The 7 Greatest (And Often Bizarre) Stories Of The Les Paul 'Burst
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NOVEMBER 15, 2016
PHOTO COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES
There is no vintage guitar more coveted than a 1959 Les Paul Standard. Often lovingly referred to simply as the "Burst," Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Duane Allman and many others laid the foundation of rock utilizing this singularly renowned axe. Here are 7 of the greatest (and often bizarre) stories of renowned artists and their relationship with the most renowned, coveted and irreplaceable electric guitar ever made.
1. The "First" Les Paul
Any discussion of the world's most essential Les Pauls would be remiss without mention of the one that started it all. In 1951, jazz guitarist Les Paul collaborated with Gibson to create Gibson's first solidbody electric guitar, though Les had been after them do so for at least a decade; in 1941, Les had built two "solidbody" guitars, the Log and the Clunker, which he found to possess greater tone and sustain. Both instruments were used extensively on many of his hit records. Though a few solidbody guitars had been produced in previous years (during the '30s, Rickenbacker released the Electro model, Lloyd Loar produced the Vivi Tone and Slingerland built the Model 401, and in the mid-40s Paul Bigsby designed a solidbody for Merle Travis), it was not until Leo Fender revealed the Broadcaster at the 1950 NAMM show that the solidbody concept really took off.
Les Paul Demonstrates Multitracking on the CBS program "Omnibus," 1953.
Les Paul and Mary Ford
Ted McCarty of Gibson has stated that he felt the company needed a "hook" to move in the solidbody direction, and Les Paul was hugely popular at the time, and was also a friend to many of the Gibson brass. After much back and forth and redesign work between Les and the Gibson engineers, the results were introduced in 1952: the guitar featured two P-90s single coil pickups, a mahogany body with a maple cap and a gold finish. The maple cap was added during design revisions as the original all-mahogany body did not produced the type of sustain or bright tone Les desired. Les' principle contribution was to the pickups and electronics. The gold finish was chosen to hide the fact that the maple cap was a laminate; Gibson did not want their competitors to know just how the guitar was constructed.
The instrument went through five design changes between 1952 and 1960, after which the body design was changed radically to the Les Paul/SG model.
2. The Peter Green/Gary Moore '59 Les Paul 'Burst
Still Got The Blues (Live)
Peter Green's 1959 'Burst is one of the most legendary Les Pauls of all. In 1999, Green told Guitarist magazine, "I stumbled across one when I was looking for something more powerful than my Harmony Meteor. I went into Selmer's in Charing Cross Road and tried one. It was only £110 and it sounded lovely and the color was really good. But the neck was like a tree trunk. It was very different from Eric's Les Paul, which was slim with a very fast action." The sunburst on Green's Les Paul is so slight that it almost looks like a plain top; today, this finish is referred to as a "honeyburst."
Green befriended the very young guitarist Gary Moore, and in the early '70s, after becoming disillusioned with the music business, he decided to give the guitar to Moore, much to Moore's shock and surprise. The understanding was Moore would happily return the guitar to Green if ever wanted it back, but he never did ask for the guitar to be returned to him.
One of the most unique things about this guitar is its tone, which for years had been attributed to the neck pickup being turned around, creating an "out of phase" interaction with the bridge pickup. But designer and luthier Jol Dantzig had the chance to examine the instrument and discovered that the magnets inside that neck pickup were out of phase with one another, resulting in the answer to, "the secret we'd all been searching for!"
Gary Moore would use the guitar on a variety of recordings, most notably on his tribute album to Peter Green, Blues For Greeny. Moore sold the guitar in 2006 and it now resides at Maverick Music in North Carolina.
3. Mike McCready's First '59 Les Paul
McCready Talks About His First '59 Les Paul
Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready's first vintage guitar purchase was a 1959 Les Paul Standard. As Mike puts it, "A Les Paul Standard was the guitar I always really wanted above all others, because, among other things, Jimmy Page was known for using one on all of the classic Led Zeppelin recordings."
But Mike was in for a surprise when he finally bought his '59 he wanted: "I bought my '59 LP up in Everett, WA, from Danny's Music, and it just played amazingly. My first thought was, 'Oh my God, it really does live up the legend!' And then I found out that it had belonged to Jim Anderson, who played with Van Morrison in the band Them back in the sixties. I had started on a Matteo Les Paul copy when I was 11, so I always wanted to get the real thing"
Mike McCready 1959 Les Paul Standard (Signed)
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Mike plays all sorts of different guitars, but for certain sounds, he says it has to be a Les Paul. "You just can't get that sound from any other guitar, especially when you are talking about 1959's. I always liked the way the Les Paul sounded more bluesy in the neck pickup, and more aggressive overall, as compared to any other guitar. And my '59 Les Paul is my favorite of all my guitars."
Fans of Pearl Jam know that Mike turns to the '59 Les Paul at very important moments during the live shows. "I always go to this guitar when we play Alive at the end of our shows. It gives me the perfect tone for the solo and also for the rhythm parts. 'Alive' is a giant anthem that has turned into something bigger than we expected so it makes sense to have the biggest and best sound for it."
4. The Jimmy Page/Joe Walsh '58/'59 'Burst
Black Dog (Live 1973)
In April of 1969, legend has it that Jimmy Page bought his "Number 1" Les Paul 'Burst from James Gang guitarist Joe Walsh and first performed with the guitar in San Francisco later that month. The guitar had had a number of repairs and revisions by the time he received it, such as a headstock repair (obscuring the year and serial number) and the neck had been shaved to make it thinner. In August, Jimmy would replace the original Kluson tuners with gold Grovers in August 1969.
To this day, this guitar remains his absolute favorite. In 1998, Page exclaimed, "An awful lot of Walking into Clarksdale was played on this guitar." It was also his primary guitar for the 2007 Led Zeppelin reunion show at the O2 Arena in London.
5. Eric Clapton's "Long-Lost" Sunburst Les Paul
Gibson Custom Eric Clapton 1960 Les Paul
The Long-Lost "World's Greatest Les Paul," Reincarnated for You
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What many consider to be the most intriguing fifties Les Paul of all is the one Eric Clapton used to record John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton in 1965, the album with which Eric revolutionized the sound of electric blues guitar forever. Photographs exist from the Bluesbreakers session that reveal Eric had removed the pickup covers from the original PAF pickups; the neck pickup is a "double white" (both bobbins have white covers) and the bridge pickup is a "double black" (both are black). Though through the years this guitar has usually been referred to as a 1960, Joe Bonamassa recently stated that he has seen this long-lost guitar and it is in fact a 1959.
It has been deemed "long-lost" because the guitar was stolen during the earliest days of Cream's rehearsals, June of 1966, and prior to Cream's first gig on July 29, 1966 at the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, England. By the time Cream began gigging, Eric had replaced the stolen Les Paul with another 'Burst, one fitted with a Bigsby tremolo system; photos exist of Eric playing this guitar at the National Jazz & Blues Festival in Windsor, England on July 31, 1966. Shortly thereafter, photos reveal Clapton with a third Les Paul Standard, a "plain top" that is missing the pickup switch cover.
In Eric's own words, "The 'best' Les Paul I ever had was stolen during rehearsals for Cream's first gig. It was the one I had with John Mayall, just a regular sunburst Les Paul that I bought in one of the shops in London right after I'd seen Freddie King's album cover of Let's Hide Away And Dance Away, where he's playing a Goldtop. It had humbuckers and was almost brand new—original case with that lovely purple velvet lining. Just magnificent. I never really found one as good as that. I do miss that one."
6. Joe Perry Gets His Long-Lost Les Paul Back
Slash Gave Joe Perry Back His Prized Guitar – CONAN on TBS
Gibson Custom Joe Perry 1959 Les Paul
When Aerosmith began to suffer internal strife towards the end of the 70s, guitarist Joe Perry left the band and was forced to make some hard economic decisions, including selling some of his most iconic guitars. The pinnacle of his collection at the time was his 1959 tobacco-burst Les Paul. But after many years, the guitar incredibly found it's way back into Joe's hands, via none other than his close friend, Slash of Guns 'N Roses. This is a story best told by the guitarists themselves.
SLASH: When I was first learning to play, there was a live Aerosmith album called, Live! Bootleg, that is one of the best live albums I've ever heard! In the foldout of the LP, there were a couple pictures of Joe Perry playing a tobacco-finish Les Paul—a black-to-brown-with-puke-yellow kind of deal. This was my "discovering the Les Paul" period, and to me, this was the coolest guitar I'd ever seen.
Years and years later, I was in Japan and I got a phone call saying that there was a guy that wanted to sell me a guitar that I might be interested in, which was a '59 Tobacco-finish Les Paul. The caller said that it had been owned by both Duane Allman and Joe Perry. I said, "Get outta here! Send me the photos!" When I got back to LA and the photos arrived, in the envelope were 3x5s of the guitar. I recognized it as Joe's guitar right away because of the wear and specific scratches that were in the finish. I knew it was Joe's guitar! I bought it for $8000, and I was so excited when it arrived at my apartment. Ultimately, I didn't even play it that much—it was more of an amazing guitar to have in the collection. I ended up only using the guitar a couple of times—for one song in the studio and for one video.
Years later, I had heard that Joe really wanted to get the guitar back. He called me and it was really terrible to tell him that I didn't want to sell it. But a bit later I decided that it would really be great to surprise him and give it to him for his birthday. And Joe was so happy—he said, "This is the only thing I have from that period, because everything else I had to part with, in one way or another." It was so cool to be able to give the guitar back to him.
JOE PERRY: In 1980, I had just left Aerosmith, and it was around Christmastime and I needed some bread. I was playing Stratocasters a lot right around then, and my '59 Les Paul was really the best guitar to sell because I could get rid of it pretty quick for some good money. They are rare and valuable. I sold it, and let's just say I didn't "bid it out;" there was no eBay back then so I just called a guitar dealer friend of mine and he found a buyer for a decent price.
Time went on and by the mid-80s the band got back together again and we started to have some real success again. So I decided to try to find some of those old guitars that had gone the way of the wind. A friend of mine said to me, "I know where the Les Paul is," and pulled out a magazine with a photo spread of Slash's guitar collection, and right in the middle was that guitar. Slash has been a fan of the band for a long time, so I called him up and he said, "Oh, please don't ask me that—don't ask for that guitar back!" I said, "I'll pay you whatever you want for it," but he did not want to sell it. He said, "Listen… I'll think about it."
I called him a few more times over the months and finally he stopped taking my calls! It was actually getting in the way of our friendship, so I said to him, "I'll never ask you about it again—if you ever want to sell it, just give me a call." At my 50th birthday party, Cheap Trick was playing, and I sat in with them. In the middle of the set, my guitar tech walks up and hands me the tobacco-burst Les Paul. I knew what it was right away. And it soon became apparent that it was Slash's birthday present to me. I was blown away by that. He's such a great guy—his heart is so big, I don't know how it fits in his chest.
7. Jeff Beck's Infamous Stripped '59 Les Paul
Shapes of Things
Jeff Beck Group
One of the most iconic pictures in rock lore is the one of Jeff Beck from 1968, a promo shot for the newly formed Jeff Beck Group, showing Jeff shirtless with white suspenders, holding a natural finish 1959 Les Paul. A natural finish Les Paul?! But, you say, there was no such thing!
During that time of the late sixties, a popular trend was to strip the finish off of one's guitar in order to let the wood "breathe" and achieve a more natural, fuller sound. Both John Lennon and George Harrison of the Beatles had stripped their Epiphone Casinos, as evidenced in the "Get Back" rooftop film as well as the promo film for "Revolution." In 1999 following a performance at New York's Roseland Ballroom, I had the opportunity to ask Jeff about how this instrument came to be relieved of its original finish.
"Ahh!," exclaimed Jeff, "that was the dumbest thing I ever did!" Jeff apparently had stripped the instrument himself. It was not unheard of for some people to strip Goldtop Les Pauls, as the prevailing thought was there might be some nice book-matched maple under there that would look good refinished as a 'Burst, so I asked if it had, in fact, been a Goldtop. "Noooo," said Jeff. "It was actually a beautiful sunburst. I stripped it because I had seen a picture of Mickey Baker playing a Les Paul that had had the finish taken down to the bare wood, and I loved his tone. So I thought I could replicate that tone if I did the same thing. It was a failed experiment!"
In the early '70s, the neck was severely broken on this guitar, and it was replaced. The new, thinner-profile neck had "JB" engraved on the 22nd fret. Additionally, the original PAF pickups on the guitar were replaced, though without Jeff's knowledge or consent.
By the way, there are pictures of Jimi Hendrix playing this guitar in 1968 at the Scene Club in New York City, when he showed up five out of six nights in a row to sit in with the Jeff Beck Group.