10 Les Paul Greats from the Classic Rock Era
No electric guitar has been more fundamentally important to the history of rock and roll than the Gibson Les Paul has. With its rich sustain, distinctive tone, and impeccable playability, the Les Paul has been the instrument of choice for rock guitar’s greatest riff-makers, innovators and soloists. The 2017 lineup of Les Pauls carry forward that tradition by keeping one eye on history, while offering a host of improved features designed to appeal to contemporary players. Below, in no particular order, we profile 10 classic-rock guitar greats for whom the Les Paul has proved indispensable.
Just 22 when he joined Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz band in 1979, Randy Rhoads was already a master of classically inspired riffs that fit snugly into a metal-guitar framework. With his beautiful white Les Paul Custom, Rhoads infused tracks like “Crazy Train” and “Mr. Crowley” with visceral excitement. At the time of his death—tragically, he lost his life in a plane accident in 1982—the young maestro was branching deeper into classical music and jazz.
Few Rolling Stones fans would dispute that the band’s “Mick Taylor” era—a period from 1969 to 1974—was in many ways the group’s finest. Just 20 years old when he replaced Brian Jones, Taylor quickly proved to be the perfect lead complement to Keith Richards’ distinctive rhythm work. “Everything was there in his playing,” wrote Keith Richards, in his memoir, “the melodic touch, the beautiful sustain and a way of reading a song.” Small wonder that a Les Paul Standard was commonly his instrument of choice.
Casual rock fans know Paul Kossoff mainly as the six-string force behind Free’s classic rock staple, “All Right Now.” But students of rock guitar rightly view him as a true blues-rock pioneer—a master of taut melodic solos, exquisite vibrato and thrillingly concise riffs. Playing his famous ‘59 Les Paul Standard, Kossoff helped establish a template for the likes of Joe Perry and Slash. One wonders where his talent might have taken him, had he not passed away much too soon—in 1976, at the age of just 25.
One can only wonder how many aspiring guitarists were inspired to pick up a Les Paul after hearing Jimmy Page’s work in Led Zeppelin. One of the greatest riff-makers in rock history, Page imbued songs like “Whole Lotta Love” and “Heartbreaker” with a power that redefined hard rock. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, especially, the landscape of rock guitar would have looked quite different without Page’s pioneering influence.
Jeff Beck’s facility on his instrument—which for years was a Les Paul—has at times appeared so effortless that people sometimes take his virtuosity for granted. Speaking with this writer in 2014, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry described Beck thusly: “He’s a flashy player and can show off his technical skills … but he doesn’t lose sight of the fact that playing a melody, using just three or four notes, can be just as impactful as ripping up and down the neck in 15 seconds. Plus, he’s always had a sense of humor in his playing.”
Classic rock guitar owes a heavy debt to Slash. At a time when shredders were putting their virtuosic talents on gaudy display, Slash represented a throwback to an era when great riffs and song-driven solos weren’t defined by how many notes one could play in a short span of time. “It was a stripped-down rock and roll sound compared to what everybody else was doing,” Slash later told Rolling Stone. Small wonder that it was classic rock’s definitive instrument—the Les Paul—with which Slash made his musical statement.
Few sounds in rock and roll are as immediately recognizable as that of Duane Allman’s searing slide guitar. On At Fillmore East and elsewhere, Allman’s distinctive playing gives the impression that he’s “at one” with his instrument—so attuned to the music that his hands are leading as his mind follows. Few players have coaxed a broader range of emotions out of their guitar—which, in Allman’s case, was generally either a Les Paul Goldtop, a Cherry Burst, or a Dark Burst.
Rock and roll guitar might have an altogether different sound and look without Pete Townshend’s pioneering influence. From his revved-up flamenco-style flourishes to those wind-milled power chords, Townshend brought monumental gifts to the instrument, creating a style that impacted players ranging from punk iconoclasts to technique-driven virtuosos. It’s no surprise that much of the Who mastermind’s finest work was recorded using a Les Paul.
Exquisite talent and a humble demeanor combined to make Mick Ronson one of rock and roll’s most beloved sidemen. Utilizing little more than his trusty Les Paul and a wah pedal, Ronson garnished the songwriting efforts of such artists as Ian Hunter, Lou Reed, and (of course) David Bowie in ways that were incandescent. Sometimes, as on Bowie’s Pinups album, those contributions took the form of incendiary power chords, but just as often Ronson brought subtle elegance and economy to his six-string work.
Any consideration of rock’s greatest riff-makers would be untenable without a mention of Joe Perry. If Steven Tyler is Aerosmith’s voice, then Perry is the driving musical force that gives that voice its megaphone. Even as the band turned toward glossier productions—think “Cryin’,” or “Janie’s Got a Gun”—Perry kept the music’s swagger intact, cutting through the sheen. “He [has] this streamlined style that reminded me of Keith Richards,” Slash once told Rolling Stone. “And a careless style that’s really cool.”
Slash photo: Anne Erickson