Say “Gibson Les Paul” to most guitarists, and they’ll immediately think of two (or even three) pickups – whether they are retro P-90s or roaring humbuckers. But, to some, a single pickup Gibson is the ultimate rockin’ machine. Gibson has been producing single p’up Les Pauls for decades, and the stripped-back, raw appeal remains. Here’s a quick guide to the most lauded Gibson Les Paul “singles”…
Les Paul Junior
Introduced in 1954, the Gibson Les Paul Junior was aimed at beginners. Then-Gibson President Ted McCarty made no bones about the company’s thinking. “You have all kinds of players out there who like this and that. Chevrolet had a whole bunch of models. Ford had a whole bunch of models. So did we.”
The Junior’s outline shape was the same as the Gold Top and Custom of 1954. It had a sweet orange-brown sunburst finish. But, as a guitar, it was way simpler than a Gold Top. Its body was a flat-topped slab of mahogany (no maple cap) and was loaded with one single-coil P-90 pickup and a wrapover bridge. There were two controls only: volume and tone.
The Junior was kinda punk rock before punk rock even existed, and an instant hit. At $99.50, it put electric guitars in the hands of ’54’s wannabe players who couldn’t afford $225 on a Gold Top or $325 on a Custom.
The raw sounds of the Junior have found favour with many diverse players over the years, from The Small Faces’ Steve Marriott to Paul Westerberg, the New York Dolls to Mountain’s Leslie West, The Clash’s Mick Jones, and more.
“We called them ‘automatic guitars,’ like a car with an automatic transmission – easy to use,” The New York Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain told Gibson.com. “The Les Paul Junior had two knobs and one pickup. You didn’t need to control two volumes at the same time. It was the perfect guitar for the New York Dolls because it was stripped down – like the band was and like our songs were.”
In blues-rock circles, West was perhaps the most-influential user, and he owned a few: “I gave one to Pete Townshend [in the ’70s] and I traded about four.”
West didn’t however, like the double-cutaway versions of the Junior. “The single-cut guitars were always easier for me to play. I kept buying the double-cuts anyway. Every time I bought a double-cut and it didn’t work out, it became a slide guitar.”
In more recent years, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong has been a high-profile Junior fan. His white model, known as Floyd, was recreated in a signature Billie Joe Armstrong Signature model in 2007. It’s now available in sunburst and ebony.
Les Paul TV
The Les Paul TV of ’56 was near identical to the Junior, but came in a yellow/beige finish. Of all Gibson’s electric guitars over the years, the TV is possibly the most “basic” Gibson Les Paul ever made, more akin to the Melody Maker than the maple-capped Les Paul Standards. The TV Special came with double-pickups, but the basic single-pickup double-cut Les Paul TV (from ’58) was stripped-back, simple and loud. And that name? Folklore has it that white guitars caused too much glare on early black and white TV broadcasts – the “TV” yellow guitars would not cast such a glare.
Doomed punk hero Johnny Thunders is perhaps the most notable TV-toter. His first Les Paul TV, which he acquired while playing in the New York Dolls was stolen in early 1980 while he was touring with Gang War, alongside the MC5’s Wayne Kramer. Thunders bought another TV towards the end of 1980 in New York to replace his original. Both were ’58 double-cuts, with tortoise-shell pickguards, instead of the more common black. Here is Thunders playing “In Cold Blood” on TV… on one of his TVs.
Early TVs are still highly collectible to different players, despite their relatively basic appointments. For the first year or so of production, the Les Paul TV model was actually 3/4 scale and used a maple body. By 1955, the model went to full-scale but still retained the maple body. By 1956 the body was mahogany and full-scale. Such changes make certain models sought-after. The late 1955 and later full-scale mahogany versions are arguably most desirable – the sound is fuller, to some players, with its mahogany body. The TV may be the most-non-looking “Les Paul” of all Gibson Les Pauls. But as a raucous rockin’ machine, they work.
A 1958 Les Paul Jr Double Cut VOS reissue is still available. Simple, “basic,” but damn good: a double-cut single-p’up Les Paul TV is a rock ’n’ roll guitar at its most raw.
SG Les Paul Junior
When the Les Paul shape changed to “SG” in 1961, the Junior line was retained. Hence there was the SG-shape with just one pickup. The single-coil P-90 and a stopbar bridge (instead of the Tune-o-Matic bridge) again made it more affordable. Again, various changes make some more collectable.
It was only a “Les Paul” model until 1963: thereafter, it was simply the SG Junior. From 1965 to 1971, it had a generic SG pickguard with a soapbar P-90 rather than the original dog-ear pickup, and was discontinued in 1971. The late 1960s version has been re-issued by Gibson since 2003. Warning! Particular collectors get hung-up about the exact shape of the pickguard (which changed over the years).
Single-Pickup Gibson Les Pauls Now
Gibson still makes single-pickup Les Pauls. Reissues of Les Paul Juniors are still made. There were a few maple-top Les Pauls made recently (no pickguard, no neck pickup) that are now no-doubt collectable. Fans have long debated the aesthetic – are they right or wrong? Or do you favor the SG Junior?
At Gibson’s sister company Epiphone, you can get the classic single p’up vibe via the Epiphone Les Paul Junior. Single-pickup Les Pauls may not be for everyone. But for some, they are the core of a hard-rockin’ electric guitar.
Ask Leslie West. “Why do I like the Junior?” he mused. “To me, it was like a piece of wood and a microphone.”
More Mountain and Leslie West
Gibson Les Pauls and punk rock
Epiphone’s #1 selling electric – the Les Paul Junior