september 2009

Les Paul with his guitar: The guitar produced 'a characteristically rich, dark tone with a brilliant, cutting edge on the top end. Its significant weight and density contributed to a thick, heavy timbre that truly achieved full flight years later when played through massive amplification.'

The Guitar. That Guitar. You Know The Name.
by JC Costa

In addition to several lifetimes of achievement in multi-track recording and studio electronics, Les Paul is in large part responsible for the development of the electric solid body guitar, specifically the Gibson instrument that bears his name and, along with the Fender Stratocaster, helped shape the sound of rock 'n' roll over the last five decades.

To this day, hard-core Les Paul aficionados continue to debate who actually designed the extraordinary instrument that Gibson introduced to the music industry and the world in 1952. Was it Les or was it Gibson, more precisely company president Ted McCarty, head of production John Huis and other key employees? The definitive study, The Gibson Les Paul Book—A Complete History of Les Paul Guitars (GPI Books, Miller Freeman Inc.) by Tony Bacon and Paul Day, sheds light on the subject without coming to a hard and fast conclusion about the central issue.

An accomplished instrumentalist who first gained national recognition for his playing on Bing Crosby's 1945 hit, "It's Been A Long, Long Time, " Les Paul was an inveterate tinkerer who loved to push the existing boundaries of recording and musical instrument technology. His 1948 solo instrumental hit, "Brazil," featured six separate guitars parts played one on top of the other in a demonstration of electronic and musical virtuosity that earned him the reputation as the "father of multi-track recording." In 1951, he combined these innovations with the singing of then wife Mary Ford to produce two million-selling singles, "How High The Moon" and "Mockin' Bird Hill."

To achieve his goals for an electric instrument with more sustain and less feedback, Paul first mounted a guitar string on a railroad tie, then incorporated a four-inch by four-inch solid block of pine between the sawn halves of a dismantled Epiphone guitar body, subsequently immortalized as "The Log."

thumbnailPaul first approached Gibson in the '40s with his ideas for a solid body instrument. But Gibson was already dominating the industry with archtop models and the company's reluctance to align itself with artists precluded any association at that time.

However, by late 1951 Gibson was ready to introduce its first solid body electric and the company chose Les Paul, mainly based on his popularity, as endorser and namesake for the instrument. Over the years, Paul has claimed he designed the guitar and brought it to Gibson. While fully acknowledging his general contribution, most historians claim the guitar was designed by Gibson under the able stewardship of McCarty, who later oversaw the development of revolutionary instruments like the ES-335 semi-hollow body guitar and the radically-shaped Flying V, Explorer and Moderne solid bodies.

Supporting their claim is the fact that the original Les Paul Goldtop in 1952 featured a carved contoured top Gibson has been known for since the very first instruments made by company founder Orville Gibson in the late 1800s. And Paul has been pictured over the years with his own variations of the instrument, most of which are definitely not "off the shelf."

The Les Paul guitar's unique combination of mahogany and maple produced a characteristically rich, dark tone with a brilliant, cutting edge on the top end. Its significant weight and density contributed to a thick, heavy timbre that truly achieved full flight years later when played through massive amplification.
Priced at $210 (about $20 more than the Fender Telecaster), the Les Paul featured a gold-finished body face (to imply a "deluxe" instrument), a Trapeze tailpiece/bridge combination and two Gibson P90 single-coil pickups. Two years later, Gibson introduced the upscale Les Paul Custom and the Les Paul Junior, a less expensive alternative.

In 1957, the Les Paul Goldtop, later known as the "Standard," truly came into its own with the addition of "PAF" humbucking pickups designed by Seth Lover. Essentially two coils wired together out of phase, this exceptional-sounding pickup eliminated hum and produced a pure sweet tone perfectly matched to instrument and much in demand by guitarists over the years.

Les Paul & Mary Ford, 'In Nuevo Laredo,' from the duo's 1953 TV show
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In addition to the modestly priced Les Paul TV and Les Paul Special, Gibson has produced countless versions of the Les Paul. When the Goldtop's popularity started to wane in 1958, the company introduced the legendary "Sunburst" model (a clear lacquer finish over a graduated Cherry Red to Golden Yellow color that showcased the grain pattern of the Maple top). Only produced between 1958 and 1961, these were adopted by leading guitarists in the '60s and '70s and, in original condition, can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Discontinued in 1961 and replaced by the double-cutaway SG-style instrument, the Les Paul was re-introduced with great fanfare and huge success again in 1968 and has been going strong ever since.

Who's played the Les Paul? In the '50s, it flourished in the hands of Guitar Slim, Freddie King, Bill Haley's guitarist Fran Beecher, John Lee Hooker and the great Carl Perkins. Decades later the classy instrument was used by the legendary British triumvirate, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, George Harrison, Pete Townshend, Paul Kossoff of Free, Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green, Billy Gibbons, Joe Walsh, Duane Allman, Gary Moore and a list of distinguished players that goes on forever. Today, it's still a favorite choice of players like Joe Perry, Lenny Kravitz, Slash, Tony Rombola of Godsmack, Carl Bell of Fuel, Warren Haynes of Government Mule and Whit Smith of the Hot Club of Cowtown (whose rippling, cascading solo on "The Magic Violin," on the Hot Club's new album, Wishful Thinking, is an homage to Paul).

Les Paul, in his element at his regular Monday night gig at Iridium in Times Square: 'Whatever I'm doing, I work hard.'
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What has made the guitar such a perennial favorite and legitimate "industry standard" over the years? The obvious things such as exceptional quality, easy playability and a full-bodied tone that serves as a perfect counterpart for the equally legendary Fender Strat. But part of it is really unmeasurable, almost a serendipity perhaps best expressed by former Gibson employee Tim Shaw:

"A great deal of mythology has grown up about something that came essentially from a nice bunch of folks in the Midwest doing the best job they could, paying attention to what they thought mattered, and not caring much about other stuff."

JC Costa has written for Rolling Stone, Record Magazine and other publications, and currently runs Brainstorm/TPC, a creative services and media/PR company in New York City.

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