In the guitar pantheon there are a small group of elite designs that set the course for the style and sound of electric guitars for decades. Unquestionably classic, undeniably influential, and forever fresh, the 1959 Gibson Les Paul certainly deserves its place up top. But what made this guitar so successful and influential?
To understand the long-term impact of the 1959 Les Paul, you’ve got to understand a few things about the newly minted solid-body electric guitar industry of that decade. In 1950, Fender released the Esquire and Broadcaster, which were the ancestors of the Telecaster, released largely as a name rebranding shortly thereafter. With Fender holding the market, Gibson took notice and wanted a piece of the action.
Gibson President, Ted McCarty, and a small team of engineers took to the R&D lab to sort out their own recipe for the solid-body electric guitar. By 1957, they emerged not only with a new design but an artist endorsement. While Leo Fender had been courting the blues, country, jazz guitarist Les Paul for a Telecaster deal, it was ultimately the Gibson design that won his favor and won Gibson his name on the headstock. The guitar wasn’t the only weapon in Gibson’s arsenal for securing their spot in the market. In this same year, they launched the Flying V, Explorer, and Moderne. The four couldn’t be more different, yet one stood the test of time.
Originally released at a price-tag of just $300, the artist endorsed guitar was fairly accessible. Within a few short years of this launch, Gibson’s Tele-nemesis was gaining steam and McCarty and crew took to refining their recipe. By 1959, Gibson clearly hit their stride and released the Les Paul Standard. Gibson records reveal sales numbers of 1,712 sunburst Les Pauls sold between 1958-60, making them easily one of the most coveted and costly vintage guitar on the used market today. So what made this gold standard such a long standing success?
Visually, the instrument screams fine craftsmanship. Its enchanting, figured maple top instantly put it in a league of its own. Its mahogany body and set figured neck topped with rosewood meant sustain and dynamic tone quite distinct from Fender’s designs of the day. The most significant evolutionary element of the Les Paul, however, was the pickups. While the original 1952 gold top Gibson featured a set of P-90s, in the years that followed Gibson engineer Seth Lover innovated the hum-cancelling design known as the PAF humbuckers. That sealed the deal. With such a limited number of instruments sold, today 1959 Les Pauls routinely come with six-figure price tags. Not a bad investment on the original $300!