Friday, March 16, 2012

Flat Top Cruiser: The Legacy of the Gibson Les Paul Junior

Tailfins, hair grease, B-Movie Sci-Fi, Kerouac, Elvis, James Dean. I love the 1950s. It's my favorite era of American history, and one that produced an absolute overload of groundbreaking movies, music, literature, fashion, ideology, design and style.

In the world of guitars, the 1950s era still looms largest. The innovations that blasted onto the still new and untested electric guitar field in that decade are still the biggest leaps forward made in the guitar business. The Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster and Precision (the first electric bass guitar) were all invented in the 1950s and are still made, virtually unchanged in design, to this very day, 60 years later. Ditto for Kalamazoo, Michigan's Gibson Guitars,who had been in the guitar business since the 1800s. Gibson is world famous in perpetuity for Gibson Les Paul, SG, ES-175, ES-295, The Byrdland,and my absolute favorite guitar of all time, the glorious Gibson Les Paul Junior line of guitars, which includes all variations of the Melody Maker, Les Paul Special, and Les Paul Junior.

The original single cutaway Junior was developed when Gibson saw the need to compete in the lower end electric guitar market, as Fender's Telecaster as well as several other guitars made by upstart companies were selling huge numbers in the wake of the first appearance of rock and roll music on the mainstream national scene in 1954. Gibson knew that in order to compete in this market they needed an affordable but high quality instrument that would appeal to young rock and rollers and student guitarists. They looked to basically develop their own version of the Fender Esquire (the single pick up version of the Telecaster) but price it even lower.

So the LP Junior was born. A slab of mahogany for the body, another for the neck, a rosewood fretboard, a single P-90 pick up, and a simple, brutal bar of metal for the bridge. It was initially finished in two colors. One, introduced in 1954, was a gorgeous tobacco sunburst, like Leo Fender's first Stratocasters. The other, which appeared the following year, was a limed mahogany, called "TV Yellow" by Gibson's marketing wizards. Some say that this finish was called "TV" because it was meant to "look good on television". The real reason was the Fender Telecaster. The buttery yellow color, which ranged on different guitars from a dark mustard tint to a full on screaming banana yellow, was meant to compete with Leo Fender's early butterscotch Teles.

The Junior was similar in shape to Gibson's popular Les Paul series of guitars, but without the extra frills, carved cap and aesthetic pleasantries that made the LP a more expensive guitar. There was no drop in quality here. This was a well made, solid as a rock and virtually indestructible guitar with a bright, full throat-ed sound that was surprisingly versatile for only having the one pickup, one volume, and one tone in it's electronic circuit.

The guitar was almost immediately Gibsons' biggest selling electric. Students, young kids, and even old pros gravitated to this guitars' combination of low price point and high quality. The guitar sold for $99.00 dollars in 1954, as opposed to the Les Paul Standard which went for just over $200. Funnily enough, if you'd like to buy a vintage, original LP Junior from 1954 in good condition, you should be prepared to shell out upwards of $5,000.

Four years later, Gibson decided to up the ante with it's double cutaway version of the LP Junior, which for a time replaced the classic single cut. These are highly sought after guitars, mostly because of the punk rock guitarists who began buying them in pawnshops and used guitar stores in droves in the late 70s, in emulation of the NY Dolls Johnny Thunders, who famously played one.

In 1955, Gibson also introduced the LP Special, a two pickup version of the Junior which sold for slightly more, and was meant to be an upgrade, or a gateway guitar to a more upscale LP Standard or Custom. This too was a popular and fantastic guitar, available in single cut in 1955 and double cutaway by 1958. Original LP Specials, depending on condition, can fetch as high as $30,000. on the collector's market now.

In 1959, diminishing guitar sales prompted Gibson to introduce an even more affordable, even more stripped down, even more Fender-sounding instrument: The glorious Melody Maker. This guitar had an even thinner mahogany body, a slimmer headstock, and an option of one or two very Stratocaster-like pickups. A double cutaway version was introduced a bit later.

In 1961, the Junior line was revitalized with a new shape, similar to Gibson's newest offering, the SG, (or "Special Guitar", not to be confused with the Les Paul Special, an entirely different beast). This shape actually replaced the original LP Junior shapes, as the SG replaced the Les Paul. By the 1970s, interest in vintage Gibsons prompted the company to begin to re-issue all of the various shapes. At present all of these variations are being produced by the Gibson Company. At the time though, Gibson was very concerned with staying fresh and changing their guitar line completely every few years. New designs were not added to old ones, they were introduced to completely replace them.

Gibson's re-issue series were not, initially, period-correct replicas. They were new versions of the old guitars, with modern conveniences such as Grover tuners and Tune-o-Matic bridges. They were also offered in finishes not on offer for specific models back in the 50s and 60s. These early re-issues are also prized collector's items in the present day and are highly sought after at price points just a bit below the originals. Some purists bemoaned the modern "upgrades", but aesthetically these re-issues were a welcome blast from the past and at least a partial return to what used to be known as "Gibson Quality".

They also saved Gibson from losing sales of new guitars, as it was clear that most players would rather buy the old designs. By creating new versions of the classics sold at a cheaper price than the highly sought after, collectable originals, Gibson was able to capitalize on the reputation of their older guitars (see '75 LP Special advert below). Later, Gibson's Epiphone line started producing even more affordable versions of these guitars with the Epiphone headstock in place of the Gibson "open" book shape. These were produced in China and varied greatly in quality from guitar to guitar.

My own love of LP Juniors started with my early worship of Mr. Johnny Thunders. The tragic NY Dolls/Heartbreakers guitarist rarely played anything but a '58 double cut TV Junior and I wanted one badly. This really started my obsession. The first one I got was a black Epiphone singlecut Junior, with a bolt on neck and P-90. this was around 1998, and I played this guitar on most of my band's (Dimestore Haloes) releases and live shows in this era. It was not a bad little guitar. I wasn't psyched with the Epiphone headstock and bolt on neck, but it sounded great and held up well on stage and in studio. Below is a pic of me holding the guitar onstage with the Dimestore Haloes in 1999.

I bought a double cutaway TV Yellow Epiphone Junior around a year later as a backup guitar, and this guitar looked amazing, but the neck was a piece of crap, the pickup sounded thin and weird and I soon traded it in on what was to be my favorite all time guitar (see pic below). It was a 2001 single cutaway, sunburst LP Junior, a 1955 re-issue. This guitar was just disgusting, it was so great. The finest guitar I have ever owned. I played it onstage and in the studio during the recording of the Haloes' last album, "The Ghosts of Saturday Night", and it was the only guitar on my 2005 solo disc, "Amazing Graceless", despite the fact that I'm holding a Grestch on the cover and an LP Special DC on the inside panel.

In 2004 I bought the aforementioned 2002 TV Yellow DC LP Special. It was a great guitar, but had a much mellower sound than my '55 reissue Junior. Much less biting and throaty and much more fat and warm.

Because I am an idiot, I sold both of these guitars in 2006. Traded them in on a 2005 Gibson SG with classic brown leather case. This was a nice guitar, but a bad decision. It wasn't long before I needed the money and sold that, too. I had a 1954 Reissue Fender Strat in daphne blue at that time, and a couple of Gretsch Electromatics. Which I also sold eventually. I've owned well over 50 guitars in the last ten years. None of them has been as perfect for me as that '55 reissue LP Junior.

I've also owned several LP Junior copies. One by Dillion, which was a great copy of a late 50s cherry double cutaway Junior. I put a Bigsby on that and it was even cooler. See an earlier blog here for pics of that guitar and a rundown on that process. I ended up selling that guitar to Tim from the Hormones, who has the same guitar acquiring/selling disease that I have. He, of course, sold it. It was a great little axe.

I also had a Melody Maker/ Junior combo copy by Agile, who import pretty good quality chinese guitars. It was a good little axe and they actually still used my review of it on their website until recently. I've also had a re-issue 1959 Melody Maker, in worn white. Also a groovy guitar, and also one that I should have held on to. I have also owned an Epiphone Custom Shop TV Yellow '55 Junior re-issue, and an Epiphone Custom Shop LP Special re-issue. Both really, really great slabs o' wood. Of course, I sold them eventually. I also seem to recall a Xaviere Lp Junior singlecut copy in cherry sunburst that I had for about three days before I traded it in. It, unfortunately, was a fresh piece of elephant dung.

Speaking of holding on to things, I'm keeping this one (pic below). It is a rare bird of sorts, a real sleeper, and a guitar that is pretty much perfect for my needs.

In 2003, Gibson re-issued the Melody Maker, but with a difference. They took the Melody Maker's super thin slab body and thinner headstock, and coupled it with a hot p-90 Les Paul Junior pickup, thick, chunky 50s style neck, TV finish and newer LP style tune-o-matic bridge. This became the Les Paul Melody Maker Junior, an amazing hybrid that was sold from 2003-2006. They went for about $500. in 2003, and used ones are still fetching that price now, nine years later. I managed to score mine on eBay for around $475. It sounds and feels amazing.

Many players don't like the "worn" or "satin" finishes that Gibson produces these days, but I actually do. Every guitar that I've had with this finish was louder, brighter and felt better under my hands than sticky, thick nitro finish jobs.

Gibson began using this finish for a couple of reasons. One, it is cheaper to produce than their traditional thick, glossy finish jobs, and can bring the price point of a great guitar down enough so that a regular joe like me can afford it. Number two, it resembles the worn away, time-thinned, broken in finish of a real vintage, 60 year old guitar. Not exactly, but close. Purists will tell you that this is blasphemy, but I'm not a purist. And the way this satin finish allows the wood to breathe and brings out the tone of the instrument is so awesome that I can't argue with it. In fact, Gibby now uses this finish on all of their mid-price Melody makers, LP Juniors, LP Specials, SGs, etc. And while it's said that the satin finish doesn't last as long or wear as well, you'll be able to afford to re-finish it down the line if needed.

Thanks for reading my very personal and subjective account of the legacy of the LP Junior. These are beautiful and sonically superior guitars, and every guitar geek should own at least one. Collect them, drool over them, admire them, buy them, sell them, but most of all, PLAY 'em.