Gibson Guitar Presents

The Year of Les Paul Gibson USA honors Les Paul, the avid inventor, expert player, creative sound engineer, and Gibson’s long-time partner by celebrating his love for guitars in 2013.

Les Paul There are few musicians more universally recognized, admired and loved than Les Paul.

The Year of Les Paul is Gibson’s opportunity not only to revisit Les’s greatest designs but also to forge ahead with the spirit of invention that he championed. For decades, Gibson was Les’s inspiration. Today, he is Gibson’s.

Les is one of the most significant figures in modern music, as integral to a musician’s life as Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell are to modern society. Les felt one of his greatest achievements was his induction into the Inventors Hall of Fame at the age of 90. Les Paul was that rare person in life, a true renaissance man.

Born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Les showed a love for music at an early age. At 8 years old he taught himself how to play the harmonica, piano and banjo and was performing on guitar at 13, billing himself as “Rhubarb Red” with a homemade harmonica holder. All his life he experimented with improving every instrument he played. Les’s passion for recording drove him to invent equipment that would allow him to translate his ideas into music. He made one of his first solidbody guitars by attaching pickups to a railroad tie. Les even created a recording lathe made from a Cadillac flywheel and a dentist drill — producing recordings good enough to land him a contract with Capitol Records in 1948.

Les’s stories, and he loved to tell a story, could all be movie scripts on their own — driving to Oklahoma to check out Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, hanging out in New York City with Charlie Christian, trading licks with Django Reinhardt, playing with Chet Atkins, designing multi-track tape machines and broadcasting national radio and television shows from his living room.

Throughout his life, Les Paul loved Gibson guitars. The Gibson factory was his personal laboratory, and Gibson instruments were his inspiration for innovation. Few musicians can claim to have truly made history. But starting in the 1950s Les Paul — with help from Gibson — did just that.


1915-1952  Growing Up

June 9, 1915 Les Paul is born Lester Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

1923 At eight years old, Lester Polsfuss becomes proficient on harmonica.

1928 At 13, Lester begins performing locally. Using a wire coat hanger, Les invents the first harmonica holder so he can play guitar and harmonica at the same time.

Lester also makes his first attempt at making an electric guitar and a disk recording machine.

1932 At 17, Lester joins his first band “Rube Tronson’s Texas Cowboys” and quits high school.

When the group’s guitarist, Sunny Joe Wolverton, moves to St. Louis to work for radio station KMOX, Lester joins him as his accompanist and begins using the stage name “Rhubarb Red.”

1934 After Lester and Sunny relocate to Chicago, Lester goes solo and immerses himself in jazz and blues. He becomes a huge fan of Django Reinhardt, who remains a lifelong influence on Lester.

At 19, Lester gets his first solo radio show and begins calling himself “Les Paul.”

1936 Les builds his first primitive recording device and begins experimenting with overdubbing, which eventually becomes a hallmark of his hit records like “How High the Moon” and “Bye Bye Blues.”

1937 Les forms his first Les Paul Trio with guitarist Jimmy Atkins — Chet’s older brother — and bassist Ernie Newton.

1939 The Les Paul Trio performs at the White House at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

1940 Les moves to New York City, where he builds “the Log,” his first prototype solidbody guitar out of a slab of pinewood. To make it look more like a regular guitar, Les saws an archtop guitar in half and attaches them as sides to “the Log.”

While working in his recording studio in his New York apartment, Les nearly dies from electrocution after picking up a live wire. It takes him two full years to recover.

1943 Les moves to California and forms a new trio. They are soon hired as staff musicians for NBC radio. Les also begins working for the Armed Forces Radio Service, where he learns about recording, editing, and studio electronics.

Bing Cosby’s “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” backed by the Les Paul Trio, reaches #1 on the pop charts. It is one of the first hit records to feature a guitar solo and gives Les national recognition. With Crosby’s encouragement, Les builds a recording studio in his garage.

1946 Les hires a female singer, Iris Colleen Summers, and gives her the stage name “Mary Ford.” They marry and soon become a star attraction on the road and on radio.

1948 Les’s right arm is shattered in a car accident. Doctors consider amputation but decide to permanently set Les’s arm at a 90-degree angle, so he can still play guitar. It takes Les almost two years to regain full use of his arm.

1950 The Les Paul Show, featuring Paul, Ford and rhythm guitarist Eddie Stapleton, debuts on NBC Radio.

1951 “How High the Moon,” by Les Paul and Mary Ford, becomes a #1 single.

Ted McCarty, the new President of Gibson, begins working with Les to make his dream of a mass-produced solidbody electric guitar a reality.

1952 The Les Paul Goldtop solidbody electric guitar is released by Gibson.

“Now I need to take a piece of wood and make it sound like the railroad track, but I also had to make it beautiful and loveable so that a person playing it would think of it in terms of his mistress, a bartender, his wife, a good psychiatrist — whatever.”
— Les Paul

1952 - The Pivotal Year 1952 was a pivotal year in American Pop music, and both Gibson and Les Paul would be at the center of it.

In 1952, Les Paul was sitting on top of the world. With wife Mary Ford (Les Paul and Mary Ford: A Love Story), Les had charted 7 Top-10 hits since his #1 single “How High the Moon” in 1950 and throughout the next year, the hits kept coming. Their home in Mahweh, New Jersey, was a constant hive of activity. Les’s custom-built recording studio was in the basement and the couple broadcast their NBC radio show, the Les Paul Show, from their living room. Les was also in discussions to host his own television show.

One of Les’s many fans was Gibson President Ted McCarty. McCarty, who saw himself as an inventor, was a keen observer of popular trends. McCarty noticed the music coming out of nightclubs was no longer based around horns but guitars. And Gibson guitarists wanted a guitar that could cut through the din of a loud bar without feeding back or sounding muddy.

For years, Les had been pestering McCarty that the solidbody guitar would solve those problems and had tried to convince him to take up the production of a solidbody guitar in 1946. McCarty said “no thanks” and joked that there was no future in a “broomstick with pickups.”

As Les’s star rose, McCarty could clearly see that the kids buying Les Paul records would soon want a guitar of their own and it wouldn’t be an archtop. McCarty called Les and the two began hashing out a design that could be produced at the Gibson Kalamazoo factory in Michigan. There is still heated debate on how much Les and Ted McCarty collaborated on the first Les Paul guitar. Regardless of the credit, the 1952 Gibson Les Paul clearly had Les Paul’s stamp of approval, since it featured his signature in gold on the headstock, perfectly matching the gold finish. And when the “Les Paul & Mary Ford Show” began national syndication just two years later, every kid knew that Les Paul played a Gibson Les Paul solidbody electric guitar.

In 1952 the Les Paul Goldtop, designed by Les and Ted McCarty, was instantly recognized as a revolutionary guitar, and every major star of the '50s in Pop, Country, Blues, and Rhythm and Blues owned a Les Paul.


The 1950s
Les Paul’s tremendous success in the 1950s came after decades of hard work playing clubs and recording sessions. Les’s greatest passion was for Gibson guitars. His first serious guitar purchase was a 1927 L-5 archtop, which he used when he went by the stage name “Rhubarb Red.”

Les was a frequent visitor to Gibson and on many occasions used factory tools to try out his ideas for building a solidbody guitar. While luthiers looked on in amusement — and probably horror, too — Les would cut holes in archtops for new controls, rewire pickups and if needed, saw a perfectly good guitar in half. Whatever brought him closer to building an instrument that could “sustain for days.”

The Les Paul Goldtop, built in collaboration between Les and Gibson President Ted McCarty, was a truly revolutionary guitar in 1952 which signaled that Gibson was ready to break from tradition. “No one person designed the Les Paul,” said McCarty. “We’d get together and discuss sketches. We worked on it for a year or so.”

The Les Paul Goldtop featured two P-90s pickups with a slightly arched maple top, a mahogany body and neck and a stunning gold finish that was easily recognized from a distance. Virtually every major artist of the '50s at one time or another owned a Les Paul, including Muddy Waters, Carl Perkins, Freddie King, John Lee Hooker, and even future acoustic guitar great Doc Watson. The combination of Les’s ingenuity and Gibson’s reputation made the Les Paul Goldtop hard to resist. Les Paul was class personified, and so was his guitar. “I had two models in mind right away,” said Les. “I picked the gold color because no else had one…and black because it’s classy like a tuxedo.”

The “tuxedo” Les Paul Custom was released in 1954. For McCarty, the solid color was also practical. “We didn't want (the competition) to discover our combination of maple and mahogany so we figured the solid colors would make it difficult to see the separate pieces.”

Even with the arrival of rock and roll, Les’s career continued to rise with a weekly television show, touring and more hit records. The entire nation associated the name Les Paul with an electric guitar — a Gibson electric guitar.

Meanwhile, Gibson continued to make small improvements to the Les Paul. McCarty encouraged Gibson’s pickup technician and the inventor of the P-90 pickup, Seth Lover, to make a pickup that did not 'hum.’ Single coil pickups were especially sensitive to poor grounding and fluorescent lights. Seth’s solution was the “humbucker” pickup, first introduced in the Les Paul Standard in 1958. McCarty had high hopes the pickup change and the beautiful color finishes would help boost sales, which had been steadily falling since the mid-50s.

Though the Les Paul Standard would become recognized as a classic — and is now the most coveted vintage electric guitar in the world — sales did not improve and McCarty was forced to discontinue the model at the close of the decade. In its place, McCarty put faith in a new design that he felt incorporated the best of Les’s ideas and his own — the SG or Solid Guitar — Les Paul.

The '50s Tribute SG has all the classic features of a '50s Les Paul guitar, including Gibson USA P90s and a '50s style neck with a rounded profile.

With the 2013 models, Gibson taps into the '50s spirit of invention and introduces the Les Paul '50s Tribute and the SG '50s Tribute to bring you the look, feel and tone of the decade that gave birth to rock and roll. Get that classic sound with a pair of screaming P-90 pickups, the fat Gibson single-coil and enjoy the exceptional playability of the '50s comfortably rounded neck profile.


The 1960s The 1960s were a time of new horizons for both Gibson and Les Paul. Gibson introduced a redesigned Les Paul, the “SG” — Solid Guitar — that was sleek, sculpted and ready-to-go for new, harder rockin’ styles in '61. Meanwhile, Les was going through changes of his own. He and Mary Ford had divorced and had ended their relationship with Capitol Records.

Throughout the '60s, the redesigned SG developed a stellar reputation among musicians and Gibson dealers. Sales figures rose steadily. Fans loved the light weight and sleek, sculpted neck that was advertised as the “fastest neck in the world.”

There is some speculation as to how involved Les was in creating the guitar later known as the SG. Some say Les was unhappy with the original construction of the guitar, while others claim that, upset with his divorce, Les decided to retire from the music business and not renew his Gibson contract. Still, Les continued to endorse the SG through 1963 and helped usher in a new and historically significant guitar that was an instant hit, and is still a bestseller today.

Overseas, both the SG and the discontinued Les Paul Standard became collectors’ items among young British guitarists enchanted by American blues records. Eric Clapton’s fiery playing with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers made a Les Paul the must-have guitar for artists like Peter Green and Jimmy Page, while Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend turned up their SGs to show the incredible sustain and harmonic power possible from a solidbody guitar.

Thanks to the popularity of the guitar, Gibson re-launched the Les Paul Standard in '68. Les was now back with Gibson, appearing in advertisements and resuming his innovations and designs.

The Les Paul Standard and SG guitars that Les and Ted discussed as drawings in the '50s had blossomed into powerful instruments in the late '60s. The '70s would see a renaissance in Les’s career and big opportunities for Gibson.

This was the decade that put the rock into rock and roll, and the Les Paul and SG '60s Tributes bring you the look, feel, and tone of the '60s. Both models carry a pair of PAF-style BurstBucker humbucking pickups, and the slim neck characteristic of the start of that decade. The SG has the classic '61 body shape and scarfing, but the improved neck joint that Les envisioned.


The 1970's
Appreciation for Les’s inventions and especially the Les Paul and SG continued through the 70s. heavy metal, heavy rock, punk, folk, soft rock, and country rock artists all hailed Les as a savvy innovator and an artist with great integrity. Les’s experiments with guitar effects and his pioneering work in multi-tracking were now part of everyday life for professional and amateur musicians. Terms that had been previously known to only engineers like “overdubbing,” “mastering,” “phase” and “feedback” were now common knowledge.

Les and Gibson continued to work on ideas for the Les Paul guitar. Gibson adapted to the times by creating the “Dirty Fingers” humbucker, an overloaded pickup that supported the modern sound, but still held true to Les’s standards of giving players the widest possible range of tones.

In the mid '70s, Les’s old friend Chet Atkins persuaded him to return to the recording studio for a guitar duet album at RCA Studio B in Nashville. The result, “Chester and Lester,” showed Chet and Les at the top of their game, and fans loved it. Chet and Les cut a follow-up album, “Guitar Monsters”. They received a nomination for Best Instrumental Performance at the 1978 GRAMMY Awards and performed regularly on television to promote the album.

The continued success of the Les Paul guitar, a re-fortified relationship with Gibson and the GRAMMY nomination, encouraged Les to start thinking about getting back into performing. Les’s had been jamming regularly with longtime pal and Les Paul devotee Lou Pallo. “He was scouting around for someone like myself that he could work with,” said Pallo. “So we started playing locally at different venues, just the two of us. And it was great.”

With a hit record, a new band, and new instruments to invent, Les Paul was back and players from every genre lined up to say thanks and to see what else he had up his sleeve.

This was the decade that put the heavy into heavy rock, Les Paul and SG '70s Tributes carry a pair of high-output Dirty Fingers humbucking pickups, along with the medium neck profile characteristic of that decade.

“For years I've worked to produce a multitude of distinctive guitar sounds. The hang-up was to obtain everything in one guitar. Now I'm not talking about gimmickry, I'm talking about the real McCoy — authentic guitar sounds, the type of highs that can rip your ears off, the type of bass response that's clean and clear. Every note must be balanced and offer maximum sustain.” — Les Paul

The FUTURE At an age when most of his peers were retiring, Les Paul kept going. Beginning in the mid '80s through the end of his life, Les performed weekly in New York City with his Les Paul Trio(Les Paul Holds Court: His Residency in New York). The shows invigorated Les’s spirit and his passion for invention and music was as great as ever.

Les still dreamed of designing a guitar that could play any note or any tone a musician could imagine. He worked tirelessly to anticipate and solve problems that could get in the way of guitarists enjoying their instrument — whether it was finding great tone, getting in tune, or playing whenever and wherever inspiration strikes.

When he was not gigging, Les devoted nearly all his time to his passion — perfecting the Gibson Les Paul Recording model. He continued to experiment with pickup designs, switchable wiring configurations and onboard effects — he even included ports for a microphone and headphones. Up until just before Les’s death, he worked closely with Gibson’s R&D team, which regularly created beautiful prototypes of his designs. Les never stopped creating and was an inspiration to all he worked with at Gibson.

Gibson continues that innovation with Min-ETuneTM, a tiny device that sits unnoticed on the back of the headstock and tunes the guitar at the push of a button. With a simple strum, quickly retune the guitar, or switch to any personal favorite tuning. Min-ETuneTM honors Les’s spirit of invention by providing more capability to the guitarist and keeping the same superior Gibson sound.

The 2013 Future Tribute series represents the optimum marriage of classic ingredients with contemporary playability and tonal versatility. The comfortable asymmetrical neck profile, with a genuine rosewood fingerboard, Steinberger gearless tuners, optional Min-ETuneTM, knurled metal knobs, powerful and versatile '57 Classic and '57 Classic Plus pickups — represent an evolution of the species that would have made Les proud.

The Sound of 2013 To honor Les Paul, Gibson focuses the 2013 Gibson USA product line-up on the guitars that adorned his name — the Les Paul and the SG. Regardless of your taste, style or skill, Gibson has created a guitar to best suit your needs, while keeping with Les Paul’s spirit of innovation of achieving a high-standard tone and quality.

The 2013 guitar models bring you the Gibson sound you love, in the style you always dreamed of — This is the sound of 2013!