Lester William Polsfuss or Les Paul as he was better known was an enormously influential jazz guitarist and studio innovator, active from the 1940s until his death in 2009. Outside of guitar geek circles he is not well known, but amongst the guitarists who came through in the 50s and 60s, particularly in the US, he is an absolute legend.
If you have never heard him, go look up his recordings on Spotify. You will be amazed. He was an incredible virtuoso and pioneered many of the techniques that are used now, both in terms of playing the guitar and also in terms of building a layered, multi-track sound in the studio. It sounds great now, but must’ve sounded like something from outerspace in the 1940s and 50s.
In the 1940s, he also started messing around trying to create a solid-body electric guitar and approached Gibson with his design, rather uninspiringly named The Log. Because that is what it was. A pine log with frets, strings and a pickup. He first approached Gibson just after World War II with the idea of refining his design into a proper instrument, but it wasn’t until after Leo Fender´s Telecaster took off in 1952 that they began to take him seriously and invited him to collaborate with them on a real guitar. The result was the now legendary Gibson Les Paul.
It took however, an Englishman to really show what the guitar was capable of in a rock-blues setting. In 1966 John Mayall released The Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton otherwise known as The Beano Album, due to Clapton´s choice of reading material on the cover.
This was a record of Chicago blues standards, but featured the rabid, manic guitar tones that Clapton wrung out of his 1959 Les Paul Standard. This album took the already vibrant UK blues scene and kicked it to global prominence. The reverberations of Clapton´s fearsome technique and tone were felt globally and from then on the Les Paul became the ultimate blues rock machine. The guitar that Clapton used was one of a limited set produced in the 1959-60 time period where the pickups (by now the Les Paul had two humbucker Patent-Applied-For or PAF) were actually incorrectly made. They were actually overwound, with two many turns of wire around the magnets, but this made gave them a higher output, making them hotter and contributing to Clapton’s tone. Of course for later models, Gibson began deliberately over-winding the pickups, but those original 1959 PAF models are amongst the most sought after and expensive guitars in the world. Only about 1700 were made during this period and you can expect to pay about a half million dollars for one. John McEnroe has a left handed version valued at twice that.
Clapton continued to use dual humbucker Gibson guitars (such as the LP, an SG and an ES-335) through his late 1960s Cream years, before jumping the fence (and perhaps the shark) and defecting to Fender and the Strat in the 70s.
But after Clapton, came the ultimate Les Paul wielder– Jimmy Page. Although of course Page used a variety of different guitars throughout his career, he´ll always be the ultimate Les Paul player in my book. His most famous guitar is also one of the 1700 Les Paul Standards made around 1959. Page proved also proved the versatility of the instrument, taking this guitar that was first designed for jazz, but adopted by blues players and then extracting from it a huge variety of tones, from delicate leads to the heaviest of tectonic riffs.
After Clapton and Page, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac completes the triumvirate of late 60s and early 70s Les Paul Gods. The LP was cemented as the ultimate rock guitar from then on and the lineage continued through Gary Moore, Mick Ronson, Mick Taylor, Marc Bolan, Joe Perry.
During the dark days of poodle metal in the 1980s, the Les Paul was displaced by the Superstrat trend, until Slash and Guns´n´Roses came and rebooted the whole hard-rock genre with Appetite for Destruction in ´87.
The guitar also managed to fight on both sides during the Punk Rock Wars, with both Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols and Mick Jones of The Clash (the eras two defining bands) both using the Les Paul, even though it was also used by that ultimate prog rock brontosaurus Jimmy Page.
LPs and LP type guitars (heavy mahogany body, glued-in ´set´ neck and two humbuckers) remain de-rigeur for heavy rock guitarists to this day.
Like Strats and Teles it’s also possible to get a Les Paul brand-new for less than $200 in Guitar Center, via Gibson’s budget Epiphone brand. And of course you can spend as much as you like on Gibson versions, artist signature editions or hunting down those rare vintage examples.