One hundred years ago today, Lester Polsfuss was born in Wisconsin. The man who would be dubbed “The Wizard of Waukesha” went on to great fame as the inventor and musician Les Paul. In honor of Paul’s birthday, let’s take a look at the revered line of Gibson guitars that bear his stage name.
1. Before there was a Les Paul guitar, Les Paul was a star guitarist.
When he wasn’t pioneering multi-track recording techniques or improving upon his prototype solid-body electric guitar dubbed “The Log,” Les Paul was a high-profile guitarist from the 1930s on. His accomplishments into the early 1950s included being a staff musician for radio stations across the country; backing Bing Crosby on TV, radio, and in the studio; performing at the White House for President Franklin D. Roosevelt; and scoring a string of hits with his wife, singer Mary Ford, among them 1951’s “How High the Moon.”
2. It’s possible that the first Gibson Les Paul model could have debuted as early as the 1940s.
In 1946, Les pushed for the Gibson company to produce a solid-body guitar, which he believed would enable guitarists to be heard over noise in clubs without producing unwanted feedback. But Gibson president Ted McCarty initially passed on the idea, which he dismissed as a “broomstick with pickups.”
3. Les used a prototype of the GLP Goldtop to record the 1952 hit “Tiger Rag.”
McCarty eventually came around to Les’ solid-body guitar idea, collaborating with him to create the Gibson Les Paul Goldtop. Featuring a gold finish and two pickups, the Goldtop made its debut in 1952—the same year Les and his wife released a version of the jazz standard “Tiger Rag” that featured him playing a prototype of the guitar.
4. Gibson introduced the now-iconic Les Paul Custom in 1954.
Identifiable by the headstock’s five-piece diamond pattern in mother of pearl, the LP Custom was the first Gibson model with the McCarty-designed ABR-1 bridge, which allowed for easy adjustments to string height and intonation.
5. Gibson toned down the features for its Les Paul Junior.
Like the Les Paul Custom, the Les Paul Junior was introduced in 1954, but there’s a definite big brother/little brother difference between them. The Junior featured small dots for fret markers (instead of large blocks), and it had half the number of pickups and sound controls (one and two, respectively) found on the Custom.
6. Noise-reducing humbucker pickups made their GLP debut in 1957.
Humbuckers were designed to reduce the hum caused by other electrical sources, and, starting in 1957, the GLP Custom and Standard models came equipped with twin-coil pickups.
7. The redesigned Les Paul that arrived in 1961 is now known as the SG.
With sales reportedly on the decline, Gibson redesigned the Les Paul for 1961, giving the body distinct pointed horns. Within a few years, for reasons that still remain unclear, Gibson removed Paul’s name from this still-produced guitar, and it’s been called the SG (short for “Solid Guitar”) ever since.
8. Fender Stratocaster icon Jimi Hendrix had a Les Paul, too.
Fender Stratocaster master Jimi Hendrix was known to bust out select Gibson guitars onstage for special occasions, either for him or others to play. Among them was a 1955 GLP Custom, which he let his friend Larry Lee play during Hendrix’s memorable performance at 1969’s Woodstock festival in upstate New York.
9. Lots of famous fingers played George Harrison’s Les Paul “Lucy” before he did.
As if being owned by a Beatle weren’t historic enough. “Lucy” began as a 1957 GLP Goldtop with a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece, and the first notable owner was Lovin’ Spoonful guitarist John Sebastian, according to author-musician Andy Babiuk. Around 1966, it became the property of Rick Derringer, who had it painted red and the Bigsby removed. Derringer traded in the guitar at a New York shop, where Eric Clapton later purchased it. He gave “Lucy” to his pal Harrison in August 1968. The following month, Clapton borrowed it when he guested on The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
10. Jimmy Page bought one of his favorite GLP guitars from a fellow classic rocker.
While touring in support of Led Zeppelin’s first album in 1969, Jimmy Page acquired the 1959 Les Paul that he christened as his “Number 1.” The seller was Joe Walsh, then with the James Gang (and eventually The Eagles). Page plays this guitar on Led Zeppelin II.
11. Les Paul had a favorite version of his namesake guitar.
It was only in production for eight years (ending in 1979), but even so, the Gibson Les Paul edition called the Recording was the one Les himself liked the most. Best suited for plugging directly into a mixing console, the guitar came with two angled pickups and a variety of controls that offered “more sounds than ever before possible on any one instrument,” according to an ad.
12. Every GLP gets two coats of paint and six coats of lacquer.
Actually, that’s the case for all Gibson guitars, which are made at the company’s factory in Nashville, Tenn.
13. Gibson proclaimed 2013 to be “The Year of Les Paul.”
14. A notable, controversial 1954 GLP Custom once owned by Les was auctioned for $335,000 in February 2015.
Touted by Guitar Player magazine as “Les Paul’s original 1954 ‘Black Beauty’: The genesis of all Les Paul guitars to come” and dismissed by the Paul family as a less important relic, this instrument—reportedly a rebuilt prototype—was purchased by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay. His collection also includes guitars that belonged to Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Jerry Garcia.
15. Today, famous Les Paul players will gather in Manhattan to participate in the launch of the yearlong 100th Birthday of Les Paul celebration.
Steve Miller (Les’s godson), Journey’s Neal Schon, and Warren Haynes are among those scheduled to be in New York’s Times Square for a multi-faceted celebration that includes a tribute concert at the Hard Rock Café and the first stop of the Les Paul’s Big Sound Experience mobile exhibit.