Have you ever wondered how many guitars Gibson makes each year? It must be a lot. Thousands one would think. And how many of them are Les Pauls? The majority more than likely. So, if they started producing Les Pauls in 1952 – 1960, then started again in 1968, and continued to the present day, I’m not much of a numbers man, but I would say there are a lot of Les Paul guitars in the world today.
What I am getting at is, when you decide that you want to own one of these Les Paul guitars, you have an awful lot to choose from. How do you decide which one? Color? Always a consideration. Weight? Yeah, that is something to think about. Sound? Obviously, it has to sound good. The thing is, some colors are only available during certain years, some years are known to be heavier than others, and some years have different pickup combinations. So, what you want to do is focus on the build year.
How will you know which is a “good year” and which is a “bad year”? That is what we aim to find out in this post so read on!
Gibson Les Pauls 1952-1960
When Gibson decided to enter the solidbody electric guitar market, it was up against it. Despite being the more established company, they were already two years behind Fender. The Broadcaster, or the Telecaster as it became in 1951, was first introduced to the world in 1950, and until 1952 it was the only available, mass-produced solid-body electric guitar.
Ted McCarty, who was President of Gibson from 1949-1966 and had a front-row seat at the inception of the new solidbody guitar, decided that Gibson needed to get a piece of the action: “We realized that Leo Fender was gaining popularity in the West with his Spanish solidbody…I watched him and watched him and I said: ‘We’ve got to get into that business. We’re giving him a free run, he’s the only one making that kind of guitar.’…So we talked it over and decided, let’s make one.”1
Ted’s desire to provide Fender with some competition led him to Les Paul and ultimately to the creation of the guitar that we know and love, but their creation did not arrive fully realized. The Gibson Les Paul would go through several incarnations before it became the perfect rock n roll machine.
The new Les Paul was unveiled in 1952 but the initial design had some teething problems. In fact, when Les got his hands on it, he wasn’t impressed: “They made the first guitar wrong, I don’t know how many went out wrong that weren’t playable. When they sent me mine, I stopped them, said this won’t even play. They had run the strings under the bridge and over and hadn’t pitched the neck. They had it all screwed up.”
He was right, the new guitar had a trapeze tailpiece, which meant poor intonation, and to add to this, the neck was set into the body at too shallow an angle resulting in high action. Palm muting techniques were also impossible to perform. Gibson quickly replaced the cumbersome tailpiece with an angled stop bar that was screwed directly into the guitar, which made the instrument much more playable.
Despite these hiccups, the 1952 Les Paul got a lot right: body shape, wood choice, and of course, the beautiful gold finish which can all be found on modern equivalents. Even the original P90 pickups, though not the standard offering now, has a strong following.
In 1954 the Les Paul Custom arrived. Said to be Les’ idea for his tuxedo guitar, it featured a couple of important design firsts for the model.
Firstly, it was entirely made of mahogany. This was specifically something that Les Paul himself wanted; it produced a slightly warmer sound than the Goldtop, which had a maple cap.
The second and most important addition to this guitar came in the shape of a newly designed bridge: the Tune-o-matic. This newly designed piece of hardware gave the player the ability to adjust the distance between each string and the nut of the guitar. When combined with the new stop bar tailpiece, this gave the instrument perfect intonation and added another crucial piece to the jigsaw.
The final part of the puzzle was to arrive in 1957: the Patent Applied For humbucker (or PAF pickup). Seth Lover was an amplifier designer at Gibson when he came up with the idea of wiring two, magnetically opposed coils together. They were electrically out of phase, and this meant the pickups would not amplify the 60-cycle hum that the single-coil P90 did.
The patent applied for pickup, or PAF, replaced the P90 in both the Standard Goldtop model and the Custom in 1957.
In 1958 the Goldtop finish was replaced with Cherry Sunburst and the icon was complete. The next three years are pretty much accepted as the high-water mark for Gibson Les Paul production. There are some minor differences between the models: 58s have plain tops and the thickest neck, 59s have more figured tops with slightly thinner necks, and the 60s models are known for being the most figured tops with the thinnest neck profiles and also for having the redder, “tomato soup burst” finish.
Regardless of cosmetic differences and the variations in neck thickness, the formula from 1957-1960 is the template for the Les Paul and any subsequent changes can rightly be considered as deviations.
In 1960 the Les Paul ceased to be produced, unthinkable to guitarists today. But, in truth, sales of the instrument had started to wane from as early as 1957. The Sunburst finish had been an attempt to inject some life into the model, but by 1961 Gibson had given up. The Les Paul was replaced by the slimmed-down SG, but in the beginning, it retained the Les Paul name. This means that strictly speaking, the 1961 Les Paul SG needs to be included at this point.
Norlin Les Pauls 1969-1986
Despite being phased out in 1960, the Les Paul never went away. When a new generation of players such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Peter Green discovered it, there was an obvious market for a reissue.
Gibson finally did this in 1968 with the Goldtop Standard and the 1968 Custom. The problem is that the Standard had the less-desirable P90s in it, and they were paired with the stop-bar/Tune-o-matic bridge. Let’s be clear, these were/are fine instruments, but it was the Sunburst Standard that the aforementioned guitar heroes were playing, and that is what the public wanted.
In 1969 Gibson changed hands and we enter the Norlin years, where it seemed the original idea of what a Les Paul should be drifted further and further away.
Here are just some of the changes that happened during the period of Norlin ownership:
- 1969 – They introduced a 3-piece neck, a mahogany/maple/mahogany pancake body as well as shortening the neck tenon (transitional tenon).
- 1970 – A volute was added where the headstock meets the neck.
- 1975 – The neck tenon was shortened further and the necks were changed to 3-piece maple.
- 1977 – The pancake body ceased.
- 1980 – Tim Shaw PAF replica pickups added to high-end models.
- 1981 – The volute was removed.
- 1983 – Gibson started 9-hole weight relief.
- 1985 – The 3-piece maple neck was phased out.
The motives behind these changes will always be questioned. Were they a genuine attempt to improve upon the original design, or simply cost-cutting? A convincing case can be made for either of these arguments, but the fact is some players still preferred the older guitars.
It took Gibson until 1976 before they made a Les Paul Standard available with the correct configuration, that is with two humbuckers. The problem is, these guitars still came with the various Norlin idiosyncrasies: 3-piece top, volute, 3-piece neck etc. For many players, they had strayed too far from the original design. For them, the only answer lay in seeking out the original 50’s Standards and so the Vintage market was born.
At first, Gibson was slow to react to the growing market in used Standards but by 1979, they had started to investigate recreating a Les Paul using the original specs. The result was the Heritage series. Released in 1980, the Heritage used the original patterns to get the correct top carve, and included PAF replicas designed by Tim Shaw. Gone was the volute and the maple neck, and they added some attractively flamed maple for the tops. Despite this deliberate attempt at bringing the model back in line with the original design, the attention to detail was somewhat lacking. The biggest faux pas being the 3-piece neck, this was to be remedied with the limited, Kalamazoo-made 82 Standard. Nevertheless, the Heritage series was the first time Gibson had made a conscious effort to look back at their own history and use it to produce a Les Paul for the future.
Back to the future…
In 1983, Gibson finally released two production Les Pauls that were true to the original design. They were marketed as “Les Paul Reissue Outfits”, and they provided the template for what would become the historic reissue guitars.
Henry J Les Paul Historics 1993-2018
By the time Henry J became CEO of Gibson, the idea of the reissue guitar was firmly in place, but they were still a long way away from satisfying the detail-obsessed Les Paul enthusiast. But with each release, they were getting closer. In 1991, the Standard reissue was released. This is considered to be the beginning of the modern era of the reissue guitar and it would go on to be the catalyst for the Historic Collection that would appear in 1993.
The collection would include ’54 Black Beauty, ’56 Goldtop, 3-pickup ’57 Custom, ’57 Goldtop, 2-pickup ’57 Custom, ’59 Flametop, and ’60 Flametop.
This is a brief list of some of the most important changes:
- Vintage correct long neck tenon
- Vintage correct Kluson tuners
- Indian rosewood fingerboard
- AAAA grade soft maple top
- Historic parts added, pickguard, pickup rings and truss rod cover
- Eastern and Western maple are introduced for tops
- Brass bridge saddle replaces non-vintage correct steel
- AAAAA soft maple top
- Period correct, thin body binding added
- AAA hard maple top
- ’57 classic pickups
- Vintage-style Lifton case for ’59 and ’60 models
- Custom Authentic models become available with aged finish and hardware
- A limited number of Brazilian rosewood fingerboards
- Vintage style medium jumbo frets
- CTS pots and oil capacitors
- Burstbucker 2 & 3 pickups
- Madagascan rosewood fretboards
- A limited number available with Brazilian rosewood
- Eastern maple hard tops
- Burstbucker 1 & 2 pickups
- Custom order special run of “Stinger” guitars by Music Machine with Brazilian rosewood boards
- Jimmy Page signature guitar released. It includes 25 that are aged and signed by Tom Murphy and a further 150 aged as well as 875 non-aged
- The Custom Shop start using a Plek machine to cut the nut and dress the frets
- Vintage original spec (VOS) and aged hardware used for the first time
- Real Honduran mahogany used for the neck and body
- Laminated (2-layer) fretboards used, instead of one-piece fretboards on Historics
- Gibson Custombucker pickups added as standard
- Hot hide glue used in neck joint
- Hot hide glue used to attach fretboard
- Mahogany selected by weight
2015-2016 (True Historics)
- Hot hide glue used to attach the tops onto the mahogany backs
- Top carve based on 3D-scanned from original Bursts
- Fretwire height changed from 0.046-0.050” tall (Reissues) to 0.034” and 0.036” tall (True Historics). Width is the same for both – 0.094-0.096” wide.
- Finish wet-sanded by hand before buffing
- Carmelita top carve
- All hide glue construction
- Period correct aniline dye used
- Indian rosewood fretboard
- Slight gap between neck pickup and fretboard
- Updated ’59 neck profile taken from digital scans of genuine 1959 Gibson Les Paul
- Vintage correct small fret wire (Jescar FW50078) on pre-’59 guitars
- No gap between neck pickup and fretboard
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it provides a good overview of the year-on-year progression towards getting the formula perfected.
Les Paul 100
Despite the continuing success of the Historic division, Gibson was not immune to making bad decisions. In 2015 to celebrate Les Paul’s 100th birthday, the company made several radical changes to the guitar. These included adding mechanical, “robot” tuners, push-pull pots, a zero-fret adjustable brass nut, and a Les Paul 100 signature on the headstock where the Les Paul Model silkscreen should be.
This was too much for the majority of the fanbase and the changes were largely met with derision and were promptly scrapped for 2016.
It was missteps like these that would ultimately lead to the downfall of Henry Juszkiewicz and the top brass at the company. In 2018, Gibson filed for bankruptcy protection and Henry stepped down.
Les Pauls Today (2019-2023)
The brand was ultimately spared bankruptcy when they were taken over by new investors (KKR & Co). The new management of the company has gone to great lengths to assure everyone that they know what it is they have in their history and that are determined to protect it.
One of the first things they did was to simplify the USA Les Paul range by offering the traditional player a USA made Les Paul Standard in either 50’s spec or 60’s spec. This had been a complaint towards the end of the Henry J era that made it impossible to find an old-fashioned Standard. This was quickly rectified. As for the Historic line, the changes were:
- Custombuckers unpotted this time (just like the originals PAFs) as opposed to potted when they first came out.
- Real paper in oil bumblebee capacitors used, where previously they used mylar caps.
- New “Gibson” headstock logo with a new shade of gold, and placement.
- Indian Rosewood or Pau Ferro (aka Bolivian rosewood) fretboard
- Darker red dye used on the mahogany backs.
- The Historic cases has more padding, espcially in the headstock area and bottom, but not so much to the top or sides. The back of the Les Paul and SGs had a more deeper, almost wine red color.
- The thumbwheels (where the bridge sits on) changed back to brass, making the Les Paul sound less brighter than before with the steel ones.
Shine On You Crazy Diamond
In 2019, the Les Paul 60th Anniversary limited edition models were released. Gibson claims these are as close to the originals as it is possible to get. Dozens of vintage instruments were digitally scanned so as to be within thousands of an inch of the originals. Plastics were studied on a molecular level to ensure the parts were virtually identical. Ok, I know this is all very much like marketing speak, but amongst Les Paul aficionados, it is commonly accepted that post-2012 Gibson has been putting out their best and most historically accurate reissues. These are just the latest opportunity to celebrate the anniversary of the original release date.
In 1989, Tom Murphy started working for Gibson, doing touch-ups and repairs. It would be fair to say that he is one of the aforementioned detail-obsessed Les Paul enthusiasts, he knows his stuff. He would go on to play an integral part in the development of the Historic reissues at Gibson, and has now got an entire laboratory named after him!
In 1994 he left Gibson and started his own company where he became renowned for his guitar finishing and aging. So naturally, when Gibson decided to re-imagine their own aging process, they looked to their former employee. Together with Tom, they started the Murphy Lab, a separate division of the Gibson Custom Shop. It comprises a team of 50 people under Tom Murphy’s leadership taking historically accurate Custom Shop replicas of Les Pauls, and aging them to look and feel like 60-year-old guitars. This is the latest development in the never-ending quest to get the most accurate Gibson Les Paul, and despite the eye-watering price tag, it is proving to be very popular.
Final Thoughts on the Best Gibson Les Paul Years
So, what is the best year for the Gibson Les Paul? The short answer is 1959. But, let’s be honest, how many of us are going to own one of them? Not many. The truth is, there has never been a better time to buy a Les Paul. Admittedly, they do not come cheap. For a Custom Shop Reissue, you are looking at 5000 bucks for the price of admission. And if it’s Murphy Lab you’re after, then it can be anywhere up to 10 grand, depending on the level of aging you desire. This is not chump change, but it is an awful lot less than the real thing.
So, what do you get for your money? Truly these days, it is like finding an old brown Lifton Case that has been under somebody’s bed for the last 60 years. Once you open it up, you will know what the fuss is all about.
To be perfectly honest, you don’t have to go Custom Shop to get a great Les Paul. A USA Les Paul Standard is going to get you 90% of the way there and it will be no less enjoyable to play.
Follow your nose, there are fantastic guitars from every year out there. Hopefully, this post has given you enough information to zero in on what it is that YOU want from a Les Paul.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the most valuable Les Paul years?
The most valuable years for a Gibson Les Paul are without question 1958, 1959 and 1960. With 1959 being the most sought-after, followed by 1958 and 1960. In all fairness, if I was to see any in a pawn shop, I wouldn’t be inclined to haggle!
What year is Gibson good wood?
Aside from the 1950s, many people online would say any Gibson Les Paul built between 1989-2007 is the ‘good wood era’. As with all Internet rumors, it is best taken with a large pinch of salt.
What year did Gibson’s quality decline?
The general consensus is that when Norlin took over the company in 1969, quality control declined. This continued through the ’70s but started to get better at the start of the ’80s and into the ’90s. Again, this is largely opinion based and must be treated accordingly. The bar was set so high with the original ’50s and 60’s guitars, it was almost inevitable that Gibson would go into some kind of slump. There are good guitars and bad from every era.
1 The Les Paul Guitar Book, Tony Bacon
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