An oral history of the Gibson Les Paul
Gibson’s Les Paul signature model eventually came to define the sound of rock music – a role it still delights in to this day. Yet its design was a protracted process, with many twists and turns. Here, we present its story first-hand, both from its creators and its most famous players…
This is the insider’s story of the early days of the Gibson Les Paul, the company’s first solidbody electric guitar. Following Fender’s introduction of the Broadcaster and Telecaster in 1950 and 1951, Gibson decided to compete, signing up America’s most famous guitarist of the time, Les Paul, to endorse its new instrument.
Through the years that followed, Gibson’s Les Paul Goldtop (introduced in 1952), Les Paul Custom (1954) and Les Paul Standard or ‘Burst’ (which replaced the Goldtop in 1958) formed a strong basis for the company’s solidbody line, which also featured a couple of budget models: the Les Paul Junior (1954) and the Les Paul Special (1955).
This oral history of the early Les Paul and its famous players comes from the archive of interviews I’ve done over the years for my books about Gibson. The people you’ll hear from are: Billy Gibbons, who was in his pre-ZZ Top band Moving Sidewalks in 1968 when he acquired a Burst; Ted McCarty, who joined Gibson in 1948 and became its president two years later; Jimmy Page, who got a Les Paul Custom around 1964 and, in Led Zeppelin, bought a Burst from Joe Walsh in 1969; and Les Paul himself – who, with Mary Ford, had scored a US No. 1 hit with How High The Moon in 1951.
Les wants a log
“I’d been trying to make a guitar that sustained and that reproduced the sound of the string with nothing added. No distortion, no change in the response from what the string was doing. I wanted the string to do its thing. No top vibrating, no added enhancement, advantageous or disadvantageous. I wanted to make sure it just gave you the string as the string was excited: you plucked the string, and that’s what you got. That was my whole idea way back in the early 30s. I worked on it, worked on it, stuffing rags in guitars, then finally plugging them up completely, making one-inch tops on them. Then finally saying: ‘Look, I’m just gonna go on a log.’
“I approached Gibson in 1941. They laughed at the idea, they called me the kid with the broomstick with the pickups on it. The factory was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but the offices were in Chicago, and that’s where I went. The log was what I took to them. I actually built it at Epiphone. I knew the people there, and I could have the factory every Sunday, there was nobody there but the watchman.
“So every Sunday I went and I worked there, from 1939 to ’41. Epiphone says, what in the hell is this? I says it’s a log, it’s a solidbody guitar, and they says, well why? And I says, well… but I was aiming at Gibson, I wasn’t aiming at Epi. I knew Epi was about to go under. Gibson was the biggest in the business and that’s where I wanted to go. I took it to Chicago to Maurice Berlin, the president of CMI, the [Gibson owning] Chicago Musical Instrument company, and they laughed at it.
“I moved to California, went in the army, went with Bing Crosby, kept playing my log, and Leo Fender came in my backyard, and Merle Travis saw it, so did every other guitar player, every other manufacturer, they all saw it. The vibrola, I started on that in the 30s and then found out that a guy had already invented a vibrola, but it was dead, it was extinct, it died in its tracks. So I said: ‘I’ll make my own vibrola,’ so I made my own and Bigsby came in my backyard, with Fender.”
Gibson wants a solidbody
“Trade shows in the late 40s were in Chicago in June and in New York in January or so. We would take prototypes to the show, show them, they’d get a reaction from the dealers – because this was a dealer show, you had to be a dealer to get in – and according to the reaction, we’d go back to the factory and the salesmen would say this is a good seller, this is a good seller, but I couldn’t do much with this one. Okay, you’ve got it. That’s how we chose the line, you might say.
“We realised that Leo Fender was gaining popularity in the West with his Spanish solidbody. He didn’t get anywhere in New York or this part of the country, it was strictly in the West. I watched him and watched him and I said: ‘We’ve got to get into that business. We’re giving him a free run, he’s the only one making that kind of guitar.’ Had that real shrill sound, which the country and western boys liked. It was becoming popular. So we talked it over and decided, let’s make one.
“Now, Les Paul was known to me, Les Paul was a bit of an innovator, but he played Epiphone. And I had been trying to get him to play Gibson, oh, for a couple of years. He was not going to get shaken away from Epiphone, he was loyal to them. He had made some improvements, some changes, in his Epiphone that he used. They didn’t make an Epiphone with his name on it – everything they made was Epiphone.”
Designing the Les Paul
“Leo Fender saw what I was doing and he started to make one. And when Gibson heard about it, they said find that guy with the broomstick with the pickup on it! They came round right away, soon as they heard what Leo was doing. They came over to me, and I says: ‘Well, you guys are a little bit behind the times. But okay, let’s go.’”
“We started out to make a solidbody and we had a lot to learn. For instance, the stiffer the material, the harder the wood, the more shrill is the sound, and the longer is the sustain. Hit the string and it would ring for a long sustain period. It could be too long. One of the things we did was to take a piece of iron rail from the railroad track, put a bridge and a pickup and a tailpiece on it, and test it. You could hit that string, take a walk, come back, and it would still be ringing. Because the thing that causes it to slow down is the fact that wood gives a little bit.
“We made a guitar out of solid rock maple. Wasn’t good. Too shrill, too much sustain. And we made one out of mahogany. Too soft. Didn’t quite have that thing. So we finally came up with a maple top and a mahogany back, made a sandwich out of it, glued them together. Then we decided, now what about the shape? We wanted something that wouldn’t be too heavy. The Fender was a much larger guitar, heavier. So we made ours a little smaller bodied, in a traditional shape.
“We had always carved the tops of our fine guitars, and we had real fine carving machines. Leo Fender didn’t have any carving machines. They joined their neck with a plate in the back of the guitar. We always glued our neck in, made it an integral part. So I said: ‘Okay, let’s carve the top of this thing, like we’d do on an L-5 and an L-7.’
“We finally came up with a guitar that was attractive. And as far as we were concerned it had the tone, it had the resonance and it also had the sustain, but not too much. Now we needed an excuse to make it. None of the other major guitar companies had anything to do with a solidbody. Their attitude was forget it, because anyone with a bandsaw can make a solidbody guitar. Bandsaw and a router, that’s all you needed.
“So I got to thinking. At that time, Les Paul and Mary Ford were riding very high, they were probably the number-one vocal team in the United States. They were earning a million dollars a year. And knowing Les and Mary, I decided maybe I ought to show this guitar to them.”
Making the deal
“Les and his group were at a hunting lodge in Delaware Water Gap, which is up in the mountains in Pennsylvania. I had been talking to Les by phone, and I talked to Phil Braunstein, his financial manager, a New York accountant. So I made a date with Phil, flew into New York, had breakfast, got in his car, and I had this [prototype] guitar with me.
“It was an all-day drive from New York down there, we got there at night, pouring down with rain, a miserable night. “I said: ‘I’ve got something here, Les, that I’d like you to see.’ We had an amplifier and we hooked this guitar up to it. He took it, and he played it – and he played it and he played it. There was this balcony upstairs with bedrooms leading off it, and Mary Ford was upstairs, so he hollered up: ‘Mary, come down here, I want you
to see this.’
“Mary came down. He says: ‘Play this, Mary, I want to hear and see what you think of it.’ She took it and played it, and she said: ‘I love this.’ Les said, ‘Let me have it,’ and he played it some more, and he turned to Mary and said: ‘Look, they’re getting too close to us, Mary, I think we ought to join them. What do you think?’ She says: ‘I like it.’”
“It was a flat-topped guitar at that time, it was not an archtop. I designed everything on there except the belly, the arched top. I had a flat-top. I sat there with Maurice Berlin at CMI, and he said: ‘You know, I like violins.’ And he took me through his vault and showed me his collection, and he says: ‘Would you consider making it in an archtop?’, and I said I’d love it. He said: ‘Nobody else – Fender, nobody else – can do that, and we have the facilities to do it.’ So I said: ‘By all means, let’s do it.’ So we made them.”
“Les had taken his Epiphone and had made a lot of changes to it, put some pickups on it that he had made. I had been after him for a couple of years, trying to talk him into Gibson, hadn’t been successful. So I said: ‘That’s what we want to do, we want to call this the Les Paul model.’ I told him that we would pay him a royalty. I’m not an attorney, and nor was Phil Braunstein, nor was Les. So we started making a contract. And I have a theory about contracts. The more simple they are, the better they are. If you have five pages of gobbledegook, what I call ‘boilerplate’, you hire a smart lawyer and he’ll find loopholes in it. A simple one, anyone can understand. So we started out on it, first thing we did was write out how much we would pay him per guitar.
“We agreed it all that night. So I came back to the factory and now we had a Les Paul model. I’d been trying to get Les to let us make him a guitar for years, with no success, but we finally had something that he liked. So then we started to produce them.”
“We did the gold finish because it covered the blemishes in the wood, the cosmetic appearance. If it was maple [like the later Burst], it had to be fiddleback maple, had to be perfect, couldn’t have any blemishes, couldn’t have any mineral streaks in it. But we used to cover it up with that [gold] paint.
“We added the Les Paul Custom just to have another one. You have all kinds of players out there that like this and like that. Chevrolet has a whole bunch of models, Ford has a whole bunch of models. And there was a good reason for it. We were having more and more of a problem getting real good clear mahogany from Honduras. We’d get mahogany and it’d have streaks in it and whatnot.
“So that Les Paul Custom was a solidbody, it was not a sandwich, it was solid mahogany, but painted black. So you had some with streaks in it? You made Customs out of it. Dolled it up fancy with binding and other things on it, and sold it for a higher price.”
Billy’s divine music with Pearly Gates
“This guy I knew in Houston, John Wilson – he had a Rickenbacker 12-string, they sounded like The Byrds, they were called The Magic Ring – he rang one day and said: ‘Hey, word is you’re looking for one of those Les Pauls.’ I said yeah. He said: ‘There’s a farmer, a rancher, up the road, just outside the city limits, big ranch out there, a big cattle man, cattle and horses. Well, he’s got one of those things.’
“We had secured a 1936 Packard automobile, and we had a friend of the band, Renee Thomas, she had an opportunity to audition in California to win a part in a movie, so we gave her the Packard. She called up, says she’s in California and she got the part. Well, finally she sold the beater Packard and sent me this cheque for, I think, $350. I swear, the cheque arrived in the mail, and my buddy pulls up and said: ‘Hey, let’s go out see about that guitar.’
We get there, the guy said: ‘You want it, you can have it.’ I said, ‘How much you want?’ He says: ‘How much you got?’ I pulled the cheque out and says I just got this today, $350. He says: ‘I’ll take it.’ So I took off with that guitar!
“We had named that car Pearly Gates and when Renee sold it, I called her back, I said: ‘I got this guitar with the money.’ She goes, ‘Well, we’re gonna call that guitar Pearly Gates and you’re gonna play divine music.’
“I’ll tell you, man, that is some kind of guitar! This was 1968, right after summer. I’ve wondered along the way why this particular example of the Les Paul [’59 Burst] is so robust. Really, the only explanation is that it just happened to be put together on the right day. The right combination of wood. “It was all guesswork back in those days. The particular day that all of the disparate elements came together was just that magical moment, I suppose.”
Jimmy’s moves: Custom/Tele/Burst
“I got my [three humbucker] Les Paul Custom in the 60s… there was Selmer’s [shop in Charing Cross Road] and then there was one further on, at the time it was affiliated somehow, called [Lew Davis], and I bought it in there. I remember going in and there was a sort of cash desk, and the guys behind it, and right up on the wall… I said: ‘Oh my god, let me try that!’ What it was doing in there and why, but it was there. It was just… I fell in love with the bloody thing.
“There weren’t many around. It was just such a gorgeous-looking thing and it sounded so wonderful. The middle setting wasn’t what you’d expect it to be, but it was a really spiky sound that was really superb. I customised it with some switches so you could get into any combination, and [in 1970] it was the one that got stolen.
“In 1969, Joe Walsh turned up at The Fillmore or Winterland, one or the other, in San Francisco and he bloody insisted, he said: ‘You’ve got to buy this guitar!’ [It became Page’s ‘Number One’ Burst.] And it actually looked as though it’d been refinished. I said: ‘I don’t necessarily need it.’ ‘No, you’ve got to have it, just try it, you’ll want it,’ and all that. I said: ‘I’ve already got the Custom.’ ‘No, no, you’ve got to try it! You’ve got to buy this guitar!’
“He kept insisting. I said: ‘Ah, no, no, no, I can’t afford it. You know how it is.’ This wasn’t like dealing with Selmer’s. He was really sporting – he’s still sporting about it now. Because everyone goes oh, you sold him a Les Paul for whatever it is, hundreds of dollars. It was a pro-rata price, he wasn’t stealing me up and he wasn’t giving it to me as a present.
“I knew it was a good guitar. I knew there wouldn’t be the feedback, the squealing I got from my Telecaster, which every night there was a whole episode of controlling that. The first album is done on the Telecaster, because it is a transition from The Yardbirds to Led Zeppelin, it’s exactly the same guitar. Everybody had that if they started turning up a Telecaster loud. So Joe insisted that I bought it, and I did buy it, and I kicked off the second album with it.
“There’s no guarantee that I would have played the… I don’t know, it’s hypothetical, but I may not have come up with the riff of Whole Lotta Love on the Telecaster. That fat sound you’re working with, you are inspired – well, I am – and I know other people are, by instruments, the sound of the instruments. And then they’re playing something they haven’t played before – and it’s really user-friendly, and suddenly they’ve got some sort of riff, which is peculiar to that moment. I’m not saying that’s the first thing I played on it, but it was to come.
“I always knew the Les Paul was a really user-friendly guitar over, say, a Strat or something like that. It’s really sympatico. So many things start singing, you know? Really singing.”
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