In 1961, Gibson introduced the double-cutaway Les Paul to replace the original version, which had been endorsed by guitarist Les Paul since being developed in 1952. Redesigned in response to falling market demand in the face of competition from Fender’s lighter, curvier, more-contoured Stratocaster, the guitar was re-named SG (for “solid guitar”) during the 1963 model year; part of the confusion over when exactly the name was changed revolves around the fact Gibson continued to use truss-rod covers engraved with Les Paul’s signature until the supply was gone.
The new design was greeted with mixed reaction. While the guitar sold reasonably well – Gibson says the Les Paul SG sold more than 6,000 units, compared to the total of 1,700 single-cuts sold from 1958 to ’60. But, as session guitarist, guitar historian, and former Gibson designer/clinician Mitch Holder recalled, “Les never liked the new design and joked about how people could injure themselves on the horn-like cutaways!”
When Gibson’s contract with Paul ended in ’62, he was in the process of divorcing Mary Ford, so beyond Paul’s dislike for the new model, Holder added, “He didn’t need any extra income on the table.”
Like the original “Black Beauty” Les Paul Custom, the SG Custom was given lower/smoother frets and marketed as the “Fretless Wonder.”
This SG Custom resides at the Hard Rock Cafe’s home-base “Vault” in Orlando. Once played by Rolling Stones co-founder Keith Richards, it bears the requisite Custom specs – 24¾″ scale, mahogany body and neck, bound ebony fingerboard, pearloid block inlays beginning at the first fret, triple-bound headstock, split-diamond peghead inlay, and pearloid Gibson logo. It sports gold-plated hardware and its three humbucking pickups bear early patent numbers and are controlled by the familiar two Volume/two Tone knob arrangement. Other appointments include a three-way toggle switch mounted to the pickguard, a Tune-O-Matic bridge, and a Maestro Vibrola with a lyre and logo on its cover plate.
Grabbing his calipers, Hard Rock guitar tech Kip Elder measured its nut width at 1.67″ and its thickness at .800″ at the first fret (dramatically narrower than the single-cut Les Paul once owned by Mick Taylor that also resides in the HRC Vault), graduating to .094″ at the 12th fret.
Elder also noted that the pickguard-mounted toggle switch acts as a phase switch – a mod confirmed by Andy Babiuk, author of the definitive Rolling Stones Gear, who said the toggle “has something to do with the third pickup.”
“In 1972 I doubt if Keith had a series/parallel thing going on,” noted HRC curator Jeff Nolan. Whatever its cryptic purpose ,the mod is unimportant to the guitar’s history in the hands of “Keef.”
“It’s cool because he used it for a brief time in ’73, including on the Exile on Main Street tour,” Babiuk said. “He also used it at the L.A. Forum benefit show to aid survivors of an earthquake in Nicaragua, and during the subsequent Pacific tour, particularly on ‘Midnight Rambler,’ which he played in standard tuning with a capo on the seventh fret.”
The Hard Rock acquired it from Marshall Chess, a music and film producer who in 1970 was hired by the Stones to run the band’s new label, Rolling Stones Records; he’d been acquainted with the band since they recorded a few songs at Chicago-based Chess Records – the label founded by Marshall’s father, Leonard, and his uncle, Phil – in the midst of a U.S. tour in ’64. He stayed with the band’s organization until ’77.
This article originally appeared in VG May 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.