Les Paul, Les Paul, Les Paul!

It’s weird how some guy’s name is now a guitar. I just jokingly posted on FB that after reading “The Beauty of the Burst“, a book about the specific Gibson Les Paul Standard models made between 1958 and 1960, I decided that I liked them and that I would like to have one.

The joke is that they are rare and extremely coveted instruments, and cost over $100,000 each nowadays. So, I’ll just put that on the back burner for a while.

There are many places on the internet that you can read about them, of course,  ( http://www.lespaulforum.com/ for example ) but I bet every person who listens to rock music knows the Les Paul, as much as the Stratocaster. Besides the fact that Gibson only made about 1500 of these guitars between 1958 and 1960 that had the lovely maple tops with a “sunburst” paint scheme (most before 1960 have lost the fugitive red color before they switched the composition of the paint), they are basically handcrafted, individual and sound amazing. So, most of the famous guitarists used them, or still use them, and by association they have become collector’s items as well.

Gibson stopped making them in 1960, in favor their SG model (the one with the horns, that Looks like the devil? That one guaranteed instant rock, I guess) as the old model hadn’t sold so well. They were a bit heavy and relatively expensive (like $350 at the time). In 1968 they started making the black custom model again, and then a gold topped deluxe, then finally about 1972 they started making the sunburst maple tops again, but they didn’t give them the same full-size pickups officially until they restarted the Standard model in 1975. (Which I find very odd, as Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin was extremely famous for his ’58 and ’59 Les Pauls since 1970, I mean even Paul McCartney name checked him+guitar in “Rock Show” from the Venus and Mars album, which came out in 1975! …McCartney himself, by the way, is an owner of a rare left-handed 1960 Les Paul Standard.)

Hendrix was really the only major rock guitarist who never used an old Les Paul, strangely*. I have seen films where he plays a 1961 or so SG Custom (which were still called Les Pauls, for a couple years there. Some contract about using his name or whatever.) And it does seem like the guys that made big changes in guitar playing in rock in the 60s were blues-rock players, but like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Joe Walsh, Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons… the Les Paul Standard was a pretty well known model to guitar enthusiasts. Then people like Joe Perry and Brad Whitford used them. Now Slash owns a ton of them (including Joe Perry’s old one).

*Oh, I lied, he did use a Les Paul, but apparently it’s a ’55 Custom.

I was heavily into Led Zeppelin in the late 1970s. I discovered them in 6th grade, when I was living in Tucson, part of my metal awakening. I was a loner kid most of that year, so I’d walk down 4th Avenue after school and stop in the record stores, where the clerks would recommend things to me that weren’t the Beatles. I guess I must have been as much into Hendrix and Pink Floyd, because I started playing Stratocasters and kept with it for years. I did want a Les Paul: I found some old Christmas wish lists in the process of moving, one was 1978 (I believe) that had on it “The 25/50 Anniversary Gibson Les Paul” which came out in 1979. You had to order it from the factory. (I didn’t get it.) (Also on this list were tickets to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Winterland for New Years, also did not get.)

So I was basically a Stratocaster player for years. It took me that long to understand how to play a Stratocaster! I went through a lot of stages, getting into different pickup use, or using the out-of-phase pickup settings, getting into using different pedals. Plus, of course, most of my musical career has been playing violin, cuz everybody is already a guitar player. In the 1980s I played Rickenbackers in Camper Van Beethoven, the other guys already played Stratocasters, I reasoned. I didn’t step out into my Stratocaster-persona until 1989 or so, when we played shows supporting my Storytelling record, at which I actually played a 1982 ’57 Strat reissue owned by Victor.

During the 1990s in Hieronymus Firebrain, Jack & Jill, playing with Clyde Wrenn or Sparklehorse or on my own, I played the Stratocaster (the one named Honey, in fact.) I settled into a sort of method of use that involved using an Ibanez Tube Screamer as a primary overdrive pedal, which despite its histrionic name isn’t that powerful, and then a Rat box as a distortion pedal for lead playing. I usually used the middle pickup (it’s *just right*) and switch to neck with tone rolled off for some lead stuff, to move from that through middle to bridge pickup only when necessary to go over the top. This has expanded further of course since then, and I use the tone and volume controls even more now (as you can see in any of the videos of recent shows) but what I didn’t do at the time was to directly emulate Mr Jim Campilongo, whom I took lessons from in the mid-90s, which is to say: turn the amp all the way up and then use only the guitar’s knobs to control the sound. This may have been because I was using a Deluxe Reverb (or a Vox AC-30 with Sparklehorse) and that’s pretty loud for where we played. Or practicing at home. I mean, I think… But then, then I got a Princeton Reverb.  So then I started practicing at home and realized the lovely control and tone that one gets by using the amp, and controlling the amount of overdrive and brightness via the tone and volume controls. Wow.

Victor had a Les Paul. He got an early ’70s gold top deluxe and put P-90s in it. That guitar rocks. So much so that at shows we did, certain fans would yell out “Les Paul, Les Paul!” He played it in his bands in the 1990s, and I guess liked it so much that he got a Peter Green model reissue more recently.

Anyway, sometime around the early 2000s I thought I should branch out and I bought a 1993 Les Paul Special, it was some special edition guitar, numbered #87 of 300, a dark cherry colored slab bodied double cutaway, a model that Gibson made for the bargain line of products back in the late 50s. It had P-90 pickups, they were extremely strong: where Stratocaster pickups have about 5-6kOhms of resistance, the P-90s had 8 or 9kOhms. This translates to how much signal goes out of the magnetic coil of the pickup and hits the preamp of the amplifier, so the Gibsons tend to overdrive an amp more easily.

#87 of 300. Whatever that means.

The Les Paul Special was mostly neck. I think it has neck exposed from the body for 21 of its 22 frets. It was odd to get used to, you would think you were putting your hands at the 7th fret and then discover it was the 12th or 15th. It had a good sound,

Though, I only used it at a few shows, and mostly used it to record slide parts on Honey. I ended up selling it (again: I regret selling any instrument I have ever sold!) in 2009 in a stretch of paucity.

My experience with this guitar, however, had managed to expand my palette. I realized right off the bat that the higher output pickups could be used more with the guitar’s controls to add a variety of tones, and as I was re-awakening to the guitar music of the 60s and 70s that had caused me to get into the whole rock music thing altogether (due to being slapped in the face by having my Stratocaster stolen in 2004), I started listening to such things as Led Zeppelin with a different ear. And I watched the films of them that were released on DVD.

Jimmy Page may be a sloppy guitarist, but so am I, and that never stopped him. I see now that he used the big amps a lot to provide the headroom so that he could use all levels of the output of his Les Pauls. When the amp has that much power, or you use an overdrive pedal, you can dial back a Les Paul’s volume to make it clean, and then add as much overdrive as you want with the volume control. Similarly, with a pedal in front of the amp, you can dial back the tone on a pickup, cutting the treble, and since the pickup has so much output it won’t go entirely dark. This is what Eric Clapton described as the “woman tone”, a name which has unfortunately stuck, where an overdriven amp is played with a fat pickup (he used SGs after the Les Paul) that has the tone dialed back. He used that a bunch in the band Cream.

I was playing my Gretsch Double Anniversary a bunch in Victor’s band McCabe & Mrs Miller, trying to be somewhat authentically rockabilly or country. This guitar has a couple flick-switches at the top that enable capacitors with resistors directly into the circuit outside of the knobs, one cut treble, the other cut bass. I used them a bunch, but started considering the idea of a “real” Les Paul as well. I finally got one in 2007. And no, it’s not a “real” one in the way a 1959 or so Les Paul would be, but it’s sort of close. It was made in 1973, before the Standard model was officially in the Gibson catalog again, when having full sized humbucker pickups was a special order option for the Deluxe model. It came from the factory as a Standard, cherry sunburst like the 1960 model. There are several things different about this era of Gibson of course. It is before they started making instruments in Nashville, so it was still made in Kalamazoo, MI, and it was before they made the necks out of maple, so the neck is mahogany, but the manufacturing process is very different. For one, where the original Les Pauls were one piece of mahogany for the body and one piece for the neck, and the maple top was a center-seamed (often book-matched) two piece arrangement, by the 1970s, they made what is called a “pancake” body, where there are two thinner slabs of mahogany with a very thin slice of maple between them, and the neck is three strips of mahogany glued together, and worst of all: the maple top is three pieces. Why on earth did they make a three piece top? Who out there thinks this is prettier than a center seamed two piece top? Anybody?

Anyway, the guitar is pretty nice regardless. It sounds much like an old Les Paul. There’s a bunch of pics of it here. The neck is actually thinner than any other Les Paul I have played, and it has a repaired headstock crack, as is very common for these guitars. They’re much more fragile than Fenders!

1973 Les Paul.

It has taken me several years, though, to learn how to get what I want from it. The range of tone is immense. I feel like the Les Paul is hard to use as an all around guitar, it has a lot to offer as a lead guitar but you have to have time to make adjustments to the tone and volume controls while you are playing. Not all kinds of music let you do that. I have played several shows with it now, and done a lot of recording, and it’s getting there. I’ve been really enjoying playing it straight into the Princeton Reverb, and have used it for several songs on All Attractions and Apricot Jam. For example, this is the lead instrument on “Listen“, and on “Singularity” the guitar solo goes back and forth each time through the chords, Les Paul, Strat, Les Paul, Strat. In the Apricot Jam session, I only used it on I Heart My Doghead, though I did use it for some further overdubs, and it appears in the “straight-into-the-princeton” mode in “Cloud“.

1973 Gibson Les Paul Standard

 

I actually found one other Les Paul recently before leaving the US, a 1979 “The Paul” model, which is an odd bird, but it only cost $500. While all of our stuff was in transit to Sweden or in storage when it arrived, I had this guitar out and played it all summer. It’s very cool. In fact, I think it’s amazing. This model is highly undervalued, I mean $500?

The walnut Paul

“The Paul” models were made in 1978 and 79, they are slab-bodied, like the Les Paul Special model, but made entirely out of walnut, with an ebony fretboard. It it truly one of the most solid feeling guitars I have ever played. Mine had had the pickups replaced, it has a Seymour Duncan “Pearly Gates” (which emulates Billy Gibbons’ 1958 Les Paul Standard’s pickups) for the bridge, and a Duncan ’59 in the neck. Lots of range in tonal control, I really enjoyed playing it all summer through the Princeton (though my Princeton has its original power transformer, and so I’ve been using a step-down AC transformer to get the American voltage to it here in Sweden and it’s not the same! The amp liked its 117v or whatever it got in Oakland, here, we have 220v, which is stepped down to 110v, and I hear the difference. Somebody told me that that 7v translates to a bunch of potential decibels, but it’s more than that, the entire spectrum is different, slightly. Annoying! I’m considering changing out the transformer, but a good replacement is $200.)

Anyway, “The Paul” was some cheapo thing that Gibson made for a couple years, then switched it to some other cheapo model. I remember them being in the guitar store when I was in high school, and I sort of thought they were cool and played them there, but had entirely forgotten about this model. Now I love it. It’s actually a little easier to play then my Standard (which probably needs new frets.)

One day I’d like to get a reissue of a ’59 or ’60 Les Paul Standard with a nice flamed maple top, maybe a darker burst one… or an old one, of course, but the reissues themselves are fucking expensive. Plus, I have to admit, I cannot figure out the different models at all. Have you ever looked at the Gibson website?

WTF?

I did get to play a 1960 Les Paul Standard at the Chicago Music Exchange in January of last year (2011), when Camper and Cracker played an in-store there… it was much lighter than any other I have ever picked up, very resonant, and the pickups were simply incredible sounding. So I guess maybe it is worth the quarter million dollars. Maybe.

1960 Les Paul worth more than my life.

1960 Les Paul worth more than my life.

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Posted in Guitar, Music
3 comments on “Les Paul, Les Paul, Les Paul!
  1. Ha ha I was one of those fans who used to yell out “Les Paul, Les Paul!” Love the sound.

  2. […] and dissonant Marc Ribot-style stuff for a while. For the third try I switched from Stratocaster to Les Paul, and still it was a slow build, though this one went more like Quicksilver Messenger Service […]

  3. […] particular summer, I had a lot to work with, so I brought my Stratocaster, Les Paul, an old Fender lap steel, a fretless Fender Musicmaster bass, a violin, my Princeton Reverb and […]

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