The Gibson Les Paul is an iconic electric guitar that has been used by countless musicians over the years. Tristan Johnson examines the birth of an icon.
The history of the Les Paul goes back to the early 1940s, when Les Paul himself was experimenting with electric guitar designs. As Paul said in an interview with Guitar Player magazine, "I was trying to amplify my guitar in such a way that it would be as musical as possible. It was always a case of trying to make things better."
One of the key innovations that Les Paul brought to the design of electric guitars was the use of a solid body. Most guitars at the time had hollow bodies, which could be prone to feedback and other problems. Les Paul wanted to create a guitar that would be more reliable and produce a better sound. As he said in another interview, "I wanted to have a guitar that was almost indestructible and had a good sustain."
Les Paul's design for a solid-body electric guitar eventually caught the attention of the Gibson Guitar Corporation, and he began working with the company to produce his design commercially. In 1952, Les Paul signed a deal with the Gibson Guitar Corporation to produce his design commercially. The first Gibson Les Paul, known as the "Goldtop" because of its gold finish, was released in 1952. It featured a mahogany body with a carved maple top, a pair of humbucking pickups, and a unique trapeze-style tailpiece.
One of the key features of the Les Paul guitar was its pickups. Les Paul had designed a new type of pickup that he called a "humbucker." This pickup used two coils instead of one, which helped to cancel out the hum and noise that was common in earlier electric guitar designs. As Les Paul explained in an interview with Guitar World magazine, "The humbucking pickup was designed to eliminate the 60-cycle hum that was common in most guitars at the time."
The humbucker pickup was a major breakthrough for electric guitars, and it helped to cement the Gibson Les Paul's reputation as a top-quality instrument. In the words of Les Paul himself, "The humbucker pickup made all the difference in the world. It gave the guitar a much fatter sound and eliminated all that hum and noise."
Over the years, Gibson produced a number of different models of the Les Paul guitar, each with its own unique features and characteristics. Some of the most popular models included the Les Paul Standard, the Les Paul Custom, and the Les Paul Junior.
Production numbers and sales figures for the Les Paul have varied over the years, but the guitar has remained a popular instrument for decades. As Les Paul himself said, "The Les Paul guitar has a sound and a feel that's all its own. It's a guitar that's been used by some of the greatest musicians in the world, and it's still as popular today as it was when it was first introduced."
The Les Paul also had an impact on other guitar designs. As Les Paul explained in an interview with Vintage Guitar magazine, "The Les Paul guitar influenced a lot of other guitar makers. They started making guitars with solid bodies and humbucking pickups because they knew that's what people wanted."
The early Gibson Les Pauls were not an immediate success. They were expensive, heavy, and had a thick neck that many players found difficult to play. However, they quickly gained a following among guitarists who appreciated their tone and sustain.
In 1954, Gibson made some changes to the Les Paul design that would shape its future. The company replaced the trapeze-style tailpiece with a new "wraparound" bridge/tailpiece design that improved the guitar's sustain and made it easier to play. They also introduced a new "Sunburst" finish, which featured a gradual fade from dark to light around the edges of the body.
These changes proved to be a turning point for the Gibson Les Paul. The new design was more comfortable to play, and the Sunburst finish made it a more visually appealing instrument. As a result, sales of the Les Paul began to take off, and it quickly became one of the most popular guitars of its time.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Gibson Les Paul continued to evolve. In 1957, the company introduced the "Les Paul Custom," which featured an all-black finish and gold hardware. In 1961, they introduced the "SG" (which stands for "solid guitar"), a new model that had a thinner, lighter body and a different design for the headstock.
Despite these changes, the Gibson Les Paul remained a popular guitar among rock and roll musicians. Its thick, sustained tone was perfect for the loud, aggressive sound of early rock music, and its powerful pickups allowed guitarists to create a range of different sounds and textures.
In the 1970s, the popularity of the Gibson Les Paul began to wane. The rise of punk rock and new wave music led many guitarists to favor simpler, more affordable instruments. At the same time, the quality of Gibson's guitars began to decline due to changes in manufacturing techniques and materials.
In the 1980s, the Les Paul was still a popular guitar, but it faced some competition from other guitar models. The rise of heavy metal music in the 1980s led to a demand for guitars with more aggressive tones and faster playability. As a result, many guitarists turned to models like the Jackson Soloist and Ibanez RG, which featured slim necks and high-output pickups.
Despite this competition, the Les Paul remained a favorite among guitarists who appreciated its classic tone and feel. In fact, some of the biggest names in rock music continued to play Les Pauls throughout the 1980s. For example, Slash of Guns N' Roses was known for his use of Les Pauls, and his playing helped to keep the guitar in the public eye.
In the 1990s, the Les Paul experienced a resurgence in popularity. This was due in part to the rise of grunge music, which featured a return to more traditional guitar tones. The Les Paul's thick, sustained tone and classic design were a perfect fit for this style of music, and many grunge guitarists began playing Les Pauls.
At the same time, Gibson began introducing new Les Paul models that featured updated designs and features. For example, the Les Paul Studio model was introduced in 1983 as a more affordable option for players. This model featured a simpler design and fewer frills than the standard Les Paul, but it still retained the classic Les Paul sound and feel.
Another notable Les Paul model that was introduced in the 1990s was the Les Paul Classic. This model featured a thinner neck profile and a more vintage-inspired design, and it quickly became a favorite among players who wanted a more traditional Les Paul.
In the 2000s and beyond, the Les Paul has continued to be a popular guitar. Many guitarists still appreciate the Les Paul's classic tone and feel, and the guitar has become a staple in many different genres of music.
One factor that has helped to keep the Les Paul popular is Gibson's commitment to innovation. In recent years, Gibson has introduced new Les Paul models that feature modern updates and features. The Les Paul Traditional Pro II features coil-splitting pickups and a slimmer neck profile, while the Les Paul Standard 2018 features a more ergonomic design and a wider range of tonal options.
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