Gibson Guitars and the Rise of the Les Paul

When it comes to guitar makers, and names to conjure with, there are only really two contenders for the top spot: Fender, used by greats such as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, and the Gibson Les Paul, aka the Gibson, played by, among numerous others, Chet Atkins, Bob Dylan, and Robby Krieger of The Doors. Gibson, often regarded as superior to Fender, had, from an early stage in its development, a productive relationship with the musician Les Paul, and the two have now become synonymous. In this brief essay I will discuss how this came about.

The Gibson guitar was created, originally, by the designer Ted McCarty, who was employed by the Gibson Guitar Corporation. After designing the guitar, McCarty decided that it would be a good idea to have an endorsement from a well-regarded guitarist. At this point, in the early 1950’s, electric guitars were relatively innovative, and support from a known artist helped to sell the idea.

From the late 1940’s there was a real innovation in the design of electric guitars. Originally, electric guitars were simply acoustic guitars that were put through an amp. However, the acoustic guitar maintained its sound, because of the hollow body. Gibson, after Fender, decided to manufacture solid body electric guitars, and it is this design feature which resulted in the sound of the electric guitar as we now know it.

By the end of the 1950’s Gibson was being out-competed, dramatically, by Fender, which were considered to be the cooler option. This led to various redesigns of the Les Paul, largely to reduce the cost of the guitar and the weight, to factors which led to reduced sales. Having done this, Gibson again became dominant in the 1960’s, and from that point on, with a diversified approach, and custom built guitars, Gibson has again become a major player in the manufacture of top-end, cool electric guitars.

Gibson and the Les Paul have had a turbulent history since their original collaboration in the early 50’s. However, due to the tradition, clever marketing and design, the company, and the guitar, managed to outlast the troubles, and are now regarded as the best guitar in the world.

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