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The Gibson SG | Chicago Music Exchange
Chicago Music Exchange has long been a destination for Gibson electric guitars. When it comes to new models straight from the Nashville factory, you can find everything from the latest Standard and Artist models, to Custom Shop “CME Spec,” to aged editions from Murphy Labs. Plus, CME’s carefully curated collection of vintage and used Gibson models range from worn-in relics, to closet classics that seem to have never been taken out of their case, to collector’s items that are in themselves pieces of music history. No matter your preference or price point, CME’s regularly replenished assortment of new and vintage/used Gibson guitars comprises one of the most comprehensive and diverse selections you’ll find for sale, anywhere—once again, reaffirming CME’s unofficial reputation as “The World’s Greatest Guitar Store.”
While our love for the Gibson Les Paul models here at CME is no secret, we’ll always have a wide selection of the later “Les Paul” models (now known by a different name), which incorporated a host of refinements to their manufacturing process and guitar-building techniques—not to mention, advancements in electronic components—that the company developed throughout the course of the 1950s, in the years leading up to the new “Les Paul” body shape introduced in 1961.
Representing, perhaps, the highest pinnacle at the height of Gibson’s “Golden Era,” the new, totally redesigned “SG Les Paul” model Gibson introduced in 1961 left an indelible impression on all who laid eyes on it forever after. But, with its thin, lightweight, beveled body—plus two florentine cutaways that gave unprecedented access to the upper frets—the “SG Les Paul” design was so decidedly different from the Les Pauls that came before it that, by 1964, Gibson dropped the “Les Paul” moniker, and the new shape became known simply as the Gibson “Solid Guitar”; or, more commonly, the Gibson SG.
According to Gibson, the “SG Les Paul” shape first introduced in 1961 has since become the brand’s top-selling body shape. Of course, it was only about five years later that a few now-renowned British blues guitarists gravitated to the famous burst Les Paul Standard single-cutaway models the Kalamazoo factory produced from 1958-1960—eventually, making the 1,500-or-so burst Les Pauls into the highest-grossing vintage guitars on the planet, today (second only to the Gibson Korina Flying V made in the same years).
However, the fact remains that the burst Les Pauls were introduced when sales of the Les Paul Standard had slumped—so much so that Gibson president Ted McCarty introduced the new colorful burst finishes in hopes of regaining momentum for the Les Paul Standard models sold from 1952-1957.
But, by 1960, McCarty had to make some difficult production-line decisions in order to fund a major expansion of the Gibson factory that was built to house the manufacturing of other, newer Gibson solidbody guitar designs—like the Flying V, the Explorer, and the Firebird models, all of which also went into production during McCarty’s tenure.*
That same year, perhaps the most resounding decision McCarty made during Gibson’s Golden Era was to cease production of the now-iconic single-cutaway Les Pauls, and then completely overhaul the idea of the Gibson Les Paul solid-body design—although, the company retained the Les Paul name until the end of the 10-year partnership with its namesake designer.
*[For another McCarty-era Gibson body shape design from its Golden Era that waited 65 years before it saw the light of day, see CME’s Introducing | Gibson Theodore.]
To make matters opaque from the start, the first guitars to be labeled “SG” were actually double-cutaway versions of the Les Paul Special and Les Paul TV, which debuted in 1959—with “TV” being the separate name Gibson gave to its Les Paul Junior models featuring the classic TV White finish—more than likely, as an overt allusion to the “telecasting” guitars, often seen in Blonde and Butterscotch finishes, that the Les Paul TV model was designed to compete with, directly.
But, then, in 1960, Gibson discretely stopped imprinting the Les Paul signature on the headstock of what had (in 1959) been the Les Paul Special and Les Paul TV double-cutaway design—which otherwise look identical to the Les Paul Special and Les Paul TV of the previous year—leaving the 1960 versions of these models’ headstocks blank. However, maybe the single most confusing part of this whole quiet renaming effort of both guitars is that it did not extend to its Les Paul Junior model from the same year (1960), which featured the same rounded double-cutaway body shape as the renamed 1960 SG Special and SG TV.**
In what might seem to have been an effort to further set Gibson’s 1960 double-cutaway Special and TV models outside the Les Paul guitar line, which included the 1960 Les Paul Standard (burst) and Custom (black) models, Gibson labeled the Special and TV models “SG Special” and “SG TV,” respectively, in the 1960 Gibson guitar catalog, using what had simply been an internal factory designation that Gibson used to denote “solid guitars.”
As the story goes, it was the 1960 “SG Special” double-cutaway body design—by then, no longer named the “Les Paul Special,” as it was in 1959—which McCarty reportedly appointed Gibson factory engineer Larry Allers to completely redesign in 1960.
**[Despite both models’ obvious design similarities and origins, for all intents and purposes, a vintage 1960 SG TV could be thought of as a “1960 Les Paul Junior in TV White”—which the manufacturer has named certain reissues for the 1960 SG TV double-cutaway model, presumably so as not to create further confusion regarding the SG name. The fact remains that, historically, the otherwise identical Gibson 1960 Les Paul Junior and Gibson 1960 SG TV had different finishes that year, and as a result, they were given different names, altogether—the discovery of which fact turns out, admittedly, to be the source of much chagrin, even among guitar experts.]
Whether or not Allers was solely responsible for it, the now-iconic “SG Les Paul” body shape may have been inspired by Gibson’s “Double-12,” with its at-the-time highly unusual double Florentine–cutaway body design.***
Regardless of whoever designed the SG body shapes, and whatever designs may have led up to its inception, Gibson used the new, aesthetically arresting design on all “SG Les Paul” Standard, Custom, Special, and Junior models between 1961 and 1963. And, by 1964, after Les Paul had declined to renew his endorsement deal with Gibson, the Les Paul name was dropped from the both belittled and beloved—yet, inarguably recognizable—Gibson body shape, and it became officially known as the “SG” that we, especially here at CME, know and love today!
***[A lesser-known 1957 Gibson semi-hollowbody also designed during Ted McCarty’s tenure in Gibson’s golden era, which design later morphed into the solidbody Gibson EDS-1275 introduced in the 1960s (following the SG). This later ‘60s version of the “Double-12” most clearly resembles what was then known as the “SG Les Paul” shape.]
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CME Guitar Expert & SG Specialist Gives His Take On All The Different SG’s Now Offered At CME
When you walk into CME’s Lincoln Avenue showroom, the first thing most eyes are drawn to is the wall full of Gibson Les Paul and SG guitars. After ogling all the ones that catch your eye, if you get the itch to pull one off and play it, most days you’ll also find CME’s Gibson Guitar Expert and SG Specialist, Geoff Tinta, to the right of the guitar wall, ready to answer any questions you may have regarding CME’s always-extensive collection.
Having, himself, had the unique experience of learning to play on what could very well be the coolest guitar ever designed for student players, alongside a few other well-known vintage guitars of the day, Geoff has earned a reputation as CME’s go-to resource for all questions related to Gibson guitars—especially, for questions related to SGs.
“My first guitar was a ‘63 SG TV,” Geoff said. “That guitar is what got me to where I am right now. Not just because it was a really good one that had been passed down to me from my dad; but also because it was always a conversation piece, which led me down a path to wondering why my dad chose that particular guitar. Eventually, that led to an interest in musical equipment—to the point where, here I am, now, still selling them, and buying them.”
Another unique qualification for a guitarist learning to play, Geoff progressed to professional-grade vintage editions of the SG models Gibson purposefully designed to be “step-up” guitars from the Junior/TV models—first with Special and Standard models of the SG, then onto using many of the vintage and premium SGs CME has to offer, while continuing down his own musical path.
From his ’63 SG TV, to a ’65 SG Special, to a ’69 SG Standard, then onward and upward into the world of guitars, he learned the unique tonal flavors and functionalities of each SG alongside other vintage guitar models of the same era and was able compare/contrast tonal characteristics to gradually find those that matched his own musical sensibilities as he grew up with his guitar collection.
Interview With Geoff Tinta:
Q: Why did you gravitate toward the Gibson SG body shape when you started playing?
GT: When you’re 14 and practicing guitar a lot, in general, you sit down quite a bit, and the ergonomics make playing the SG comfortable while playing and sitting. But even while standing up, the SG has such a thin body profile that it was almost like not even really having a guitar! My picking arm just naturally hung down to where I picked the strings.
When you’re learning to play, if you have the option, you choose the guitar that you know is more comfortable to play; and the contours of the SG just made it effortless to play. Plus, with an SG, it’s like having nothing but neck—since there’s nothing in the way, all the way up to the 22nd fret, where the neck joins the body. So, if you’re practicing scales, you can go all the way up and down the entire neck!
Another benefit of the SG is that the neck is super quick, with a slimmer profile than the earlier Les Paul models—but it still gives the player something to hold onto, whereas some more modern “fast-playing” guitar models have neck profiles that almost seem paper-thin.
Q: What about the ‘63 SG TV in particular made you choose it over others?
GT: When you’re 14 and you grab a guitar with a couple of tone knobs and a five-way selector switch—I’m not even sure a new guitar player knows what to do with all that. Electronically speaking, the SG TV (and Junior) just has one volume knob you can turn up for more gain, or turn down to clean it up; or, if you want to darken the tone, just one knob you can roll back.
Another thing that any new player has to learn is: how to restring their guitar. The SG TV gives new players the ability to restring a guitar that doesn’t have a floating bridge, where you end up changing the guitar’s setup every time you change strings. Plus, the first lesson you learn is to never take all the strings off at once—or else, the tailpiece and bridge will fall off.
Q: Are there notable tonal differences between a dog-ear vs. soapbar P-90 pickups?
GT: Maybe because I started off on the SG TV, I’ve always believed that single-coil pickups are more unique. As in, if you took 10 single-coil pickups, they’d all sound slightly different—whereas, if you take 10 humbuckers they sound virtually the same. So, I think, with P-90 pickups, in general, you get a little more sonic variety among them, individually.
One of the other reasons I kept going to the SG TV was that I’d started playing in punk bands, and I thought P-90s were cool—especially comparing them to other guitars with single-coil pickups, which I found they sounded too thin in the mix when I was playing punk music. But then I pulled out the SG Junior, and went “Whoa, this thing is screaming! It’s dark and dirty and nasty,” and it was everything I wanted at the time.
Q: What are some differences you notice between the different SG models?
GT: I went to a vintage ‘65 SG Special, which I still have. I figured, if one P-90 is good, two P-90s are going to smoke!
At first, truthfully, I thought having the additional neck position soapbar P-90 pickup almost took away from the experience I’d had using ‘63 SG TV’s single dog-ear P-90. I had been super excited, since I had gotten the guitar body without any pickups in it, then took some vintage P-90s I had, and had had some fun installing pickups on a guitar for the first time. But, when I started playing it, I was like, “I don’t like how this neck pickup sounds, so what’s the point of having it?”
Then I went through two or three vintage neck pickups, trying different all the vintage soapbar neck pickups I could find, and they sounded dark and muddy, and had no flavor at all. Eventually, I bought a Seymour Duncan Antiquity pickup that I put in the neck. I don’t know if it was exactly what I was looking for, at the time—but, I found it was twice as good as any of the vintage ones I had. It’s still in there to this day.
My only problem—and this is how naive I was, at the time—I used the pickguard as a kind of a soldering tray. So there are little scratches from the soldering iron and you see little burn circles from where the beads fell. My level of respect for the instrument was not where it should have been. But, two or three months later, after reading about the ‘63 SG TV, I realized that this guitar is pretty special, since it was they only made it that way for three years, during the Golden Era for the Junior model. So, that’s when I learned I should stop messing with my vintage guitars.
Q: Where do you start with CME Customers when helping them find their ideal SG?
GT: First, I have to know what guitar they play, already? We’re all influenced by objects we own and use—whether it’s your vehicle, your clothes, or your guitar. But my next question is always, “What music do you listen to?” If you tell me you listen to a lot of Led Zeppelin, the Les Paul is going to come up in that conversation.
Maybe you tell me you’re a big fan of The Who. In that case, I might lean toward a Special, because that’s what Pete Townsend played. If you’re a Door’s fan, a Standard might be a good choice. Or if you’re a Zappa fan, maybe you want one of the weird ‘70s versions. Or, they might mention Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Santana—the SG should always be part of that conversation, too, even if they’re not necessarily known for playing an SG (at least not in the way you might think of Angus Young or Tony Iommi).
For myself, when I was probably six years old, I found a vinyl with the label ripped off, and “Hello, I Love You” came out of the stereo speakers. Although, I had no idea what it was, at the time—I remember thinking, “This is fantastic!” Even early on, I associated the SG with The Doors’ guitarist, Robby Kreeger; and I also always associated The Doors with punk rock. Fast forward—that’s the music that I got really into playing. I had my SGs, but I also had a couple other guitars by then, but I saw that Robby Kreeger was playing an SG.
Q: How do you help customers navigate their potential preferences for pickup sounds?
GT: Beyond, the music they listen to, choosing the right SG is going to come back to tonal preferences: Do you want the unique single-coil sound of a P-90? Because, they would then also have to consider that P-90s come with more noise—which they might not want. So you might want that hum-canceling of the humbuckers on an SG Standard. The question is: do you want that, dirty grittiness of the noisier pickup; or something clean and a little bit more refined?
If they decide on the P-90, the next question is whether they want a little more growl, which they get out of a soapbar pickup on the SG Special, because the pickup is screwed directly into the guitar—whereas the dog-ear pickup has an added metal plate they use to mount the pickup, giving the dog-ear pickup more chime, offering more tonal versatility than they might expect from a single-pickup guitar.
Q: Among all the SG options available, what else do you consider when pairing a person with their perfect SG?
GT: Of course, for customers that come in looking for the highest quality guitars that Gibson offers, I point them towards our Gibson Custom Shop SGs.
For buyers looking for high-quality recreations of vintage-era models, made to look like the originals, Murphy Labs offers everything from ultra-light to ultra-heavy aging. Plus, CME customers can even request one painted by Tom Murphy, himself!
When it comes to sound, I might point to our CME Spec editions, since—unlike most of the guitars that come out of Gibson Custom Shop—CME Spec SG have Burstbucker pickups, which we ordered 10-percent underwound. But, also, we take it up a notch because, when you get CME Spec edition, you know that guitar features woods that we here at CME spec’d, ourselves, in collaboration with the Gibson Custom Shop—everything from the wood filler, to the finish, to the aging, to the knobs we chose.
Also, with CME Spec SG, you get a unique guitar that you may have already had a vision for—but, if you were to order it from Gibson, it would be at least 2-3 years before you’d get it. That’s why we design them that way, ahead of time, for our customers. We’re SG fans, so we’re all thinking a lot of the same things about what we want to see when we get a guitar like this—and that’s what our customers want to see.
That way, any customer that was thinking the same thing and sees that same vision embodied in a guitar hanging on the wall at CME can cut out any potential wait time from Gibson!
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