This Unique Pair of Vintage Goldtops Has Some Extra-Special Bling

1956 Gibson Les Paul Model (left) and 1957 Gibson Les Paul Model
1956 dual P-90 Gibson Les Paul (left) and 1957 dual humbucker model - both custom ordered from the factory with gold-plated Bigsby vibratos. (Image credit: Paige Davidson/Well Strung Guitars)

While Fender seemed to hit it out of the park with the Esquire on its first run, it took Gibson several tries to get to its best guitar. The fact is the first Les Pauls with the trapeze tailpiece had several problems. The neck angle was bad and there was no way to palm[-mute] the strings. In other words, there was no way to play the guitar the way we like to play it.

While Fender seemed to hit it out of the park with the Esquire on its first run, it took Gibson several tries to get to its best guitar

David Davidson

The way Les liked to play was different, however; he was a jazz guitar picker and he didn’t really palm the strings. It didn’t matter much to him.

Consequently, the guitars from ’52 [when the Les Paul Model/Goldtop was released] to early ’53 are tougher to sell, and many people have used them for conversions to ’Bursts if they happen to have some nice maple underneath [the gold finish].

1956 Gibson Les Paul Model (left) and 1957 Gibson Les Paul Model

This aureate pair are the only Les Paul Models David Davidson has ever seen with gold hardware. (Image credit: Paige Davidson/Well Strung Guitars)

One of the first things Gibson did as an attempt to improve the design was to incorporate a stud tailpiece in ’53. But even though the stud tailpiece was much more operable than the trapeze, the company hadn’t yet engineered a new [deeper] neck angle. So the guitars that were made through ’53 and up to the early part of ’54 are affected by that. The shallow angle makes the guitars more difficult to play.

One of the first things Gibson did as an attempt to improve the design was to incorporate a stud tailpiece in ’53

David Davidson

Gibson eventually worked out this problem with the neck angle and, by the first quarter of 1954, it started to make what became the first really usable solidbody electric Les Paul. It has a significantly deeper neck angle, and this means that the guitar can play all the way up the fretboard without choking. But Gibson was still addressing certain other things like weight and balance. It took a little while to iron it all out.

1957 Gibson Les Paul Model

1957 Gibson Les Paul Model. Original gold hardware includes a factory-fitted Bigsby. (Image credit: Paige Davidson/Well Strung Guitars)

The biggest change came in mid-’55 with the introduction of the ABR-1 [Tune-o-matic] bridge. It meant you could now intonate the guitar properly. The guitars were originally sent out with 0.013-gauge strings with a wound G string, but the ABR-1 bridge accommodated a set of 12s with a plain G string. And that made a big difference to players as they could now bend the strings more easily, even though the frets were still a little on the small side.

By ’56, Gibson was nearly there with the Les Paul design. And, in the back room, Seth Lover was working on the humbucking pickup

David Davidson

By ’56, Gibson was nearly there with the Les Paul design. And, in the back room, Seth Lover was working on the humbucking pickup. He’d already made it by ’56, but he wasn’t able to get it into a guitar [until ’57] because the pickup routs would need to be re-engineered to accommodate the different size. But the PAF humbucker was the big game-changer.

1956 Gibson Les Paul Model

The guitar player for the 1950s doo-wop band The Four Aces custom-ordered this 1956 Gibson Les Paul Model (hence the playing card appliqué) (Image credit: Paige Davidson/Well Strung Guitars)

The two Goldtops seen here are incredibly rare; they’re the only Les Paul Models I’ve ever seen with gold hardware.

The dual P-90 1956 guitar has original gold parts, including a factory-fitted Bigsby. The guitar player for the 1950s doo-wop band The Four Aces custom-ordered this guitar and found a playing card appliqué to put on the pickguard. Its sibling guitar is a PAF humbucker-loaded ’57 model. It’s a factory Bigsby guitar and it has the original sales receipt that is marked “gold hw/gold Bigs”.

Some people are humbucking people, and some people are single-coil people. And Les Pauls can do it all

David Davidson

They’re both really neat guitars for those reasons, but the point is they also play amazingly well.

The PAF was the shot heard round the world, but these Les Paul guitars also sound phenomenally good with P-90s. Some people are humbucking people, and some people are single-coil people. And Les Pauls can do it all. They work well with either type of pickup.

1957 Gibson Les Paul Model

PAF humbuckers superseded P-90 single coils in 1957. The following year would see the introduction of the Cherry Sunburst finish and the classic Les Paul 'Burst look would be complete. (Image credit: Paige Davidson/Well Strung Guitars)

When it comes to Gibson, it had enough money to make a few attempts and survive any fails, whereas Fender was a smaller company and needed to nail it right away. It didn’t have the time to revisit the designs, make changes and retool. You have to think about the amount of engineering that goes into making these kinds of changes – all the processes involved in changing from a stud tailpiece to an ABR-1, for example.

People can dream up guitars because all that stuff is already there… But I think it’s worth remembering that it didn’t always exist

David Davidson

These people were a lot smarter than me! When your kids are in school and they’re pissed off about having to do calculus and trigonometry, remind them that that kind of knowledge helped build things as cool as these two guitars. Engineering is hard work. But there’s good, strong thinking behind these designs. I’m not one of those people, but there are those who can think this far out of the box.

I mean, a lot of people can dream up guitars because all that stuff is already there. It’s easy to take for granted. But I think it’s worth remembering that it didn’t always exist. Somebody invented all of this. And I think that’s pretty remarkable.

David Davidson of Well Strung Guitars

(Image credit: Well Strung Guitars)

Vintage guitar veteran David Davidson owns Well Strung Guitars (opens in new tab) in Farmingdale, New York.
info@wellstrungguitars.com / 001 (516) 221-0563

Rod Brakes is a music journalist with an expertise in guitars. Having spent many years at the coalface as a guitar dealer and tech, Rod's more recent work as a writer covering artists, industry pros and gear includes contributions for leading publications and websites such as GuitaristTotal Guitar, Guitar World (opens in new tab)Guitar Player (opens in new tab) and MusicRadar (opens in new tab) in addition to specialist music books, blogs and social media. He is also a lifelong musician.