Paul Kossoff’s ‘Stripped’ Les Paul

In 1974, Paul Kossoff’s drug problem was spiralling out of control. He sold a number of guitars, including the iconic ‘stripped’ Les Paul used during Free’s Isle Of Wight Festival set. The guitar hasn’t seen the light of day since the mid-1990s, but Steve Clarke was recently granted a world-exclusive audience with one of the most mysterious Bursts of them all.

When you walk around the guitar, it pulses almost like blinds opening and closing – this top is hypnotic

We are led upstairs into the back room of a studio to meet a very special guitar indeed. Following two years of enquiries and negotiations, the owner of the instrument – who wishes to remain anonymous – arrives promptly at this neutral location with two cases.

One is the battered original and the other, more sturdy example contains the guitar itself. To our amazement, the owner opens the case containing the guitar and immediately leaves the room for a short while in order for us to become quietly acquainted with it. Only later do we consider the value of this spine-tingling moment, but first a little history…

Of all the guitars that Paul Kossoff subjected to his trademark vibrato during his all-too-brief spell on the planet, it’s the Les Paul stripped back to a natural finish that he played at the Isle Of Wight Festival back in 1970 that has been subject to the most speculation. Over the years, opinions have differed with regard to whether it started life as a goldtop or a sunburst, and the absence of a serial number – missing following a refinish – has only served to stoke the fire. Was it made in 1958, 1959 or 1960? Is it the All Right Now guitar?

The battle-scarred lacquer on the headstock fascia is original

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The earliest known photograph of Kossoff using this guitar live was taken at the Golf-Drouot nightclub in Paris during shows on 5-7 April 1969. It was also seen in May of that year at Morgan Studios in London, hooked up to a wah-wah, likely during the session for I’ll Be Creepin’ or Sugar For Mr Morrison. It would appear again the following year for the Top Of The Pops performance of All Right Now in June, on the German music show Beat-Club on 24 August and at the legendary Isle Of Wight Festival on 30 August.

The recording sessions for Free’s third album Fire And Water, which yielded All Right Now, had taken place in the first half of 1970. At the time, Kossoff could have called on either the stripped Les Paul or the ‘darkburst’ 1958 Les Paul he’d swapped with Eric Clapton for a three-pickup Les Paul Custom during Free’s tour with Blind Faith in the summer of 1969.

The back of the instrument is heavily worn

Which is the All Right Now guitar? Kossoff certainly leaned on the stripped Burst while miming his way through the band’s biggest hit on Top Of The Pops, and his connection with that particular instrument seems evident from footage of Free’s aforementioned Beat-Club performance. He also chose to use it for the Isle Of Wight show, the biggest gig of the band’s career at a festival attended by 600,000 people. Would the diminutive Kossoff, a man with relatively small hands, have opted to grapple with the larger neck of the darkburst ’58 during long studio sessions?

It’s well documented that addiction had begun to get the better of Paul Kossoff by 1974. He sold a number of guitars, and one of them found its way to Orange Music in London. That guitar was the stripped Les Paul. It was sold to one Mike Gooch for £500 on 21 September 1974. At the time, the frets were badly worn and Gooch’s father gave him an ear-bashing for spending so much money on a beaten-up guitar.

The original Klusons were replaced in 1974

In 1975, a series of modifications were carried out by luthier Dick Knight. The instrument was refretted and refinished around the front but not at the back. The original nickel-plated pickup covers and stopbar tailpiece were replaced with gold-plated hardware. Although the top was refinished, the back was probably only lightly sanded, but the serial number was lost.

On 15 June 1975 Kossoff played Fairfield Halls, Croydon with his new outfit Back Street Crawler. Gooch took the stripped Burst backstage to show Kossoff, whose “eyes lit up” as he offered the guitar’s new owner £1,000 and a Gibson L5S in exchange for it, but Gooch declined. Some years passed, during which time the instrument was almost stolen during a break-in – but another guitar that was lying on top of the stripped Burst’s case was taken instead. A lucky escape indeed.

The wiring harness was re-soldered after the instrument was refinished

Gooch eventually decided to sell the guitar, and after it went unsold by Sotheby’s in London in 1993 it was bought for £12,000 at Christie’s in May 1994. At the time of sale, the guitar still had a replacement chrome tune-o-matic bridge with retaining wire and nylon saddles.

Inside the guitar case was a worn ABR-1 bridge, believed to have bowed under Kossoff’s heavy-gauge strings. The bridge was subsequently straightened out in a vice and refitted to match the look of earlier photos. In footage of Free’s appearance on Top Of The Pops, the saddles are metal (though some say nylon), while both the high- and low-E saddles appear to have been flipped.

Removing the toggle switch back plate reveals that it has never been de-soldered

Fast-forward to 2017 and the guitar’s highly flamed, natural-finish top is breathtaking to behold. Even though the refinish is over four decades old, the top is in very good condition, but the back is a different matter and has remained original since Kossoff used it: the wear is substantial. We place the guitar onto a bench and take a weight measurement of 8.74lbs… it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty.

Bridge
The guitar’s ABR-1 tune-o-matic bridge measures 83.9×10.76mm. The B-string saddle has been replaced, there’s another cut in the saddle that’s in the wrong place and the screw is slightly bevelled at the back. The top-E saddle has not worn like the rest, which suggests this was a replacement. The measurement from threaded post to post is 75mm. It’s worth noting here that this is the condition it was in when Mike Gooch purchased it – Kossoff in all probability could have used it like this.

The slotted screw head is thinner, suggesting it came off a non-original ’59 ABR-1. If you broke a string, these were easily lost. The bridge is now almost completely without gold plating, and the little that remains can just be seen between the saddles and the lower part of the bridge. The fit on both threaded posts is tight, and underneath the thumbwheels there is another set screwed down to the top of the guitar – again, this can be seen in some of the archive pictures.

The spare tune-o-matic bridge in the case with its retaining wire and nylon saddles dates from after 1962, and is in fine condition. It has been said that Kossoff liked the mellowness of the nylon saddles.

Tailpiece
The stop tailpiece is made from aluminium, and the gold plating has almost disappeared; it measures 101.72mm. It’s anchored down by two worn steel studs, which are a very tight fit, and we’d expect them to have a positive effect on tone. The tailpiece is raised only slightly off the body, and the strings just clear the bridge at the top back edge.

Control knobs
Incredibly, these are the original bonnet style. Just as we spot that the rhythm volume knob has been replaced, the owner produces the original! Apparently, it keeps falling off, but it’s in fine condition with a lovely green tinge appearing around the bottom of the numbers. The control pointers are still in place, which is nice to see. The knobs measure 18.72mm across the mid-section and 26.27mm across the lower skirt.

A combination of circumstance and instinct lead us to believe that this really was the guitar used to record the studio version of All Right Now

Toggle switch and poker chip
The toggle surround, or ‘poker chip’, is also original and has faded, but on close inspection you can still see the lettering. In 1959, the typeface started to become more refined: the letter ‘R’ is slightly wider than in 1958. 1959 also saw the plastic start to get thinner, as seen here.

The diameter is 33.34mm. The toggle switch tip has been replaced but, once again, the original is in the case. The switch works perfectly. Removing the toggle switch back plate reveals that it has not been de-soldered, which gives us a clue as to how the refinish could have been carried out.

The gold plating has almost worn off the tailpiece

PAFs and plastics
The neck pickup’s gold-plated cover is now very worn, and the glimpse of a white bobbin can be seen around the low-E string’s pole-piece screw. The owner tells us it’s a double-white PAF. The pickup has a DC resistance of 8.38k ohms. The bridge pickup is similarly worn, with a black bobbin on the screw-coil side. We’re informed that it could be either a double-black or zebra PAF. The DC resistance is 7.99k ohms.

During 1959, double white or zebra combinations were a common look, with double-black bobbins reinstated by mid-1960. The oft-repeated story is that the company supplying the bobbins ran out of black pigment in early 1959, but Gibson didn’t mind as the pickup covers would hide them. On zebra PAFs, the white bobbin is nearly always on the non-adjustable slug side, with just a few exceptions. We can’t help but wonder if this was done for cosmetic reasons – a Les Paul Standard or Custom with a glint of white showing around the pole-pieces would not look as good as it would if the black coil was on the adjustment side.

The playing wear in the cutaway and around the neck join is extensive

Were exceptions to this rule absent-minded mistakes on a repetitious production line? The M69 pickup rings look great on this guitar. The neck surround shows excessive wear near the G, B and E strings, which is the area where Kossoff would play his solos. The plastic is rather thin, so we resist the urge to remove it and run the risk of cracks appearing – we know what lies beneath.

It’s advisable to avoid taking the screws out of a vintage surround anyway, unless you know that the guitar has been out of its case for a couple of hours. This allows the cold plastic time to adjust to room temperature – and original plastics are expensive! The original jack socket plate has been replaced by a large, oversized one with slotted screws – it appears to be handmade, and around the jack socket nut there are fine cracks.

This guitar has seen plenty of playing time since the gold parts were fitted

Maple top
When was this guitar stripped of its finish, and why? The truth is we’ll probably never know for certain, but it was a common sight to see stripped finishes in the late sixties – The Beatles were among those artists convinced that it made their instruments sound better.
The natural flame maple cap on this guitar is really striking and is a quarter-sawn/flat-sawn pattern. When you walk around the guitar, it pulses almost like blindsopening and closing – this top is hypnotic. Behind the bridge and tailpiece, holes have been filled where a Bigsby B7 was fitted.

Headstock
Taking a measurement on the low-E side shows a thickness of 16.26mm tapering towards the top to 14.55mm. This is typical of headstock design on many Gibson guitars up until the early 1960s. The black lacquer is original to when Kossoff owned the guitar: there are a number of cracks and plenty of general wear and tear, and around the
edge of the headstock the holly veneer is showing through.

Between the A-string tuner and B-string tuner there is a small chip of missing lacquer, which is visible in photos and film from around the time of the Beat-Club shows. Around 1974, the original Kluson tuners were replaced with Grover Rotomatics. The Grovers are smooth, but in the past the string posts seem to have had larger washers fitted, as there are visible impressions in the lacquer. Looking at the back of the headstock, there are offset screw holes which indicate that between the Klusons and the Grovers there was another set, hence the lacquer impressions.

The guitar’s four original Centralab pots date from September 1958

The nut width measures 42.56mm and is a bone replacement. It is polished and the strings are spaced very well, but the slots are a little too deep, especially on the B and E strings, and a little too wide. The original nylon nut is also in the case. We’re given permission to perform a truss-rod adjustment, as there is too much neck relief.

Neck and ’board
The Brazilian rosewood fingerboard is in very good condition with no serious inlay shrinkage. On the second fret, between the D and E strings, there is just a little wear on the rosewood – it’s remarkable that there isn’t more wear here, but that may have been down to Kossoff’s fast vibrato. That said, it’s not surprising that the guitar needed a refret when Mike Gooch bought it.

The frets were changed again in 2009, and the job was very well done with nicely rounded fret ends. The binding is original. When the fret ends were dressed and polished, some lacquer would naturally be lost, so the binding was masked off from the neck in the process and had some touch-up lacquer applied, which was very well done.

Before Kossoff owned this guitar, it was a sunburst – there are still signs of red lacquer in the control cavity and the toggle switch area. The lacquer on the back of the neck and body is very road-worn, as you would expect. The heel is quite large, but there is nothing unusual about that, as you can find variations throughout 1959.

The depth at the first fret is just over 20mm, filling out to 22.25mm at the 12th fret. Although this is a slimmer neck than your average ’59, it’s not unusual and the move towards the thinner profiles associated with 1960 Bursts was a transition rather than an abrupt step change. Was the neck shaved as has been suggested? There’s no physical evidence to support that theory.

Back and sides
It’s common for the backs of late-50s Les Pauls to vary in colour from deep cherry to dark brown like this one. Mahogany has an even greater tendency than maple to oxidise and change colour over time, and exposure to UV rays breaks down the pigmentation. When the original sunburst finish on this guitar was stripped, the back of the guitar may have had an overspray whilst the work was done to give cosmetic uniformity, which would lead to a loss of the serial number after a light sanding, prior to spraying. There’s no evidence of a complete refinish.

The strap buttons are consistent with those in the Isle Of Wight film footage, and you can also see unfilled holes from the Bigsby hinge plate. The neck joint area has lost almost all of its lacquer and you can see the dark brown grain and neck joint showing through.

Under the plate
The owner preferred that the controls remained untouched, so photographing the pot codes proved difficult, but after some image manipulation we managed to discern a ‘134839’ stamp – four original Centralab pots from September 1958. As we’ve discussed before in these pages, it’s common to see potentiometers with 1958 date stamps in ’59 Les Pauls, as Gibson tended to bulk-buy components ahead of production.

The pots were obviously taken out for the spraying work, but it seems that the toggle switch wiring was simply pulled through the guitar after de-soldering on the volume pots: there was no need to take the wire off the switch. When everything was reassembled, the plain ground wire was replaced with orange insulating wire. The ground wire from inside the body was soldered back on. We’re not sure why one of the orange wires is soldered to the braided wire when it should be on the back of the can, but it works just the same. The soldering won’t win any prizes in a beauty contest, but everything is secure nonetheless.

Guess who this case used to belong to…

Legendary sounds
Plugging this guitar into a Marshall was a must. On a clean setting, using the bridge pickup, every string is clear with loads of harmonics coming to the forefront as the chord dies away. The balance is superb, with the bass strings never fighting to be dominant. Every chord up the neck produces a lively acoustic quality.

The middle position gives good balance between both pickups; it’s a really nice midrange sound with great depth, perfect for arpeggios or big chords and reminiscent of a big Gibson ES-350T. The rhythm pickup rewards you with thick warm overtones and none of that bass boom taking over the show (think Free’s Oh I Wept and you’ve got it).

The tone controls have a lovely smooth roll-off rather than shut-off, typical of the Sprague Bumble Bee capacitors. Moving over to crunch, we’re reluctant to even attempt any Kossoff licks on this guitar, but talking with the owner about the way Kossoff played the opening A chord for All Right Now, we go for it! As soon as we hit that chord, it’s clear that the character and balance from the bridge pickup nails it.

For comparison, we A/B with a Les Paul Deluxe from 1970-71, which was originally a Goldtop but had humbuckers fitted around the time of purchase and was also stripped of its finish. The Deluxe’s pickups are T-Tops, the construction is similar and it also has Sprague caps fitted. The sound difference is remarkable, and in comparison the Deluxe’s bridge pickup sounds harsh and brittle and lacks colour.

Plugging the guitar into an amp was a thrilling experience

Comparing the rhythm pickup, we both cringe at the volume increase and overwhelming bottom end that lacks the finesse the Kossoff guitar has in abundance. The sustain from the Kossoff guitar is awesome, and it’s no doubt helped by the stripped finish and great coupling in the bridge and tailpiece area.

It’s been a pleasure to look at this iconic instrument in detail and to discover that it hasn’t lost much of its original hardware or been resprayed and sold on, unrecognisable forever. All of the details lead us to conclude that this Les Paul Standard was manufactured in 1959, and a combination of circumstance and instinct lead us to believe that this really was the guitar used to record the studio version of All Right Now.

After years in the wilderness, it’s Free At Last!

G&B would like to thank David Clayton of the Free Appreciation Society, Paul Kossoff biographer JP James, and the owner of this beautiful guitar for their help with this feature. Contact Steve Clarke via FamousFrets.com

VITAL STATISTICS
• Weight 8.74lbs/3.96kg
• Headstock Low-E side depth 16.26mm, top 14.55mm, headstock width at top edge 78.54mm
• Neck Depth at first fret 20mm, 12th fret 22.25mm, 16th fret width 54.68mm
• Machineheads Grover Rotomatic
• Nut 42.56mm
• Frets 2.61mm
• Body Thickness 49.41mm at toggle area and 47.09mm behind tailpiece
• Pickups Bridge 7.99k ohms, neck 8.38k ohms
• Bridge ABR-1 tune-o-matic, length 83.9mm and width 10.76mm, post to post 75mm
• Control Knobs Gold ‘bonnet’ type, 8.72mm at waist, 26.27mm at numbered edge
• Tailpiece 101.72mm length
Toggle Surround 33.34mm
• Pickup Surround 45.20mm width, 89.31mm length

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