"Listen to the sustain."
"I don't hear anything."
"You would, if it were playing."
Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel talking to interviewer Rob Reiner in that famously funny rockumentary. He's holding up a sunburst 1959 Gibson Les Paul, the grain of its bookmatched maple top forming the much sought-after "tiger stripe" finish. This is the six-stringed Mona Lisa, the holy grail of electric guitars.
For electric guitar players, it pretty much boils down to two camps: Fender or Gibson. Kind of like PC or Mac, Chevy or Ford, the Yankees or the Mets. The thing is, while the (once) cheap and (still) cheerful Fender Telecaster could be likened to a Volkswagen Beetle (the original version), Gibson was always more upmarket-think Mercedes-Benz, with a similarly illustrious heritage. And Gibson stayed up there with its first-ever solid-bodied electric, the Les Paul.
Fans of the Les Paul (and they are legion; some are legendary) have one special man to thank. But his name isn't Les Paul. Or Orville Gibson, who founded the company in 1902. It's Ted McCarty. He was the company president from 1950 to 1966. The genesis of the Les Paul guitar is shrouded in mystery and myth, but although McCarty and his company worked with the prodigiously gifted and inventive guitarist whose name is on the headstock of this iconic guitar, it is generally recognized that McCarty had the most input.
Les Paul, the man (Lester William Polsfus, born 1915), was the original guitar hero. He was on his own quest to find his ideal guitar. In those days, amplified guitars were still hollow-bodied. Above a certain volume level, the pickups (a device of magnets and wires that "pick up" the sound of the vibrating strings) would feed back, emitting a most unmusical squeal. Paul worked on the idea that a solid piece of wood wouldn't have the same resonance, although the pickups could still "hear" the strings. He approached the Gibson company with a couple of prototypes, one of which was nicknamed "The Log." At first, Gibson-maker of high-quality mandolins, acoustic guitars, and hollow-bodied jazz guitars-got a "thanks, but no thanks" reaction, but when Leo Fender started selling the slab-bodied Telecaster in big numbers, the company asked "the kid with the broomstick with pickups" to come back in.
The styling looks as if it might well have come from within the company, being a scaled-down version of its ES-175 jazz guitar. It also has a carved top, in the same manner as Gibson's hollow-bodied electrics. According to McCarty, one of the few things Paul added was a trapeze tailpiece that secures the strings at the bottom of the guitar. It was prone to tuning problems and was eventually replaced by a separate bridge and stopbar tailpiece, a McCarty design. Like Leo Fender, McCarty wasn't a guitar player, but his creations are still in common use today.
The first Les Paul came out in 1952 and cost $210. It had a gold finish (these have come to be known as Gold Tops) and single-coil pickups. The trouble with single-coil pickups is that they transmit the 60-Hertz hum that is an audible oscillation of alternating-current electrical systems. One man at Gibson, Seth Lover, had the idea of taking one single-coil pickup and linking it to another that was wired out of phase, thus cancelling out the hum. This new, double-coil pickup became known as the "humbucker." It had the effect of cutting some high frequencies, but also provided a thick, buttery sound. Although both companies make guitars with a variety of pickups, Fender is known for its single-coils and Gibson for its humbuckers.
Another thing that differentiated the two is Gibson's deployment of a glued-in neck, as opposed to Fender's bolt-on arrangement. The combination of this neck construction, the woods used (mahogany body with a maple cap), humbucking pickups, and bridge design gives the Les Paul its particular mojo, the sustain that Tufnel and every other rock guitarist loves. But that didn't stop the guitar's popularity from waning in the late 1950s.
It was the British Blues Invasion of the mid-'60s- with players like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Peter Green (from Fleetwood Mac)-who found the guitar could push valve amps into sweet overdrive, that brought about a resurgence in the Les Paul's fortunes. This is the time when the guitar went from musical instrument to icon, becoming Gibson's best-selling model.
There have been many iterations and variations along the way. The cheapest new Gibson Les Paul now is about $800. But vintage examples fetch much more. A '59 once owned by Keith Richards was valued at $400,000.