Gibson debuted the Les Paul Custom in 1954 and dubbed it the “Fretless Wonder.” Originally, black-finish Les Paul Customs came with one P-90 (bridge position) and one Alnico V pickup (neck position). It morphed, and soon had Seth Lover’s PAF humbuckers, and was also known as the “Black Beauty.”
Now, you can buy a 20th Anniversary 1957 Les Paul Custom Black Beauty which is true to its ’57 vintage spec. Epiphone has its own glorious Black Beauty for players on a budget.
Sunburst Les Pauls are usually more coveted, so what is it about a Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty”? Plenty, as these players will tell you...
Although more often associated with his #1 and #2 sunburst Les Pauls, Jimmy Page used a ‘Black Beauty’ Les Paul with 3-pickups and a Bigsby for most of his session work and solo singles (1963-68). He bought in 1962 for £185 ($5300 today). He did take it on tour with Led Zeppelin from January 1970 through 1971 but it was stolen at an airport in September ‘71. Page even placed an ad in Rolling Stone offering a reward for its return, but it was never recovered.
The compilation of early work, Hip Young Guitar Slinger, credited to Jimmy Page and his Heavy Friends shows mid-‘60s Page with the guitar on the cover.
In Creedence Clearwater Revival’s glory days, Fogerty owned two black Les Paul Customs outfitted with Bigsbys. He notably brandished one at 1969’s Woodstock festival. Note that Fogerty always used a Gibson when he played in open D (D-A-D-F#-A-D) tuning – one of the foundations of his swampy sound. Try playing the barre chords to the introduction of “Proud Mary” in that tuning starting on the 10th fret, and you’ll find yourself close to the tone. CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising,” “Midnight Special” and “Fortunate Son” are among the many Creedence songs using the tuning.
At the height of Focus’s fame, Akkerman was often seen with a black Les Paul Custom. His main one was a two-pickup ’72 (originally), to which he later added a middle, third pickup reverse-wired, “which gives you more mid and a more attractive sound.”
Here’s Focus at their peak, with madly-yodelling “Hocus Pocus.”
Frampton’s three-pickup black Les Paul remains one of rock’s most iconic guitars, and is all over his Comes Alive! breakthrough album. His is a ’54, the first year of the Custom’s manufacture, that he acquired during his stint in Humble Pie. Frampton was given the guitar in 1970 by a man named Mark Mariana at a Humble Pie gig at the Fillmore West, SF. Frampton borrowed Mariana’s guitar for the show and afterward tried to buy it from him. “But to my surprise he said he couldn’t sell it to me – he wanted to give it to me!” Frampton said. The guitar had been presumed lost in a 1980 cargo plane crash, but is now back with Frampton and still played live.
Frampton now calls it The Phoenix – it’s a guitar that truly rose from the ashes. A Gibson Les Paul Peter Frampton signature model is also available.
Here’s Frampton and his own “Black Beauty” in his glory days.
Frampton’s Humble Pie bandmate Steve Marriott was also a “Black Beauty” man. Marriott had occasionally played Les Pauls in his Small Faces days, but his black Custom guitar came into its own with Humble Pie circa 1972. His was a two-pickup model, suggesting it was a ‘54 - ‘57. Steve’s son, Toby, now owns the guitar.
When Keith Richards played Les Pauls, black Custom tended to be his favorites (early on he played a Bigsby-loaded sunburst, one of the first in the U.K.) By 1966, Richards was using three-pickup “Black Beauty” Les Paul Customs and had four, at least. He first used one in ’66, but that was stolen on tour in 1967. He purchased a new one in London, and this one was later painted by himself and then-partner Anita Pallenberg.
So why did that one go? Various stories say Keef forgetfully left it in a Canadian guitar shop when it was in for repair: it was supposedly later bought by Randy Bachman and noew is owned by a U.K. collector.
Richards bought two new Les Paul Customs for the Stones’ 1969 tour, and used one for open-G tuning on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Street Fighting Man” (live), the other in standard tuning. Both these Black Beauties were reportedly stolen from Nellcote in July 1971. Bad luck or simple carelessness? By ’73, Keef was still using a ’54 Custom for “Midnight Rambler” on The Stones’ ’72-73 tours.
The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus movie shows Keith rocking one of his early LP Customs.
Robert Fripp, now retired from music, was usually associated with his black Gibson Les Paul Customs. From 1969 to 1974, he almost exclusively played a black Custom in King Crimson, with another as a spare. In Fripp’s own online diary he explains his ’59 “is the guitar used on all KC albums 1969-74, from In The Court Of The Crimson King to Red. I bought this from a guitar shop on Shaftesbury Avenue circa November 1968 during a Crimson gear acquisition sortie...
“The salesperson struck me as rather a weaselly character. ‘We could sell that to Eric Clapton!’ he claimed. That being the case, I wondered, why is the black 1959 Les Paul still in the shop window? A generous opportunity to put classic instruments within reach of lesser known players? I bumped into Mr. Weasel some 2 or 3 years later, working not far away.
“The second Les Paul (also black & 1959*) I bought in late 1972/early 1973 on Denmark Street, as a spare; and was told it had been owned by Steve Marriott. This replaced a newer model Les Paul, used on the road with Crimson in Autumn 1972 (Jamie Muir on percussion) which, although good, didn’t compare with classic 1959.”
*Note: Fripp’s second black Custom was actually a ’57, according to most accounts. It’s modded with a volume control on the pickguard controlling the middle pickup.
Forget the spec detail, here’s Fripp on one of his black Customs. In the spirit of Les Paul’s own pioneering studio techniques, Fripp here demonstrates his tape-looping “Frippertronics” in 1979.
Other famous players of a black Les Paul Custom include Les Paul (naturally!), Zal Cleminson of Nazareth,Billy Jones from The Outlaws, and U.K. twanger Albert Lee whose “Black Beauty” was a gift from Eric Clapton. Clapton played his black LP Custom heavily in his time with Bonnie and Delaney.
And let’s not forget another fan of the Black Beauty. Why, it’s Herman Munster!
Originally, Les Paul wanted the Custom to add to the Goldtop range and the specified a black guitar as he wanted it to “look like a tuxedo.”
Who out there is “dressed” in a black Les Paul Custom? And who are your favorite players?