THE SOLID-BODY STRADIVARIUS - Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, and Revolution of the Electric Guitar - Alan di Perna, Brad Tolinski

Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, and Revolution of the Electric Guitar - Alan di Perna, Brad Tolinski (2016)


In the late winter of 1965, a young English guitarist wandered into a London music shop. He’d just made a bold and risky—some would say foolish—career move, quitting the band he’d been with since 1963 just as they’d scored their first hit record and were rapidly rising to fame. Success and recognition of that magnitude is the very thing most musicians dream of.

But then, Eric Clapton has always been a law unto himself. During his time with the Yardbirds—the band from which he had just resigned—he had been essential in carving out a greatly expanded, assertive, and adventurous role for the electric lead guitar in the mid-sixties music of the so-called British Invasion. But Clapton was displeased with the blatantly pop direction of the Yardbirds’ breakthrough hit single, the harpsichord-driven “For Your Love.” The guitarist had wanted the band to stick with the African American blues/R&B musical course they’d initially charted. Instead, in Clapton’s eyes, they’d sold out. So he’d left in a huff.

Within two weeks of his departure, he’d accepted a gig with British bluesman John Mayall and his group, the Bluesbreakers. Mayall would come to be known as the father of the British blues scene. So if Clapton wanted to play blues and nothing but the blues, Mayall was his man. Of course, this meant a step down in terms of creature comforts and financial remuneration—sleeping rough in Mayall’s incommodious van on small-time U.K. club tours while his former fellow Yardbirds and their new guitar player, Jeff Beck, jetted off to America and hordes of screaming teenage fans. But young Mr. Clapton was an idealist and man of principle, willing to suffer a little for the sake of his art.

He felt, however, that he needed a new guitar and amp for his new musical role. The Fender Telecaster and Vox amp he’d been playing had been fine for the Yardbirds. But now he required something with a bit more gravitas. A real grown-up instrument. And so he hit the music shops along London’s Denmark Street and Charing Cross Road—a pilgrimage he’d been making regularly since he was a teenager.

“There were several stores that had electric guitars in their windows,” the guitarist recalled in his 2007 autobiography, Clapton. “To me they were just like sweet shops. I would stand outside staring at these things for hours on end, especially at night when the windows would remain lit up, and after a trip to the Marquee [London’s premier jazz/blues/R&B venue] I would walk around all night looking and dreaming.”

Clapton knew exactly what he wanted—a Gibson Les Paul guitar like he’d seen his hero, bluesman Freddie King, playing on the cover of King’s album Let’s Hide Away and Dance Away. Clapton didn’t manage to find a goldtop Les Paul model like the one on the album cover, but he came close enough, discovering a 1960 Les Paul Standard with a beautiful sunburst finish. Emerging from a dark-toned border, the guitar’s natural maple-wood-grain top shone beneath glistening lacquer.

“It was almost brand new,” Clapton would later recall, “in an original case with that lovely purple velvet lining. Just magnificent.”

Clapton paired the guitar with a 50-watt Marshall amplifier and left the shop contented. He immediately put the new rig to work with Mayall, both live and in the recording studio, starting with a June ’65 session for the single “I’m Your Witchdoctor”/“Telephone Blues,” produced by none other than Jimmy Page, another guitarist who would become closely associated with the Gibson Les Paul. In April of 1966 this was followed by sessions for Mayall’s second album, and first-ever studio LP, Blues Breakers: John Mayall with Eric Clapton. For this recording, as on the earlier single, Clapton insisted on recording his guitar and amp cranked up to live performance volume, a technique relatively unheard-of at the time. “The result,” Clapton explained,

was the sound which came to be associated with me. It had really come about accidentally, when I was trying to emulate the sharp, thin sound that Freddie King got out of his Gibson Les Paul, and I ended up with something quite different, a sound that was a lot fatter than Freddie’s. The Les Paul has two pickups: one at the end of the neck, giving the guitar a kind of round jazz sound; and the other next to the bridge giving you the treble, most often used for the thin, typically rock and roll sound. What I would do was use the bridge pickup with all the bass turned up, so the sound was also very thick and on the edge of distortion. I also always used amps that would overload. I would have the amp on full and I would have the volume on the guitar also turned up full, so everything was on full volume and overloading. I would hit a note, hold it, and give it some vibrato with my fingers, until it sustained and then the distortion would turn into feedback. It was all of these things, plus the distortion, that created “my sound.”

Of course it wasn’t only the guitar’s sound that made the album so compelling. Clapton’s handling of the instrument is masterful—a riveting yin/yang of unbridled passion and uncanny control. His connection with the gritty truth of the blues cuts deeper here than on any of his work with the Yardbirds, or indeed any of the recordings that his fellow British blues interpreters, such as the Rolling Stones and the Animals, had done in the years immediately prior to ’66. But at the same time, Clapton’s performance on the album is markedly different from the playing of his African American blues mentors—exuding a cocky kind of rock-and-roll aggression that would set a benchmark for both rock and pure blues playing for decades to come.

For all these reasons, Blues Breakers is one of the most important guitar recordings of all time—kind of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for guitar players. The disc got to #6 on the U.K. charts when it was released in July of 1966. In the United States, it was more of a cult classic. Many only picked up on it retrospectively, after Clapton hit it big with his subsequent group, Cream, a year later. Blues Breakers: John Mayall with Eric Clapton remains one of the albums that guitar players are expected to know about. Many are intimately familiar with every note of the record’s incendiary renderings of twelve-bar blues penned by Mayall and Clapton themselves, not to mention songs by blues giants including Ray Charles, Otis Rush, Freddie King, Little Walter Jacobs, and Robert Johnson.

As a cult album, everything about the package was fetishized, including the front cover photograph of the group seated on a curb in front of a paint-splattered, chalk-graffitied concrete wall. Clapton is seen reading a copy of the U.K. comic book The Beano. Apparently the guitarist was not in the best of moods the day of the photo shoot (he seemingly found album cover photos a bit too pop as well) and insisted on reading the comic, refusing to make eye contact with the photographer’s lens, thus registering his boredom with the entire procedure. For this reason, the LP is often referred to as the “Beano” album.

It’s interesting that, despite his vehement repudiation of the Yardbirds and all things pop, Clapton is by far the Mayall band member who most resembles a pop idol on the album cover, stylishly attired in Beatle boots, slim black trousers, and a black fur coat, sporting neatly trimmed muttonchop sideburns. In contrast, drummer Hughie Flint looks like an early-sixties beatnik, with a goatee and white poplin raincoat. Mayall and bassist John McVie more resemble campus folkies, in scruffy suede and denim, with hair somewhat less than immaculately groomed. Clapton was clearly another breed of musician—one soon to be known as a guitar hero.

The disc was released at a time when long-playing record albums and album cover graphics were gaining recognition as valid art forms. Music fans were beginning to value albums over the 45-rpm singles that had earlier driven the popular music market. At a time before the advent of guitar magazines or any kind of serious music journalism—let alone guitar instructional videos on YouTube—album cover art and liner notes were a prized source of all-too-rare information about musical artists.

So, even more than the “Beano” album’s front cover photo, guitarists pored over the back cover’s black-and-white shots of the band at work in the recording studio. In one of these, Clapton is seen playing his Les Paul Standard, a lit cigarette jammed between strings on the peghead. Off to his right, his Marshall amp is also seen. Even though the guitar is only partially visible in the photograph, and from a rear angle at that, the photograph was sufficient to send legions of guitar players scrambling to find Les Paul Standards of their own. The problem was that Gibson had discontinued the model in 1961, and there weren’t that many available. It wasn’t until Clapton and a few other mid-1960s guitar heroes picked up on the instrument that it came to possess the “holy grail” status that it still enjoys today.

Among the many guitar players impelled by the “Beano” album to procure a Les Paul Standard of their own was a bearded Texan named Billy F. Gibbons, who’d just started a band called ZZ Top.

“As is well known by now, on the reverse side of that John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers LP, we see Clapton with a Les Paul and a Marshall amp in the background,” Gibbons would later recall.

And immediately those who could put two and two together began to suspect that this wonderful sound and its richness of tone might be a result of that combination. So go find a Les Paul sunburst and a Marshall amplifier—that became the goal. That Les Paul sunburst mystique fanned the flames of thinking, “This must be it. Get one of those and you’re steps ahead.” And by and large it’s proven to be just that. Out of the 1,750 odd Les Pauls made in ’58, ’59, and ’60, although each one has its stylized personality characteristics, I’ve yet to find one that is not rip-roaring groovy. They’re all wicked.

Gibbons’s own quest led him to a farmhouse in Texas, where he found and purchased the 1959 Les Paul Standard that he has played on every single ZZ Top album from the band’s 1971 debut disc right up to the present day. Known by its nickname Pearly Gates—or sometimes Mistress Pearly Gates—the instrument is another one of the legendary Les Pauls from the ’58-’60 golden period. Like Stradivarius violins, the most famous Les Paul guitars tend to acquire names and individualized, almost human personalities all their own. The ’60 Standard that Clapton played on the Mayall album is often called the “Beano” guitar. Its mystique is enhanced by the fact that it was stolen from its owner in 1966, shortly after the Blues Breakers album was recorded, and has never been recovered.

The Stradivarius analogy is an apt one in other regards. The rich, sustained tone of these vintage Les Pauls is often described as violin-like. And as we’ll see, the guitars’ carved maple tops and opulent, book-matched maple-wood-grain patterns were directly borrowed from violin-making techniques. Also not unlike Stradivarius violins, the things are ultra-rare and incredibly expensive. In the early years of the twenty-first century, a sunburst 1959 Les Paul Standard that had belonged to guitarists Peter Green and Gary Moore sold for $2 million. Which, even allowing for inflation, is a pretty substantial appreciation for a guitar that retailed for about $280 brand-new in ’59. If the Clapton “Beano” Les Paul ever turned up at auction, it would surely fetch a similarly astronomical sum. It is perhaps the most iconic iteration of one of the world’s most iconic electric guitars.

Of the approximately 1,750 sunburst Les Pauls manufactured between 1958 and 1960, some 1,000 are still unaccounted for. Many may well have been destroyed, modified, cannibalized for spare parts, or converted into end tables. Of course, there are many other Gibson Les Paul models from years other than the ’58-’60 Standards, and many of them are superb guitars, quite handsomely priced as well. But none of them quite measures up to the golden era “ ’bursts.”

MANY OF THE guitarists who today venerate vintage Les Paul guitars have never heard the music of Les Paul. But they’re most likely to have heard the music of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons, Duane Allman, Mick Ronson, Slash, and many other rock guitar gods who have ridden their Les Pauls to fame. Moreover, the sounds these players wrest from the instruments bear little resemblance to the tonalities the Gibson company and Les Paul himself were envisioning when the guitar was first designed.

The Les Paul guitar only came about because Gibson was desperately in need of a solid-body electric to rival Fender’s Telecaster, which had made a substantial splash in the early 1950s. If Gibson was to maintain the leadership role it had established in the guitar market decades earlier, it knew it had to come up with a solid-body model that not only equaled the Telecaster, but exceeded it in every way. The task of doing this was spearheaded by Gibson’s new president, Ted McCarty.

McCarty had been brought on board in 1948 to help Gibson out of its post-World War II slump. Wartime shortages, the necessity of retooling for the war effort, and the rise of competitors such as Gretsch and Epiphone had eroded Gibson’s market share. It was a whole new world out there, and the company’s owner, Maurice H. Berlin of Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI), wasn’t about to let the company he’d acquired in 1944 get left in the dust. On the advice of his friendly rival Bill Gretsch, Berlin recruited McCarty to turn things around and get Gibson back on its feet.

McCarty was already a heavy hitter in the business. He’d played a key role at America’s largest musical instrument company, Wurlitzer, where he’d gained expertise in manufacturing, retail, and even real estate over the course of his twelve years there. He was about to leave Wurlitzer to accept a post as assistant treasurer at the Brach’s Confections candy company when Berlin asked him to visit Gibson’s Kalamazoo, Michigan, facility, have a look around, and assess the situation there. McCarty’s verdict was swift and characteristically blunt and to-the-point: the company’s management was too top-heavy.

By all accounts, he was not a man to mince his words. Like many of the electric guitar’s early innovators, Ted McCarty had come up during the hard years of the Great Depression. “He was a Golden Gloves boxer,” says guitar designer and manufacturer Paul Reed Smith, who was mentored by McCarty in later years. “If he had a problem with another kid, he would nail him. The guy was tough.”

Candy vs. guitars: Maurice Berlin didn’t have an easy job luring McCarty away from the Brach’s offer. Brach’s was top dog in a huge market. Way more people buy candy than guitars. And, much like Leo Fender, McCarty wasn’t a musician. Unlike Leo, however, McCarty doesn’t appear to have had a musical passion anything like Leo’s love of country music. So the opportunity to stay in the music business with Gibson wouldn’t have been that much of an inducement. He was the kind of guy who looked at the bottom line first and foremost.

And he wasn’t crazy about the idea of leaving Chicago’s teeming metropolis, where Wurlitzer was headquartered, for the sleepy, small-town charm of Kalamazoo. The move would mean a major upheaval for both himself and his family. During his time with Wurlitzer, he’d had to relocate his wife, eleven-year-old son, and eight-year-old daughter to eight different cities. He wasn’t particularly interested in going through all of that again. The Brach’s job would have enabled Ted and his family to remain in their comfortable Colonial-style home in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka.

But the thing that was tempting about the Gibson offer was that it would give McCarty a chance to utilize the engineering degree he’d acquired from Purdue University but had never been able to use in a professional capacity. And not long after he’d accepted Berlin’s offer and settled into his position at Gibson, McCarty realized that the job came with an intriguing engineering challenge right off the bat—to build a solid-body that would top the Telecaster and knock Fender off its perch.

He seemed almost to take the Telecaster’s existence as a personal affront. This is an antipathy he shared with most of the guitar manufacturing establishment at the time. “Their attitude was, ‘Forget it, because anyone with a band saw and a router can make a solidbody guitar,’ ” McCarty recalled. The difference was that McCarty didn’t just “forget it.” What was required was a solid-body electric guitar that couldn’t be made by anybody with a band saw and a router. A guitar that was worthy of Gibson’s long reputation for fine craftsmanship, but also something that was completely modern. To that end, around 1950, McCarty put together a team that included Gibson production chief John Huis, employees Julius Bellson and Wilbur Marker, as well as representatives of other Gibson departments ranging from the wood shop to the sales force. His approach was global—taking into account everything from the tree from which the guitar would be made to the way the finished product would look in a music store window.

McCarty’s basic design strategy was to take all the proven virtues of Gibson archtop guitars—their distinctive hollow bodies, f-holes, and contoured tops—and adapt them to a solid-body instrument. From a marketing standpoint, he was playing the tradition card against Fender’s innovation card. Perhaps the main challenge was to come up with a body shape that was functional, comfortable to play, fully and clearly a solid-body guitar, yet somehow reminiscent of Gibson’s legendary archtops. But McCarty and his team couldn’t just take a regular archtop shape and make it solid rather than hollow. The thing would weigh a ton. So, as Leo Fender and George Fullerton had done with the Telecaster, McCarty and his associates took the outline of a conventional hollow-body and shrank it down to manageable proportions. The body they designed was appreciably less thick than an archtop, but still a little thicker than a Tele.

To emulate the classic Gibson archtop look, the designers hit upon the idea of affixing a carved maple top onto a main body fashioned from mahogany. The arch is subtle, but it nonetheless imparts a sensuous contour to the instrument. Much thought went into positioning Gibson as the upmarket alternative to Fender, with all the gravitas of historical guitar craftsmanship on Gibson’s side.

Significantly, McCarty and his team opted for a traditional glued-in dovetail joint to attach the neck to the solid body of the instrument—a key feature that would differentiate Gibson’s new guitar from the bolt-on neck design of Fender solid-body electrics. This helps the guitar sustain notes longer and generally imparts a more traditional tonality to the instrument. Visually, the neck’s fret inlays—the markings on a fretboard that help a player orient him- or herself, often simple dots or pairs of dots—have a distinctive trapezoidal shape. This, and also the shape of the headstock, were meant to emulate the look of Gibson archtops of the period.

Once McCarty’s team had completed a prototype, they turned their attention to marketing their new instrument. The idea arose to make it an artist signature model, as they had done with their Nick Lucas model of 1928, a collaboration with the guitarist, film personality, and “Tip-toe Thru the Tulips” crooner, followed by a model with guitarist Roy Smeck, introduced in 1934. Smeck is arguably the “signature model king” of early electric guitar history, having also lent his name to instruments by Kay, Montgomery Ward, and others. The company’s leaders felt they were taking a risk with the newfangled instrument, so they were keen to hedge their bets in any way they could.

It was Ted McCarty who proposed Les Paul as the man whose name should go on the guitar. Les Paul and Mary Ford were enormously popular at the time, with hits like 1950’s “Tennessee Waltz” and ’51’s “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” “How High the Moon,” and “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise.” The futuristic “New Sound” Les had forged on these recordings had made his name synonymous with electric guitar wizardry. So he was the ideal personality to be associated with Gibson’s new solid-body guitar design.

“I said, ‘What about Les Paul?’ ” McCarty later recounted. “Because at the time, he and Mary were at the top of the charts. I knew Les, and had been trying to get him to play Gibson guitars, because he was an Epiphone man.”

Les Paul always told a different tale of the guitar’s design origin. Perhaps not surprisingly, it featured himself in a much more central role. According to his account, he was approached by Maurice Berlin, who had laughed him out of the room when Les had showed him his Log guitar in the forties. But after Fender brought the Telecaster to market, Berlin purportedly said, “Go find that kid with the broomstick,” and Les was duly summoned back to Gibson.

McCarty vehemently denied this account of the guitar’s origin, saying, “We spent a year designing that guitar, and Les never saw it until I took it to Pennsylvania.”

In any event, a resort in Pennsylvania’s Delaware Water Gap was indeed where their contract was signed in 1952. The five-year deal gave Les 5 percent of the proceeds from every guitar sold.

Les claimed credit for originating the choice of the instrument’s two initial colors, and perhaps he did. “The two I picked out originally were the gold and the black,” he recalled.

And they said, “Why in God’s world do you want gold? That’s the worst color. It’s gonna turn green on you.” They were against it. And I said, “Because it’s rich. Because it represents the best, the greatest, the highest.” Okay, so gold it is. And then they says, “Okay, now what about the other one?” What other one? Well they were gonna make two. “Okay let’s see, what will the other one be? Well, black.” Why black? Because then the audience can see your hands. That’s all it was.

Gibson went with gold for the first production run of the Les Paul guitar. The goldtop model was introduced during the spring of 1952 at a price of $210, about twenty bucks more than a Telecaster. The newcomer did well, selling 1,716 units in 1952 and 2,245 in 1953, outselling all other Gibson electrics except for the archtop ES-125, and equaling or beating the Telecaster’s production numbers during those two years. The Gibson Les Paul’s special connection with the blues started right away. Prominent among the first guitarists of note to adopt the instrument were bluesmen John Lee Hooker, Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones), Hubert Sumlin, and Freddie King.

WHATEVER ROLE Les Paul may or may not have played in the actual design of the guitar, there could hardly have been a better person to promote the instrument. In 1952, he closed a deal to produce and costar in his own television program, Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home, sponsored by Listerine mouthwash. The show was a variation on the popular sitcom, a genre that had taken root during broadcast television’s early days with programs such as The Life of Riley, which debuted in 1948, I Love Lucy, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and Amos ’n’ Andy, all debuting in 1951.

But, as usual, Les had a few ideas of his own as to how the thing ought to be done. Rather than adhering to the usual half-hour, once-a-week sitcom format, he talked Listerine into doing several five-minute shows daily, squeezing in dialogue, music, and of course a plug for the sponsor’s product. And rather than broadcasting from a television studio, the show was shot at Les and Mary’s home in Mahwah, New Jersey, where they had eventually settled after leaving L.A. The concept was quintessentially Les Paul. Why go to a studio when you could do it at home? Also, the five-minute spots were historic forerunners of music videos—a pioneering form of short-attention-span entertainment.

In terms of content, Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home was very much in the mid-twentieth-century spirit of upward-middle-class mobility, security, and comfort. The cozy, suburban domestic settings around Les and Mary’s home provided a unique backdrop for musical performances. Mary would be singing a tune while unpacking groceries or tending houseplants. Presumably, few viewers stopped to wonder where the heavily overdubbed three-and four-part vocal harmonies were coming from. Casually sitting at the kitchen table or on a chaise longue on a flagstone patio, Les would tear off lightning-fast licks on his Gibson Les Paul guitar. The show served to contextualize the electric guitar—still fairly novel at the time—alongside the electric toasters, vacuum cleaners, and other handy implements of middle-class suburban life. It was an early instance of what’s now called product placement.

The Gibson guitar that Les was most often seen playing on the program was a model that the company had introduced in 1954, the Les Paul Custom. A handsome black guitar with white binding—Les often compared it to a tuxedo—it differed from its goldtop predecessor in a few ways. Apart from the obvious difference in color, the body was solid mahogany, rather than mahogany with a layer of maple on top. This gave it a slightly darker tone. Also, the metal frets on the fingerboard were smaller and set lower than Gibson’s usual standard, making fretboard fingering easier and more comfortable. For this reason the guitar was nicknamed “the Fretless Wonder.” Of all the many iterations of his namesake guitar, the Custom was the one that Les Paul personally preferred.

The Gibson Les Paul had begun to morph from a single instrument to a whole range of guitars. In 1954, the company also introduced an affordable student model, the Les Paul Junior. It lacked the fancy carved top of higher-priced Les Pauls—just a plain slab body with a single P-90 pickup rather than two. But it nonetheless offered Gibson quality and sound. Decades later, the Les Paul Junior would find favor with punk rock guitarists such as Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls, Mick Jones of the Clash, and Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day. The guitar’s low-budget minimalism would appeal to many punk guitarists both aesthetically and economically.

These new models arrived at a time when the solid-body electric guitar market was starting to heat up considerably. As we’ve seen, 1954 was the year when the Fender Stratocaster was introduced, substantially upping the game. The curvaceous Strat was definitely not a plain “slab” guitar that could have been produced by anyone with a band saw and a router. And its sexy modernist contours tended to make Gibson’s more traditional designs look staid. Beyond that, the Stratocaster possessed a few technical refinements that appealed to serious guitarists, such as a bridge allowing the height and intonation of each string to be adjusted individually and with an appreciable degree of precision.

Ted McCarty certainly wasn’t about to take that lying down. He came up with his own highly adjustable “tune-o-matic” bridge and a new “stopbar” tailpiece, which transferred string vibrations to the guitar’s body more effectively than the more old-school “trapeze style” tailpiece that had been used on earlier Les Paul models. Starting in 1955, these two pieces of innovative hardware would become standard equipment on all Les Pauls and many other Gibson models, and are still very much in use today. They’re a key ingredient in the winning Les Paul formula.

Another vital innovation made its debut in 1957—the humbucking pickup. This one wasn’t McCarty’s idea, but rather the work of Gibson design engineer Seth Lover. It was the first really significant innovation in guitar pickup design since George Beauchamp’s invention of the device in the 1930s. Lover’s design addressed a problem that had been inherent in guitar pickups ever since the thirties—their susceptibility to electrical interference that generated a bothersome, nonmusical noise known as 60-cycle hum. This is created when the pickup’s coil—a length of electrical wire wrapped around a magnet—interacts with electromagnetic fields generated by other sources, such as stage lighting equipment.

Lover’s concept was to employ two coils rather than one, with electrical current flowing in a different direction through the wire in each individual coil. This pattern of current flow serves to cancel out, or buck, electrical interference, aka hum. Which is why the design is called a humbucking pickup, often referred to colloquially as a “humbucker.” However, it also cancels out some of the pickup’s treble response. As a result, humbucking pickups have more of a bassy tone, which isn’t necessarily better or worse than the bright, trebly sound of a single-coil pickup. It’s just different, and, like all tonal differences, more appealing to some guitarists than others. The warm, dark, bass-heavy sound of humbucking pickups would become a characteristic tonality of many Gibson electric guitars, and a key differentiating factor between the Gibson sound and the brighter, more sparkly Fender sound.

GIBSON BEGAN TO incorporate humbucking pickups into their high-end electric models in 1957, including the Les Paul model introduced in 1958—the iconic guitar that would come to be known as the Les Paul Standard.

The guitar’s cherry sunburst finish evoked Gibson’s long tradition of woodworking craftsmanship. The design was implemented on the Les Paul as a way of reviving flagging interest in the instrument. By 1957, the goldtops and black Customs weren’t selling as well as they had earlier in the fifties. Something was needed to impart a new dose of visual excitement; and rather than going for a brighter or more garish solid color, Gibson went in a more traditional direction, implementing their now legendary sunburst finish, derived from violin making. The guitar top’s natural, flame maple-wood grain glowed warmly beneath lustrous layers of artfully applied varnish. Redolent of fine furniture, this upscale look would captivate even casual fans. And as the wood grain on each individual guitar is as different and distinctive as a fingerprint, future guitar collectors would go into raptures over these instruments (while simultaneously reaching for their checkbooks).

The Les Paul is a heavy guitar—literally as well as sonically. Thanks to its thick mahogany and maple body, it weighs a good deal more than most other electric solid-bodies. Shoulder pain and injuries are one liability of wearing a Les Paul on a shoulder strap for long periods of time. But this weight and density also impart to the guitar one of its most highly valued tonal qualities—a great deal of sustain.

What is sustain? Think of a violinist bowing a string. For as long as the bow is kept in motion, which can be indefinitely in the case of a skilled violinist, the note will continue to hold out—or sustain—without fading, diminishing, or dying out. In contrast, think of plucking a string on a ukulele. The resulting note dies out fairly quickly; not a lot of sustain. This is why ukuleles are ideal for rhythmic, staccato strumming, whereas violins are ideal for playing legato melodies. So the Gibson Les Paul, with its capability to produce violin-like sustained notes, proved an ideal instrument to realize the quest that had begun with Charlie Christian—to bring the electric guitar forward as a melodic instrument rather than just a tool for rhythmic accompaniment.

In this regard, Les Paul’s own quest with his Log guitar—to isolate string vibration from the guitar body completely—was a failure. Even solid-body guitars vibrate in response to string vibration. This is part of the inherent organic nature of wood. So it isn’t actually possible to hear what a guitar string sounds like “all by its lonesome” just by creating a solid guitar body rather than a hollow one. Even solid wood colors the instrument’s tone. But this turns out to be a good thing, as the Gibson Les Paul eloquently demonstrates. Listen, for instance, to the opening electric guitar notes to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen,” played by Carlos Santana on his Gibson Les Paul. Consider how the notes seem to swell or blossom outward. This is the quintessential Gibson Les Paul tone.

Unlike with the Fender Stratocaster, then, which is still essentially the same instrument today that it was when it was first introduced in 1954, it took a period of some four years for the Gibson Les Paul to come fully into focus. And while there are guitarists who prefer goldtops, P-90s, trapeze tailpieces, and other elements of early Les Paul models, it is the Les Paul Standard that has proven to be true to its name, becoming the gold standard for the Les Paul model. Ted McCarty had hit a home run.

BUT HE WASN’T about to stop there. The Gibson chief was on a roll in ’58. Along with the Les Paul Standard, Gibson introduced four more McCarty designs that year. Three of these were to become institutions in the realm of electric guitars. The fourth became a legendary phantom, often spoken of but rarely, if ever, actually seen.

Of the three, the most conventional in appearance was the Gibson ES-335. On the surface it looks very much like a traditional archtop hollow-body electric, although the body is substantially slimmer—a thinline electric, as it was known. But underneath the 335’s classic-looking arched top is a solid block of maple, not unlike a two-by-four, running down the center of the body. The 335 is a hybrid instrument, what’s known as a semi-hollow-body guitar. It was McCarty’s attempt to combine the best attributes of both hollow-body and solid-body electrics.

“I preferred the tone of the acoustic,” he recalled, “and I thought the solidbody was a little harsh. I was trying to get some of the tone of an acoustic guitar in a solidbody—to mix the two. And the tone of the semi-solid did come out as a mixture of the two sounds. You could play it without having it plugged into an amplifier.”

Much like the Les Paul, the ES-335 was an immediate success that would blossom into an entire range of similarly designed guitars. The ES-345 and ES-355 are both upscale variants on the 335 design, offering fancier appointments and stereo output jacks, allowing these guitars to be plugged into two separate amps at the same time. Like the Les Paul, the 335/345/355 range would become a staple of both blues and rock playing. Eric Clapton would play a 335 during the end of his tenure with Cream, around 1968. Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen prominently played a 345 in the same era. And B. B. King is most closely associated with the 355, one of many Gibson models that he played, and on which he bestowed the name “Lucille.”

But if McCarty was looking back to Gibson’s glory days as king of the archtop jazz box, he also had his eye squarely on the future. He knew that, in order to truly beat Fender at the solid-body game, Gibson would have to embrace the same mid-century-modernist vibe that Fender had with the Stratocaster and other instruments in their product line. His competitive spirit was getting revved up.

“Fender was talking about how Gibson was a bunch of old fuddy-duddys, and when I heard that through the grapevine, I was a little peeved,” he recalled. “So I said ‘Let’s shake ’em up.’ I wanted to come up with some guitar shapes that were different from anything else.”

So McCarty hired some outside designers to submit drawings of modernist guitar shapes. One of the most striking was an instrument with a body in the shape of the letter V. The neck was attached to what would be the bottom of the V, and the two outswept body wings bore an unmistakable resemblance to the space-age tail fins that Cadillacs, Fords, Chevrolets, and other Detroit cars were sporting at mid-century, which in turn were a visual trope of rocketry. The strings were anchored through the body itself (in the manner of Fender guitars), via a V-shaped metal plate that also evoked automotive hardware. To complement the radically angular V-shaped body, the guitar’s headstock came to a rounded-off point, like the business end of a medieval battle weapon. Gibson introduced the guitar as the Flying V in 1958, manufacturing it from African limba wood, which the company branded under the name Korina. The wood grain was similar to the mahogany used on Les Pauls but much lighter in color—a hue not at all dissimilar to the blond wood furniture of Heywood-Wakefield.

But McCarty didn’t stop there. The Flying V was only the first in a projected series of guitars he designated the Modernistic line. This also included a guitar released in 1958 as the Gibson Explorer. The Explorer’s solid Korina-wood body is like a Cubist re-imagining of what a guitar looks like—wildly geometric, with upper- and lower-body bouts jutting boldly outward at sharp angles. The body shape echoes Fender’s Jazzmaster, also released in ’58, but is arguably even more radically modernist.

For all their flashy, futurist looks, however, the Flying V and Explorer were tonally and functionally not much different from the Les Paul—with dual humbucking pickups, a tune-o-matic bridge, and a glued-in dovetail neck/body joint. And if McCarty was counting on the V and Explorer’s cutting-edge appearance to make them a hit, he was surely disappointed. The Flying V was the first Modernistic guitar to be released in ’58, and Gibson shipped a mere eighty-one of them that year, not doing much better over the following few years.

Right from the start, the V was something of an outsider’s instrument—although some of those outsiders were highly influential. The Flying V became the signature guitar for bluesman Albert King, a left-handed player who just flipped standard right-handed Vs upside down, playing them in a decidedly nonstandard D-minor open tuning. Then there was pioneering American-roots man Lonnie Mack, who retrofitted his V with a Bigsby tailpiece jammed into a lower-body wedge like some gender-bending appendage. The V was taken up by Dave Davies of the Kinks, noted for having the longest hair of all the mid-1960s British Invaders and for slashing his amp’s speaker to get a raunchy, distorted sound, hailed as the harbinger of heavy metal. Even Jimi Hendrix adopted the Flying V as a second guitar to his beloved Stratocaster.

But apart from this handful of influential mavericks, the Flying V and Explorer didn’t really come into their own until the advent of heavy metal rock in the seventies and eighties. It appealed to metal guitarists because it had that big, fat Gibson sound like a Les Paul but with a look much better suited to the spandex, leather, and big hair of metal’s visual aesthetic. Indeed, the foundation of the entire eighties metal “pointy guitar” aesthetic can be found in the Gibson Flying V and Explorer. It’s as if these designs languished in relative obscurity, like ancient seeds sealed in some Egyptian tomb, awaiting the dawn of the Metal Age to germinate.

In 1958, however, the Explorer sold even worse than the Flying V. Gibson shipping records show only eighteen Explorers—simply designated “Korina (Mod. Gtr)”—leaving the factory in 1958, followed by a mere three in ’59. Given this dismal showing, Gibson decided not to put McCarty’s third Modernistic design into production. It was to have been called the Moderne. The upper body was exactly like that of a Flying V, but with a curved, more abbreviated lower-body contour that actually sits better in the lap or on the knee than the straight-angle Flying V. The Moderne’s flared headstock—oddly reminiscent of the cartoon character Gumby’s head—was a silhouette never seen before or again in guitar design.

As far as anybody knows, no actual Modernes were produced in the late fifties. But there has been speculation that Gibson might have created one or more prototypes during the period. These putative late-fifties Modernes have been mythologized by collectors, sometimes called the Loch Ness Monsters of vintage guitars. If one were to appear on the vintage market, it would surely claim an even higher sum than even the priciest ’58-’60 sunburst Les Paul Standards. Gibson would eventually revive the Moderne design and put it into production during—when else?—the “hair metal” eighties.

Seen from a long-term perspective, then, McCarty was ahead of his time. Even in the short run, his late-fifties output—the proliferation of Les Paul models, the 335/345/355 family, and the Modernistic/Korina guitars—effectively augmented Gibson’s perennially popular jazz-box electrics. Which means that McCarty accomplished exactly what Maurice Berlin had hired him to do. He reestablished Gibson’s leadership role after the lean World War II years. But, strangely, none of the Gibson solid-bodies that are so highly revered today—the Les Paul, the Flying V, and the Explorer—was much of a success initially. All three only remained in production for a few years. By 1961, even the Les Paul as we know it today had vanished from Gibson’s product line.

In 1961, the company introduced a radically redesigned Les Paul. While the pickups and bridge remained the same, the body was roughly half as thick and the old single-cutaway design had been replaced by dual cutaways that terminated in pointed horns. Although Les Paul posed with the instrument in a photo for Gibson’s 1961 product catalog, he was always quite vocal about hating the new look. Eventually his name was taken off the instrument and it was rebranded the Gibson SG (short for “Standard Guitar”).

Disagreements over the redesign of “his” guitar were just one problem that confronted Les Paul in the early 1960s, and a relatively minor one at that. The advent of rock and roll had made Les Paul and Mary Ford records such as “Mockin’ Bird Hill” and “Tennessee Waltz” seem hopelessly outdated and quaint. Their reign at the top of the charts was all over by 1961, and they divorced that same year. Les was dropped from Capitol Records in ’62, the same year the Beatles began their rise to fame in the U.K. Exacerbating these career and personal crises, Les was stricken with Ménière’s disease in 1962 as well, undergoing a bone graft operation on the little finger of his left hand in an effort to combat what was becoming an increasingly severe arthritic condition.

Amid all these difficulties, Les’s relationship with Ted McCarty and Gibson continued to unravel. The cordial socializing that Les and Mary once enjoyed with McCarty and his wife had fallen by the wayside. And because Les no longer had the big hits and mass popularity, his name wasn’t as valuable to the company as it had once been. In 1963, his contract with Gibson came to an end. It was not renewed.

But while Les battled myriad life crises, McCarty continued his battle with Fender for supremacy. In the early sixties, as we’ve seen, Fender had begun to use bold, bright automotive paint colors on their guitars. And in ’62 the company had introduced the Fender Jaguar—a deliberate riff on the most popular European sports car of the day.

Never a man to be left gaping at the starting line, McCarty engaged automotive designer Ray Dietrich to design a new guitar for Gibson. In the first half of the twentieth century, Dietrich had created seminal designs for Packard, Chrysler, and Checker Cabs; but in 1960 he’d retired to Gibson’s home city of Kalamazoo, at age sixty-six. McCarty coaxed him out of retirement and set him to work on Gibson’s newest challenge to Leo Fender.

The body shape that Dietrich came up with is similar to that of the Gibson Explorer, only with more rounded-off corners. Perhaps to de-emphasize that similarity, Dietrich reversed the outline of his guitar, making the lower-body bout significantly larger than the upper one—the opposite of the Fender designs.

When Dietrich’s guitar appeared on the market in 1963, it was named the Gibson Firebird—a fairly obvious marketing ploy to echo the name of Ford’s popular Thunderbird automobile. (The Pontiac Firebird didn’t come along until four years later, in 1967.) The guitar’s Firebird logo, which appeared on the instrument’s surface, even bears a certain affinity to Ford’s Thunderbird logos from the same period, sharing a common root in Native American iconography. When Gibson introduced a bass guitar version of the Firebird, they named it the Thunderbird.

Fender responded to the Firebird’s release by claiming that the body shape infringed upon Fender’s patent for the Jazzmaster. Gibson would eventually acquiesce, introducing a redesigned Firebird in 1965. The original models weren’t selling that well anyway, so the company went with a more conventional design, flipping the upper-body bouts to create what are known as “non-reverse” Firebirds. While the model never became as ubiquitous as the Les Paul, the Firebird nevertheless ranks as one of the classic Gibson solid-bodies of the McCarty era, universally hailed as a golden age in Gibson’s history.

AND JUST AS the Jaguar was Leo Fender’s final great design for the company that bears his name, the Firebird was McCarty’s last hurrah at Gibson. He left the guitar-making giant in 1966 to assume leadership of the Bigsby company. McCarty and Paul Bigsby had been close friends for a long time, and the Gibson chief’s adoption of Bigsby tailpieces on many Gibson electrics had helped to establish the Bigsby brand. So when Paul Bigsby felt like stepping down from his company in 1965, McCarty bought the company and moved it from California to Kalamazoo, bringing with him Gibson production chief John Huis, who had worked on the Les Paul and other great guitars of Gibson’s McCarty years.

It is both strange and significant that four of the most towering figures in the early development of the electric guitar—Leo Fender, Paul Bigsby, Ted McCarty, and Les Paul—all got out of the game just as the rise of rock and roll was making the electric guitar one of the hottest commodities in the world. Leo, as we’ve seen, sold Fender in 1965 and went into retirement. That very same year, Les Paul retired from playing music, plagued by escalating health issues and a desire to focus on his inventions. And while McCarty’s move from Gibson to Bigsby wasn’t exactly a retirement, it was a substantial scaling back of his sphere of operations. Paul Bigsby died in 1968. But Fender, McCarty, and Paul would return as folk heroes of the guitar business during the classic rock era of the late sixties, the seventies, and beyond.

Leo Fender would bounce back to head up the Music Man and G&L companies. And when players like Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield repopularized the Les Paul toward the end of the sixties, Gibson put the model back into production, starting in 1968. Les Paul himself would eventually be reinstated into the Gibson fold, reveling in the legendary status conferred upon him by the instrument that bears his name. By 1976 he was back to performing and recording again, and never quit until shortly before his passing in 2009. And while Ted McCarty would never return to Gibson, he would become a design consultant to PRS (Paul Reed Smith) Guitars in the early nineties—feted and revered as one of the men who put the electric guitar on the map.

But nobody could have quite foreseen all this in ’65 when a young Eric Clapton bought his first Gibson Les Paul, just as Leo Fender, Paul Bigsby, and the guitarist Les Paul were deciding to call it quits. It was a very different world when the endgame rivalry between Fender’s Jaguar and Gibson’s Firebird was being played out. But that polarity remains an apt metaphor for the vital Fender/Gibson dynamic that would become central to the electric guitar as we know it today. The Fender aesthetic is still more akin to a European sports car—cool, curvy, and nimble. Whereas the Gibson vibe is closer to a mid-century Detroit luxury sedan—brash, massive, and heavy on horsepower and wood-paneled élan. Neither is better than the other. They’re just different, often complementary. The bright, sparkly Fender tonality tends to sound beautiful alongside the fat-bottomed Gibson timbre. The Fender/Gibson dialectic, moreover, would inform solid-body guitar design for decades to come. To this day, electric guitar designers and builders will define and describe their work by referring to either Gibson or Fender construction principles. Many have sought to unite the best qualities of both in a single guitar.

But it would take a while for this dialectic to become the primary driver of electric guitar playing and design. The sounds and styles of other guitar brands would continue to make their voices heard as the rock-and-roll phenomenon found greater life in the 1960s.

UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 01:  Photo of George HARRISON and BEATLES; George Harrison (with Rickenbacker 360/12 guitar), posed on the set of 'A Hard Day's Night' at the Scala Theatre  (Photo by K & K Ulf Kruger OHG/Redferns)

Rickenbacker’s 360/12 electric twelve-string was an experimental new model in 1964; it took off once the Beatles’ George Harrison adopted it.