I have a friend who once told me, “The three most-important things about any guitar are: color, color… and color.” A joke, obviously, yet color is a powerful thing.
Psychological studies show that humans react to color in different ways. Over its 61 years, the Gibson Les Paul has been available in a vast number of finishes and colors. Some sunburst, some solid, some “graphic”, plus many other twists. Observe just a few of these Les Paul beauties and please comment: what is your favorite color and what do guitar colors say about you?
The Gibson Les Paul debuted in 1952 as a Goldtop. Les Paul himself wanted a gold finish as “it looks expensive.” Gold has a unique attraction for human beings – the most precious of all precious metals, it’s still traded as a base of global banking. The phrase “Gold Standard” comes from banking itself. And winners get gold medals, right? Gibson Les Paul Goldtops currently come in different hues: an Antique Goldtop is quite different to an aged VOS.
The color psychology of gold?
Positive reactions: Luxury, quality, wealth…
Negative reactions: Self-centred, demanding…
In 1954, Gibson debuted the Les Paul Custom in black with gold hardware. Les Paul himself said he wanted black as it “looks classy, like a tuxedo” and “it makes your fingers appear to move faster on the box.” Black remains a popular choice for Custom-playin’ tux-lovin’ twangers, but black is also big, obviously, with goth and metal players.
As any scientist will tell you, black isn’t strictly a color – it’s an absence of color. Humans tend to view color in different ways, anyhow. Psychology of color studies show that black – and other colors – cause disparate reactions in people.
The color psychology of black?
Positive reactions: Sophistication, glamour, substance…
Negative reactions: Coldness, menace, heaviness…
Gibson Les Paul Sunbursts are, of course, not one single color, but a blend that can differ on each guitar. With no one solid color, the maple grain of a Burst’s top shows through and that remains part of the allure.
But even original 1958-’60 sunbursts varied widely. There are a few famous ’59 sunbursts, for example, that have faded over time – see the Peter Green/Gary Moore ‘Greeny’, and Bernie Marsden’s ‘The Beast.’ Collectors and traders often call these “Unbursts.” Yet Billy F Gibbons’ ‘Pearly Gates’ – also a ’59 – has retained more of its cherry stain, particularly on the upper bouts. Duane Allman’s Burst retained more of its cherry all around its top.
From 1960, Gibson developed stronger color-fast dyes on Les Pauls that didn’t fade so much. You can see that in the recreation by Gibson Custom of the Eric Clapton 1960 Les Paul.
These days, a Gibson “Burst” is a catch-all term for numerous and subtle blends of colors. There is honey burst, cherry burst, tobacco burst, tea burst, bourbon burst, gray burst, lemon burst, black burst, silver burst and many more variations. Below is the Les Paul Axcess in Tea Burst.
The color psychology of a “burst”?
No conclusive data, as a Burst is a gradual blend of numerous colors…
White Les Pauls are usually associated with Customs. The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones had a white one (faded to a yellow-ish hue), as did Randy Rhoads. Les Paul himself played whites regularly, and Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield continues to do so. Most white Les Pauls are a solid color, so you don’t see much if any wood grain. But the difference between a pristine Alpine White Gibson Les Paul and road-battered whites can be striking.
Ivory is a twist on pure white, as is the Les Paul Signature 'T' which comes in white Burst with the top’s maple grain showing through.
The color psychology of white?
Positive reactions: Clarity, purity, simplicity …
Negative reactions: Coldness, barriers, elitism…
Never a widely-used Gibson color with one notable exception - TV Yellow on a Les Paul Jr. Why is it called “TV Yellow?” Gibson developed TV Yellow in the 1950s to solve the apparent problem of white guitars when broadcasting - under bright lights on a black-and-white TV, white guitars seemed to glare. So TV-friendly “TV Yellow” was born.
Examples vary: some more-opaque finishes show the wood grain. Others are a simpler “slab” of color. Some examples appear greener, but TV Yellow is not to be confused with Limed Mahogany which veers towards light lime green rather than a purer yellow.
Then again, color blindness is more prevalent in males – i.e. most guitar players – so who knows which color some guys are really seeing?
The color psychology of yellow?
Positive reactions: Optimism, confidence, self-esteem, creativity…
Negative reactions: Irrationality, fear, depression, suicide (!)...
Red was used on Les Paul Jrs and Specials in the ‘50s, but is probably more associated with Les Paul SGs (from 1960) now known simply as SGs. Red remains a popular guitar color, though. The Eric Clapton/George Harrison “Lucy” Les Paul is a deep red, though that was originally a Goldtop. The new Slash Rosso Corsa Les Paul (Racing Red) is another lustrous yet transparent hue. Red is the longest wavelength color and is emotionally powerful. Danger or excitement? Red is both.
The color psychology of red?
Positive reactions: Strength, warmth, masculinity, excitement…
Negative reactions: Defiance, danger, aggression…
Green Gibson Les Pauls are not the most common. But Dark Green, Seafoam/Mint Green and other colours have been made, and a recent eye-popper is the Electric Lime Green on the Nitrous Les Paul Studio.
Zakk Wylde’s “Camo” finish Les Paul is partly green, but it goes with saying that a “Camo” finish means aggression. Whereas, given that green = nature, the color is more usually reacted to in these ways…
The color psychology of green?
Positive reactions: Harmony, environment, peace…
Negative reactions: Boredom, envy…
Like green, blue is a “nature” colour. Yet humans rarely crave blue food. Why so? Some say it’s because no natural food going back through millions of years of human evolution is blue. (Note: Blueberries veer towards purple). But are blue guitars tasty for you?
Pelham Blue was originally a General Motors/DuPont car manufacturing color that Gibson started using on guitars, and Pelham Blue is now back in vogue.
But Pelham Blue Les Pauls are again not the most common – you’ll more likely see Pelham Blue on Firebirds, SGs and ES-335s. But the first production Robot Les Paul launched was in Blue Silverburst. And the LP Studio below comes in a stunning Cosmic Cobalt. 2013’s Les Paul Traditional also comes in a rich Chicago Blue.
Weird color psychology fact? Blue objects do not appear to be as close to humans as red ones – so a blue Les Paul won’t “shout” as loud as a red one.
The color psychology of blue?
Positive reactions: Intelligence, serenity, logic, calm…
Negative reactions: Coldness, aloofness…
That’s just the tip of a rainbow-colored iceberg. And, of course, one person’s “negative” reaction (red = “aggressive” for example) could be just what you want in your guitar’s color.
Over to you! What are your favorite colors and finishes for a Gibson Les Paul?