The Les Paul Custom’s sumptuous looks and special low, smooth frets earned it two nicknames: “Black Beauty” and “Fretless Wonder.”
The Gibson Les Paul Custom was formally unveiled at the July NAMM show in 1954, along with the Les Paul Junior. The two instruments were meant to increase the range of Gibson’s Les Paul solidbody guitars by adding both a fancier model and an economy version. The Les Paul Custom’s sumptuous looks and special low, smooth frets earned it two nicknames: “Black Beauty” and “Fretless Wonder.”
Here’s how the 1955 Gibson catalog described the Custom’s unique features: “Solid Honduras Mahogany body with carved top, size 17 1/4" long, 12 3/4" wide, 1 3/4" thick with graceful cutaway design; bound with alternating white and black strips on top and bottom of body. Mahogany neck, with exclusive Gibson Truss Rod construction; ebony fingerboard; deluxe pearl inlays.”
The luxury treatment continued with the split-diamond pearl headstock inlay previously reserved for the Super 400, Gibson’s flagship archtop. Another feature, also formerly limited to high-end Gibson archtops, was the powerful, neck-position alnico 5 pickup. The Custom was the first Les Paul to receive the innovative Tune-o-matic bridge, which allowed for individual string intonation.
While the Les Paul Custom’s looks and darker sounds (the latter due to the all-mahogany construction and deep-toned neck pickup) were aimed at refined jazz players, rock ’n’ roll guitarists were also attracted to the instrument. Chuck Berry, Franny Beecher (Bill Haley & His Comets), and Robby Krieger (The Doors)—along, of course, with Les Paul himself—are a few of the well-known players who favored the first version of the Les Paul Custom at some point in their career.
A 1955 Les Paul Custom originally sold for $325. Its current value in excellent, all-original condition is $20,000.
This ’55 Custom rests on a 1956 Gibson GA-70 Country Western amplifier. As “Country Western” suggests, it was Gibson’s attempt to get a brighter sound—one comparable to Fender’s popular amplifiers. The GA-70 was similar to the Fender Pro produced at the same time. Like the Pro, it had two 6L6 power tubes and a 15" Jensen speaker. As great as it sounded, only 332 were made between 1955 and 1958. The original price was $260. The current value in excellent, all-original condition is $2,000.
Sources for this article include: The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy, 1915-1963 by Robb Lawrence, Gibson Electrics—the Classic Years by A.R. Duchossoir, Gibson Guitars—Ted McCarty’s Golden Era: 1948-1966 by Gil Hembree, and Gibson Amplifiers 1933-2008: 75 Years of the Gold Tone by Wallace Marx Jr.
In a departure from earlier Les Paul models, the “Black Beauty” had a solid mahogany body, which gave it a darker, warmer tone than the maple/mahogany formula of its predecessors. It also was the first guitar to sport Gibson’s innovative Tune-o-matic bridge.
The Les Paul Custom featured the split-diamond pearl headstock inlay previously reserved for the Super 400 archtop.
The Custom’s neck pickup was designed by Seth Lover. The unusual “staple” pole pieces are actually six individually adjustable alnico 5 magnets.
Dave ’s Guitar Shop
Dave Rogers’ collection is tended by Laun Braithwaite and Tim Mullally and is on display at:
Dave’s Guitar Shop
1227 Third Street South
La Crosse, WI 54601
Photos by Mullally and text by Braithwaite.