Optimal Years for Gibson Les Paul

If you’ve ever pondered how many guitars are produced by Gibson annually, you’re not alone. The volume is undoubtedly high, most likely reaching into the thousands. And when you consider how many of those are Les Pauls, the numbers are staggering. The production of Les Pauls started in 1952, paused in 1960, restarted in 1968, and has continued steadily ever since. When you think about it, that means there’s a massive number of Les Paul guitars around the world today.

The point here is that choosing a Les Paul guitar can be complex. There are so many options. But what factors should inform your choice? You might consider colour, weight, and of course, the sound. But certain colours were only produced in particular years, some models are heavier than others due to the year of creation, and different years offer various pickup combinations. Essentially, focusing on the year of the guitar’s build can help clear up some confusion.

So, how do you determine the ‘good years’ versus the ‘bad years’? That’s the primary aim of this article, so keep reading.

The Origins of Gibson Les Pauls: 1952-1960

When Gibson made the decision to enter the solid body electric guitar market, they faced a stiff challenge. Despite being a more established brand, they were already two years behind Fender. In 1950, Fender introduced the world to the Broadcaster (renamed the Telecaster a year later), the only solid-body electric guitar of its kind available at big scale.

Ted McCarty, Gibson’s President from 1949 to 1966, knew the company had to stake its claim in the solidbody electric guitar game. He described his process: “We realized that Leo Fender was gaining popularity in the West with his Spanish solid body…We watched him and saw that he was the only one making that kind of guitar. So we decided to create our own.”1

The Golden Era: The Goldtop

McCarty and his team created the Gibson Les Paul in direct response to Fender’s prominence in the market. However, there were birthing pains. The 1952 Les Paul, although pleasing to the eye with its beautiful gold finish, had some inherent design flaws. Critically, Les Paul himself wasn’t impressed, noting poor intonation and high action as some of the early models’ most glaring issues.

Ironing out such snags took time and effort. However, many would agree that despite these early hiccups, the 1952 Les Paul did a lot right: body shape, wood choice, and the initial P90 pickups (which still have a devoted following) all make this model an important piece of guitar history.

Setting The Standard: The Custom

In 1954, Gibson introduced the Les Paul Custom, or as it’s often referred as, the Tuxedo guitar. This model featured two important design innovations: entire mahogany construction, producing a warmer sound than the Goldtop’s maple, and a newly designed bridge, the Tune-o-matic, allowing players to adjust individual string’s action. These improvements added another layer of finesse to what would become an iconic guitar model.

The Burst: Enter The Flametop

In 1957, Gibson introduced the Patent Applied For (PAF) pickup. This was an innovative design developed by Gibson amp designer Seth Lover, who figuring out that by wiring two magnetically opposed coils together, you could nullify the 60-cycle hum produced by the single-coil P90.

By 1958, Gibson replaced the classic Goldtop finish with the enticing Cherry Sunburst, and the “burst” Les Paul as we know it today was born. The guitars produced between 1958-1960 are generally accepted as the peak of Gibson Les Paul production. The differences between the ’58, ’59, and ’60 models are subtle, relating mostly to neck thickness and finish, but all capture Gibson at its most refined.

The Transitional Era: Norlin Les Pauls 1969-1986

Despite Gibson’s discontinuation of the Les Paul in 1960 due to waning popularity, it remained a beloved instrument among many musicians. When noted guitarists like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Peter Green began playing older model Les Pauls, Gibson saw a ripe market for a reissued model.

In 1968, Gibson reissued the Goldtop Standard and the Custom. However, some players found these reissues less than satisfactory, with the Standard featuring P90s and a stop-bar/Tune-o-matic bridge which weren’t consistent with the time’s most popular predecessors.

1969 saw Gibson change hands and enter the Norlin era, a time in which the company strayed further from the original Les Paul design. This period saw numerous changes to Gibson’s Les Paul lineup, some welcomed and others causing heated debate among Gibson’s fan base.

Over the years, Gibson tried to improve upon the original design, although some argue that these changes were more about cost-cutting than actual enhancement. Regardless of the motivation, it was clear that some players still preferred the older versions of the guitar, leading to the rise of the vintage guitar market.

A Return to Roots: The Heritage Series

In 1979, Gibson finally responded to the booming vintage guitar market by focusing on recreating a Les Paul based on its original specifications. The result was the Heritage series, released in 1980. Despite some early mistakes (like the continuation of the three-piece neck), the Heritage series demonstrated Gibson’s commitment to honouring its past while building for the future.

Embracing the Past: Les Paul Reissues

In 1983, in a return to authenticity, Gibson released two Les Paul models that remained faithful to the original design. Marketed as “Les Paul Reissue Outfits”, these guitars paved the way for what would become the Historic reissues.

Bringing History Forward: Henry J Les Paul Historics 1993-2018

By the time Henry Juszkiewicz became CEO of Gibson, the concept of the reissue guitar was well-established. However, the company still had a long way to go to win over the detail-focused Les Paul enthusiasts. Each subsequent release moved them closer to that accuracy. In 1991, Gibson released the Standard reissue, heralding the dawn of the modern reissue era and setting the stage for the Historic Collection that would surface in 1993.

In 2019, Gibson released the Les Paul 60th Anniversary limited edition models, celebrated as the closest one can get to the originals. With dozens of vintage instruments digitally scanned for utmost accuracy, these guitars truly reflect the era they represent, showcasing how far Gibson has come in emulating their classic designs.

An Ode to Historic Accuracy: Murphy’s Law

And so, we come to 2019 and the creation of the Murphy Lab, a separate division of the Gibson Custom Shop led by the incredibly knowledgable Tom Murphy. Known for his meticulous work in recreating and aging vintage style guitars, Murphy and his team take historically accurate Les Paul models and age them to look and feel like 60-year-old guitars, creating stunningly

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