Les Pauls that Celebrate their Arboreal Heritage


Les Paul guitar

When I was about ten years old I found a book at the local library - Denny Laine’s Guitar Book. Before I even knew guitar magazines existed, this was where I got all my information about guitars. Laine - guitarist for Paul McCartney & Wings - covered everything from the basics of playing to information about what gear to use. (If you’re a fan of the show Adventure Time, this book was my Enchiridion full of codes of conduct, guidelines, and other helpful information for heroes). One of the black and white pages showed a few different Gibson Les Paul models, and my little mind was blown that there could be so many variations of the Gibson Les Paul! I mean, there were five guitars on that page!

Something else this book highlighted for me - particularly a natural-finish Les Paul Standard on that page - was that electric guitars were made of wood. I already knew this, but I also knew that most of the electric guitars I’d encountered to that point had glossy finishes and solid colours that kind of masked this fact. But here were a bunch of guitars which proudly proclaimed their arboreal heritage for all to see. And as time went on I would encounter plenty more Les Pauls that weren’t afraid to show off their nakedness. Let’s have a look at a couple:

Gibson Les Paul Spotlight Special

This is a very rare model from towards the end of Gibson’s Norlin-owned era. These guitars are easy to spot (pardon the pun - nah, y’know what? That pun doesn’t deserve a pardon) because they have a centre strip of walnut flanked by maple either side. The look is almost like that of a neck-thru guitar. Two variants were available; the ASB (antique sunburst) had a quilted maple top and cream binding and keystone tuning machines, while the ANT had a curly maple top with brown binding and kidney-bean tuners. According to this Vintage Guitar article, The Gibson Les Paul Book authors Tony Bacon and Paul Day traced this guitar’s origins to the discovery of leftover walnut and curly maple in Nashville. Vintage Guitar reports that Spotlight Special serial numbers only go up to 211, so it looks like this is a pretty rare model. I like that these guitars really showed off the wood. Norlin could quite easily have decided to use these pieces in a solid finish just to use them, but instead they drew attention to them - heck, they even used the word ‘Spotlight’ which implies the invitation of close scrutiny. The model was reissued in extremely limited numbers back in 2008 by Gibson Custom, with a set of Classic ’57 humbuckers.

Gibson Les Paul SmartWood

There have been a few iterations of the SmartWood series over the years, including the Studio SmartWood (2002-2008) and, before that, the SmartWood Exotic (1996-2002). The Studio SmartWood uses a traditional mahogany body and neck but with an exotic Muiracatiara wood top and a Preciosa rosewood fingerboard certified by the Rainforest Alliance. Also known as Tigerwood or Muir, Muiracatiara has a beautiful grain whichvaries from shades of brown to red with bold stripes that range from dark brown in the heartwood to grayish white in the sapwood. It rocks a pair of alnico-magnet humbuckers: a 490R in the neck position and a 498T at the bridge. The earlier SmartWood Exotic was featured a wider range of woods on the same mahogany neck/back configuration; Curupay, Peroba, Banara, Ambay Guasu, Taperyva Guasu and Chancharana, each with a Curupay fingerboard.

Les Paul All Wood

The idea behind the current Les Paul All Wood model is to present a Les Paul where everything that could possibly be made out of wood, is. Highly figured maple is used for the top and back, the neck is maple and the fingerboard is rosewood. But various other appointments are wood too where they would normally be made of a synthetic material; the block fretboard inlays are maple, as are the “Gibson” and “Les Paul Model” logos, while rosewood is used for the pickup mounting rings, truss rod cover and back plate cover. This guitar is in the same spirit as an earlier guitar from Gibson’s history, called simply “The Les Paul” from 1976 to 1979. The Les Paul had a mahogany body core with flamed maple on the top and back, four-layer binding made of maple and rosewood, three-piece rosewood/ebony fretboard… it was a very deluxe guitar with a price tag to match ($3,000 1976 dollars, compared to $739 for a Les Paul Custom back then). If you can find one you can expect to pay a pretty penny, since most of them were purchased by collectors rather than to be used in smoky clubs.