Classic Gear: The 1954 Gibson Les Paul Junior

There has arguably never been a better guitar than the mid-’50s Gibson Les Paul Junior for pure no-nonsense, open-throttled rock ’n’ roll fun.
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There has arguably never been a better guitar than the mid-’50s Gibson Les Paul Junior for pure no-nonsense, open-throttled rock ’n’ roll fun. Dig it: Aren’t you just dying to wrap your hand around that chunky rounded- C neck, dismiss all befuddlement about switch settings and pickup selection, and unleash the almighty kerrrangggg that cuts all poseur bullsh*t to the quick? Yes—you know you are.

The Les Paul Junior was unveiled in 1954, two years after the flagship carved-top Les Paul Model (aka “goldtop” and later Les Paul Standard). Designed as Gibson’s first solidbody electric “student” model, it might also have been intended as a rival to Fender’s Esquire: slab mahogany body (although maple was used on a few very early examples), single pickup, and priced to appeal to both beginners and shallow- pocketed pros. Being a Gibson, though, it has the glued-in mahogany neck, back-angled headstock, and other niceties that help to characterize Kalamazoo creations of the era, as well as the 24.75" scale length that contributes to a slinky playing feel.

Although it sold well through the ’50s, the Les Paul Junior really came into its own in the late 1960s and early ’70s when garage rockers and punks tapped into the minimalist esthetic and surprising power of this erstwhile “baby’s first Gibson.” Not only did the slab mahogany body and single P-90 pickup make the Junior more affordable to produce and a real steal on the used market a decade and a half later (before vintage was vintage), but these and other elements also contributed to a voice and performance that found some players preferring the tone and feel over that of its fancier big brother. From the mahogany’s round, woody depths to the P-90’s bite and snarl to the added resonance and sustain afforded by a neck joint with more wood intact thanks to the lack of a pickup route snuggled up behind it, the Les Paul Junior has plenty of tone going on, whatever the price. This single-cutaway rendition from the 1954-’57 era is the original classic—and, some will argue, has more design integrity—but the double-cutaway of 1958-’62 has plenty of fans too.

Good Juniors cost a lot more today than they did when punk first blossomed on the vine, but they are still the most affordable big-boy Gibson solidbodies on today’s vintage market. Pre-recession ’50s Juniors were creeping toward five figures, but fine examples seem to be available now for anywhere between $4,000 and $6,000 today, depending on originality and overall condition (the Les Paul TV Model, with its creamy blonde finish, generally goes for more). For the money, given the specs and that sublime ’50s Gibson neck carve, most players agree that a ’54-’57 Junior delivers a huge portion of the Les Paul goldtop’s performance (minus a couple of switch settings) at about a quarter the price.

Players like John Lennon, Leslie West, Paul Westerberg, and Johnny Thunders (double-cut version) caught on to the Les Paul Junior thing relatively early. Billie Joe Armstrong has long made the model his main squeeze, Keith Urban has frequently turned to a vintage single- cut for his pyrotechnic twang-rock excursions, and even Keith Richards has whipped out a sweet Junior on tour with the Stones in recent years. Simple, solid, and virtually incapable of producing a bad tone, the Les Paul Junior shows no sign of waning in popularity.

ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS

• Solid mahogany “slab” body
• Glued-in mahogany neck with unbound rosewood fretboard
• Wraparound bridge
• One single-coil P-90 pickup in the bridge position
• Deep rounded-C ’50s neck profile
• Volume and Tone controls with “bumblebee” treble-bleed cap

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