Gibson’s double-cutaway Les Paul Special 3/4 from 1959 is one of the rarest Les Pauls from the “golden era.” It’s also one of the more unusual in that it may well be the worst-designed classic.
Gibson introduced the full-scale Les Paul Special in 1955, in the wake of the success of the Les Paul Junior. With the Junior, Gibson created an entry-level solidbody with the same quality as the Les Paul model (a.k.a. “goldtop” and later Standard) and Custom, but without the contoured top cap and just one pickup. The Special offered the same economical “slab-body” design as the Junior, but with two pickups – the same two soapbar P-90 pickups that were on the higher-priced Standard (until the advent of humbuckers in mid ’57).
Gibson extended the entry-level concept in ’56 with a three-quarter Junior; its scale length was 223/4″ – two inches shorter than Gibson’s standard 243/4″. For beginners or players with smaller hands, those two inches made it much easier to handle. The nomenclature came from the violin world, where a “3/4” violin or upright bass typically measured just more than 9/10 of a full-size instrument. That carried over to Gibson, where the “3/4-scale” was actually over 9/10 of the full scale.
Unlike 3/4-size violins and basses, the Junior 3/4 had the same body as the regular model, same bridge, pickup, and knob location. To accomplish that, the fingerboard had to be shortened to only 19 frets, rather than 22. As on the full-scale model, the single-cuty body provided access to all frets.
All of Gibson’s Les Pauls started with a single-cut body, but in mid ’58, with sales beginning to fall off, Gibson modernized the Junior and Special with a double-cut body. Now, all 22 frets were clear of the body, providing even greater accessibility than the single-cutaway had offered. To guitarists of ’58, it was an improvement (although players today consider the neck on the single-cut to be sturdier), and sales of Juniors and Specials almost doubled from ’58 to ’59.
It would seem a no-brainer to make the same change to the 3/4 Junior and even to introduce a 3/4-size double-cut Special. That’s exactly what Gibson did in ’59, but somehow the message was garbled in transmission; instead of simply installing a shorter neck (still with all frets clear of the body) on the double-cut, Gibson made the neck even shorter. The neck joined at the 15th fret, leaving a four-fret length of fretboard extending over the body. Why they did this is anyone’s guess. There was no apparent problem with the neck joint; if there had been, Gibson would have abandoned the all-clear neck design of the full-scale Junior and Special. By putting four frets over the body, Gibson made them virtually inaccessible and useless.
That was not the only problem with the double-cut 3/4 models. They bring to mind Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean, who was hit on the toe by a batted ball in the ’37 All-Star game. The pain in his toe caused him to favor that foot, which caused him to alter his pitching motion, which caused him to develop a sore arm, which effectively ended his career and sent him to an early retirement.
The neck design of the Les Paul 3/4-size Juniors and Specials was like Dizzy Dean’s broken toe. To compensate for the shorter neck, Gibson had to move the bridge back toward the end of the body. Then, to maintain the position of the pickups relative to the bridge (which is to say, to maintain the basic sound and performance quality of the model) the pickups had to be moved, too.
And it didn’t end there. Although the scale length and the location of the bridge and pickups were now the same relative to each other, they were out of kilter with the overall body design. Now, when a player put a double 3/4-size Junior or Special on his knee and played it normally, his right hand hit the strings several inches farther toward the neck than he was accustomed to, and the sound was mushier. To get the same sound he had been accustomed to getting from a full-scale double-cutaway model, he would have to cock his right arm back in a more awkward playing position. A guitarist may not have risked developing a sore arm that would end his playing career, as Dizzy Dean had done, but compared to the full-scale models, 3/4-size double-cutaways were simply not right.
For the worst Les Paul design, some might argue that the original 1952-’53 goldtop, with its shallow neckset angle and the “strings-under” trapeze tailpiece, would rival the 3/4-scale double-cutaways. But the early goldtop can be forgiven as a prototype design, while the double-cutaway design had already been done right on the full-scale models. There was no excuse for screwing it up on the 3/4-scale versions. Gibson soon saw its error and corrected the design with the changeover to SG bodies in 1961. Although the 3/4-scale SGs did not last past ’61, they did have all frets clear of the body, just like the full-scale SGs.
Of course, if Clapton, Page, or Hendrix had played a Les Paul Junior 3/4 or Special 3/4, we might be touting the “back bridge location” as the perfect configuration for getting the classic rock and roll sound. But few players at all – and no future guitar gods – embraced the 3/4 models. By the time the double-cutaway versions appeared, the initial splash made by the full-scale double-cutaway Junior and Special had begun to dissipate. According to Gibson shipping totals, only 12 Special 3/4 models went out in 1959, followed by 39 in 1960, for a grand total of 51. If not one of the most desirable of Les Pauls, the Les Paul Special 3/4 is nevertheless one of the rarest models from Gibson’s golden era.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s September 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.