The Les Paul is one of the most iconic electric guitars in music history. Even those not interested in guitar know of its distinctive sound, look, and feel. While Gibson has produced many legendary designs over the years, none have elevated it to quite the same level as its signature axe. The Les Paul has been played by countless legends, from Jimmy Page to Slash, and has inspired many other manufacturers’ own takes on the double-cut, solid body electric guitar. Despite an illustrious history of some of music’s biggest names playing them, though, Gibson Les Pauls had more humble beginnings.
The original idea for what would become one of the world’s most iconic guitars came about in 1941, while its namesake, Lester William Polsfuss (a.k.a. Les Paul), was working as a session musician and experimenting with guitar design ideas of his own. He approached Gibson Guitar Corporation with an idea for a solid body electric guitar, which they at first refused because they thought it wouldn’t resonate well and would be too heavy. Paul did not give up on his idea, though, and continued to develop the design while maintaining his status as a Gibson session musician. He even put together makeshift versions of the guitar he had envisioned. He was still with the company in 1950 when they finally decided to take him up on his idea.
A prototype of the Les Paul was developed in 1950, which is now referred to as “The Log.” It had a 6″ long body hand-carved from solid mahogany wood and only had one pickup. The neck itself was not set into the body but rather bolted on, similar to how some modern day guitars are constructed. It also had an exaggerated “M” shape, similar to the popular Gibson Flying V guitar. After seeing this design and hearing it played, company president Ted McCarty decided to scrap the now-dated looking guitar for something more modern (though no one knows exactly what happened to The Log). Paul continued on with his experiments throughout that year.
An Les Paul Standard was made with a thinner body, two pickups instead of one, and a traditional neck-thru design in 1952. The strings went over the pickup so it could have an anchor to rest on. The guitar would remain very similar to this design throughout its entire history up until 1958 when the trapeze tailpiece was replaced by a stopbar. This is the guitar that would eventually be played by many of the greats (including Paul himself) during its early days and would go on to create some of rock ‘n’ roll’s most iconic riffs.
The Les Paul Standard was in production until 1960, when it was replaced by the SG body style with humbucker pickups in the tradition of Gibson’s Explorer model. It was intended to be a more modern, streamlined version of the Les Paul Standard with less ornamentation and a bit more edge. This decision didn’t sit well with many players who preferred the original style, though, and only one year later they launched what would become popularly known as the “Burst.” It had all the original features of the Les Paul Standard but boasted a figured maple top. The most famous Burst is now owned by Slash and is called “The Beast.”
Today, the Les Paul has gone through many changes with different models being launched throughout the years under various guises (such as the Anniversary model in 1983 to commemorate 50 years of the Les Paul, which consisted of 100 limited edition guitars with necks made of ebony and tops made of figured maple). There are many different variations on the theme, but some features have remained constant throughout its history: solid mahogany body, set neck design (with some newer models having glued-in necks), two humbucking pickups, tune-o-matic bridge, stopbar tailpiece, and many different finishes.
Perhaps most important about this guitar is the fact that it has been played by some of the greatest musicians in history who have used it to create iconic music. Some artists early on include Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Durham, and others. It was favored by Bob Marley, Duane Allman, Peter Green, Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton (who is largely credited with bringing it to the mainstream), Jimmy Page, Brad Whitford from Aerosmith, Dave Davies of The Kinks, and many more.
Today people are still drawn to the Les Paul, whether it be for its historical value in rock ‘n’ roll music or the fact that it is simply a guitar with great tone. It’s truly one of the classic vintage guitars that has ever been created.