We might take the Gibson Les Paul Standard for granted today—it has been with us forever (well, 50 years in 2008) and is widely acknowledged as the greatest rock and electric blues guitar of all time—but in the year of its birth, the design was a genuine revelation, and a revolution in the making.
The Les Paul wasn’t the first production solidbody electric guitar to hit the scene, but in 1952 when Gibson introduced the Standard’s forefather, the Goldtop with P-90 pickups, it decided to make the electric guitar right. Company founder Orville Gibson had invented the archtop guitar some 60 years earlier in the latter part of the 19th century, and Gibson had issued the first standard-production electric in 1936 in the form of the ES-150. When it came time to develop the Les Paul model, Gibson applied the skill and experience of six decades of craftsmanship to its fledgling solidbody electric. Right from the start, the Les Paul was given a meticulously hand-carved arched maple top on a solid body of select mahogany, a glued-in neck with adjustable truss-rod and pitched headstock, and appointments that professional players had come to expect from the leader in acoustic electric guitars, such as a bound fretboard and raised pickguard.
This was an instrument like none that had come before, but even though it was already on the market in 1952 and selling well for its day, in a very real sense the Les Paul was still in development. First its tailpiece was improved, the rudimentary trapeze unit swapped for a wraparound bar bridge in 1953, then for a tune-o-matic bridge and separate stopbar tailpiece in 1955 (this ingenious piece of hardware had been developed the year before by Ted McCarty and first used on the black Les Paul Custom). Gradually the model was reaching its zenith, but two major developments were yet to come—one a quantum leap in sound and performance, the other a sweet upgrade in appearance. Both would serve to crystallize this classic.
The first of these arrived on the model in 1957. As great as the Les Paul Goldtop played and sounded by 1956, Gibson—like other manufacturers—was still chasing a full yet noise-free performance from its electric guitars. Enter designer Seth Lover and one of the greatest tone icons of all time: the “Patent Applied For” (PAF) humbucking pickup. By putting two coils side by side in a single pickup, each wound out of phase to the other and with reverse magnet polarities, Lover discovered he could make the pickup reject most of the hum and electrical noise interference that single-coil pickups were prone to, while still capturing the full, rich sound of the guitar. The new unit also optimized the fuller, warmer, and more sustaining tone that has come to be known as the inherent voice of the Les Paul, so the PAF really helped to maximize the sound of the instrument.
The second, cosmetic development arrived in 1958, and finally heralded the arrival of the most legendary incarnation of the Les Paul Standard. In order to maximize the potential beauty of the carved maple tops being applied to Les Pauls, which often revealed highly figured quilted, flamed, or tiger-striped maple, Gibson applied a lush, semi-transparent cherry sunburst finish to the model. The “Burst” was born, and not only did it look fantastic, but with its carved top, powerful humbucking pickups, versatile tune-o-matic bridge, and super-comfortable, hyper-fast set neck with full access to its 22 frets, it was the most advanced solidbody electric guitar the music world had ever seen.
The only problem was, in many ways the music world just wasn’t ready for it… yet.
Ironically, as the Les Paul advanced, sales declined. By the late 1960s it would be appreciated as the perfect instrument for a creative, exciting new breed of music—but that music just hadn’t been born yet. After an initial run of only three years, the Les Paul Standard was changed in 1961 to the flat-topped, mahogany bodied design that is better known today as the SG. Although plenty of pop, jazz, and dance band guitarists—including, of course, the model’s namesake—had already experienced the wonders of the great Standard with humbucking pickups and sunburst finish, the style of playing in which it really began to shine only emerged some five years after the model’s demise, and hit its stride in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The British blues-rock that Eric Clapton played with John Mayall and the Blues Breakers on their self-titled 1965 album, nicknamed the “Beano” album, using a Les Paul through a classic 50-watt British 2x12 combo, showed the world what this groundbreaking model could really do. The following year in the U.S., Mike Bloomfield’s wailing Les Paul lead work on the Butterfield Blues Band’s East-West album solidified the point. Within a couple of years Jimmy Page, Paul Kossoff, Peter Green, Jeff Beck, Mick Taylor, and plenty of others had established the Les Paul Standard as the archetypal rock voice of all time.
Although slow to ignite, the full flaming fury of the Les Paul—which finally raged in all its glory in the hands of the great rock and blues players of the late 1960s and beyond—has never been quenched. Sure, visionary designs sometimes have to wait for visionary artists to catch up with them, but when the two finally make it to the same page, stand back and watch out.