Vintage Bench Test: 1954 & 1957 Gibson Les Paul Goldtops up close

Forget the flames and blingy ’Bursts, we check out two gold Les Pauls from the mid 1950s. 

Welcome to the first in a new series in which we get up close and personal with an array of vintage guitars and find out what makes them tick. Over the coming months, we’ll be looking at a range of instruments from investment-grade holy grails to more affordable players’ guitars that you wouldn’t be scared to take out in public. First though, here’s a pair of golden oldies with more than a little mojo…

’54 All Gold

Due to the absence of a serial number, I can’t say for sure when this Les Paul was made. The wrapover bridge ears are ¼-inch thick, which suggests 1955, but the bridge and posts could have been changed. On the other hand, the pickup spacing is 3 1/8 inches rather than 3 inches, so that corresponds with 1954 and earlier.

Schallers were installed at some point, but five of the 1953-56-era no-line Kluson tuners are back on the guitar, plus one later Kluson. Three original IRC pots have survived, and the one I pulled out dated to the 15th week of 1953. Since we’ll never know for sure, let’s split the difference and call this a late-54.

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The missing serial number indicates the back of the neck may have been refinished. It is possible because this is actually an all-gold Les Paul, so you would expect the neck to be gold rather than brown.

In the buckle rash area, you can see gold was applied over the standard pale brown finish. Theoretically, the body could have been sprayed gold later, and there is some overspray in the control cavity, but that doesn’t explain the missing serial number. An odd opaque patch on the back of the headstock may be evidence of an original gold finish that was carefully removed to reveal the brown beneath, or imperfect preparation prior to a respray. All I can be certain of is the neck finish is very old.

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The body’s ‘undercoat’ perfectly matches the neck, and any modifications most likely happened decades ago, because the neck black lights just like the rest of the guitar. A screwed-up page from the Sydney Morning Herald in the non-original case indicates it may have spent some time down under. Besides one pot and one tuner, everything you’d expect to find on a Les Paul of this vintage is present and correct.

In use

Here’s proof that not all 50s-era Les Pauls were lightweight lovelies. Weighing in at 10lbs,  this is a ‘whole lot of Goldie’ with a chunky neck to match. Even the acoustic tone has weight,  and you can perform a fun experiment with the wrapover.

Tune to open D, strum a chord with your left hand then place your right palm against the back of the bridge, taking care not to mute any strings. Volume and sustain decrease noticeably and harmonic overtones are lost, so the featherweight aluminium bridge, and the way it’s coupled to the heavyweight body, strongly influence the tone.

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The 7.7K bridge pickup combines bite and twang with vintage quack and a hint of cocked wah snarl. It adds up to a fabulous clean tone with an underlying air of menace. In contrast, the neck, which is wound to 10K, sounds very fat and creamy, but doesn’t overpower. The extra windings certainly don’t detract from the clarity, with plenty of woodiness coming through.

Even in clean mode, this pickup has a rottweiler-like tendency to hang onto single notes, with plenty of bloom. Given the disparity in resistance readings, one of the pickups may have been rewound at some point, but I didn’t dismantle the guitar to check.

Cranking up the amp transformed the bridge tone into a huge grinding bark that’s simply perfect for classic-rock riffing. The neck delivers a bluesy singing quality that has enough substance and sustain for soling without recourse to pedals.

No wonder Freddie King preferred recording with one of these, and the story goes that Clapton wanted a Goldtop to emulate his hero but had to settle for a ’Burst instead. The standout setting is both pickups on; in clean mode, it reveals the ’54 at its most delicate and complex. You can dial in a vast range of tonal colours, too, thanks to controls that perform their designated functions without any annoying side effects.

’57 Goldtop

Having researched early PAF-loaded Goldtops,  this example could be from the first month of production. All the features check out, including the black plastic parts and brushed stainless steel pickup covers that pre-dated the ‘Patent Applied For’ stickers and nickel covers.

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Also present are the thinner switch ring, black pickup ring screws and the low-set peghead logo. Some sources suggest Goldtops with black plastics should have dark backs. This guitar’s body and neck are light brown, despite having a serial number that falls bang in the middle of the range that supposedly corresponds with the black plastics.

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When you catch the top at the right angle, you can discern flame maple under the gold, and a three-piece top. The indications are it was played mostly by a rhythm guitarist, because there’s a mark beneath the pickguard and all of the neck wear is confined to the cowboy end.

The frets may not be to everybody’s taste, and they’re certainly not the type commonly associated with Les Pauls. Even compared to the ’54’s, this is narrow and low-ish wire. It doesn’t look as if the frets have worn to any great extent, so maybe they were relatively low to begin with.

In use

Although the guitar plays flawlessly with no buzzing or choking out, most players would find bluesy bends and finger vibrato easier with more substantial frets. Guitars such as this, which are so original and unworn, can present owners with re-fret dilemmas.

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The originality versus playability issue has been done to death, so let’s not get into that. Instead,  I would argue the narrowness of the frets has a noticeable effect on the tone of this ’57. The front end of notes sound extremely crisp and defined, with an edge that lends the ’57 an unusually articulate, precise quality. It’s not dissimilar to the snap and bite more often associated with Fenders, but there’s loads more body and sustain.

Wider frets might make it sound and play more like a ’59, but I hope that if anybody does eventually refret this guitar, they’ll consider going with taller narrow wire, rather than the usual jumbo wire. They’ll get enough purchase under the strings for bending and finger vibrato, but it’ll retain the distinctive ’57 tone rather than replicate a (slightly) poorer man’s ’Burst.

Acoustically, this Goldtop probably has more natural resonance than any humbucker-equipped Les Paul I’ve played, and I can include a handful of ’Bursts amongst them. Beneath the chimey, crisp treble, there’s a hollow woodiness that could fool you into thinking it’s a chambered body – if it weren’t for the astonishing solidbody sustain. It also holds its tuning superbly, and although some saddles are adjusted to their limits, the intonation is perfect.

The neck pickup is very slightly more microphonic, and although both ohm out at a fraction over 7.1K, the sonic contrast is profound. At full throttle, the bridge setting is aggressive, with a noticeable midrange quack and a jangly chime. The neck sounds wide open and clear, lending jazzy texture to chords and a vocal quality to single notes.

Other characteristics, such as amazing touch sensitivity and harmonic complexity, are common to both. Add a touch of overdrive then play a powerchord and you can hear different harmonic overtones drifting in and out as it slowly fades away.

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The effect is so intriguing it’s very hard to put this guitar down. The middle setting is out of phase. Looking closely, neither pickup cover appears to have been removed to flip a magnet, but the pickups have been out at some point and the original bumblebee capacitors are not wired 50s-style. The tampered solder joints are also sloppy compared to those done in the Gibson factory.

The low frets and the rewiring are the only things that detract from this spectacular Les Paul. It can be smooth or nasty, sweet or aggressive and biting or mellow. Just like the ’54, music flows out of this guitar.

Compare and contrast

Like so many mid-50s Gibsons I’ve had the pleasure of playing, both Les Pauls instantly felt as if I’d been playing them for years. This unusual sensation wasn’t down to a generic profile or action that just happened to be where I like it.

There is something about the necks Gibsons was carving during this part of the 50s that’s supremely player-friendly. Both are undeniably big necks, but they don’t feel clubby or unwieldy. The ’54’s is more rounded along its entire length, whereas the ’57 profile has a subtle refinement with a delicate hint of a V. It starts from the point where the back of the headstock transitions into the neck, then fades to a fully rounded profile by the fifth fret to maintain its roundness all the way to the heel.

Neither neck has any shoulder, and if you view both square-on from the back you can see thin lines of binding and even make out some of the dots. This shows that the profile curve begins nearer the outer edges of the fingerboards than the bottom edges of the binding. So it could be more accurate to describe Gibson’s mid-50s profile as a fat and wide C rather than a U or a D.

Although it’s fanciful, I’d find it hard to choose between these guitars. It’s a bit like comparing a mid-50s Strat with a mid-60s model, because they’re so different. I prefer the lighter weight and balance of the ’57, but both necks feel amazing. The ’54’s is a tad more rounded and grippy, while the ’57’s has a bit more finesse.

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They are equally resonant, but in different ways. The ’57 is livelier and chimier, but the ’55’s thicker midrange and solid bass give it more grunt and power. It’s reasonable to conclude that the wrapover bridge makes all the difference. Some aficionados claim gold lacquer inhibits vibration and makes Goldtops less resonant than ’Bursts. I’d like to comment on that, but I can’t think of a polite word for ‘bullshit’.

The PAFs are slightly brighter, with greater subtlety and harmonic complexity. The P-90s have a gutsier midrange and more compressed response, but they don’t do note bloom and harmonic overtones to quite the same extent. Many of the other sonic differences between these two sets of pickups coincide with the acoustic characteristics of the host guitars, and the similarities between them are actually more apparent than the differences.

For instance, both neck pickups have a vocal quality, with the PAF winning out by a nose. Both bridge pickups have vintage quack, but this time the P-90s win. Both sets are microphonic and can hang on to single notes for eons. You can also clean up by playing lightly or turning down, without losing clarity or treble response. I’m left wondering if Seth Lover was really shooting for a P-90-style tone  minus the hum when he developed the PAF.

At first, I favoured the ’54. It delivers such a powerful and exhilarating plug in and play tone it was love at first strum. The ’57 reveals its charms gradually and is the more subtle, versatile and refined of the pair. It’s also the one that kept drawing me back, because it never stops delivering sonic surprises. In an ideal world, I’d probably choose the ’57 – but with a wrapover bridge rather than a tune-o-matic. Hang on… does that sound more like a PRS?

This may be controversial, but I’m not convinced age has worked any magic here. These Les Pauls are from an era when Gibson had access to the best materials and was at the top of its game. I believe these guitars are so great because they were incredibly well made to begin with – but even if age hasn’t improved them, it’s done them no harm.

Key features
1954 Gibson Les Paul All Gold
• Scale Length 624mm/24 9/16”
• Neck Width 42.5mm at nut, 52.5mm at 12th fret
• Neck Depth  21mm at first fret, 23.5mm at 12th fret
• String Spacing 35.5mm at nut, 50mm at bridge
• Weight 4.53Kg/10lb
• Contact Vintage Guitar Boutique
0207 729 9186
www.vintageguitarboutique.com
1957 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop
• Scale Length 626mm/24.5/8”
• Neck Width 42mm at nut, 52.5mm at 12th fret
• Neck Depth 21mm at first fret, 23mm at 12th fret
• String Spacing 37.5mm at nut, 51mm at bridge
• Weight 4Kg/9lb
• Contact Vintage Guitar Boutique
0207 729 9186
www.vintageguitarboutique.com