FROM ’Burst TO LAST
We take a close look at the first of the breed, an original 1958 ’Burst and compare it to three more built between 1959 and the final year of production in 1960, to see just how ‘Standard’ a Les Paul Standard really was back then…
Much of the mystique surrounding original ’Bursts derives from the fact that, partly due to their current value and partly due to their rarity, few guitarists actually experience them at first hand or use them as working instruments. What keeps us from coming to a more balanced view of historic instruments like these is that it’s relatively rare to be able to gather more than one or two together at the same time for the purpose of direct comparison.
With that in mind, we set out to examine four original ’Bursts from 1958-1960. The first, a beautiful ’58, belongs to the excellent Seven Decades show, which tells the story of rock in a live performance that uses period-correct vintage guitars throughout its decade-spanning set. The other three – two ’59s and a ’60 – come to us from British ’Burst expert Phil Harris and a private owner who wishes to remain anonymous, but who generously gave us access to his beautiful instruments for this feature. By the end of the day, we hoped, we’d have a better picture of how original examples of the ’Burst vary from guitar to guitar, especially as we’ve already taken a gander at Bernie Marsden’s ’59 Standard.
Our first port of call is to the offices of Seven Decades where Michael Ross, the seasoned session guitarist who fronts the show, is waiting for us along with Philip Hylander – the man who lovingly tracked down each of the show’s vintage guitars and brought them into the collection.
“Currently we have about 20 guitars,” Phil explains. “We want a collection that enables us to tell this great story, from the 50s to the current day, of the electric guitar.” Is the 1958 ’Burst the most valuable in your collection? MR: “Yes, without a doubt. When we set out to purchase our own ’Burst we knew it was a big deal and we had to be careful. So the process took about six months. We spoke to a good friend of ours in the States, a guy called Drew Berlin, a pretty famous guy in the world of vintage guitars. We’ve worked with Drew for years. He’s seen the show so he knows where we’re coming from and we’re good friends. He was a natural go-to. It took a little while: he kept us posted on the ones that came up [for sale]. He knew what we wanted; that we needed a ’Burst that we could play, not one that would sit in its case as an investment. We needed it to be the right weight, the right sound. We planned to use it for a whole diverse range of songs in the show so we didn’t want just a one-trick wonder. So, this ’58 does those things. It’s got a very mellow sound to it.” PH: “We would never buy something that Mike didn’t play and absolutely adore, because in a sense it would make a little bit of a sham of what we try to be about, which is the enduring quality of these instruments because they are amazing things to play.” Is the ’58 completely stock? MR: “Yes. That guitar ticked all the boxes. That said, one of the most important things about these guitars is that they’ve been played. There’s nothing worse, I find, than a vintage guitar that just hasn’t been played for the last 50 or 60 years – it’s almost as if you’re starting at the beginning with that guitar and a guitar that hasn’t been played for the last 50 or 60 years is no good to me because I’d have to spend the next 50 years playing it in.” PH: “It doesn’t affect the value. We have investment guitars, players’ guitars and that says something about the socio-economic world: that those who can afford to pay the
big bucks for the very clean guitar don’t necessarily play them.” MR: “They’re coming from a different place than us.” PH: “I think it is defensible. We don’t do it but I also understand the importance of preservation in anything that’s old. There’s something to be said for the car that’s never been driven. I hate the idea myself but I understand why history needs it in a way.” So the dilemma for you now, with your ’Burst, is that after a few shows it’s going to need a refret. What do you do? MR: “You refret it! Of course. But the real problem is, who are you going to get to refret it? That’s the big problem in this day and age…” PH: “But Mike as you say, it’s not identical, but its like changing tyres on a car.” Why don’t you use a historic collection or a reissue? MR: “Well, our rhythm guitarist does (laughs).” PH: “Ha, but that’s politics!” MR: “Seriously though, I’ve played some amazing reissues, although I think they’re nuts money now: it’s insane what they’re charging. But, no, why don’t we use them? Because I think we’re purists at the end of the day and take any opportunity we get to play the original thing, as we believe it makes a difference. People come along to our show and they want to hear what a late-50s ’Burst sounds like.” So what makes your ’Burst so alluring compared to a reissue – you’ve played enough of both… MR: “Specifically, with the ’58, first of all it’s sound and feel: that’s what it comes down to. I think there are certain guitars I’m more suited to – bigger hands – that ’58 neck for me is just right; the feel of the neck is just perfect. Then there’s the sound. It’s a bit of an all-rounder really. You get some with a massive output, straight down-theline rock-out guitars. But we use it for the Peter Green stuff: it sounds beautiful clean through a Twin or Deluxe but then it’s perfect through a Marshall to cover all that stuff. It’s far from a one-trick guitar.” PH: “There’s something esoteric too: you know you’re holding history. It is feasible, possible, to replicate it. You might even in your life play a guitar that’s better but you know that's a 1958 Les Paul Standard. I don’t think it’s shallow to admit that holding hands with history is a big thing.” MR: “People say, ‘you’re playing that guitar it should make you play so much better’. Well, it can work the other way (laughs). If you’re holding a piece of history like that, you’ve gotta sound good. It’s still an instrument and it’s still the player behind it. That’s still the key. It’s not just going to sound good on its own.”
And without further ado, the chaps bring out ‘Molly’ as their ’58 ’Burst has been dubbed, for inspection by Gear Editor Dave Burrluck. In the pages that follow you’ll encounter the other ’Bursts from ’59 and ’60 we looked at when we journeyed to a separate location, with a commentary on each from ’Burst expert Phil Harris, plus some additional technical notes.
Why don’t we play re-issues? We’re purists and take any opportunity we get to play the original. It makes a difference
Michael Ross and Philip Hylander of the Seven Decades guitar show preside over our assortment of ’Bursts