Gibson Les Paul: its evolution, from Standard to Custom

Gibson Les Paul: its evolution, from Standard to Custom
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Gibson Les Paul, undoubtedly the most emblematic guitar of the most traditional manufacturer, both the Standard and Custom model versions, its evolution and transformation, its golden and black epochs or eras, and more.

History of the Gibson Les Paul: appearance, evolution and transformation

The history of the Gibson Les Paul, the first solid body guitar from the most traditional guitar company, begins in the early 1950s, when the company was led by none other than Ted McCarty.

The Gibson Les Paul was born as McCarty’s response to the growing popularity and success of his nemesis, the Fender Broadcaster, which later after going through a brief period without a name or “Nocaster” would be definitively called the Telecaster.  

Gibson Les Paul Standard 1958 R8 Custom Shop.

An experienced engineer with business acumen, Ted McCarty didn’t hesitate for a second to realize that the solid guitar business niche that Fender had begun to exploit was a market with great potential. Thus, Gibson decided to compete, hiring as the image the most famous guitarist of the time and admirer of the brand, Les Paul, to use as the image of his new solid body musical instrument.

Les Paul had already tried to persuade Gibson to make a solid body guitar years before, even before the Fender Esquire appeared in 1950. He had brought “The Log” but the company had rejected the musician and his proposal saying it was a broomstick with strings and pickups.

1953/4 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop and LEs Paul Custom "Black Beauty" brochures featuring Les Paul and Mary Ford.

Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, the first guitar

The first version of Gibson Les Paul: 1952

The first Les Paul guitar to be released by Gibson was Gibson’s Goldtop, which was released in 1952, two years after the first Fender was released.

The main characteristics were the same as it has today, but not all. The Gibson Les Paul had an evolution throughout its first 7 years of life. Mahogany body and neck with arched maple top on the body and rosewood fingerboard. The glued neck has 22 frets with binding and inlays nacre trapezoids -mother of pearl-. It also had a truss rod.

The controls are independent volume and tone for each pickup and a three-position selector switch. However, the first version had some characteristics different from what the final model of the Gibson Les Paul would have.

Les Paul Gold Top 1952

The original Gibson Les Paul ’52 came with P90 pickups, called Soapbars for their bar-soap-like aesthetic. These pickups are singlecoil that Gibson had already invented in 1946.

The traditional long tailpiece and bridge were similar to those used by the brand on other guitar models such as the L5. The Les Paul immediately suggested replacing the traditional Gibson trapeze tailpiece – a solid wrapped around steel bar.

The first changes in the evolution of the Gibson Les Paul: 1953 – 1954

Gibson Les Paul Goldtop 55

During 1953, the long tailpiece was replaced by the wrapped bridge that Ted McCarty himself designed, thus, in this year you can find guitars with both bridges. The aesthetics of the guitar will be maintained for a couple of years.

The following year, in 1954, another change arrives, the inclination of the mast is also corrected with respect to the first model launched on the market. Thus, the mast takes the inclination of 17º, which will be final today. Keep riding P-90 soapbar -single-coil- pickups and continue with the Goldtop finish.

The last and final changes to the Gibson Les Paul: 1955 – 1958

In 1954, Ted McCarty invented the Tune-o-Matic bridge, which was incorporated into the new Custom, but it was only in 1955 when it was added to the Gibson Les Paul Goldtop.

This bridge comes with adjustable saddles that allow you to better calibrate the guitar – octave or fifth -, thus improving the tuning. Initially, the tailpiece was designed above the tailpiece as in the Wrappover, but finally it is used by placing the strings at the back and leaving them directly towards the bridge.

In 1957, product of the objective of reducing the noise -hum- of the pickups, a Gibson engineer, Seth Lover, designed the humbucker pickups known as Humbucker. The first humbucker pickups are known as P.A.F. o PAF given that they had a sticker with the following “Patent Applied For” due to Gibson’s patent registration management.

Gibson Goldtop 1957.

Thus, in 1957 the Les Paul took the final technical specifications that it maintains to this day. However, the following year, in 1958 the finish was changed to cherry sunburst for which the guitar is best known.

Gibson Les Paul Custom: the luxury version

In 1954, Ted McCarty looked for an alternative to the Goldtop. In that sense Ted has said in an interview: “We added the Les Paul Custom just to have another one. You have all kinds of guitarists who like this and that. Chevrolet has many models, Ford has many models. “

Gibson's first Black Beauty model.

Thus, this black model is launched, with gold hardware and black P90 pickups. In addition, it has a double binding on the body -on both sides- on the lid and on the back of the body- and also binding on the neck and pegbox. In addition, the binding of the upper and the body has a detail of black and white interspersed stripes. The inlays are block type, that is, block or rectangular inlays.

The technical differences of the Les Paul Custom with the Standard or Goldtop is that it has a one-piece mahogany body, without a maple top. The fingerboard is ebony instead of rosewood. Thus, the highs that in a Les Paul Standard or Goldtop are given by the maple top of the body, in a Custom the highs are given by its ebony fingerboard. Furthermore, the Custom was the first Les Paul with a Tune-o-Matic bridge, and it differed from the Goldtop, which adopted it only the following year in 1955.

The “Black Beauty”

Gibson Les Paul Custom brochure featuring the photograph of Les.

Black Beauty is the nickname for the Gibson Les Paul Custom. The black and gold combination is the ideal combination to give status and height to something, that’s why that combination was chosen. Plus there was a good reason to go for a solid color which was explained by Ted McCarty:

“And there was a good reason for it. We were having more and more trouble getting the smooth mahogany from Honduras very well. So if you had a mahogany with some stripes, it was used to make Customs. They were elegantly prepared with binging – scenes – and other things, and sold at a higher price. “

Thus, mahogany with aesthetic imperfections was used for Les Paul Customs that were painted a solid black color.

Les Paul Custom and PAFs: 1957

Gibson Les Paul Custom black, the "Black Beauty".

In 1957, like the Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, the Custom adopted the PAF pickups. Thus, the final model of Les Paul Custom is defined. Unless we consider the replacement of ebony by richlite around 2012, which was due to problems of supplying quality wood in sufficient quantity. Richlite is a synthetic material that mimics the aesthetics of ebony.

Gibson Les Paul Standard: 1958-1960: the ultimate transformation

Gibson Les Paul Standard 1959

In 1958 the Gibson Les Paul Standard was launched with the classic and traditional cherry sunburst finish for which the model is best known. This is the Gibson Les Paul guitar is the greatest reference of all, the maximum expression of the evolution of the model. These guitars are called “Burst” because of their finish.

The differences in the specifications of these three years are subtle; for example the neck profile is thicker in 1958 and thinner in 1960; in 1958 the maple tops were smoother and the ’59 tops the most flamed. However, the 1959 Gibson Les Paul guitars are considered the “Holy Grail” of the model.

Gibson Les Paul 1960

Gibson Les Paul discontinued

In 1960, with its excessive weight and traditional shape, it was seen as old-fashioned and expensive. Compared to the other markets on the market such as the Stratocaster, Jazzmaster, Flying V, Explorer, among others, the Les Paul had lost popularity. Thus the Les Paul is replaced by what was presented as its successor, the Gibson SG. The SG was initially released under the name Gibson Les Paul, and later with the termination of the contract with Les Paul it would take the name SG from Solid Guitar. It would only be in 1968 that the construction of the Gibson Les Paul is resumed.

Video demo of several vintage Les Pauls on a 1959 Fender Bassman

For more information, head over to Gibson.

Related Articles: Ted McCarty and Gibson’s Golden Age.

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