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Les Paul and the Gibson SG

Michael Leonard
|
11.11.2012
Gibson SG

The Gibson SG has been a much-loved classic for 50-plus years now. But the guitar was born of adversity. The SG only came about because single-cut Gibson Les Pauls were failing to sell well in 1960.

1958-’60 sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standards are now the most valuable guitars in the world, partly because production was limited. Why was production limited? Because, unbelievably, Les Paul Standards didn’t sell enough.

In 1961, Gibson took action. Gibson banished the single-cut LP and under the design direction of company president Ted McCarty introduced the SG (‘Solid Guitar’) Les Paul. The SG was different - sleek, sculpted and ready-to-go for new, harder rockin’ styles.

But the dramatic redesign of the SG/Les Paul was made without Les’s knowledge. His name at first remained on the guitar, as he was a contracted endorsee and, apparently, Gibson also had many ‘Les Paul’ logos and truss rod covers in stock. Les Paul was pictured playing the SG guitar in ads, but he didn’t particularly like the SG design – “not enough wood,” Les reckoned. From 1963, the guitar was simply known as the Gibson SG, not the Gibson SG Les Paul.

Dramatic though Gibson’s redesign was, it worked. Shipping figures for the SG from ’61 to ’63 were 1662, 1449, and 1445 – nearly three times the sunbursts sold from ‘58 to ‘60. And genuine SG Les Pauls (1961-1963 only), with his name on the truss-rod cover, are now prized by collectors.

Indeed, at the time of writing Groton Guitars have a ‘61 white SG Custom owned by Les Paul himself. Les may not have been overly keen on the SG, but the asking price is $150,000 plus.

AC-DCThe SG and Les Paul together

In 1968, ‘traditional’ Les Pauls were re-introduced; Les was back on-board and happy again. But the SG now had a life of its own. By 1970, Gibson SG business was booming, with 12,914 sold.

On an SG, the neck joint was moved by three frets to give unrivalled upper-fret access. The body construction was not only sleeker, but easier too. The SG’s slender neck profile and small heel was a revelation – it was advertised as having the “fastest neck in the world.”  And at around 4lbs, it was so light – an electric that you barely knew was on your shoulder. The SG was/is a different guitar to a Les Paul Standard, but different in a very good way.

The construction of an SG and Les Paul Standard/Custom may be completely different, but both work and, from 1968, they’ve both been Gibson constants. SG models mirrored Les Pauls – one-pickup SG Juniors, a Special (two P-90s) as well as the blinging 3-pickup SG Custom. And with no worry about flamed maple tops, SGs could be any color you liked. Personal favorites? An all-white three-pickup SG Custom with Vibrola. An SG in Pelham Blue – damn, they are nice Iooking, and I don’t even ‘like’ blue guitars.

By 1970, the SG and the ‘original’ Les Paul stood together as Gibson greats. Take your pick.

Gibson SG Legends

The SG took a while to be famous, but it eventually found itself in the hands of legends.

Robby Krieger – The Doors

The Doors were a strange band. But, even with no bassist, Krieger kept the guitar parts alive via his 1967 Gibson SG Standard. Ambitious raga-influenced soloing sat alongside more traditional blues/r&b riffing. Krieger has been honored with his own signature model: “That’s how I like a guitar to sound.”

Angus Young - AC/DC

Angus Young always plays Gibson SGs – his favourite original is a black ’68. If you can find footage of Angus playing anything else, please comment below. The SG’s lightness suits Young’s frame, as he is just 5’2” tall. But Angus has always made the SG bigger than a skyscraper. Too many tracks to mention, but here’s one from AC/DC’s old days, “Bad Boy Boogie.” Rock!

Tony Iommi - Black Sabbath

Iommi started work on Black Sabbath’s debut on a Fender Stratocaster. But it broke after recording “Wicked World.” Iommi’s only backup guitar was a red Gibson SG, a 1965 SG Special he nicknamed Monkey - so he played that instead and never looked back. Blues/fuzz riffs were flowing, the SG suddenly sounded super-heavy… hard, doom-laden ‘heavy metal’ was invented. The devil’s horns look of the SG and Iommi became a winning combo. “Monkey” was later fitted with a neck humbucker to add to the bridge P-90.

Derek Trucks

Trucks makes the most of the SG’s design. Slim neck, high fret access and biting tone makes a Gibson SG perfect for his dazzling slide style. Trucks likes vintage ‘61s – when Les Paul’s name was still on SGs – and his Derek Trucks Signature SG packs in all his likes.

Les Paul may not have been very fond of the original ‘Solid Guitar’ design. But try telling that to Pete Townshend, Daron Malakian, Eric Clapton, Frank Zappa, Frank Marino, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and thousands more. And, surely, Les would have liked the music made on an SG?


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