If there’s ever been a match made in Rock and Roll Heaven, it’s Neil Young and his trusty 1953 Les Paul “Old Black.” The battered six-string with more raunch than a Vegas stand-up comic has been his main electric axe since the late ’60s, burning its way into history on 1969’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere with the blaring rocker “Cinnamon Girl” and the freewheeling guitar epics “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.”
Over the years the guitar has brayed and sang its way through all of Young’s most jolting transformations, from the dark journey of 1974’s Tonight’s the Night to the electro-pop diversion of ’82’s Trans to 1988’s blues explosion This Note’s for You.
Of course, “Old Black” also can be heard on albums and songs that are considered part of the firmament of Young’s career: Rust Never Sleeps, American Stars ’n’ Bars and After the Gold Rush among them. And for those who’ve been lucky enough to hear Young live, especially backed by Crazy Horse or Booker T. and the MG’s, the vision of the shaggy-haired chameleon slamming his longtime companion’s strings into grizzly bear growls on “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” or lupine howls of feedback for his occasional renditions of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the experience is indelible – pure rock and roll nirvana.
Those familiar with the history of the Gibson Les Paul Standard know “Old Black”’s true colors. This trusty steed came into the world as a Les Paul Gold Top. When the Gibson Les Paul model first went into production in 1952 that was the only finish available and P-90 single coil pickups were standard. In ’57, the pickup configuration changed to humbuckers, and the finish options began to evolve in 1958 with the introduction of the Gibson Les Paul Standard Sunburst, the instrument made famous by Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jimmy Page, Michael Bloomfield, Billy Gibbons and other guitar deities.
How his Les Paul’s heart of gold, or at least the finish of that hue, turned a gristly nearly spray-painted black is something of a mystery, since Young acquired the guitar in its distinctive noir finish. But much is known about this iconic instrument.
Young got his versatile pal during his original stint in Buffalo Springfield, from bandmate Jim Messina in 1969 – shortly before recording Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. One reason “Old Black” sounds so distinctive is its pickup configuration. The original ’53 P-90 has always remained in the neck position, but the bridge pickup was first replaced with a Dynasonic single-coil and then with a mini-humbucker from a ’72 Gibson Firebird that has remained in place ever since. The Bigsby vibrato tailpiece was on by the time of the Everybody Knows This is Nowhere sessions and can be heard putting some sonic chills in “Cowgirl in the Sand.”
Another distinctive touch is the aluminum pickguard that replaced the white plastic one that was standard issue for early Gold Tops. The plate is stiff and, obviously, metallic – qualities thought to enhance Young’s romance with feedback.
There is speculation about the year of “Old Black”’s neck. It has a partially painted-over pearloid inlay on its headstock that appears to be a “wheat stack” rather than split trapezoid style. The “wheat stack” inlay was applied to Gibson necks made between 1961 and ’68, well past “Old Black”’s vintage. Of course, most of the paint is off the back of the guitar’s mahogany neck after decades of brutal and beautiful playing, and the binding is equally frayed. Also, there’s another aluminum plate in the rear, just under the bridge to access the bridge screws from behind.
Perhaps the guitar’s most unusual modification is the toggle switch mounted on its front between the volume and tone speed dials. It is reportedly a bypass switch that lets “Old Black”’s signal go straight into one of the small, late ’50s amps that Young sets on “stun” to create his big, bad rumble, dodging the potentiometers and capacitors within the guitar.
If Young were a wizard – which, of course, he is – then “Old Black” would be his familiar. But it’s not the only Gibson in his trove of guitars. He owns Explorers and some newer Gold Tops. On 1973’s Time Fades Away tour he used a Flying V on stage. And on “Old Man,” from Harvest, that’s James Taylor picking away on Young’s 1927 Gibson Mastertone banjo.