GIBSON CUSTOM '59 LES PAUL STANDARD
Alex Wilson spends some time with a classic design from the annals of guitar history.
Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #133. Subscribe to our print edition here!
PRICE: $11,499 AUD
Let’s talk about Gibson Guitars – the company – for a moment. It's fair to say that the past couple years haven’t been smooth sailing for the guitar giant. Approximately 12 months ago, the 117-year-old enterprise filed for bankruptcy, its business saddled with plummeting financials and $500 million of untenable debt.
The culprit was the ill-advised acquisition of a home and audio electronics business which was hemorrhaging cash. There was copious reporting of the company’s troubles, and in some corners of the internet, a sense of schadenfreude fueled by the notion that a big-boots business was getting its comeuppance. However one feels about that, what’s less well-known is that the company exited from Chapter 11 late last year with a clean balance sheet and helmed by a new CEO.
James Curleigh, previous head of the Levi’s clothing brand and a guitarist himself, has made it his mission to raise morale in the company and get Gibson employees excited about what put them on the map in the first place: fantastic instruments. Much like cars and clothing, many people (this reviewer included) believe many manufacturers perfected their best designs in the middle of the 20th century. Recognising this, Gibson’s current mission appears to concentrate on the classic designs that rocketed the company to the forefront of guitar culture and remain just as relevant today: The SG, the ES, the Explorer, the Thunderbird, the Flying V and, of course, the Les Paul.
Guitar historians will know that 1959 was a legendary year for Gibson, considered by many to be when the company reached its peak of solid body guitar design and manufacture. The Les Paul was received coolly by the market when it was first released, but throughout the '60s, some of rock’s foundational guitarists found their voice on the instrument and its legend was sealed – we’re talking the likes of Allman, Green, Bloomfield, Richards, Clapton and Gibbons.
A rare, original ’59 Les Paul will fetch incredible prices. For the rest of us, Gibson’s Custom 1959 Les Paul Standard is the next best thing.
Since 1993, Gibson’s Custom division has been refining its models with periodic updates, constantly scrutinising and cataloguing old models to bring everything possible about these historic guitars into the hands of today’s players.
The model that I looked was a Honey Lemon Fade VOS finish, and by gum, it’s a gorgeous thing to comprehend. A beautiful exemplar of the Les Paul design, and a tremendous amount of detail has gone into the aesthetic presentation. For example, period-accurate dyes are used on the guitar body, and these products have a tendency to subtly bleed into the binding and fade over time. Ironically, some customers actually contact the company, thinking this is a defect. They end up being much more aware of how much thought has gone into reproducing the historical manufacturing process.
Plugged in, this guitar will put paid to the stereotype that Les Pauls are bassy brutes. Make no mistake, there is plenty of rich and pleasing low-end to be coerced from the ’59, but it feels inherently balanced and dynamic. It’s not ever-present, but reacts organically to the player’s touch with both hands. While the tone of the guitar tends towards ‘dark’ (it’s still an LP, after all) the hefty low-mids feel beautifully proportioned to an upper-mid sparkle or bite. Rich, round and balanced, it’s a tone that will especially reward players who give the instrument finesse to respond to.
The pickups are Gibson Custombuckers, a recreation of the ‘PAF’ pickups from the 1950s. Their Alnico III magnet leads to a mellower, creamier tone than modern sets, and players who worship at the altar of Slash and Page will be immediately familiar with the sound – it has less ‘meat’ to it than modern sets packing Alnico Vs. An attentive player will also notice that the balance between the neck and bridge pickup on the '59 is different than it is on a modern set. The neck feels a bit louder here, but that’s not necessarily a problem.
The '59’s tone and volume controls are so beautifully smooth and responsive, it’s tremendously easy to gain-stage each pickup according to your taste. Hearing the ’59 push a clean amp into roaring rock territory and back again with only the selector switch was a great pleasure to experience.
Another stereotype about old Les Pauls is that the necks were huge and difficult to play. At least in this case, the ’59 feels immediately great under the hands. And it’s certainly not the thickest I’ve played. While it’s substantial, there’s still quickness there if you need to shoot rapidly around the neck. Obviously, your mileage will vary here, so it’s important you play one for yourself to find out.
BEST IN THE HANDS OF
Someone who has a real appreciation for the historical accuracy and heritage of this instrument will have a hard time not falling head-over-heels for this instrument. It sounds and feels amazing, and while it’s very pricey, there’s an intangible sense of specialness imbued into the guitar via the company’s keen sense of its own legacy. It’s hard to objectively outline this feeling of participation in an important story, but it will doubtlessly be an important factor for some buyers.
WHY IT’S ON THE TOP SHELF
This review has only been able to scratch the surface of the detail that has gone into the design and manufacturing of this instrument. From the finish, to the neck, to the pickups and beyond, Gibson has settled for nothing but the best. This absolute commitment to quality is immediately palpable in the sound and playability of the ’59 Les Paul, and is certainly reflected in the price.
WHAT YOU SHOULD CONSIDER FIRST
This is not a cheap instrument by any means. Someone looking to spend several thousands of dollars on a Les Paul should weigh up how much the historical accuracy and uncompromising design philosophy of this instrument will meet their musical, financial and emotional needs.
The Les Paul’s legendary design has led to many other manufacturers creating their own interpretation of this timeless guitar, and some of the most high-end boutique Les Paul copies (or even standard models from Gibson themselves) will cost several thousandless than this ’59. Each individual player needs to physically spend some time with this instrument to decide if its real historical mojo is right for them and their bank account.
Australis Music Group
Ph: (02) 9698 4444