We’ve been inspiring you with “How To Dress Your Tele,” but we want to turn your attention to a different axe. Gibson has been producing the Les Paul model since 1952, with a couple interruptions, and it continues to be one of Gibson’s best selling models. I sat down with my friend and bandmate Rame Eskridge, who has worked at Gibson in Nashville for over 15 years, to talk about the sacred slab of mahogany we’ve all come to love, whether or not we know it.
Eskridge is an enthusiast, instrument collector, and history-buff, not an official spokesman for Gibson. Our conversation covered the history of Gibson, Les Paul and his legendary guitar, stars like Slash and Eric Clapton who made the Les Paul truly a rock talisman, and the future of the instrument. Join us as we chat about the Gibson Les Paul, and consider one for yourself (you’ve earned it) or a young slinger you love for the holidays. And don’t forget the Original Fuzz strap—it wouldn’t look right without it.
How long have you worked at Gibson?
Sixteen years in May. 2000 was when I started.
How would you say the Les Paul is doing these days, and in recent years? As popular as it has ever been?
Yeah, definitely. I’d say, it’s as popular as it’s ever been. Very popular in the 70s, actually, and had a downturn in the 80s with a lot of metal. A lot of people were playing "pointy" guitars, then Slash came along and resurrected the Les Paul. From that point forward it’s been very popular.
What genres do you think lend themselves to the Les Paul? Blues and rock mostly?
Blues, blues rock, hard rock, classic rock, sometimes metal—metal sometimes you want the crunchier sounding guitars. Ironically enough, it was actually designed as a jazz guitar, Les Paul himself was a jazz player. So, he designed it to be very clean, and be able to get large volume playing in a big band. Les Paul played in a big band, with horns, and bari sax—big huge bands—and the guitars just weren’t loud enough. So, that’s why he designed this solid-body guitar. Before, when you’d turn the amp up, it would start to feed back, which they didn’t want in jazz. So he tried to design his guitar to be a jazz-type guitar. And you will see it in jazz circles sometimes. Al Di Meola plays one. Of course, Les Paul himself played one, but, yeah, mostly it’s hard rock, classic rock. Highway ass-rock. [laughs]
Did he have his own version of what would become the Gibson Les Paul before? I know he was an inventor—or did Gibson make it for him, with him?
There’s kind of a little controversy, from what I remember, or discrepancy about how that came about. There was a guy named Ted McCarty, who was general manager or CEO of Gibson back in the 50s, and he would say that he developed it. He just made the design, and because Les was a guitar player, he was a performer, I think Gibson looked at it more as a marketing thing; but they knew he was an inventor. And he had actually come to Gibson a few years before to try and push this solid-body electric guitar, at the time it was what they call a log, just a 2x4 or a 4x4—or something—with a pickup on it. And he’d take the sides of an acoustic jazz box and just cut them off and put them on the sides, so it would look like a normal guitar.
Weird, yeah, I can picture that.
Yeah, it’s crazy. He called it the log and put a neck on it, and just put a pickup on there. That’s sort of what he designed. Then Gibson and Ted McCarty came up with what is now the Les Paul style—the body style.
What year was it that it was introduced?
It was introduced in ’52. I think it was the 40s when he was designing the log. They discontinued it in ’60 because it didn’t sell that well. It actually wasn’t that popular; then they reintroduced it. The SG was actually called the Les Paul. The new Les Paul [SG], in ’61.
What are the differences between them?
The Les Paul has a mahogany body and carved maple top. The SG has a solid slab of mahogany—thinner mahogany.
Yeah, the SG was light compared to the Les Paul. Of course the double cutaway, the horns on the SG, Les Paul just has the one cutaway. That’s the main difference in style, there’s some binding on the Les Paul, but that’s just cosmetic.
Sound-wise they’re similar?
Sound-wise they’re going to be pretty similar; although, it’s probably going to be a little thinner on the SG because you don’t have that maple top.
I’ve always thought the SG sounded glassy.
Yeah, they’re not as beefy, not as thick. The SG is not going to sound like a [Fender] Strat, either. It’s sort-of in-between.
And I understand there was some kind of legal dispute in the few years it was discontinued, or leading up to that.
I think it was first in ’61, the SG—the Les Paul SG— which I think they said stood for "solid guitar." There’s a few different stories, and I’ve not been able to determine exactly what’s what because some people say different things. We, Gibson, changed the design and he didn’t like it; he didn’t want his name associated with it—but there was some speculation. He was going through a divorce with his wife, Mary Ford, and she would have been entitled to half, or a percentage, in the divorce of any income he had. Apparently, it was kind-of a nasty divorce. So, I guess he already had enough money, and just didn’t want her getting more money; that’s what the speculation is. I think he claimed he just didn’t like the body style, really.
Why did they bring it back?
The Les Paul? That was probably because of the late 60s with Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield. Those are the two big ones.
They had the old models from the 50s?
Yeah, you could find them cheap, so they started playing them. They liked them because it gives you that thick blues rock—Cream. Well, [Clapton] played an SG in Cream. He played [a Les Paul] in John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers—just that real thick blues rock sound, so he liked that. Then Clapton became "God," as they say. And Mike Bloomfield was very popular in that genre, too, so people started wanting them again. The market decides.
Who were some other famous Les Paul slingers?
You got Clapton, Bloomfield, Duane Allman, Dickey Betts. With 70s stuff you have—as far as popular people that people have heard of—Al Di Meola in the jazz world. Slash. Zakk Wylde with Ozzy Osbourne, he was a big Les Paul fan.
I always go to Free’s Paul Kossoff, I just like him. Those are gonna be the big ones. Clapton is sort-of known as a Strat guy, but he played a Les Paul back in the day.
What are some of your favorites?
Favorites? You’re gonna like this—Slash, I love Slash. [laughs]
For real? [laughs]
I’m a huge GNR fan. Yeah, I like Slash. Like I said, Paul Kossoff, Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Allman Brothers, any of that stuff, that southern rock, you know, Gary Rossington.
So the southern rock sound we know is really the Les Paul?
Oh yeah, definitely, that’s a great way to put it. Using hyperbole, but there wouldn’t be any southern rock without the Les Paul. It just wouldn’t sound like that, you know?
Has Gibson always been in Nashville?
No. They started off in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1902. Actually 1894 is the year that Orville Gibson started to make mandolins—1894 is the earliest example they have of him, that was in Kalamazoo—then he sold the company in 1902 to some business people in the area, because he couldn’t keep up with demand. They started making mandolins and harp guitars—don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of those, but it’s like a guitar neck, and then they’ve got open strings up at the top, and you can hit them, there’s no frets—he was making those and he couldn’t keep up with demand because they were real popular, so he sold the company in 1902. [Gibson] stayed in Kalamazoo until they opened up the Nashville plant in 1974. From ’74-’84, both Kalamazoo and Nashville were running at the same time, then they closed down the Kalamazoo plant. I don’t think it’s speculation, I think it’s pretty much because Michigan is a union state, and Tennessee is a ‘right-to-work’ state. Companies would like to go where there’s not a union, so you know, you can pay people less. Now, we have a factory in Bozeman, MT that opened in the early 90s. The Memphis plant opened in ’99 or 2000.
And the headquarters is here?
Headquarters are here and has been here since, I guess, ’84? Well, it’s hard to tell because Gibson was purchased by Chicago Musical Instruments in the 60s, I believe, and the current guy that purchased them, or group of people—Henry Juszkiewicz and Dave Berryman and a third guy bought the company in ’86 because it was doing really, really bad—they just weren’t selling. In the 70s they were kind-of bad. They were focused more on not getting returns, not getting guitars back, so they made them really sturdy, but they sounded kind-of like crap. They had a three-piece maple neck, which are really stable, but they don’t resonate as well; a lot of people didn’t like that. It didn’t have the ‘Les Paul sound’, so they just weren’t selling. And the 80s being the pointy guitars and all, and New Wave, they just started not to sell very well—think they were being mismanaged. So, the headquarters has been here since ’86, or so.
Does the future look bright for Les Paul and Gibson?
Yeah, I’d say so. I’d say Les Paul has been, since Slash, the bread and butter of the company. It’s continued to be. I mean, we had some rough patches with the economy, but not because the Les Paul has gone out of favor.
You think the rise of electronic music has not had much of an effect?
I don’t think so, because right now, and for the last 10 or 15 years, maybe 20, a significant portion of what we sell, as far as Les Pauls, [are] selling to people that were Baby Boomers that were growing up in the 60s and 70s. They were Clapton fans or Duane Allman fans, now they’re doctors and lawyers and they have a lot of money, so they can afford to buy those. You still have those people buying them. I’ve talked to people on the phone who have 20 or 30 Les Pauls, because they’re well-off now in their 60s, and they’re the head of some healthcare company or whatever, head of HR guy; but they’re still closet hippies, so to speak, because they grew up at that time. They don’t buy Harleys, they buy Les Pauls. Yeah, I think the future will always be good for Les Paul.
Making the bet that rock and roll sticks around?
Yeah, totally, I mean it might come down a little bit. Certain kinds of music become more popular, younger people may not be buying Les Pauls, but there are older people.
And it’ll come around to being popular again, in a way.
Yeah, it’ll come back around. I think a lot of the music made on it was very good. I mean the Beatles played the Les Paul. George Harrison played a Les Paul.
So what more do you need?
Indeed. I guess the strap, you really need the Original Fuzz strap.
Rame Eskridge is a member of Mesmer Tea, and 15-year employee of Gibson in Nashville, TN. Andrew Locke is a writer and artist, member of Mesmer Tea, living in Nashville. Follow him on Twitter @DrinkMesmerTea.
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