Vintage Bench Test: 1969 Gibson SG Special
Gibson used ‘Special’ as a model designation for their more upmarket P-90-equipped student models with added neck pickups. Huw Price checks out a rather special SG survivor from 1969…
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, most now regard 1950s Goldtops, Juniors, Specials, Standards and Customs as some of the greatest solidbody guitars ever made. Even so, Fender was helping itself to a big slice of the guitar pie and there is a clear sense that Gibson felt itself struggling to adapt.
In an attempt to appear less stuffy and conservative, Gibson went from the sublime to the outlandish, and in 1958 shocked the guitar world with the Flying V and Explorer models. Neither proved successful commercially, so after a brief pause Gibson tried again and the body shape we now associate with the SG made its debut in 1961.
Gibson began using the SG designation in 1960, and the SG Special of that year was essentially identical to the double-cutaway 1959 Les Paul Special. However from 1961 SG models were very different, with 19th fret body joints and a far thinner double-cutaway body with extensive edge contouring and pointy horns.
The Junior, Special, Standard and Custom models all acquired the new look and for a while the Les Paul name was retained. However Les himself didn’t take to the new design because he felt it lacked sustain and was insufficiently stable structurally. It also bothered him that he would get an unwanted vibrato from the bendy neck, however a certain Pete Townshend would later exploit that characteristic to great effect.
And it’s the Townshend association that inspired owner Craig Wallace to track down this stunning 1969 SG Special. Les Paul was right about the structural issues and as well as the usual headstock breaks, many vintage SGs have suffered breaks at the body joint – something virtually unheard of with the earlier Les Pauls. Fortunately this example has survived almost 50 years virtually unscathed.
We don’t believe it’s had a particularly hard life, because there is hardly any evidence of playwear, and even the guitar’s case is in fantastic condition – fusty old guitar odour notwithstanding. With that in mind, it’s probably safe to assume this one escaped the attentions of would-be Townshends.
The Brazilian rosewood fingerboard is in excellent condition, along with the factory-fitted nut. Although they are very low and wide, even the frets are original, and the fret nibs are mostly intact. The cherry finish is in outstanding condition and retains most of its hue. We can’t find any lacquer checking, and the very few dents and dings are small and superficial. There is some buckle rash, but it’s fairly minor and hasn’t broken through the finish.
Unlike Townshend, Craig prefers to leave the Vibrola tailpiece on his guitar rather than expose the three telltale holes on the front of the body. With the arm removed and stored safely in the case, the guitar is strung up wrapover-style with the original ‘stair step’ compensated bridge. The bridge and tailpiece are chrome-plated and the original tuners would have been, too.
Impressed outlines on the rear of the headstock reveal that Craig’s guitar was fitted with the lesser seen and poorly regarded three-on-a-plate open-geared tuners. Instead, Schallers have been added, and they provide smooth and stable tuning without adding too much neck heaviness. For reasons we can’t fully explain, this is probably the best-balanced SG we’ve ever encountered.
The original switch tip’s thread deteriorated, so it has also been retired to the case, but the guitar retains its original poker chip, scratchplate, knobs and pickup covers. Inside the control cavity all the wiring and solder joints are original and untouched. Ceramic capacitors bridge the CTS pots, which have date codes from the latter half of 1969.
The cavity has a brass lining for shielding with foil backing the cover plate. Cherry lacquer on the ground wire indicates that it was installed prior to spraying and where the sides of the cavity are untouched by lacquer, you can see Gibson’s original shade of deep cherry wood stain.
This must have been one of the last non-volute necks and it’s comfortable but still a handful. However it’s quite different in feel from a late-50s Gibson profile and more a deep ‘U’ in shape. SGs can feel rather flimsy sometimes, but thanks to its neck, this example feels quite robust and solid while remaining lightweight and acoustically lively.
This guitar exhibits impressive sustain, precise and clear top end sparkle, and a percussive thump in the bass. It’s a tad smoother, woodier and more compressed that the 1957 TV Special we featured last year. In contrast, the ’57 Special was brighter, louder and had more harmonic richness in the midrange.
Playing this guitar is almost effort free. The action is so low and the frets so flat that you can whizz around this neck like lightning. It almost goes without saying that upper fret access couldn’t be much easier and your fingers might venture into higher altitudes than they are accustomed to.
Irrespective of the non-50s tone control wiring, these P-90s clean up just as nicely as any 1950s Special or Junior we’ve played. There is no loss of clarity and it can go from brutal powerchords into a sound not dissimilar to an acoustic tone. Given Townshend’s later preference for piezo pickup-equipped bridges on his Strats, it’s no wonder that SG Specials were his main stage guitars between 1968 and 1971.
Although the frets are low, we don’t experience any difficulties bending strings or adding finger vibrato. It seems the trick is to set the action a little higher above the frets than you usually would so you can get some purchase under the strings. It helps that the set of 0.010s on this guitar feel more like a set of 0.009s.
The controls take some getting used to because it’s all too easy to bash the switch when you’re adjusting volume and the jack socket location causes access issues with the tone controls unless you use a right-angled plug. Intonation is also a bit of an issue, but only on the G-string. One has to wonder why, when they finally got around to making a compensated wrapover tailpiece, Gibson calibrated it for a wound G.
All things considered, the minor quirkiness enhances the guitar and the tone and playability are every bit as impressive as the condition. It’s all about midrange raunch, sweet upper midrange bite and a hint of woody aggression with fast and feather light action. Craig informs us that although he doesn’t currently gig with it, this SG Special is his main home guitar and is often taken to band rehearsals.
Judging by the condition, we think it might end up seeing more action with him than it did in its first 49 years!
1969 Gibson SG Special
• DESCRIPTION Solidbody electric guitar. Made in the USA
• BUILD Solid mahogany body, glued-in mahogany neck with bound Brazilian rosewood fingerboard, dot markers and 22 frets
• HARDWARE Schaller tuners (replacements)
• ELECTRICS 2x P-90 single-coil pickups, 2x volumes, 2x tones, 3-way selector switch
• FINISH Cherry nitrocellulose
• SCALE LENGTH 628mm/24.75”
• NECK WIDTH 38mm at nut, 50mm at 12th fret
• NECK DEPTH 21mm at first fret, 25mm at 12th fret
• STRING SPACING 34mm at nut, 51mm at bridge
• WEIGHT 3.57kg/7.88lbs