Okay, so it’s only ‘probably didn’t know’, but these fascinating facts do rank among the more obscure information about the Gibson Les Paul. Most of the info dates right back to the middle of the twentieth century when the guitar was in its formative or even prototype stages. If you’ve looked up the Les Paul’s history on Wikipedia and think you have the definitive understanding of events, you might want to take some of this into account…
Above: the 1953 style of Les Paul Model, with P90 pickups and a stud bridge/tailpiece.
Before being asked to endorse the solid-bodied guitar that became the Gibson Les Paul, Les Paul himself was not playing Gibson guitars. Indeed, this was said to have been one of the main reasons Gibson were so keen to get him signed up to an exclusive endorsement deal. Much is made of Paul having previously played a solid guitar of his own making, but his commercial potential was huge. If Gibson could convert such an influential and high-status guitarist into a ‘living promo’ for Gibson guitars, it would be an extremely powerful and persuasive advertising campaign for the whole brand. Paul’s name and exclusive endorsement was worth five percent of the cost of every Les Paul guitar sold.
Gibson had, at an early stage in the negotiations, apparently entertained the idea of manufacturing the Les Paul guitar as a brand in its own right, without a Gibson logo on the instrument. However, given the obvious commercial benefits of a recognised association between Paul and Gibson (as outlined above), it’s not clear whether this was ever a serious plan, or just an appeal to Paul’s ego - perhaps to speed negotiations. Regardless of the real intention, by the end of the prototype phase, Gibson was firmly committed to releasing the guitar as the Gibson Les Paul, rather than simply the Les Paul guitar.
Despite the conservatism still surrounding guitars back in the Les Paul’s birth year of 1952, the solid bodied behemoth was an instant hit – upon introduction easily outselling every individual electric in the Gibson range except for the ES-125. Paul’s name and endorsement would undoubtedly have been a primary factor in that whirlwind success.
Above: On the left, a white 1990 Les Paul Custom with gold hardware. Top right, a 1960-style version with faded cherry sunburst on a flame maple top. And lower right: a 1982 Pro Deluxe, with single coil P90 pickups.
One of the reasons the Les Paul Model was given a traditional-style carved top was that it was a feature Fender and other potential rivals were not equipped to copy. It’s also almost certain that the Les Paul’s body would have been much bigger (nearer the size of an ordinary Gibson semi acoustic) had it not been for the prohibitive weight.
Although it was claimed by Les Paul that the original Gold Top finish came at his insistence (on the basis that it signified luxury and expense), Gibson’s version of events was different. Gibson staff of the time asserted that the Gold Top was implemented before Paul even saw the prototype. It’s also believed (on the basis of compelling evidence) that a solid finish on the front face was in any case inevitable, because initially Gibson wanted people to believe that the body was crafted from one piece of mahogany - meaning they had to hide the maple top. And since an all-gold finish had already adorned Gibson semi-acoustics and was going into production on the ES-295, gold may have been Gibson’s choice of solid colour for the Les Paul’s front face regardless.
Because Les Paul was only involved to a minor extent in the design of the guitar, it would have looked and sounded much the same even if an alternative endorsee had been chosen.
Les Paul often disagreed with Gibson on the guitar’s features, even after it was introduced. From the off, Paul balked fiercely at the first production model he was sent, immediately arguing for, and quickly getting, a significant alteration to the neck pitch and modification of the bridge arrangement, which Gibson had misinterpreted from Paul’s original submission. But whilst it’s widely documented that Les Paul hated the early ‘60s redesign of the instrument and moved to sever his name from it at the first opportunity, he did initially promote SG-style Les Pauls in a very prominent manner.
Above: the Gold Top as it looked from mid 1957 to summer 1958, with humbucking pickups and a separate Tune-o-matic bridge and stop tailpiece.
Even though the original single coil P90 pickup was replaced as standard by the humbucker on the Les Paul in mid 1957, some examples continued to be outshopped with P90s, and there were even some P90-fitted Les Pauls completed and shipped in 1958. The last P90-fitted Les Pauls, however, remain well clear of the change from Gold Top to Sunburst finishes, which took place much later in the year, starting around the summer. It’s been suggested that an excess of bodies pre-cut for P90s would have been the primary reason behind the continued shipping of single coil models. But more than six months was a long time to be using up pre-cut bodies, so it’s also feasible that the continuation of non-humbucking production was to an extent driven by demand. The P90 was very popular in 1957, and this was still an era of tonal clarity and purity, so the Humbucker’s ‘blunter’ sound would have been a disadvantage for some players.
It’s well known that had it not been for the hugely influential blues-rock players who adopted and championed the Les Paul Standard after its discontinuation in the 1960s, the classic Les Paul model would not have been re-introduced in 1968. But there’s also anecdotal evidence that Gibson were considering dropping solid-bodied electric guitar production entirely in the period before demand really snowballed for old Les Pauls. Not only is the 1958-1960 Les Paul Standard now, in terms of its value, the ultimate electric guitar – Gibson could have ended up going in a very different direction without its monumental resurgence.
The price of the first Gibson Les Paul Model, upon introduction in spring 1952, was $210. That's a little under $1,900 here in February 2015 as I write - or about £1,250, although the sterling value is based on a straight exchange rate and doesn't budget for import.
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