Here’s how a cat named Capri, a German designer, and a whammy-bar inventor fit into the history of a maple-bodied marvel.
Here’s some Rickenbacker history you might enjoy—especially if you’re a fan of the company’s Fireglo works of art. F.C. Hall, the owner of Radio & Television Equipment Co. (Radio-Tel), purchased the Electro String Company from Adolph Rickenbacker in 1953. Hall revamped the business to focus on standard electric guitars rather than the steel guitars the company began producing in the early 1930s, such as the historic “Frying Pan” lap model.
These new electric guitars were slow sellers at first, but they continued to increase in popularity as the 1950s progressed. By early 1954, German guitar maker Roger Rossmeisl was hired as head of the woodshop, overseeing design and production. He concentrated on solidbody guitars for the first few years, giving them a unique European look that set Rickenbackers apart from other brands.
By 1958, Rossmeisl began work on a new group of semi-hollow electric guitars called the Capri Series (after Hall’s family cat). The series consisted of 12 models: the small-bodied three-quarter-sized 310, 315, 320, and 325; the standard full-sized 330, 335, 340, and 345; and the deluxe full-sized 360, 365, 370, and 375. Models ending in zero had no vibrato, while those ending in the number five did. The bodies for these guitars started as a solid block of wood, which was then hollowed out from the underside, with a separate back later attached. The vibrato-equipped instruments originally had Kauffman Vib-Rolas, but those were switched in 1960 to the more efficient Accent vibrato developed by Paul Butts, who also developed the Gibson Maestro Vibrola. By 1961, Rossmeisl had modified the original 2"-thick design to the 1 1/2" thickness that remains standard for the 330 series today.
A potent tone combination: a 1963 Rickenbacker 365 with one of the company’s early 1960s B9A amps.
The 1963 guitar featured this month has the characteristics common to deluxe-series 365 models before they were reshaped again in 1964. These include a bound maple neck, a gloss-finished rosewood fretboard with large triangle-shaped inlays, two “toaster”-style single-coil pickups, a maple body with a bound top and back, a slash soundhole, and an Accent vibrato tailpiece.
This Fireglo finished guitar has a gold Lucite truss rod cover, with a matching two-layer pickguard (white plastic was used after 1963). Four diamond-shaped “oven” knobs control the volume and tone of each pickup, while the smaller blend control knob subtly balances the sound from each pickup when the switch is in the middle position. The original list price was $309.50. The current value for one in excellent, all-original condition is $5,000.
“The bodies for these guitars started as a solid block of wood, which was then hollowed out from the underside, with a separate back later attached.”
The amp behind the guitar is an early 1960s Rickenbacker B9A. It is equipped with tremolo, and pushes 6 watts through a 12" speaker. The current value for the amp is $700.
Sources for this article include Rickenbacker Electric 12-String: The Story of the Guitars, the Music, and the Great Players, by Tony Bacon; The History of Rickenbacker Guitars, by Richard R. Smith; The Rickenbacker Book: A Complete History of Rickenbacker Electric Guitars, by Tony Bacon and Paul Day; and Rickenbacker Guitars: Out of the Frying Pan into the Fireglo, by Martin Kelly and Paul Kelly.
On The Late Show, Louis Cato Steps to the Front
The self-described “utility knife” played drums with John Scofield and Marcus Miller and spent time in the studio with Q-Tip before landing on Stephen Colbert’s show as a multi-instrumentalist member of the house band. Now, he’s taken over as the show’s guitar-wielding bandleader and is making his mark.
It’s a classic old-school-show-biz move: Bring out the band, introduce them one by one, and build up the song to its explosive beginning. It’s fun, dramatic, audiences love it, and that’s how every The Late Show with Stephen Colbert taping starts.
By this time, us audience members have been sitting in Manhattan’s chilly Ed Sullivan Theater for about 90 minutes. We’ve gotten our seats, had a bathroom break after getting settled, and had some fun with warm-up comic Paul Mecurio. The first musician summoned by announcer Jen Spyra is drummer Joe Saylor. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat, he jogs out, gets behind the kit, and kicks off an up-tempo second-line groove. Next comes upright bassist Endea Owens and percussionist Nêgah Santos. The band’s trumpeter, Jon Lampley, is introduced, and he’s brought along his bandmates in the Huntertones as guests, so saxophonist Dan White and trombonist Chris Ott come out as well.
Louis Cato feat. Stay Human "Look Within"
The multitalented Louis Cato leads the Stay Human band through a special rooftop performance of his song “Look Within,” from his album, Starting Now.
The audience is now on its feet, the band’s pocket is thick, and the energy is building. When bandleader Louis Cato charges onstage, he reaches his mic on the bandstand and shouts, “I feel good today!” with explosive enthusiasm and a big grin, and the band launches into Jon Batiste’s “I’m from Kenner.” Cato sings the catchy and gleeful refrain: “I feel good, I feel free, I feel fine just being me / I feel good today.” And the audience is feeling the love. Almost everyone is bouncing and clapping along.
A couple minutes in, when it seems like the song has reached its super-positive-vibe, high-energy climax, Cato shouts into his mic, “How do you feel today, Stephen?” And with that, Colbert comes running out from the middle of the set. Cato leaps from the bandstand toward the host as the crowd explodes. The two grab hold of each other and attempt to spin around, but the bandleader, holding his black-sparkle Tuttle T-style, loses his grip and goes sliding across the shiny stage. There’s a second where both are comically stunned—Kevin McCallister Home Alone-expressions on both of their faces—but Cato quickly jumps to his feet, both he and his guitar unharmed, and runs back to the bandstand, where he keeps the song moving along with his bandmates, who haven’t missed a beat.
All this excitement isn’t even for the TV audience! Colbert is coming out for the un-televised pre-show Q&A. In a few minutes, they’ll do a new taped intro that looks more like what we see every night. But they’ve gotten the crowd energized, and we need to keep it up. They need our energy to do their jobs.
The Late Show Band welcomes a lot of guests up on the bandstand. Here, Cato and Joe Walsh boogie down.
Photo by Scott Kowalchyk
As Cato sees it, that’s what his role as bandleader is all about: keeping the audience engaged and amplifying the drama and action of the show. “That translates to the energy that the viewers get at home,” he explains. “For all of us here, we’re able to feed off that energy and do the best possible show that we all can.”
Colbert agrees with that job description and adds that the bandleader himself has the same contagious effect on his players. “Louis is an extraordinarily gifted multi-instrumentalist,” he says, “whose spirit of creativity and collaboration not only elevates everything the band does musically but inspires me to be better at my job.” He adds, “I’m so happy to call him my friend.”
Beyond his infectious energy and charisma, there are a lot of ways Cato keeps the Late Show Band invigorated from night to night. For one, he keeps the music fresh by tackling a new cover song every day. That doesn’t mean running down rote note-for-note charts. Cato and the band take a reconstructionist approach that fans of his work—whether from his collaborations with artists such as the Huntertones, Scary Pockets, or Vulfpeck, or from his regular Instagram cover-song posts—will recognize.
“Louis is an extraordinarily gifted multi-instrumentalist whose spirit of creativity and collaboration not only elevates everything the band does musically but inspires me to be better at my job.”—Stephen Colbert
On this evening, the band runs through a host of multi-genre reinterpretations during the two-episode taping, including a slow-burning and soulful “Smokestack Lightning,” a New Orleans-style “Down by the Riverside,” and a fingerpicked, acoustic-led take of Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” that gets Colbert lip syncing along off camera. On a horn-driven arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” there’s a re-worked bridge that creates a generous feature spot for the guest horn players.
Every arrangement brings a new and unique perspective to a classic track, to ensure the band is “not just a wedding band doing a cover of a song on the radio.” Cato adds, “We’re arranging it and making it our own—because that’s the sonic fingerprint of our show.”
St. Vincent jams with Louis and crew.
Photo by Scott Kowalchyk
A Lifelong Path
Listening to the story of Cato’s musical life, it seems that this job—with its demand for a blend of careful strategizing and on-the-fly creative thinking, as well as effortless instrumental skills and charismatic showmanship—is what he’s been training for since the beginning.
On the morning of the taping I attended, I meet Cato in his dressing room. Painted with sky-blue walls and a cloud mural on the ceiling, it’s a comfortable place to hang. The bandleader is wearing slim-fit floral pants, a hoodie over a black T-shirt, and a long necklace. He sits across from me on his couch, next to a guitar stand that holds a few instruments—including his Tuttle, a Jesse Stern-built baritone acoustic, and his Univox LP-style—and a ’65 Deluxe Reverb reissue with a Universal Audio Dream ’65 pedal plugged into it.
“There’s not a time in my brain when I was not making music in some way or form,” Cato says. His mother, a pianist in the Church of God in Christ, bought her son a Diamond drum kit that he recalls having paper heads when he was just 2 years old, and she started teaching the toddler to accompany her. “I marvel at my mom,” he laughs. “Like, who buys their 2-year-old a drum kit?” After playing those drums every day for a year, he started accompanying her at services.
The family moved around a lot. Cato’s father was in the Air Force, and Louis was born on a base in Lisbon, Portugal, before moving to Dayton, Ohio. Not long after he started playing in church there, they moved again to Washington, D.C., and when Louis was 5 they settled in Albemarle, North Carolina. A few years later, Louis started playing guitar on a “little burgundy sunburst acoustic. Eventually, I busted a string and busted another string and just kept playing with four strings. I delved more into bass from playing bass lines on the acoustic guitar. So, for my 9th birthday, my dad bought me a 4-string bass.”
“I’d show up to Tip’s and we’d do a week of writing sessions with John Legend or have André 3000 in the studio for a couple of weeks.”
While it was strictly pragmatic reasons that initially drew him to the bass, he says his biggest inspiration was the bass player he knew best: his mother’s left hand. Her playing, rooted in the COGIC (Church of God in Christ) style, “involves heavy left-hand bass. I wasn’t as psyched to play bass in church since the way my mom plays is very defined. But eventually I kind of had to learn how she plays. It was always just her and me playing. And I had to learn to move with that and follow that. She’s a great bass player.”
Along the way, Cato picked up more instruments. By the time he headed to Berklee, he was playing drums, guitar, and bass as well as tuba, trombone, and euphonium. “I was going from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a large pond of super-talented people who had heard oodles of music I had never dreamed of,” he recalls. So, he decided to focus his studies on the instrument he’d played the longest.
Louis Cato's Gear
A glimpse at Cato’s pedals and amp, which mostly live outside of the camera’s eye, behind his stage monitor.
- Univox LP-style
- Tuttle Custom Hollow T
- 1961 Gibson SG reissue
- Martin OM-28
- ’65 Fender Princeton Reverb reissue
- Boss FV-500H Volume Pedal
- Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner
- Dunlop Cry Baby
- 3 Leaf Audio Octabvre
- J. Rockett Archer
- Truetone Jekyll & Hyde
- Xotic RC Booster
- MXR Carbon Copy
Strings and Picks
- D’Addario EJ16 (.012-.053)
- D’Addario EXL110 (.010-.046)
- Dunlop Max Grip .88 mm
Cato completed just two semesters—fall ’03 and spring ’04—before deciding to concentrate on playing the gigs that were paying his bills. “My rationale was, much to my parents’ chagrin, here’s an opportunity where I can keep learning on the job and be working my way out of the debt I went into in this year.”
Gigging with wedding and church bands gave the multi-instrumentalist an opportunity to keep all his instrumental and vocal skills alive. “My oldest daughter was born soon after that,” he recalls, “so I felt really, really aware of how lucky I was, how lucky any of us are, to make a living and support a family as a musician.” Cato spent five years in Boston, playing various instruments in gigging bands, and he frequented local institution Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club, just two blocks down the street from Berklee, “for self-education and inspiration. When that felt like I hit a ceiling, I looked at where I could go to continue my inspiration and working on the kind of projects I wanted to be working on, and that led me here.”
By that time, Cato’s friend Meghan Stabile, had moved to New York and created the promotion and production company Revive Music, which was dedicated to the kinds of jazz and hip-hop collaborations he wanted to pursue. Cato moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn, with his band Six Figures— “There were six of us; we did not make six figures!”—and would head back to Boston each weekend for the gigs that were paying his bills. Eager to soak up the New York scene, he’d return to New York on Sunday nights and go directly to jam sessions.
All that time back and forth on the Northeast Corridor paid off. A self-described musical “utility knife,” Cato’s multi-instrumentalism, as well as his talents as a songwriter, arranger, producer, and engineer, made him a major asset as a collaborator, and the New York scene took notice. Soon, he established essential connections that would affect his career, forming “an instantaneous brotherhood that continues to this day” with producer Kamaal Fareed, aka Q-Tip. “Through that, I ended up really delving into a lot of relationships and credits.”
The two artists worked on high-level collaborations that not only bolstered Cato’s reputation but served as a major piece of his education. “I’d show up to Tip’s,” he explains, “and we’d do a week of writing sessions with John Legend or have André 3000 in the studio for a couple of weeks. Sometimes things would come from it, and sometimes nothing would come from it. But being in the creative process on that level in a trusted space was invaluable for me. I learned so much.”
Outside of Q-Tip’s studio, Cato was learning from plenty of masters, mostly from behind the kit. “It’s really special when you find yourself learning things you connect to,” he says about his work alongside artists such as bassist Marcus Miller, keyboardist George Duke, and guitarist John Scofield. “And I learned so much about myself from connecting to some of these people.”
Back in 2015, Cato received a phone call from pianist Jon Batiste. The two had never met, but Batiste rang him up about a mysterious project—a theme song for a TV show that he couldn’t disclose. “I had a wisdom tooth appointment back in Boston, and I got a random call,” Cato remembers. “I think his exact words were, ‘I’d love to have your ears on it.’ And I followed my gut, rescheduled my trip, stayed in New York an extra day with an abscessed wisdom tooth.”
The two got together to co-write and produce “Humanism,” which would become the theme song for the Stephen Colbert-hosted Late Show. Batiste played piano, Cato played the guitar, bass, and drum parts and “put on my editing hat.” They brought in Joe Saylor—who would become the show’s drummer—to play tambourine, as well as saxophonist Eddie Barbash. “After the session,” Cato remembers, “I went back, got my wisdom tooth out, and went back on the road with John Scofield.”
Three of the four go-to guitars Cato uses on The Late Show: a black Tuttle T-style, a cherry-red Gibson SG, and a Martin OM-28.
At first, Cato played the multi-instrumental role of his dreams, attempting to surround himself with every instrument he could play. “That lasted about three days before reality set in,” he laughs. “Slowly, one by one, things started disappearing—a floor tom going away here, a Pro Tools setup going offstage there. Eventually, as the band formed out, I moved around to what was needed. I was the utility guy—played a lot of kazoo, a lot of cowbell.”
While on the road drumming with Sco’, Cato got the invite from Batiste to join the show’s band, Stay Human. “It was a huge life shift for me,” Cato explains. “I was making really good money on the road with really good musicians, which was really fulfilling. And I took a chance. I loved the idea of being a part of something creatively from its inception.”
Eventually, Cato settled into a more consistent electric bass role, until Batiste brought in upright player Endea Owens, and he moved to guitar, where he’s mostly stayed. When Batiste left the show last year, Cato took over as bandleader—officially starting this season, back in September—and decided he’d lead from his role as guitarist. “Of all the places I occupied,” he says, “guitar was the easiest and most natural to me to lead the band, in the energy. From behind the drums, it’s a different thing, and we’ve done it when Joe was out. But it just was a really natural progression.”
Same Show, New Job
In just a few months, Cato’s new role as bandleader has had an impact on the show. The renamed Late Show Band’s engine seems to be burning on a new kind of fuel. And it feels as though that energy is coming directly from Cato.
When we talk, the guitarist is deeply engaged, in a kind of hyper-focused way that is not intense but more casually un-distractable. He brings that same focus to the show. While Colbert delivers monologues, Cato is zoomed in on the host, listening to every word, often riffing around on his guitar to contribute musical commentary. During interviews, he’s taking cues and following the tone of the conversation, looking for ways to adapt.
The bandleader gig requires loads of big-picture improvisation, but also lots of prep. Cato explains that each week he makes a set list, but the band will react and make changes in the moment. “My job ends up being a lot of judgement calls that affect the flow of the show,” he says. “We have a group of compositions we wrote for the show that can complement different moments. If there’s a major energy shift in an interview that takes a turn or something happens in the day, like a tragedy, we’ll call one of the songs we wrote for the show for a moment such as that. Recently, we had a guest on that started improvising a song. So, I have on our in-ear mic and call out the key and start playing, and we all jump in, and now we’re doing this instead.”
Cato poses with his black-sparkle chambered T-style, made by Tuttle. “When I’m checking off core priorities in sound,” he says, “if I’m going for rhythmic things, I go to the Tele.”
Photo by Scott Kowalchyk
Watching the Late Show Band in person, I see this play out as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen explains the steps the U.S. can take to avoid a recession. It’s a heavy and heady conversation, and, frankly, it’s anything but fun. Cato knows he’ll need to pick the audience back up. As he watches from the bandstand, he gives tempo cues to the band, who nod along, so they can effectively shift the energy and get the audience re-focused for the next guest, actor/director Sarah Polley.
As a guitar player, Cato says he sticks to playing things that feel most natural to him so he can concentrate on his bandleading duties. He adds that he considers himself more a rhythm guitarist than a lead guitarist. (It’s worth noting that his delineation is more conceptual than musical: Cato is an inspired and dynamic melodic lead player, but his deeply rooted phrasing and feel is at the forefront of everything he plays, so the rhythm-first thing applies to it all.) “This is not a space as a guitar player where I’m jumping out of the box trying any and everything and exploring,” he explains. “You get to some of those places. But for me, it always has to start from something I can do while leading the band and reading the energy and making judgement calls.”
“We’re arranging it and making it our own—because that’s the sonic fingerprint of our show.”
That rooted, pragmatic ethos applies to the gear he chooses as well. “I never was a big gear person,” he admits. Luckily, he has Late Show Band tech and informed gearhead Matt Mead to help him keep his pedalboard well-stocked. “There’s so many things I’m learning about the job and trying to keep straight in my head that this ends up getting the short end of the stick, and it wouldn’t work if there was not a Matt Mead to make up the rest of that stick and make it sound good.”
“The show throws a lot of curveballs,” Mead points out. “He steers the boat as far as the tones he’s looking for and if there’s a particular sound he’s looking for. Sometimes, I’ll recommend stuff and say, ‘Hey I notice you’re doing this, maybe we should try this.’”
Cato’s collaboratively curated pedalboard is pretty simple at its core: It starts with a Boss FV-500H volume pedal, a Boss TU-3, a Dunlop Cry Baby, and 3 Leaf Audio Octabvre. Cato shows me how he uses the latter for more traditional, Hendrix-style playing, but he points out that the band plays a lot of montunoes, and he tends to use the octave pedal for those. For drive, he uses a J. Rockett Archer and a Truetone Jekyll & Hyde, which are followed by an Xotic RC Booster and an MXR Carbon Copy, all into a Fender ’65 Princeton Reverb reissue, and powered by a Voodoo Labs Pedal Power Plus.
In live performances outside of The Late Show, Cato uses various guitars, but says that the studio’s cold temperature doesn’t do many favors for instruments such as his Gibson Luther Dickinson ES-335 or some of his acoustics, so he’s careful when selecting which guitars come on stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater. The three guitars that most commonly appear on the show are his black Tuttle Custom Hollow T, a cherry red Gibson SG 1961 Reissue, and a Martin OM-28.
Another guitar that sometimes appears on the Late Show is his LP-style Univox, which I ask Cato about in his dressing room. “If I need to be altogether comfortable,” he explains, “I pull out the Univox, because it’s my earliest guitar. I’ve had this since high school.”
Cory Wong "Lunchtime" - The Late Show's Commercial Breakdown
When musical guests visit The Late Show, they get the full-band treatment from Cato and company. Here, Cory Wong sits in for a rhythm guitar showdown of the highest level.
Back when he first got the guitar, Cato remembers, it was in rough shape, desperately in need of wiring and pickup repairs and a new set of tuners. It stayed that way until he was in Boston. When he picked up a wedding band gig playing trombone and guitar, he was lucky enough to have a roommate who could get the Univox performance-ready by replacing the original tuners with locking units, cleaning out the electronics, and swapping the pickups for a pair of Seymour Duncans.
“I didn’t even know there was a such thing as a professional musician.”
But Cato says that even before those repairs, he’s always “loved it because it’s all I had. I remember I was playing a little Vox amp, and this guitar had a feeling out of that amp. This guitar just became home base and felt super natural to my fingers. If I need to just not be thinking at all, this is home.”
Did he ever dream he’d be on television every night, holding this Univox and chumming with a late-night host? “Never! Not once!” he says. “It was just a product of my nurture growing up in a small town. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a professional musician.” And yet, Cato pursued music as fully and single-mindedly as he could. “I just knew that I liked it and felt connected to it.”
A Tulip-Shaped Rarity from the “Lawsuit Era”
This Ibanez 2662 is an appealing, two-humbucker copycat design of a Ronnie Wood signature Greco rarity.
If you were to thumb through an Ibanez catalog from 1975, you’d see exactly why this period for the company and other guitar builders in Japan is known as the “lawsuit era.”
The guitars that dot the catalog’s pages look an awful lot like Gibsons, Fenders, and Rickenbackers. And these lookalikes are not mere homages inspired by classic shapes. Ibanez’s offerings represent very specific models within other brands’ then-current lineups. For example, its Les Paul-style guitars represent sunburst Standards, Customs with split-diamond headstock inlays, and even a ’70s oddity—the Les Paul Recording model.
But in Ibanez’s Custom Series, you’d see some designs you can't place so easily, including the 2662. An example of this rarity is now listed for sale on Reverb by the Austria-based Gregor Svend, and serves as the focus of this month’s column.
The 2662’s tulip-shaped body has some similarities to other Ibanez 26XX-series guitars, like the Artist Series 2680s and 2681s built for the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, yet the horns are nearly flattened. (At first, it appeared to us to be an original design, but thanks to a hawk-eyed reader, we now know the 2662 is based on the Greco RW-700, a Ron Wood Signature released the year prior.)
“By the 1976 catalog, the 2662 had disappeared completely. What a short, strange trip it must’ve been.”
In Ibanez’ 1975 Custom Series leaflet, where the 2662 made its first appearance, only its bare specs are shared: 41.5" total length, 17" x 13.75" body, Super-Humbucking pickups, a rosewood fretboard on a set neck, pearloid inlays, a brown sunburst finish, and gold hardware, including Smooth Tuners tuning pegs, a chunky bridge, and that wonderfully unique tailpiece. The control layout features two volume knobs, two tones, and a 3-way pickup selector switch.
But unlike those aforementioned Weir models, the 2662 did not catch on—perhaps because Ibanez didn’t really give it a chance. In the 1975 catalog, there is no price listed for the 2662. (Other 26XX guitars then available ranged between $391 and $631, with the 2662 likely landing on the higher end.) And by the 1976 catalog, the 2662 had disappeared completely. What a short, strange trip it must’ve been.
The pickup selector location could be easy to access or in the way, depending on a player’s right-hand approach, but the trapeze-type tailpiece invites some extended techniques on such a trimmed-down solidbody.
Exactly how many 2662s were ordered and built is not known, though they don’t pop up for sale very often. We’ve only seen two hit our site, and the other was not branded as Ibanez but as Mann, a brand name for a Canadian importer of Ibanez guitars in the ’70s. Fans of the guitar speculate that only a handful of 2662s exist, though that rarity has not led to astronomical asking prices when they do show up on the vintage market. We've seen exactly one Greco RW-700 change hands on Reverb, for the equivalent of roughly £1,300 (or a little more than $1,500).
This particular 2662 was originally listed for €3,800, but at the time of this writing had been price-dropped to €2,600 (or about $2,800). That new asking price is in line with the fancier of the two Weir-associated models (1970s 2681s average around $2,700) and a little less than the roughly $3,200 buyers spend, on average, for the Ibanez 2837CT, a korina V-style unveiled alongside the 2662 in Ibanez’s 1975 Custom Series.
Lawsuit-era guitars of all kinds seem to be getting more and more attractive to buyers, since they offer a relatively affordable entrypoint into the world of vintage guitar collecting. Can this column spark a revival for the obscure and cool 2662 (or, for that matter, the Greco RW-700)?
If a lawsuit-era guitar can command such interest, we wonder: Can this column help spark a revival for this obscure and cool Japanese original?
Sources: Ibanez catalogs from 1975 and 1976, Reverb listings, and Price Guide sales data.
A Bargain ’58 Les Paul Special
This refinished and modded 1958 Gibson Les Paul Special exemplifies the plusses of buying a “player’s guitar.”
Sometimes, the easiest route to vintage tone and playability is by finding a guitar that’s had a refinish, or other mods that haven’t disturbed its musical essence. These are called “player’s” or “player-grade” guitars in the vintage market, versus “collector’s guitars,” which are unaltered from their original state. This month’s featured instrument, a 1958 Gibson Les Paul Special, is a player’s guitar—and I’m that player.
The Les Paul Special has a deep lineage. The original Les Paul model, which came to be known as the Les Paul Standard in 1958, debuted in 1952. Two years later, as the line diversified, the Les Paul Custom arrived, as well as a student model called the Les Paul Junior. The Junior was the first slab-mahogany-body Gibson, with additional cost-saving measures evident in its single pickup, unbound fretboard, lack of binding, and plain dot neck markers. It sold for $99.50, versus the princely $225 price tag on the Standard, making the Junior the most affordable guitar in the 1954 Gibson catalog.
A year later, enter the Special. It also has a slab mahogany body, but upped the ante with two soapbar P-90 pickups, a Les Paul-style control set of two volume and two tone dials plus a 3-way toggle, a Tune-o-matic bridge and stop tailpiece (a combo Gibson debuted in 1953 on the Super 400), a wide ’50s-style fretboard, and a 1-piece mahogany neck with binding along the rosewood fretboard. The model came finished in TV yellow, and from 1955 to 1958 it featured a single cutaway. Priced at $179.50 in 1958, the Special was intended as an intermediate-level 6-string, nestled between the Junior and the original Les Paul. By 1959, the Special’s core design was changed to a double-cutaway and remained that way until a single-cutaway edition called the ’55 Les Paul Special was reissued in 1974. Today, the Les Paul Special still remains part of Gibson’s product line.
Long after someone had refinished this month’s featured guitar down to its mahogany body, I purchased it in the mid-1990s at Cambridge Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The other modifications are the replacement of the original Kluson tuners with Schaller’s and the swap of the original wraparound bridge with a Tune-o-matic, also done by a previous owner. And, of course, there’s a story.
I first saw this guitar on consignment inside a glass wall case. At the time, I did not have a slab-style Gibson, and it immediately spoke to me. I also did not yet own a P-90-equipped guitar, which amplified that voice. Honestly, I was afraid that if I played it, I’d fall in love and need to shell out the $1,200 asking price. Months passed, and it sat in the wall case, teasing me every time I made my frequent visits to the shop. One day, the inevitable happened: I asked to play it. I plugged into a couple Fenders and a Marshall combo and was struck by how comfortable the 12"-radius neck felt and how sweet the guitar sounded through a Fender Deluxe, and how spanky and barking it was through a Marshall with low-to-moderate gain, thanks to those P-90s. The term “bite” was coined for this guitar.
“That day, I walked away … but in the ensuing weeks I literally dreamed about this Les Paul Special.
That day, I walked away … but in the ensuing weeks I literally dreamed about this Les Paul Special. And then, a check for the first band profile I wrote for Rolling Stone, on Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw’s brilliantly edgy rock outfit Come, arrived. Clearing it with my wife, Laurie, I went to Cambridge Music with that check in my pocket. I explained to the shop’s co-owner, Dennis Keller, that if the consigner would agree to a price of $1,000, tax included, I would cross the street to my bank and bring back cash. Miraculously, the consigner agreed, and about a half-hour later I hit the subway with that refin Special in a black plastic “chainsaw” case with the Gibson logo on its side. I felt like a courier, escorting home a million bucks.
This ’58 Special is worth something in the neighborhood of $4,000 or a little less today. Similar single-cutaway Specials with the original finish, depending on road wear, are selling for between $13,000 and nearly $18,000. But I’m not jealous. This guitar is a flagship of great playability and classic, slab-body Gibson tone, and, due to that, this Special has paid back my initial investment with every trip it’s made to the studio and stage for nearly 30 years.
On this month’s menu, a ’64 SG TV and a ’68 EB-0—prime examples of the company’s classic mahogany slab designs.
The successful sales of the Les Paul model, launched in 1952, convinced Gibson to expand its solidbody line to include a variety of guitars aimed at players from beginner to professional. This led to the introduction of both the low-priced, flat-bodied, single-pickup Les Paul Junior and the high-priced, elaborately appointed Les Paul Custom in July 1954. By 1955, the Les Paul line also included the Les Paul TV (aka TV Yellow) and the Les Paul Special. The Les Paul Special, TV, and Junior became double cutaway by 1958.
This close-up shows both instruments in remarkably good condition, as well as their to-the-point electronics.
By 1960, waning sales for Gibson’s original Les Paul guitars prompted the company to completely redesign them. The Les Paul Standard and Custom joined the Junior, TV, and Special as part of Gibson’s line of slimmed-down mahogany-body guitars. They were reshaped to include pointed horns and beveled outer sides. The new double-cutaway body left easy access to all 22 frets. The already double-cutaway, flat-slab-bodied Les Paul Junior, SG TV, and SG Special received the new dimensions and contours during 1961. (The Les Paul TV and Les Paul Special had been renamed “SG” in late 1959.) This whole group of guitars became known as the SG Series when Les Paul’s endorsement ended in 1963.
Gibson introduced its first electric bass guitar in 1953 and named it the ‘Electric Bass.’ (Catchy, right?)
The SG TV’s early catalog description explained the important details: “Ultra-thin, contoured, double-cutaway body, nickel-plated metal parts, quality machine heads. Slim, fast, low-action neck-with exclusive extra-low frets—joins body at the 22nd fret. One-piece mahogany neck, adjustable truss rod. rosewood fingerboard, pearl dot inlays. Combination bridge and tailpiece, adjustable horizontally and vertically. Powerful pickup with individually adjustable polepieces.”The original price for the 1964 SG TV pictured was about $147.50. The current value is $5,000. The guitar was the soul of simplicity, with a single bridge P-90 and one volume and one tone control.
And now, let’s look at our SG’s 4-stringed friend.Gibson introduced its first electric bass guitar in 1953 and named it the “Electric Bass.” (Catchy, right?) It was followed by various EB models over the next several years, including the semi-hollow EB-2 in 1958 and the double-cutaway solidbody EB-0 in 1959. By 1961, the EB series also received the thin SG-shaped body.
This 100-watt Marshall PA head, with four sets of inputs, is rare and currently valued at about $10,000.
The 1966 catalog describes the latter model as “a new, economy-priced solidbody bass by Gibson—it offers clear sustaining bass response, easy fast playing action, modern cherry red finish.”Although a custom color option is not mentioned, the 1968 example pictured is finished in a white similar to the SG TV. Like it’s SG counterpart on display this month, this bass has a single pickup and one volume and one tone control. The original price was about $240. The current value is $2,500.
Behind the instruments is a 1967 Marshall PA. This 1968 JTM100 Super PA head pushes 100 watts through two columns of four 12"20-watt Celestion greenback speakers. The controls on the head are power and standby switches, presence, bass, middle, and treble, plus four loudness controls for each channel, along with two input jacks each for channels 1 through 4. About £200 in British currency could get you this PA in 1967. The current value is $10,000.
Sources for this article include Gibson Electrics: The Classic Yearsby A.R. Duchossoir, Gibson Guitars: Ted McCarty’s Golden Era—1948-1966 by Gil Hembree, and The History of Marshall: The First Fifty Years by Michael Doyle and Nick Bowcott.