In the good ol’ days of 1952, jazzmeister Les Paul strutted to the center of the world’s stage and proudly whipped out his golden Gibson electric guitar. Simple-minded purists howled “Foul!,” locked up their daughters, and accused him of indecent mahogany-wood exposure. No matter, there’d be no turnin’ back.
Gibson’s first solidbody electric, the Les Paul model, was soon gracing the world. And thankfully so, because without it we may have indeed heard “Laaadies and gentlemennn, may I introduce, for your listening pleasure… Sir Eric Clapton and the Vibraphone Experience, with special guests James Page on the cowbell, the Reverend Billy F Gibbons on washboard, and Neil Sedaka on the…” stop right there, amigo. We don’t need any more of that vision!
Today, these vintage gold bars are priced so high the average six-string Joe finds them inaccessible. So, what’s a lonely guitar man do? Armored car heist? You’d probably find yourself playin’ 7th chords for the Folsom Prison Men’s Choir. Perhaps a more fiscally appropriate avenue would be to snag one of Gibson’s Historic reissue goldtops, with menu flavors ranging from the 1954 and ’56 P-90-loaded ass-whippers to the humbucker-piloted ’57 models.
Do these newer golden-hued beasts even make the grade? The only way to know is to run them full-bore against the good ol’ boys.
With the help of a few Houston lynchpins, we set about to whip these gold bars side-by-side to see whether older was better. Mark May has toured with Dickie Betts and made a name as a guitar man on his own; Albert King Award winner Jonn Richardson, fresh back from a European tour with Otis Taylor and Gary Moore (VG, September ’07); Bart Wittrock, owner of Rockin’ Robin Guitars, and the fellow who showed relic genius Tom Murphy the ropes when he came through Texas decades ago.
Bona fide amp perverts will be pleased to know we loaded the stables with a couple of period-correct Fender tweeds – a 1955 Deluxe and a ’56 Pro – as well a seriously special blackface ’66 Super Reverb to aptly analyze the clean capacities. And yes, we dialed them in the same two ways for the initial whack, and then had our way with them at the tail end of redlining each goldy.
The mere concept of running reissues against actual vintage (and mind-bogglingly valuable) goldtops from the “Golden Era” had even the most staunchly open-minded Texan curious as to what would unfold. Inherent subjectivity allowed, this dogfight would be one for the books.
Riding The ’53 “Wraparound”
“Holy s***, I feel like I just drove a semi-truck through the front door of my ex-wife’s mansion!” said Mark as he put the ’53 through the Deluxe (on 10, by the way). As much as he’ll pretend he didn’t run that bulldozer, we know better. But yes, indeed, the beautiful, greasy tone coming from that amp was anything but subtle. Lawd have mercy, what a start!
The ’53 rang in at an amazing aged and bar-smoke-dried weight of 7.8 pounds – lightest in the bunch. The neck was almost V’d at the nut from decades of rippin’, the tailpiece basically embedded in the body, and the mojo hard to ignore. Jonn got a bit frothy on the neck pickup through the tweed Pro, since his deal is all old-school and vintage. The pickups were a bit backed off, and unfortunately the bridge was unappealingly microphonic.
The neck pickup, though, was one woody and monstrously “stratty” beast, all but curling our toes and rollin’ our eyes back in our heads, especially with the Super Reverb; dark and borderline muddy, which is perhaps why it loved pushing around the Super. For the record, the wraparound didn’t resonate quite as boisterously as they usually do, but all complaints aside, this weathered old soul was the real deal.
Gettin’ Kicks on (Gold) Route ’56
The ’56 rang in at a delicious 9 pounds on the nose. In much better shape, physically, than the ’53, its neck was average-shouldered. The pickups came in a bit muddy in a nice way, and backed off a bit gain-wise, as well – yet another telling clue to some of what the early deal was.
With the Deluxe, the guitar had nice clarity on the bridge, but was still not pushing the amp very hard. The Super produced instant Freddie King tones, funkified spank to the Nth power. Anyone up for “Hideaway,” floored? Dear gawd this 51-year-old thang loved being mated with the Pro! They came from the same year, alright. It was a little grainier and high-end feisty, and yes, true vintage P-90s have that hum syndrome, but who’s to argue the beauty in imperfection? Count up the numerous odes to big-legged women and you have your answer.
The R4 Elephant’s Trunk
This 2003-sown bruiser was our heavyweight, at a satisfying 9.3 big ‘uns. The neck was massive and even unplugged, thanks to the wraparound, it let the boys know it was ready to sing loud and proud. For years, purists and geeks have tried to figure out a few truths and myths regarding body weights and neck sizes. And yes, huge necks with lighter bodies can indeed thunder, but be aware that the occasional magical boat anchor will crush all tiny pretenders when wood, quality parts, grain, and craftsmanship align.
This guitar simply reminds us that P-90s rule – damn straight. The jump and resonance of this beast was downright inspiring. There was a seriously deep tone coming in… – giant, and ass-whippin’. Through the tweeds it delivered mean grit and, once locked and loaded into the Super, the round warmth and chunky cleans turned to smoke and gunfire when given the green light on the volume dial. You want to get crazy with the cheese whiz all night long baby? Well, right here and right now, we gots ourselves a party!
The R6 Lightning Rod
Gibson’s Custom Shop slammed the strongman’s bell at the county fair with this 1998 offering, weighin’ in at a respectful 8.9 poundcakes. The neck was very nice with the faintest of gentle tapers, and definitely in the middle of the road. Only I knew that it was loaded with Lollar P-90s, a secret ingredient. “What in the hell is going on with this?” yelled Mark. The rest of the crew stared with raised eyebrows. “Welcome to Lollarville, gentlemen,” I smirked.
Through the Deluxe, the neck pickup was full and gorgeous. The Lollars simply are big, full, incredibly clear, and seriously musical. The bridge was the most usable of all, with a rounder and sweeter treble. The Lollars also proved markedly more responsive to height adjustments than any of our other test P-90s, and produced no mud whatsoever – just the widest glide imaginable.
As the battered old cases were latched and the last empty bottles tossed, Mark walked up to the Pro with the R6 and let loose with a raucous, jaw-dropping 40-second lick that peeled the paint off the walls and left witnesses without eyebrows. He then calmly waltzed out the front door with a grin wider than Texas.
P-90 Cage Match
Straddling the fine line of pickup camps has always been anything but cut and dried, and even political, as the age-old “single-coils versus humbuckers” riff has dug deep trenches and firmed lines in the sonic sands. P-90s ride the glorious middle territory, the seemingly forgotten backroads those in the know understand as one-of-a-kind tools that allow a discriminating player to cover everything from warm cleans to nail-spittin’ fury. Gibson is doing a fine job of covering the bases; its pickups are nice and creamy – definitely backed off and tucked in, in a vintage sort of way. Fine, fine, fine! And the Lollars deliver everything from rounder-than-round cleans to viciously nasty front-end-pushin’ swirls. And oh, the wicked growl!
Lowdown on the Throwdown
In the end, we learned a few things: vintage guitars have aged to become lighter, more resonant creatures, and their pickups are certainly darker, in cool but interesting ways. The ’50s-era pickups are also much less gained up, and the frets on the vintage goldtops are much smaller.
Through the tweeds, all of the goldtops sounded incredibly cool. Surprisingly, the Fender blackface amps let player and guitar dial in all sorts of huge tones, especially with the neck pickups. If you want grease, just raise the pickups a bit and pour the coals to it, or lay down chunky warm rhythms just before crossin’ the border. For dirtier work, just dime her.
Beyond the noted subtleties, we didn’t hear or discern anything in the vintage guitars that couldn’t be reproduced by the reissues. Anything more is simply splittin’ hairs. There is no substitute for mojo, and hell yes, it was a Golden Era. Without question, the best of the best and the vintage pieces blew our minds. But as long as Edwin Wilson and the Gibson Historic Art and Custom Shop are crafting these remarkable and mesmerizing reissues (see sidebar, “Digging Deep”), there will forever be serious gold in them there Nashville hills.
Nathaniel Riverhorse Nakadate has been held at gunpoint/machete three times, hit by two cars, and shot in the leg. He can often be found playing dirty slide guitar or sleeping alone on the cliffs of third-world countries while chasing waves to surf. He is currently on a solo assignment in New Zealand and Australia trying not to become fish food.
Historical Highlights of the Golden Pickaxe
Gibson’s first solidbody electric guitar, the Les Paul model, was introduced in 1952. It had a gold finish, mahogany body, P-90 pickups, trapeze-style bridge/tailpiece, and a maple top (per Les Paul’s request because it transferred clarity and brightness). Most were finished with gold only on the front of the body, but some were sprayed with gold paint on the back of the body, neck, and back of the headstock.
The guitar’s fingerboard was unbound and the pickup screws on the cover were diagonal in relation to each other. There was also no rhythm/treble ring around the pickup selector switch, and for the first several months of prouduction, no serial numbers. By mid ’52, Gibson added binding to the fingerboard and the pickup setscrews were repositioned.
By the end of ’53 the trapeze bridge was replaced by the wraparound “stud” tailpiece designed by Ted McCarty. The first of these guitars with the new bridge still had a shallow neck set/pitch, but by early ’54 the neck pitch was accentuated to allow for easier bridge adjustments. In ’55, the bridge became a tailpiece, and the Tune-O-Matic Bridge was installed.
In early ’57, Gibson introduced the Seth Lover-designed humbucking pickup. By early ’58, the last of the original goldtops came off the line.
At least two Les Pauls with Cherry Red finishes (serial #8 1689 and serial #8 1782) were carved out. Guitar authority and VG contributor Walter Carter believes these guitars indicate some experimentation on the part of Gibson.
“In my opinion, the Cherry guitars represent Ted McCarty trying to make up his mind on the new finish for the Standard,” he said. “Both pre-date any known sunbursts, and both are shaded red all around – front, back, and back of the neck – sort of like the old ‘shaded mahogany’ on mandolins of the 1910s.”
In ’58 Gibson added a touch of violin-like class to the Les Paul, with a flame-maple top and sunburst finish. The ‘Burst phenomena was born.
Gibson gets candid on its Historic and VOS axes
Since Gibson first offered a reissue Les Paul goldtop based on vintage axes borrowed from Gruhn Guitars and individual collectors, it has continually tweaked details and made changes like moving where the neck joins the body, fret thickness, etc.
Its latest version, the Vintage Original Spec series, uses gently aged hardware, rolled fretboards, softened headstock edges, and a proprietary buffing and sanding process. New with the V.O.S. was the application of the patented Plek system (VG, May ’04), which grinds the frets and cuts the nut consistently from guitar to guitar. It proved so popular that all Gibson Custom Shop guitars are now getting the treatment.
V.O.S. guitars also retain the key features of other reissues, including long neck tenons, bumblebee capacitors and CTS pots, lightweight aluminum tailpieces, period-correct fingerboard inlays, holly headstock veneers (not plastic), and nitrocellulose lacquer finishes.
As you might think, Custom Shop guitars are incredibly labor-intensive. Gibson says much of the work is still done by hand – often with the same tools and processes with which the guitar was originally built; all Custom Shop necks are hand-rolled on a belt sander, and it takes considerable skill to accurately re-create the true feel of a ’57, a ’59 and a ’60 neck. As a result, Custom Shop necks can vary from one to the next – just like the originals.
The Custom Shop does use CNC machines for things ranging from initial cutting (i.e. carving maple tops) to drilling control cavities, pickup cavities, pot and switch holes, etc. This saves the handwork for the parts with the most impact, like attaching necks to bodies, applying binding, fretboard placement, painting/lacquering, sanding, final assembly of electronics, and so forth. And one person builds each guitar – there is no “assembly line” involved.
The ’59 and ’60 Les Paul Standard reissues are the flagships of the Custom Shop, and while all of the wood it receives is selected in a process that takes weight into consideration, the lightest pieces are set aside for ’59 and ’60 reissues!
But not everything in the Gibson CS is ultra-modern. Lending a true vintage vibe to every reissue is the fact the shop uses two early-20th-century carving machines that back in the day ran on steam power generated at the Gibson facility. These have since been fitted with electric motors, and both are still used, as are the original forms developed in building Gibson archtops. – Nate Nakadate
The Price of Gold
George Gruhn and Bart Wittrock on the market for ’50s Gibson Les Pauls
Guitar-centric discussions in the 21st century all too often tend to focus less on “What’s it like? or “How does it play/sound?” to “What’s it worth?”
And no matter who you talk to, you’re lollygagging in Speculationland, where it’s best to be in good company. So we asked two industry vets, George Gruhn and Bart Wittrock, to talk about the current market for goldtops, and where they think it might be headed.
How is the market for the early goldtops?
George Gruhn: The market for vintage Les Pauls in general is very strong. Goldtop Les Pauls made from 1952 to ’58 are highly saleable; however, the market tends to be much stronger for the later goldtops than the earlier ones.
Bart Wittrock: Later models do have the most growth potential, but in general, goldtops are in the upper 20 percent of vintage guitars.
At recent shows, there have been significant discrepancies in prices for vintage goldtops. Are dealers simply having a hard time pricing these pieces in the wake of the ‘Burst frenzy?
GG: Goldtops evolved over the years. The models with a trapeze bridge/tailpiece bring far less than those with stud-mounted bridges produced from late 1953 through mid 1955. The late-’55 through mid-’57 goldtops with Tune-O-Matic bridge and P-90 pickups bring considerably more than the previous versions, and the mid-’57 through mid-’58 models with PAF humbuckers greatly surpass all the other goldtops in current market.
I don’t doubt that some dealers have been asking speculative prices, but asking and getting are not the same. The range of prices probably reflects the difference in time periods.
BW: The market is going through a correction. Now some guys really want to sell, and at the Dallas show, some of the asking prices were actually down – a healthy correction, in my opinion, as it was getting out of hand with goldtops and everything else.
So is the market driven by playability more than age?
GG: Goldtops from 1952 and ’53 with the trapeze bridge/tailpiece bring far less than later ones. Most players find them awkward to play.
And the earliest Les Paul models are not the rarest, so age alone does not equate to a higher price on Les Pauls or numerous other fretted instruments. Players and collectors are more concerned with having a fine example from a “Golden Era” period. Similar examples are Gibson flathead Mastertone banjos of the 1930s, which bring far more than Gibson raised-head or ball-bearing Mastertones of the ’20s.
BW: As goldtops go, the more functional the guitar, the higher the price. This also assumes you embrace humbuckers as the high-water mark and the simple fact that some vintage homos still have their heads underwater. So in a nutshell, regarding the ’50s-era goldtops, the newer the configuration, the higher the prices.
How do Gibson’s reissue goldtops stack up in matters of quality and tone?
GG: Modern reissues by Gibson and other makers tend to be more consistent in specifications than any of the originals. To a large extent, this is due to the fact that today, factories have Computer Numerical Control (CNC) equipment, so dimensions will not vary by more than a few thousandths of an inch from one instrument to another. In the “good ol’ days,” while factories had heavy-duty power equipment as well as jigs and patterns, the work was still guided by hand, and there was considerably more variation from one guitar to another. Old pickups were hand-wound such that they also vary significantly from one to another, whereas new ones tend to be much more uniform.
I remain firmly of the opinion that the best of the Golden Era vintage instruments have a feel and sound, as well as physical appearance that exudes personality and soul, which has not been attained in the reissues.
BW: Current reissue goldtops, in my opinion, are as well-made as the best ’50s goldtops, with the exception of the pickups. They are getting it right, no doubt about it. That said, not all – maybe even very few – ’50s-era PAFs or P-90s have a real magic sound. The variance was quite interesting.
Any bold predictions on the future of the vintage goldtop market?
GG: Obviously, it is intimately interwoven with the market for vintage fretted instruments in general. In more than 40 years of involvement in this market, on a number of occasions I have been convinced that prices could not possibly go much higher. While I have seen prices plateau, especially from 1976 though the mid ’80s, it has been my general experience over more that while the market can be quite unpredictable, the general trend has been upward. Past predictions of gloom and doom have proven to be pessimistic. While I do not claim to be clairvoyant, based on past experience, I expect the market for goldtop Les Pauls, as well as most of the other vintage fretted instruments, to remain healthy for the immediate foreseeable future.
BW: It’s all going up once the market corrects, though hopefully not as fast as the past year or two. The ’57s and ’58s are by far the best bets, money-wise, and P-90 models are still a bargain. The difference between a $500,000 burst and a $75,000 goldtop is a coat of paint and maybe some grain! Yes, ‘Bursts are special. But in the blindfold test, who knows! – Nate Nakadate
This article originally appeared in VG‘s November 2007 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.