you would order a Historic Select, because it’s the exact same guitar as True Historic, except for you have the option of colour and ageing pattern.”
EW: “For several years, I’ve tried to get a lot of things changed, and for 2015 it just worked out that I was able to do it. There’s a vendor that I work with, he makes a lot of hardware for us already, bridges and tailpieces. This guy’s really into what he’s doing, and he has a long history with Gibson. So I got ready to do these parts and I got in touch with a friend of mine, Lou Gatanas, who is the parts guy in the US, a big vintage dealer out of New York. I bought some pieces off him, and he loaned me some because an original set of cream plastics is about $35,000! Which is very insane.
“I wanted to get the flat pieces done – jack plate, poker chip, pickguard – and the mounting rings, pickup covers, the knobs and the toggle cap. I just wanted the exact same thing that happened in the fifties, which I knew would be challenging. So the first thing that we worked on was the pickup covers. I got original covers and we changed the thickness of the material, you can see the difference in the radiuses. It’s not just the shape that the machine stamps the cover, it’s the buffing and the sanding that happens after that is what creates the radiuses on the corners.
“The mounting rings are made out of butyrate, same as the bobbins and same as the knobs, so the rings are a different shape, the stand-offs are a different shape, it’s got the M69 in there with part of the M missing because the ring that we had, that’s the way that it was. It was a ’59 ring. Some of the earlier rings, you see the M on there, but others you don’t. It’s just a function of the tool wearing. The Jack plate and the toggle switch washer are punched parts now, they don’t machine them, so you see some of the flashing on them, and the pickguard is machined out and it’s got the saw marks on the outside.
“Dead Mint Club and all these other guys that make plastics, they use a single layer of butyrate or whatever it is, their focus is on just the colour. Our focus is on picking up production of those parts on where it left off. The colour that I used was actually on the pickguard underneath the bracket.
“Under the pickguard, where it hadn’t seen sunlight or anything, it was still the original colour. I want our stuff to tarnish and look like an old guitar does in several years. The other thing about the pickguard and the flat plastics is that it’s all laminated acrylic, so the pickguard is six-ply, the jack plate is four-ply and the poker chip is three-ply.
“The shape of the knobs is different, but also it’s got the dimple on the top. So the low point is in the middle of the knob, then it comes out and there’s a ridge, that’s the high point, and then it drops back down to the outside edge. All of that is a function of how hot the tool is that is injecting the part, how long it sits in that tool before they can take it out, so it’s the cooling process. And all of those things were things we would never have thought about, ever.
“But that’s why there’s so much variation on original parts. Then on our knobs they paint the numbers in by hand, they wipe it out, and the gold is the exact same gold we use on our Goldtops, all painted by hand. We changed the font, we changed the slash marks to make the slash marks right – we went through a lot of work!
“The toggle caps are Catalin, which is the original material, and we had a difficult time finding someone to get it right. But we sent them out to a couple of different labs and had the materials tested. I want to be able to tell you definitively, ‘this is this material’, because we bought knobs, we sent them out to independent labs, we had them tested.
“When we do it, we’re Gibson, we created it. It has value. Some guy might get $600 a set for rings, the next guy might get $800 for all the other parts… all that’s fine and dandy, but when you put all that stuff on your guitar and try to sell it, you’re not going to be able to take a $5,000 guitar and get $8-9,000 for it just because it’s got these parts on it that a group of people perceive as being right. It’s not going to happen.”
In order to attempt to make sense of the the sum of all these parts, back in the UK we took delivery of a True Historic 1956 Les Paul Goldtop. At £4,999, it’s very far from cheap but in this Burst-free, non-aged guise it’s the most affordable way in to the series.
Straight out of the case and into the pressure cooker of a studio session with a singer-songwriter, the True Historic excelled. Using the bridge pickup for both standard tuning slide lines and biting lead saw the guitar scythe through a busy backing track of acoustic guitar, electric piano, drums, bass and big Gretsch rhythm chords with spring reverb and tremolo.
There’s something genuinely special about a good P-90 Gibson, and this guitar has it in spades – at the bridge with a touch of tweedy crunch the alnico III P-90s deliver one of the ultimate rock ’n’ roll sounds, spitting out Live At Leeds, Keith Richards, classic Britpop and southern-rock boogie, while flipping to the neck or twin-pickup setting gives you a wonderfully fluid, vocal lead tone for anything from Green to Gilmour.
Compared to recent R6 models we’ve spent time with, it’s hard not to agree with Edwin that the small changes have added up to a guitar with a less inhibited, more dynamic and more open voice. The palm-filling neck shape – 21mm deep at the first fret and 24mm deep at fret 12 – is tremendously comfortable, the factory set-up is perfect, and the lightly-rolled binding has nicely kickstarted a process that will only improve the way this already wonderful instrument feels as the years roll by.
Compared to an original? It’s impossible to beat a well-worn old Goldtop when it comes to emotive and difficult-to-measure areas such as sheer vibe and desirability, but on a real-world level the True Historic’s wider fretwire makes it a little easier to play, for sure, and it certainly doesn’t sound £15-20,000 worse. At 8.5lbs, the TH is also lighter than any of the five or six original 1950s Goldtops we’ve played, all of which have comfortably exceeded 9lbs.
The most obsessive Les Paul enthusiasts will still argue that Brazilian rosewood is the only truly authentic material for a 1950s Les Paul fingerboard, but given the complexities of purchasing enough certified wood in the quantity required for even a limited production run, the up-charge would almost certainly send the already eye-watering price into orbit – Gibson is a very different ball game to man-in-shed who builds a couple of guitars a month!
The True Historic project has been a labour of love for Edwin Wilson, and the resulting Les Pauls are the best and most desirable that Gibson has produced since its golden era. How the bloody hell we’ll scrape together the cash for one remains anybody’s guess…