Black gold: Les Paul changes the guitar forever

by Dave Thompson

He was renowned, quite possibly worldwide, for so many things.

As a record producer, and alongside vocalist Mary Ford, he scored no less than 42 U.S. hits between 1945 and 1961, including more standards than most performers of the era could shake a stick at. As a musician, he has been cited among the most influential guitar players of any age, not simply the rock ’n’ roll era.

And as a technological visionary, he was responsible for many of the studio tricks that we now so take for granted we cannot imagine a time in which they did not exist — multi-tracking, overdubbing and special effects included.

Yet mention Les Paul to many, if not most, people and he is synonymous not with his own accomplishments, but with those of a never-ending stream of other people — namely, every single guitar player who has ever strapped on a Gibson Les Paul and played a tune.

But this man did much, much more than that. In this tribute to his life, we’ll discuss Paul’s influence on generations of guitarists, his own catalog of music and the myriad of studio innovations that completely changed the landscape of modern music.

It is often said that Les Paul did little more than popularize the instrument that has carried his name to immortality, and there is a degree of truth in that.

The Gibson Guitar Corp. originally hired Paul as a consultant in 1951, as their designers struggled to create an instrument that could compete with the newly introduced Fender Telecaster. Aside from all his other accomplishments, Paul had long been working in guitar design, and just five years earlier he had approached Gibson with a hand-built prototype for a solid-body guitar, a more or less unique development at that time.

Paul was not the only person tinkering with the technology, but he was among the first to actually make it work.

He called his creation “the Log,” out of deference to its composition, a block of pine whose depth and width barely exceeded that of the fret board — many years later, sundry so-called New Wave musos would kick up an awful racket on MTV playing ridiculous-looking instruments that returned to much that same design.

At the time, however, Gibson rejected it, only to have a partial change of heart in 1951.

The true nature of the ensuing collaboration has never been sorted out to the satisfaction of those historians and nitpickers who need to know the name of every single person involved in such-and-such a project. According to the bible on the subject, the book “50 Years of the Gibson Les Paul,” Paul made just two lasting contributions, suggesting the guitar’s color (gold because it looked expensive, and black because it made even slow hands look fast, especially if they happened to be wearing a tux); and the trapeze tailpiece. Gibson President Ted McCarty, meanwhile, once insisted that Paul’s sole involvement was indeed the right to add his name to the guitar, to increase its sales potential, in much the same way as today a public figure might endorse a perfume or soda.

The difference is, the Les Paul has gone on to become possibly the most recognizable and respected guitar in history, almost 60 years after its introduction. (Spice Girl cologne, on the other hand …).

The first guitarist to use a Gibson Les Paul onstage was, of course, Les Paul himself, and it is difficult today to imagine the impact that it had on the music-loving public. A shape that today is regarded as a design classic was, at the time, seen as a creature from another planet, an object of fascination and futuristic dream alike.

Few people had even imagined, let alone seen, such a device, and the cries of betrayal from the hollow-bodied traditionalists were as loud and heartfelt as any modern innovation could ever be berated by. And then Paul started to play, and it became apparent that it wasn’t only the look of the guitar that had changed forever. It was its sound, and as the decade progressed and the electric guitar became louder and more prominent, that sound helped to crystallize what became rock ’n’ roll.

The first Les Paul Goldtops went on sale in 1952. Two years later, the Les Paul Custom and Junior models rolled off the production line. 1955 brought the Les Paul Special, and 1958 introduced the Standard, often referred to as the Sunburst for its striking finish. All sold as well as the company had dreamed they would, but by the early 1960s, it appeared the boom was over. Les Paul himself had seen much of his old popularity fall away, as his records were displaced in the hit parade by younger, hipper performers. And when Fender introduced the Stratocaster in 1960, it seemed the end had finally arrived.

Even worse, in an attempt to compete with this new upstart guitar, Gibson made enough design modifications to the latest Les Paul, the SG, that Paul withdrew permission for his name to be associated with the instrument any longer. The Les Paul was dead.

Or was it? In 1964, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richard was spotted sporting a gorgeous 1959 Les Paul Standard, sunburst finish and pristine. Fans and admirers started paying attention. Two years later, Eric Clapton picked up a Standard and marched into the nascent Cream with it firmly affixed to his frame. Where God walked, his disciples quickly followed.

Jeff Beck, an admirer of both Les Paul the man and the instrument that bore his name, purchased his first Les Paul for £150 in 1966 and played it through his last years with the Yardbirds and on into his solo career. “It had a deep, powerful sound, and you could use it to imitate just about anything — violin, sax, cello, even a sitar.”

Beatle George Harrison and another Yardbird, Jimmy Page, followed suit, with Page’s devotion carrying on into the leviathan that was Led Zeppelin. Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, Keith Richards’ fellow Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, Jethro Tull’s Martin Barre, Free’s Paul Kossoff … the British blues boom of the late 1960s was built on the Gibson Les Paul. In 1968, Gibson and Paul themselves repaired their breached relationship with the relaunch of the classic Goldtop and Custom designs, the door opened for even more to pour through. Even Jimi Hendrix, whom most admirers think of as a confirmed Stratocaster man, picked up the Les Paul when he needed one, including an SG Custom, a Les Paul Special and a Les Paul Custom.

The Les Paul was everywhere. Frank Zappa armed himself with a vintage 1953/54 Goldtop. Mike Bloomfield, another early convert, led America’s own late 1960s blues revival with a Les Paul. The late Duane Allman helped define the Southern Rock sound with a small arsenal of Gibsons — a 1957 Les Paul Goldtop, a 1958 Tobacco Sunburst, a 1959 Cherry Sunburst, and a 1968 Cherry SG. Neil Young, John McLaughlin, Pete Townshend, Johnny Winter, Carlos Santana … think of a great guitarist who was strumming in the late 1960s, and the chances are that he played a great guitar.

By the early 1970s, even as guitar design exploded with a wealth of custom-bodied novelties for any axeman who could afford one (including Gibson’s own, ever-remarkable Flying V), still the “classic” lines and irreproachable tone of the Les Paul dictated what a guitar should really look and sound like. Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, Jan Akkerman of Focus, Marc Bolan of T Rex, Mick Ronson of David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars, Steve Hackett of Genesis and  the solo John Lennon all created some of their most distinctive work with a Les Paul — indeed, take Focus’ “Hocus Pocus” and a 1973-era live version of Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream,” with Ronson’s guitar crying to the skies, and you have an indelible snapshot of just what made the Les Paul the legend that it was.

It would be absurd to say the guitar could make a guitarist play better, no matter how many copies of Les Paul’s own guitar manuals he waded through. But it certainly made a player look even more noticeable than he would have been. Which is one reason why, when punk rock arrived to cut a vicious, burning swath through the so-called pretentious musical dinosaurs of an earlier age, even the angriest young guitar slingers reached for a Les Paul first. It was the sound of the Sex Pistols, the sound of The Clash, the sound of The New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers, as Johnny Thunders suited up with a Les Paul Junior that became as distinctive a part of his image as any of his more personal visual props.

And so it goes on. As rock ’n’ roll continued to develop in the 1970s and 1980s, the Les Paul developed alongside it, matching every new sonic and visual requirement with just a few modifications to that original, near-perfect design. Into the 1990s and 2000s, the Les Paul is still in production, not only in its own right but via a series of ever-more-personalized models. Gary Moore, Slash, Ace Frehley and Jimmy Page have all put their names to specially crafted signature models, but no matter how great their personal fame might be, they can only play second fiddle to the man who started it all.

Les Paul himself played a 1972 Les Paul Recording all the way up to his death, scorning the so-called purists who denounced that model as one (or possibly more) steps too far, with its battery of switches and buttons. And seriously, who among us was truly qualified to argue with him? Maybe it’s true. Maybe Les Paul did only lend his endorsement to the guitar that bears his name. But it bears that name all the same.

Stay tuned for more tributes to Les Paul’s life and work!

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