Gibson Les Pauls: from the first to the ‘Burst

Les Paul the musician is more notable for popularising the sound of the electric guitar during the 1940s and 50s than he is for designing his own Gibson signature model. Despite Les’ earlier efforts to convert them with his solidbody ‘Log’ idea, the 1952 debut Les Paul Model is quintessentially Gibson in design. Keen to compete with Fender and hot on the heels of their radical new Esquire and Telecaster solidbodies, Gibson brought to market an instrument which was unmistakably their own. From the headstock inlays, glued-in mahogany neck, rosewood fingerboard and trapezoid markers to the single-cutaway body, carved maple top, dual P-90 pickups and electronics, it was a Gibson guitar through-and-through, put together in the good, old-fashioned way. Only now it was a traditional Gibson guitar in solidbody form.

                  Unlike Fender’s inaugural “electric Spanish” guitars, the original incarnation of the Les Paul Model was not a design that endured. Les Paul’s most significant functional contribution – the combination bar bridge/trapeze tailpiece – immediately proved impractical for many guitar players and was superseded by the simplified ‘stud’ bar bridge/tailpiece in ‘53. In a strange twist, the patent number corresponding to Les’ tailpiece (2,737,842) began to appear on the underside of Gibson’s humbuckers when the “PATENT APPLIED FOR” stickers were phased out during the early 60s. ’53 was the Goldtop’s most successful year with around 2,250 guitars shipped, however, sales figures significantly dipped in ’54 and never recovered. Despite the addition of an ABR-1 Tune-o-matic bridge and stop tailpiece in ’55, followed by dual humbucking pickups in ’57, annual sales remained in the hundreds, signalling the end of the line for the Goldtop.

                  Since his arrival at Gibson in 1948, Ted McCarty’s raison d'être was to modernise the company. The post-war era was a time of rapid change, both in terms of consumer technology and popular culture, and in 1958, the bulk of what would become Gibson’s most important electric guitar concepts were unveiled. These included the “modernistic” Explorer and Flying V, double-cutaway solidbodies, and the revolutionary ES-335 semi-hollowbody. Also among these groundbreaking classics stood the revamped Les Paul Standard, resplendent in a bright Cherry Sunburst. Many years later, this legendary guitar would become known simply as the ‘Burst. Having ditched the opaque gold finish of yesteryear, the instrument’s uniquely figured carved maple top was proudly displayed. Gibson had high hopes for their new look Les Paul “Regular” (as it was referred to within the business). Alas, with an all-time low of just 434 sales in ’58, followed by 643 and 635 in ’59 and ’60 respectively, Gibson decided to close the book on their seminal solidbody. For now…

Take a look at one of those 635 Les Paul Standards from 1960 on sale here at Vintage ‘n’ Rare Guitars: