The SG (standing for ‘solid-body guitar’) is Gibson’s best-selling model – ever. It has been in production ever since its inception, with various modifications and changes over the years.
Gibson itself has a long history, complete with various changes of leadership and designs. During these turbulent years, the manufacturing standards of the SG fluctuated, meaning models from some eras are more desirable than others.
Of course, there are good and bad models from every year – that’s just the way things go. But there are specific periods in Gibson’s (and indeed any company’s) history where things are done better than others. This is what this article aims to explore.
So, let’s start at the beginning…
Table of Contents
The Birth of the SG and the First Golden Age
At the start of the ‘60s, sales of Les Paul were low. Hoping to change this downturn, Gibson introduced new models with a double cutaway body at the neck, the Les Paul Special and Les Paul Junior.
This change in design meant these new models were significantly faster and therefore cheaper to produce. The only problem was Les Paul himself didn’t like them and demanded his name be removed from the guitars.
In 1963, his contract with Gibson expired, the Les Paul variation guitars received their own name, and the SG was born.
1961 – 1965
During this period Gibson was under the control of Ted McCarty, and the SGs they produced in this era went on to be hailed as classics, becoming highly desirable as time went on. These early SGs were released featuring a solid one-piece mahogany body, a non-protruding neck joint, slim necks, and small pickguards.
The SG began its official life as two different models – the SG Standard and the SG Custom. The custom was especially high-end, featuring gold plated hardware, pearl inlays, and three pickups.
Many of these early models (‘61, ‘62) also featured an usual ‘side-to-side’ vibrato, which was eventually replaced in favor of the Maestro lyre vibrato tailpiece.
These models sold well, and inspired the release of further variations such as the SG TV, the SG Junior, and the SG Special. The SG specials were finished in the classic cherry red that has become synonymous with the model, and the slightly less popular cream version.
Around 1965, chrome hardware replaced the previously used nickel fittings, and
It is the early models from this period that are generally considered the most desirable – the ‘60, ‘61, and ‘62 SGs, before they became SGs.
1966 – 1969
In late ‘66, early ‘67, changes began to be made to the SG following the departure of Ted McCarty. The main modification was around the heel (the join where the neck meets the body of the guitar), wherein the body was lengthened upward to meet the neck in a higher position.
Another change that occurred toward the end of 1966 was the introduction of a much larger scratchplate that had the pickups fixed to it, rather than mounted into the body of the guitar. This wasn’t implemented across all models, however, until the end of the decade.
This change still left a slight recess where the change from body to neck was visible, but by 1969, the body was extended even further and the heel was smoothed, rounded, and gave a consistent look to the SG.
‘69 also saw the introduction of a three-piece layered wood neck, as opposed to the one piece that preceded it. This invariably changed the tonality of the guitar, with many claiming the sound became fatter, with more mid-range frequencies now accessible.
The final (and perhaps most controversial) change was the introduction of the large ‘batwing’ scratchplate across all standard SGs, with pickups mounted on it, and the pickguard hiding the routes in the body.
This places SGs made at the end of the ‘60s as less desirable than those earlier models, but overall still excellent guitars. Their popularity was boosted further with the massive cultural impact of Woodstock ‘69, where both Pete Townshend of The Who and Carlos Santana gave legendary performances, both playing SG specials.
The Norlin Era: 1970 – 1985
At the tail end of 1969, Gibson’s parent company CMI (Chicago Musical Instruments) was taken over by ECL, a South American brewing conglomerate. It was still run by CMI, through ECL, up until 1974, where it became a subsidiary of Norlin Musical Instruments. Norlin immediately sought to make cost-cutting and modernizing changes to the production of all Gibson guitars, the SG included.
This was largely due to competition from Japanese guitars, which were made cheaply but to a high standard, and were pressuring other American guitar companies like Fender in this era as well.
The first major change introduced was the discontinuation of the one-piece mahogany neck, and its replacement with a three-piece maple and/or mahogany with laminated scroll for strength. Many saw this as a poor design choice on what was meant to be a fairly high-end guitar, as anything more than a one-piece neck was supposedly inferior.
However, this is not actually the case. When two or more pieces of wood are properly affixed, no tonal quality is lost, and the neck is in fact stronger. The key message here is that under pressure from Norlin, Gibson workers had less time to spend on each instrument, to try and keep up with increased production demands. This may be why Gibson guitars from this era, and three-piece necks in general, have a bad reputation.
A volute was also added to the SG, between the neck and the headstock, which reduced the angle at which the headstock kicked back. This was done to improve the strength and stability of the headstock, and reduce the likelihood of accidental breakages.
The front-loading of electronics was dropped on the SG Custom within a year, but continued on other Gibson models throughout the decade. A major positive upgrade, however, was the switch in 1973 from the old ‘side-to-side’ Maestro vibrato to the Bigsby, a popular and reliable tremolo arm.
Various other design changes were made, including the sinking of the neck deeper into the guitar body, shortening the distance between the pickup and the high-end of the fretboard; the switch to a harmonica bridge, and the moving of the input jack to the edge of the body.
Overall, these are still great guitars, and the Norlin era has a bad reputation, perhaps unfairly. These design changes were perceived as corporate mismanagement, and a deviation from Gibson’s original designs.
Return to Form
1986 – 1999
Gibson was three months from going out of business when Norlin sold it to Henry E. Juszkiewicz, David H. Berryman, and Gary A. Zebrowski in 1986. The new owners wanted to end the culture of low-production values and high turnover, and sought to bring the prestige back to Gibson.
They did this through a return to high-quality materials, classic build specifications, and minor design changes, such as moving the neck position back to its original location away from the pickups.
This era also saw the establishment of Epiphone, originally acquired in 1957, as Gibson’s budget guitar branch. They were mainly manufactured in Asia to compete with the burgeoning market overseas.
2000 – 2006
In this period, Gibson managed to regain a lot of the reputation and sales figures it lost during the Norlin era. Specs were maintained at the classic ‘60s standards, and sales are steadily increasing.
Shortages and Brief Decline 2007 – 2012
Due to the high demand for both SGs and Les Pauls, the company was manufacturing guitars at a high rate and level of quality.
Unfortunately, a shortage of quality ebony, mahogany and rosewood threw a spanner in the works.
Shortages meant that in order to keep up with production targets, changes had to be made once again to the design of the SG (and other models). To mitigate these issues, layering and chambering procedures were introduced.
The former involves lesser-quality woods being sandwiched together between what little scraps of decent wood Gibson could find, in order to give the outward appearance of a high-end guitar.
Chambering is when the guitar bodies are hollowed out, and laminates are placed over the cavities. This of course saves on materials, because less wood is used.
Although these two manufacturing techniques are widely used by many guitar companies, and there is technically nothing wrong with them, many purists felt that this was a deviation from Gibson’s high-end guitar status.
Return to Form (Again): 2013 – Modern Day
Gibson managed to solve their sourcing issues, and turned to a mix of qualities of woods in order to preserve supply whilst maintaining build quality.
Aside from a few controversial changes to the 2015 SG, which featured the much-loathed G-force autotuner, Gibson stayed pretty faithful to the original design specs which first rocketed the SG to the forefront of rock history in the early days.
From them on, quality has been consistent and shows no signs of declining again.
As with any guitar, your personal connection with the instrument is what matters most. It’s hard to say what is the best year to buy an SG from, and which years you must certainly avoid, because everybody and their playing style is different.
It’s widely agreed that the early ‘60s models were the best – but that might not ring true for everyone.
As I always say: get out there and play as many as you can yourself! There’s so many weird and wonderful variations on the SG that it’s worth spending a little time figuring out what you like best.
Just let’s not talk about the ‘zoot suit’…!