Les Paul guitars are a series of iconic solid-body electric guitars manufactured by Gibson Brands, Inc., formerly known as Gibson Guitar Corporation (GGC), a leading guitar manufacturing company in the United States. In 1952, the company teamed up with the genius recording artist Les Paul, the man the guitars are named after, to design and launch their solid-body electric guitars in response to competition from Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC), another guitar manufacturing giant from the United States. But the guitars went beyond mere response to competition and became not only one of the most popular guitars in the world of music but also an important part of GGC’s brand identity.
Before solid-body electric guitars were developed, the instruments had only come as far as relying on a hollow body to amplify sound, and the sound was not very loud despite being connected to an amplifier. This was a problem because the sound of these guitars couldn’t be heard over other instruments in a band, as nobody had yet come up with a way to make the guitars sound loud while also making them sound good.
What Makes Solid-body Electric Guitars Sound Loud?
Solid-body electric guitars are built with a thick slab of wood. Sound is produced through electromagnetic pickups and any hollow spaces in the body of the guitar hold the electronic hardware to help amplify the sound. This also makes them heavier than other guitars.
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This is How It All Began
This is what drove Les Paul, considered the inventor of the solid-body guitar, to create an instrument that would sound loud and become a favorite among music artists. The legendary guitarist and innovator was led to construct these iconic guitars by a note that was handed to him one night by a fan after a live performance. It read, “I could hear your voice fine. I could hear your harmonica fine. … I couldn’t hear your guitar.”1To Les Paul, this feedback meant that there had to be a way to amplify the sound and make the guitar sound loud while still retaining the sound quality at such volumes.
From “The Log” to “The Les Paul Model”
Les Paul immediately began working on the idea around 1941 with Epiphone and built a prototype called “The Log.” As the name suggests, it was a crude representation of his solution and was built out of a four-inch slab of pinewood. He then presented this prototype to GGC, but they weren’t impressed nor sold on the idea at this point, although they later began building their own version and started working with the artist to develop the instrument due to market pressures. It took a decade of experimentation before the concept became a product called “The Les Paul Model,” the first market-ready solid-body electric guitar by GGC.
Les Paul’s solid-body electric guitar prototype, “The Log” is still perfectly preserved at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
A Small Loss for Gibson, a Big Win for Les Paul
By the time Les Paul had developed his production model with GGC in 1952, FMIC had already introduced their solid-body electric guitar, “Fender Broadcaster,” four years earlier. This was when Ted McCarty, president of GGC back then, reconsidered working on developing a solid body guitar and enlisted the artist and innovator, Les Paul to help them build a quality instrument that was equally good.
Although FMIC took credit for the first commercially-produced solid-body guitar, Les Paul was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005 as the man who revolutionized the world of popular music with the introduction of the solid-body electric guitar to the world of music. And before this, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, making him the only person to be inducted by both these organizations.
The Resurrection of Les Paul Guitars
During the 1960s, GGC stopped production of the Les Paul guitars for nearly a decade. The guitars were being designed and produced mostly for bands that played jazz, blues, and country music. The traditional make of the guitars was not appealing to the young artists whose musical tastes were shifting to rock and surf music. Moreover, GGC had not changed much about the guitars since their launch and felt it was better to stop the supply since they were not relevant to the market. This is when the Les Paul guitars ceased to exist. For a while, before they came back in style with a vengeance.
The comeback was triggered by many artists such as Jeff Beck, Michael Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Peter Green, and Keith Richard in the late 1960s. These artists saw the value of the classic tone of the Les Paul guitars and proved its worth through their music. GGC then decided to reintroduce the guitars in response to this growing love and respect for the original “Les Paul” sound quality.
Les Paul Guitars – Then and Now
With the immensely creative and innovative artist Les Paul under their wing, the GGC brand had become synonymous with solid-body electric guitars. But the real value of the Les Paul tone was revealed when Eric Clapton connected his Gibson Les Paul Sunburst to a Marshall amplifier for the first time during a recording. It was the catalyst for its resurrection during the 1960s.
Gibson Les Paul guitars since then have made an appearance in the hands of artists from almost all genres. The versatile instruments were used by a long list of artists like Jimmy Page, Gary Moore, Slash, Joe Perry, Peter Frampton, Mike Bloomfield, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Ace Frehley, Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, George Harrison, Paul Kossoff, and Marc Bolan. Some of them also had their customized models designed by the company.
Most professional musicians today also retain these iconic guitars as a part of their permanent guitar collection. Music artists use and own several guitars throughout their careers. Among these, guitars from one or two brands are the preferred choice for most of their performances. Gibson Les Paul guitars are usually one of the preferred choices as they can be used to play almost any genre of music.
Also, the early Gibson Les Pauls, such as the 1958–59 Gibson Explorer, the 1958–60 Gibson Les Paul Standard, the 1958–59 Gibson Flying V, the 1958–60 Sunburst Les Paul, and several other models from roughly between 1950 and 1965, aka the Golden Age of Gibsons, have become valuable, sought-after antiques today.
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- CBS News. (2021, October 17). A “perfect rock ‘n’ roll machine”: Les Paul’s crowning achievement. Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/les-paul-gibson-goldtop-electric-guitar/