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Article Submitted courtesy of Mason Hoberg.
If you’re even remotely interested in instruments, odds are you’re familiar with the Gibson Les Paul. The instrument has been a cultural fixture for more than five decades, and it has been used on some of the world’s most influential albums. But for all of its fame, many of us don’t know the origins of the Gibson Les Paul. If you’ve ever wondered how Gibson’s flagship model came to be, you’re in luck. Continue reading to learn the story behind one of the world’s most famous instruments.
So just to clarify, “Les Paul” wasn’t just a model name. Unlike the majority of guitar models, the Gibson Les Paul was named after a person. It can actually be thought of as one of the first signature guitars (though the Rickenbacker Ken Roberts predates it by several years), as Paul’s name was attached to the instrument in an attempt to boost early sales until the guitar was well established enough to sell based off of its own reputation.
What’s so interesting about Les Paul is that he wasn’t just an incredible musician; he was also an inventor and an innovative recording engineer. He pioneered delay, phase, and overdubbing techniques, and in his teens he patented the harmonica holder that would later become an integral part of Bob Dylan’s early career. He was eventually brought on as a consultant to Gibson when the company decided to pursue designing an electric guitar, and he was part of the team that designed the Gibson Les Paul.
Contrary to popular belief, Paul’s prototype guitar the “Log” was actually largely ignored by Gibson until Fender’s Esquire (the earliest ancestor of the Telecaster) became a nationwide sensation. When Gibson realized that the solid body guitar wasn’t just going to be a passing fad, they changed their tune and decided to pursue designing a solid body guitar of their own.
Like the Telecaster (previously known as both the Esquire and Broadcaster), the Gibson Les Paul went through a few changes before it became the instrument we know today. The original design featured two P90 pickups, and a funky looking combination bridge and tailpiece. The instrument was later outfitted with humbucking pickups as well as a more useable bridge and tailpiece design.
But Gibson still wasn’t satisfied with the Les Paul. Due to declining sales, the model was redesigned into what we now know of as the Gibson SG in 1961. The previous incarnation had been marketed at jazz musicians and had gained a reputation of being old fashioned and unwieldy, so Gibson re-launched a sleeker and lighter version of the instrument in an attempt to appeal to the next generation of guitar players. Les Paul wasn’t consulted about this decision, and promptly asked to have his name removed from the model. Gibson honored Paul’s request in 1963, and renamed the line “SG” which stood for “solid guitar.”
The Les Paul as we know it today could easily have faded into obscurity if not for the resurgence of popularity it experienced when it was seen in the hands of breakout acts like The Rolling Stones and Mike Bloomfield. Responding to the wishes of the public, Gibson re-launched the instrument in its current form in 1968 and it’s been in production ever since.
The Gibson Les Paul has found its way into the hands of popular musicians in almost every genre, though most of the notable users popularized the instrument in groups that used distortion more heavily. But—contrary to popular belief—the Les Paul isn’t just a rock and roll or blues guitar. Everyone from Sheryl Crow to Bob Marley has used a Les Paul at one time or another.
The Les Paul has always been an instrument by musicians for musicians. It’s been the flagship model of one of the world’s most important instrument manufacturers for decades, and if its history is anything to go by, that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
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