The Playmate of the month


Gibson Les Paul Special, 1961

Little, red and bad. In the large and veriegated Les Pauls' family, the double cutaway special still is a little underestimated. Its story begins between  ’54 and ’55, in the middle of Gibson's golden age, and is tied to the charismatic personality of Ted McCarty : the first  Les Paul model had been introduced only a few years earlier, and while in  Fullerton California  'something new' was brewing in  Fender's home, Kalamazoo people thought it was time to issue two new LP models,  Custom and Junior.

While the first one was presented  as a deluxe version of the  Gold Top standard model, with its black finish, gold hardware, rich pearl inlays and Alnico neck pickup, conceived for the professional musician who expected from Gibson high-end appointments and performances, the Junior was a simplified version of the Les Paul design: a single slab piece of mahogany for the body with no carving, a single bridge pickup, sunburst finish only, and functional but cheap tuning machines. The instant success of the new model, also due to its price under $100, soon persuaded McCarty to launch on the market two new guitars: the TV, a blonde version of the Junior, and the Special, introduced in 1955.

The Les Paul Special was placed in Gibson price list between Standard and Junior: like the latter, it had a plain slab mahogany body, but it featured two black P90s without 'dog ears', the so-called soap-bars, a bound fretboard and a blonde finish like the TV's.

All the guitars of this serie underwent a radical restyling in 1958, with the introduction of the new double cutaway body shape,  and the new Special, first shown at the NAMM show that year, became  cherry red just like its little sister. This design is, in my opinion, one of the greatest and timeless in Gibson history: grace, lightness, full and easy access to the whole fretboard make of these guitars true jewels enlivened by the explosive association of P90s and solid mahogany body. The first doublecut Specials, however, had a weak spot in the position of the neck pickup, situated too close to the neck-body joint: pickup and control scheme was then re-designed, and with this new configuration the Les Paul Special was produced until 1961. 

It is interesting to note that the very last Specials don't have Les Paul's signature on the headstock, since the artist had temporarily discontinued his endorsement deal with Gibson. In  Kalamazoo's price list the guitar was offered since November '59 just as SG (Solid-Guitar) Special: SG that of course does not mean yet the re-styled shape of the entire Les Paul line which was introduced a little later.

With its high serial number 608xx the LP Special we show here is certainly one of the very last ones produced. Furthermore, this number would place it in '62, although we know for sure that no LP Special with a slab/non-SG body was built that year. The features of this guitar place it in a special place: no Les Paul's signature on the headstock face, and it's ok. But the strangest thing is the ‘Wrap-Around’ bridge/tailpiece position. It is not angled, like in any other Special, Junior or TV we know, but here the bridge studs are on the same line, and the bridge is the pre-compensated  Wrap-Around: the same bridge we find on SG-shaped '62 guitars! The body has no trace of other holes or refinish, so I think that this guitar was made out of a pre-62 slab body, and then completed, finished and shipped in '62 with the same appointments found on '62 SG Specials. 


 Everything else in this guitar is in conformity with the classic features of the model: neck and body are two single pieces of mahogany, rosewood fretboard is bound, with dot markers, tuners are plastic-button three-on-a-strip per side Kluson Deluxe, and the logo is inlaid in pearl (and not silkscreened, like Junior's). 

P90's bite is strong and resolute, and for the blues lovers among you (many, I hope...) this instrument can be an interesting alternative to much more celebrated models. But also rockers like Keith Richards include old Specials among their favourite tools.

Late '50s Double Cutaways graceful shape too soon set apart by Gibson, lives today a second youth, through many recreations by modern makers, and even  Gibson for its new Les Paul Standard DC, one of the best models of  recent years, went back to the Double Cut shape embellished with figured carved tops. Anyway, what still is fascinating in the models from 40-plus years ago is the great and rarely equaled harmony of sound, beauty, lightness, simplicity and efficiency..

Nino Fazio