Following on from my recent piece about guitar collecting, eyeplug have asked me to write a little weekly piece about the guitars I have in my collection. So, starting from oldest to newest, this first week, I’m bringing you a profile of 2 guitars I own, both identical, dating from 1959, made by Gibson in their ‘golden age’ of building solid body electrics.
If either of these guitars had only LES PAUL written on the headstock, I’d be a very wealthy man but alas, these are the “junior” Les Paul’s, originally built as a student guitar but strangely much more succesful originally than the proper Les Pauls. Fortunately for me though, these are the rarest and most desireable of the Juniors for a number of reasons and I’ll explain why shortly.
Les Paul, the man, was a guitar wizard who was one of the pioneers of the electric guitar. In fact if he is to be believed, he actually invented it but was laughed out of various guitar factories who didn’t think his idea would ever be viable. The only electric guitar you could buy originally were the hollow bodied jazz type of archtop guitars which would then be fitted with a pick up to amplify the strings. Les Paul wanted something a bit more user friendly and Gibson were the first company to provide this.
The Les Paul guitar was originally built in the early ’50’s and Les was asked to give his name to it in a sponsorship deal due to his recorded successes with his partner mary Ford. All early Les Paul guitars were
“Goldtops”, painted on the face with a gold finish and these were followed by Les Paul Customs in the mid ’50’s. However, it wasn’t until 1958 when Gibson produced what has become the Holy Grail of electric guitars, the “Burst”, a sunburst stained Les Paul Standard. These were only produced for 3 years because they were a dismal failure but alongside the whole Les Paul range were the Juniors, a lot more basic, aimed at the student market. The Juniors were first made in 1955 but by 1958, the shape had changed to what is now known as a double cutaway Junior and these too were phased out in the early 1960’s.
The standard colour for a double cutaway Junior was a stained red but during the three years of production, another colour was added, TV Yellow, which apparently showed up better on the television. There were about 500 of these made but they have become iconic for a number of reasons. Firstly, Keith Richards of the Stones started to use one in the late 1960’s and he was followed by the ultimate rock and roll outlaw guitarist, Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls who supposedly bought them because they were cheap at the time. Then there is the scarcity value to factor in. You can buy any amount of the standard red Juniors but try finding a TV Yellow one and it can be a long search.
What makes these guitars so great is their simplicity. They are fairly light, solid mahogany body and neck with a rosewood fretboard, and they only have one pick up in the treble or bridge position and one tone and one volume control, that’s it. No fancy switches or anything luxurious. Then there is the sound! Crank up a Junior through an old valve amp and you get the meanest sound known to man. That’s the sort of sound I like for my own band, Long Tall Shorty, so it’s the perfect guitar for me.
As I mentioned previously, I have 2 of these, one is totally original but the other possibly has a more interesting history. I bought it in the early 1990’s from a roadie who had previously worked with another band I was in called the Angelic Upstarts. He had got a job working with a singer called Stiv Bators who had to go to Paris for a recording session with Johnny Thunders and Dee Dee Ramone. Unfortunately, Dee Dee and Johnny had a bust up over the writing credits of a song called Chinese Rocks and Dee Dee smashed JT’s guitar up and poured bleach over his clothes! The aforementioned roadie was left with the remnants of the guitar and for a few years it was in a case under his bed which is where I first saw it, with the neck broken in 2 places, at the headstock and also at the heel, the bit where the neck joins the body. I’d seen this guitar several times and eventually managed to buy it, still in bits and I took it to a luthier to be repaired. At the time, completely ignorant about the soon to become “classic” guitar market, I had an extra pick up fitted and an extra tone and volume control added. A few years ago, I decided to get it put back to it’s original spec at great expense and the whole thing was refinished in the original yellow colour and I’ve used it as my main guitar ever since. Last year, I went to see Walter Lure, guitarist in Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, and got him to sign the back of the headstock of my JT guitar. He was really interesting and I have to say, it’s the only person I have ever asked for an autograph, but I just thought it’d be cool to have him scrawl his moniker on this particular guitar.
Whether the Johnny Thunders story is true or not is irrelevant to me though because it’s just about the best guitar I’ve ever owned. The neck profile is perfect for me and the whole guitar just feels really comfortable. The other 1959 one I own has a slightly different neck profile but it’s still a cool guitar. I bought that one in the USA a few years ago because it’s always handy to have a spare that’s exactly the same as the one you’re playing in case you break a string. It’s pointless having a spare that dosen’t sound the same because if you do have to change mid set, you want to keep the sound the same.
The next guitar I am going to be writing about is a 1968 White Fender Stratocaster that I own. This is also a great, well-crafted instrument, but I’ll save that for the next installment in this growing series.