Paul Right Now: Paul Kossoff’s 1959 Gibson Les Paul up close

Though Paul Kossoff died in 1976, aged just 25, his blues-rock playing and distinctive vibrato continue to influence guitarists across the globe. Steve Clarke analyses his ’59 Gibson Les Paul Standard in unprecedented detail…

I was in a covers band in the late 70s and the North East of England was like a second home: we must have played every venue three times over. I remember the thrill of playing songs by Free, such as All Right Now or Wishing Well. To say Paul Kossoff was an inspiration and influence on me is an understatement. I recently returned to the North East for perhaps the last chance to get close to a truly iconic instrument that belonged to the legendary guitarist – his ’59 Les Paul Standard. 2012 saw Gibson pay tribute to it with 100 hand-aged replicas and 250 VOS versions and now, thanks to the generosity of its owner Arthur Ramm, we can take a close look at the original…

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Arthur’s band, Beckett, supported Free in Newcastle in the early 1970s; it was the night before Free were to split. Kossoff threw his 1959 Les Paul Standard into the air, breaking the neck, and walked off the stage. In the dressing room, Kossoff spotted Arthur’s refinished 1968 Goldtop.

Arthur was out of the room, so Kossoff’s roadie went to look for him. Arthur returned to find Kossoff with the Goldtop around his neck. He asked to borrow it. When he came off stage, the Free guitarist told Arthur his guitar was lovely and asked if he wanted to swap. Arthur said “well, you’ve broken yours!” to which Kossoff replied, “I’ve got this other one” and pointed to a case containing the stripped-finish ’Burst used at the Isle of Wight in 1970. Arthur told Kossoff that if he got the broken one fixed he would prefer that.

Arthur kept the Isle of Wight guitar for many months while waiting for the other ‘Burst to be repaired. One night in Hamburg, his roadie put it in the case and closed only one latch. They were walking out of the club when suddenly the case opened and the guitar fell out onto the cobbled street. Arthur looked at his roadie and said “what’s one more dent?”

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When his sunburst Les Paul was fixed, Kossoff decided he wanted to keep it. Arthur went to London to return the stripped-finished Les Paul in exchange for his own, but they kept in touch and met up whenever Kossoff was in the North East.

The sunburst Les Paul went on to be used by Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music on The Old Grey Whistle Test. Kossoff had swapped the sunburst Les Paul for a black, three-pickup Custom belonging to John Porter, the bassist in Roxy Music, who then loaned the ’Burst to Manzanera. Kossoff eventually got it back, and used it in his new band Back Street Crawler. After Kossoff passed away in 1976, Arthur bought this amazing guitar for £700 and he still owns it today. Join us as we take a close look at one of the best of the best…

Opening the case

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The guitar is brought to me in a case that has seen better days, and opening the lid in this well-lit room is a heart-stopping moment of nostalgia and awe: it’s a well-photographed guitar, after all. It has faded to what many Les Paul aficionados would call a Lemon Burst, but when we go outside with it, sunlight reveals just how much of the original red is still present on the outer edges of the top. It has the most stunning flame; even in black and white pictures, it’s still breathtaking.

Before I lay it on the table, I weigh it; 8.68lbs. There is obviously a lot of wear on the front of the guitar and, interestingly, just under the treble strings, the pattern of wear is very similar to the stripped finish Isle of Wight Les Paul. This tells you much about the player’s right-hand technique, as this is where his fingers would have made contact with the guitar – not necessarily his plectrum.

Just behind the tailpiece, there’s a small cluster of dents and scratches where the strings would have been fed through the tailpiece and hit the top of the finish. When old lacquer breaks down over the years, what was a small scratch 30–40 years ago begins to age faster.

Airborne moisture and temperature fluctuation starts to pull apart, and stretches any defects like a fault line in an earthquake. This is not just the effect commonly known as checking, caused by temperature and movement, but a weak spot in the finish.

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It can also manifest by following certain grain patterns in the maple top: they will expand differently than other parts. This is why no two late 50s Les Pauls, or any other guitars for that matter, look the same or wear in the same way.

In the early 70s, the neck was repaired and joined around the fifth-fret area by well known repairman Sam Li. The repair looks very good, considering this is an unusual area for a break. The headstock has also been repaired and new lacquer applied, but more on that later.

The instrument has a Honduran mahogany body and neck with a carved 5/8-inch maple top that is beautifully bookmatched. Early mahogany was often lighter and had great tonal properties. Whether you prefer flamed or plain maple is purely a matter of aesthetic preference – the level of figuring doesn’t impact on a section of maple’s acoustic qualities.

Neck

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The Brazilian rosewood fingerboard’s trapezoid inlays now exhibit some shrinkage. The guitar has had a refret in the past with jumbo fret wire and the frets are nicely fitted. The neck is a bit back-bowed and needs slackening off a little, as there is some fret buzz here and there. It could probably use a fret dress, as there are noticeable dead spots on the wire and they are a little too flat.

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As the neck was broken, the binding has been replaced and has now shrunk on both the treble and bass sides just in front of the nut, leaving a gap of about 3mm. At the end of the fingerboard, the piece of plastic joining the outer edges is not flush.

At the back of the neck, where the damage was done, it looks like a scarf joint repair and is very good, with no bumps to be felt when you place your hand over it. It has had a respray from the mid section up to the headstock in a red lacquer that’s not close in colour to the original other half. The headstock also sustained some damage when Kossoff launched it through the air, so that too has had a respray.

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What screams at me from a guitar tech’s point of view is that the Gibson headstock logo inlay has had a piece of tape cut out and stuck over it before the lacquer was applied during the repair, so as not to obscure the logo with black lacquer.

When the tape was removed, it inevitably left a rectangular groove around the logo, which could easily have been avoided; even today, this could still be corrected by first making it level and then ageing it in sympathy with the rest of the guitar.

It would look great and wouldn’t need any new lacquer. I can understand trying to preserve original paintwork and hardware when it has aged naturally over the years, but once a job has been partly done, my attitude would usually be that if something can be improved, why not do it?

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Originally, the machineheads would have been Klusons, but they’re now gold-plated Grovers, which have lost most of their plating but work really well and turn smoothly. The neck feels great: not too big nor too slim, like a 1960 Les Paul might be. The heel is typical of a ’59; although I’ve read that because this instrument lost its serial number it could be a ’58, ’59 or ’60, there are some clues to help narrow down the date. Firstly, ’58 Les Pauls don’t usually have such flamed tops and can be quite plain.

The necks are bigger in the hand, and the heels are larger too, but exceptions do exist. ’59 Les Pauls started to have slightly more rounded and slimmer necks with smaller heels, and more appeared with flame tops with a variety of striking effects. Looking at a colour photo of Paul Rodgers playing this guitar backstage in 1972, you can see the beautiful sunburst finish it had originally, with plenty of red pigment visible.

’58 Les Pauls had a red pigment that was generally darker, more like Merlot. In early 1960, Gibson finally sorted out its fading red pigment problem but the resulting guitars took on what was known as the Tomato Soup look. This was quite an intense red, very bright and not subject to as much fading. The Kossoff guitar has faded into a sort of Lemon Burst with just a slight hint of red: it’s a classic ’59 look.

Nut

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The nylon nut has been installed at an awkward forward angle with a visible gap that could sap tone away from the strings. The type of nylon that Gibson used is called Nylon 6-6. It’s easy to work with and has the benefits of reducing friction and helping tuning stability.

Today, the nut it would benefit from recutting, but the strings clear the first fret without much rattle. The nut width is 43mm, and at the 16th fret I take a measurement of 55mm. Arthur shows me the original nylon nut, now broken near the bass end, although not completely split.

Bridge

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The bridge isn’t an original tune-o-matic ABR1; this unit has the retaining wire that stops the saddles falling out, though the bottom E saddle is more worn and not bevelled, as the other screw heads are. Originally, they would have been nickel-plated brass. The bridge has been on the guitar since Arthur bought it, so Kossoff played it with this bridge fitted and was probably responsible for having it installed. It’s likely that when the guitar was hurled by Kossoff in 1972, the saddles fell out on the stage and were lost, so the bridge with the retaining wire was fitted.

These bridges started to appear in 1962. Here, it sits on two threaded posts that fit nice and tightly, and you can turn the guitar upside down and it won’t fall off – there were brilliant tolerances used by Gibson in those days, delivering huge tone reward for this engineering. The tailpiece is the original, lightweight aluminium unit, and it looks great on this guitar.

Pickups

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I take out the bridge pickup first, and underneath is a PAF sticker attached toa nickel silver base plate with four nickel Phillips round-head screws that secure the bobbins: brass screws appeared later.

The pickup cover, which is also nickel silver, has worn considerably in the treble string area. When Kossoff was using the guitar in his band Back Street Crawler, the covers were removed. Both pickups have black bobbins, and this is possibly another clue to its year of manufacture.

PAFs originally had black bobbins and approximately five thousand turns of 42 gauge plain enamel-coated copper wire, but during 1959 the company that produced the bobbins ran out of black pigment, and soon after combinations of black and white (zebra), or double white, started to appear. All black was reinstated in July 1960 at the time when the Tomato Soup colour was the norm.

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I’m pretty sure this guitar is an early ’59, probably in the 9-280 to 9-300 range. I’ve seen a ’59 in this number range, and although not accurate in a chronological sense, it can give batch information on the output Gibson used. I’ve also seen this number range on another Les Paul that could have come off the same billet as the Kossoff guitar. It, too, had black-bobbin humbuckers. If this guitar was a 1960, the neck would be slim and there would usually be more red left in the finish.

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I remove the neck pickup and can see another PAF sticker and long neck tenon, and on the left side there is a small gap where the tenon sits under the pickup. This may have opened up from the impact of the incident in 1972, when the neck was broken. Amazingly, but typically for a Les Paul joint, it didn’t break in the neck-to-body transition area.

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I can also see the 5/8-inch maple cap here, as well as the original red pigment under the pickup surround. The pickup cover has been put back on, too.

The pickup surrounds are original. The bridge pickup surround measures 3/8-inch to ½-inch near the bridge, and has ‘M69’ and the numeral 8 on the treble string side. The bass side has ‘MR-490’ embossed into the plastic, with a letter looking like an H on top of an I next to it. The neck surround measures 5/32-inch to ¼-inch and has ‘M69’ and the number 7 on it, and opposite are the numbers 491. Fakes and repros tend to miss detail on the funnels in each corner, which have a small gap, but the fakes – especially – have the funnels moulded into the corners. The pickup surround screws are original.

Control cavity

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Removing the control plate, I can immediately see some solder work in the bridge volume pot area. The ground wire that connects the top of the tone pot control has lifted, so I re-solder it, even though it is unlikely to cause any real problems as everything else is secure. I lift out the volume and tone controls for the bridge pickup and notice the volume pot has been replaced in the past, but the 500k tone control is original and is made by Centralabs.

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The number at the side of the tone control is 134734, making the date of this pot the 34th week of 1957. It does not mean that the guitar was made then, only that the pot was manufactured at that time. Like Fender, Gibson would buy large stocks of these components, which can be older than the guitar. I’ve seen a ’62 Strat with ’59 pots: nothing is absolute. These late 50s Centralabs were a zinc bushing/split-shaft type; the neck pickup control pots are also original, but I leave them in as they are really stuck fast! I certainly don’t want to cause any damage to these old control knobs, so I move on. The Switchcraft toggle is original, but the cap has been replaced.

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Both volume and tone controls are linked with Sprague bumble bee capacitors (.022, 400v). These are the early ones, which are the paper-in-oil capacitor style, with a small seal tube at the end, which you would see on the first batch from around the mid-50s to around the end of the decade. The second type look similar, but have no seal at the end and became the Mylar cap. Of course, you will still see crossovers from these changeover years, but a late 1960 Les Paul with the first type would be less common.

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The jack socket plate also looks to be original, with slightly rounder corners. The control knobs are gold barrel (speed knobs), replacing the original bonnet-style knobs, but can still be seen in early publicity pictures of Free.

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Sound

On plugging in, the bridge pickup has lots of attack and is not too bright, but still edgy through the clean channel of a small Fender combo. Quick chord changes with open strings give a real shimmer to the notes, with excellent balance; with overdrive, there’s a classic bark with the authority to cut through any mix: this is one hell of a loud pickup!

The middle position doesn’t overwhelm, instead it gives a full midrange sound with just enough bass.

Switching to the neck pickup and it’s creamy and full of depth: a wonderful wailing blues tone. This guitar has such a comfortable neck, with frets leaning towards jumbo size – it makes bending notes a breeze.

The case

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I don’t usually mention cases, but this one has a nice story. It’s called a California Girl, or Cali Girl for short, has five latches and is well used. It was given that name, apparently, because of its curvy shape. The Cali Girl was made by Stone Case Co, one of three supply companies dealing with Gibson in the early 50s: other names were Lifton and Victoria. Gaffer tape holds the lower lid section together.

The damage on the case resulted from a fire at a gig, when the roadie had to run back into the building to save this guitar and others before the fire really took hold. Unbelievably, the roadie then went back into the burning building and retrieved this case, which was on fire when he found it!

You can see from the pink interior at the headstock end where it was burnt, and a new section was put on the top of the lid because of the fire damage. It’s incredible to think that Kossoff had the same case all that time, travelling to different countries with it without any mishaps.

The earliest photograph I can find of this guitar is from October 1970 at the Imperial College, London. I found a really good black and white picture that appeared in a book called The Million Dollar Les Paul – but it wasn’t dated. So I contacted Jan Persson, the photographer, to ask for any information he may have had.

He kindly replied and told me that he took the picture in December 1970 at the KB Hallen gig in Copenhagen. It would be pure speculation to suggest what songs this guitar has been played on, but it’s very likely to have been used on the album Free At Last.

The fact that Kossoff had this guitar up until 1976 is testament that he liked it. Kossoff swapped his black three-pickup Les Paul Custom for Eric Clapton’s 1958 darkburst Les Paul on the 1969 Blind Faith tour, and it has been said that he used the darkburst to record All Right Now.

The song was recorded at Trident Studios on 11 January, 1970 and released in May, but on Top Of The Pops Kossoff used the stripped-finish Les Paul that he bought in Spring 1969 before the recording. There is also a picture of Kossoff using this guitar in the studio, so we don’t know for sure.

There’s video footage of Free’s The Stealer in which a sunburst Les Paul is used, although it is difficult to line up any clues because of the brief shots, but there is a chance it is this one. A black and white promo video of Free playing All Right Now shows Kossoff using this guitar, and we know he played it at the KB Hallen gig in 1970, too.

Summary

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It’s been an absolute pleasure to study in detail and play this most historic guitar. Paul Kossoff has been an inspiration to so many guitarists, and he continues to find a place in the hearts of players who realise that the effective construction of a solo is often more about breathing space and the notes you leave out.

Kossoff had a remarkable ability to inhabit the spaces between Paul Rodgers’ vocals without going too far, thus producing the most emotive playing with an intense vibrato, that to this day makes him stand apart from the fast and furious.

Steve Clarke is an experienced guitar tech who can be contacted via www.famousfrets.com or at stacmusic@yahoo.co.uk

 

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