Les Paul book cover

For those of us unlikely to ever own an original vintage Les Paul, the next best thing is often indulging in the vicarious splendors of a detailed and fully illustrated history of this fabled guitar. In the fall of 2014, Voyageur Press published the comprehensive and beautifully illustrated book The Gibson Les Paul: The Illustrated History of the Guitar That Changed Rock by guitar journalist and Gibson.com contributor Dave Hunter. We sat down with Dave to talk about the legacy of the mighty Les Paul, and what inspired him to write this book.

There are other Les Paul books on the shelves, so why another one?

Oh, there are some great Les Paul books out there, but I wanted to approach the story from a perspective that I felt hadn’t been thoroughly addressed before. What fascinates me most is the behind-the-scenes stuff going on when a great guitar design is conceived, and the social and cultural setting into which that guitar is born. I wanted to capture the romance of the story, the mystique, and I feel that’s what this book does well.

It isn’t intended as a detailed “identification guide” or a source for dating potential vintage originals. Those kinds of books are interesting, but they’re only truly of use to the relatively few people who are likely to be shopping for an original vintage Goldtop or Burst. This book is more of a means of letting readers feel like they are embracing the essence of the Les Paul—what brought it into existence, what made it special, and what it has achieved in popular music.

And along with all of that, it looks at a wide range of Les Paul players.

Definitely. I wanted the scope to include a real diversity of artists in the profiles in this book. We’ve all read scads of profiles of the usual classic-rock and blues-rock guys, and they’re here too, but I wanted to include plenty of great players that are either often forgotten in the pantheon of Les Paul artists, or who display in their playing the surprising sonic versatility of the Les Paul. Of course, lots of readers will argue about the players who have been excluded here, too—and I’ve already had emails about that—but that’s part of the fun of books like this. And you have to stop somewhere. The intention isn’t to say, “If your favorite player isn’t in here, he or she isn’t worthy,” but to present a few dozen artists who adequately represent the scope and vocabulary of the instrument.

Who’s your favorite artist among those profiled?

I was really pleased to be able to give a nod to Sean Costello here. He was an amazing guitarist, who died way too young, and he deserves to be remembered as one of the outstanding Les Paul players of our time. Otherwise, from the perspective of personal interest, it was fun including lots of the punk guys, like Mick Jones, Johnny Thunders, Steve Jones, Mike Ness and Billie Joe Armstrong. And then at the other side of the stylistic wheel we’ve got Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who performed amazing gospel music on several different Les Paul models.

How could a guitar be as under-appreciated as the Les Paul was in the 1950s, but become such a legendary instrument many years later?

Sure, the Les Paul was under-appreciated in the decade of its birth—when you consider what it would become—although not totally unappreciated. Some great blues and rock and roll players used it early on, but I think the Les Paul was really waiting for amplifier technology to catch up with it and show what it could truly doe. This was a well-crafted solidbody electric that bore a lot of innovation right from the start, but it was also steeped in Gibson tradition. For some, it might have seemed too formal, too traditional, in a market that, early on, was home to slab-bodied electrics and flashy minimalism.

Also, the Les Paul’s build and electronics translated to a deep, rich, powerful voice that wasn’t adequately “handled” by many of the amps available in the ’50s. It sounded great through a tweed-era combo, sure, but it really thrived once the big-iron amps of the mid to late ’60s came along: British half-stacks, Twin Reverbs, and other powerful professional tube amps. Those things let the Les Paul breathe optimally, and revealed the full power of the guitar, not to mention the juicy lead tones and unprecedented sustain achieved once you cranked them up together.

Do you have a favorite photo in the book?

That’s tough. The ones I enjoy most are the photos of older artists playing Les Pauls that you haven’t seen a lot of. My favorite is probably the shot on page 57 of Chuck Berry playing live in 1957, using a ’54-’55 Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty,” a guitar we don’t associate with him today. As far as shots of individual guitars goes, I love the photos the private owner Charles Daughtry supplied of his ’59 Les Paul, “Nicky.” That is just such a gorgeous guitar.

Are there any “Les Paul myths” that you enjoyed exploring through this book?

Sure. Most of all, I think, the myth that the Les Paul is “just a rock guitar.” That’s part of the title, sure, and accurate in that the Les Paul really did revolutionize rock in the mid ’60s. But a good Les Paul can be so much more. That comes as a revelation to many players when they play the right Les Paul for the first time. It can be rich, deep, and warm, of course, but also clear, bright, and very articulate, with a harmonic sparkle that you just don’t hear in other guitars. You can use a really great Les Paul for any kind of music.

If you could own any Les Paul what would it be?

From early on when I first learned to play the guitar I was hooked by Goldtops with P-90s, and I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe because the guitar heroes of the day were playing Bursts with humbuckers—or later renditions of them—and I wasn’t entirely into that kind of thing and wanted to be a little different. I owned a genuine ’53 wrap-tail Goldtop for a while a few years ago, which was a real privilege, but I’ve come around to the glory of the ’59 Les Paul in recent years, having played a few excellent original examples, and there’s just nothing like the tone and feel of a great late-’50s Burst with PAF humbuckers. Short of convincing my wife we need to sell the house to acquire one, I’ve come as close as I can for now with a 2013 R9—a Gibson Custom Shop 1959 Les Paul Reissue—that I picked up recently. They really have dialed in the formula, and it’s a great sounding and feeling guitar, which gets back to the surprising versatility of the original ’50s Les Pauls, too.