Strings and Things Les Paul
Many articles have been written about how guitarists and dealers in the mid/late 1970s and early ’80s were asking Gibson to build a Les Paul that more closely conformed to ’59 specs. The following is not an attempt to rehash any of them, but rather to provide an overview of some of these “pre-’59 reissue” guitars with some narrative and details of their construction and features based on the author’s experience in collecting and playing these guitars. It’s ironic that, at a time in which Gibson was going through great strife with declining sales and profit margins, rivalries between the new Nashville plant and the Kalamazoo plant, and the downsizing and eventual closure of the Kalamazoo plant by 1984, the company was able to experiment and respond to requests for guitars that more closely emulated the beloved Les Paul Standard of 1959 – even though some of these attempts were way off the mark!
Chris Lovell, owner of Strings and Things in Memphis, placed a custom order for some Les Pauls in the mid ’70s that more closely approximated the original Les Paul Standard specs, including a narrower headstock, narrow binding in the cutaway, deeper carve top, etc. Approximately 28 guitars were made for Chris’ store between 1975 and 1978. The author of this article does not own a Strings and Things model because, in hunting for one, there does not appear to be any single set of definitive specifications or identifying features to authenticate a Strings and Things Les Paul. Some of the guitars advertised as Strings and Things models have different serial number formats, one-piece necks vs. three-piece necks, different bridges, narrow or wide binding in the cutaway, etc.
The only way to authenticate a Strings and Things reissue would be to find one that comes with a certificate or invoice from Strings and Things during the 1975-’78 time period. It continues to be an intriguing yet elusive quest for the Holy Grail.
Les Paul KM (“Kalamazoo Model”)
The Les Paul KM model was made in the Kalamazoo plant in 1979, supposedly at the request of a southern sales district, according to one account (this history is refuted by another account). The guitar was intended be a sunburst Les Paul that more closely approximated ’59 Standard specs. The result, the KM model, is a nice guitar but does not come close to a ’59 reissue. The guitar has exposed-coil, double-cream, T-top humbuckers, speed knobs, large, black side dot markers, a Nashville bridge, stop tailpiece, Grover tuners, wide binding in the cutaway, brown backplates, and “Les Paul K. M. ” engraved on the truss rod cover. The guitar has an unusually wide headstock and a volute and three-piece mahogany neck. The Gibson logo on the headstock has a closed “b” and “o,” and no dot above the “i. ” The first run had a “Custom Made” plaque loose in the case or mounted below the tailpiece. The guitar was available in Antique Sunburst, Natural, or Cherry Sunburst finish. Many examples of this model in Bright Cherry Sunburst or Dark Sunburst have been available, many with plain tops. Some flametops were reportedly made, such as the example shown, many of which were shipped to Japan. A total of approximately 1,500 Les Paul KMs were made. Our model has a nice flame top and dark cherryburst finish. It weighs 9 pounds, 10 ounces.
Timm Kummer worked for Guitar Trader in the early ’80s. When the Les Paul KM model was introduced, it was so far off from ’59 specs that it prompted his boss, Dave DeForrest, to identify specifications for the order for the Guitar Trader Reissue Les Paul from Gibson, which weren’t until 1982 to produce.
One-Offs and Small-Run Pre-Reissue LPs
There was a lot of experimentation going on in the early ’80s with reissues, especially from the Kalamazoo plant, so if one looks around there are a number of interesting “one offs” and other limited runs. The author has received emails from people around the world with unusual LPs from the early-’80s that don’t correspond to a particular model in any catalog at that time, many having ’59 reissue type features.
Some (not all) Kalamazoo-made pre-reissues have the familiar Gibson eight-digit serial number (YDDDYSSS, where “Y” is the year, “DDD” is the day of the year from 001-365, and “SSS” is the production sequence number for the day) inside their control cavity in addition to a reissue-style (Y XXXX format) serial number on the back of the headstock. Because authentic Guitar Trader Les Pauls always have this eight-digit number in the control cavity, many collectors incorrectly assume that any Kalamazoo-made reissue from that timeframe with this number in the control cavity is a Guitar Trader.
The Guitar Trader model pictured is a 1980 one-off, with a pearloid plaque on the back of the headstock with the number 001, along with a Kalamazoo eight-digit serial number, Gibson tuners similar to those used on Deluxes at the time, narrow ’59-style binding in the cutaway, ’59-style knobs, narrower headstock, large tortoiseshell side dot markers and a Nashville bridge. This guitar may have been a prototype for some of the reissue style guitars to follow.
The second GT model pictured is a 1983 one-off. It has the reissue format serial number (9 0732), thin binding in the cutaway, correct hardware, and a one-piece (i. e. , no center seam) highly quilted maple top. Folklore has it that this guitar was built by luthiers remaining in Kalamazoo shortly after the plant officially closed.
Heritage 80 Les Paul Models
With the exception of a few Kalamazoo-built prototypes or one-offs in circulation, all Heritage 80s were made in the Nashville plant between 1980 and ’82. These have a unique sharp and wide cutaway at the horn, Grover kidney tuners, and an eight-digit serial number with four-digit number beneath it. There does not appear to be any pattern to the second four-digit number – it was used for marketing reasons to distinguish these guitars as limited editions by Bruce Bolen, then head of R&D.
They have a unique headstock shape and are are generally on the heavy side (high 9 to high 10 pounds), have the thin binding in cutaway, small black side dot markers, and a Nashville bridge. The backplates for the control cavity and switch are brown. The Gibson logo on the headstock has a closed “b” and “o” and a dot over the “i.” The necks on these guitars are of medium thickness. While not as close in terms of vintage specifications as the Guitar Trader and Leo’s LP models, they are well regarded guitars by many players and collectors and have excellent fit, finish, tone, and playability. Tim Shaw of Gibson at the time designed reissue PAFs for them which sound very good and have come to be known as “Shaw PAFs” in the collector community. The pickups are one double white and one zebra under the covers. The truss rod covers are inscribed with the model names.
1.) The Heritage Series Standard 80 has a three-piece neck and rosewood fretboard. Some came with rather plain tops, others have moderate flame. There are a few examples with one-piece necks and ebony fretboards, which indicates that Elite necks were used during parts shortages. The example here has a very deep flame. Colors were dark cherry sunburst or honeyburst. The truss rod cover is inscribed with “Heritage Series Standard 80. ” The example shown weighs 10 pounds, 10 ounces. It has an exquisite curly flame top.
2.) The Heritage Series Standard 80 Elite has a one-piece neck, ebony fretboard, and a quilted top. Most came in honeyburst but some were also made in cherry sunburst. The truss rod cover is inscribed with “Heritage Series Standard 80 Elite.” The two examples shown are at opposite ends of the weight scale, one being 9 pounds, 3 ounces, the other being 10 pounds, 8 ounces.
3.) The Heritage Series Award has a plaque on the back of the headstock with a number from 1 through approximately 50 (approximately 50 of these guitars were made for dealers who sold a lot of Heritage models), cherry sunburst, ebony board, flame top, and gold hardware. The truss rod cover is inscribed with “Heritage Award.” The example shown weighs 9 pounds, 4 ounces.
Guitar Trader Les Paul
Guitar Trader Les Pauls were made in the Kalamazoo plant in 1982. There were only about 47 made, possibly in only two batches. Except for the prototype (which was cherry sunburst), most were painted in a ruddy reddish-brown color. The wood for the tops of these guitars was carefully selected by Guitar Trader. Kummer says Guitar Trader picked the “best” wood, and the rejects were used on Leo’s Les Pauls. Ironically, Rich Bandoni, who worked for Leo’s at the time, says they picked the “best” wood for the Leo’s and the rejects were used on Guitar Traders! Most Guitar Trader LPs have exquisite quartersawn flame tops, except for the prototype, which was quilted. All have one-piece mahogany necks, an eight-digit serial number in the edge of the control cavity with a vintage style serial number on the headstock in “Y XXXX” format (where “Y” = “9” and the first two digits of “XX” are “09”) and Kluson-style tuners. The Guitar Trader’s Gibson logo has the open “b” and open “o,” with a dot on the “i,” and the “Les Paul Model” logo appears to be very low on the headstock, almost touching the truss rod cover. The backplates for the control cavity and switch are black. These guitars sport the narrow binding in the cutaway and have the large tortoiseshell side dot markers. They tended to be a bit lighter in weight than the Heritage 80s, have a more accurate cutaway carve and headstock, and many of the parts were replaced by Guitar Trader to be closer to vintage specs. The guitar has excellent fit, finish, tone, and playability. The first 15 Guitar Traders had real vintage PAFs installed by Guitar Trader, from its parts stash; the rest had Shaw PAFs.
The Guitar Trader shown weighs exactly 9 pounds, with serial number 9 0920.
There is much confusion in the collector community over authentication of a Guitar Trader. Many more details of the Guitar Trader model, as well as a method to positively identify them, can be found in the March ’02 issue of Vintage Guitar, or reprinted at www.lespaulforum.com/slubarticle/vgarticle.html.
Guitar Trader “Special” Les Paul (a.k.a. “Replica” or “Bootleg” LP)
After the small run of Guitar Trader models produced by Gibson, the owners of Guitar Trader made a few (no more than approximately 10) “replica” Les Pauls. In their ads they showed these guitars with a headstock that said “Guitar Trader,” but they actually attempted (rather poorly) to emulate the Gibson logo on these guitars. These guitars had cherry sunburst tops, wireless ABR-1 bridge, one-piece mahogany neck, more accurate headstock shape, large tortoiseshell side dot markers, thin binding in the cutaway, and other accurate parts, as well as a long neck tenon, which none of the Gibson-produced LPs had at the time. The Gibson logo is poorly formed, but has an open “b” and “o” and a dotted “i.” The backplates for the control cavity and switch are black. After receiving a cease-and-desist order from Gibson, Guitar Trader stopped making these bootlegs.
Besides the bootleg (serial number 9 1017) pictured here (which weighs 9 pounds, 9 ounces), another bootleg appears in the Burst Gang book under Guitar Trader replicas, with a serial number very close to the guitar shown.
Leo’s Les Paul
Leo’s Les Pauls, promoted as a “limited edition series” were made for Leo’s Music, Oakland, from approximately 1980 through ’85. Approximately 800 were made, with at least half going overseas.
The Leo’s models built in Kalamazoo, which have the eight-digit serial number inside the control cavity (like the Guitar Traders) are considered a bit more collectible, but production was shifted to Nashville in ’83, and the Leo’s models from there are very nice guitars, as well (Nashville-made Leos can be identified by small, black side dot markers and no serial number in the control cavity). All had breathtaking flame tops, most in Cherry Sunburst, although some were done in Honeyburst, and a goldtop was available, as well. The Kalamazoo-made Leos have large tortoiseshell side dot markers, a medium-sized one-piece mahogany neck, white Shaw reissue PAFs, single-collar Kluson-style tuning gears with no writing on the back, and thin binding in the cutaway. The Gibson logo on a Leo’s has the closed “b” and “o” with a high dot above the “i,” and the “Les Paul Model” is usually higher on the headstock than on the Guitar Trader Les Paul. The backplates for the control cavity and switch are black. These guitars are of medium weight, play very well, have excellent fit and finish, and great tone. Leos can be easily identified because the first digit of their serial number is an L.
The Kalamazoo-made Leo’s model shown weighs 9 pounds 3 ounces and has serial number L1 0154.
Jimmy Wallace Les Paul
Jimmy Wallace LPs were special ordered by guitar dealer Jimmy Wallace from about 1980 up to the mid ’90s, but after 1990 they ended up with slightly smaller neck sizes. The Wallace LPs made in Kalamazoo in the early ’80s had beautiful quilted tops, with vintage serial numbers starting with 8 (for 1958). The features of these guitars are similar to those of the Leo’s and Guitar Traders, including the thin binding in the cutaway, ABR-1 bridge, etc. The truss rod covers of the Jimmy Wallace guitars say “Jimmy Wallace Model.” The early ’80s guitars had block letters for the Jimmy Wallace script, but later models had script lettering. These guitars have Gibson Deluxe Klusons, open “b” and “o” and a dot on the “i” of the Gibson logo. The 1980 model (serial number 8 1012) has black backplates for the control cavity and switch, large tortoiseshell side dot markers, and weighs 9 pounds 9 ounces. The 1990 model (serial number 0 0076) has brown backplates, large black side dot markers, and weighs 9 pounds 2 ounces. The 1990 model also has a small, clear sticker with gold letters that read, “Jimmy Wallace” in the control cavity.
Standard 82 Les Paul
The Les Paul Standard 82 was made in Kalamazoo. The folklore surrounding this guitar is that the luthiers in Kalamazoo wanted to show the luthiers in Nashville how to make a “real” limited edition LP reissue that was of high quality and closer to vintage specs. This guitar has the thin binding in the cutaway, ABR-1 bridge, narrow headstock, brown backplates for the control cavity and switch, large tortoiseshell side dot markers, “Made in USA” stamp on the back of the headstock, and tulip style Grovers. The example here weighs 10 pounds. The Standard 82s have a truss rod cover that says “Standard 82” on them, breathtaking quilted tops, in natural or honeyburst.
Hopefully, this little tour down the memory lane of early-’80s guitar history was interesting, and demonstrates some of the unique instruments Gibson was experimenting with in response to many requests for a Les Paul that more closely approximated the revered 1959 Les Paul Standard.
To finish the era of the 1980s, look for an upcoming article on ’59 reissues from 1983-’89, also known as “pre-reissues” or “pre-Historics. ”
Mike Slubowski is a Gibson enthusiast, collector, player, and author, with a special passion for Les Pauls. He invites anyone with additional information or questions about the history of pre-reissue Les Pauls or any other Gibson model to contact him at MikeSlub@aol. com.
No part of this article may be reproduced without the expressed written permission of the author.
Credit is given to the Gibson Les Paul Book by Tony Bacon and Paul Day, Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars by George Gruhn and Walter Carter, and personal accounts given by owners of various pre-reissue Les Paul guitars.
This article originally appeared in VG February 2004 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.