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Vintage Vault: 1961 Gibson SG Special

Vintage Vault: 1961 Gibson SG Special

Carlos Santana, Robby Krieger, and Pete Townshend were among the early champions of the Gibson SG Special—
shown here in its first incarnation.

A first-generation example of the double-P-90 model that Santana played at Woodstock.

By 1960, diminishing sales for Gibson's original Les Paul solidbody guitar line compelled the company to gradually drop the then-current models and replace them with an entirely newly redesigned set. The Les Paul Standard was the first guitar to receive the new treatment, which involved slimming down the mahogany body, discarding the separate maple top, and beveling both outer sides. These comfortably rounded edges were especially important, since they were positioned where a player's arm would rest. The new double-cutaway body left easy access to all 22 frets. The already double-cutaway (since 1958) flat-slab-bodied Les Paul Junior, SG TV, and SG Special (the Les Paul TV and Les Paul Special had been renamed “SG" in late 1959) also received the new slim shape and contours during 1961. This whole group of guitars became known as the SG series when Les Paul's endorsement ended in 1963. The SG Special's early catalog description explained the important details:

When the Les Paul Special was reconfigured into the SG Special in 1961, its flat slab design was altered to include graduated edging, making access to the highest frets easier and creating a more comfortable profile
for resting the picking arm.

• Slim, fast, low-action neck with exclusive extra-low frets, joins body at 22nd fret

• Rosewood fingerboard, pearl dot inlays

• One-piece mahogany neck, adjustable truss rod

• Combination metal bridge and tailpiece, adjustable horizontally and vertically

• Twin powerful pickups with separate tone and volume controls, which can be pre-set

• Three-position toggle switch to activate either or both pickups

• 12 3/4" wide, 17 1/4" long, 1 3/4" thin, 24 3/4" scale, 22 frets

This example's classic '60s-profile Gibson headstock has the patina of its years. The slightly bent tuning key indicates this guitar was more likely played than kept in a closet.

The 1961 SG Special pictured here has the early features particular to the first half of that year. These include a level neck joint transition on the back where the body and neck meet—which proved unstable and was replaced with a ledge that became more prominent after 1962—and a slanted combination bridge tailpiece, which was replaced at the end of '61 with a compensated tailpiece with the studs parallel to the pickups. This example also has a TV Yellow finish, which was standard on the model before the change to the thin body shape. The color was replaced later in the year by an opaque creamy white. The 1961 list price was $210. The current value for one in excellent all-original condition is $7,500.

Artists known for using Gibson SG Specials for recordings and live work are Carlos Santana, Robby Krieger from the Doors, and Pete Townshend from the Who.

Sources for this article include Gibson Electrics: The Classic Years by A.R. Duchossoir, Gibson Guitars: Ted McCarty's Golden Era, 1948-1966 by Gil Hembree, and The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy, 1915-1963 by Robb Lawrence.