Bernie Marsden Talks His ’59 “Beast” Les Paul
Bernie Marsden is something of an unsung legend of British rock guitar. He’s played with U.F.O, Paice Ashton and Lord, written/collaborated with Joe Bonamassa, and famously played with Whitesnake 1978-’82.
Alongside him all the time has been the 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard that he calls The Beast. Numerous tracks have been recorded on this fabled guitar. Whitesnake’s massive hits “Fool for Your Loving” and “Here I Go Again” were written and recorded on The Beast.
Now, The Beast is back as #8 of Gibson Custom’s Collector’s Choice™ series. It’s an exact replica of the guitar that helped Marsden make his name, and here Bernie explains the original and replica’s colorful history.
When did you buy your ’59 ‘burst?
“I got The Beast in 1974. I bought it from a guy I only met again recently. I went to the Classic Rock Awards in London, December 2012, and he came over to me. He said, ‘you won’t remember me, but I sold you that Les Paul, The Beast.’ His name is Mark Henderson. And I do remember him, because his name is still on the scratchplate.
“After all these years, it was great to talk to him. At the time, it was just a great guitar. I was 22 or so, and it was a lot of money to me back then. I couldn’t originally afford it, but he stalked me around – in a nice way – and we eventually did a deal. He brought it to (London venue) The Marquee when I was playing with the band Wild Turkey, and for the encore he was in the dressing room. I still don’t know how he got in there.
“But, anyway, he gave me the guitar to play for the encore… All I remember is our organist saying afterwards, ‘how much did you turn your amp up just then?’ I hadn’t touched my amp. The tone was stupendous, and so I had to buy it. I found the money somehow, trading other guitars. And to this day, it’s never been more than an arm’s length away from me.”
And did he tell you the story about where it came from?
“He did, but only when we met in December 2012. He’d bought it from Andy Fraser of Free in the 1970s. And he said Andy had bought it from Paul Kossoff. And Paul Kossoff had bought it from Eric Clapton… there you go. But in those days, there was no big deal about all this. People were trading guitars between each other all the time. Back then, no-one cared about the provenance of guitars, you just wanted a great one.”
Were you playing Les Pauls before?
“Oh, yeah. I had a few when I was with UFO and then with Wild Turkey. The one I traded to get The Beast was a black Custom. I’d kinda Peter Frampton-ized it, with cream pickup surrounds. The cream surrounds were original, I believe, so they themselves are probably worth about 10 grand now. But that’s what I traded to get The Beast.”
When did you first start playing it regularly?
“With Cozy Powell’s band, Hammer. Cozy, of course, had played with Jeff Beck and Cozy liked The Beast because it looked like Jeff’s early ‘burst. And Jeff came to a gig Hammer played. Jeff immediately said when he saw and heard it: ‘is that Eric’s?’ I just said, ‘it might have been.’ I didn’t know.”
But there were rumors for a long-time that The Beast and Eric Clapton’s Beano Les Paul were, in fact, the same guitar?
“Mark Henderson had told me, back in 1974, that he thought there was a Clapton connection with the guitar. But I knew it couldn’t be the one. The Beano Les Paul was stolen, and was a ’60, according to Eric. The Beast is a ’59, and had never had the pickup covers removed. It’s got a fatter neck, so wouldn’t be a ’60. So it wasn’t the Beano Les Paul. But it did have that Clapton connection, as I only found out in December 2012. But it’s always been a strange rumor. Whenever I play something off the Blues Breakers album, people always say – ‘that sounds like Eric Clapton’s guitar.’
It’s another faded finish. Was it always like that?
“When I first got it, it was more cherry. There’s video of Whitesnake on the BBC. If you can find that, you can see it more in its original form. It just seems to have faded over the last 20 years… almost beyond recognition from when I first got it. Then again, I’ve had it 40 years.
Has the original Beast served you well?
“Oh, yes. The first thing I recorded with it was “Na Na Na,” Cozy Powell’s single which was Top 10. I did a lot of sessions in the ‘70s, including Hot Chocolate singles. The Beast is on all those, including “You Sexy Thing.”
“You can hear it really well on the first album I did with Babe Ruth, on the album Stealing Home. And later, of course, I joined Whitesnake. And I wrote “Here I Go Again” and “Fool For Your Loving” on that guitar. I’ve played The Beast on more songs than I can remember, as well as every gig going.”
Do you still play the original Beast?
“I do. But who plays it most is Joe Bonamassa! Whenever he plays the U.K. he has charge of it, from the moment he wants it. I keep it safe, now. I play it in the studio regularly, but Joe’s always been very nice to me over the years so he is always welcome to borrow it. And I love hearing him play it. Obviously, I’ve rarely heard someone else playing it – it’s usually in my hands. So to hear Joe Bonamassa play it, when I can just listen, is great. After all these years, I got to hear the guitar properly. Joe always says, ‘Man, that thing is sick.’ It does sound amazing.”
What’s special to you about The Beast?
“If I knew, I’d have been building them for years! It’s a ‘mojo’ thing, guess. I’ve got quite a few Les Pauls and they all play and sound great, but this one is something else. I’m lucky. I have many friends who have ‘58s, ‘59s or whatever, which always sound great… but they always say mine sounds fantastic.”
How did you feel about Gibson wanting to make a Beast replica?
“It was quite emotional, actually. Being in the Gibson factory and seeing people hand-carving my guitar, with all my dings in it… I was taken back to when I was 15, sending away to get Gibson catalogs. And here I am, excited, at my age! It was a bit like seeing your child graduate, or something like that.”
And you must have A/B tested the Custom Collector’s Choice™ with the original Beast?
“Of course. It’s as close as it can be. If anything, there’s a bit more tone on the replica with the modern pickups… and my original ’59 is now an old guitar, and I think it’s unique anyway. I’ve played many other ’59 originals that are not quite the same. But the look and feel of the Gibson Custom is spot on, astonishingly so. Gibson have done a great job on this.
“There’s a screw missing, for example, out of the jackplug socket on my Beast. It never bothered me. But the replica is exactly the same – only three screws! But, I think, you get a spare screw in the case, also! Lovely detail.
“I’ll be taking the repilcas out on the road, don’t worry. It’s a great guitar. I’m knocked out by the whole thing. Credit to Joe Bonamassa for keeping The Beast alive. After he played it a few times, he was saying on his website ‘I’ve just played one of the greatest Les Pauls ever.’ And he was onto Gibson to help this all happen. So thanks to Joe for all this.
“I’m just honored to be part of a small club of Collector’s Choice™ players. I’m #8, and that’s good enough for me. Billy Gibbons is apparently looking out for one. He said, ‘maybe The Beast and Pearly should get married,’ haha!”
Bernie Marsden – with The Beast on-hand – is currently recording a new album at Abbey Road Studios in London.
Updates on his career from BernieMarsden.co.uk.
Find out more about Collector's Choice™ #8 1959 Les Paul "The Beast" here.