The Gibson Les Paul is a classic of the music world and a staple for many guitarists. But it’s not always been this way, and while there are certain years where Les Pauls were produced at a high quality, there are also some years where production standards slipped.
In this article, I will take you through the ups and downs of Gibson’s journey with Les Paul, so if you’re looking to buy, you’ll know what to look for and what to avoid.
The definitive best years for the Gibson Les Paul are the original golden era when the specifications were first settled, and the guitars were manufactured using high-quality materials and traditional build styles. This is generally agreed to be between 1957 and 1960. If I had to settle on one perfect year, it would be 1959. The Les Paul Standards produced that year are considered to be the holy grail of Les Pauls.
Table of Contents
- The Beginnings of the Les Paul – 1952 – 1957
- The Golden Age of the Les Paul – 1957 – 1960
- The Return of the Les Paul – 1968 – 1971
- The Norlin Era – 1970 – 1985
- The Post-Norlin Era – 1986 – 2007
- Decline in Quality – 2007 – 2015
- Modern-day Resurgence – 2015 – Today
- To Summarize
The Beginnings of the Les Paul – 1952 – 1957
The Les Paul was the first solid-body electric guitar manufactured by Gibson, and after its initial launch in 1952 as the Gibson Goldtop, it underwent various design changes and upgrades until the definitive model was settled on in 1957.
In the ‘50s, Gibson was headed by Ted McCarty, and seeing the rise of the Fender Broadcaster (which would become the Telecaster), inspired him to design a guitar that could rival Fender and cement Gibson’s place as a serious electric guitar manufacturer.
These original designs from 1952-1957 were emblematic of Gibson’s first golden age. Although production of the Les Paul was halted in 1960, and Gibson’s electric output was mainly focused on the SG, Les Pauls were still sought after for their high-quality build and quality materials.
Specifics of the Early Les Paul Models
Les Pauls from this period were built with P90, or ‘soap bar’ pickups, due to their appearance. P90s are known for being a versatile pickup with a well-rounded sound, suitable for blues, rock, and country.
Perhaps most noticeable about the early Les Pauls is the trapeze tailpiece. This design choice is more commonly found on hollow-body guitars, as it improves natural resonance. It didn’t last long on the Les Paul and was replaced in 1953 with a solid wraparound tailpiece and bridge designed by Ted McCarty.
Then, later in 1953, McCarty invented the Tune-O-Matic bridge, which began to appear on Les Pauls around 1955.
The Golden Age of the Les Paul – 1957 – 1960
The Les Pauls produced in this era are known for their high-quality materials and build.
The models from this period were constructed with a mahogany body and neck, arched maple top, and rosewood fingerboard. The neck was glued to the body and fitted with the classic mother-of-pearl trapezoid-shaped inlay fret markers.
A major change in the construction of the Les Paul in this era was the replacement of the P90 pickups with PAF (patent applied for) pickups. These pickups are touted as some of the greatest to ever be fitted to any guitar, and the Les Paul is no exception.
Noted for their warm, fat tone but still retaining all the resonant treble of the P90s, PAFs soon became highly sought after, and their addition to the Les Paul was one feature that made the models from this era so great.
It was these guitars, specifically those produced in 1959, that went on to become the greatest guitar Gibson ever made – the Les Paul Standard.
Favored by guitarists such as Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards, these ‘59 models were highly popular throughout the ‘60s, even though Gibson stopped making the Les Paul in 1961.
However, this surge in popularity forced Gibson to start producing Les Pauls again in 1968.
The Return of the Les Paul – 1968 – 1971
Due to popular demand, spurred greatly by the use of the Les Paul by many prolific guitarists, Gibson brought the Les Paul out of its early retirement.
Two models were issued, a Goldtop Les Paul, fitted with single-coil P90 pickups and a maple top, and a Les Paul Custom, similar to the Customs released in the ‘50s, except these had maple tops fitted, as opposed to an all-mahogany body.
From this point on, Gibson manufactured Les Pauls with mini-humbuckers in place of P90s or PAF pickups.
The Norlin Era – 1970 – 1985
In 1969, Gibson’s parent company Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI) was taken over by a South American conglomerate called ECL. Up until 1974, Gibson remained under the control of CMI, after which it became a subsidiary of Norlin Musical Instruments.
To many, these are the dark years of Gibson, when corporate cost-cutting led to poor products and the decline of Les Paul and other models. But some of the changes Norlin made weren’t just for budgetary reasons, and many have proved, with time, to be wise decisions.
Changes to the Les Paul in the Norlin Era
One of the most recognizable changes made in the Norlin era was the introduction of the ‘pancake body’ to the construction of Les Paul. Pancake bodies are made when one piece of wood is sandwiched between two other pieces of wood (usually a different type).
Another process known as multi-piece construction was also used. This involves the layering of various (more than 2 or 3) layers of wood, usually maple and mahogany, done for the same reason as pancaking.
This is done to improve rigidity and cut costs in the manufacturing process, and while there is no true downside to a layered wood guitar body, many fans claim the tone is dulled, and the cosmetic value of the guitar is lessened.
Three-Piece Necks and Addition of Volute
Norlin added a Volute to the Les Paul to avoid breakages where the headstock angles away from the neck. This is common practice on stringed instruments with an angled headstock, and there are no real disadvantages to a voluted neck. On the plus side, it actually strengthens the guitar.
The switch from a two-piece to a three-piece neck, however, upset a lot of Gibson fans. Traditionally, Gibson had always used a single piece of mahogany for their Les Paul necks and, indeed, most of their other models. This was mainly done for historical and traditional reasons, as many believed that one piece of mahogany was more rigid than layered pieces of mahogany and maple.
However, the case seems to be that three-piece necks are actually more stable than one- or two-piece necks. Again, this was likely introduced as a cost-cutting measure to save on the usage of mahogany timber, but it has again proved to be a wise move in terms of the durability of the guitars.
The Post-Norlin Era – 1986 – 2007
In 1986, Gibson was on the edge of bankruptcy until it was bought by three investors; Henry E. Juszkiewicz, David H. Berryman, and Gary A. Zebrowski. When they inherited the company in ‘86, sales were below $10 million. By 1993, Gibson’s wholesale shipments were up to an estimated $70 million.
Many of the changes implemented involved the reversal of many of the decisions made in the Norlin era. Higher quality woods were used, the headstock was made smaller, and the volute was scrapped.
The three-piece maple and mahogany combination necks were also scrapped in favor of pure mahogany.
Many considered these changes to be a move in the right direction, back to the traditional roots of the Gibson company and the ‘right’ way to build Les Paul.
Most important was the use of high-quality wood and the halting of layering techniques used to save money on materials.
Decline in Quality – 2007 – 2015
In 2007, Gibson began to run into problems sourcing and supplying enough quality mahogany, ebony, and rosewood to keep up with demand.
This led to many guitars, Les Pauls included, being constructed in a ‘chambered’ fashion in order to reduce the weight of cheaper, lower-quality woods. This involves removing solid wood from different areas of the guitar body and placing the top over it to conceal them.
Although this can improve resonance and sustain, many purists felt cheated by the practice and complained that it led to a further decline in quality and that cheap, hollowed-out bodies were a lot more prone to breakages.
From 2012 onward, Gibson also started implementing the use of laminates and returned to multi-piece layered construction techniques to compensate for the lack of high-quality wood. Many fans felt this detracted even more from the high standards they had come to expect from Les Paul and from Gibson in general.
In 2010, Gibson also opted to use Richlite in some of its models. Richlite is a composite material used as an alternative to ebony and is a fine substitution for fretboards.
Many guitars made by Gibson and other companies employ Richlite, as it is more sustainable to manufacture, and the differences between it and ebony are negligible. If you’re interested in learning more about the differences between Richlite and Ebony, we’ve published a detailed article on this topic.
Modern-day Resurgence – 2015 – Today
Around 2013, Gibson solved its sourcing problems, and a steady stream of mahogany supported the production of the high-quality classic Les Pauls once again.
In order to prolong supplies, varying qualities of wood were used for different levels of guitars, with the finest woods saved for the most expensive Les Pauls.
Despite some attempts to modernize the brand in 2014 and 2015 with the introduction of G-Force robot tuners, a high-performance neck joint, and various non-traditional logos and inlays, the standard of Les Pauls from 2016 onwards are in keeping with the levels of craftsmanship of the late ‘50s.
Gibson’s workforce was scaled down in line with guitar buying trends in the United States, and to save money now, high-quality materials and woods were once again being used. Despite these efforts, Gibson filed for bankruptcy in May 2018 but was back on its feet financially again by November of the same year.
Now, Les Pauls are manufactured to a high level of quality, akin to the models produced in the late 1950s, but with a much wider range for customers to choose from. Current models are rated as some of the best by fans of the brand.
As you can see, Gibson has had its fair share of ups and downs as a company, and the Les Paul guitar has fallen in and out of popularity accordingly.
The reaction to the various Les Paul iterations is generally consistent with the quality of the materials Gibson is using at the time of manufacture, so if you’re using this article as a buying guide, it may influence your decision to bear this in mind.
It’s clear from the research that the 1959 model is the Les Paul. It’s so highly sought after that a genuine article can fetch as much as $500,000. But if you’re after something more affordable, Les Pauls made in recent years are definitely up to scratch when it comes to materials and build quality.
The Norlin era gets a bad rap from Les Paul purists, but in actuality, they still produced a lot of good guitars, albeit with slightly different specifications and build styles.
As always, the best way to know if a guitar is right for you is to play it!