One Thousand, Seven Hundred and Twelve. That’s the number of Les Paul Standards Gibson produced between 1958 and 1960. Amongst guitar collectors, it means there aren’t many seats in the “’Burst Club.”
Gibson couldn’t know it at the time, but by simply applying a sunburst finish to the maple tops of its Les Paul model, it created a phenomenon – and the first solidbody electric to become truly collectible.
The Les Paul model debuted in 1952 with P-90 pickups, a trapeze tailpiece, and gold-painted top after pop-jazz guitarist Les Paul approached the Michigan-based Gibson Electric Instruments a second time in hopes of coercing president Maurice Berlin into making an electric guitar that wouldn’t feed back when amplified at higher volumes, like archtop/hollowbody electrics of the day were prone to do. Though rebutted with the idea in the late ’40s, he was more convincing upon his return in part because the upstart Fender Musical Instruments had been very successfully marketing a solidbody electric since 1950.
From ’52 to ’58, the Les Paul model evolved to include humbuckers, a stud tailpiece, the Tune-O-Matic bridge, and – in late ’53/’54 – a black finish on the then-new Custom variation.
Despite Gibson’s attempts to develop mass-market appeal for the Les Paul, the increasing popularity of “rock and roll” music (with its propensity for twangy tones) meant that within a few years, interest in the model began to fade, in part because Les Paul’s own popularity had peaked, but also because the guitars that bore his name had gained a reputation for being heavy.
By ’58, Gibson, looking to increase the model’s share of the market, needed an alternative to its black and gold finishes. So it was that on or about June 30, 1958, the “sunburst” finish – perhaps the oldest use of paint and lacquer on electric guitars – met the Les Paul. The ’Burst was born.
Of course, finish alone does not a fine guitar make. From the start, Les Pauls were made primarily of mahogany. As Les Paul himself tells it, much work went into deciding which woods to use.
“The first thing we considered was sustain,” he said. “The purpose of the model was to sustain without having to mother a note or pick the string twice. And it needed to be even, long, and with distinctive decay.”
The model’s “perfection” was aided along the way by several key developments, most importantly the humbucking pickup and the Tune-O-Matic bridge. “It had the right combination of mahogany and maple – and pickups,” Paul said.
But goldtops and Black Beauties offered heaps of sustain, in part because both had been given humbuckers. Still, the market wasn’t reacting like Gibson had hoped. The guitar needed something more.
Flame, Curl, Quilt, Tiger-Stripe, etc…
When Gibson opted to fancy-up the 1/4″ maple cap on its Les Paul by adding a sunburst finish, its plan was to make the guitar more accepted in the marketplace.
And from all indications, those caps were applied randomly, with no regard for degree of flame. So throughout the original Standard’s production life, that flame ranged from nearly nonexistent to outright exquisite.
In the eyes of players of the day, those with flamed tops had an air of upper-crust quality and craftsmanship.
“The curl connects the ’Burst to the world of fine violins,” said noted author and former Gibson historian Walter Carter. “And it gives each guitar its own identity. So you never get tired of looking at them.”
“The [looks] set it apart from just being functional,” added longtime ’Burst aficionado Tom Wittrock, Third Eye Music. “While most guitars with curly maple used it on the back, this one brought it to the front for all to enjoy.”
“Each one, because of the differences in the wood tops, has a unique personality,” says veteran So Cal-based collector/dealer Norman Harris.
The most vital part of the ’Burst’s tone is its pickups. In ’57, the Les Paul Model and ES-175 semi-hollowbody were used as platforms to launch a new type of pickup called the “humbucker.”
Designed by Gibson electronics whizzes Seth Lover and Walter Fuller, the humbucker’s purpose was to eliminate the buzz and hum associated with playing in live settings where a guitar player could encounter interference from a host of sources. It started life as part number p.u. 490 in Gibson books at the time, but is commonly called a “Patent Applied For” or “PAF,” in reference to the small sticker on its bottomplate, placed there to discourage other companies from copying the design.
Though work on the hum-cancelling design began in 1955, Lover wasn’t officially granted the patent (#2896491) until July, 1959. But in an apparent effort to further intimidate potential copycats, Gibson used the “Patent Applied For” sticker until late ’62, when a new decal was employed showing the patent number.
Those who’ve heard many PAFs know there can be a significant difference in tone and output from one to the next. The reason is simple.
“Gibson’s winding machines of the day did not have automatic-stop counters, and they turned about 2,060 turns per minute,” said pickup manufactuer Seymour Duncan, who has done extensive reverse-engineering of PAFs. “So although the design called for each of two coils to be wound with 5,000 turns of 42 plain enamel copper wire, many were made with significantly more turns simply because the person working the winders couldn’t watch each machine closely enough to stop it at precisely 5,000.”
So over-winds of 15 to 20 percent weren’t unusual, and as a result, there are PAFs with 5,500 to 6,000 turns (or more) of wire!
The magnets in ’Burst PAFs were made of Alnico II and IV (the numeric designation indicating the “grade,” or formulaic mix of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt – the higher the number, the stronger the magnetic field it produces), which are also made to tolerances, but still vary from one to the next.
The Complete Package
Once all was said and done, the world had the ultimate solidbody electric guitar. In the words of noted Nashville collector/dealer George Gruhn, “The sunburst Les Paul is the Gibson solidbody guitar in which everything ‘comes together’; they look great, they feel great, and they sound great. They have all the best features Gibson ever offered on a solidbody guitar.”
Plus, “Playability and rarity,” added Vic DaPra, proprietor of Guitar Gallery, and author of the book Sunburst Alley: A Pictorial Gallery of the Sunburst Les Paul 1958-1960. “And I think the woods they chose were much better back then. They were dried better, they were older.”
“The feel of a ’58 and ’59 necks, the sound of two PAFs, and the way the maple top reacted with the mahogany body, not to mention the sunburst finish and the flame…” said Drew Berlin, a vintage-solidbody specialist. “They all combine to make hard, sweet magic.”
But as eyecatching as the sunburst finish was, especially when it was on a beautiful flamed top, and as smoothly as the guitar played, and as sweet as the PAFs sounded, ultimately, Gibson couldn’t justify keeping the guitar on the market.
Though market factors forced Gibson to eliminate the single-cutaway Les Paul in the latter half of 1960, the design ultimately proved to be far ahead of its time; and its untimely demise ultimately proved the reason we covet the ’Burst today.
The Les Paul name was attached to Gibson’s new double-cutaway thin-bodied SG until late 1963, several months after the expiration of a second five-year licensing agreement between Gibson and Les Paul. The SG held its own in the market through most of the ’60s as it underwent variations in pickups, tailpieces, finishes, and appointments.
But while Elvis ruled the pop music scene in the late ’50s (with the help of Scotty Moore and his Super 400) and the Beatles “arrived” carrying Rickenbackers and writing pop for the masses, there were percolations about two players – one in the U.S., one in England – who started making waves with their playing styles and their instruments.
In the U.K. in early ’65, axeman Eric Clapton had parted ways with the Yardbirds because he wanted to play pure blues. He hooked up with John Mayall and became the first in a revolving-door lineup of superstar guitarists in Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. He plugged a ’59 ’Burst into a Marshall 1962 combo and made history by recording one of the most influential albums in blues/rock history – John Mayall’s Blues Breakers featuring Eric Clapton. Friends call it “Beano.”
Back in the U.S., a kid in Chicago had also started drawing notice for playing hardcore blues. Michael Bloomfield spent a good part of his youth sneaking into Windy City blues clubs – often as the only white person in the house – and though he never recorded an album as influential as the Mayall/Clapton set, his playing exposed the white masses to the wonders of the blues. And guitar players were all over it – they had to have what he was playing. In his heyday, Bloomfield played a ’Burst.
“In my opinion, Bloomfield was the single most important, most significant player who ever played a sunburst Les Paul,” said Gruhn, who was selling guitars when Bloomfield emerged. “He, more than anyone, is the one who revived interest in the model. And though he never was a great commercial success, he was a cult figure greatly revered by other players. Some have success selling albums and making money, but have little or no impact on guitar trends. Bloomfield created the demand for Les Paul models, and for vintage electric guitars, in general.”
So it was that ’Burst mania came to be, though its beginnings were humble.
By the late ’60s, however, burgeoning guitar giants like Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor were all playing them in the studio and live.
Gibson saw the writing on the wall: the single-cutaway Les Paul model was revived in 1968.
Then, as Led Zeppelin rose to heights unseen for a hard rock/blues-based band, Page became the de facto ’Burst El Capitan.
“Page, without a doubt, is the number one reason anyone is paying the big bucks today,” said veteran dealer/collector Timm Kummer. “Other guys played ’Bursts before him, but he put the thing on the minds of all the earliest guys I sold them to.”
As the ’70s kept on truckin’, other players joined Page in keeping alive the ’Burst mystique, using it to make some of the greatest rock and blues music ever put to record.
“Duane Allman hits home for me,” said Berlin. “Also, Billy Gibbons and his famous ’Burst, ‘Pearly Gates,’ could do no wrong in my book.”
The Ultimate Collectible Guitar?
The ’Burst is arguably the reason any solidbody electric guitar is collectible today. But even in the late ’60s and very early ’70s, you needed serious money to get one – that $600 to $800 could’ve also gotten you into a herringbone-trimmed Martin. But then came Page, Beck, and company, and by the mid ’70s, demand had increased to the point a would-be owner needed $2,000 to $3,000. By the early ’80s, prices were closing in on $5,000. Then, when the babyboom generation started collecting guitars, things got really crazy.
“From 1984 through the end of ’92, most collectible guitars, banjos, and mandolins increased in price tenfold,” said Gruhn. “The sunburst Les Paul was no exception.”
If you’re looking to get into the club today, bring your checkbook – after you sell the lodge at Aspen and call your broker – and prepare to heed the advice of many dealers who warn against being hypnotized by an exotic three-dimensional top.
“Newer collectors are putting too much finality into a guitar with a cracked headstock or a removed Bigsby, or one that’s been refretted,” said DaPra. “If the guitar hasn’t been totally boogered or refinished or had new pickups, then there’s a market for it. They’re still very valid, and the anality of many a new collector is keeping them from getting their first ’Burst.
“There are a lot of fine examples out there, whether they be with a cracked headstock, or removed Bigsby. And they don’t stay on the market very long, so to knock their value down 30 or 50 percent is insane.”
“For myself and many of my ’Burst buddies, the wood grain is the motivating factor in the desire for a particular ’Burst,” said Wittrock. “And yes, I would rather have ‘wood’ (curly maple) than pristine condition, assuming a guitar is usable. But it’s a shame some collectors can’t see past the dollar value. Being obsessed with perfection has led to many great ’Bursts being looked down upon simply because they were repaired, made in 1960, or had a Bigsby tailpiece.
“Some of the best ’Bursts I’ve ever owned were not in pristine condition. And I’ve never experienced a ‘bad’ ’Burst, except when one suffered some calamity. They all sound a little different, play a little different, and weigh a little different, but they all seem great to me.”
“I think many collectors and players are entirely too wrapped up in worrying about the grain of the wood rather than the quality of the instrument,” added Gruhn. “I have difficulty understanding why someone would pay multiples more for a sunburst Les Paul with beautifully figured curly maple. While the curly example is certainly worth a lot of money, and should carry some premium, I don’t see why that premium should be $50,000 or more when a plain-grained example will play and sound exactly the same.
“One can buy the real thing with plain grain and still have enough money left over to panel one’s entire house in exquisitely curly maple, and even finish it in sunburst if you desire!”
So what does the future hold? While trying to predict such things is akin to guessing when aliens will visit Earth, few see any reason to believe the market will do anything but go up.
“The ’Burst market is stronger than ever,” said Richard Friedman, vintage product manager for Sam Ash Music. “The most recent sales I know of include $200,000 for one that was one serial number away from the Frehley ’Burst, $175,000 for a mint flametop, and the Bloomfield guitar, I’m told, sold for approximately $250,000. I think ’Bursts will eventually bring $300,000 to $500,000.”
“I see no end in sight to the interest in ’Bursts and their escalating prices,” added Wittrock. “Twenty years ago, when they reached $5,000, many people said that was the limit. I said then that we weren’t even close. And I still think we aren’t.
“About 10 years ago I said they could reach $1 million some day, and I don’t see a reason to back off of that. We’re still a long way from it, but the market has shown plenty of strength lately, and prices have surpassed $100,000 on a few magnificent examples.”
“The ’Burst is long-established as a classic design, and consequently the only threat to the market might be a technological advance that would make the electric guitar as we know it obsolete,” suggested Carter. “The demand for plainer examples and less-than-pristine ‘players’ might be affected in that situation, but the ’Burst has such strong aesthetic and historical appeal that it’s hard to imagine the market ever going soft for nice examples.”
DaPra agrees wholeheartedly.
“I think the market hasn’t even hit its peak yet,” he said. “It’s just going to keep getting crazier and crazier.
“The ’Burst is the Stradivarius of the 20th century; it’s just the best electric guitar ever made.”
VG would like to thank everyone who helped create this piece.
This article originally appeared in VG September 2001 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.