Its official name – Les Paul model – doesn’t do it justice. After all, Gibson has made over a hundred different Les Paul models through the years. But call it by its nickname – “goldtop” – and everyone knows you’re talking about Gibson’s first solidbody electric guitar.
Like many important guitar stories, the goldtop story was not documented very well, and writers didn’t start tapping the memories of the two primary figures in its development, Gibson president Ted McCarty and Les Paul himself, until more than 30 years after the fact. Ted and Les had been close in the 1950s but not so close from the ’60s onward. Not surprisingly, two stories emerged. Ted said Gibson came up with all the design features then sought Les’ endorsement, which resulted in the finish color and the tailpiece. Les said he and M.H. Berlin (head of Chicago Musical Instrument Co., Gibson’s parent) came up with the design and Ted delivered it. The two stories seem mutually exclusive, but if you allow a margin of error for memories, omissions and egos, both accounts are true.
Gibson reacted immediately to Leo Fender’s introduction of the Esquire in the summer of 1950, and by the end of the year, Gibson’s Hollywood rep, Clarence Havenga, had a prototype solidbody in hand. In the meantime, McCarty was trying to lure Les away from his arsenal of customized Epiphones. Les had just set himself apart from other guitarists in the world with two multi-tracked instrumental hits, “Brazil” and “Lover.” In 1950, he added his wife, Mary Ford, to his act, and his fortunes increased exponentially; in 1951, their recording of “How High the Moon” spent nine weeks at number one on the pop charts.
At some point, Les met with M.H. Berlin, and it was Berlin, a violin collector, who specified the carved top (Les preferred a flat top). During the prototype stage, Gibson settled on the maple top cap and mahogany body. McCarty explained that the maple cap was for sustain, the mahogany back for lighter weight. However, since greater sustain was always one of Les’ goals, it would not be surprising if Les had some input into the maple/mahogany body.
A maple-top prototype guitar does exist, but its most interesting feature is its neck joint. The neckset angle is relatively flat, like that of the first production models, but the entire neck is set higher above the body, so the strings would be high enough to pass over a bar bridge like the one on Les’ trapeze-style combination bridge/tailpiece (a later prototype of the Les Paul Junior also has this high-set neck). Gibson was familiar with Les’ tailpiece, as there is one installed on the modified Epiphone Mary Ford is playing on the sheet music of their 1950 hit “Mockin’ Bird Hill.”
There was a misconnection between the maple-top prototype and the final version, however. Gibson set the neck deeper into the body, for better stability, but inexplicably failed to compensate for the lowered string height. When McCarty presented the guitar to Les at the Delaware Water Gap, a resort where he and Mary were performing, it had Les’ tailpiece but was virtually unplayable.
The crossbar that served as a bridge on Les’ tailpiece was about 1/2″ thick and it sat on height adjustment nuts. The neckset angle of the prototype (assuming it was the same as subsequent production examples) only allowed for a bridge height of 3/8″. Even with the bar laying flat on the top of the guitar, the action was probably a full 1/16″ higher at the 12th fret than Les was accustomed to.
Les, unfazed by the lack of woodworking tools, heated up the blade of a screwdriver over the burner of a stove and gouged out the top of the guitar so the crossbar of the tailpiece could be lowered. Now, with a playable instrument, Les signed what would become the most lucrative endorsement deal in the history of musical instruments.
In addition to the tailpiece design, Les asked for the point of the cutaway to be rounded off a bit, and he thought the gold would look good on the new model after seeing the finish on an ES-175 he’d ordered for a friend in 1951.
When the new Les Paul model shipped in March, 1952, the neckset angle hadn’t changed. Gibson’s solution was simply to flip the tailpiece over so the strings wrapped under the bar. The high bar forced most players to alter their right-hand motion, and made muting the strings with the heel of the right hand awkward, if not impossible.
Les was bound by the terms of his contract to play a Gibson, but it would appear he didn’t like much of anything about his own model. He replaced the tailpiece with a standard Gibson unit and a presumably homemade bar bridge. He also installed DeArmond pickups and repurposed one of the control knob holes for a jack. When the Les Paul Custom was introduced in 1954, he had several made for his own personal use with a flat top.
In the meantime, Gibson implemented its own changes. The earliest examples had an unbound fingerboard, which was consistent with other Gibsons that had only single-ply binding on the top; however, the gold finish gave the Les Paul model an expensive look, so Gibson quickly gave it fingerboard binding.
Inexplicably, Gibson waited well over a year to fix the neckset/tailpiece issue. In 1954, the company changed the neckset angle to introduce a new bridge/tailpiece that was essentially a bar anchored on studs mounted directly into the top of the guitar. It wasn’t perfect (for intonation adjustment, it wasn’t even as good as the three-saddle system that Fender had been using since 1950), but the strings now wrapped over the bar, and the stud-mounted bridge provided better sustain than the trapeze.
When Gibson expanded the line to include the lower-priced Junior and fancier Custom in ’54, the Custom sported a new “Tune-O-Matic” bridge designed by Ted McCarty and had adjustments for each individual string length. Again in an inexplicable delay, it was late ’55 before the goldtop received the upgrade.
The next change was the last and most important: double-coil humbucking pickups, which replaced the original “soapbar” covered P-90s in mid 1957. In ’58, with sales falling, Gibson changed the finish to Cherry Sunburst and the name to Les Paul Standard. With that, the goldtop era ended.
The goldtop’s importance – like Les Paul’s – is tricky to assess. The guitar was a moderate commercial success, but not in the way anyone would have predicted. The first guitarists who embraced it were bluesmen such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker – stylistic opposites of Les. Then, as now, virtually no guitarist bought a Les Paul because he wanted to play like Les. In fact, Les’ popularity waned faster in the mid ’50s than sales of the goldtop.
The historic importance of the goldtop as Gibson’s first electric solidbody is obvious. Often overlooked in the cosmetic dazzle of the “‘bursts” is the fact that the culmination of electric soldibody guitar design, signaled by the arrival of humbucking pickups, occurred with the ’57 goldtop. The goldtop may not be the most highly sought vintage Gibson electric, but as the vehicle for the introduction and development of the Gibson solidbody as we know it today, it remains Gibson’s most important electric model.
For more on the Gibson Les Paul, read Gibson Electrics: The Classic Years, by A.R. Duchossoir, The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy: 1915-1963 by Robb Lawrence. Other sources include the author’s personal interviews with Les Paul and Ted McCarty.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
ike de Velta on Original 1953 Les Paul gold top