The Les Paul model was the result of a design collaboration between Gibson Guitar Corporation and the late jazz guitarist and electronics inventor Les Paul. In 1950, with the introduction of the Fender Telecaster to the musical market, electric guitars became a public craze. In reaction, Gibson Guitar president Ted McCarty brought guitarist Les Paul into the company as a consultant. Les Paul was a respected innovator who had been experimenting with guitar design for years to benefit his own music. In fact, he had hand-built a solid-body prototype called "The Log", a design widely considered the first solid-body Spanish guitar ever built, as opposed to the "Hawaiian", or lap-steel guitar. This guitar is known as "The Log" because the solid core is a pine block whose width and depth are a little more than the width of the fretboard. Although numerous other prototypes and limited-production solid-body models by other makers have since surfaced, it is known that in 1945–1946, Les Paul had approached Gibson with "The Log" prototype, but his solid body design was rejected.
In 1951, this initial rejection became a design collaboration between the Gibson Guitar Corporation and Les Paul. It was agreed that the new Les Paul guitar was to be an expensive, well-made instrument in Gibson's tradition. Although recollections differ regarding who contributed what to the Les Paul design, it was far from a market replica of Fender models. Since the 1930s, Gibson had offered electric hollow-body guitars, such as the ES-150; at minimum, these hollow-body electric models provided a set of basic design cues to the new Gibson solid-body, including a more traditionally curved body shape than offered by competitor Fender, and a glued-in ("set-in") neck, in contrast to Fender's bolt-on neck joint design.
The significance of Les Paul's contributions to his Gibson guitar design remains controversial. The book "50 Years of the Gibson Les Paul" limits Paul's contributions to two: advice on the trapeze tailpiece, and a preference for color (stating that Paul preferred gold as "it looks expensive", and a second choice of black because "it makes your fingers appear to move faster on the box", and "looks classy―like a tuxedo").
Additionally, Gibson's president Ted McCarty states that the Gibson Guitar Corporation merely approached Les Paul for the right to imprint the musician's name on the headstock to increase model sales, and that in 1951, Gibson showed Paul a nearly finished instrument. McCarty also claims that design discussions with Les Paul were limited to the tailpiece and the fitting of a maple cap over the mahogany body for increased density and sustain, which Les Paul had requested reversed. However, according to Gibson Guitar, this reversal would have caused the guitar to become too heavy, and Paul's request was refused. Another switch: the original Custom was to be all mahogany and the Goldtop was to have the maple cap/mahogany body. Beyond these requests, Les Paul's contributions to the guitar line bearing his name were stated to be cosmetic. For example, ever the showman, Paul had specified that the guitar be offered in a gold finish, not only for flashiness, but to emphasize the high quality of the Les Paul instrument, as well. The later-issue Les Paul models included flame maple (tiger stripe) and "quilted" maple finishes, and once again contrasted the competing Fender line's range of car-like color finishes. Gibson was notably inconsistent with its wood choices, and some goldtops or customs have had their finish stripped to reveal beautifully-figured wood hidden underneath.
The Les Paul guitar line was originally conceived to include two models: the regular model (nicknamed the Goldtop), and the Custom model, which offered upgraded hardware and a more formal black finish. However, advancements in pickup, body, and hardware designs allowed the Les Paul to become a long-term series of electric solid-body guitars that targeted every price-point and market level except for the complete novice guitarist. This beginner guitar market was filled by the Melody Maker model, and although the inexpensive Melody Maker did not bear the Les Paul name, its body consistently followed the design of true Les Pauls throughout each era.
The 1952 Les Paul featured two P-90 single coil pickups, and a one-piece, 'trapeze'-style bridge and tailpiece, with strings that were fitted under (instead of over) a steel stop-bar. The weight and the tonal characteristics of the Les Paul were largely due to the mahogany and maple construction: maple is a hard and quite heavy wood, but was restricted to a cap over somewhat lighter mahogany, to keep weight under control. In addition, the early 1952 Les Pauls were never issued serial numbers, did not have bound bodies, and are considered by some as "LP Model prototypes". However, the later 1952 Les Pauls were issued serial numbers and also came with bound bodies. Interestingly, the design scheme of some of these early models varied. For instance, some of the Les Pauls of this issue were fitted with black covered P90 pickups instead of the creme coloured plastic covers that are associated with this guitar, even today. Of note, these early models, nicknamed "Goldtops", have begun to gain the interest of collectors, and subsequently, the associated nostalgic value of this instrument is increasing.
This instrument is a seminal survivor from the very roots of the Blues Movement. This particular guitar's importance is doubly reinforced by the fact that it was built in the very first year of production of Gibson's legendary Les Paul model (no serial numbers issued that year) and that it has been truly played by some of the greatest British Bluesmen: Peter Green- of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Fleetwood Mac fame, Tony 'Duster' Bennett - the unique 'One Man Blues Band', Top Topham - founder member of The Yardbirds. Yes, Eric Clapton did own the guitar, giving it to Peter Green but how he acquired it is lost in the banks of time - Eric simply does not remember; it probably was not so important back then - so many guitars, gigs and hard touring, one didn't make notes in diaries! However the myths and folklore that follow legends such as these link the guitar with BB King and Muddy Waters before him. It's true that BB King played a session at The London Recording Studios in 1971 with Duster and Peter playing this very Les Paul and there is one image of Muddy playing a '52 Gold Top... However, when asked by journalist Julia Ficken about his possible ownership of this guitar, BB King went on record stating, "Ma'm, I'm not sure that I can remember that far back - but why don't you hold onto that story!”
Stories aside, the provenance on this iconic instrument speaks for itself.
In a letter dated 4th February 2009, Peter Green confirmed that he remembers this guitar, stating he recollects giving this 1952 Gibson Les Paul guitar to Duster Bennett, and it was a guitar given to him by Eric Clapton. He also recalls it was not in a broken state (as previously believed) and was 'playable'. Peter states that he has no knowledge as to who the guitar belonged to prior to Eric Clapton.
In an open letter dated 31st October 2005, Top Topham states that this guitar was given to Tony 'Duster' Bennett around 1968/9* by Peter Green. Topham also states that the guitar was fitted with a replacement '70s neck after an accident to the instrument (1970. This date is stated as 1968 in Duster Bennett's authorised biography by Martin Celmins). According to Topham, the guitar was also refinished at that time. During this restoration, the original case was mislaid. Topham confirms that he acquired the guitar (from Stella Bennett) around 1988. He sent the instrument to Graham Noden's workshops at Andy's Guitars in Denmark Street, London who fitted new Kluson tuners and designed and fitted a new bridge saddle to the trapeze unit. At some point the paintwork has been refinished to the correct color.
In January 2009 Julius Thurgood took the guitar to Graham Noden who confirmed the Topham story. In early February 2009 Julius Thurgood took the guitar to Melvyn Warren-Smith, a close friend of Duster Bennett. Warren-Smith verified that this was the Duster Bennett guitar and out of respect to Duster kindly took the catalogue photographs of the guitar.
In February 2009, Julius Thurgood took the guitar to Peter Allen at Guitar Technical Services for a full professional set-up. Correct pattern Gold Speed Knobs were fitted at the time and the pickup was found to have an intermitted problem. The pickup was sent for repair to Armstrong Rewinds where the coils were stabilised. The pickup was not rewound. Various minor electrical faults were diagnosed and rectified.
A long history for a guitar, but the most important thing is that it still sounds great!
In memory of Duster Bennett: