Les Paul's 1954 Custom: The One & Only Original

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Sometimes, it’s a good move to let another player begin the song, or, in this case, the introductory paragraph, and as it’s a story about Les Paul and the most important Les Paul guitar of all time, I hereby give the nod to Les’ godson, Mr. Steve Miller:

“This 1954 black Les Paul Custom—better known as “Black Beauty”—is the very culmination of all of Les Paul’s high ideals, his imagination, and his musical and design genius, and it is the very genesis of the Gibson Les Paul guitar as we now know it. Without this very guitar, no other Les Paul guitars could exist in the form that we have come to know and love for all these decades. This guitar transcends its inherent importance as a collectable guitar, a historical musical instrument, and as an amazing piece of memorabilia. It is literally part of the lexicon and fabric of our worldwide musical history, our shared American culture from the last century, and, of course, Les Paul’s own legacy.”

The guitar that Miller is talking about is Les Paul’s personal ’54 Custom that he devised with Gibson, and further experimented on in his workshop to produce a monumentally playable and pristine-sounding machine. While the “pristine sound” aspect of Les’ hard work was not embraced by all (more on this later), the design evolutions introduced by the Custom ultimately made it possible for players such as Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Slash, and Peter Frampton to write parts of their own musical histories with Les Paul guitars. In other words, Les’ 1954 Black Beauty is ground zero for the modern Les Paul.

It all started from an epic fail, of course. When Gibson originally partnered with Les, a 1952 goldtop Les Paul was brought to market. Les knew pretty much immediately that a huge error had been made. Put simply, the solidbody goldtop had the wrong neck pitch, the wrong bridge (a trapeze type typically seen on archtops), shaky intonation, and the wrong pickups—all of which made the first production guitar with Les Paul’s name on it rather, um, unplayable. (And that’s just what Les himself said about it!) So Les and Gibson president Ted McCarty rapidly began the project to “fix” the Les Paul guitar. As you’ll read about in this article, the rescue mission resulted in the 1954 Les Paul Custom.

The profile of the Black Beauty is only going to get higher this year, because it is being auctioned on February 19, by Guernseys (the Steve Miller quote actually came from his foreword to the auction catalog), along with another critically important instrument, the 1956 Chet Atkins 6120 prototype. The sale of both instruments—as well as a large stash of Les Paul gear and memorabilia—is presented by Tom Doyle, who was Les Paul’s luthier, tech, soundman, creative foil, and friend for 50-some years. Spearheading the project is Max Stavron, who as Doyle’s business manager has done a lot to bring Doyle the recognition he deserves as the man who worked with the musician-inventor-audio producer more closely than anyone. Regular GP readers may also remember Doyle and Stavron as the people who completed Les Paul’s last pickup design, and brought it to market as Doyle Coils Tru-Clone PAF Humbuckers. As to why these museum pieces are going to auction, rather than a museum, read on and all will be revealed.

As you’re about to read, “The One & Only Original” introduces the ’54 Black Beauty, and, through Doyle’s near-daily “shop talk” with the great man during 50 years of working together, attempts to reconstruct Les’ creative state and design focus as he experimented on the guitar.

So to kick off the next verse of Guitar Player’s salute to the 1954 Les Paul Custom that started it all, here’s Tom Doyle. 

Tom, how in the heck did you come to possess such a prized and priceless guitar?

Les was very frugal—many people called him cheap. But he came from those times where he didn’t have much, and he knew what it took to make a dollar and how to keep a dollar, and he was relentless at using that sense of prudence as a powerful tool to get further in his career. He was always investing in the Les Paul business, so to speak. But after working with him for so long—as much as I felt so honored to be able to have that relationship with him—I had to say, “You know, Les, you owe me a lot of money.” At the time, I was restoring seven or eight guitars for him—including his vintage Gibson L-5—and I didn’t really have the funds to get the parts those instruments needed. We worked something out for the parts, and Les also knew that I wanted to take the L-5 to the 1979 NAMM show. He said, “Tell you what—I’ll let you take it.” So I said, “If you let me do that, would you also give me the Black Beauty? I won’t charge you for the restoration on the L-5, and as we’ve been friends all these years, I’d love to have that guitar.” Les said, “Okay. That’s fine. You twisted my arm.” Les loved to horse trade.

Well, that’s quite a deal—trading restoration work on an L-5 for the most famous and important Les Paul ever.

And he let me know that, too [laughs]. I asked him to write down that I was trading the restoration work for the Black Beauty, and when he came down to sign the receipt, he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You know that there’s only one Les Paul, Tom?” I said, “Les, I do know that, and it’s an honor to work for you.” And he just said, “Well, remember that this is all supposed to be.” He always believed in divinity—that everything happened as it was supposed to happen.

The Black Beauty is considered to be the genesis of all future Les Paul guitars, but I’m unaware how many of Les’ innovations in his workshop actually got back to Gibson and ended up being incorporated into mass production Les Pauls.

Les had a love/hate relationship with Gibson—especially with Norlin Industries, which was the beer and the concrete company that owned the brand in the late ’70s, and had nothing to do with guitars. So I think he had a struggle to reinforce what he brought to the electric guitar. Back in 1952, Les and Ted McCarty [designer and Gibson president from 1950-1966] both knew about the intonation problems with the goldtop Les Paul guitar, and Ted was also wise enough to know that kids were going to use lighter strings than Les was using. Ted said, “But, Les, people don’t use .014s on the high-E string and a .058 on the low E. That’s how Les realized that he had to come up with a stop tailpiece. Les called that iteration “a necessary evil to make the Les Paul really work well.” That’s one thing that developed from the goldtop to the “modern” Les Paul guitar, but he and Ted had a long list. Les was very close to Ted. He and Mary used to stay at the McCarty house when he’d go to the Kalamazoo factory to discuss the design. Part of the talks revolved around Les being so relentless about getting the action lower and lower. Even though, in the early days, Les played with a high action, he knew that selling the Les Paul would require an action that was really easy to play. So he had to get the bridge height and stop tailpiece correct to make that playability happen. I’m sure that’s how the “Fretless Wonder” came about, as well, although that’s an iteration that came from Ted. Les wouldn’t have created those low, tiny frets. He liked a good-sized fret.

So, just to be clear, Les is pissed about the goldtop with its neck pitch and trapeze tailpiece. He calls the goldtop “unplayable.” So he works on the neck pitch for the Custom. Then, he goes for a stop tailpiece—which, originally, I heard he wanted mounted slanted—and starts pushing for lower action.

Absolutely. That’s right.

I find it interesting that Les was pushing for a low action. It’s almost as if he could foresee the coming of the rock players in the 1960s.

I believe that Les always saw into the future. I don’t think he envisioned rock and roll coming, but he was certainly aware of rockabilly and country players who liked low actions. He’d tell me many times, “You can’t change the world. Ya gotta go with what they want.” He was also very conscious that he wanted the Black Beauty to be the tuxedo of the guitar—meaning that he wanted everything about it to work really well for the player.

Another developmental element of the Black Beauty was its super-pristine low-impedance pickups. Les really worked hard to present a full-frequency clean sound, but that quest didn’t turn out to be a popular direction for other guitar players.

He got annoyed with me when I told him, “Look, your pickups failed.” He said, “Wait, Tom, it wasn’t a failure. It was just the wrong sound for the times.” You see, Les was really thinking about how the Black Beauty could be used in the recording studio. He wanted that clear, bell-like sound that was unheard of in the high-impedance humbuckers of the day. He wanted a full-spectrum tone without any muddiness in the bass that a recording engineer could use to craft any sound he heard in his head. And then a guy comes along with a ripped speaker and all this midrange growl that Les spent his whole life taking out of the sound. I said, “Les, I’m in your world. I love a clean sound, but the average guy could care less. Listen to these records—they want an overdrive sound all the time.” And this ongoing experiment was really the demise of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s hit-making career. Their sound was so clean and beautiful that it put them out of business. Les used to say, “We were just too vanilla. We were done. The rules didn’t exist anymore, and the kids didn’t want to hear these crystal-clear recordings.” And, for Les, although he tried a couple of fuzzy records in the late ’60s and early ’70s—he even made an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand—it simply wasn’t in his DNA to play or record like that. It was unbelievable what he was doing, but he was just swinging on a different level than the popular culture of the day.

But Les himself never abandoned low-impedance pickups—even if he needed a transformer to be able to plug into high-impedance amps and effects?

He always played with low-impedance pickups for every live show I ever did with him for more than 27 years. He never changed. Les would always try out the new Les Pauls that Gibson sent him. He’d record them, and compare the sound to his low-impedance guitar, and he’d always say, “Well, that’s not making it. They’re still muddy on the bottom end.” Gibson made great pickups—they just weren’t for Les. But Les would always be up for solving a problem, and he and I spent a lot of time developing a high-impedance pickup that delivered a clean, full-spectrum sound that could then be plugged into an amp and overdriven. It was only after Les passed away that Max and I finally figured it out with our Doyle Coils Tru-Clones humbuckers. That was a hard thing to come up with, I tell you!

Now, when we get to ’70s rock, a lot of the popular guitarists of the day were going nuts over sunburst Les Pauls. What did Les think about that?

To be honest with you, he never liked sunbursts. He didn’t care for a ’59 sunburst at all. He really preferred the sound of the mahogany on his Black Beauty—which was really warm and jazzy. He wanted some sparkle, too, but that was the reason for his experiments with the pickups, rather than the wood. He simply wasn’t a fan of the maple tops of the sunburst Les Pauls.

What kind of neck did Les want for the Black Beauty?

He liked what I would call a “medium round” neck that was a bit heavy, and that’s what is on the Black Beauty. When Gibson started doing thinner necks, he asked me what I thought, and I said, “You lose a lot of timber, and I measured that around 65 percent of the guitar’s resonance that’s driven down into the body is lost with a thinner neck. It just doesn’t have the same sound.”

You’ve said that Les handed you Black Beauty in early 1976, so we can assume that all of his experiments with that guitar were complete at that time, correct?

That’s right. He brought it up to what he wanted to play, as well as what Gibson was now designing and selling.

Okay. It’s 1976, and Les is done with the ’54 Black Beauty. What is he playing now?

He’s playing the ’70s instruments that Gibson is sending him. He’s tearing them apart, of course, and putting in the pickups and things he is using in his Les Paul Recording guitar. He even asked Gibson to send him the unfinished Recording guitars that weren’t selling. He’d say, “Send those things to me and I’ll jerry rig them. My pickups sound better than yours, anyway. You’re winding them on a machine, and I’m winding them by hand.” He’s staying the course that he set, but he’s not really innovating at this point. But he would still experiment with the electronics, and he’d still make pickups to see if he could better himself. He would say, “You can go past the sound, and then have a tough time finding out what you really did that was great. You’re searching, searching, searching, and you don’t realize that what you once had was probably at its optimum. I’m chasing my tail all the time.”

That brings up something about Les’ process: Did he take comprehensive notes on what he was doing, or did he get lost in these moments of experimentation and leave things undocumented?

He did write down a lot of notes, but they were scribbles on loose pieces of paper. I think he did try to keep a diary, but it didn’t work out for him, because he was always waking up in the middle of the night with an idea he’d want to write down, and the notebook would be nowhere in sight. So there was nothing written down like, “On April 21, I did 3,500 turns of this wire, and I used this magnet.” What notes he did have were very fundamental.

Is there anything else you can remember about this guitar?

The Black Beauty was his favorite guitar for most of the 170 Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home episodes sponsored by Listerine in the 1950s. He loved the feel of that guitar—it was a perfect fit for his hands—and he knew its black finish would look fantastic on the terrible television pictures of the day. Les was very aware that people could easily see his hands moving across the black body and ebony fretboard. He said, “Movement is very important. A guy can play great, but if his hands stay in one spot, it looks like anybody can do it. I have to let people see my hands flying all over the place.” He was a very good salesman. He knew what he had and he knew how to sell it. He’d tell me, “Tom, whatever you do, it has to be hock-able.” Those were his words.

You know, 40 years ago, I don’t think Les or I could really envision how significant and important this guitar would be today. We knew it was an iconic piece of Les Paul’s career, of course, but its true impact on so much of guitar culture is something you can only explicitly see looking back from 2014. So when I have Black Beauty in my hands, it makes me relive all the great times I had with Les, and I think about what he really gave us all. But I’ve taken care of this guitar for 40-some years, and now it’s time to share it with the rest of the world.

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