How the Les Paul Standard Became “the Standard” for Page, Clapton, Allman, Beck, Townshend, Slash, Green and Others
Before the Les Paul Standard, the Les Paul was simply standard — the one and only model of the guitar available.
By the time “Standard” was added to the instrument’s name in the early ’60s, the Les Paul had in fact already set a fresh standard for sustain and purity of tone. But the new surname was really all about the “’Burst” — the seductively hued version of the Les Paul that entranced Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Duane Allman and a host of other giants, and continues to have magical appeal today.
Of course, everybody’s heard about the prototype two-pickup slab of wood with monster sustain that Les Paul dubbed “the Log” during his quest for the electric guitar of his dreams. But the actual first Gibson Les Paul guitar went into production in 1952, featuring two P-90 pickups, a one-piece trapeze tailpiece and bridge, strings that slid under a steel stop bar and a golden finish.
These mahogany and maple marvels were nicknamed Gold Tops, as that was the only color available for Les Pauls until the shiny noir Custom model was introduced in 1954. The early Customs, dubbed “Black Beauties,” were made entirely of mahogany and had an Alnico pickup in the neck spot until 1957 when they were gussied up with humbuckers. As production continued some Customs even got three pickups. The more the merrier.
The slim-bodied Les Paul Junior and Les Paul Special were released in ’54 and ’55, respectively, but the only change in the basic Les Paul — the Gold Top — was in 1957 when humbuckers became an option.
In 1958 that changed when the ’Burst burst on the scene and the Les Paul Standard was born. Gibson’s archtop guitar builders had already perfected the sunburst finish before it was applied to Les Pauls. And the original run of about 2,000 double-humbucker equipped Les Paul ’Bursts — the herd that includes such famed instruments as Peter Green’s “Magic Guitar,” Billy Gibbon’s “Miss Pearly Gates” and Jimmy Page’s fabled “Number One” and “Number Two” — were made only between 1958 and ’60. They were not big sellers, so production ceased from ’60 until 1968, when they began to be seen in the hands of British and American rock and blues stars and became widely coveted.
Duane Allman’s on-stage guitar gallery included a ’59 cherry sunburst and a ’58 tobacco ’Burst. Martin Barre of Jethro Tull plugged in a ’58. Jeff Beck bought a ’59 when he was in the Yardbirds. Dickey Betts had a ’57 cherry ’Burst he eventually gave to Hank Williams, Jr. Eric Clapton boasted a ’Burst in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Michael Bloomfield, T. Rex’s Marc Bolan, bluesman Freddie King, Paul McCartney, Gary Moore, Keith Richards, Joe Walsh, and many other notables all slung straps with Les Paul Standards over their shoulders, contributing to the model’s fame.
The ’Burst had been in production for at least a year before the appellation “Standard” slipped into the vernacular. Both musicians and dealers began using the term to differentiate the ’Burst with ’buckers model from the Gold Top, and soon the name made its way into Gibson’s catalog.
Over the years the appeal and musical legacy of the Les Paul Standard has continued to grow, thanks to their full, ballsy, versatile sonic characteristics, good looks and always growing coterie of players. The names in the Les Paul Standard Hall of Fame today represent a vide variety of styles and techniques. Slash, Sheryl Crow, Santana, Pete Townshend, Gary Rossington, John Fogerty, Ace Frehley, David Grohl, Mick Taylor, Warren Haynes, Mick Jones of the Clash, Free’s Paul Kossof, Lenny Kravitz, Rush’s Alex Lifeson, Ted Nugent, Joe Perry, Joe Bonamassa and Bad Company’s Mick Ralphs have all embraced the Standard.
And while the solid-bodied sunburst classic remains the definitive Les Paul Standard, particular the historically accurate versions produced by the Gibson Custom Shop, Gibson U.S.A.’s production models have varied and experimented with the guitar’s design in recent years. In 2008 a new Les Paul Standard was created with a longer neck tenon, more ergonomic neck profile, Grover locking tuners, and a chambered body to reduce the guitars’ overall weight. Some vintage Standards check in at 10 to 11 pound — flashing back to the original log.
But how much does a dream weigh? No instrument conjures up the historic tone, feel and ambiance of the days when rock’s second generation of giants ruled the Earth better than a Les Paul Standard.