Vintage Guitar - October 2017 - open - 42

BY GEORGE GRUHN
AND STAFF

I

t may be difficult to imagine now, but Gibson's original Les Paul was
only a modest success.

VINTAGE GUITAR

42

October 2017

Photos by William Ritter. Instrument courtesy of Gruhn Guitars.

DOUBLE
TIME
The Les Paul Becomes The SG

Introduced in 1952, the Gibson Les
Paul Model (a.k.a. goldtop) reached
peak production in '53, when 2,245
were shipped before sales failed to meet
expectations and subsequent production
totals were adjusted downward. Gibson
introduced the "black beauty" Les Paul
Custom in late 1953, but the reception
was similar and its sales peaked in '55.
The plainer/cheaper Les Paul Special did
no better. In fact, the lone exception was
the basic, stripped-down, one-pickup
Junior, introduced in '54 to relatively
good sales likely because its price was
much lower.
Gibson's next move to breathe life into
the Les Paul line came in '57, when the
Custom and the goldtop Les Paul Model
were among the first guitars to get Seth
Lover's newly designed "humbucking"
pickup, which offered low-noise output
and the inherent quality of cancelling
60-cycle hum that plagued performers in many live settings. The pickup
produced a strong midrange tone that,
unfortunately, didn't find a ready use at
the time - blues-based rock was a decade
in the future and among electric-blues
players in south Chicago whose style
and sound could've put them to good
use, few could afford a Les Paul. In
the broader market of the late '50s,
the rapidly growing surf music was
based on bright, twangy single-coil
pickups; Les Pauls were neither
bright nor twangy.
In August of '58, Gibson ditched
the Les Paul Model's gold top in favor
of a "sunburst" finish intended to imply "upscale." An internal memo from
that December makes a telling statement:
"In the future, all Les Paul guitars will be
shipped in cherry sunburst finish - there
will be no increase in price." This was
not followed by aggressive promotion,
and sunburst was not mentioned in the
company's '58 or '59 catalogs.
By the late '50s, the market for solidbody electrics had become crowded.
Fender expanded beyond its Telecaster,
Esquire, and Stratocaster with the DuoSonic in '56 and the Jazzmaster in '58.
Gretsch premiered its Jet series in '54,
and while not true solidbodies, they were
aimed at the same players.
Aside from subjective preferences
about how one guitar played or sounded
compared to another, working guitarists
talked about how Fenders and Gretsches
were so much lighter than a Les Paul.
While the difference was not extreme,


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Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Vintage Guitar - October 2017 - open

Contents
Vintage Guitar - October 2017 - open - Cover
Vintage Guitar - October 2017 - open - IFC
Vintage Guitar - October 2017 - open - 3
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