The Les Paul Custom Turns 60
Sixty years ago the Gibson Company’s catalog introduced the Les Paul Custom as “the ultimate in a solid body guitar” and soon tagged the instrument “the fretless wonder” due to its low, flat fret profile in comparison to the Les Paul, which had debuted as the classic P-90 equipped Gold Top just a year before, in 1952.
Since then the Les Paul Custom has been written into the pages of history by an A-list of guitarists that includes Les Paul, the Doors’ Robbie Krieger, Guns N’ Roses Izzy Stradlin, King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, Steve Marriott, the Kinks’ Dave Davies, Ace Frehley, John Fogerty, Mick Ronson, Zakk Wylde, Randy Rhoads, the Edge, Tool’s Adam Jones, Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell and, of course, Peter Frampton, who employed his Black Beauty throughout his classic Frampton Comes Alive!.
That list is a testimonial to the Les Paul Custom’s versatility, ricocheting between, jazz, pop, rock, blues, punk, roots music, psychedelia and metal. With its big, full tones, fast action neck and ergonomic design, the Custom continued Gibson’s streak of hitting it out of the park with the Les Paul guitar.
Les Paul himself was responsible for the birth of the Custom. He wanted a model of the guitar that bore his name to “look like a tuxedo,” so Gibson’s guitar builders dressed up the Gold Top with cream binding, mother of pearl block inlay markers up the neck and a split diamond headstock inlay, borrowed from the Super 400 arch top model. A high gloss black finish allowed those appointments to stand out, but more important the emergence of the Les Paul Custom also introduced Gibson’s first Alnico V pickup, in the neck position, and the super fast low frets that gave the instrument its nickname verses the Gold Top’s medium height frets.
Paul immediately embraced the model, whose good looks also earned the moniker “Black Beauty,” and played it on stage and TV during his “Vaya Con Dios” heyday.
In 1954 the Les Paul Custom got its first upgrade, debuting Gibson’s new ABR-1 bridge, the “Tune-O-Matic.” PAF humbuckers provided the next update, in 1957, with some Customs bearing three humbucking pickups, like Frampton’s, although his was a modded 1954. In 1958 Gibson began using Grover tuners instead of Klusons, and two years later all production of the Les Paul in its original body configuration temporarily ceased due to declining sales, which, perhaps, not coincidentally, paralleled their namesake’s slide from the charts.
Eight years later the original Les Paul body shape was resurrected, and the Les Paul Standard and Les Paul Custom reemerged in two-pickup configurations exclusively. The headstock angle decreased slightly and the headstock got a bit wider, and a maple, verses the original production run’s mahogany, top was employed. Just a year later the mahogany neck was replaced by three pieces of maple and the body was altered from solid mahogany to two pieces of mahogany with a piece of maple in the middle. These unfortunate developments, done during the Norlin Company’s ownership of the Gibson brand, were party corrected in 1977 when the body was restored to mahogany. By 1980 the Les Paul Custom once again had a mahogany neck with an ebony fingerboard, with a Nashville style bridge replacing the ABR-1. Today’s Les Paul Customs also bear 490R and 498T humbuckers and gold hardware.
Today Gibson has an array of Les Paul Customs in its catalog, including:
• 1955 Les Paul Custom Exclusive : A spec-correct reissue of the first P-90 and Alnico Black Beauties.
• 50th Anniversary 1960 Les Paul Custom : A slim-tapered neck model with dual gold plated humbuckers.
• Les Paul Custom Maple: A modern variation with Alpine White and Ebony finish options and a two-piece maple top with a chambered mahogany body.
• 1957 Les Paul Custom 3 Pickup VOS: Part of the Gibson Custom Shop’s Vintage Original Spec series, this Custom has the classic triple humbucker configuration in gold hardware and all of the original appointments.
• Les Paul Custom Lite: Although this guitar has a ’50s style rounded neck, it cedes to the contemporary with its thinner, weight relief designed body, but offers the Custom’s distinctive smooth-to-biting tone.
• Peter Frampton Les Paul: This is a pain-staking recreation of Frampton’s famed 1954 Comes Alive! guitar, which also served him in Humble Pie.
• Randy Rhoads Les Paul Custom: Limited to a 300 instrument run, this Gibson Custom Shop beauty duplicates the axe that metal giant Rhoads used with Ozzy Osbourne.
• Ace Frehley Budokan Les Paul Custom : Also limited to a 300 guitar run, this instrument reproduces the 1976-era construction of Ace’s six-string and has three DiMarzio humbuckers, just like Frehley’s.
• Steve Jones Les Paul Custom: Replete with pin-up girl stickers, this Custom is a representation of the guitar Jones used in the formative days of punk rock with the Sex Pistols.
• Les Paul Custom Pro: With Burstbucker pickups, a kill mode in its toggle switch and a wide variety of finishes, this is Gibson’s latest and most contemporary entry in the Les Paul Custom family.