The Gibson Les Paul and 1950s Nostalgia in 1970s Heartland Rock
Growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s, I was under the impression that the greatest car ever made was the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air. Most of my family members who had a driver’s license at any point from the mid-1950s to the late-1960s had owned one. One of my father’s favorite cars was a bronze-colored model, and he occasionally wished aloud that he would have held onto the beauty. Even my (significantly younger) mother owned one early in her driver-license years, a hand-me-down from an elder brother. With wide swept-back tail fins, chrome appointments, and a gas-guzzling V8 engine, the Fifty-Seven Chevy was a virtual metaphor for postwar prosperity. By the 1970s and 1980s—when “Happy Days” ruled TV, Marty McFly went “Back to the Future,” and Ronald Reagan rewound America’s collective alarm clock—such a piece of Detroit rolling stock was the perfect vehicle (pun intended) for postwar nostalgia.
If the 1957 Chevrolet had a sonic analogue, it was the Gibson Les Paul. In the late 1940s, musical whiz-kid Les Paul (née Lester William Polsfuss) started experimenting with a solid-body guitar design that would give additional volume and sustain to his electrically amplified instrument. At first, when he approached established guitar-maker Gibson with his idea, Paul was rejected. But when upstart California guitar designer Leo Fender began producing a mass marketed solid-body electric guitar called the Telecaster around 1950, Gibson took notice. The earliest Telecasters may have looked to Gibson executives like a plank with strings, but they sold well, especially among country music stars who loved the twangy sound. Gibson subsequently designed its own solid-body electric guitar and secured an endorsement from Paul, who added a few design tweaks of his own.
The earliest Les Paul guitars came in two varieties: the “Custom” with a glossy black finish (supposedly Paul wanted it to look like a fancy tuxedo), and the “Standard” with a metallic gold finish. This so-called “goldtop”—looking not all that different, I imagine, from my father’s bronze ’57 Chevy—sold well for several years. But starting in mythical 1957, the guitar was significantly upgraded. The single-coil P-90 pickups were replaced with Gibson’s innovative double-coil “humbucking” design, designed to cancel out electromagnetic interference and thus provide a smoother, richer tone. The following year, some of the guitars also sported an attractive “sunburst” design, fading from dark brown on the outer edges to a warm amber wood tone in the center of the top.
The legendary Sunburst guitars were only made for three years, with about 1600 total instruments manufactured. But by 1960 they weren’t selling so well. Not only were they heavy and expensive, but Fender had introduced the ingenious and less expensive “Stratocaster” model in the mid-1950s. To compete with Fender, Gibson replaced the Les Paul with a new, lighter weight design that was deemed more modern and marketable (Les Paul himself did not like the new design, so he dropped his endorsement). But something funny happened. In the mid-1960s, British rockers like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards discovered the older Les Paul models—frequently used by virtuoso African-American bluesmen like Freddie King—and decided they were great. Pretty soon, every ax-slinger had to have one. In the mid-1960s, used Les Pauls were still cheap, so budding rock stars could pick them up at pawnshop rates.
Today, a late-1950s Les Paul is the most desired and valuable electric guitar money can buy. Sunburst models in mint condition fetch upwards of $250,000, with nice examples of the earlier Goldtop version reeling in $30,000 or more. The value of these guitars is inspired in part by craftsmanship and materials that can scarcely be duplicated in today’s factories. But the prices are also driven to new heights by collectors’ knowledge of the many famous musicians who have played them over the years. A particularly famous and beloved Les Paul is “Pearly Gates,” a 1959 Sunburst owned by Billy Gibbons and reportedly used on every ZZ Top album ever released. Gibbons claims that his pickups were slightly overwound—depending on how you look at it, someone was either having a bad or good day at the Gibson factory—giving the guitar a thicker, dirtier sound.
Although Gibson’s proprietary “humbuckers” were originally designed with smooth tone in mind, they sound marvelously crunchy when played through a distorted amplifier. Such guitars became the sonic implement of choice among many 1970s arena-rock shredders, including Journey’s Neal Schon, Gary Richrath of REO Speedwagon, and Boston’s Tom Scholz (who employed a late-1960s Goldtop reissue).
Was the Les Paul’s popularity among Reagan-era rockers due simply to tone and affordability, or to something else? I suggest that craftsmanship had a lot to do with it, but so did nostalgia. By the 1970s, deindustrialization hit America’s Rust Belt hard, with factories shutting down in many of the Northeastern and Midwestern towns from which arena rockers hailed. Although the Les Paul was not produced in the same quantities as 1957 Chevrolets, in many respects they were similar. A well-made guitar with a classic and unself-conscious design, Gibson’s first solid-body guitar model dated back to a post-World War II era when Americans had good jobs, plenty of cheap gas, and a solid handle on the global economy. The same heartland rockers who cranked out albums filled with bombast, nostalgia, and laments for the down-on-his-luck working man regularly used an instrument that was a finely crafted castoff of a more prosperous, bygone era.
At the time he owned it, my father’s 1957 Chevrolet was a vehicle—a modish yet practical means of getting from place to place. When the Gibson Les Paul was first issued, it was a state-of-the-art instrument for working musicians. In the haze of late-1970s factory shutdowns, conservative politics, and general malaise, the Les Paul’s signature sound and design became an aural and aesthetic signifier for a happier, richer time in American life. Just like that bronze Chevy that my dad wishes he had kept.
Brian M. Ingrassia teaches American History at Middle Tennessee State University. He is the author of The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012).