’58 Les Paul ‘Sunburst’

In 1955, the Les Paul model was given the separate bridge and ‘tune-a-matic’ tailpiece which it has sported ever since. This gave the player more control over the intonation of each individual string, which was always a compromise (though for me, never a problem) with the ’53-55 wraparound style.

Video of me playing this guitar here

Despite these further enhancements, sales began to drop off in ’56-7 as Les Paul’s early ’50s sales success waned, and as Fender’s original Telecaster and new Stratocaster designs caught (younger) players’ imaginations. Gibson reacted by reconfiguring the Les Paul with the more conventional, but in their view, more opulent sunburst finish popular on their archtop instruments.

The transparent finish also necessitated the replacement of the two or three pieces of non-symmetrical maple which comprised the top with two matched, symmetrical, sometimes ‘bookmatched’ pieces.

Thus was born one of the classics – the sunburst Les Paul, or ‘burst for short. It is often (mistakenly) called a ‘Standard’ to distinguish it from the black top-of-the-line Custom model with gold metal parts launched in 1955.

The later examples of Goldtop Les Pauls from mid-’57 until the transition to sunburst in spring ’58 were fitted with Seth Lover’s new ‘humbucking’ pickups (their two-coil out of magnetic phase design ‘bucks’, or cancels, hum from nearby lights and electrical equipment). These carried over on to the ‘bursts.

The humbucking pickups, mahogany body and neck and figured maple top combined to produce an extraordinary instrument about which whole books have been written.

The 1958 examples like this all-original one in excellent condition had the narrow fret wire Gibson used until the late 50’s, and most were made with plainer, but still bookmatched maple tops.

Some players – including Mark Knopfler – swear that the plainer-topped examples sound better. (I’ve played one of his, whose serial number is so close to mine that they could have been part of the same production batch, but it’s difficult to compare as he has replaced the frets with the huge fretwire he favours).

The neck is a fairly fat typical ’58 ‘C’ profile, yielding a very fat tone. The corners of the nickel-plated pickup covers are quite square and the plastic bobbins beneath them are almost always black.

In 1959, more fancy maple tops became more common, the frets became wider and fatter and the neck evolved towards a ‘D’ profile, still pretty fat and giving a strong tone. A shortage of black pigment led to the use of white pickup bobbins, sometimes in part (‘zebras’), sometimes in whole (‘double whites’). The corners of the pickup covers become slightly smoother reflecting the wear on the die on which they were formed. The combination of features and sometimes highly-figured tops mean that ‘59’s are generally regarded as the most desirable and command the highest prices in the vintage market.

In 1960, Gibson changed the red dye which formed the outer ring of the sunburst pattern to a more stable variety, as earlier dyes had a pronounced tendency to fade in sunlight (leading to the beautiful fades collectors often prize). Tops remained highly-figured but the neck’s playability was ‘improved’ by making it thinner, which resulted in some loss of thickness of tone.

Incredible as it might seem now with these instruments commanding price tags well into six figures, sales of the Les Paul continued to slide and it was discontinued in mid-1960. It’s been estimated that less than 1500 ‘bursts were made, and only a proportion of these remain.

Its real potential was only discovered later when players started to overdrive their amplifiers, and realised that these Les Pauls’ tone and sustain provided the ultimate source instruments. The rest, as they say, is history.

This the guitar that most of my heroes played at the very height of their powers – Clapton, Green, Page, Allman, Kossoff, Moore, Slash etc etc, as well as lesser-known great players like Procol Harum-era Robin Trower, Dave ‘Clem’ Clempson when he was in Bakerloo and Gentle Giant’s Gary Green – which is why I dreamt of owning one pretty much all my adult life, and eventually got round to doing something about it – by buying one.

If you are a guitarist, you have to play, if not own, one of these before you die.  Oh, and a good early ‘blackguard Telecaster too. Valhalla.

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