"I can make a guitar speak. I can make it howl and move. I was rhythm guitarist. It's an important job.”
– – John Lennon
Whenever John Lennon played a Gibson, it became more than a guitar. It transformed into a powerful instrument of change. Whether issuing a desperate cry for "Help!" with his Gibson J-160E acoustic (a guitar he originally nicked from George Harrison), inciting political activism in "Revolution" on his prized Epiphone E230TD Casino (a guitar famously employed during the rooftop session of the Beatles' Apple headquarters), or during one of his last public appearances, at which he played his customized Gibson Les Paul Junior, Lennon's choice of guitars were an essential extension of his unique personality and creativity.
In 1999, Epiphone created two limited-editions John Lennon Casino models, the Epiphone John Lennon "65" Casino (in Vintage Sunburst) and the Epiphone John Lennon "Revolution" Casino (stripped to its natural finish). Both guitars were immediate hits with players and Beatles' fans alike. And in 2002, Gibson Montana introduced the Gibson John Lennon J-160E Peace Model, a limited edition replica of the 1962 guitar that Lennon used faithfully while recording, in movies, and for live performances.
The Gibson Custom Shop has now added to the prestigious line of John Lennon Gibsons, the Gibson John Lennon Les Paul, a faithful reproduction of the modified 1950s Les Paul Junior Lennon played at his unforgettable performance on August 30, 1972 at New York City's Madison Square Garden to benefit the One to One Organization, a group that helped children with learning disabilities.
When Lennon bought the single-cutaway Gibson Les Paul Junior, it was still in its original factory condition—Tobacco Sunburst finish, single P-90 pickup, wraparound tail piece, and Kluson tuners—but he wanted it modified. As he told New York guitar luthier Ron DeMarino, he wanted a "humberdincker" pickup in it—obviously referring to a humbucker. (Somewhat surprisingly, the songwriter and musician who had helped usher in a cultural renaissance was blissfully unaware of many guitar specifics.) "I'm a rhythmer," he would say. "I don't know anything about these things." Instead of a humbucker, however, DeMarino installed a Charlie Christian pickup in the neck position. First used on the Gibson ES-150 in 1936, the Charlie Christian pickup, with its narrow string-sensing blade, was noted for its clear and powerful sound. Other changes to the guitar included removing the wraparound tailpiece, plugging the holes, and installing a Gibson tune-o-matic bridge with a stop tailpiece.
Lennon was delighted with the results, but he had one final request: Sand off the Sunburst finish. When Lennon played the guitar at Madison Square Garden, the guitar's body was bare wood mahogany.
"It is such a special guitar," says Edwin Wilson, Gibson Custom's Historic Program Manager, who personally oversaw every aspect of the Gibson John Lennon Les Paul. "Of course, any guitar the Beatles played is of significance. But because this was such a high-profile concert for John, his return to the stage after several years, the guitar is especially notable. Beyond that, there's the modifications he made to it—in and of themselves, these made this guitar an obvious choice to reproduce."
Once Yoko Ono gave her enthusiastic endorsement of the project, Wilson flew to the John Lennon Museum in Japan, where the original instrument is on display, to inspect the guitar and document its unique characteristics. "The museum's curator laid it out for me," says Wilson, "and I went about taking pictures and recording various measurements. Yoko had a couple of stipulations: I couldn't remove or loosen the strings, and I had to wear cotton gloves when handling the guitar."
Wilson recalls being overcome with a sense of awe when holding the original guitar. "I've held a lot of special guitars in my time," he says, "but this one was played by John Lennon himself at Madison Square Garden. Come on—who even gets close to a guitar like that every day?"
Among the peculiarities of the original Les Paul Junior, Wilson noted, were the frets: They were in unusually good shape. “Pre '57, Gibson made very thin frets, so if you had a very heavy fretting technique, or if you bent strings a lot, you’d have a lot of wear and tear. Nothing like that existed on the Lennon original. That leads me to believe that he played with a very light touch with his fretting hand. Another factor could be the extremely light gauge strings he used—.009s, I believe; they were very thin. It’s funny: John performed with such force, but I think it came from his entire body; he didn’t beat his strings to death.” (It should be noted that the John Lennon Les Paul is strung with a set of .010s. “That’s our one change,” says Wilson. “Most players prefer a little heavier gauge.”)
While inspecting the original, Wilson was allowed to remove the back plate and section in front that covers the pickup magnets and toggle switch. Photos were taken so that the guitar builders at the Custom Shop could accurately reproduce the pickup wiring. According to Wilson, including the Charlie Christian pickup was a “have to.” Being that it was a unique modification that Lennon himself insisted on, to reproduce the guitar in any other fashion, in Wilson’s words, “would’ve run counter to the spirit of Lennon’s wishes.”
After performing at Madison Square Garden, Lennon had his original Les Paul Junior refinished in Cherry, and the John Lennon Les Paul is representative of this alteration. “Getting the color to be exact is a real science,” says Wilson. “A lot of research and development goes into the aging process of what we do. We use a variety of tools and stains, not to mention a special buffing process. Plus, we have a special glaze that changes the patina of the color—it literally makes the guitar look old!” Various dents and dings have been scrupulously recreated; chief among them are Lennon’s scratch marks between the Charlie Christian pickup and the top cutaway. "It’s such a distinctive mark," says Wilson. "You look at it and think, Now, how would that ever happen? But that’s what separates John Lennon from everybody else. He had his own style of playing."
Included in the purchase of the Gibson John Lennon Les Paul is a Custom Shop case, a certificate of authenticity, a custom care kit, and a signed Lennon print by famed artist Allison Lector.
"The bottom line is very simple," says Wilson. "It’s a superb instrument. It plays like a dream and it sounds incredible. Not only that, but when you hold it, you feel like you own a piece of history."