Developed in the early fifties, the Gibson Les Paul is probably the only non Fender guitar that comes close to stealing the Stratocaster’s thunder. It was created after the Telecaster when Gibson brought in pop star Les Paul to help them design an electric guitar and cash in on what was obviously going to be the next big thing in music – the electric guitar.
Les Paul was more than a Jazz musician, as he had created the ‘Log’, one of the first solid base electric guitars, and he even offered his design to Gibson who rejected it. There is some dispute as to how much Les Paul contributed to the construction design of the guitar, as although he was obviously capable of guitar design, he may have just been used for his celebrity marketing pulling power for guitar sales.
Originally there were two models, the Les Paul aesthetic ‘flashy’ ‘Gold Top’ introduced in 1952, and the ‘Custom’ which had a conservative black finish and the option for upgraded hardware. As ‘guitar science’ developed Gibson followed and brought out more versions of the model, although they kept to mounting the strings on top of the body, as opposed to through it. Gibson also had more of an eye for the look of a guitar, and offered several colours and finishes.
In 1954 the Les Paul Custom was released which featured the Tune-O-Matic bridge, and from 1957 Humbucker pickups. In 1954 a cheaper option, the “Junior”, which was targeted at the beginner, and to make life easier for the beginner it only had a single pickup, and less sophisticated tone and volume controls. The model had a cutaway redesign in 1958, and also a change to a cherry red finish. The model was taken out of production on 1960.
In 2008 Gibson brought out an updated Les Paul, which had a series of intricate modifications that included an asymmetrical neck profile to make for a comfortable neck, and much working of the guitar base for improved balance. At the same time they also released the Les Paul Traditional which is basically a reissue built to the guitars original specifications.
In 1986, Gibson, who have always offered a diversity of guitars changed ownership, and since then have been releasing an even more diverse range of guitars. How this will fare in the long run remains to be seen, as too much choice can be a bad thing unless it is carefully managed to ensure that each model has something about it that will appeal to a certain level or style of guitarist.
Prior to the changeover, Gibson were still offering niche guitars as they always had been, one example being the ‘Studio’, which was designed with the studio musician in mind. The resulting design had all the components required for a great sound, but on an style level there were no flourishes. This was not meant for the stage, and a great example of low volume production output for a niche market, although without sales figures it’s difficult to see how well their strategy works.
There have been several signature models released over the years, including the ‘Peter Frampton, the ‘Gary Moore’, and others, which is all a testament to the Les Paul’s popularity over the years, and the more recent ‘Slash’ signature is another sign of the les Paul’s endurance, and a sign that the Les Paul will probably be with us for along time.