Orville H. Gibson was born in 1856 on a farm near the small town of in Chateaugay, New York. Orville’s father, was an immigrant of England and his mother Amy was from Peru, New York. He arrived in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the 1870’s. It is unclear why Orville travelled from upstate New York to Michigan, but concerns about his health and well being is possible, he may have been drawn initially to Battle Creek to seek therapy at a world-famous health spa run by Dr. John Harvey Kellog.
Orville spent his spare time handcrafting mandolins as a hobby while employed as a clerk at the A.P. Sprague’s shoe store at 118 East Main Street, and by 1893 he was working as a clerk at Butters Restaurant on 216 East Main. His day jobs were supporting his hobby building instruments.
Soon Orville began producing instruments full-time working at his one-room wood shop. With no formal training, Orville created an entirely new style of mandolin and guitar, with tops carved rather than bent, and arched like the top of a violin. Orville was a very gifted craftsman.
On May 11, 1896, Orville filed for his first and only patent. That document, U.S. Patent No. 598,245, was issued on February 1, 1898 for the construction of a mandolin with a carved top and back, and with sides that were cut from a solid piece of wood rather than being bent from thin strips. Orville’s design was more durable than other mandolins at the time, and could be more easily manufactured in volume.
In the 1890s, he creates carved top hollow body guitars with an oval sound hole that not only increased volume, it also set the standards for the future of the archtop guitar. Orville’s instruments were louder and more durable than other contemporary fretted instruments, and musicians soon demanded more than he was able to build in his one-man shop.
As demand for his instruments grew and on the strength of Orville Gibson’s ideas, The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co., Ltd was founded in 1902 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, after entering into an agreement with five Kalamazoo businessmen that financed the company.
On the afternoon of October 11, 1902, Sylvo Reams, Lewis A. Williams, LeRoy Hornbeck, John W. Adams, Samuel K. VanHorn, and Orville H. Gibson met at the County Clerk’s office to form a “Partnership Limited Association” for the “Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co., Limited.” Adams, VanHorn, and Hornbeck were lawyers practicing in Kalamazoo. Reams and Williams were both in the retail music business, and all saw the opportunity to capitalize on Orville’s creative talents.
Strangely, Orville’s name was not listed as a member of the Partnership — he was at the meeting to sell his patent rights and to formally agree to the terms and conditions of the new organization. In 1904, another agreement followed which documented the payment of $2,500 from the Partnership to Orville Gibson for the exclusive rights to his patent
Considered eccentric, a short period after the company was started, the board passed a motion that “Orville H. Gibson be paid only for the actual time he works for the Company.” After that time, there is no clear indication whether he was a full-time employee, a consultant, or just an occasional visitor to the factory.
Orville continued his arms-length association with the Company through 1907 earning most of his income from royalties. He worked on various projects as an inventor and for a period of time, was even listed in the town directory as a music teacher. Initially, the company produced only Orville Gibson’s original designs. In 1908, the Board agreed to pay Orville an annual fee of $500. The payment of $2,500 for exclusive rights to Orville’s patent, was made in installments of $41.99 per month.
Orville’s health was deteriorating during the time the Gibson Company was getting underway. Various medical records suggest that he was suffering from a chronic disease, loss of weight, and possibly a mental illness.
Orville moved back to New York State and settled in the town of Saranac Lake, where he lived at 24 Ampersand Avenue. Orville had claimed that by moving to Saranac Lake, his health improved and that his “weight from 105 pounds [when he left Kalamazoo] to 150 pounds,” much of which he attributed to healthier living and the reduction of stress caused by people and problems that plagued him when he was in Kalamazoo.
In 1911, Orville moved further north to Ogdensburg, N.Y. There he was in the care of a Dr. Madill in Franklin County. He was treated at the St. Lawrence State Hospital in Ogdensburg (about 80 miles west of Chateaugay), and discharged after eight days on August 26, 1911. He returned to the hospital in 1916 and was discharged after another six days of care. It is not known whether Orville ever returned to Kalamazoo, his instrument work, or the company that bore his name during the period of 1911 to 1918.
Orville Gibson died of endocarditis (inflammation of the inside lining of the heart chambers and valves) on August 19, 1918, at 62 years of age, in St. Lawrence State Hospital in Ogdensburg, New York. Gibson is buried at Morningside Cemetery in Malone, New York.
There is no question that Orville’s contributions was the seed that allowed for over a hundred years of great instruments that grew from his creativity. Orville’s ideas were further cultivated by numerous loyal Gibson employees who followed after Orville Gibson’s departure.
An interesting model available between 1902 and 1923 was the Gibson Style O Acoustic Archtop. Some early Gibson instruments had this “Scroll” shape incorporated into the design like an old style mandolin. The Gibson Style O guitar did play an important roll in Gibson’s history.
These Gibson guitars were considered the most prestigious guitars of their time and are known to be the base model design from which other future Gibson archtop guitars derived from. These were based on original archtop designs from Orville Gibson himself, and were actually introduced in the late 1800s.
In some ways, reminiscent to an “F” style mandolin in its appearance. The Style O was another archtop design with scroll look on the top, cutaway with an Oval sound hole with 2 inlaid wood rings, fixed bridge with pyramids at ends, single bound top & fingerboard & peghead, dot fingerboard inlays, solid peghead with large rounded top, peghead veneer with pearl inlay, friction tuning pegs, black top finish, dark mahogany back & side.
Carson J. Robison (August 4, 1890 – March 24, 1957) born in Oswego, Kansas was an American country music singer and songwriter. He played a major role in promoting country music in being one the earliest singing cowboys on the radio. In 1924 he moved to New York City and was signed to his first recording contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company. So this picture in the Gibson catalog is from quite early in his career. In the fall of 1936, Montgomery Ward catalog sold the Carson J. Robison flattop Cowboy Guitar in Sunburst. Gibson was commissioned to make these guitars for Montgomery Ward.
In 1906 slotted pegheads were added with “The Gibson” slanted logo and fingerboards were made with a round pointed end that went pass the sound hole. In 1908, the body shape changed a bit, it now had a trapeze tailpiece, a carved artistic twirl with a single pointed cutaway which likely set the stage for future legendary cutaway guitars.
The cutaway resembles the ones later used on the ES-175, L-4C and SG models for example. The Gibson Style O had a few more variations until it was discontinued in 1923. The Style O guitars resembled Gibson’s early line of “F” style mandolins which were very popular instruments during the early 20s.
The Gibson L-1 was one of the first acoustic guitars sold by the Gibson. It was an archtop with round soundhole with 2 rope pattern wood rings, single bound top, ebony fingerboard, dot fingerboard inlays, orange top finish, dark mahogany back and sides when it was introduced in 1902. In 1908, the L-1 specs had changed to a 13.5″ wide, narrower waist, trapeze tailpiece with pins anchored in tortoise celluloid plate, elavated pickguard, 13 frets clear of the body, bound fingerboard, slated “The Gibson” logo.
The L-4 was first introduced in 1911 as an acoustic “rhythm” guitar with an “oval” sound hole. Jazz guitarist Eddie Lang played a Gibson L-4 and L-5 guitar, providing great influence for many guitarists including Django Reinhardt. Perhaps, Django was attracted to those Selmer Maccaferri guitars designed by Italian guitarist and luthier Mario Maccaferri with the oval sound holes, due to this Gibson L-4 model?
Electric versions of the L-4 (known as L-4 CES) with a carved top and a florentine cutaway, were released in limited runs throughout the 1950s.
In 1912, there was no longer a pickguard, but the pickguard returned two years later in 1914. The 1918 L-1 had Sheraton brown finish. The 1920 L-1 had double 5 ply soundhole rings. The archtop L-1 was discontinued in 1925.
The L-1 was reintroduced as a flat-top guitar in 1926. The L-1 flat-top model is most famous due to the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson playing one in the only know picture of him.
In the late 90s or early 2000s, Gibson introduced the L-1 Robert Johnson acoustic guitar model, the guitar features the historic small L-series body design (25″ scale length), ebony bridge with carved pyramid wings, 3 3/4-inch soundhole diameter, and a Robert Johnson signature inlay at the end of the fingerboard.
Gibson Mastertone Banjos
Orville Gibson had little to do with the development of the Gibson banjo line. With the new popularity in banjos that was occurring at the time, Gibson wanted their fair share of that new market.
In 1917, Gibson began to work on a simple open-back banjo. Gibson’s first announcement of a banjo appeared in October 1918. It was a plain tenor model, simply promoted as a “tenor banjo.” The Golden Years for Gibson Banjos were from 1918 to 1938. The Gibson Mastertone banjo has been copied by private luthiers and commercial makers for since. Certain models bring the highest prices from collectors and for some professional bluegrass banjo players, a Mastertone is the only banjo they will play.
Many evolutionary design changes were made, but the Gibson banjo has remained basically the same from about 1938 until 1985. In that year, Gibson and Earl Scruggs brought back the design from the early years — a project which was the foundation of the Earl Scruggs model banjos now produced by Gibson.
Lloyd Loar Hired by GibsonLloyd Allayre Loar was born on January 9, 1886 in Cropsey, Illinois, a tiny farming town about 120 miles southwest of Chicago.
In 1911, Lloyd Loar began an official relationship with The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. of Kalamazoo, Michigan as a performing artist, a participant in many Gibson traveling “Gibsonians” bands, an advisor, and a music composer. By 1913, Gibson was publishing some musical arrangements that Loar had prepared for the company. Loar had ideas to improve Gibson’s mandolin construction, and it wasn’t long before Loar presented himself as a candidate for employment to Lewis Williams, one of Gibson’s original investors and stockholders.
Gibson hired designer Lloyd Loar to create newer instruments in 1919. Loar’s contributions to Gibson were considerable, including building and greatly improving the Orville Gibson instrument’s tops with F-shaped holes (instead of the round sound holes) like a violin; introducing a longer neck, thus moving the bridge closer to the center of the body; and floating the fingerboard over the top. Earlier Gibson instruments that had fingerboards glued directly to the top of the instrument.
Creating a steel-string guitar with a body constructed similar to a violin, viola or cello, where the bridge exerts no torque on the top, only pressure straight down. This allows the top to vibrate more freely, and thus produce a bit more volume. In the early 1920’s Gibson designer Lloyd Loar refined the archtop “jazz” guitar with f-holes, floating bridge and cello-type tailpiece.
In 1921, Gibson employee Ted McHugh, a woodworker who had previously sung in a group with Orville Gibson, invents two of the most important innovations in guitar history – the adjustable truss rod and the height-adjustable bridge. All Gibson instruments are still equipped with McHugh’s truss rod, and traditional jazz guitars still utilize the bridge he designed.
Gibson F-5 Mandolin and Bill Monroe
Lloyd Loar pioneered the use of the Virzi Tone Producer, a spruce wooden disc suspended from the instrument top that acts as a supplemental soundboard. The spruce disc is in the center and can vibrate freely adding a new dimension to the sound dynamics inside the instrument’s sound chamber. The sound response tends to be complex and mellow. It was principally used on violins until Lloyd Loar brought the idea and the rights to use it to use on some Gibson instruments.
Giuseppe Virzi, a Sicilian violin maker, was awarded U.S. Patent No.1,412,584 on April 11, 1922 for the Tone Producer. The patent, which was applied for in 1920, was very simple in nature and describes only the fact that one or more soundboards could be supported inside such instruments as guitars and violins. It further describes that the plates could be attached to each other with dowels, and that the plates could be arch shaped. Giuseppe Virzi’s two sons, Joseph and John had a sales office at 503 Fifth Avenue in New York City selling their violins from Italy.
Loar spent time at Gibson working on a ‘quasi-solid body’ electric double bass, and that according to several patents filed by Loar between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s, used electromagnetic pickups. Loar designed the flagship L-5 archtop guitar and the Gibson F-5 mandolin that was introduced in 1922, before leaving the company in 1924.
The F-5 model was made famous by the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Monroe played a Gibson F-5 model (serial number 73987 signed by Loyd Loar on July 9, 1923) for most all of his career. This mandolin can be viewed in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, where it now resides in their collection. It is considered priceless.
Loar also “signed” a rare subset of F-5 mandolins called Ferns, of which approximately twenty are known to exist. The name refers to the distinctive fern inlay design of the peghead. The earliest documented Fern bears the serial number 73755, dated July 9, 1923, the same signing date as Bill Monroe’s famous Loar. This is the only known Fern built without the “Virzi” Tone Producer inside the sound chamber. This particular instrument is the only known Fern dated on 9 July.
In 2007, mandolinist Chris Thile acquired 1924 Loar-signed F-5 serial # 75316 that was an exceedingly rare find, as it was in virtually new condition. It reportedly cost him around $200,000. Other well-known musicians who have owned Loar-signed F-5’s include John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin fame) serial # 75317, Mike Marshall, David McLaughlin, Tony Williamson, David Grisman, John Reischman, Tom Rozum, Frank Wakefield, and the late Joe Val serial #72207.
Only one A-style mandolin, a Gibson A-5, is known to have been signed by Loar. It has been widely copied, originally by mandolin maker Bob Givens. The Loar A5 was found by Tut Taylor and sold to a Southern California bluegrass musician in 1974.
During his years with Gibson, Loar invented a coil-style pickup for stringed instruments and first installed it in one of his violins. He extended his experiments to mandolins, the development of an electric keyboard that would always stay in tune, banjos and guitars, or, at least, one guitar — the prototype 1923 Harp Guitar.
The Lloyd Loar-built Gibson Electric Harp Guitar in 1923 in an attempt to interest the Gibson Company and its investors in mass producing electric instruments, including electric mandolins and keyboards. Although Harp Guitars were fairly common in the 1920s, this is the only electric model built. The pickup assembly — an electro-static design that Loar developed — is housed in a dovetailed box that slides under the bridge.
Loar was unable to convince the Gibson Company and its bankers that there was a market to justify the mass production of these electric instruments. Gibson’s general manager Lewis Williams was replaced, and a lack of amicable relations with the new manager, an accountant named Guy Hart—led to the termination of Loar’s contract with the company that expired in 1924. Loar left in order to continue his R&D in amplification.
After leaving Gibson, Loar created and patented an electric instrument with a coil pickup, and co-founded the Acousti-Lectric company with Lewis Williams and Walter Moon in 1934. The company was renamed the Vivi-Tone company in 1936. Loar died in 1943.
Vivi-Tone produced guitars, mandolins, an electric keyboard, and at least one amplifier. One acoustic guitar design featured a secondary soundboard (the back of the guitar) as well as a primary soundboard (the top of the guitar). This secondary soundboard had f-holes, and was recessed from the rim of the guitar to keep this soundboard away from the player’s body. Another acoustic-electric guitar design from the mid-1930s had essentially a plank body, making it one of the very early examples of a solid body guitar. All pretty innovative for the time.
Gibson produced several models of Mandolins, Mandalas, Mandocellos, Mandobasses, Banjos, Violins, Violas,Cellos, and Double basses in their long history. Even some acoustic-electric versions.
Maybelle Carter’s Gibson L-5
In 1927, The Carter Family made their first recordings, the “Bristol Sessions” recorded in Bristol, TN. One year later in 1928, their 19 year old singer and guitarist Maybelle Carter used a little of those earnings to buy herself a brand new Gibson L-5 archtop acoustic guitar (the first year of production for this model). Maybelle Carter’s 1928 L-5 was built just four years after Lloyd Loar left Gibson, proving that the Gibson archtop was not just for Jazz. Simple dot inlays on the fingerboard, unbound f-holes, and a basic three-ply binding around its carved solid-spruce top, but very resonant, with an innovative adjustable bridge and an adjustable truss rod (brought to the L-5 late in 1922).
Maybelle’s style, dubbed the “Carter scratch”, was a form of fingerstyle playing that involved thumbing the bass note while her fingers picked a sort of hybrid lead and rhythm on the higher strings. Carter’s playing has a lot of nuance and driving rhythmic subtlety, and is a clear precursor to many other great country playing styles to come, from Merle Travis’s “Travis picking” to Chet Atkins’s own finger style. Maybelle was one of the first guitar heroes.
Carter’s L-5 would be used throughout The Carter Family’s recorded catalogue of more than 300 songs, as well as her tenure as “Mother” Maybelle Carter with her three daughters Anita, Helen, and June, and would serve to lay the foundations of country, bluegrass, and American folk music—earning Carter the title of “Queen Mother of Country Music” in the process. Maybelle Carter died in 1978, was the mother of the late June Carter Cash as her daughter had married Johnny Cash.
Maybelle’s original Gibson L-5 was purchased in August of 2004 from Gruhn Guitars of Nashville, TN for $575,000, on behalf of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Her Gibson L-5 is historically significance as it was the guitar she used for virtually all of her recordings from 1928 until she died. Virtually every classic Carter Family tune ever recorded, with the exception of the first Bristol Sessions, was all done on this guitar.
Maybelle Carter was inducted as part of The Carter Family in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970. In 1993, her image appeared on a U.S. postage stamp honoring the Carter Family. In 2001 she was initiated into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor. She would rank No. 8 in CMT’s 40 Greatest Women of Country Music in 2002.
Around 1935, the L-5’s body was “advanced” to a larger 17″ wide, and its look was enhanced by five-ply fingerboard and peghead binding and other elements. Later that same year, Gibson introduced the 18″-wide Super 400, a guitar that would become “king of the archtops”, although the L-5 endured until 1958 in its non-cutaway form, and until 1982 as the L-5C with cutaway.
Gibson “Super 400”
The Gibson “Super 400” is a high-end carved solid wood archtop guitar. Gibson’s largest, fanciest and highest-priced factory built archtop hollow body guitar. It inspired many other master guitar builders including Elmer Stromberg and John D’Angelico. First sold in 1934 and named for its $400 price as many Gibson guitars were named for the sticker price during that era of the company.
Les Paul was featured in the Gibson catalog in 1939 playing a Gibson Super 400.
In 1939, the Super 400’s upper bout was enlarged, and the hand-engraved tailpiece was replaced. The f-holes were slightly enlarged and a cutaway option also became available. This was called the Super 400P (for Premiere), later changed to C for Cutaway.
During the 1950s, Gibson released the Super 400 CES (Cutaway+Electric+Spanish). This had a slightly thicker top to reduce feedback, two P-90 pickups, and individual tone and volume controls, along with a three-way toggle switch. Later the P-90 pickups were replaced with Alnico V pickups, then in 1957, humbucking pickups.
Gibson has offered several variations on the limited edition Super 400 custom models. In 2000, Gibson offered the Super 400 with a Charlie Christian pickup. The Super 400 is still in production today, with two humbucker pickups. The full acoustic version is no-longer available.
Gibson L-7 Advanced Guitars
Along with the L-5, L-10 and L-12, the L-7 was re-launched with Gibson’s new 17-inch ‘Advanced’ body size in 1935. Gibson introduced the ‘Advanced’ L7 with the body size was increased to 17″, had beautiful fingerboard inlays and a rather plain tailpiece. The L-7 has an elevated fingerboard while the L-5 does not.
Above is an ad touting Gibson’s hand carved guitars, a labor intensive that required a skilled luthier. The guitars that are hand carved using this method tend to be very resonant. The tops are “tuned” by hand to achieve the best tone. This is before laminate plywood was used in guitar making. The laminate method is faster and cheaper and results in a stiffer top that has the advantage on electric hollow body guitars to reduce feedback when amplified. The Gibson ES-175 was constructed with laminates for this reason.
Gibson Goes Electric
The popularity of Hawaiian-style music created a demand for instruments specially made to accommodate Hawaiian guitar techniques. Gibson’s earliest Hawaiian style guitars were introduced around 1929, followed by the Roy Smeck 12-fret models in 1934. Hawaiian musicians had began to play an electrified lap steel guitars made by Rickenbacker which featured a magnetic “horseshoe” pickup to amplify the strings’ vibrations. Making the guitar louder, and notes and chords could be sustained longer.
Rickenbacker’s “Frying Pans” went almost unnoticed by Gibson until 1935, when sales shot high enough for Gibson to think they needed to build an electric Hawaiian of their own.
After Rickenbacker had success with the “frying pan” in 1931/1932 which likely was the first electric lap steel guitar ever produced, Gibson jumped into electrifying their instruments. The Rickenbacker Electro A-22 had a circular body, made metal and long neck make it resemble a frying pan.
Gibson’s first attempt at an electric Hawaiian was a similar look and design to some of National and Rickenbacker’s Hawaiian guitars with a metal body. But the metal body didn’t fit into Gibson’s traditional manufacturing style, so by 1936 the EH-150 had a maple body and neck and was finished in Gibson’s traditional dark sunburst.
Gibson hired musician Alvino Rey to consult and outsourced the pickup design to Chicago’s Lyon & Healy. Gibson’s final design for their now famous bar pickup was done by Gibson employee, Walter Fuller. Lyon & Healy did make the matching amplifiers sold with the EH-150 (Electric Hawaiian) guitars. The original list price of the EH-150 guitar and amp set was $150.
The same single coil pickup was later used in the ES-150. It is not uncommon to find vintage EH-150 lap steel’s with the original pickup removed to be retrofitted into a guitar by some player.
In the spring of 1935, Gibson hired musician Alvino Rey to help develop a prototype pickup with engineers at the Lyon & Healy company in Chicago. Later that year, research was moved in-house, where Gibson employee Walter Fuller came up with the final design. Gibson introduced the distinctive hexagonal pickup on a lap steel model in late 1935. The pickup was installed on an F-hole archtop guitar, dubbed the ES-150 ES for Electric Spanish), and the first one shipped from the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on May 20, 1936.
The legendary Gibson ES-150 (Electric Spanish) quickly followed in 1936. The ES-150 was a standard fully hollow body archtop guitar that had been routed out to add a magnetic pickup that could feed a tube driven amplifier. Very groundbreaking in 1936!
Charlie Christian was born in Bonham, Texas in 1916. His parents were both musicians and moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma when Charlie was just a small child. Charlie and his two brothers were taught music by their father. To support themselves, the family would work as buskers (street performers). Charlie would dance in the early days when his family performed. Later he learned guitar, inheriting his father’s instruments upon his death when Charles was only 12.
Charlie attended Douglass School in Oklahoma City, and was further encouraged in music by instructor Zelia N. Breaux. Charles played tenor saxophone in the school band. In 1939, Christian auditioned for John Hammond, who recommended him to bandleader Benny Goodman. Goodman was one of the few white bandleaders to feature black musicians in his live band.
When Christian was on the bandstand at the Victor Hugo restaurant in Los Angeles. Goodman called Rose Room, a tune he assumed Christian would be unfamiliar with. Unknown to Goodman, Charles had been reared on the tune, and he came in with his first chorus of about twenty, all of them different, all unlike anything Goodman had heard before. That version of Rose Room lasted forty minutes. By its end, Christian was in the band.
Made famous by Jazz great Charlie Christian who adopted the ES-150 as his primary instrument while playing in Benny Goodman’s band. Electrified guitar changed everything. No longer was the guitar just a background rhythm instrument that could hardly be heard. In the hands of such a huge talent as Charlie Christian, it was now a lead instrument competing with the horn players. Charlie Christian put the Gibson ES-150 electric guitar into the consciousness and the guitar would never be considered the same instrument again.
Forever enshrined the Gibson ES-150 unofficially known as the iconic “Charlie Christian” model. To this day, many jazz players regard the ES-150’s “Charlie Christian” pickups as the finest jazz pickup ever produced. The ES-150 was followed by other electric guitar models and variations.
Charlie Christian had contracted tuberculosis in the late 1930s. In early 1940 was hospitalized for a short period in which the Goodman group was on hiatus. In June 1941 he was admitted to Seaview, a sanitarium on Staten Island in New York City. He was reported to be making progress, and Down Beat magazine reported in February 1942 that he and Cootie Williams were starting a band. But Christian’s health declined and died March 2, 1942. He was only 25 years old.
Charlie Christian was buried in an unmarked grave in Bonham, Texas, and a Texas State Historical Commission Marker and headstone were placed in Gates Hill Cemetery in 1994. The impact Charlie Christian made as a guitarist and musician in his short life is nothing less that remarkable. Although credited for very few, Christian composed many of the original tunes recorded by the Benny Goodman Sextet.
Gibson was one of the first manufacturers of electric guitar amplifiers, with the first model hitting their catalog in 1935. The first Gibson amplifiers were built in Chicago by Lyon & Healy Company and were sold as companions to the earlyelectric Hawaiian guitars. Later Gibson amplifiers were constructed in their Kalamazoo plant in Michigan, featuring all tube (valve) construction, as was the technology of the day. Gibson amps never became as popular as Fender, Marshall or Vox.
Many of the Gibson amplifiers were well made and are considered bargains in the vintage market, mostly due to their original lack of popularity. I have noticed over the years, that many of these amps had circuit and component changes on the same model in the middle of production. Most times not even noted in the schematic. So some of the Gibson amplifiers were inconsistent. Many however, are nice sounding and well built.
Pre-WWII – The EH-100 and EH-150 were Gibson’s amplifier models from 1935 to 1942, featuring 8 and 15 watts, respectively, with 10-inch speakers and no volume or tone controls. Volume controls were added to both models around 1937, with a single tone control added to the EH-150, as well as a larger 12-inch speaker, for the model year. In 1941, the 15-watt, 12-inch speaker EH-185 and EH-125 were added, with an additional control for bass on the EH-185. Although all amps featured similar power amp circuitry through the model years, preamp tube configuration changed almost from year to year.
These amps were meant to be companions for the early Gibson electric Hawaiian lap steel guitars like the EH-150. Early Gibson amplifiers used Utah speakers, with Rola used on some later models in the ’40s and early ’50s.
Post WWII – War-time restrictions of components and hardware forced Gibson to halt manufacturing of electric guitars and amplifiers during World War II. Gibson began production again in 1946, employing Chicago-based electronic design company Barnes & Reinecke to design a new amplifier line. The new amps included the Ultratone BR-1, BR-3, BR-4, BR-6 and BR-9 models, with 10 to 18 watts of power. Volume and tone controls were featured on all models, except the smaller BR-6 and BR-9 amplifiers. The BR amplifiers were produced until 1954 and then were discontinued.
The 1950s – Shortly after development of the BR amplifiers, Gibson marketed its new GA series, starting in 1948, and continued with variations on this line until 1967. The GA series amplifiers made use of new features, and many early units began to feature volume, tone and bass controls, as well as tremolo and reverb effects. With the introduction of the Gibson Les Paul guitar in 1952 came Les Paul amplifiers as a special edition GA series, produced until 1961. Gibson used mostly Jensen speakers in the 1950s.
Names were also added to early ’60s GA amps, including the Raider, Invader, Gibsonette, Skylark, Discoverer, Lancer, Rhythm King, several variations of Maestro and the Les Paul Junior. The mid-to late ’60s saw Vanguard, Hawk, Scout, Titan, Mercury, Atlas, Apollo, Ranger, Saturn, Explorer and Minuteman model names. Gibson switched to CTS speakers in the 1960s, particularly in its budget amplifiers. Gibson did offer JBL speakers as an option for certain models.
Was introduced in 1940 ES-300 (non-cutaway) with 17″ wide body, an unusual large 6.25″ long slate-mounted oblong single coil pickup with adjustable poles, jack on side, L-5 style plate tailpiece with center insert missing, triple bound top and back, maple neck, double parallelagram fingerboard inlays, crown peghead inlay, pearl logo, sunburst or natural finish.
In 1941, the ES-300 received a smaller slat-mounted pickup, trapeze tailpiece with pointed ends and raised arrows. Production halted in 1942.
In 1946, the ES-300 returned with one P-90 pickup in neck position, laminated beveled-edge pickguard, bound peghead and fingerboard. The 1948 model ES-300 was updated with two P-90 pickups, 2 volume knobs on lower treble bout, master tone knob on upper treble bout. ES-300 discontinued 1952.
The P-90 pickup, introduced in 1946, gave Gibson guitars new power and versatility. It is considered a classic single coil pickup that has more of a growl when pushed and sounds quite bit different than other single coils, like what Fender makes. Gibson leads the industry in the development of new electric archtops during this time with such classic models as the ES-5 (the first triple-pickup guitar) and ES-175 in 1949, followed by the L-5CES and Super 400CES (“CES” for Cutaway Electric Spanish) in 1951.
Barney Kessel (October 17, 1923 – May 6, 2004) was noted in particular for his knowledge of chords and inversions and chord-based melodies as he practiced up to 16 hours a day sometimes. Starting his career as a 16 year old teenager touring with local dance bands. He was a member of many prominent jazz groups as well as a “first call” guitarist for studio, film, and television recording sessions. Barney was thought to have been the heir to the throne that Charlie Christian had occupied in the ‘40s. In the ‘50s, no one was as famous on jazz guitar or as prolific as Barney.
Most all of Barney Kessel’s serious concert and recording work was done with a 1940s Gibson ES-350, sporting a Charlie Christian pickup. The 1947 ES-350 was originally called the ES-350P (Premier). It was a rounded cutaway version of Gibson ES-300, 17″ wide, one P-90 pickup, trapeze tailpieceLater. 1948 ES-350 had two P-90 pickups, 2 volume knobs on lower treble bout, master tone knob on cutaway bout (like a Gretsch in later years). The 1952 ES-350 changed the controls to 2 volume and two tone knobs and a 3-way switch. In 1956, the ES-350 received a Tune-o-matic bridge, but then was replaced by the ES-350T thinline version.
Gibson first approached Barney in 1960, at the height of his popularity. Barney’s name had already appeared on several Kay guitars, but he was eager to attach his name to an instrument he saw as both more worthy and playable. “I don’t play that Kay – it’s a terrible guitar!” he was quoted as saying. In 1961 The Gibson Guitar Corporation introduced The Barney Kessel model guitar onto the market and continued to make them until 1973. It is unclear if Barney was much happier with the new Gibson-made Barney Kessel models. But the model was quite popular with players.
The Barney Kessel artist model introduced in 1961, and actually stayed in production for a 13 years. The model had a long but unsteady tenure with Gibson, with shipping numbers during its best year – 1968 – totaling only 371 units for both the Regular and Custom models. The model was phased out in 1974 as was Barney’s relationship with Gibson.
Barney Kessel once gave a few guitar lessons to a very young Phil Spector who was hoping to become a Jazz musician. Later Kessel was a popular member of the “Wrecking Crew” of session musicians playing on an amazing amount of pop and rock records as well as being a premier Jazz musician. Barney’s sons also played on some Phil Spector sessions.
Gibson reached several successful deals with other Jazz artists for signature models over the years, including Tal Farlow, Johnny Smith, Howard Roberts and Herb Ellis.
Ray Whitley and Gibson Jumbo Flattop Guitars
Cowboy film star Ray Whitley ordered a super-large acoustic guitar from Gibson, thus paving the way for the J-200, or Super Jumbo around 1937. Looking for a louder guitar, this was basically a large Gibson L-5 body with a flattop.
The Gibson SJ-200 (Super Jumbo) became an iconic guitar in later played by Bob Dyan, Emmylou Harris, Everly Brothers and many others.
In 1939, Gibson introduced the first cutaway models, the Super 400 Premier and L-5 Premier. The “cutaway” body gives players easier access to the upper range, and it becomes the preferred style.
The legendary J-45 and Southern Jumbo come out around 1942 as part of Gibson’s round-shoulder, acoustic “jumbo” line, which was to compete with C.F. Martin & Company’s “dreadnought” guitars.
The Gibson Hummingbird introduced in 1960, was Gibson’s second-most expensive acoustic guitar, behind the Gibson J-200, until the introduction of the Gibson Dove in 1962 two years later in 1962.
Unlike the other flat-top Gibson acoustics, the Hummingbird was Gibson’s first square-shoulder dreadnought, similar to the dreadnoughts produced by C.F. Martin & Company.
In May 1938, Gibson did a custom order for cowboy singer, Gene Autry making him a small flat-top with with Gene’s name inlaid in the fingerboard. Quite a very fancy L-00 flat-top body.
Gene also had a custom made “jumbo” Gibson J-200.
Gibson ES-125 Archtop Electric
The ES-125 evolved out of the ES-100 in 1941 and was produced until 1943. Upon its reintroduction in 1946, the ES-125 changed in a number of ways including a wider body, a new P-90 pickup, and trapezoid inlays. The ES-125 was updated again in 1950 with an adjustable P-90 pickup and dot inlays. Through the ’60s, a number of variations on the original ES-125 were produced including a version with cutaway (ES-125 C), thinbody versions (ES-125T or ES-125 TC), as well as versions with two instead of one pickup (ES-125 TDC or ES-125 CD).
• ES-125 Full body archtop with single P-90 pickup
• ES-125T (T = Thinline)
• ES-125TC (C = Cutaway)
• ES-125TCD (D = Double P-90 pickups) versions available starting in 1956 and 1960, respectively
• ES-125C Full width body with cutaway
• ES-125CD Full width body, double pickup (P-90) with cutaway. Looks like the ES-175D without neck binding
Between 1942-1945, Gibson employed women to manufacture guitars. “Women produced nearly 25,000 guitars during World War II yet Gibson denied ever building instruments over this period,” according to a 2013 history of the company. Gibson folklore has also claimed its guitars were made by “seasoned craftsmen” who were “too old for war. Interesting.
During World War II, Gibson slowed instrument making due to shortages of wood and metal, and Gibson like many other companies began manufacturing wood and metal parts for the U.S. Military. In 1944, as World War II nears conclusion, the Chicago Musical Instrument Company purchases Gibson and prepares to meet the pent-up postwar demand for guitars.
“T-Bone” Walker born May 28, 1910, was one of the most influential guitar players inspiring players like Chuck Berry, B.B. King and even Jimi Hendrix that followed him. “T-Bone” Walker played Gibson hollow body electric guitars all of his long career, like the Gibson ES-250 (1930s-1950s), ES-5 Switchmaster (1950s-1970s) and ES-335 (early 1970s). T-Bone occasionally used a Gibson Barney Kessell model in the 1960s-1970s as well. In 2011, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him at number 67 on their list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”
The ES-5 was intended to be an electric version of their popular Gibson L-5 acoustic jazz model. The ES-5 was introduced in 1949, and offered several innovative features which have become standard within the industry. The ES-5 was the first model of the ES-series to offer three pickups. Unlike other multiple-pickup models of its era, the ES-5 used three different volume knobs (one for each pickup and one master tone) rather than a selector switch, to offer players improved control over their tone.
In 1955 the model became the ES-5 Switchmaster, which incorporated a four-position selector switch, along with a new six-knob configuration, incorporating a volume and a tone knob for each pickup. The ES-5 Switchmaster was produced until 1962. It remained discontinued until a 1995 reissue from the Gibson Custom division. New models of the reissue are still available today. The original models used P-90 single coil pickups, but after 1957 the guitar used PAF humbucker pickup.
The Gibson ES-250 was the second edition of the Gibson ES-150 amplified guitar, though released in several different versions. It had 17″ body width and a 21″ body length.
In 1929, Walker made his recording debut with Columbia Records billed as Oak Cliff T-Bone, releasing the single “Wichita Falls Blues”/”Trinity River Blues.” Much of his output was recorded from 1946 to 1948 on Black & White Records, including his most famous song, 1947’s “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad).” Other notable songs he recorded during this period were “Bobby Sox Blues” (a #3 R&B hit in 1947), and “West Side Baby” (#8 on the R&B singles charts in 1948).
Walker’s career began to wind down after he suffered a stroke in 1974. He died of bronchial pneumonia following another stroke in March 1975, at the age of 64. Walker was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Chuck Berry claims Walker and Louis Jordan as his main influences. B.B. King cites hearing Walker’s “Stormy Monday” record as his inspiration for getting an electric guitar. Walker was admired by Jimi Hendrix who imitated Walker’s trick of playing the guitar with his teeth. “Stormy Monday” was also a favorite live song for The Allman Brothers Band.
“Chuck” Berry was born on October 18, 1926, was greatly infuenced by the guitar riffs and showmanship of blues great “T-Bone” Walker. He was also inspired by Muddy Waters, Charlie Christian, Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf. Chuck played Gibson hollow body and semi-hollow electric guitars his entire career. In the early years he played a wider hollow body model, the Gibson ES-350TN and ES-350T. In his later years he moved to the Gibson “thinline” models and was well known for playing the semi-hollow Gibson ES-335 and ES-355 models.
The two pickup Gibson ES-350 was introduced in 1949 and produced for only seven years, until 1956. A favorite of jazz greats including Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow, the ES-350 incorporated a full size body with classic P-90 pickups. Chuck Berry played one of these in the early part of his career.
“Chuck” Berry met Muddy Waters in Chicago in May 1955, who suggested he contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Chess recorded Berry’s adaptation of the country song “Maybellene” by “Ida Red” which sold over a million copies, reaching number one on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues chart. By the end of the 1950s, Berry was an established star with several hit records and film appearances to his name as well as a lucrative touring career.
“Chuck” Berry made an important “Chuck” Berry in the film The Girl Can’t Help It that influenced an entire generation of guitar players especially the British players like young John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and many more.
Berry had more hits in the mid 60’s, including “No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” and “Nadine.” By the mid-1970s, he was more in demand as a nostalgic live performer, playing his past hits with local backup bands of variable quality. In 1972 Chess released a live recording of “My Ding-a-Ling”, a novelty song which Chuck had recorded in a different version on his 1968 LP From St. Louie to Frisco as “My Tambourine”. The track became his only number one single.
Berry’s early showmanship when playing live was very influential on other rock guitar players, particularly his “duck walk” that was a variation of one of “T-Bone” Walker stage tricks.
John Lennon once said, “if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” Ted Nugent said “If you don’t know every Chuck Berry lick, you can’t play rock guitar.”
Berry was among the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its opening in 1986, with the comment that he “laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.”
Gibson ES-175 Introduced
The Gibson ES-175 was introduced in 1949 featuring one single coil P-90 pickup in the neck position. The model’s name is derived from its original price of $175 which was expensive at the time. Unlike Gibson’s L5 and Super 400 guitars, the fully hollow ES-175 has an all-laminate (plywood) construction, which allows the cost of materials and construction to be kept down, as well as assisting in keeping feedback at higher volumes manageable as laminate tends to stiffer and less resonant. This allows for the sound to be derived more from vibrating string by the pickups, and less from the “sound box” of the hollow body guitar.
In 1953, the ES-175D, a two-pickup model, was introduced. The ES-175 or ES-175D could be ordered in either sunburst finish or in natural finish (for an additional charge). Beginning in February 1957, ES-175s came equipped with the then new P.A.F humbucker pickups. The ES-175 with humbuckers soon became a very popular jazz guitar, but was also used in several other players in different genres.
Many variations of the ES-175 followed with less ornate less expensive models. In the mid-1970s, Gibson started changing the headstock pitch from 17 degrees to 14, phasing in three-piece maple necks in lieu of one piece mahogany, and the addition of a volute to the neck. The ES-175 was largely spared these changes until the mid-1970s. In 1976, the three-piece maple neck replaced the one-piece mahogany neck, a volute was added, and the wooden bridge was replaced by a Nashville bridge. Gibson discontinued the single-pickup model.
Gibson developed a “thinline” fully hollow-body series as well. In 1976, Gibson introduced the ES-175T, a “thinbody” variant on the ES-175 (much like an ES-125TCD with more fancy appointments). It was made for only three years, and available in sunburst, natural (more expensive) and wine red. The model proved fairly unpopular and was discontinued in 1979. The other Gibson “thinbody” guitars were quite popular.
In 2002, Gibson released a Steve Howe signature model, based on Howe’s 1964 ES-175. In 2012, Gibson released a pair of 1959 ES-175 reissues, a single-pickup and a dual-pickup model. It is the first production ES-175 single pickup model since the 1970s.
The Gibson ES-140 (1950 to 1968) is a smaller 3/4 size hollow-body guitar with single-pickup which is like scaled-down version of the Gibson ES-175. The ES-140 had a 12 3/4″ wide full depth body, 22 3/4″ short scale, pointed cutaway, one P-90 pickup with “dog ears” in neck position, tortoise grain pickguard, single bound top and back, dot fingerboard inlays, silkscreen logo, sunburst finish. In 1955, it was available in a natural finish and was discontinued in 1957, but the thinline ES-140T 3/4 version started in 1956 which replaced the thicker ES-140 body model.
The Byrdland is the first of Gibson’s Thinline series. Aimed at players did not want a bulky traditional archtop guitar (like an L-5). The Byrdland, with its overall depth of 2¼-in, is thinner than the L-5’s 3⅜” depth. It was released around 1955.
In the mid-1960s, guitarist Ted Nugent began using a Byrdland, which was unusual considering Nugent’s style of heavy rock. The hollow-bodied design of the guitar causes feedback at higher levels of gain and volume, making it impractical for hard rock and similar styles. Nugent, however, controlled this feedback and incorporated it into his playing and as a result, it has become part of his signature sound.
The Byrdland’s short scale neck (23½”), which facilitated intricate single-note patterns and unusual stretched chord voicing. Its name derives from the names of guitarists Billy Byrd and Hank Garland for whom Gibson originally custom built the guitar for.
Les Paul the Man
Les Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin on June 9, 1915. His mother simplified their Prussian family name first to Polfuss, then to Polfus, although Les Paul never legally changed his name. Before taking the stage name Les Paul, he also performed as Red Hot Red and Rhubarb Red.
At the age of eight, Paul began playing the harmonica. After trying to learn the piano, then he switched to the guitar. During this time he invented a neck-worn harmonica holder, which allowed him to play both sides of the harmonica hands-free while accompanying himself on the guitar. It is still manufactured using his basic design.
By age thirteen, Paul was performing semi-professionally as a country-music singer, guitarist, and harmonica player. While playing at the Waukesha area drive-ins and roadhouses, Paul began his first experiments. Wanting to make himself heard by more people at the local venues, he wired a phonograph needle to his guitar and connected it to a radio speaker, using that to amplify his acoustic guitar. Les Paul experimented using telephone and radio parts as they were readily available.
As a teen Paul created his first solid body electric guitar using a 2-foot piece of rail from a nearby train line. At age seventeen, Paul played with Rube Tronson’s Texas Cowboys, and soon after he dropped out of high school to team up with Sunny Joe Wolverton’s Radio Band in St. Louis, Missouri, on KMOX.
Paul formed a trio in 1937 with singer/rhythm guitarist Jim Atkins, the older half-brother of Chet Atkins and bassist/percussionist Ernie “Darius” Newton. They left Chicago for New York in 1938, landing a featured spot with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians radio show. Chet Atkins later wrote that his brother, home on a family visit, presented him with an expensive Gibson archtop guitar that Les Paul had given to Jim. Chet recalled that it was the first professional-quality instrument he ever owned.
Les Paul began experimenting at his apartment while living in Queens, New York. “The Log”, was built by Les with permission to use the Epiphone guitar factory workshop (also in Queens, NY) in their after-hours in 1940. This was one of the first solid-body electric guitars. Using a length of common 4″ x 4″ pine lumber with a bridge, guitar neck, strings and pickup attached that he had added “wings” from an old Epiphone hollow-body guitar, sawn lengthwise with “The Log” in the middle, that allowed it to be played sitting down. This solved his two main annoyances, no feedback and more sustain. Les was were constantly trying to improve and modified his ideas over the years. Les Paul, the ultimate tinkerer used “The Log” on his recordings. While experimenting in his apartment in 1941, Paul nearly succumbed to electrocution.
Les relocated to Hollywood, supporting himself by producing radio music and forming a new trio. During this time, he was remembered by factory workers as a frequent visitor to the Electro String Instrument Corp. shop on Western Avenue in Los Angeles, where he observed production of Rickenbacker brand guitars and amplifiers.
In the summer of 1945, Paul met country-western singer Iris Colleen Summers (who grew up in California). They began working together in 1948, during which time she adopted the stage name Mary Ford, and they married in 1949.
In January 1948, Les Paul was in a a near-fatal automobile accident on an icy Route 66 just west of Davenport, Oklahoma shattering his right arm and elbow. Mary Ford was driving the Buick convertible, which plunged off the side of a railroad overpass and dropped 20 feet into a ravine; they were on their way back from Wisconsin to Los Angeles after visiting Les’ family. Doctors at Oklahoma City’s Wesley Presbyterian Hospital told Paul that they could not rebuild his elbow and wanted amputate. Paul was flown to Los Angeles, where his arm was set at an angle—just under 90 degrees—that allowed him to cradle and pick the guitar. It took him nearly a year and a half to recover.
Les Paul and Mary Ford relocated to rural Mahwah, New Jersey in the early 1950s. This allowed to be close to New York City. Les built a recording studio in the basement and they filmed a TV show from their home.
Les Paul was strongly influenced by Django Reinhardt, whom he greatly admired. Following World War II, Paul sought out and made friends with Reinhardt. After Reinhardt died in 1953, Paul partly paid for the cost of the funeral. One of Paul’s prize possessions was a Selmer Maccaferri acoustic guitar given to him by Reinhardt’s widow.
Les Paul was an early innovator for multi-track recording and close miking, inventing Sound on Sound recording using an early Ampex reel-to-reel audio tape recorder and placing an additional playback head, located before the conventional erase/record/playback heads. Les Paul was an innovator, experiments, great guitar player and performer.
Gibson Not Ready to Build a Solid Body Electric Guitar
Up to this point, Gibson was an “old world” style instrument maker with a long history of high quality hand-crafted manufacturing. They prided themselves in fine craftsmanship. Adding pickups to electrify their fine archtops was all that they had in mind. Gibson did not believe that anyone would ever want, what they thought was a crudely made solid body guitar. So when Les Paul tried to interest them in building a solid body guitar and showing his “log” guitar that he constructed from a 4″ x 4″ piece of wood that he had added “wings” from an old Epiphone hollow body, Gibson laughed it off.
Les Paul’s creation was not the only one pitched a solid body electric to Gibson. O.W. Appleton showed Gibson his fully solid body APP Guitar in 1943. O.W. Appleton was built in his home shop. Gibson said they had no interest. They did not believe in the solid body electric guitar at this point.
Ted McCarty Hired at Gibson
Gibson hired Ted McCarty in 1948, who became President in 1950. Interestingly, like Leo Fender, McCarty never played the guitar. He instead talked with every guitarist he could in order to find out what guitar players were interested in.
McCarty led the company into the modern era of Gibson guitar making. But trouble for Gibson was being created in Fullerton, CA. Fender had introduced the Fender Esquire and was about to “mass-produce” the first solid body electric guitars. This event changed the industry forever and spurred a fierce competition between Gibson and Fender that goes on to this day.
The Fender Broadcaster was the first mass produced solid body electric. Due to a trademark issue with Gretsch, Fender eventualy changed the name of the guitar to Telecaster in 1952. These guitars were crude, compared to a fine crafted Gibson archtop electric. Fender mass produced these guitars out of planks of wood made in a factory that had few skilled guitar makers. Gibson did not see this as a threat at first. They thought this new California upstart would fizzle out fast. It was hard for Gibson to see that players would want a Telecaster.
The Telecaster was called a canoe paddle or a plank… but once the started selling and Leo Fender brought out the solid body Precision Bass, Gibson knew they had to move fast.
Gibson ES-295 Scotty Moore and Elvis
“Scotty” Moore was born on December 27, 1931 and was guitarist and recording engineer. Scotty as Elvis Presley guitarist in the early days, was extremely influential and considered one of the players that created rockabilly and early rock ‘n roll guitar. Scotty was a thumbpick and finger-style, later called hybrid picking. He was influenced by many people, but Chet Atkins was high on his list. Scotty Moore played Gibson hollow body guitars much of his career. He was ranked 29th in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time in 2011. Was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
Scotty “licks” have been studied by many guitarists and it can not be overstated just how important he was to Elvis’ success. Scotty Moore, on guitar and Bill Black, on the Upright Bass was Elvis’ entire band in the beginning. They toured the country without even a drummer. Scotty along with Bill had to supply the rhythm, lead and all accompaniment for Elvis who did some strumming on his guitar. Scotty was a true pioneer rock ‘n’ roll lead guitarist. Many popular guitarists cite Moore as the performer that most influenced them.
The ES-295 prototype was built in 1951 by Gibson at the request of Les Paul, who wished to present a gold ES-175 to a wounded veteran. Mary Ford played a Gibson ES-295 for a while touring with Les Paul in the early 50s.
The most famous guitar the Scotty played with Elvis was a 1952 Gibson ES-295. This was basically the same guitar as the Gibson ES-175, except it was painted Gibson’s Bullion Gold and featured a combination trapeze bridge/tailpiece with strings looping over the bridge, rather than a floating bridge (Scotty Moore immediately changed the bridge on his ES-295). The ES-295 had two cream colored single coil P-90s. The ES-295 was quite a fancy version for a Gibson hollow body electric in those days. The Gibson ES-295 was nicknamed “The Guitar that Changed the World” after Scotty played one with Elvis. Interestingly, Scotty had traded a Fender Telecaster as part of the deal to acquire the Gibson ES-295.
Scotty did however switch to a Gibson L-5 around 1955 and subsequently a Gibson Super 400. The Gibson ES-295 was discontinued in 1959, it was later reissued in 1994 with the earlier P-90 pickup design.
Yes, early rock ‘n’ roll was a played mostly on big hollow body guitars with single coil pickups. One of the key part of Moore’s guitar sound on many of the recordings with Elvis, was the Sun Studio tape delay. After hearing Chet Atkins playing live on the radio, Scotty contacted him to find out just how Atkins had tape delay on his guitar in a live situation. There were no digital delay or any type of pedals in the early 1950s. Chet Atkins was happy to share his secret weapon, he explained the use of the Ray Butts invention. The EchoSonic guitar amplifier (first one ever was used by Chet Atkins), with a tape echo built in. Scotty wasted no time in contacting Ray Butts to have one built for himself, which allowed him to take his trademark slapback echo on the road.
The first use of a humbucking pickup for guitar was actually done by Ray Butts, but Seth Lover of Gibson around 1955 was also working on one himself. Ray Butts initially developed one on his own to solve a hum problem for his friend Chet Atkins. Later Ray worked for Gretsch and the Filter’Tron™ style pickup was born. Who developed it first is a matter of some debate, but Ray Butts was awarded the first patent (U.S. Patent 2,892,371) and Seth Lover while working at Gibson, came next (U.S. Patent 2,896,491). Ultimately, both men developed essentially the same concept, but Ray Butts was never recognized as the one who produced it first. Likely due to Gibson using humbuckers in substantial production numbers.
The 1963 Gibson Super 400 CES Florentine model played by Scotty Moore had an important role in Elvis Presley’s stage performance, the ’68 Comeback Special.
Gibson Memphis reissued a special limited run of 81 Scotty Moore Gibson ES-295 to celebrate his birthday. Each one is personally autographed by Scotty Moore on the lower bout. This model had that same stunning Gold Bullion finish, Gibson’s accurate vintage-style P-90 pickups and with the same style Melita™ Synchrosonic® bridge that Scotty had replaced the wraparound trapeze bridge on his original guitar in 1952.
Epiphone has reissued their versions of the ES-175 and the ES-295 at a lower price point.
Gibson L5CES (Cutaway-Electric-Spanish)
In 1951, Gibson released the L5CES, an L-5 with a single cutaway body and two electric pickups, equally playable as either an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar. In 1958, the L5CES was redesigned with hum bucking pickups. These electric archtops were particularly popular with jazz musicians Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel and Johnny Smith.
The Gretsch White Falcon and various Chet Atkins models that were also large body hollow electric guitars. Many of these guitar have a more “twangy” sound making them popular with country and early rock ‘n roll players such as Duane Eddy and Eddie Cochran.
Les Paul the Guitar
In 1952, Gibson became Fender’s first major competitor for solid body electric guitars, introducing the Les Paul named after their new endorser. Les Paul was a top notch player that was already dreaming of well made solid body guitars for years. Gibson was out to create an instrument that not only competed with Fender, but upped its design.
The 1952 Les Paul model solid body guitar mirrored the arched look of Gibson’s earlier hollow body guitars. This was no doubt for marketing reasons to get players to better accept their first solid body. Gibson’s machinery and many years of guitar making gave them the ability to build a arch style top on the early Les Paul model. Something Leo Fender likely could not do in those early days at Fender and a feature he was likley not all that interested in.
Instead of a plain plank of ash to make a body, like the Telecaster, Gibson used mahogany known for its sustain. They found that adding a maple cap increased the brightness and made the guitar sound better. The first Les Paul guitar tops were painted gold. This may have been done to mask the maple cap that Gibson thought was a great advantage. The guitar has been known as the “gold-top” since the beginning. Gibson was also seeking a regal look and the gold top helped achieve this. Les had claimed that the guitar was offered in a gold finish, not only for flashiness, but to emphasize the high quality of the Gibson Les Paul instrument.
Gibson Les Paul’s cost more than Fender Telecaster’s and the carved archtop was likely one of the reasons. Fender itself did add some contour sanding for the player’s comfort starting with the Stratocaster model in 1954 which was also more costly.
Gibson built the Les Paul in their Kalamazoo factory to try and show the California Fender guys how it should be done. The Les Paul model was made to look like a more refined traditional guitar. It actuality, it did have one big flaw. Gibson, it its haste to get to market, used a old trapeze designed bridge. They found that the neck did not have a proper tilt back (like their hollow body arctops). They ended up having to reverse the string wrap under the bridge, instead of over, making palm muting impossible. Several years later, Ted McCarty invented the first tune-a-matic style bridge and the neck angle was also increased on susequent models.
Gibson Les Paul Custom
The Gibson Les Paul Custom developed in 1953, was a higher-end Les Paul guitar. Nicknamed the “Black Beauty”, the guitar had a mahogany body and neck (no maple cap), ebony fret board, and mother of pearl block markers inlays in the fret board. The “Split Diamond” inlay on the headstock was taken from the carved archtop Super 400, which was the top of the Gibson line. The pickups were a P-90 in the bridge position and an Alnico V pickup, newly designed by Seth Lover, in the neck position. The frets are low and flat, as opposed to the usual medium jumbo frets found on other Les Paul customs, and the guitar soon was given the nickname “The Fretless Wonder.”
The Gibson Les Paul introduced in 1952, and was made with a mahogany body and a 1″ thick maple cap, mahogany neck with rosewood fret board and two P-90 pickups. The guitar was only available in a gold finish. In late 1953, a more luxurious version was introduced, most probably on specific request by Les Paul himself, as he wanted a more luxurious and classy looking guitar. He requested a black guitar as he wanted it to “look like a tuxedo”.
In mid-1957, the Les Paul Custom had the new P.A.F. (Patent Applied For) pickups designed by Seth Lover. Most Customs have three PAFs, though there are a small number that have the traditional two-pickup configuration. By 1958, Gibson had replaced the Kluson tuners with Grover Rotomatics. It is this configuration that remained until the guitar was discontinued in 1960. This guitar has been reissued several times and its most famous player, besides Les Paul himself is likely Peter Frampton that had played a modified one at the height of his career.
Les Paul the Man and the Guitar
The Les Paul model finally put Gibson in the solid body electric guitar race. Les Paul served as a great endorser. This endorsement deal is the longest and most successful in guitar history. Gibson’s president Ted McCarty stated, that Gibson first approached Les Paul for the right to imprint the musician’s name on the headstock with the intention of increasing sales; in 1951, Gibson presented Paul a nearly finished instrument for approval. McCarty claimed that design discussions with Les Paul were limited to the tailpiece and the fitting of a maple cap over the mahogany body for increased density and sustain. There seem to be some conflict as Les has always claimed a bigger role in the guitars design. It does seem clear that Les had influence on the model as it evolved. Les constantly tinkered with the guitars and made suggestions back to Gibson.
Les Paul proved to be a great endorser and promoter of the guitar that bears his name. Les Paul and Mary Ford were seen playing their Les Paul guitars in commercials, on TV shows and on stage.
Les Paul and Mary Ford between the years 1950 and 1954, had 16 top-ten hits. They had five top-ten hits within nine months. “Tennessee Waltz”, “Mockin’ Bird Hill”, “How High the Moon” (#1 for nine weeks), “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” and “Whispering”. From August 1952 to March 1953 they had five more top-ten hits; “My Baby’s Coming Home”, “Lady of Spain”, “Bye Bye Blues”, “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” and “Vaya Con Dios” (#1 for 11 weeks). Their 1954 version of “I’m a Fool to Care” went to #6, and was featured in a memorable Southern Comfort commercial in 2013.
Les Paul and Mary Ford had a syndicated TV show “Les Paul & Mary Ford At Home” (1954-’55) sponsored by Warner Lambert’s Listerine, where they were seen in their Mahwah, New Jersey home playing and singing their hits. The Gibson Les Paul guitars they played, had a prominent role. Mary Ford was also a fantastic guitarist as well as a great singer.
Les Paul and Mary Ford divorced in December 1964, which also ended the collaborations between the two. The duo have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Mary Ford died in 1977.
Les Paul performed into his 90s, taking up residence in a few night clubs in Manhattan where he did a regular week night show. The club he was at the longest and is most associated with was the Iridium. This was the site of the concert that Jeff Beck and Imelda May performed their album in tribute to the man and the guitar, recorded in 2010.
Les Paul lived in this same Mahwah home until he died at age 94 in 2009. Among his many honors, Paul is one of a handful of artists with a permanent, stand-alone exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, the home in Mahwah was demolished after his death and some of his equipment is displayed at the Mahwah Museum and the another museum in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
The first Les Paul models featured two single coil P-90 pickups and a one-piece, ‘trapeze’-style bridge/tailpiece with strings fitted under (instead of over) a steel stop-bar. The second Les Paul model introduced in 1953 was called the Les Paul Custom, this black guitar with gold-plated hardware was dubbed the “Black Beauty.”
Tune-o-matic bridge was designed by Ted McCarty and introduced on the Gibson Super 400 guitar in 1953 and the Les Paul Custom the following year. This corrected the issues with the earlier bridges and provided for better intonation. In 1955, the Tune-o-matic was used on the Gibson Les Paul Gold Top model as well. It was gradually accepted as a standard on almost all Gibson fixed-bridge guitars, replacing the previous wrap-around bridge design, except on the budget series like the Les Paul Jr and Les Paul Special that used “wrap around” bridge.
In the mid-50s, Gibson brought out the “thinline” series, which included a line of thinner hollow body guitars like the Byrdland. The first Byrdlands were slim, custom built, L-5 models for guitarists Billy Byrd and Hank Garland. Later, a shorter neck was added. Other models such as the ES-350T and the ES-225T were introduced as less costly alternatives.
Les Paul Junior
In 1954, the Les Paul Junior debuted. This was targeted to young papers as the student guitarist. The Junior has a flat-top “slab” mahogany body, finished in sunburst. Single P-90 pickup, simple volume and tone controls, an unbound rosewood fingerboard with plain dot-shape position markers, and a combination wraparound bridge/tailpiece.
When the Les Paul Junior was first released it had a single cut body style. In 1958, models with a double cut body style were introduced. The Les Paul Junior continued through the first three years of the Les Paul/SG body redesign. The Les Paul Junior Double-cut released in 1958 was one of the first double-cut Les Pauls that Gibson released. The double-cut Les Paul Special was related around the same time. It was discontinued in 1963, and was not re-released until 2001.
Gibson’s reasoning behind the release of the Les Paul Junior was to have a high-quality guitar that was affordable by stripping the Gibson Les Paul down to the basics… one pickup, one volume knob and tone knob. It was equipped with one P-90 dog ear pickup in the bridge. It was originally released in sunburst, but Gibson also introduced the TV version (a kind of yellow, also known as TV Yellow) for professional musicians, who would be featured playing the guitar on television; the yellow would look white on black and white television, without the glare of an actual white finish.
In the 1960s and 1970s the Les Paul Junior became very popular because of its simplicity and the P-90 pickup gave the guitar a distinct crunch that was desired by rock and blues players of the time, including Leslie West of Mountain, Luther Grosvenor (a.k.a. Ariel Bender) of Spooky Tooth and Mott the Hoople, and Johnny Thunders of The New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers. A modified Les Paul Junior was John Lennon’s main guitar during his post-Beatles years.
Leslie West even had one on his Gibson Les Paul Juniors signed by the man himself when he met Les Paul.
These guitars are pretty popular and pricey in the vintage market and played by guys like G.E. Smith that certainly is not a young student guitar player.
Epiphone branded Les Paul Juniors were also made. Epiphone has released limited edition models including the Collegiate Edition and the Epiphone Limited Edition ’57 Les Paul Jr. Reissue with P-100, which features a set neck, all-solid mahogany construction, and a P-100 humbucker. Epiphone Japan has also released Juniors (with the Gibson headstock) including the LPJ-70 and the Ltd edition Lacquer Series Jr (both in vintage sunburst and cherry). These Juniors were pretty much dead-on regarding the original 1954 Gibson specifications but they were manufactured for the Japanese market only and not for export.
Les Paul Special
The Les Paul Special was first released in 1955, a bit similar to the Les Paul Junior, it featured a slab body, but with two soapbar P-90 single coil pickups, and was finished in a color similar to TV Yellow (but not called a TV model).
In 1959, the Special was given the same new double-cutaway body shape as the Junior and the TV received in 1958. However, when the new design was applied to the two-pickup Special, the cavity for the neck pickup overlapped the neck-to-body joint. This weakened the joint to the point that the neck could break after only moderate handling. The problem was soon resolved when Gibson designers moved the neck pickup farther down the body, producing a stronger joint and eliminating the breakage problem.
The Les Paul Special was reissued in 1974 as a limited edition and again in 1977 with a few changes. Then yet again in 1978-81. In 1989–1998 came the Les Paul Junior II. I personally love these guitars.
The Gibson Melody Maker from 1959 until 1961, had a single cutaway slab body style similar to the early Les Paul Junior model but thinner. With a thin slab-style mahogany body and a one-piece mahogany neck all the electronics, single-coil pickups to the cable jack, were assembled on the pickguard and installed in a rout in the front of the body. Features a wraparound bridge/tailpiece.
In 1961, the body style changed to a symmetrical double cutaway (resembling a Gretsch 6122 or a Danelectro Shorthorn guitar). The body style was changed again in 1966 similar to the SG, with pointed “horns”, a large white scratchplate, and white pickup covers instead of black. The Melody Maker “D” refers to the double pickup model of any vintage (often mistakenly used for the double cutaway model). The Melody Maker has ben reissued in different forms over the years.
Gibson ESD-1275 Double Neck Solid Body
The Gibson double neck electric solid body guitar first introduced in 1958, as a hollow body guitar with two 6-string necks, one being a short-scale neck tuned to a higher octave. Later from 1962 to 1967 it had a solid body. A model with a 4-string bass and a 6-string guitar neck was called the EBS-1250; it had a built-in fuzztone and was produced from 1962 to 1968 and again from 1977 to 1978.
The Gibson ESD-1275 Double Neck solid body released in 1963 and is still in production. Popularized by Jimmy Page, Don Felder, Alex Lifeson and John McLaughlin. As you might expect, it is not a light guitar and usually weights about 13-lbs or more. The EDS-1275 is sometimes called the “SG double neck” due to its similar appearance, although both necks of the 1275 have a shorter scale fret board than the SG and fixed tail pieces, where the SG has an adjustable one. The guitar was available in jet black, cherry, sunburst, and white.
Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, used this model most notably during performances of “Stairway to Heaven” allowing him to play the 12-string and 6-string parts live without trying to change guitars. He used the bottom 6-string neck for the intro and first verse, then switched to the top 12-string neck, then to the 6-string neck for the extended guitar solo, and back to the 12-string for the final chorus.
When Jimmy Page desired an EDS-1275, they were no longer in production so he ordered his custom-made in cherry with the 6-string and 12-string necks. Page’s EDS-1275 has a slightly different body shape from that of the current model and has one-piece mahogany necks rather than the current three-piece maple.
Jimmy Page influenced other guitarists to pick up the EDS-1275, including Alex Lifeson of Rush, who used it to play the song “Xanadu” live. Eddie Van Halen also has one in his collection.
Gibson L5-S Solid Body
In the 1970s, Gibson produced the L5-S, which was effectively a solid-body version of the L-5 archtop. It was used by Paul Simon and, from 1973–76, by Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad (as seen Caught In the Act live album cover); and a custom-made single-pickup version was made for Ronnie Wood, who loaned it to Keith Richards for his 1988 tour with the X-Pensive Winos.
There have ben several variations of the Gibson L5-S model over the years. The Gibson L6-S was similar to the L5-S solid body with the same shape, but with a 24 fret two-octave neck, the first Gibson guitar to have this feature.
Gibson Buys Epiphone
Gibson’s main rival in the archtop guitar market was Epiphone. Their professional archtops, including the Emperor, Deluxe, Broadway and Triumph, rivaled those of Gibson. Epiphone also made upright basses, banjos, and other stringed instruments. In 1957, Gibson changed this by acquiring Epiphone, mostly due to the Epiphone company’s weakness in the aftermath of World War II when they had some financial setbacks.
Epiphone guitars between 1957 and 1970 were made in the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. These Epiphone instruments were effectively identical to the relevant Gibson versions, made with same wood, materials and components, and by the same people as the contemporary equivalent Gibson guitars. They shared the Gibson serial-number sequence.
Specific examples of Gibson-made Epiphone guitars from this period include the Epiphone Sheraton (co-developed with the Gibson ES-335 & sharing its semi-hollow body, but with, Epiphone’s pre-Gibson “Frequensator” tailpiece and “New York” mini-humbucker pick-ups, and significantly fancier inlays) and Sheraton II (replacing the Frequensator with Gibson’s “stop-bar” tailpiece), the Epiphone Casino (similar to the Gibson ES-330).
The Mini-Humbucker was an Epiphone designed Humbucker pickup. They had a unique sound and when Gibson bought Epiphone many of these newly designed pickups were in surplus and ended up in several Gibson model guitars.
In 1970, Epiphone production was moved overseas, giving Gibson a competitive import brand.
P.A.F. (Patent Applied For) Humbuckers by Seth LoverIn 1957, single coil P-90 pickups were no longer offered on Les Pauls. New humbucker pickups designed by Seth Lover in 1955 (U.S. Patent 2,896,491) became the standard Les Pauls in 1957. This innovation in pickups became the flagship pickup design most associated with Gibson. These pickups had a different sound, but reduced the hum associated with the single coil P-90 pickup.
When 1958 arrived, it signaled the Les Paul models first major design changes. The new model, called the Les Paul Standard, featured a new cherry-red sunburst finish. The “burst” was born. These guitars were priced higher than the Goldtop models, but lower than the Les Paul Customs. These Les Paul guitars from 1958-1960 were considered the best Les Pauls Gibson ever made. They are likely the most valuable and expensive in the vintage guitar market. One reason is that over the three-year period of production, only about 1,700 Standards were actually made.
The Gibson Les Paul “burst” from 1958 to 1960 are some of the most sought after of all vintage guitars. It is not uncommon to find a vintage Les Paul Gold Top that has had the gold finish removed and refinished to look like a burst. Generally, this is a bad idea and lowers the value of the guitar.
So in actuality, the 1958-1960 Les Paul Standards were not anywhere as successful as Gibson had hoped. The Les Paul Standard were considered to be too heavy and old-fashioned, and they initially did not find favor amongst guitarists. At this time, Gibson instruments were marketed toward an older, jazz-oriented audience rather than younger players. It was not until later when these guitars were able to be purchased used that many heavy rock players realized just how good these guitars sounded through a Marshall amp stack that they gained in popularity. Of course, this is not the audience that Gibson was targeting and by this time the Les Paul model had radically changed (see SG below).
Gibson ES-335 Semi-Hollow Guitar
In 1958, Gibson introduced the ES-335T model. Similar in size to the hollow-body thinlines, the ES-335 family had a solid center block, giving the string tone a longer sustain and the guitar suppressed feedback at higher volumes. The Gibson ES-335 was the world’s first commercial thinline archtop semi-acoustic electric guitar. The ES-335 was an attempt to find a middle ground between a warmer tone than a solid body guitar with almost as little feedback. No doubt it worked, as the ES-335 has been one of Gibson’s most popular guitars and has been in continuous production since 1958.
The Gibson ES-335 is popular with players from many different genres, Jazz, Blues, Rock, Country and R&B is all fit this model. Some notable guitarists are Larry Carlton, Robben Ford, John Scofield, Lee Ritenour, Alvin Lee, Richie Blackmore and Eric Clapton.
The ES-345, first produced in 1958 as an upscale version of the ES-335. Although the design is very similar to the 335, the 345 featured a multi-position “Varitone” switch located just above the lead tone and volume controls, which added various combinations of inductors and capacitors to the electronic pickup circuit of the guitar in order to alter its resonant frequency and add “color” to the sound. The ES-345 also featured an optional stereophonic output jack, gold-plated hardware, large split parallelogram fingerboard inlays (similar to ES 175), and a thicker three-ply edge binding than that of the ES-335. Notable users were B.B. King, Freddie King, Bill Nelson, John McLaughlin, Jorma Kaukonen, Fred Frith, Porl Thompson of The Cure, Steve Howe and Elvin Bishop.
Several other variations on the basic ES-335 have been produced by Gibson. The ES-355TD (Thinline semi-hollow, Double pickups) was at the top of Gibson’s range of thinline semi-acoustic guitars. It was manufactured from 1958 to 1982. The best-known player of this guitar is B.B. King, whose trademark guitar, Lucille, was the basis for a 1981 signature model.
In 1981, Gibson Introduced the Gibson B.B. King Custom featuring a “Lucille” logo on the headstock with 2 humbuckers, gold plated parts, vari tone switch and were made in ebony or cherry finishes . Gibson ended production in 1988 and introduced a guitar was renamed B.B. King Lucille which is still in production. A special edition the 80th Anniversary Lucille for B.B. King’s 80th birthday were produced in 2006. Only 80 of these were produced.
In the winter of 1949, King played at a dance hall in Twist, Arkansas. The hall was heated by a burning barrel, a fairly common practice at the time. During a performance, two men began to fight, knocking over the burning barrel and sending burning fuel across the floor. The hall burst into flames, and the building was evacuated.
Once outside, King realized that he had left his guitar inside so he went back into the burning building to retrieve his beloved $30 Gibson guitar. King learned the next day that the two men that started the fire, had been fighting over a woman named Lucille. King named that guitar, and every guitar he subsequently owned, Lucille, as a reminder to never again to do something as stupid as run into a burning building or fight over a woman.
B.B. King wrote a song called Lucille in which he talks about his guitar and how it got its name. The song was first released as part of Lucille and is included on the B. B. King Anthology 1962–1998 album.
Epiphone branded B.B. King “Lucille” guitars were produced by Gibson as well.
Epiphone guitars share the similar design, materials and electronics as their Gibson counterparts. The Riviera, Sheraton, Rivoli and Newport models shared similarities with the Gibson ES-335, EB-2 and EB-0 Bass models.
Trini Lopez signature model (1964-1970) was inspired by the ES-335, featuring narrow diamond-shaped soundholes replacing the f-holes, a Firebird-style headstock with all the tuners on one side, and slashed-diamond inlays. Barney Kessel model also was similar and shared the same body style as the Trini Lopez model.
The Gibson CS-336 and the ES-339 models are a smaller version of the ES-335. About the size of the Les Paul model. Other models based on the 335 include the ES-333, the ES-340 (the toggle switch has settings of the pickups in-phase, pickups out-of-phase and standby), the ES-347 (includes a coil tap, block markers on an ebony fretboard, fine tuning tailpiece and, on earlier models, a brass nut, and a greater sustain block).
The Little Lucille (1996-2006) designed with blues players in mind was endorsed by B.B. King. Somewhat resembles the Les Paul and was a variant on the Blueshawk that features a stop tailpiece and tune-o-matic bridge. The Little Lucille was discontinued by Gibson in 2006.
Although the Gibson ES-330 resembles the ES-335 somewhat, they are quite different guitars. The Gibson ES-330 is actually fully hollow (as opposed to semi-hollow) and features two P-90 pickups (as opposed to 2 humbucking pickups), and it was designed as the successor to the Gibson ES-225. The Gibson ES-330 is quite similar to the Epiphone Casino.
The necks on the 330s up until about 1960 were pretty deep fat necks. Then the necks got slimmer seemingly around 1965. Also note that the ES-330 neck joins the body at the 16th fret, whereas the ES-335 neck joins the body at the 19th fret. Later, Gibson produced the ES-330L where the neck was elongated by joining it to the body at the 19th fret to allow easier access to upper frets. Grant Green played a Gibson ES-330 for much of his career.
Explorer and Flying V and Almost the Moderne
Still feeling the pressure from Fender, Gibson produced two new designs for 1958, the eccentrically shaped Explorer and Flying V. These were very modernistic guitars that Gibson hoped would appeal to the younger players. The original run for these guitars were done in Korina wood. Both of guitars did not sell well initially.
The elusive Moderne was designed in 1957 but not actually released until 1982. Although, some have claimed sightings of the Moderne around 1957… but they have not yet turned up.
The Explorer and the Flying V were unsuccessful, the models were discontinued in 1959. Some instruments were assembled from leftover parts and shipped in 1963, with nickel rather than gold-plated hardware. In 1976, Gibson began reissuing the Explorer after other guitar companies had success selling similar designs. The Explorer became especially popular among the hard rock and heavy metal musicians of the 1970s and 1980s.
Blues-rock guitarist Lonnie Mack and blues guitarist Albert King started using the Flying V guitar almost immediately. Mack used his 1958 Flying V almost exclusively during his career. Eventually, renewed interest created a demand for Gibson to reissue the Flying V. Gibson reissued the guitar in mahogany in 1967, updating its design with a bigger, more stylish pickguard, and replacing the original bridge, which had the strings inserted through the back, with the stopbar tail piece.
The 1958-59 korina Explorer is one of the most valuable production-model guitars on the market, ranked at #4 on the 2011 Top 25 published by Vintage Guitar, worth between $250,000 and $310,000. Only 22 were shipped in its first two years, 19 in 1958 and 3 in 1959; an unknown (small) number of leftover bodies were completed with nickel 1960s hardware and sold in 1963. 38 examples are presently known to exist.
Unfortunately for Gibson, the Les Paul model was radically changed in 1961. Gibson redesigned the traditional Les Paul in favor of a lighter new body shape. This was an all mahogany guitar that had a radical horn shape that was thought might compete better with the Fender Stratocaster that came out in 1954. The first model kept the Les Paul name. Les was said to not like these guitars at all.
In 1963 Les did not renew his endorsement deal with Gibson (he was also in a divorce battle with Mary Ford) and Gibson renamed the guitar the SG.
The SG did find a market and had some success, but in 1964, The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards began using a sunburst, 1959 Les Paul Standard – becoming the first “star-guitarist” to play a Les Paul on the British scene. In 1965, Eric Clapton began using Les Pauls because of the influence of Freddie King and Hubert Sumlin, and played a 1960 Standard on the groundbreaking album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton.
In America, Mike Bloomfield began using a 1954 Les Paul goldtop while touring with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and recorded most of his work on the band’s East-West album with that guitar. A year later, he traded it for a 1959 Standard with which he became most identified. Jeff Beck, Peter Green, Jimmy Page, Paul Kossoff and several others started using sunburst Les Paul Standards. Only used models existed, so soon vintage prices started to rise.
The Gibson SG Junior was manufactured from the early 1960s to the early 1970s. Like the Gibson Les Paul Junior, it had been created for sale at a lower price. It is known for its single P-90 treble pickup, and the single piece ‘wrap-around’ bridge instead of the two-piece tune-o-matic bridge and tails-stop arrangement found on the SG Standard. From 1961 to 1963, it was branded with the “Les Paul Junior” name.
In 1963, “Les Paul” was removed from the headstock and it was officially called the SG Junior, due to the endorsement deal with Les Paul had ended. From 1965 to 1971, it had a generic SG pickguard with a soapbar P90 rather than the original dog-ear. It was discontinued in 1971. The late 1960s version has been re-issued by Gibson since 2003. In 2011, Gibson rereleased the Junior closer to its early 1960s incarnation.
The Gibson Bass Guitars
Between 1939 and 1941 Gibson produced quality acoustic archtop basses, cellos, violins and violas. The upright acoustic basses were made before WWII in the classic violin style.
Quote from ‘Gibson Makes Violins’ May 22, 1941…Bass specifications:
‘B-125 Bass……$125.00…Here is the Crackproof Gibson Bass especially arched to produce a powerful, well balanced tone. Spruce top; maple back; rim and neck; ebony fingerboard and tailpiece; flake grain bridge; individual machine heads; solid end pin; adjustable $1.00 extra; finished in rich antique brown.
B-135 Bass……$135.00…Same as B-125 but made of woods especially selected for their beauty and texture to be enriched by the new Gibson natural finish.’
In 1937, Gibson was one of the first manufacturers to develop an electric bass. The design was revolutionary because it combined the neck from a Gibson Style ‘J’ mando-bass with a hollow body shaped like a guitar. It isn’t quite accurate to call it the first electric bass guitar, because it was played like an upright bass. Gibson was never as successful as Fender with bass players. Although, they did produce some nice “low-note” playing guitars.
Think that Hofner was the first and only ones to produce a “violin” style electric bass guitar like Paul McCartney made famous? Think again, The Gibson EB-1 (Electric Bass) was introduced in 1953 and was Gibson’s first bass guitar that was actually in response to the success of the Fender Precision Bass.
Rather than styling the body after an electric guitar, they shaped the EB-1 to resemble a double bass, even painting false f-holes on the top of the body. The EB-1 also had rear-projecting “banjo” style tuners (years before the original Firebird guitar). EB-1 production ended in 1958, when Gibson replaced it with the EB-2 and the later EB-0.
After Gibson introduced the ES-335 guitars they decided to make a semi-hollow electric bass they called the EB-2 in 1958. Similar body and finishes, but had unbound f holes. Like the original Electric Bass, the EB-2’s headstock had similar the banjo-type tuners and a set neck made of Honduras mahogany, with 20 frets on a rosewood fingerboard and pearl dot inlays ands one large pickup. It joined the body at the 18th fret, and its combination bridge/tailpiece was angled, for better intonation. Prices were listed at $282.50 for the EB-2N (natural finish), $267.50 for the EB-2 (sunburst finish), and $49.50 for a plush-lined hard shell case.
The EB-2 didn’t do well sales-wise, and after changes such as Kluson tuners were introduced in late 1960, the model was discontinued in 1961, only to be resurrected in 1964. The EB-2 was discontinued again in 1972.
EB-3 was introduced in 1961 and based on the earlier model, the EB-0. Considered the bass guitar equivalents to the Gibson SG. It featured a slim SG-style body, a short 30.5″ scale, and two pickups (a large humbucking pickup in the neck position and a mini-humbucker pickup in the bridge position). The electronics consisted of a four-way rotary Varitone switch (which allowed the player to select one of three different notch filters, or no filter) and volume and tone knobs for each pickup. The standard finish was cherry red (like the SG guitar models), though EB-3s were also produced in other finishes such as Polaris White, Pelham Blue, Walnut, and Ebony. By the time production ceased in 1979, a total of 14167 instruments had been built.
Jack Bruce switched from a Fender Bass VI to an EB-3 before the recording of Cream’s Disraeli Gears in 1967. Andy Fraser of Free, Pete Quaife of The Kinks, Glenn Cornick with Jethro Tull, Trevor Bolder with David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars band, Doug Yule with The Velvet Underground, Jim Lea with Slade, Chris White with The Zombies and Bob Daisley on Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz in 1980 all played Gibson EB-3 bass guitars. Bill Wyman of The Rolling Stones played an EB-3 for most of the 1970s.
The original Les Paul Bass was not a hit, and in 1971 the model was redesigned and renamed name Les Paul Triumph. This model had built-in switching to change from low to high impedance, but was, in essence, much the same, using the same woods and construction. A hollow body version was created in 1973, named the Les Paul Signature bass. This was a long scale bass (34½”) with double cutaways. Very different from the preceding models, but still bearing the Les Paul name. All Les Paul Bass models were once discontinued in 1979. They have been reissued by Gibson and appear from time to time in different forms.
The Gibson L9-S Ripper electric bass guitar was manufactured from 1973 until 1983. Most had a maple body with laminated maple neck; however a significant number manufactured in 1975 had lighter alder bodies while retaining the maple neck. Also in 1975, an edgier and slimmer body, with more beveling and contours around the horns of the bass, was introduced.
Gibson Thunderbird basses (1963 to 1969) was companion to the electric solidbody Firebird guitars, 34″ scale length.
Gibson today produces several bass guitar models based on the original designs.
The Epiphone Bass Guitars
Gibson has produced many bass guitar models under the Epiphone brand which are mostly all imports. In many cases the out sold the Gibson models which are more expensive.
The Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna bassist) Signature Bass was designed by Casady in collaboration with Epiphone and is a popular model.
The Everly Brothers
The Everly Brothers recorded many hit songs during the 1950s and the 1960s, such as “Wake Up Little Susie”, “Let It Be Me”, “Cathy’s Clown”, “All I Have to Do is Dream”, and “Bye Bye Love”. Throughout the 1950s, they used Gibson J-200 guitars, some customized with dual pick guards.
In 1962, Gibson collaborated with The Everly Brothers to produce the Everly Brothers Flattop. This flat-top guitar featured a thin J-185-style body and an adjustable bridge. The guitar was unusual in that it featured star-shaped inlays on the rosewood fretboard, and it had a large double tortoise grain pickguard, which covered most of the top of the body. Sometimes referred to the “That Girl” pickguard as it resembled Marlo Thomas silhouette from the 1960s TV show. As the pickguard covered most of the top of the guitar, it limited the vibration of the top, thus limiting the sound of the guitar. The standard finish on the guitar was black, though a few models were natural or sunburst finish. The Everly Brothers flat-top was discontinued in 1972, but was reissued as the Gibson J-180 in the mid-1980s.
The Gibson Firebird was manufactured by Gibson in 1963. Probably the notable player would be Johnny Winter. Ted McCarty, “thinking out of the box” after a few failures for more modern guitar designs that would appeal to rock players, hired car designer Ray Dietrich to design the guitar. Dietrich, not a player himself, designed the Firebird on the lines of mid-50s car tail-fins. Dietrich took the Explorer design and rounded the edges. The most unusual aspect is that the guitar is that it is “backward” in that the right-hand (treble) horn of the body is longer than the other. Thus, the original Firebirds were unofficially referred to as “reverse.”
The Firebird was quite expensive to make with its neck-through design and banjo style tuners that were added as Dietrich wanted a “clean” look and did not like seeing the tuner buttons from the front of the guitar. The Firebird received those surplus Epiphone mini-humbuckers for pickups. Some Firebirds from 1965 featured Gibson’s single-coil P-90 pickups.
Neck-thru design is a method of electric guitar or bass guitar construction that involves extending the piece (or pieces) of wood used for the neck through the entire length of the body, essentially making it the core of the body. The strings, fretboard, pickups and bridge are all mounted on this piece. So-called “ears” or “wings” (side of the body) are glued to the central “stick”. The “wings” may be bookmatched in order to give a symmetrical appearance, and are often cut from one piece of wood. The Les Paul “The Log” guitar is a good early example of a neck-thru design.
Gibson’s line of Thunderbird basses is rooted in the design of the Firebird. These basses are still in production.
Two years later in 1965, Gibson made a simpler version of the Firebird, that was less expensive to build and changed the horns more like a traditional guitar. These are known as “non-reverse” Firebirds. They are more Stratocaster like in appearance. Enough so that, Gibson received complaints from Fender that the Firebird headstock mirrored the Stratocaster and that the body violated Fender’s design patents, with Fender threatening a lawsuit.
In 1965, Gibson hits record production, shipping over 100,000 U.S.-made Gibson and Epiphone instruments for the only year in Gibson history.
The Beatles and Gibson
Although, the Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan in 1964 showed to the world had – John playing a Rickenbacker 325 Capri, George with his Gretsch Country Gentleman and Paul playing the now iconic Hofner violin shaped bass. This one appearance had a major impact on the bottomline for these three guitar makers almost immediately.
However, the 1962 Gibson J-160E fitted with a P-90 pickup, were the guitars that appeared on most every Beatle album. John Lennon and George Harrison both played these guitar on stage, TV and in the studio for years. Even after, John’s 1962 Gibson J-160E turned up missing, he later replaced his original one.
George Harrison and John Lennon both bought the Gibson J-160E electrified “jumbo” acoustic guitars on September 10th 1962 at Rushworth and Dreaper’s Music in Liverpool. Almost immediately they got the identical guitars mixed up or traded. The one Harrison had all those years was actually registered to Lennon.
So, after little more than a year, having been used in the studio (Please Please Me, With the Beatles) and on stage, Lennon’s (actually, George’s) guitar disappeared. It was taught to have been stolen on December 1963 at the Finsbury Astoria Theatre in London during the Christmas show. The Beatles crew did not know it was missing for at least a week as they thought John took it home, as he often wrote songs with this guitar.
John had used this J-160E on recordings of PS I Love You and Love Me Do. He also is said to have strummed it while writing several Beatles hits with Paul McCartney, such as I Want To Hold Your Hand and All My Loving. So this truly is an iconic guitar with an amazing providence.
Harrison continued to use his (actually Lennon’s) jumbo through the Sgt. Pepper sessions. This guitar is still owned by the Harrison Estate.
The 1962 Gibson J-160E guitar finally showed up. Apparently, it had for decades been in the possession of John McCaw, a novice musician who bought it in the late 1960s, without knowing it had been stolen from John Lennon. John McCaw got the idea after seeing several pictures of John Lennon’s guitar in the Beatle Gear Book that his old Gibson was the missing Lennon guitar. He had the guitar authenticated by the author and Beatle gear expert Andy Babiuk. The serial number and wood grain matched perfectly.
The Lennon guitar was auctioned and fetched an amazing $2.41 million (£1.6m) on November 7, 2015. Half of the proceeds from the sale of the guitar went to the Spirit Foundation as arranged before the auction, a charitable organization that John Lennon and his widow, Yoko Ono had created.
John Lennon had bought a 1964 Gibson J-160E to replace the 1962 J-160E that was stolen. This new one was first used in concert in Montreal on September 8th 1964 and served as a backup for the ’65 world tours. Except for an extra rosette around the sound hole and a visible orange label inside, it was identical to his first J-160E. John did made a few changes over the years.
In 1967, John commissioned Dutch artists Simon and Marijke Posthuma, a.k.a. The Fool, to give the J-160E a psychedelic paint job, to commemorate the “All You Need Is Love” satellite broadcast. It’s seen in pictures played in the rehearsal, but at air time John opted to just sing.
Lennon later had it professionally stripped. This guitar was seen during the John and Yoko “Bed-In” where Lennon scratched two caricatures of himself and Yoko on the front. Has been on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, on loan from the Lennon Estate.
Worth noting that Paul McCartney got himself an Epiphone Texan FT-79 acoustic guitar in late 1964. This guitar was first used on Help! album for the song “Yesterday,” and other early Beatles songs. McCartney still owns this Epiphone guitar.
The Beatles and the Epiphone Casino
The Epiphone Casino is a full hollow body guitar that is quite similar to the Epiphone Casino. They were actually made in the same Gibson factory in Kalamazoo. Only very few of Epiphone Casinos were produced with a Gibson “open book” style headstock, like the one that Paul McCartney’s Casino has.
The Epiphone Casino and the Gibson ES-330 were made with same materials and by the same factory workers. Although, they are a bit different cosmetically. The Gibson ES-330 was never as popular as the Epiphone Casino. The Beatles playing Casinos was probably a big reason for this.
Paul McCartney was the first Beatle to get an Epiphone Casino. The 1962 Epiphone Casino ES-230TD; Serial # 84075 with Bigsby vibrato was purchased at the same time he bought the Epiphone Texan acoustic. Advice from friend John Mayall was the main reason Paul bought this right-handed, hollow-body electric guitar (similar to the Gibson ES-330) and used it on “Drive My Car,” “Tax Man” and “Paperback Writer.” Paul just restrung it lefty, adjusted the bridge and added a strap button. “If I had to pick one electric guitar,” he said, “it would be this.” McCartney still uses this guitar on stage and for recording.
After Paul McCartney received his Epiphone Casino, Lennon and Harrison both purchased Epiphone Casinos in 1965. They were used extensively in the recording of the Revolver album. John and George’s Casinos had the Epiphone headstock shape. George’s Casino, like Paul’s also was fitted with a Bigsby tailpiece. John’s has a trapeze tailpiece.
Although they purchased the guitars with sunburst finishes, both Harrison and Lennon later stripped the finishes off the guitars, claiming it allowed the guitars to “breathe” better. Lennon’s stripped-down Casino can be seen in video footage of the famous “Rooftop Concert”.
Harrison, stripped the finish off his Casino just as Lennon had done. “They became much better guitars,” he said in a Guitar Player interview. “I think that works on a lot of guitars: If you take the paint and varnish off, and get the bare wood, it seems to sort of breathe.” George’s Casino is still owned by the Harrison Estate.
Lennon used an Epiphone Casino almost exclusively from 1966 until the group’s break-up and is even seen with it during the sessions for his solo Imagine album.
George Harrison has been a long time Gibson fan, as he had played several models over the years – 1962 Gibson J-160E, Gibson ES-345-TD, 1964 Gibson SG Standard, 1968 Gibson J-200, and Gibson Les Paul.
Sometime in 1969 Harrison gave this Gibson SG guitar to the band Badfinger, and after a dispute, Pete Ham aced out fellow guitarist Tom Evans and kept the SG. He used it extensively on tour and in the studio, notably on “No Matter What” and “Baby Blue.” Just before his suicide in April 1974, Ham left this guitar at his brother John’s home. After keeping it stored away, John Ham took it out in 2001 and loaned it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for display.
In 2004 Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Isray picked it up for only $567,000 at Christie’s. Not the same Gibson SG given to Harrison by Eric Clapton, but apparently not used in any Beatles project. Also not to be confused with a red SG used by Badfinger bandmate Joey Molland.
One of the most famous and interesting Gibson guitars that was one of George’s favorites. The 1957 Gibson Les Paul that was named “Lucy.” This is not just a sought after vintage guitar, but was a gift to George from Eric Clapton. Harrison named the guitar “Lucy”, after redhead comedian Lucille Ball. In fact, Eric recorded the guitar solo for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” But this is not the end to the story… It was first owned by John Sebastian (Lovin’ Spoonful), then owed by Rick Derringer!
The red “Lucy” Gibson Les Paul guitar was used on many Beatles recordings in the final years of the band’s career. The guitar—originally a 1957 Goldtop with Bigsby vibrato, with the serial number 7–8789 passed through the hands of three other major rock stars before landing with Harrison in 1968.
Rick Derringer of the McCoys acquired the Les Paul Goldtop around 1966, and it was Derringer who had it refinished to an SG-style cherry red, and had the Bigsby removed, at the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo some time shortly after. Derringer after the work, ended up swapping it for a sunburst Les Paul at Dan Armstrong’s guitar shop in Manhattan, NY… where Eric Clapton purchased it shortly after.
Clapton, used the guitar and then gave the Les Paul to his good friend George Harrison in early August of 1968. Back in Clapton’s hands again on September 6 of that year, when Harrison invited the Cream star to record the now-legendary solo to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” for which he used his recent gift to the George.
George loved this guitar, so much so, he was heartbroken when the guitar was stolen in a burglary of his Beverly Hills home. Amazingly, George got the guitar back, but it was no easy or inexpensive task. The guitar ended up at Whalin’s Sound City Music store in Hollywood, where a guy bought it for $650 (not realizing it was stolen or was George Harrison’s). By the time George had tracked it down it was too late as it had been sold to a musician that was visiting a friend in California from Mexico. The guitar was now back in Mexico with the guitar. George did not give up.
With the help of George Whalin, Harrison was able to track down the friend in California, who gave him the contact information in Mexico. George had to convince the guy to give him back his guitar. The guy did not want to part with it. George ended up contacting Norm Harris (Norm’s Vintage Guitars) to buy another vintage Les Paul to trade the guy. Story has it that Harrison ended up sending the guy in Mexico ’58 sunburst Les Paul guitar to get back his precious “Lucy.”
George, obviously understood the unique providence of this refinished 1957 Les Paul which stayed with Harrison throughout his career, appearing on several solo recordings and performances. The George Harrison estate still owns “Lucy.”
I recently chatted with John Sebastian at the 2016 Woodstock Luthier’s Invitational that I have attend each year. John Sebastian, a Woodstock native has always been a fixture at this event. I asked John if he could tell me what he knew about “Lucy” Les Paul. We said he was well aware of the story. He said he owned the 1957 Goldtop Les Paul and that it was mainly one of his backup guitars. He did not remember where it was purchased or how he obtained it. He said he wound up trading it in for another guitar and was well aware that Rick Derringer obtained the same Les Paul after him back at the time.
John Sebastian is a very nice and gracious man, that is of course still a great performer and guitar player. He gave me a personal concert while he was testing out some new Martin guitars at their booth at the show. He later performed with Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams (who was playing a beautiful Gibson acoustic), Cindy Cashdollar and Happy Traum doing a great version of Nashville Cats.
The Harrison-Clapton-Derringer-Sebastian 1957 Les Paul Standard “Lucy” has been painstakingly recreated by Gibson Custom Shop after intimate examination of the original, thanks to the generous cooperation of the George Harrison estate. Gibson made a special limited run of 100 guitars.
Paul McCartney has owned 1958 Gibson Les Paul for many years. Paul still plays his Les Paul burst on stage regularly.
John Lennon’s Les Paul Junior
John Lennon played a Les Paul Junior in the latter part of his solo career. Somehow he seems quite attracted to this small solid body guitar.
John bought the single-cutaway Gibson Les Paul Junior, it was still in its original factory condition—Tobacco Sunburst finish, single P-90 pickup, wraparound tail piece, and Kluson tuners—but he wanted it modified. As he told New York guitar luthier Ron DeMarino, he wanted a “humberdincker” pickup in it—obviously referring to a humbucker. (Somewhat surprisingly, the songwriter and musician who had helped usher in a cultural renaissance was blissfully unaware of many guitar specifics.) “I’m a rhythmer,” he would say. “I don’t know anything about these things.” Instead of a humbucker, however, DeMarino installed a Charlie Christian pickup in the neck position.
Eric Clapton and Gibson
Many younger folks may not realize that before Eric Clapton moved to playing Fender Stratocasters, he was a big Gibson guitar fanatic. Eric during his time with John Mayall, Yardbirds and Cream played mostly all Gibson guitars.
Eric Clapton actually built his reputation as a guitarist playing Gibson electric guitars. He played them almost exclusively between June 1965 up until about 1970.
Eric Clapton purchased his first Gibson guitar in 1964. It was a 1964 Cherry Red Gibson ES-335 (a.k.a the Cream Guitar) which he would use for the next forty years. He sold it at auction in June 2004.
In June 1965, Clapton bought a second-hand, Cherry Sunburst 1960 Gibson Les Paul. No one could predict that with it he would change the history and sound of the electric guitar. While with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, he played it through overdriven Marshall amplifiers to provide distortion, feedback and sustain. Eric purchased several more Gibson Les Pauls, but his first Cherry Sunburst remained his favorite. The guitar was stolen during early Cream rehearsals in the summer of 1966 and was never recovered.
Of course the 1960 Les Paul that Clapton purchased was a discontinued model, as the original Les Paul model was gone by 1960 (Cherry Sunbursts were not introduced until 1958). Clapton’s popularizing of the Les Paul model affected the electric guitar world in such a manner that Gibson put the model back into production in 1968.
In this picture above Eric is playing a Gibson Les Paul. Eric has owned several over the years, but this one is the one Harrison named “Lucy”, the 1957 Les Paul refinished guitar the Eric bought used in Manhattan at Dan Armstrong’s music store. He later gave this guitar to George Harrison. The same Les Paul that was used to play the famous guitar solo for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
While with Cream, Clapton also played a 1964 Gibson Les Paul SG. He had this guitar painted by the artist cooperative, The Fool. It became known as the “Fool Guitar” or the “Psychedelic SG”
As the 1970s began, Eric Clapton abandoned the Gibson Les Paul in favor of the Fender Stratocaster. However, he never completely abandoned the brand. Today, Eric Clapton uses a Gibson L-5 for select numbers in concert and from time to time, he’s played a Gibson Chet Atkins acoustic on stage. He also uses various other Gibson models in his studio work.
Billy Gibbons and Pearly Gates
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top has a massive vintage and custom guitar collection, but none are more valuable or famous that his 1959 Les Paul, known to worldwide to guitar people as “Pearly Gates.” This vintage Les Paul burst’s classic tone has been one of the most chased by other players. Several after market pickups have been created to emulate “Pearly Gates.”
Billy Gibbons acquired the instrument in 1968, just as ZZ Top were getting underway. Pearly Gates has played an important role on every one of the band’s albums. It was Eric Clapton’s 1966 album with the Blues Breakers that set Billy on a quest to own a sunburst Les Paul like the one Clapton is seen holding on the disc’s rear-sleeve photo. Problem of course is Gibson was no longer making them. So finding the cash and a good one to buy was not exactly easy.
“A dear friend of mine,” Billy recalls, “a fellow musician, Mr. John Wilson, was playing in a band called the Magic Ring out of Houston. He told me, ‘There’s a rancher outside of town who played in a country band but has turned his attention toward wrangling cattle. Rumor has it that the guitar still resides under one of the beds in his ranch house.’”
So Gibbons drove solo about an hour out of Houston and found the elusive rancher. “The guy was big,” Billy recalls. “He was like a John Wayne guy. I had $250 in my pocket. And when he pulled out that ’59 ‘burst, the deal went down.” So he found THE guitar, but where did the $250 come from?
Billy had loaned an aspiring actress friend a 1939 Packard automobile, that he collectively owned with some friends, so that she could drive from Houston to Hollywood for a screen test. “We didn’t think the car would make it past El Paso,” Billy says. “But it brought her all the way to Hollywood, and she got the part. We figured the car must have divine connections, so we named it Pearly Gates. Meanwhile, she called and said, ‘Should I send the car back or sell it?’ We said, ‘Sell it!’ She did, and my portion of the settlement arrived the very day I drove out to see the rancher.”
So the name “Pearly Gates” was transferred to the guitar, which was in mint condition when Billy obtained it. “It still had the original set of flatwound strings from the Gibson factory on it,” Billy marvels. “Plus an extra set of Black Diamond flat wounds in the case. I still got ’em. Also in the case was a love note, which we also still have, from a girlfriend of the original owner. She said, ‘I like what you do. Meet me later. You might like what I can do.’”
Pearly Gates has spent all these years on the road and in the studio with Billy as his number one guitar. The guitar has a nice patina, some scratches, scrapes, and dings, including ample belt buckle wear on the rear of the body. “I call that ‘thrash rash,’ ” Billy says. But one of the first signs of wear and tear on Pearly was on the pickguard. Following in the footsteps of Clapton, Segovia, and others, Gibbons grew out the fingernails of his right hand. “What I hadn’t counted on was that the fingernail of the little finger started digging into the pickguard, leaving scratches,” he says.
Still, Billy has kept Pearly Gates 100-percent stock. Even the frets are original. What might such an instrument be worth today? “There was a Japanese gent who offered $5 million U.S.,” Billy says. “Which is an attractive offer, but then again, I’ve spent plenty of money putting together a collection of guitars attempting to find something to replicate Pearly, and it just hasn’t happened yet. That’s what led to this closet full of hardwood that I have.”
Gibson has created a Billy Gibbons “Pearly Gates” Les Paul with its signature series.
No telling how many young players bought Gibson guitars because their heroes played them. No doubt that plenty of guitarists were greatly influenced by Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Peter Green, Duane Allman, Joe Walsh, Jimmy Page, Peter Townsend when they were playing Gibson Les Paul bursts in the mid to late 1960s when you could not even buy a new one! The demand kept the model alive even after Gibson stopped making them in 1960. Of course this spurred all the reissues and made the Gibson Les Paul the most collectable and most valuable vintage guitar in history.
The deal Ted McCarty made with guitar player Les Paul so many years ago was quite a great partnership that helped Gibson and the Les Paul the man for generations. Les Paul’s divorce from Mary Ford was final, and the demand for the original “burst” Les Paul Standard model was rising in the vintage market. Gibson realized that it was time to bring back the Les Paul guitar model.
Les Paul the Guitar and Les Paul the Man Returns
The Les Paul returned to the Gibson as endorser in 1968 and with the new Gibson Les Paul Deluxe. Gibson was trying to respond from players looking for the 1958-1960 style Les Paul models they were seeing their rock heroes play.
Gibson’s response was not exactly what many guitarist were actually craving however. The new Gibson Les Paul Deluxe, not only did not have the same finish, it did not have Gibson P.A.F. Humbuckers. The Mini-Humbucker pickups they used were fitted into the pre-carved P-90 pickup cavity using a plastic adaptor ring developed by Gibson. This was in order to use a surplus supply of Epiphone Mini-Humbucker pickups. This was not that popular with players at the time. Therefore you will find many vintage Gibson Les Paul Deluxe guitars routed out for full size humbuckers and sporting humbucker pickups made by Larry DiMarzio.
After-market pickup makers, like Seymour Duncan and Larry DiMarzio, started becoming quite popular around this time. Players chasing sound would now be much more willing to replace the stock pickups in their guitars. These after markets guys made this easy.
Gibson also reintroduced the Les Paul Custom in 1968 as a two-pickup-only model. The headstock angle was changed from 17 degrees to 14, and a wider headstock and a maple top (in lieu of the original 1953-1961 mahogany top construction) were added.
Ted McCarty Leaves Gibson
In 1966, Ted McCarty retired from Gibson and became president of the Bigsby Company. Ted sold Bigsby to Gretsch in 1991. McCarty died in April 2001, at the age of 91. McCarty was responsible for the development of the Tune-o-matic bridge system, the humbucking pickup, and the Explorer, Flying V, Moderne, SG, Firebird guitars as well as the Les Paul guitars. He left quite a legacy in the guitar world.
McCarty became the mentor to Paul Reed Smith. Smith found out about McCarty during a visit to the U.S. Patent office in the early 1980s, where he kept noticing McCarty’s name among Gibson’s patents. Smith later hired McCarty as a consultant, and credits his experience with McCarty as a defining moment in his company. In 1994, Paul Reed Smith’s company PRS Guitars, launched the McCarty model as a tribute to McCarty. Previously, no instrument or company ever bore his name.
Chicago Musical Instruments Gets Taken Over By Brewery
On December 22, 1969, the Gibson parent company Chicago Musical Instruments was taken over by the South American brewing conglomerate ECL. Gibson remained under the control of CMI until 1974 when it became a subsidiary of Norlin Musical Instruments. Norlin Musical Instruments was a member of Norlin Industries which was named for ECL president Norton Stevens and CMI president Arnold Berlin. This began an era characterized by corporate mismanagement and decreasing product quality.
The Gibson Citation is a top-of-the-line archtop guitar aimed at jazz players, introduced in 1969 and still available from the Gibson Custom Shop on special order. With a 17″ full-depth body with figured maple back and sides and a carved maple or spruce top with fancy inlays. The neck was made of figured maple or mahogany. The Gibson Citation usually has a gold-covered floating BJB pickup, and has been available in natural and sunburst finishes.
The Citation is considered one of Gibson’s finest and most beautiful hand-made carved guitars. It has been reissued several times.
After paying his dues with Humble Pie and years of solo touring and recording in the late ’60s and ’70s, young British guitarist Peter Frampton hit it huge in 1976 with the release of Frampton Comes Alive, the biggest selling live album of all time. Folding down that double-album’s cover and you could see Frampton wailing on a black, three-pickup Les Paul Custom. Many guitar players started searching for a Les Paul like Frampton’s which was assumed to be an original 1960 Les Paul Custom with the three humbuckers, but the history and following story of this particular instrument is much more interesting than that. Peter Frampton and this Gibson Les Paul Custom had quite a journey.
Frampton was at the Fillmore West, San Francisco in 1970 for three-nights with his band Humble Pie who was opening for the Grateful Dead. On the very first night of the show, Frampton found trouble with howling feedback from his semi-hollow body electric guitar on the big stage at the Fillmore. A fan named Mark Mariana approached Frampton after his set on the second night, said he’d noticed the problems and offered to lend his solid body Les Paul Custom for the third night. Mariana brought the instrument, which looked like a 1960 Les Paul Custom with three humbuckers. In actuality, it was a 1954 Les Paul Custom that had been highly modified with new frets and three humbucker pickups. Original 1954 Les Paul Custom was made from light Honduran mahogany with a thin neck and P-90 at the bridge and an Alnico V pickup at the neck.
Frampton bonded with the guitar instantly. It not only cured his feedback problems for the closing night of the run, it proved the most tuneful, expressive guitar Frampton had ever played. “I used it that night, and for both sets, I don’t think my feet touched the ground the whole time,” Frampton says. “I mean, I levitated.”
When he offered to buy it after the set, Mariana said that, no, he wouldn’t sell it—he would GIVE it to Frampton. And through that unprecedented act of generosity, a re-born 1954 Les Paul Custom became one of the most iconic guitars of the decade. But the story does not end there.
That guitar became Frampton’s signature instrument. He continued to use it with Humble Pie, and later on his solo material, played it almost exclusively for years. When it made the cover of the classic 1976 double live album, Frampton Comes Alive! the guitar became iconic. The album sold more than six million copies in the United States alone.
However, this Les Paul Custom along with all Frampton’s guitars was actually lost in 1980. While Frampton was on tour in South America, the guitar was put on a cargo plane in Venezuela, en route to Panama. The plane crashed right after takeoff killing three people. Frampton’s treasured black Gibson Les Paul Custom was gone forever… or so he thought!
“Basically I’m thinking, ‘It’s gone,'” Frampton recalls. “But the thing is, I’m also sitting in a restaurant where I can see the pilot’s wife. She’s waiting in the hotel for her husband, who, unfortunately, didn’t make it. So we were all overcome, because people lost their lives as well as our complete stage of gear.”
What Frampton didn’t know is that the guitar had actually survived, albeit with some bumps and bruises. It fell into the hands of a musician on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, who owned it for many years before a local guitar collector spotted it and contacted Frampton.
After two-years of negotiation involving the local musician who had the guitar, a customs agent who repairs guitars in his spare time, a diehard Frampton fan in the Netherlands and the head of the island’s tourist board. Shockingly, thirty-one years later Frampton’s iconic Les Paul Custom was recovered and returned to him in December 2011.
The tourist board official, Ghatim Kabbara, bought the guitar with public funds and traveled to Nashville to hand it to Mr. Frampton in a tattered gig bag. Frampton said he knew as soon as he picked the instrument up that it was the same 1954 Gibson Les Paul with customized pickups that he had played for a decade. It was an emotional moment, he said.
”It’s sort of a matte black now — it’s not shiny so much anymore. The binding needs a little bit of work on the neck; the electronics need replacing,” Frampton says. He adds, though, that he limited the repairs to “whatever needs to be replaced on it to make it just playable. But it must retain its battle scars.”
“Oh, it’s got to go on the road,” Frampton said. “For it to be given back to me … It’s not something I’m going to hide in the closet.”
Gibson painstaking reproduced Frampton’s iconic Les Paul Custom now nicknamed the “Phenix” as it has arose from the ashes.
Peter Frampton Plays “Do You Feel Like We Do” for the first time at the Beacon Theatre in New York in 2012 after being reunited with the guitar 31 years later.
The Norlin Era Gibson Guitars
What is known as the “Norlin Era,” saw Gibson products decline in quality. Les Paul designs were altered and a reinforced upper neck volute to decrease headstock breaks was added. Neck woods were changed from one-piece mahogany to a three-piece maple design. The body was also changed from one-piece mahogany with a maple top to multiple slabs of mahogany with multiple pieced maple tops.
Gibson began experimenting with new models, such as the Les Paul Recording. This guitar was generally unpopular with guitarists because of its complex electronics.
The ABR1 Tune-o-matic bridge was changed into a wider “Nashville” bridge.
The “Norlin Era” at Gibson not only saw a decline in quality and changes to the guitars. Gibson released some new models that were based on older designs. These models were also not hits with most players. Some models like the Gibson ES-325 thinline hollow body electric guitar (1972 to 1979) looked similar in appearance to the popular Gibson ES-335 semi-hollow guitar, but were actually quite different.
The ES-325 thinline hollowbody featured Gibson mini-humbucking pickups, had only one f-hole, and had a half-moon shaped plastic control plate supporting the electronics (input jack, volume and tone controls, and pickup selector switch). The neck with is quite thin and nicknamed the “broom stick” neck by some players. The ES-325 when introduced in 1972 and was available in walnut and cherry (later changed to “cherry wine”) finishes. Trapeze Tailpieces were standard, as on other fully hollow body Gibsons.
Gibson introduced the Gibson Grabber bass the Gibson Marauder guitar in the mid 1970s. The Grabber bass was popular in the 1970s, but the Marauder did not catch on so much with players. I personally remember passing on one these being pitched to me in a music store back in the mid 1970’s.
The Gibson RD series (abbreviation for “research and development”) solid body electric guitars were launched in 1977. They featured active electronics and were designed to appeal to those interested in synthesizers as well as guitars. An “unhappy marriage of traditional and modern design”, the series was unsuccessful.
Gibson Corvus was a very short-lived series of guitars produced in the mid-1980s. Featuring a solid body with an offset V-cut at the tail, which led it to be colloquially known as the “can opener” guitar. If the guitar is turned sideways, it looks as if it is the shape of a crow in flight. Corvus is the Latin word for crow. Strange guitar to say the least.
In 1983, Gibson introduced a Les Paul Style shaped solid body guitar and named it the Gibson Challenger, the guitar was single cutaway, had one humbucker pickup, “bolt on” maple neck with rosewood fingerboard and dot markers. Discontinued in 1985.
The Gibson 335-S was a solidbody version the ES-335 introduced in mid-1980.
The Sonex guitars were a range of budget Gibson electric guitars launched in 1980. They were made from a material called Resonwood, and manufactured with Multi-phonic body construction. There were four models: Deluxe, Standard, Custom and Artist.
The Gibson Spirit was a guitar model sold under Gibson and Epiphone USA nameplates in the 1980s.
The Gibson Victory produced from 1981 until around 1983 was built in response to the “superstat” craze and was a radical departure for Gibson.
Les Paul Custom “20 Anniversary” and Gibson Les Paul Special “55” Reussues
In 1974 Gibson bought out two limited edition models, one on the high end and one on the lower end. The Les Paul Custom “20 Anniversary” Model was on the high-end. Gold hardware and full-sized Gibson humbuckers. There was a fret marker that was engraved signifying “20 Anniversary” model.
The reissue for the Gibson Les Paul Special “55” was a the flat slab mahogany body guitar with two P-90s. It featured a wraparound tailpiece.
Les Paul Pro Deluxe
In 1978, the Les Paul Pro Deluxe was introduced. This guitar featured P-90 pickups (like the original 1952-1956 Les Paul) instead of the “mini-humbuckers” of the Deluxe model, an ebony fingerboard, maple neck, mahogany body and chrome hardware. It came in ebony, cherry sunburst, tobacco sunburst or gold finish. It was discontinued in 1983.
Chet Atkins at Gibson
After ending his long running endorsement deal due his unhappiness with Baldwin’s quality issues at Gretsch, the first Chet Atkins solidbody acoustics in 1982 were produced. The Gibson Chet Atkins SST was a solid body acoustic-electric designed by country musician Chet Atkins. The steel-string model was introduced in 1987 and was discontinued for 2006. Chet Atkins CE is a nylon string variation of this guitar.
The SST quickly became popular among rock and country players because high volume levels could be reached without any feedback. Chet was quite interested in creating a nylon string solid body guitar. Gretsch was unwilling to comply.
Les Paul StudioThe Studio model was introduced in 1983, and is still in production. The guitar is intended for the studio musician; therefore, the design features of the “Les Paul Studio” are centered on optimal sound output and without the expensive flashy appearance. This model retains only the elements of the Gibson Les Paul that contribute to tone and playability, including the carved maple top and standard mechanical and electronic hardware.
However, the Studio design omits several stock Gibson ornamentations that do not affect sound quality, including body/neck binding. So they are less ornate, but retain the tone of a quality Les Paul.
The first Studios from 1983 to 1986 were made with alder bodies rather than mahogany/maple. The current Studios come with a chambered mahogany body with either a maple or mahogany cap. The entry level Les Paul Studio “faded” has a weight relieved mahogany body and top and a satin finish.
Les Paul Standard & Pro Double-cut
Les Paul Standard & Pro Double-cut was a newer model, based on an arched-top Les Paul with humbucker pickups, similar to the Hamer design. The Pro has 22 frets; the Standard has 24 frets. Unlike other 2-pickup single cutaway Les Pauls, these Gibson doublecutaway versions have one master volume and one master tone control (singlecut Les Pauls with two pickups have two sets of tone and volume controls, one for each pickup). Many believe these newer archtop doublecut Les Pauls were developed in response to the high-end guitars of Gibson competitor Paul Reed Smith (PRS).
Gibson Factory Nashville
Between 1974 and 1984 production of Gibson guitars was shifted from Kalamazoo to Nashville, Tennessee.
Heritage Guitars is Born
Gibson left Kalamazoo in 1984, then previous factory became Heritage Guitars as many of the original employees led by plant manager Jim Duerloo, did not want to move their homes and families to Tennessee. So they decided to open their own company to produce high quality guitars. Heritage is a boutique manufacturer, making semi-hollow guitars, large jazz boxes, solid body electrics.
Heritage Guitars is still going strong building versions of classic Gibson designs which the company’s advocates and fans would say, are constructed in a much more “hand-made” fashion, and with much greater individual attention to detail by the builders.
n 1977, Gibson sued Hoshino/Elger for copying the Gibson Les Paul. In 2000, Gibson sued Fernandes Guitars in a Tokyo court for allegedly copying Gibson designs. Gibson did not prevail. Gibson also sued PRS Guitars in 2005, to stop them from making their Singlecut model. The lawsuit against PRS was initially successful. However, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the lower court decision and ordered the dismissal of Gibson’s suit against PRS.
Gibson is Saved
Gibson was within three months of going out of business before it was bought by Henry E. Juszkiewicz, David H. Berryman, and Gary A. Zebrowski in January 1986. New production plants were opened in Memphis, Tennessee, as well as Bozeman, Montana. The Memphis facility is used for semi-hollow and custom shop instruments, while the Bozeman facility is dedicated to acoustic instruments.
Gibson began manufacturing a new range of varied Les Paul models. Several design characteristics, including the volute and maple neck were gone. However, because of consumer demand, the Gibson Les Paul guitar is available today in a wide array of choices, ranging from guitars equipped with modern digital electronics to classic re-issue models built to match the look and specifications of the guitar’s earliest production runs from 1952 to 1960.
Gibson begins a period of growth with increasing sales and the acquisition of other instrument companies, including Steinberger and Tobias basses, Slingerland drums, Kramer guitars and OMI (the company that makes Dobro resonator guitars).
Gibson Custom Shop
In 1986, to respond to the high demand for vintage models, Gibson formed a “Custom Shop” division. Originally, the Shop began producing accurate reproductions of early Les Pauls as well as one-off orders.
Today, the Custom Shop produces numerous limited-run “historic-spec” models, as well as signature artist models. The first Custom Shop artist guitar was the 1996 Joe Perry Les Paul.
Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul Catalina
The Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul Catalina models were originally produced in the Gibson Custom Shop from 1997 to 1999 only. Produced in three main colors, Riverside Red, Canary Yellow and Sea Foam Green. Don’t let the bright colors distract you as these are wonderful guitars.
This Custom Shop model is slightly chambered and has standard Les Paul single cutaway, 22 frets. 2-tone, 2 vol, and 3-way toggle for the pickups which are 1957 classics, tune-o-matic bridge with stop tailpiece. Grover tuners. All hardware is nickel plated.
So this one above is a bit rare as it is a Dark Grey (almost black) with a bit or a metallic in the finish. Most likely was an ordered custom color.
Gibson Turns 100
Gibson celebrated its Centennial, a new model, the Nighthawk, wins an award for Most Innovative Guitar at the January NAMM show from Music and Sound Retailer for designer J.T. Riboloff.
In 1994, Gibson acquires Slingerland Drums and joins the stable of product lines under the well known family of brands at Gibson guitar. In 2000, Gibson had an acquisition of the Baldwin Piano & Organ Company. Baldwin Piano, America’s Favorite Piano, becomes a member of the prestigious Gibson Family of Brands.
Gibson celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Les Paul Model in 2002 and introduces the world’s first digital guitar. Utilizing proprietary MaGIC transport protocol developed by Gibson Labs, the Gibson Digital Guitar represents the greatest advance in guitar technology since the invention of the electric guitar 70 years earlier.
In 2004, The newly formed Gibson Audio division introduces the Wurlitzer Digital Jukebox, the world’s most comprehensive home music system, at the Consumer Electronics Show and wins the CES Innovations Award. The Digital Ready Guitar, a conventional Les Paul model designed to be easily upgradeable to digital, is introduced.
Gibson Guitar changes the electric guitar in 2007 with its introduction of the world’s first guitar with robotic technology, the Gibson Robot Guitar. The guitar which was produced in a very limited edition sold out in only 2 days worldwide.
The Gibson Blueshawk model came in 1996 and was designed with blues players in mind. The Blueshawk resembles a semi-hollow Les Paul in that the body outline is similar. The Blueshawk was discontinued by Gibson in Spring 2006, and returned in 2015 under the Epiphone brand. A variant on the Blueshawk is named Gibson Gibson Little Lucille and features a stop tailpiece and tune-o-matic bridge.
Les Paul’s Favorite Personal Guitar
Until his death in August 2009, Les Paul himself played his personal Les Paul Guitar onstage weekly in New York City at the Iridium Jazz Club.
Paul preferred low impedance pickups on his 1971 Gibson “Recording” model guitar, with different electronics and a one-piece mahogany body, and which, as an inveterate tinkerer and inventor, he had modified heavily to his liking over the years. A Bigsby-style vibrato was of late the most visible change although his guitars were formerly fitted with his “Les Paulverizer” effects.
Epiphone Les Pauls
Gibson-owned Epiphone Company makes around 20 models of the Les Paul, most are similar copies of Gibson-made models. Made in places outside the U.S., the Epiphone Les Pauls are made from more commonly available woods using less expensive foreign labor and have less hand detailing than the Gibson models, and, as a result, sell for a lower price. Epiphone Guitar Co. has been owned by Gibson Guitars since the 1950s. Epiphone Les Pauls are very nice guitars sold at reasonable prices .
Epiphone also makes several less common models of the Les Paul such as the Les Paul Goth, Les Paul Ultra/Ultra II, Les Paul Prophecy, and Les Paul Tribute Plus.
Les Paul Signature Models
Jimmy Page, Slash, Joe Perry, Gary Moore, Peter Frampton, Michael Bloomfield, Pete Townshend, Ace Frehley, Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton, Paul Kossoff and Alex Lifeson have all been honored with a Les Paul Signature model.
The Gibson Imports
Guitars that are branded with the Gibson brand are made in the U.S.A. as they always have been. But like all other guitar makers, Gibson needs to compete with the constant influx from asian guitar makers. In order to compete, Gibson has set up to produce guitars in Japan, Korea, China and other parts of the world that are imported to other countries and the U.S. as lower price points.
Gibson users the Epiphione brand on imported guitars. They arte quality guitars, some in classic Gibson designs at a lower price points.
Today’s Gibson electric guitars represent the history as well as the future of the electric guitar. The models whose designs have become classics-the ES-175, ES-335, Flying V, Explorer, Firebird, SGs and Les Pauls