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Pure Gold: The Les Paul Goldtop and its Players

Michael Leonard
|
02.10.2012

In 2012, it is 60 years since Gibson launched the Les Paul Standard. Despite the appeal of the fabled sunburst Les Pauls Standards of 1958-60 or the more ornate Customs such as the “Black Beauty” three-pickup model, there remains much allure in the original Standard – the Goldtop. It was, and remains, an electric guitar with stunning looks. It has gone through various incarnations, but for some players only a Goldtop will do.

The original 1952 Gibson Les Paul featured two P-90 single-coil pickups and a one-piece, “trapeze”-style bridge and tailpiece: Gibson’s renowned humbuckers and Tune-o-matic bridge would come later.

But whether in its early incarnation or in current models such as the Epiphone Joe Bonamassa Goldtop, the guitar’s appeal surely lies in its flamboyant finish. Who wouldn’t want a golden guitar?

Goldtops have been in the hands of many legendary guitarists over the decades – here’s a quick guide to just some of its most famous players…

Freddie King was an early champion of the Les Paul Goldtop. Suited and booted, the sharp-dressing bluesman understandably wanted an equally cool-looking guitar. One of the Gibson Les Paul Goldtop’s most enduring images is that on the cover of King’s 1961 album Let's Hide Away and Dance Away. King’s sizzling solos influenced plenty of guitarists, and his album cover even inspired Eric Clapton to buy a Gibson Les Paul. “I bought my sunburst Les Paul in one of the shops in London right after I’d seen Freddie King's album cover of Let's Hide Away and Dance Away,” recalled Clapton.So that Freddie King-plus Goldtop image itself helped invent the British blues boom.

Les Paul obviously played a Goldtop himself. Here is the legendary Les with Mary Ford, playing like a wizard on an early 1950s Goldtop.

Hubert Sumlin played a Goldtop on many Howlin’ Wolf classics. Wolf gave Sumlin his first Gibson Les Paul Goldtop (with wraparound bridge and P-90 pickups) in the mid -’50s as a gift. It was stolen, but Sumlin bought himself another, the 1956 Les Paul Goldtop (with P-90s but a Tune-o-matic bridge) that he played on many blues hits.

Duane Allman was another famous Goldtop player. He bought his 1957 Goldtop Les Paul (with humbuckers) in early 1969, and it is this guitar on which he learned and perfected his slide style. Duane’s Goldtop was his main instrument on the first two Allman Brothers albums and his guitar of choice for almost all the Derek and the Dominos’ Layla album. The guitar has been played by Derek Trucks< live, covering the Layla album’s “Anyday,” and by Vince Gill. Bizarre fact? Duane Allman sold his Goldtop just a few weeks after completing the Layla album.

Genesis’s Steve Hackett was famously playing his 1957 for much of the progressive-band’s 1970s glory years. Hackett made his Les Paul Goldtop sound otherworldly. Hackett says: “High points? – the “Firth of Fifth” solo on [Genesis LP] Selling England by the Pound, not to mention some extraordinary noises on Dancing with the Moonlit Knight both from my own favourite Genesis album.” A total contrast to King, Les Paul and Allman, Hackett made his Goldtop sound almost synthesizer-like.

Another strange fact? Neil Young’s “Old Black” Les Paul was originally a 1953 Goldtop. Young bought the guitar during his original stint in Buffalo Springfield, from bandmate Jim Messina in 1969, before recording Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Neil Young’s “Old Black” is a mongrel of a guitar. The original ’53 P-90 pickup 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 taken from a ’72 Gibson Firebird. The Bigsby vibrato tailpiece was on by the time of the Everybody Knows This is Nowhere sessions. Why was the gold replaced with a quite rough black finish? Who knows.

In the 1970s AOR world, Tom Scholz of Boston was synonymous with Les Paul Goldtops. “I have only two guitars,” Scholz told Gibson in 2007. “They’re both old Les Paul Goldtops. I bought them both used, at a time when I didn’t know anything about Les Pauls. Somebody told me that these two guitars were made for only six months – during half of 1968 – so there are only a very few in existence.

“The neck on the guitar is completely different from the neck on every other type of Les Paul. It’s huge. At first I couldn’t play on it at all, and then after finally learning how to play on it, I discovered that there weren’t any others available. But the amazing thing is I found two of them, without knowing that the second one was from 1968 as well, from that six-month period. This happened before the Boston album was released. I needed a second guitar before we went on the road, so I snatched it up. I bought both guitars for about $300.”

$300 for two Goldtops? Tom Scholz is a lucky man. It’s compulsory, once in a while, to rock to Boston’s mega-hit “More Than a Feeling.” So here you go…

Gary Moore owned a 1957 Goldtop. His fellow Thin Lizzy journeyman Snowy White also favoured a Les Paul Goldtop, a 1956 by White’s account. Indeed, White even issued an album of rarities called Goldtop: Groups & Sessions ‘74–’94.

Avenged Sevenfold’s Synyster Gates has at least a couple of Goldtops, one dating back to 1954 with an early wraparound bridge. Why would a modern metal guitar hero buy a 1950s Goldtop? Because it’s gold, goddammit.

Paul McCartney owns a rare, left-handed 1957 Les Paul Goldtop. The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards plays a 1953. Billy F. Gibbons’ pinstriped Les Paul Goldtop debuted at the 2012 NAMM show. The latter is not as “golden” as earlier models, but when BFG dictates what he wants on a guitar, he can decide without question. Have mercy!

U2’s Edge uses a 1983 30th Anniversary Goldtop: he uses it only on arguably U2’s most dramatic live track, “Until The End of the World.”

Joe Bonamassa is a Goldtop fan. He has his own signature model, and says, “For me to be myself, I have to play a Les Paul. I plug it in and it sounds like me – exactly the way I’m supposed to sound. Anything else just doesn’t make sense.” Keith Urban has a favorite Goldtop with trapeze bridge – old-school style.

Many more players have played Les Paul Goldtops, of course. Who is your favourite? Add your comments below…

More golden Gibson Les Pauls:

1957 Gibson Les Paul VOS Goldtop

1955 ‘Wraptail’ Gibson Les Paul Goldtop

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