10 Les Paul Stars of the 1960s
The 1960s was on odd decade, in some ways, for the Gibson Les Paul. Single-cutaway Les Pauls (Goldtops, Standards and Customs) were discontinued in 1960 and didn’t return to production until 1968: for the intervening years, the SG was Gibson’s main electric solidbody in production.
But by playing Les Paul Standards mostly built in the 1950s, these 10 players – many of them British - helped create the legend of the Gibson Les Paul. And our first player was key in a lot of it…
Clapton’s 1960 Les Paul Standard is the stuff of legend. Clapton’s playing on John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers’ Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album of 1966 (forever after known as The Beano Album) was heady stuff - tuneful, searing and dynamic. Its impact resulted in “Clapton is God" graffiti on the walls and train stations of London, and did much to bring the sunburst Les Paul Standard back into vogue.
Clapton’s ferocious playing on tracks such as “Hideaway,” “Double Crossin' Time,” and “Key to Love,” still astound today. Sadly, this groundbreaking guitar was stolen from Clapton later in 1966 while EC was rehearsing with Cream for the band’s first tour.
It was the cover of King’s LP Let’s Hide Away and Dance Away, featuring King with his Goldtop, which inspired Clapton to buy his first Les Paul. And for his instrumental hit “Hide Away” (a hit in 1961), King warrants inclusion. Indeed, Clapton says King's 1961 B-side “I Love the Woman” was “the first time I heard that electric lead-guitar style, with the bent notes... It started me on my path.” “The Stumble,” “I'm Tore Down” and “Someday, After Awhile” all become key King tracks for 1960s Les Paul lovers.
Beck started playing Les Paul Standards in ’66 – inspired by seeing, yes, Clapton. Beck’s earliest was a ’59 sunburst Standard, all over The Yardbirds’ Roger The Engineer album and his own highly influential albums The Jeff Beck Group and Truth. He bought it second-hand it in London for £175.
Beck later himself stripped its ‘burst finish to a raw blonde… a sort of DIY ‘Goldtop’ if you like. Beck was already a huge fan of Les Paul, his music and original Les Pauls.
The look of this one influenced the same treatment that Mick Ronson who starred with David Bowie in the 1970s. Beck’s famed ‘Oxblood’ Les Paul that he made famous in the 1970s is a different guitar: that’s a 1954 Goldtop refinished and modified.
Jimmy Page has been so loyal to LPs; his “Les Paul Legend” status fits any decade since the 1960s. His first was a black 3-pickup Custom he bought in 1964, and used it many of his early session recordings. You’ll still see him with it occasionally, but mostly in photo-shoots.
By 1969, (Led Zeppelin II era) Page had what he calls his #1 Les Paul, purchased from Joe Walsh for $500 in April 1969. By the dawn of the 1970s, Page and Gibson Les Pauls would be synonymous. Alongside Clapton and Beck, Page was the third Yardbird to re-popularize Les Pauls in the 1960s.
As sideman to Howlin’ Wolf, Sumlin became his own legend. Pat Hare and Willie Johnson are the guitarists that play on much of Wolf’s early ‘50s output but by ’57 or so, Sumlin was playing lead guitar. A hugely idiosyncratic player, Sumlin used his ‘50s Les Paul Goldtop to superb effect on a host of Wolf classics and was held in supremely high regard. The hugely influential “Spoonful” (1960) features Sumlin on guitar. Sumlin’s most famed guitar was 1956 Les Paul Goldtop with P-90s and a Tune-o-matic bridge.
Interesting fact #1? When Eric Clapton was invited to guest on The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions album in 1970 (which you thought would be honor enough), Clapton said he would not show if Leonard Chess didn’t send also Hubert.
Watch the late, great Hubert Sumlin teach “Smokestack Lighting” below on a Les Paul Goldtop, with the New York Dolls’ David Johansen on vocals. More at Homespun Music Instruction.
Interesting fact #2? When Sumlin passed away in 2011, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards insisted on paying all funeral expenses. Which brings us to…
The Rolling Stone was actually one of the first Brit players to widely use a Les Paul in the ‘60s. His ’59 sunburst originally belonged to John Bowen, guitarist for Mike Dean and the Kinsman, and it was he who fitted the Bigsby. He later traded at London’s Selmer Music Shop in late 1962, where Keith bought it.
Keith’s ’59 Bigsby-loaded Les Paul was his main guitar of choice in the early years of The Rolling Stones, famously seen during their debut performance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Keith also used the guitar to record some of The Stones earliest hits including, “Little Red Rooster,” “Time is on My Side,” “The Last Time,” “Get Off My Cloud,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and "Satisfaction".
Richards also lent it out. Jimmy Page used it on at least one mid-’60s sessions and Eric Clapton used the ‘burst in 1966 with Cream at the Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival. In 1967, Keith sold the guitar to his future Rolling Stones bandmate Mick Taylor: you can see Taylor playing it in the movie of the Stones at the infamous Altamont Speedway in 1969, Gimme Shelter. More on Keith Richards’ Gibson guitars.
In the late 1960s, Free’s Paul Kossoff was another Les Paul devotee of the U.K blues-rock scene. His main recording guitar was a ’59 sunburst Les Paul, Koss also played his 3-pickup black mid-50’s Les Paul Custom through Marshall and Laney amps and other Les Paul Standards. Read more about Paul Kossoff’s Les Pauls and music.
Another Brit who used Les Pauls to stunning effect in the Brit blues boom was Peter Green. His ’59 burst had a distinct, sweet tone due to a pickup mod. Green says he reversed a magnet in the neck position humbucker while tinkering with the guitar: another tale has a repairman accidentally re-winding a pickup in reverse. But its “out of phase” tone became legendary in the late ‘60s with Fleetwood Mac. Green later sold the fabled LP to the late Gary Moore.
Chicago’s Mike Bloomfield played an early 1950s Gibson Les Paul Goldtop on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. But as with Eric Clapton in the U.K, Bloomfield’s use of a sunburst proved highly influential in the U.S. His ’burst was a 1959 Les Paul Standard bought from guitar expert Dan Erlewine, then guitarist for Michigan band Prime Movers. The Gibson Custom Shop later recreated every detail as the Mike Bloomfield 1959 Les Paul Standard.
Bloomfield played his ’59 burst in the Electric Flag, on Super Session and The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, and on Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West. Vintage guitar expert George Gruhn credits Bloomfield’s Les Paul playing as kick-starting the collectors ’burst market in the U.S.
The Beatles’ George Harrison was usually associated with other guitars, but his “Lucy” Gibson Les Paul remains an icon. It was used by Harrison on many latter-day Beatles recordings, and was given to George by Clapton – there were a lot of Les Paul love in 1960s England!
Like Beck’s blonde LP and Neil Young’s “Old Black,” it was another refin. It was originally a 1957 Goldtop with Bigsby vibrato that belonged to Lovin' Spoonful's guitarist John Sebastian, then Rick Derringer, then Eric Clapton. EC gave it to George as a gift in August of 1968… only for Clapton to himself play it on The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” a month later. Harrison used it in the "Revolution" promo film and the sessions for Let It Be and Abbey Road. It was the guitar Harrison played on The Beatles “Something,” and it was still in George’s possession when he passed away.
Read more about George, the story of “Lucy” and the Gibson Custom Replica.
Want to read more about decades of Gibson Les Paul stars?
10 Gibson Les Paul Stars of the 1970s
10 Gibson Les Paul Stars of the 1980s
10 Gibson Les Paul Stars of the 1990s