The Mystique of the 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard
Over the past decade 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standards have sold from $50,000 for hard-worn examples to over $1-million for Peter Green’s and Gary Moore's legendary Holy Grail — the guitar Green used on Fleetwood Mac’s early albums and that Moore also put to the test repeatedly during his fruitful career. Models from 1958 and 1960 don’t sell for the same staggering amounts at auction, even though Clapton’s legendary Bluesbreakers Les Paul was a ’60. And sonically not every ’59 channels the voice of God, since manufacturing procedures were less precise and consistent during the ’50 and ’60s.
Nonetheless, they have a magical aura that’s highlighted by dollar signs.
Perhaps the main reason for their charismatic appeal is that some of the greatest recordings of the rock ‘n’ roll era, by some of the world’s finest guitarists, have been made with ’59 Les Pauls. And for fans and aspiring and established players, that association creates a mystique for the ’59 Les Paul that few — perhaps no other — instruments possess aside from Stradivarius violins, violas and cellos. Examples of classic ’59 Les Pauls abound, and often the effect of these recordings is so profound that the instruments employed on them have taken on a personality, reinforced by their being given names — sometime by their keepers and sometimes by their admirers. There’s Billy Gibbon’s “Miss Pearly Gates,” Jimmy Page’s “Number 1” and “Number 2,” Don Felder’s “Hotel California,” the aforementioned “Holy Grail” and Steve Lukather’s “Rosanna Burst,” just to name a few.
The Gibson Les Paul has evolved steadily since its introduction in 1952, yet in 1959 everything converged to make a truly outstanding and timeless instrument — the other key factor in the ’59’s star appeal. The mid-’50s saw the replacement of the trapeze tailpiece with the Tune-0-matic bridge and the stop-bar tailpiece. And in 1957 humbuckers replaced P-90 pickups as standard equipment. In 1958 the next step toward the model’s historic pinnacle occurred when the Gold Top became available in sunburst and thus the famed &ldquot;’Burst” was born. The fine curly maple tops on these instruments also provided more eye-appeal than the gold finish, and that continues to be part of the literally natural charm of all sunburst finished Les Pauls.
The next year’s refinements upped the ante just slightly but enough to bring the instrument to its classic apex. The neck on the 1959 Les Paul thinned enough to make the guitar faster to play and the narrow frets that previously helped define the Les Paul were enlarged. These jumbo frets made bending notes easier — crucial for the blues based players like Green and Page who brought the ’59 to fame. Those seem like simply changes, but guitarists understand how crucial neck and fret characteristics are to performance.
Of course, the ’59 ’Burst didn’t become a house-priced instrument overnight. New they cost less than $300 including a case. Keith Richards probably paid less when he bought his, fitted with a Bigsby whammy bar, used in 1964, becoming the fist celebrity rocker to publicly embrace the Les Paul. Richards then sold the guitar to Mick Taylor in 1967, when Taylor replaced Green in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Michael Bloomfield also played a ’59 starting in the mid-’60s, inspired — like Richards — by the guitars favored early on by blues guitar innovators Freddie King and Hubert Sumlin. And thus the chain of fame began.
Add to that list of historic ’59s players Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, Jeff Beck (briefly) in the Yardbirds, Slash, Paul McCartney, Joe Perry, Paul Kossoff and Ace Frehley among many others.
For those with less than six figures to spend on a guitar, the Gibson Custom Shop builds outstanding reproductions of these classic instruments, made with much more exacting procedures than the originals despite a precise devotion to vintage detail. Among these models are various artist models like the Kossoff and an upcoming Joe Perry special edition, the 50th Anniversary 1959 Les Paul Standard and the 1959 Les Paul Factory Burst.