THE FIRST – OR JUST NUMBER ONE?
Les Paul’s guitar tech, Tom Doyle, explains why ‘Number One’ was the first LP that Les signed off on
When news of the auction went public in August, some Les Paul aficionados questioned why, if the guitar was supposed to be “The very earliest approved production model of the famed Gibson Les Paul electric guitar”, it featured binding on the neck, which was absent on the first production examples to hit stores in 1952.Tom Doyle, who was Les Paul’s personal guitar tech and repair man for over 40 years, says this is a common misconception about ‘Number One’ that overlooks the exceptional treatment Les received from Gibson, as the star lending his name to the instrument who had also guided its development.
“It may be true that the early factory production models that were shipped to music stores did not have binding, but Les’s Personal ‘Number One’ is not, and was not, a run-of-the-mill production model per se,” Tom explains. “It was not meant for the retail market; it was a specially made ‘one-off’ made just for Les himself, at his request in order for him to evaluate, approve and ultimately sign off on. He did not like the first prototypes presented to him by Gibson. Les said to me so many times over the years when discussing the early chronology of his beloved ‘Number One’ that,‘ A lot of what they sent me was just wrong… Gibson did not have their act together.’ Those words still ring in my head to this day.
“This guitar –‘Number One’ was made especially for Les Paul in early 1952, to his individual and very specific spec and tastes, and at his behest. This guitar was not the first prototype to be made by Gibson, which Les summarily rejected. ‘Close, but no cigar! ’Les said. It is, however, the one that Les Paul agreed with, and that satisfied him enough to ‘green light’ the whole project. Without this guitar meeting Les Paul’s rigorous standards, he would not have agreed to endorse the guitar, would not have agreed to put his name on it, and thus there would have been no Gibson Les Paul guitar as we have come to know it. Of course, he approved and bonded with this guitar immediately… and that is why he called it his ‘Number One’– the first one good enough to be called a Gibson Les Paul guitar.
This guitar was Les’s baby, the culmination of his lifelong dream for a solid-body electric guitar, it was his pride and joy, and the very first official Les Paul guitar approved by Les Paul himself.” Tom’s explanation is further borne out by photographs from a 1952 press event at the Savoy Hotel in London, held to unveil the new guitar to the press.The image shows Les Paul and Mary Ford proudly holding aloft their brand-new Goldtops, though even by this early stage Les’s ‘Number One’ has clearly already had its neck pickup modded with custom internals by Les (see page 70). Mary’s does not have neck binding, as per the standard early production models – while Les’s clearly has binding on the neck. Les’s son Gene adds that Les was prevented from making more serious modifications by Gibson, who were understandably anxious to launch the guitar properly before Les’s insatiable urge to tinker with things changed its appearance too radically. “You got to realise the itchy fingers this guy’s got when he got the‘Number One’,” Gene recalls with a laugh. “He wanted to go in and change it because he already had new ideas for the guitar before they gave him the go-ahead. So they stopped him [from customising it further] because they had to do photo ops before he tore it apart and there were also concerts that he had to do. So he realised, ‘Okay, I’ll keep the chisel away for a while’– and for a while he did that.”