Few of us will ever get the chance to play a real 1950s sunburst Les Paul – and even those who’ve been lucky enough to hold one in their hands will probably have had it whisked away after a minute or two by understandably twitchy owners or shop managers. But getting to spend a whole week playing an original Burst unsupervised, through our favourite amps? That’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, and thanks to Lucky Fret Music Company, it’s one that we’re delighted to share with you this month.
Not all 1960 Bursts were created equal and ‘Double 00’ examples such as this, which precede the 07 models made later in the year, were reputedly built with leftover 1959 bodies and necks, and finished in the earlier non-lightfast finish. Consequently, the neck isn’t skinny, there are no ‘reflector’ knobs and the front is about as far as it gets from the divisive ‘tomato soup’ sunburst. Even so, a vivid red colour remains under the pickguard and it can also be seen under the poker chip and the pickup rings.
Photos from 1972 clearly show that most, if not all, of the shaded areas had already faded away by then and, since the previous owner Doug Lock, played with the pickguard off, the un-faded area is vivid even in black and white. The front isn’t short of patina and in Burst parlance, this example qualifies as an ‘unburst’. None of the shading remains visible and what’s left is a uniform deep amber colour with subtle tints of orange and an even subtler hint of green.
Lacquer checking is extensive and is most apparent across the face of the flame-free maple top. The nitrocellulose retains a deep all-over gloss, but the surface texture looks subtly different around the controls, with a hint of orange peel.
Four screw holes from a long gone Bigsby B5 have been plugged and lacquered over. In addition, there are two tight crack lines running across the pot shaft holes of the neck pickup controls. Under black light the entire top glows, but it’s slightly darker in the area around the screw holes and the controls. We might conclude that the area in question has had a light blow-over.
The back of the neck blacklights nicely, too, but we are informed it was also sprayed over at some point. However, the added lacquer has since been cut back across the neck’s playing area and given the sheer quantity of original lacquer that survives, it’s a mystery why anybody decided to overspray it in the first place.
There are some fairly deep and wide lacquer cracks running across the back of the neck, so it may have been an attempt to smooth out the feel. In that sense, the blow-over succeeds and the non-original lacquer shows up as deep and clear infills between the missing areas of cherry, with oxidised mahogany beneath. The same can be seen in various spots around the rear body edges.
A vivid verdigris is apparent on the control knobs, one of which is slightly deformed in a way that suggests heat was involved. The neck pickup ring is cracked, but remains fully functional and the original pickguard is back on, albeit with a Pozidriv bracket screw.
Although the wireless ABR-1 bridge appears original, almost 60 years of string pressure has forced it into a slight downwards bend and the saddles all look a bit fresh. The aluminium tailpiece is a replacement, but it’s a vintage Gibson wrapover bridge with the intonation grub screws removed.
Inside the control cavity, the routing and the characteristic router marks appear as expected. The tone caps are Astron metal foil types in ceramic housings with green lettering and these are often seen in 1960s LPs rather than the earlier Mylar bumblebees. Nothing suggests the solder joints have been touched – hence our unwillingness to pull everything out to read pot codes.
Previous owner, the producer Terry Thomas, reveals that the guitar was once fitted with Grovers, but the enlarged post holes have been expertly plugged and re-drilled. The Kluson-style tuners currently on the guitar are labelled Gibson Deluxe and they were made in Japan. They have the appearance of age and with Uncle Lou single-ring buttons, they look the part.
All the 1950s and very early 1960s Gibson solidbodies that we’ve played sound intriguing when played unplugged and this instrument is no exception. Addressing Les Paul Standards specifically, we’ve noticed variations that appear to correlate with body weight.
At the risk of veering into gross generalisation, lighter Les Pauls tend to be louder with an airier sprang, faster response and deeper lows. Heavier ones often resonate with more midrange emphasis, tighter lows, softer treble, a smoother attack and sometimes longer sustain. Irrespective of weight, we always hear a resonance peak in the lower region of the upper mids that produces a woody growl suggestive of ‘acoustic overdrive’ with certain note combinations.
This 1960 falls on the heavier side of the vintage spectrum and conforms to our expectations for a weighty vintage Les Paul. It bears a closer resemblance to the 1955 P-90-loaded Goldtop we featured in the magazine a couple of years back than it does the PAF-equipped 1957 model from the same article. The ’55 had a similar weight, yet it was unusually resonant – like that guitar, this can be felt vibrating where it rests against your body.
However valuable they may be, not all vintage guitars play well. Often this can be attributed to a setup that’s long overdue or frets being worn out. This guitar’s previous owner bought it to play, and had it refretted soon after. A pretty decent job was done and the fingerboard is in superb condition. Couple that with the soft shouldered depth of a fattish ’59 neck profile and rock-solid tuning, and it’s hard to imagine a better playing Burst.
Past experience teaches us to look for certain sonic characteristics in vintage Les Pauls and the 1960 doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Through a clean amp, you get tremendous clarity, uncanny sustain, ever shifting harmonics and touch dynamics that can rival the finest acoustics. What’s more, the controls behave as expected, cleaning up from the volume controls and rolling off treble from the tone controls without loss of clarity or definition.
Having ticked all of the fundamental Burst boxes, this guitar also has a very distinctive voice. It’s less bright than some 1950s Les Pauls, as the 1960 channels its acoustic characteristics through heavily patinated double-black PAFs.
This Les Paul’s magic is mostly in the midrange, but the sheer variety of tones it produces is astonishing. In large part this is due to a pronounced sonic contrast between the pickups. The cocked wah midrange resonance is most apparent on the bridge pickup, and it combines with a mellow sparkle and more than a hint of twang.
Picking single notes across a chord, the clarity of each note is something special, and yet everything gels together. Swap the plastic for a spot of fingerpicking and the warm cluck at the front of each note sounds not unlike Merle Travis playing away on his famous Bigsby guitar.
We have previously remarked on the P-90-like qualities of genuine PAFs, but this bridge pickup comes closer than any we have tried to the throaty growl and wiry snarl of Gibson’s greatest single coil. Going head-to-head with a ’54 Goldtop, the PAF sounds a tad brighter and more complex while the P-90 is more direct – however, differences between the alnico magnets should also be considered.
If you want prettiness or jazzy warmth, switch to the neck. Here the midrange resonance is far less pronounced and treble extends further, so it’s closer to our previous experience with PAFs and the finest replicas. Notes are rounder, woodiness abounds and fast runs have an effortless fluidity. Single note attack is livelier and it’s a rare thing to find this level of mellow refinement combined with such superb bass definition.
The in-between setting has the most pronounced contrast we’ve ever heard on a Les Paul. Often you’re obliged to go looking for hollow and honky phasiness in the mids by balancing the volumes or even adjusting pickup height to zone in on the elusive quack point. This guitar hands it to you on a plate.
Overdrive can have a homogenising effect on guitars, masking subtle tonal characteristics, smoothing out quirks and compensating for a lack of sustain. With this guitar, the opposite occurs because an overdriven valve amp actually accentuates the clean characteristics. The bridge’s growl becomes a snarl and then a full-blown roar. Meanwhile, the neck’s vocal ‘aaah’ becomes a singing ‘oooh’ with a sweetly shimmering bite at the front of each note.
It transpires that the complex harmonic overtones we associate with PAFs are in there, and overdrive merely helps to draw them out. Remember that the Les Paul was designed for jazz and although this 1960 is a consummate clean guitar, its sheer grunt and strength through a cranked valve amp inspires awe.
The elephant in the room is of course, the cost of taking it home. This guitar was recently sold by Lucky Fret Music Co, and as you’d expect, the ticket was north of 200 grand. There’s a vast gulf in price between Gibson’s finest current offerings and a vintage Burst but this has more to do with their scarcity – and the paradigm-shifting recordings of Bloomfield, Clapton, Kossoff et al – than Fabergé-like craftsmanship or vast differences in the quality of materials and playability.
Whether we approve of the cost of this guitar or not is immaterial – vintage Les Pauls have long since become investment goods and are valued accordingly. The difference at this level is that the market decides a guitar’s worth rather than the would-be owner’s bank manager or significant other.
As such, those who can contemplate buying a real Burst will be well-heeled rock stars, serious collectors and investors – or maybe some combination of all three. For some of these individuals, the value of a vintage Les Paul as a musical instrument or cultural artefact will be secondary at best and the issue is not whether they can afford it, but whether a specific Burst is worth the asking price.
We can justifiably lament the fact that ‘ordinary musicians’ can no longer afford them. On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the Kahler trem retrofits, stripped finishes, shaved necks and added switches inflicted on many vintage Bursts, were performed by well-intentioned ‘players’ rather than ‘evil investors’.
It’s consoling that the early Les Pauls that survive will henceforth be treasured and preserved. Like certain antique violins, they may even play and sound just as good when they are three centuries old. Whether guitarists will actually be granted access remains moot.
Is getting your hands on such a great sounding and playing original Burst a life-changing experience? That might be overstating things but our close encounters with these guitars have certainly transformed our understanding and appreciation of the Les Paul Standard as a player’s instrument. They are so different from what we expected, and significantly better.
However, at the risk of offending the Burst blowhards, we remain unconvinced that age is the determining factor when it comes to a guitar’s tone. This is easily one of the finest electric guitars we’ve ever played, but if you understand how to combine the right type of hardware and electronic components on a suitable body, it’s possible to experience something unnervingly close to vintage Burst tone without having to buy an original. We’ll expand on this theme in a future issue!
That said, any player discovering how subtle, complex, versatile, delicate and ferocious these guitars can be, will never again dismiss vintage style Les Pauls as old school blues or rock instruments. However long we spend playing the Duggie Lock Burst, it keeps surprising us with different sounds and new textures. We suspect that it would take months or even years to truly get to know this guitar, and it’s difficult to imagine a more inspiring musical instrument.
Locked And Loaded
The name ‘Duggie Lock’ is stencilled on the Cali Girl case that comes with the guitar. Having previously belonged to Luther Grosvenor (aka Ariel Bender), this Les Paul was given to Doug Lock as a 21st birthday present in June 1971. He played it in various groups, including an obscure early 1970s British rock band called Bulldozer. There are two videos on YouTube that are merely collections of still photographs, but you can see and hear him playing this very guitar.
Bulldozer were managed by Ten Years After drummer Ric Lee and while recording at Escape Studios in Kent, the band was interrupted by the roar of a hot-rod pulling into the driveway, driven by none other than Jeff Beck. Beck quickly spotted Doug’s Les Paul and said, “Nice axe, man.” Soon after Beck began playing it. Doug fled the room exclaiming, “I can’t handle this!” but his bandmates continued jamming, with Beck using Doug’s guitar throughout.
Having also played with The Graham Bond Organisation, Doug was obviously no slouch on guitar himself and his bandmate Derek Carter describes him as “a proper blues player”. However, when his musical career didn’t take off, he became a guitar tech for Frank Zappa, Steve Winwood, Bad Company and Jimmy Page. Doug recalled that Page’s first words to him were, “You’re going to have to anticipate when I break a string”. He also tour-managed for Motörhead and worked as a guitar tech for The Moody Blues with his voice featuring on Under My Feet and his offstage acoustic playing bolstering live performances.
After contracting pneumonia in the early 1990s, Doug and his long-time partner Joy Arnold relocated to Ireland. The Les Paul was sold to help finance new ventures and Doug soon developed successful sidelines as a guesthouse owner and fly-fishing instructor. As a member of the Rock And Roll Fly Fishers Club, he even got to cast with Eric Clapton.
Doug stayed on in Cork after Joy succumbed to cancer but in 2010, Doug also died. His friend Joani wrote the following. “He played the slide like the devil but unfortunately sang like a cat trapped in a door and when the amp was turned up to 11, I put on my wellies and took the dogs for a really long walk! I could still hear him at the top of our land.”
Doug once offered some words of wisdom to one of his guitar students, but they might apply to any of us. “You’ve got some good chops there but speed ain’t everything. Imagine you are talking to someone through the guitar, you have to stop and take a breath or you’ll pass out. The notes you don’t play can speak just as loud as the ones you do.” We would have loved to have shared a Guinness or two with Duggie Lock.
Special thanks to Derek Carter, Pete Isaacs, Chuck Lock, Gail Kirkham and Jeremiah Healy.
1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard
• PRICE £219,995
• DESCRIPTION Solidbody electric guitar. Made in the USA
• BUILD Mahogany body with set mahogany neck, bound rosewood fingerboard, celluloid markers and 22 frets
• HARDWARE Gibson Deluxe tuners, wireless ABR-1 bridge, aluminium tailpiece
• ELECTRICS 2x PAF humbuckers
• FINISH Nitrocellulose
• SCALE LENGTH 625mm/24.63”
• NECK WIDTH 43.35mm at nut, 52.61mm at 12th fret
• NECK DEPTH 22.5mm at first fret, 24.5mm at 12th fret
• STRING SPACING 35.96mm at nut, 51.31mm at bridge
• WEIGHT 4.45kg/9.81lbs
• CONTACT Lucky Fret Music Co 0207 729 9186, www.luckyfret.com