Classic Gear: The 1959 Gibson Les Paul Model

There’s no more classic piece of Classic Gear out there than the 1959 Gibson Les Paul Model, and no standard-production amp or guitar is more valuable, either.
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There’s no more classic piece of Classic Gear out there than the 1959 Gibson Les Paul Model, and no standard-production amp or guitar is more valuable, either. Gibson shipping records indicate that a total of 1,712 sunburst Les Pauls were made between 1958 and ’60, fewer than half of which are accounted for today. But scarcity isn’t the only reason these guitars are so highly prized. It can be argued that wood, steel, magnet never before or after coalesced into an instrument so sonically rich and utterly expressive as the ’58-’60 Les Paul, and examples from that period are responsible for some of the most groundbreaking playing in popular music.

The Les Paul was conceived as Gibson’s means of entering the solidbody electric market without sacrificing the company’s traditional hallmarks—glued-in neck, carved arched top, stylish binding and inlays—but it took the better part of a decade to evolve into its archetypal form. It was born in 1952 with a gold-top finish, P-90 pickups, and an odd “wrap-under” trapeze-bar tailpiece that made many playing techniques challenging. The blunder was corrected with the wrap-over bridge in the latter part of ’53, and the Les Paul gained the innovative ABR-1 Tuneo-Matic bridge in late ’55. Gibson’s new humbucking pickup—still wearing its “Patent Applied For” (PAF) sticker on the bottom—brought new sonic depths and a quieter performance in 1957, and the company sought to revive flagging sales with a more traditional cherry sunburst finish part way into ’58. By this point the essential ingredients were all in place, and by the following year the stew was seasoned to what most players regard as perfection.

NOTABLE FEATURES OF 1959 WERE:

• The already appealing sunburst finish often adorned a more elaborately figured maple top.
• The chunky, occasional clubby neck shape of earlier ’50s Les Pauls grew a little leaner in the shoulders to take on a full, rounded “C” that many regard as the most sublime profile ever produced.
• The frets were enlarged to a medium-jumbo wire that made blues-rock bending a breeze.
• The PAF pickups reached the epitome of their design, with optimized specs that give the best examples something akin to the voice of God, after a warm saltwater gargle.

What difference does a change of paint and a few minor adjustments make? Consider that the outwardly similar-spec’d gold-top 1957 Les Paul might sell for $75,000 to $125,000, while a sunburst ’59 Les Paul will commonly fetch half a million bucks or more.

Surviving 1960 Les Pauls are also hugely collectible, although marginally less desirable to some players due to the thinner neck (plenty of rock gods of the ’60s raved about the “fast” ’60 necks, but the ’59 profile today remains the piece de resistance of playing feel). Having failed to light the world on fire during the era of its original production, the Les Paul Model (known officially as the Les Paul Standard from 1960 onward) was deleted in its single-cutaway, carved-maple-top guise and replaced in 1961 with the double-cutaway guitar that would soon be known simply as the SG Standard. To be fair, though, the Les Paul really needed the right music and the right amplification to display its true glories. A great ’59 ’burst can sound delightful through any decent tube amp, and it certainly starts to spread its wings through a big tweed or blackface Fender Twin. But the Marshall Bluesbreaker combo and full plexi stack truly enabled these guitars to shine, sparking one rock revolution after another in the hands of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Michael Bloomfield, Paul Kossof, and near-countless others.

ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS

• Solid mahogany body with carved arched maple top
• Glued-in mahogany neck with bound rosewood fingerboard
• A truly sublime rounded late-’50s neck profile
• ABR-1 Tune-o-Matic bridge and aluminum stopbar tailpiece
• Cherry sunburst finish
• Dual Patent-Applied-For humbucking pickups

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