The guitar was simple from the start. All the electronics were mounted on a single plate that was popped in place at Gibson Guitar’s original Kalamazoo factory, and the body was a single, thin slab of mahogany with a wraparound tailpiece and the trademark Gibson beveled headstock. It was a no-nonsense plug-and-play machine with a pair of P-90 pickups ready to dial up monster tone.
The original Melody Maker production run, which spanned 1959 to 1971, offered both single cutaway and double cutaway body styles. And when the line was revived from 1977 to 1983 — after all, it was the perfect guitar for the punk rock era, and Melody Makers turned up in the hands of both the New York Dolls’ and Television’s six-stringers — it featured double cutaways. The 1986 to 1988 run featured humbuckers, both singles and doubles, and like the previous run advanced to the Tune-o-matic bridge.
There have been other variations since: from ’87 to ’92 they were made with locking trem systems; in the mid-’90s came the All American II variation; and now the Melody Maker in the catalog hews close to its original form, as a lower cost relative of that Great American Heavyweight, the Gibson Les Paul. Today Gibson also makes a Jonas Brothers Melody Maker, and two Joan Jett inspired models, the Blackheart and the Joan Jett Signature Melody Maker.
Regardless of variations in horns and humbuckers or the P-90 family of pickups, the Gibson Melody Maker is firmly entrenched in history. In fact, during the first decade after its introduction it outsold the legendary Les Paul model. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the Melody Maker’s greatest exponents:
• Keith Richards: Although the Rolling Stones’ guitarist is associated with other models, the truth is he’s been a Gibson player throughout his career. Since the ’60s he’s used an old two-horned Melody Maker in a TV yellow finish with a single dog-ear P-90 pickup in both the studio and onstage. His fleet of Gibsons also includes a flotilla of Les Paul Standards, a ’53 Gold Top, ES-335s, Firebirds and other models.
• Rory Gallagher: The Irish blues-rock legend’s guitar fleet included a particularly beefy 1960 ’Burst finished Melody Maker with two pick-ups that he used to generate the nasty tone behind his wild, often expressionist playing.
• Robby Krieger: Although the Doors’ dark-toned guitar wizard was best known for his distinctive SG, which has been immortalized by the Gibson Custom Shop, he also played a Les Paul Custom Black Beauty, an ES-335 and, of course, a Melody Maker during the band’s 1965 to 1971 heyday.
• Paul Westerburg: The Replacements’ frontman displayed the punk rock power in the Melody Maker’s pickups, using his 1962 model for classic songs like “Answering Machine.” With plenty of growl in both of their voices, Westerburg found his perfect foil in the guitar.
• Joan Jett: This powerhouse rocker got her first Melody Maker in 1977, and with it came the snarling signature sound behind “Bad Reputation” and her other monster hits of the late 1970s and ’80s. Over the years Jett’s white Melody Maker — the guitar that inspired the Gibson Custom Shop’s Joan Jett Signature Model — has had various pickups and other modifications, but has always remained her valued sidekick.
• Joe Perry: Although the Aerosmith guitar hero has his own Joe Perry Boneyard Les Paul made by the Gibson Custom Shop, he’s also been known to wield vintage Melody Makers on stage and in the studio – and, as always, maintain his bone-crunching tone.
• John Lee Hooker: Like fellow blues legend Muddy Waters, little is known about the specific guitars Hooker played early in his career, but he was photographed holding a Melody Maker and was a fan of the thick chocolaty tone produced by various Gibson and Epiphone Models, including Les Paul and Sheratons.
• Mick Jones: Jones used a variety of Gibsons in The Clash to contrast with Joe Strummer’s thinner tone. Besides a trusty Melody Maker, he played – and still plays — Les Paul Customs, Les Paul Standards and a Les Paul Junior with a double cutaway.
• Billie Joe Armstrong: The Green Day frontman depends mostly on Les Paul Juniors, including his signature model named “Floyd”, but there’s also room for a vintage Melody Maker in his guitar rack.
• Eric Carmen: Yes, Joan Jett’s white Melody Maker has a backstory. The 1968 model was first owned by Raspberries frontman Eric Carmen, who had it refinished in white and installed its first humbucker and custom pickguard.
Check out the 2014 Les Paul Melody Maker here.