Considered from a 21st-century perspective, it’s pretty incredible that two of the most popular electric guitars ever produced survived a stormy confluence of apathy and incredulity at the time of their origins to become top-tier rock icons. As hard as it is to believe today, the original single-cutaway Les Paul Standard was deleted from Gibson’s catalog after 1960 due to a general lack of popularity and declining sales, only to be replaced in 1961 with a new design that had a radical look that Les himself vehemently objected to. But while we know the single-cut, maple-topped Les Paul would eventually come back with a vengeance to become the most valuable standard-production electric guitar of all time, its replacement—despite Les’ own objections—would be an almost-overnight success in its own right.
Although it still carried the Les Paul Standard model name in Gibson’s 1961 catalog, the guitar that would soon be known simply as the SG was an entirely different beast. Sure, it had two of Gibson’s hallowed “Patent Applied For” humbucking pickups (which themselves had evolved slightly by 1961), a similar control layout, and trapezoid inlays on its bound rosewood fingerboard, but otherwise it had very little in common with the sunburst ’58-’60 Les Paul. The weighty single-cut Les Paul’s thick mahogany body with carved maple top gave way to a thin slice of pure mahogany, which received optimum upper-fret access via its asymmetrical dual cutaways, and a devilishly modern look thanks to a pair of pointed horns and beveled body edges. This new Les Paul Standard wasn’t nearly as modernistically outré as the short-lived Flying V and Explorer that had preceded it, but it had more forward-looking aesthetics than just about any other guitar from a major manufacturer.
The balance worked, and the new Les Paul Standard made its mark on the guitar world pretty quickly. Gibson shipped 1,662 units of the redesigned model in 1961, compared to a mere 635 single-cut Les Paul Standards in 1960. In 1963 Les Paul’s endorsement deal expired and the guitar became known simply as the SG Standard (purportedly the artist let it lapse intentionally so it wouldn’t become part of the financial settlement in his divorce from Mary Ford; he would re-up in 1968, when the single-cut would also return).
When loaded with a pair of PAFs, a 1961-’62 Les Paul/SG does express sonics similar to those of a ’57-’60 Les Paul—with a rich, chewy humbucker sizzle, plenty of depth, and good punching power. But its thinner, all-mahogany body and slimmer neck also lend a snappier element to the tone, with a little more focus on upper-midrange honk rather than the beefy single-cut’s lower-midrange thump. When played aggressively through a cranked vintage or high-gain modern amp, an SG will still scream and wail enough to satisfy most forms of heavy-rock stylings—as everyone from Tony Iommi to Eric Clapton to Angus Young to Frank Marino would ably prove—while Pete Townshend, Robbie Krieger, and Carlos Santana delivered much seminal work on the P-90-equipped SG Special. One quirk of the early Les Paul/SG is its “sideways vibrola,” officially known in the Gibson catalog as the Deluxe Vibrato. Although the creation did its vibe thing well enough, it tended to be a nightmare for tuning stability in many cases; leave it alone and you were probably okay, but it was still a clunky load that might dampen your tone or throw everything out of whack if you accidentally bumped it while playing. As a result, the few early examples of Les Paul/SGs loaded with stopbar tailpieces tend to be highly prized, and many players modified their guitars to these specs to obtain a more solid and sustaining performance.
> Slim body made from solid mahogany
> Asymmetrical “dual-horn” double-cutaway styling
> Glued-in mahogany neck, bound rosewood fretboard with trapezoid inlays
> ABR-1 “Tune-o-Matic” bridge and “sideways vibrola”
> Cherry finish
> Dual PAF humbucking pickups