His­toric Hard­ware: 1952 & 1954 Gib­son les paul Gold­tops

Now well into its golden years at the ripe old age of 65, the orig­i­nal 1952 Gib­son Les Paul Model shows lit­tle sign of re­tir­ing, although it does look good in tweed…

Guitarist - - Contents - Words Rod Brakes Pho­tog­ra­phy Neil God­win

Hot on the heels of Fender’s 1950 Broad­caster and Esquire re­leases, Gib­son de­buted its own solid­body elec­tric in 1952. “De­signed by Les Paul – pro­duced by Gib­son – and en­thu­si­as­ti­cally ap­proved by top gui­tarists ev­ery­where,” read the ad­ver­tise­ment. “The Les Paul Model is a unique and ex­cit­ing in­no­va­tion in the fret­ted in­stru­ment field; you have to see and hear it to ap­pre­ci­ate the won­der­ful fea­tures and un­usual tone of this new­est Gib­son guitar.”

The Les Paul Model sported two cream­coloured soap­bar P-90 pick­ups, a trapeze tail­piece, a bound carved maple top, a solid ma­hogany back and a one-piece ma­hogany neck with a bound Brazil­ian rose­wood fingerboard, and was fin­ished in gold as stan­dard. In typ­i­cal Gib­son style, it ap­peared to be a classy, upmarket in­stru­ment – not too out of place among its range of finely crafted arch­top jazz gui­tars and flat-top acous­tics.

At­tempt­ing to build upon re­nais­sance man Les Paul’s fame as a jazz-pop artist of the 1930s and 1940s, Gib­son es­tab­lished him as the name and face of its fledg­ling in­stru­ment. In­ven­tor Les – hav­ing brought the guitar into pro­duc­tion in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Gib­son – ap­peared to be a suitable en­dorser. How­ever, with the rise of rock ’n’ roll and R&B dur­ing the 1950s, his pop­u­lar­ity as an artist waned and the Les Paul Model sales rapidly fol­lowed suit.

World renowned vin­tage guitar ex­pert Ge­orge Gruhn of Gruhn Gui­tars in Nashville ex­plains: “Were Les Paul Mod­els a smash­ing suc­cess, com­mer­cially? No, not re­ally. The Les Paul Mod­els were not sell­ing well. The best years for Les Paul Model sales is very early on; 1953 was the peak of pro­duc­tion for the gold Les Paul and af­ter that they were steadily fall­ing. They weren’t di­rect­ing a very ef­fec­tive mar­ket­ing cam­paign. Les Paul as an en­dorser wasn’t all that use­ful – by 1953, his pop­u­lar­ity was on a down­hill slope. The Les Paul Model was be­ing en­dorsed by Les, but he was play­ing jazz-pop and his style of mu­sic was rapidly go­ing out of fash­ion. The early 50s Les Paul Mod­els were won­der­ful gui­tars, but Gib­son wasn’t try­ing to mar­ket them at rock ’n’ rollers or R&B play­ers. Les Paul was still per­form­ing, but he wasn’t sell­ing any­where near as many records as he was, and by the time [Gib­son] rein­tro­duced the sin­gle-cut Les Paul in ’68, most of the kids who wanted a Les Paul guitar barely knew who Les Paul was. I even had a guy call me up one day and ask me if I could get him a ‘Lay Paul’!”

Mean­while, Fender man­aged to cash in on Gib­son’s over­sights and the com­pany went from strength to strength. “Fender sales of solid­bod­ies in the 50s were way ahead of Gib­son,” con­tin­ues Ge­orge. “The pro­duc­tion fig­ures aren’t so read­ily avail­able, but Fender far out-sold Gib­son. The Les Paul is a won­drously fine R&B guitar, but Gib­son’s mar­ket­ing wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily well di­rected. R&B through­out most of the 50s was played al­most ex­clu­sively by black folks who typ­i­cally were not go­ing out and buy­ing new Les Pauls, so you didn’t re­ally see black per­form­ers en­dors­ing Gib­son prod­ucts un­til the late 60s.”

In tan­dem with Fender’s suc­cess in the newly es­tab­lished solid­body elec­tric guitar mar­ket, it was also ex­pand­ing upon its range of am­pli­fiers. From their in­tro­duc­tion in 1946, Fender amps were orig­i­nally in­tended

“The Les Paul is a fine R&B guitar, but Gib­son’s mar­ket­ing wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily well di­rected” Ge­orge Gruhn

for use with lap steel and dou­ble­neck steel in­stru­ments. With an al­ready es­tab­lished range of amps avail­able as the elec­tric guitar craze gath­ered mo­men­tum, Fender lit­er­ally had the stage set for gui­tarists to plug in and turn up the vol­ume. And as the com­pany fur­ther aimed to ac­com­mo­date the elec­tric gui­tarist, the size, power and flex­i­bil­ity of its amps in­creased ac­cord­ingly. Re­leased in 1946, the Pro­fes­sional amp – re­named the Pro-Amp in 1947 as it re­ceived the newlook ‘TV front’ style – was orig­i­nally top of the line, and although it was su­per­seded by the first tweed amp in pro­duc­tion, the Dual Pro­fes­sional, in 1947, it tem­po­rar­ily re­mained the most pow­er­ful amp on of­fer and housed a large 15-inch speaker.

Fender am­pli­fiers such as the Pro-Amp were ready and wait­ing for elec­tric gui­tars and im­me­di­ately en­abled gui­tarists to achieve an out­stand­ing tone that proves just as pop­u­lar to­day. Gui­tarist Joe Moun­tain of The Blood Choir, owner of the 1950 Pro-Amp pic­tured, agrees: “Pretty much any guitar you put through it sounds re­ally good, but my Tele­caster plugged straight in with the bridge pickup on is one of the best guitar sounds I’ve ever heard – that’s what sold the amp to me. The Tele is nor­mally a very bright-sound­ing guitar, but the Pro-Amp fil­ters out the harsh top-end re­ally nicely. If you turn ev­ery­thing fully up it has the most bad-ass sound you’ve ever heard; it’s re­ally fat and breaks up like a big­ger ver­sion of a [Fender] Deluxe. It’s got loads of bot­tom-end – I think hav­ing a big­ger [15-inch] speaker in it gives it some ex­tra beef, and if you smash the front-end with gain you get this amaz­ing sag. You hit a chord and it just ex­plodes and blooms!”

The de­signs of to­day’s most pop­u­lar amps and gui­tars haven’t changed a great deal since they were first re­leased, although in many cases – par­tic­u­larly with the Les Paul Model – it took a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of years for their full po­ten­tial to be widely recog­nised. Many play­ers agree that the orig­i­nal vin­tage gui­tars far sur­pass their mod­ern equiv­a­lents or reis­sues, which has pushed up their de­mand and sub­se­quently – due to their rel­a­tive scarcity – the prices.

“The Les Paul mod­els from the 50s didn’t sell re­motely as well as they do to­day,” Ge­orge points out. “The man­u­fac­tur­ing level at that time was minis­cule com­pared to what is made to­day, but if you think about it, a guitar that’s prop­erly built could last 200 years and they haven’t re­ally made any

“When I picked up [the ’52], it just made me play bet­ter! You can tell some­one’s played the arse off it – but they’re al­ways the best vin­tage gui­tars” Joel Peat, law­son

ma­jor de­sign in­no­va­tions since they first ap­peared. Nowa­days, a lot of in­stru­ments are used to make mu­sic that they weren’t orig­i­nally de­signed for, and that goes way back to Stradi­var­ius vi­o­lins.”

From Flawed to Flaw­less

The Les Paul’s im­me­di­ate lack of pop­u­lar­ity may in part be due to some of the de­sign fea­tures of­ten per­ceived as prob­lem­atic, such as its no­tice­ably small frets. While sales con­tin­ued to de­cline, other such short­com­ings were sub­se­quently re­viewed and re­solved over the course of the 50s as the guitar evolved: the trapeze ‘strings un­der the bar’ bridge/tail­piece was re­placed in 1953 by a ‘wrapover’ stud bridge/tail­piece and al­lowed play­ers the abil­ity to palm-mute strings; the neck an­gle was deep­ened in 1954 giv­ing bet­ter all­round playa­bil­ity and sus­tain; and in 1955 the ‘wrapover’ bridge was re­placed by the in­to­na­tion-friendly Tune-o-matic bridge and ‘stop’ tail­piece.

Although aware of its flaws, An­drew Yonke, CEO of Chicago Mu­sic Ex­change, orig­i­nally ac­quired the 1952 Les Paul Model pic­tured here through Her­itage Auc­tions in the USA for his per­sonal col­lec­tion, be­fore later sell­ing it on in the store. “Those orig­i­nal 1952 Les Pauls are not good-play­ing gui­tars be­cause of the small frets, the shal­low neck an­gle and the bridge,” An­drew ex­plains. “But I thought, ‘I can eas­ily sort this out’ – apart from a few mi­nor things, it was com­pletely straight and it had re­ally good pick­ups, so I bought it. I had it re­fret­ted by a guy here in Chicago and [famed luthier] Joe Glaser, who’s a good friend of mine, de­vel­oped a tail­piece that you put on the orig­i­nal trapeze setup so that you can wrap the strings around the top and in­to­nate it. I put it on and it worked per­fectly. It also got around the prob­lem of the shal­low neck an­gle. Ev­ery­thing that was done to that guitar was done for func­tional rea­sons and it turned out great!”

Gui­tarist Joel Peat of Law­son later stum­bled across An­drew’s ’52 Les Paul Model while it was on sale in Chicago Mu­sic Ex­change and in­stantly fell in love. “I was on tour with Law­son and we were in Chicago, so I popped into Chicago Mu­sic Ex­change,” re­mem­bers An­drew. “When I picked up this guitar, it just made me play bet­ter! It was in­spir­ing and sounded in­cred­i­ble. It’s quite spe­cial when an in­stru­ment grabs you like that – it means some­thing when it’s that good. It’s not in per­fect con­di­tion – you can tell some­one’s played the arse off it – but they’re al­ways the best vin­tage gui­tars. The ones that have got a bit of wear and have been out on the road, they’ve been loved be­cause of the way the guitar sounds and feels. I used it on the last [Law­son] al­bum, Per­spec­tive. It’s on the in­tro to Love & War. The song starts with that guitar and I played it through a Les­lie cab­i­net and it sounded great.”

Even­tu­ally, the guitar made its way to Vin­tage ‘n’ Rare Gui­tars in Bath, where it sub­se­quently pro­ceeded to tempt all those within its reach: “I kind of thought I’d like to ex­change all of my gui­tars just for that one!” re­calls Alex Blain of the store. “The pick­ups sounded amaz­ing, par­tic­u­larly the front pickup, but the com­bined sounds of both the front and back pick­ups were

“If you turn ev­ery­thing up, [the Pro-Amp] has the most bad-ass sound you’ve ever heard” Joe Moun­tain, the blood choir

un­be­liev­able! I’ve never known an­other guitar to clean up so well. You could have the amp on full tilt, al­most on melt­down kind of crunch, and then just roll back the vol­ume down to 1 or 2 and it had a per­fectly clear tone, with no loss of sparkle at all.”

Paul Tucker, also of Vin­tage ‘n’ Rare Gui­tars, re­calls his ini­tial im­pres­sions upon play­ing the guitar for the first time: “The neck was the per­fect pro­file for me. If I could have tem­plated that neck and repli­cated it, I would’ve done! It wasn’t too big or too slim and it was the per­fect width.”

Gui­tarist Nigel Puls­ford was so im­pressed with the guitar that he de­cided to sell his ’54 Gib­son Les Paul Model in or­der to fund its pur­chase, where­upon both Gold­tops pic­tured were sud­denly avail­able for sale in the shop in Bath. “It was the un­ruly neck pickup that sold me on the ’54 ini­tially,” Nigel re­mem­bers. “There was noth­ing po­lite about it. The bridge pickup has a very rounded, raggedy tone, but it’s quite tricky to record with as it dom­i­nates and takes up a lot of space, which is sort of its down­fall for me, and so I rarely record with it now.”

“The ’54 is a very good all-rounder,” says Alex. “It’s got much more of a gutsy bridge pickup, so I’d prob­a­bly use that for more of an out-and-out rock sound. It’s an amaz­ing guitar, but some­how it doesn’t have quite the same magic as the ’52. Maybe be­cause it’s been re­fin­ished it feels newer, like it hasn’t been worn and played. The ’52 feels like it’s been played a lot over its en­tire life.”

“The ’54 is a re­fin­ished ‘all gold’ [top, back, sides and neck, orig­i­nally],” adds Paul. “There are traces of the orig­i­nal gold paint in the con­trol cav­ity. I think it felt a lit­tle bit less ap­proach­able than the ’52 be­cause it was cleaner and that in­flu­enced the way I played it. But the ’54 sounded pretty mean with all that great wood and the P-90s. The neck is a bit chunkier than the ’52, which a lot of peo­ple pre­fer.”

Orig­i­nal Les Paul Mod­els are cer­tainly in de­mand these days – some­thing Nigel knows only too well: “I was go­ing to sell my ’54 and buy the ’52, but both were sold to the same guy the day af­ter they were put up for sale. Vexed doesn’t come close to ex­press­ing my an­guish, but there are al­ways more gui­tars to be had!”

Gui­tarist would like to thank Vin­tage ‘n’ Rare Gui­tars, Gruhn Gui­tars and Chicago Mu­sic Ex­change

3. 1952 Gold­tops had no se­rial num­ber; se­rial num­bers ap­peared on the back of the head­stock in 1953 3

1 1. Joe Glaser’s in­ge­nious 1952 Goldtop bridge piece re­place­ment ef­fec­tively sub­sti­tuted this orig­i­nal trapeze tail­piece part found in the case

2 2. The 1952 Goldtop con­trol cav­ity shows orig­i­nal wiring, pots and ‘grey tiger’ tone ca­pac­i­tors (look closely!)

4 4. The ‘Coke bot­tle’ 5U4G rec­ti­fier valve con­verts AC mains volt­age into the DC re­quired by the two 6L6G power valves pic­tured to its right

5 5. The Pro-Amp ‘tube chart’ lists the type and num­ber of valves in the amp and would nor­mally show a se­rial num­ber in the top-right area

6 6. The sec­ond gen­er­a­tion ‘FEnDER’ metal badge logo, as seen on ‘TV front’ Fender am­pli­fiers

8. Age­ing cracks in the top lac­quer run along the body of the 1954 Goldtop and strongly in­di­cate a re­fin­ish (typ­i­cally, they run across the body as seen on the 1952 Goldtop) 9

7. The 1954 Goldtop head­stock shows the ink-stamped se­rial num­ber in ‘X XXXX’ con­fig­u­ra­tion (the first digit de­notes year) 7

8. This 1954 Gib­son Les Paul Model in­struc­tion man­ual gives de­tailed in­for­ma­tion on how to use the con­trols (just in case you were won­der­ing!) 8

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