One of the more intriguing topics in guitardom is the Gibson Les Paul “conversion.”
What is it? Most of the time, it’s a reference to Les Pauls made from 1952 to ’56 that have been converted to specs more in line with a late-’50s Standard, Custom (Black Beauty), or goldtop. On occasion, late-’60s goldtops and Customs are converted, and even Les Paul Specials and Juniors are sometimes made into “’Bursts.” Maybe the most famous conversion is Peter Frampton’s ’54 Black Beauty, which had its P-90 and Alnico-magnet pickups replaced with three PAF humbuckers, effectively creating a late-style Les Paul Custom. Starting to get the picture? Welcome to the wild-and-wooly world of conversion Les Pauls.
As you might guess, there are ethical questions involved in the act of changing a vintage instrument. The reality is that guitar geeks crave vintage ’Bursts and are sometimes willing to go the extra mile (and expense) to get the mojo of old wood and original PAF pickups – sometimes to the tune of $20,000 or more.
We recently spoke with a number of dealers, restoration experts, and luthiers to get the lowdown on the conversion process – and the ideology behind it.
What is a Conversion?
How do we define this unique term?
“One example is taking a ’52 Les Paul goldtop with a trapeze tailpiece and updating it with an ABR-1 bridge, stop tailpiece, and humbucker pickups,” said Mike Reeder, proprietor of Mike’s Music. “Part of the conversion may include refinishing the guitar or replacing the maple top. But most often, it’s about turning a goldtop into a ’59 flame-top, a Black Beauty into a ’58 Custom, or and an earlier goldtop into a ’57 goldtop.”
You may justifiably wonder why anyone would convert a vintage Les Paul. Reeder suggests players do it to “get the features they want at a lower price,” and restoration expert Dave Johnson echoes that sentiment.
“It’s usually to make a guitar more playable and sound better, by giving it humbucker pickups, or a restorer might turn it into a ’59 ’Burst by adding a flamed-maple top – either solid or a veneer – with a sunburst finish,” he said. “For some people, this is reasonably close to a ’59 sunburst, for a lot less money.”
“As the Les Paul Model progressed in the ’50s, it was redesigned in small ways that made it better,” noted Tom Wittrock, a veteran dealer and owner of Third Eye Music. “Taking an earlier Les Paul and converting it to the preferred late-’50s design is often considered an improvement for playability and sound. However, as these are vintage guitars, most restorers only convert guitars that have a major issue, like a broken neck or headstock, or were refinished in the past.”
From a player’s point of view, Timm Kummer, Kummer’s Vintage, is quick to remind us, “Earlier goldtops simply had antiquated bridge/tailpiece and pickup combinations, some of which are not optimal for modern blues-rock playing.”
There is also the perception that the tones and sound of old wood – specifically the mahogany, maple, and rosewood used to make Les Pauls – and their PAF pickups, are inherently better than that used in modern guitars, which is a strong motivator for conversions. “The supposed mojo of old wood is a theory, but most people with experience playing vintage Les Pauls prefer them to newer ones,” Wittrock said. Johnson counters, “There have been studies on old wood. The tone actually changes as the wood ages – something happens at the cellular level that makes it better.”
“Not only does the wood age and dry, but a lot of the wood was already old when the guitars were first made in the ’50s,” Reeder adds.
“The wood is a major reason for a conversion,” Kummer suggests. “Modern wood is force-dried and never seems to dry evenly – it’s that extra weight factor in new guitars that can’t be denied. In the ’50s, wood was air-dried, so its pores and grain were more open when the guitars were built. Air-dried wood is just more resonant, and playing guitars has more effect on their tonal maturation.”
Wittrock adds more interesting perspective related to chemistry and physics; “I suspect the different pieces of wood that were glued together can react differently after years of vibration from being played.”
Players and restorers should also understand what they’ll find when they strip a guitar of its finish. A Les Paul “goldtop” has a maple top on a mahogany body, but that could be a nice flame or a “plain” unfigured top. You also have to be aware that it could have an off-center seam, as there was no reason to take the time and effort applying bookmatched wood to a guitar that was going to be painted opaque gold. And, of course, Les Paul Customs are all-mahogany.
“Usually, you’ll find the two- and three-piece tops that are off-center, or mismatched maple with or without figuring,” adds Johnson. “I’ve seen birdseye, quilt, flame, and plain maple. Every once in a while, you’ll get a two-piece top that is center-seamed with decent flamed-maple.”
What Guitars Qualify for Conversion?
Are there some conversions that make more sense, like updating the bridge/tailpiece on a ’52 Les Paul? Most of our panel experts seem to agree on this point. Johnson says, “Yes, earlier goldtops from 1952 and ’53 benefit by adding an ABR-1 tailpiece and humbuckers. The neck usually has to be reset to accommodate this, though a ’54 is much easier as the neck angle doesn’t need to be changed so converting is easier. Here you’d just add a bridge, tailpiece, and redo the pickup routing for humbuckers.”
“Yes, converting trapeze-tailpiece models to later style bridges, and resetting the neck to a better angle seems to make the most sense,” Wittrock said. “Changing the pickups from P-90s to humbuckers is good for those who prefer that sound, and they are in the majority.”
“The early period is the first choice for conversions because they were affordable and there are many of them,” Kummer adds. “Remember, the first years of a guitar usually have higher production as the companies get a feel for demand, so there were plenty of ’52 Les Pauls.”
Pickups & Hardware
The consensus among players, restorers and dealers is that old wood produces a bigger, more resonant guitar tone. But what about the pickups and hardware – how well do they age and should they be part of a Conversion? Kummer says yes: “Vintage PAF humbuckers have always been sought after and can go for thousands of dollars. They have no moving parts so they don’t seem to degrade with use. Any PAFs I’ve seen that didn’t work were that way because of abuse by a hack luthier. And the original hardware also doesn’t go bad on it’s own. Having said that, there are tuner tips that shrink on Klusons of that period. They go bad and you re-tip the old tuners – they are still better than changing them out.”
“It can be hit-and-miss depending on how well parts have lasted,” he said. “Volume and tone pots can sometimes be cleaned and reused, and you may have to replace some electronics due to age, but customers like to use old PAFs and the wiring harness. Old ABR bridges can collapse due to age, and bridge saddles might be grooved too deeply. A conversion usually has a mix of vintage hardware and aftermarket pieces.”
“If properly maintained and not abused, hardware holds up well, though the plastic tuning-key buttons often shrink and crumble with age,” Wittrock notes.
Traditional conversions are one thing, but what about the other side – taking Les Paul Specials and Juniors and turning them into 1959 Standard specs? Do these conversions go past a certain ethical point – or is everything fair game?
“I’ve seen Juniors made into ’Burst conversions,” said Johnson. “I personally have never done one. Same for untouched old goldtops; I won’t take a perfect vintage goldtop and make it into something else. The conversions I’ve done were to correct something that was done badly – refinished tops or botched pickup routs; they’re good candidates for conversion.”
“I don’t do that, either,” added Reeder. “That’s going too far.” Wittrock concurs. “The idea just seems wrong. Juniors and Specials vary too much in construction from the Standard – neck joints being one big difference.”
“I’ve seen only one Junior done that way,” said Kummer. “They require more work and I don’t think it’s worth the price. You’d have to add a new top, which, if you can find old, air-dried wood, is not a problem. Still, it’s a real cost.”
On the fringe of conversions are “hack” restorations.
“I’ve seen lots of extremely bad work done to old goldtops, especially trying to convert them to ’59 specs,” said Johnson. “You see a lot of autobody filler in place of wood, screws in headstocks, and bad routing jobs, usually with a hammer and chisel. I’ve also seen tops that were sanded down instead of resetting the neck correctly, to allow for an ABR-1 bridge and tail piece.”
A critical point for those interested in buying a conversion is knowing the difference between a genuine restoration – one with a written “provenance” – versus an outright forgery. For example, a novice seller recently attended a guitar show, trying to flip “a 1956 Les Paul Standard ’Burst” with humbuckers. Given that Standards weren’t made until the following year, this was clearly a forgery. Good paperwork might also indicate period-correct materials used in the restoration, such as hide-glue construction, aniline dyes, vintage-style wood filler, and the correct nitrocellulose finish.
Our experts offer further advice.
“A true conversion from an old goldtop will have a different shape from an original ’59 ’Burst,” noted Johnson. “The internal routing is different and will be a telltale sign that it isn’t completely original. I’ve seen many Les Paul replicas, and they usually don’t get the details correct. It’s also important buyers looking for an LP conversion should always get paperwork from the seller that discloses all work done. A good paper trail is a must to avoid conflicts. It’s also worthwhile to have an expert authenticate the guitar as either a replica/forgery or a documented vintage conversion.”
Critically, Wittrock also mentions that “…there are many types of Les Paul forgeries. The conversions I consider forgeries have new serial numbers that look like the year of the version they are converted to. I would also look for the provenance and an original serial number, if it had one originally.” (Ed. Note: Some early goldtops did not have serial numbers.)
Reeder has another piece of advice. “If money is not a issue, look for guitars that have had less work done and the most vintage parts. Also, if it’s a ’Burst conversion, the maple top’s figuring matters, as does as its center seam. I personally don’t like re-tops.”
Among the Converted?
Done correctly, Les Paul conversions are sexy, cool guitars that just about any player would crave. Still, there are boundaries. The critical question is when not to convert an old Les Paul.
“In my opinion, it’s important to leave original guitars as they are, for preservation. But, if you find a broken guitar, by all means, make it better,” said Reeder. “I only do conversions on Les Pauls that have major issues – previously repairs, finishes stripped… I simply do not convert original Les Pauls in working condition.”
Johnson concurs. “A fine vintage guitar shouldn’t be converted. If it’s had significant work, it’s a good candidate.”
Wittrock adds further validation.
“If the guitar is in original and collectable condition, it usually devalues it to make a conversion,” he said.
The advice for converting old Les Pauls follows the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And that seems to be good, general advice for us all to follow. Still, if you find a vintage beater that is broken or has been mangled and you’re willing to invest in the process, consult an experienced restorer. Or, your favorite dealer may have excellent restorations in inventory, preferably accompanied by transparent documentation.
This article originally appeared in VG October 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.