Let’s talk American-born music — jazz, blues, country, rock’n’roll — and the instruments on which people create music.
While Fender is the world’s best-known and most popular electric guitar manufacturer, Gibson is the all-American guitar. Gibsons have been the fretted instrument pearl of great price for over a century. The simple, sturdy flattop acoustics loved by folk, blues, and country players alike when the latter two genres were just beginning to take form. The Lloyd Loar mandolins of the 1920s, valued by bluegrass players as highly as classical violinists favor a Stradivarius. The arch top steel-strung guitars found in the rhythm section of every big band and jazz ensemble in the 1920s and 1930s, their power augmented by the addition of a pickup starting in the mid-1930s. Then in the early 1950s, jazz guitar genius Les Paul brought out through Gibson the solid body electric guitar bearing his name, finished with a sparkling gold top to indicate its position as the gold standard in the then-new field of such instruments.
Given the Les Paul’s ubiquitous status in guitar history, it seems impossible that the design would ever be out of fashion. Yet in 1960, sales had dropped so low that Gibson discontinued making the Les Paul as we know it, instead releasing a radically different guitar originally called a Les Paul (not to his liking) but shortly thereafter renamed the SG. It was not until 1968, after guitar heroes such as Eric Clapton and Duane Allman had brought the original Les Paul back into the public eye, that Gibson started making it again.
Although the Les Paul is the second most popular electric guitar in the world, expertly wielded by such guitar deities as Jimmy Page and Slash, there have been multiple models of said guitar over the decades, some more popular than others. The Deluxe, despite its name, is pretty much at the bottom of every Les Paul aficionado’s list. This is because it uses smaller pickups than the Les Paul Standard model, thus giving it less output and a less meaty tone than the Standard and variations thereof. Many players bought one to immediately reroute the pickup locations so it would accept full-size humbuckers. Adding to the Deluxe’s lack of desirability is how, during its primary years in production (1969 through 1980 or thereabouts), Gibson’s owner was a company named Norlin. Although Norlin had music industry origins, an Ecuadorian adult beverage manufacturer eventually bought it. Said beverage manufacturer apparently quite liberally dispensed its product to all Gibson employees involved in decision making, as the demonstrated knowledge of what made the Les Paul a supreme guitar nearly vanished. One piece body for best tonality and sustain? Forget it! Let’s do slightly upscale plywood! One piece neck? That’s crazy talk! We’ll glue three pieces together! (To be fair, several top-flight guitar makers prefer multi-piece necks; however, in this case, it was for cheapness’ sake as opposed to a quality issue.) And to top it off – literally – we’ll make the headstock bigger, thus making it more likely to snap off if the guitar gets dropped or otherwise jostled! BRILLIANT! Long story short: In terms of desirability and collectibility, the Les Paul Deluxe is none of the above.
Naturally, to my okay-ish playing ability and ears, it’s my favorite Les Paul model. I love its sound, somewhere between the cut and bite of a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster and the traditional humbucker pickup roar of most every other Les Paul. To me, it’s the perfect combination. So, despite its scorned state of being, the Les Paul Deluxe is dear to my heart.
I first owned one in my tender-headed … er, tender teen years. I bought it used. (The guitar, not my head.) I had longed after it when it hung for months in my favorite music store, but the price tag was above my reach. Someone broke my heart and bought it. Then a few months later, it returned, definitely the worse for wear. The once pristine wine red finish was in a sorry state, with scratches and gouges a-plenty. Unfortunate, but it did serve one useful purpose: It brought the price down to where I could successfully beseech my parents for the guitar. Soon it was mine. As a bonus, my Dad agreed to pay to have it refinished, so off it went, returning a couple of weeks later in a beautiful walnut.
Reference the aforementioned tender-headed uniform of youth I wore. Eventually, I traded my Les Paul for a Fender Stratocaster. Not that there is anything wrong with Stratocasters; they are awesome. Unfortunately, the one I acquired was anything but awesome. And someone quickly snapped up the Les Paul. I still profoundly lament my decision. (I sold the Stratocaster long ago.)
Fast forward thirty years. I had been surgically repaired and could once again play guitar; a tale for another time. Anyway, my regret over getting rid of the Les Paul still hung heavy. I sort of had the money to buy one and wanted to rectify my previous error. So off to look for one at my preferred music store … whaddaya mean they don’t make the Deluxe anymore? Swell. Okay, let’s look for a used one in good shape.
In the “too soon old, too late smart” department, I decided to scour eBay. Not that there’s anything wrong with buying most things off of the site, but when you are looking at something as personal as a guitar, especially a used one, you’re taking just a wee bit of a gamble. Actually, a massive gamble.
Nevertheless, I plowed ahead. Ah-HA! Several were listed, but one, in particular, caught my eye. Made in 1976. Natural finish. Professional setup (so the description said). Zillions of high-quality photos of every inch of the guitar. Looked clean and sweet. Okay. Take a deep breath and click the Buy It Now button.
Then the guitar arrived.
Three things became rapidly apparent. One, the guitar was in decent condition for having thirty-plus years on it. There was some cosmetic damage here and there, but overall it was solid. Two, the professional setup claim was, upon inspection, rendered suspect. The guitar immediately required readjustment of pretty much everything adjustable, and there was a problem with the nut that had me slide a small piece of paper in-between one of the strings and its slot to keep the string from buzzing. Three, the previous owner or owners had played the guitar a ton. The frets were extremely worn. They also apparently never washed their hands before playing, as both sides of every single fret bore a thick cake of grime. Also, whether it was because of the incredible amount of playing needed to wear the frets down to where they were or some other factor, the fretboard inlays – like the frets, all of them – had worked themselves out of the fingerboard to where the edges sat just above the wood, with grime caked against all edges. The guitar was still playable and sounded beautiful, but it was an uncomfortable mess to play.
I did what I could: clean the fingerboard (which didn’t reset the inlays, alas) and replace some broken or worn-out plastic parts such as the toggle switch tip. Plenty of additional cleaning and polishing. An improvement for sure, but still a far cry from satisfactory, especially considering the money I had shelled out. The end result was a seldom played guitar and me deciding what to do.
Finally, one day I had my Popeye moment. You know: That’s all I can stands and I can’t stands no more? I grabbed the guitar and went to a well-recommended repair shop in San Francisco. I didn’t like the vibe there; for some strange reason, being treated like an inconvenience rather than a potential customer didn’t warm the cockles of my heart. That, and the fact it would be several months before they could even look at my guitar, made it a no-go. So I went to a different well-recommended repair shop where I wasn’t laughed out of the place the moment I opened my guitar’s case and pulled out my mangy mutt.
My original idea was to have the inlays reset flush with the fingerboard and leave it at that. Said idea flew out the window when the leading repair guru took one look at the guitar and, after commenting he had never seen inlays working their way out of the fingerboard like that before, said, “You have got to get this guitar refretted. These things are gone.” I reluctantly agreed, choosing the slightly more expensive stainless steel frets over the usual nickel ones to pretty much guarantee that no matter how much I played the guitar going forward, the frets would outlive me. They also replaced the nut and gave everything else the once-over. Also, during the initial meeting, they carefully reviewed with me what kind of guitar player I was as far as style so they could select the right size and shape frets to best match my playing. I appreciated that.
About a month passed. Then the call came. The guitar is ready; pick it up whenever. So I rushed over. The repairman discussed how, to fix the inlays, they had to very carefully remove them, re-route the fingerboard spots, and glue them back in. A bit out of the ordinary, but the results were flawless. I picked up my guitar, played a few notes, and immediately realized this was the best guitar I had ever played. Ever. It was perfect. It took a while to get there, but it was perfect. I’ll always miss my first Les Paul Deluxe, but this one was a more than worthy replacement. Shortly after getting it home, the volume and tone controls went on the fritz — more of that legendary Norlin quality — but a new set rectified matters. And, unsurprisingly, made the guitar sound even better.
I’ve often wondered about the person or persons who owned the guitar before the Floridian online dealer I bought it from acquired it. The grimy fingerboard aside, they took acceptable care of it. They obviously loved it. And, they obviously loved playing it. So why did they let it go? A somewhat melancholy thought, given how the likeliest answers are they were either no longer able to play, or were no longer here to play, this guitar now residing with me.
And that’s the story of my guitar. Hardly miraculous how it came into my possession. Yet, there is a touch of the miraculous how this particular guitar came to be mine and how once given an additional dose of the loving care it had been more or less given its entire existence, it sprang to life as a magnificent instrument. Sometimes, the least desirable turns out to be the greatest prize. All it takes is skillfully, actively applied love in action.