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Is a '59 Les Paul really any better than a modern one?
Old 21st November 2014
  #1
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kingofspain's Avatar
Is a '59 Les Paul really any better than a modern one?

I've been following the Joe Bonnamassa thread, and naturally after a while it got to talking about his vintage Les Pauls.

I've long wondered why people get so hung up on the late '50's Gibsons - the way some people talk about them, you'd think they were actually magical.
On top of that, given their comparative scarcity and mammoth pricetag, how many of the people who rave about them have actually played one?

I make and repair guitars for a living, and have had plenty of Les Pauls through my workshop over the years, but I've never come accross any Les Pauls that are even remotely vintage (I do have a 1963 ES-330 in for a re-fret at present - flat out one of the finest guitars I've ever played). The closest I came was an early '90's '59 reissue, which to be fair was a very nice guitar indeed (I'm not a huge Les Paul fan - on the whole I think they're poorly made and inconsistant).

Anyway, to get to the point - from what I've read on the subject it seems Gibson let themselves down during the 1960's, and the guitars they produced thereafter where never as good.

I'm interested in 2 things:

1. How much better were the earlier guitars?
2. Why were they so much better?


As I mentioned I'm a luthier by trade, and know a thing or two about what makes a good guitar. Were they really that good, or have people just hyped them up over the years? The way some people go on you'd be forgiven for thinking no-one had made a decent guitar since.
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Old 21st November 2014
  #2
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Originally Posted by kingofspain View Post
I've been following the Joe Bonnamassa thread, and naturally after a while it got to talking about his vintage Les Pauls.

I've long wondered why people get so hung up on the late '50's Gibsons - the way some people talk about them, you'd think they were actually magical.
On top of that, given their comparative scarcity and mammoth pricetag, how many of the people who rave about them have actually played one?

I make and repair guitars for a living, and have had plenty of Les Pauls through my workshop over the years, but I've never come accross any Les Pauls that are even remotely vintage (I do have a 1963 ES-330 in for a re-fret at present - flat out one of the finest guitars I've ever played). The closest I came was an early '90's '59 reissue, which to be fair was a very nice guitar indeed (I'm not a huge Les Paul fan - on the whole I think they're poorly made and inconsistant).

Anyway, to get to the point - from what I've read on the subject it seems Gibson let themselves down during the 1960's, and the guitars they produced thereafter where never as good.

I'm interested in 2 things:

1. How much better were the earlier guitars?
2. Why were they so much better?


As I mentioned I'm a luthier by trade, and know a thing or two about what makes a good guitar. Were they really that good, or have people just hyped them up over the years? The way some people go on you'd be forgiven for thinking no-one had made a decent guitar since.
Yes, it is.

Because it wasn't made by a company that was solely in it for the money.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Wikipedia
On December 22, 1969, the Gibson parent company Chicago Musical Instruments was taken over by the South American brewing conglomerate ECL. Gibson remained under the control of CMI until 1974 when it became a subsidiary of Norlin Musical Instruments. Norlin Musical Instruments was a member of Norlin Industries which was named for ECL president Norton Stevens and CMI president Arnold Berlin. This began an era characterized by corporate mismanagement and decreasing product quality.
Old 21st November 2014
  #3
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kingofspain's Avatar
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Originally Posted by John Eppstein View Post
Yes, it is.

Because it wasn't made by a company that was solely in it for the money.
There must be more to it that that though? Maybe I should change the thread title to 'Why is a 59' Les Paul better than a modern one?'

Clearly putting the accountants in charge wasn't a good idea. I'm more interested in the technical aspects of the changes.
Also, it'd be nice to hear from people who'd actually played some vintage Gibsons - not necessarily a '59 - just old vs. new. You must've played a few guitars over the years John - any thoughts?
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Old 21st November 2014
  #4
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Originally Posted by kingofspain View Post
There must be more to it that that though? Maybe I should change the thread title to 'Why is a 59' Les Paul better than a modern one?'

Clearly putting the accountants in charge wasn't a good idea. I'm more interested in the technical aspects of the changes.
Also, it'd be nice to hear from people who'd actually played some vintage Gibsons - not necessarily a '59 - just old vs. new. You must've played a few guitars over the years John - any thoughts?
Yeah. They're better mad out of better materials. There was more hand craftsmanship and less marketing gimmickry.

Does the phrase "nibbled to death by gnats" mean anything to you?
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Old 21st November 2014
  #5
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FFTT's Avatar
 

First of all if, a guitar is that old and still straight and un-butchered and all original, and the frets aren't worn or replaced, electronics never touched, you've
got a true original American classic.

Like driving up in a truly mint '57 Chevy Bel Air with 20,000 original miles or something similar.

Beyond nostalgia and supply and demand for The Real Thing, the materials and workmanship and dedication to quality is something difficult to find in a modern workforce.

Modern Gibson is interested in quarterly profits and moving product.
They Got Too Big.
Old 21st November 2014
  #6
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Lenzo's Avatar
I have a 59 and to tell you the truth, though it is a fabulous guitar and a amazing player, I never understood how it became almost mythical. And the prices are just stupid. I think new pickup technology and new guitar technology in general is often times very good and at times I prefer the sound of some newer pickups over the pafs. Will these newer guitars still be in great playing condition 50 some years from now. It probably depends on how they are treated. But my opinion is that if you want a great paul, there are plenty of new ones out there that with a little set up magic will perform and sound as good as my 59.
L.
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Old 21st November 2014
  #7
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dlmorley's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by Lenzo View Post
I have a 59 and to tell you the truth, though it is a fabulous guitar and a amazing player, I never understood how it became almost mythical. And the prices are just stupid. I think new pickup technology and new guitar technology in general is often times very good and at times I prefer the sound of some newer pickups over the pafs. Will these newer guitars still be in great playing condition 50 some years from now. It probably depends on how they are treated. But my opinion is that if you want a great paul, there are plenty of new ones out there that with a little set up magic will perform and sound as good as my 59.
L.
Trade for my '81?
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Old 21st November 2014
  #8
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kingofspain's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by John Eppstein View Post

Does the phrase "nibbled to death by gnats" mean anything to you?
I've not heard that one before, but I like it.

For the record, I'm not suggesting that modern Les Pauls ARE better than a '59. But then I'm not convinced that every guitar that came out of the Gibson factory in 1959 was a sure fire classic either.

What does interest me is what makes these older instruments so desirable in the first place. I suppose having Jimmy Page and Peter Green (amongst others) playing them can't have done Gibson any harm.

Does anyone remember, before the internet, did you still lust after a '59?
Old 21st November 2014
  #9
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kingofspain's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by Lenzo View Post
I have a 59 and to tell you the truth, though it is a fabulous guitar and a amazing player, I never understood how it became almost mythical. And the prices are just stupid. I think new pickup technology and new guitar technology in general is often times very good and at times I prefer the sound of some newer pickups over the pafs. Will these newer guitars still be in great playing condition 50 some years from now. It probably depends on how they are treated. But my opinion is that if you want a great paul, there are plenty of new ones out there that with a little set up magic will perform and sound as good as my 59.
L.
Straight from the horses mouth, as it were. How does your '59 compare to other Les Pauls you've played?
Old 21st November 2014
  #10
Quote:
Originally Posted by kingofspain View Post
For the record, I'm not suggesting that modern Les Pauls ARE better than a '59. But then I'm not convinced that every guitar that came out of the Gibson factory in 1959 was a sure fire classic either.
I think that in terms of instruments from that era, when Gibson was relatively small (remember, they were still massive in the acoustic and archtop world at this time) so the people building the guitars were craftsman, not factory workers if that makes sense.

Fenders of this era also achieve a similar mythical quality though they were always meant to be cheap, modular things that were meant to be beaten to hell and fixed rather than tucked away.

Are some 59s going to be better than others? Absolutely. I remember Steve Lukather talking about his and how his particular one had a little different sound. But, all of the real dogs were probably destroyed over the years as nobody treats a mediocre instrument well. So, the survivors are often those guitars that were truly cherished when they were new because they were exceptional instruments. So, what you have left are only the exceptional examples of them.

I'm sure that modern Gibsons can be just as good as those that were made in 59. Every year there are great examples made and mediocre examples made. Unfortunately, they cost an amount that would imply that every single one is an exceptional instrument. But, the specs are different. The neck profile is different on most modern Gibsons, the hardware is different (the tuners are arguably improved) the fret sizes are often different. The pickups are different. Different doesn't mean better or worse, just different.

I think a similar thing is happening with the lawsuit copies that float around. The bad examples were all beaten to death when they were new so the ones that are around on the market were recognized for their excellent qualities and cherished because of it.

Let's also remember that the wood is different. Unless you're willing to go against the overwhelmingly vast majority of climate scientists, you must remember that the world is warming up. Trees grow differently when it's warm than when it's cold. The amount of CO2 in the air is very different over the last 40 years than the previous 40 years so that's going to affect the composition of the wood as well.
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Old 21st November 2014
  #11
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Lenzo's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by kingofspain View Post
Straight from the horses mouth, as it were. How does your '59 compare to other Les Pauls you've played?
This one has the original frets on it and it has been played. It was actually my first guitar and I played full time for many years. The thing is the frets are so low that it makes the guitar very effortless to play. Compared to new ones, that need a lot of breaking in. Soundwise, paf's sound great, but then again I really like Lindy Fralins...they sound great as well. Maybe new guitars suffer from more inconsistencies. Maybe we're just building more guitars these days. But as I said earlier, prices for these things don't make sense to me. If you're a big time player on stage and you have the cash, I guess it's cool to play a 59. This one really has been a solid machine since it was built. The neck is still true. Still, it's just a guitar and frankly I have a hybrid Strat/LP that my luthier built for me. I play that way more than anything. He built it for me for cost of parts, and it's a great playing and sounding guitar. And as far as trading for the 81, I think I'm good.
L.
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Old 21st November 2014
  #12
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FFTT's Avatar
 

I notice the same thing on my '64 Jazz Bass.

I'm lucky my original frets are in good shape, but you are right, being closer to the wood does tend to make it play easier, but also the tone is more woody, less metallic, so the sound overall is sweeter.

The original pickups are also considerably milder than modern vintage voiced
pickups I've heard.
Old 21st November 2014
  #13
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i've played a bunch of 50's Les Pauls and each time i nearly fell down. the great ones carry you note-to-note. Interestingly, all of those old guitars are very light.
Still, unless i was a hedge fund guy, I wouldn't drop 350-450k for them. although they still quickly sell for that kind of money.
Old 21st November 2014
  #14
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FFTT's Avatar
 

I bought a 1950's house in 1977 for $59,900.
Which I sold in '91 for $191,000.00
Sold again in 2007 for $549,000.

Took my profit from the first home and put it here in a home of 20 wood acres
on the mountain.

I'm worth around $750K up here.

I'm just glad I hung onto my Jazz and my Hofner.

Still kicking myself for selling the Rick 4001.
Old 21st November 2014
  #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by John Eppstein View Post
Yes, it is.

Because it wasn't made by a company that was solely in it for the money.
I have a 58 and two 60s. One of my 60 is closer to a 59, as it's early production.

Yes, it is much better then a new one. However, I have a Historic I put PAFs in and it's a really killer guitar. It was a killer guitar before the PAFs were in it.

The prices are really high. I got two of mine by trading a ton of equipment to (different) dealers that found having 10 $1500 guitars to sell was easier then moving one $150,000 (guitar). The other one I bought for a lot less then they sell for now (but it was still a lot) back in the mid/late 90s. That one was about the price of a decent used car and it had been oversprayed and had a Bigsby removed.

Gibson was absolutely in the business of making money in the 1950s. Despite what people think, manufacturers make guitars to make money - and Gibson was never an exception.

There are tons of great Gibson guitars out there - new and old.

As to why they're better I guess that's subjective. I think they were just a really good sounding design made of really good wood, wire, magnets, etc... and the people that were building them really knew what they were doing.

Like I said, I have owned/played some exceptional Historic/Gibson Custom Shop guitars. The main reason the old ones got valuable was because they sounded and played great.

The reason they got really expensive is because they're fairly rare and the market for them can afford them. Today, if some rockstar wants a '59 Les Paul he has the disposable income to spend on it and there are not that many out there. Sort of a supply and demand meets a historical antique.

I have played a decent amount of 50s Les Paul guitars and have not played one that had been properly maintained that was a dog. They may be out there, but the majority of them are pretty damn good.
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Old 21st November 2014
  #16
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Earlier this month at Sotheby's, two sculptures; a Giacometti and a Modigliani sold for $101 million and $70.7 million respectively.
So rare guitars have a ways to go in the world of collectibles and for sheer antiquity value.

But that's the realities of what we're talking about here - just inflated figures based of speculative 'collectible' value.

A guitar's purpose is to be played and to make music. Whether a 59 is substantially better than modern equivalents is pure conjecture. Any blind test would most likely prove that. Even if there are qualitative differences, whether they amount to any real world difference in real world applications would most likely be minute if at all perceptible, and also whether these differences are beneficial or deleterious.

But the absurdity of monopoly money being thrown around these as well as other material things is stupid to say the least. Especially considering that when these instruments are bought, they're not going to be played as a normal instrument would (generally speaking - as people don't toss around a baseball signed by Honus Wagner in the local little league field, just like someone isn't going to lug around his/her newly bought 59 to the weekly gig at the Last Chance Saloon)
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Old 21st November 2014
  #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by 12tone View Post

But the absurdity of monopoly money being thrown around these as well as other material things is stupid to say the least. Especially considering that when these instruments are bought, they're not going to be played as a normal instrument would (generally speaking - as people don't toss around a baseball signed by Honus Wagner in the local little league field, just like someone isn't going to lug around his/her newly bought 59 to the weekly gig at the Last Chance Saloon)
I play mine pretty much every day while I'm working. Even have taken a Burst to gigs that were pretty close to my house.
Old 21st November 2014
  #18
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Reason why it's so darn expensive

1958: 434 (about half Goldtops)
1959: 643
1960: 635

(about 1600 estimated 1958-1960 sunburst Les Pauls)

I can't qualify the figures but this is what is available online on the prod no's and can be validated by Gibson (if you are that keen to find out)

In '60 a burst was $265 and a hard case was $42.50.
In comparison, a new strat was $324

My dad bought me a new '62/63 Fiesta Red Strat when I was gigging then.
Long gone.....go figure why the vintage LP's command that much more now than a Strat of that vintage.
I wouldn't have got a LP then to play Ventures/Shadows stuff.....lol
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Old 21st November 2014
  #19
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Those today growing up in a "Pay to Live" world were we are all slaves to the economy and vulture capitalists (who are on a mad dash to turn every necessity of life into a commodity they can control and manipulate) will have a hard time believing this but there was a time in this country when people and manufactures/businesses had integrity. Though at 63 I'm barely old enough to remember it there was a time when your food was actually food not processed Chemicals, sugar, and fillers, I remember just the end of it with the advent of TV diners, instant mashed potatoes and the appearance of the Campbell s soup quick meal cook book in my mothers kitchen. A time when the product was the reason, it was important to the person making it and selling it that the reason some one would by their product was because theirs was better than the competitions and that was the criteria for succeeding in business not making the most profit they can squeeze out of a product or paying out the highest possible dividends to their stock holders . There was a time when trees were allowed to grow to maturity in a natural bio-diverse environment before being harvested not on mono crop tree farms until they are just big enough to supply usable wood, and then whole logs were sealed and allowed to dry slowly over a course of years not baked dry in kilns in days. Yes, Manufacture like Gibson were making guitars for profit in the 50's but the definition of that was vastly different then it is today, a definition that held making the highest quality product that they could was essential to staying in business. If craftsman made a product and sold it for enough money to be able to afford to pay his overhead feed clothe and shelter his family that was enough. they were very different times with a very different ethic. Just my opinion but I hold Leo Fender responsible for the decline in Gibsons quality, they had to compete with kiln dried wood, a manufacturer who sourced the lowest grade acceptable woods and brought Henry Fords ideas to guitar making.
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Old 21st November 2014
  #20
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FFTT's Avatar
 

Look at what people are paying for clean spring water and a gallon of milk, vs a gallon on gasoline.

I fear for my kids when it gets down to water wars.
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Old 22nd November 2014
  #21
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kingofspain's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by FFTT View Post
I bought a 1950's house in 1977 for $59,900.
Which I sold in '91 for $191,000.00
Sold again in 2007 for $549,000.

Took my profit from the first home and put it here in a home of 20 wood acres
on the mountain.

I'm worth around $750K up here.

I'm just glad I hung onto my Jazz and my Hofner.

Still kicking myself for selling the Rick 4001.
I invested heavily in sausages in the mid '90's - I'm worth a Cool One Million now...
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Old 22nd November 2014
  #22
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cinealta's Avatar
 

Everything hand-built in '59 by an artisan luthier is better than today's CINC routed, pressed-cardboard fretboard, unmatched inferior wood, non-skilled worker assembled guitars.
Old 22nd November 2014
  #23
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kingofspain View Post
I invested heavily in sausages in the mid '90's - I'm worth a Cool One Million now...
And the reason you've invested wisely (my trivia for today.....lol)

In the UK

The humble sausage isn’t quite as humble as you might think! Here are some facts:
  • We are a Nation of Sausage lovers with over 5 million people eating over 12 million sausages a day
  • We have nearly 500 different sorts of sausages in the UK
  • Take into account the ways butchers make those sorts and you can eat a different sausage every day for ten years around the UK
  • The market is worth over £737m a year! During the year to July 2013 we ate 188,270 tonnes of sausages
  • 87% of British households buy sausages, 45% at least every four weeks
  • Sausagefans.co.uk has over 1300 sausage makers listed, all recommended by website visitors for inclusion
  • The British sausage even has its own Fan Club, the British Sausage Appreciation Society.
  • The most expensive sausage ever was made from Fillet steak with Champagne and truffles and cost £20 a pack
  • Sausage machines can fill sausages at a rate of 1.5 miles an hour

Approximately 188,270 metric tons of sausage was consumed in the UK last year! Laid end to end this gives us enough chipolatas to:
Form a wall, four sausages high, around the entire coastline of Great Britain!
Cover a distance from London to Perth in Australia and back twice!
Wrap around the London Eye, the capital’s Millennium wheel, 129 thousand times!
Add another layer, 10 sausages high, to the entire length of the Great Wall of China!
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Old 22nd November 2014
  #24
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oceantracks's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Lenzo View Post
I have a 59 and to tell you the truth, though it is a fabulous guitar and a amazing player, I never understood how it became almost mythical. And the prices are just stupid. I think new pickup technology and new guitar technology in general is often times very good and at times I prefer the sound of some newer pickups over the pafs. Will these newer guitars still be in great playing condition 50 some years from now. It probably depends on how they are treated. But my opinion is that if you want a great paul, there are plenty of new ones out there that with a little set up magic will perform and sound as good as my 59.
L.
Absolutely.


TH
Old 22nd November 2014
  #25
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FFTT's Avatar
 

That's funny, I had two smothered half smoke sausages for lunch!

Heart attack on a plate.
Old 22nd November 2014
  #26
Quote:
Originally Posted by Lenzo View Post
I have a 59 and to tell you the truth, though it is a fabulous guitar and a amazing player, I never understood how it became almost mythical. And the prices are just stupid. I think new pickup technology and new guitar technology in general is often times very good and at times I prefer the sound of some newer pickups over the pafs. Will these newer guitars still be in great playing condition 50 some years from now. It probably depends on how they are treated. But my opinion is that if you want a great paul, there are plenty of new ones out there that with a little set up magic will perform and sound as good as my 59.
L.
Well, that could be. There was a natural amount of variation back then and some are better than others, as now, so some guitars made now may be as good as some guitars from back then. And there's always the question of personal preference. Me, I don't care for new Gibson pickups very much. They seem to lack a little something to me, tonewise, and they're wound too hot. A lot of younger guys may love that but I don't.

I do have to ask - how sure are you of the provenance of your '59? It's a well known fact that there are many more "'59-'60" Les Pauls on the market now than the factory actually produced. Some are reworked vintage Les Pauls of less desirable types*, some are outright counterfeits made by skilled luthiers of less than total integrity who observed that they can get a lot more for a counterfeit '59 than they could sell the same guitar for if it didn't say "Gibson" on the headstock.





* there was one well know guy who made a business of turning '52-'56 goldtops into "'59-'60" Standards, even to matching in the grain of the wood where he had to fill in the ends of the P-90 rout so you couldn't tell without magnification. Doing the conversion to a '52 trapeze model also required a neck reset. I saw one of those on Ebay, advertised as what it was, going for 20 grand.
Old 22nd November 2014
  #27
Quote:
Originally Posted by kingofspain View Post
I've not heard that one before, but I like it.

For the record, I'm not suggesting that modern Les Pauls ARE better than a '59. But then I'm not convinced that every guitar that came out of the Gibson factory in 1959 was a sure fire classic either.

What does interest me is what makes these older instruments so desirable in the first place. I suppose having Jimmy Page and Peter Green (amongst others) playing them can't have done Gibson any harm.

Does anyone remember, before the internet, did you still lust after a '59?
Of course. It was Mike Bloomfield's fault.
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Old 22nd November 2014
  #28
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Lenzo's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by John Eppstein View Post
I do have to ask - how sure are you of the provenance of your '59? It's a well known fact that there are many more "'59-'60" Les Pauls on the market now than the factory actually produced. Some are reworked vintage Les Pauls of less desirable types*, some are outright counterfeits made by skilled luthiers of less than total integrity who observed that they can get a lot more for a counterfeit '59 than they could sell the same guitar for if it didn't say "Gibson" on the headstock..
Well I bought it when I was a kid many, many years ago. I don't think anyone was too interested in forging them back then. I paid $125 for it. Some guy traded it in on a banjo. My uncle who knew something about guitars saw it and said "that's the one you want". I wanted a $75 Teisco cause it had 4 pickups and a bunch of switches on it. I thought it looked cool. It was a good thing my uncle went with me. And also on those the year of build is on the serial number on the back of the head stock.
L.
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Old 22nd November 2014
  #29
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I never owned a LP Standard, but I had a stock '64 SG for a couple years. Easy to see it was a better guitar than the newer ones. Woman Tone? That's where it was, wish I had kept it until I got a 100 w. Plexi, but it still sounded good with a '65 Strat.
Old 22nd November 2014
  #30
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kafka's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by kingofspain View Post
Does anyone remember, before the internet, did you still lust after a '59?
Oh yeah, totally. And pre-CBS Strats, too.
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