Gibson Les Paul Classic Flametop

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 6 November 2011 |

Gibson’s Les Paul Classic was a variation on the Standard model which so many influential guitarists picked up on in the 1960s. The history is widely known, but if you’re unfamiliar… Gibson introduced the Les Paul in 1952, with a gold top finish and single coil pickups. Over the next few years, various modifications were made, and in 1957 the guitar gained humbucking pickups. In 1958, the gold top finish was dropped in favour of cherry sunburst, and this version, particularly the examples with a highly figured maple top, came to be regarded as the epitome of the Les Paul. The run of these original sunburst Les Paul Standards was relatively short, lasting through 1959 and into 1960, but being discontinued and replaced later in 1960 by a completely redesigned Les Paul with double cutaways, sharp horns, and a thin mahogany body with no maple top. Les Paul himself, the guitars’ endorsee, disliked the new model and disassociated his name from it. For this reason, the new Les Paul was rebranded as the Gibson SG (Solid Guitar).

Many important guitarists of the 1960s, like Les Paul himself, regarded the SG design as inferior to the old single cutaway Les Paul, and bought secondhand late ‘50s models instead of new instruments. This, coupled with the severely limited numbers of original pieces available, started the upward trend in pricing for 1958-1960 LP Standards on the S/H market. It was a trend which never really lost its momentum, and would result, in recent times, in instruments changing hands for half a million dollars or more.

So, with our history lesson now drawing to a close, even within that short period of Les Paul Standard production between 1958 and 1960, there were variations in the spec. In 1959, for example, the Les Paul sported a thick, clubby neck profile, but in 1960 this changed to a much faster and thinner neck. It’s the 1960 model, with its fast neck, upon which the subject of this retrospective – the Les Paul Classic – was based.

As is evident in the photo, this is some guitar to look at. The maple top is carved from highly figured wood, and the amber finish simulates a completely faded out sunburst. Whilst some original sunbursts held their cherry into yellow colour moderately well, others had their sunburst dissolve completely over the years, and ended up with an effect similar to this. A good example would be the guitar Peter Green once owned, and which was subsequently adopted by Gary Moore. That, indeed, was the guitar I thought of when I first clapped eyes on this one.

But the Les Paul Classic was not an exact 1960 replica. As supplied it had modern, higher output pickups, with exposed bobbins (no chrome covers). I knew if I got the guitar, I’d be doing something about that. First, though, I had to get hold of the thing. I couldn’t afford it, obviously, so I set about working out which of my existing guitars I could do without. I don’t want to put myself through the trauma of recounting the exact trade-in deal, because I sacrificed some nice stuff, but I wanted a really special Les Paul – a true guitar-for-life, and this was going to be it.

I wasn’t keen on the original pickups. They were ballsy but a bit synthetic. However, I saw that as quite a positive thing. It meant that I could, without regret, remove them, and put in my ultimate set of Seymour Duncans – humbuckers which would perfect my dream Les Paul. For the neck position, I went for a ’59 – modelled on the very best of the original Gibson PAFs. And for the bridge, a Custom Custom – lovely toneful ‘overwound’ humbucker with a vintage-strength alnico II magnet. I then inverted the magnet in the ’59, so that the two-pickup combination would be out of phase, creating the distinctive Peter Green sound. Finally, I added chrome pickup covers to both units, and the guitar was ready to go.

When some people get a guitar this good looking, it’s never out of the case. I can’t remember this guitar ever being in its case! I do treat it very carefully, but I play it – a lot. It has the odd small dink here and there, and there are some signs of wear, so it’s no longer in mint condition. But that’s almost irrelevant now, because I’d never consider selling this sensational instrument. It has to be played to be believed really. In fact it’s less of a guitar and more of a singer. Long, sustained notes with vibrato do take on a very vocal quality, and the ‘Peter Green’ setting is just stupidly cool.

I’ll be frank and say that I’m a Fender player first and foremost. More rhythm than lead, and I like that bright, cutting edge. I don’t often use this Les Paul for recording my own material, because it can’t produce the snappiness I need. But when you want a break from your own style, it's great to have an instrument which takes you somewhere else entirely. Whether I want to revisit Led Zeppelin, or Gary Moore, or The Damned / Clash / Sex Pistols , or even... well, Spinal Tap - then a high-end Gibson Les Paul with looks to virtually die for and a truly definitive rock tone is the perfect way to do it.

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