If you want to know what guitar a great guitarist really plays — you need to look beyond what they are playing now — and hearken back to what guitar they were playing when they were poor, unknown, and hungering for fame.  I argue today, that the greatest guitarists of our time started off their careers playing the Gibson Les Paul — even though Fender and the Stratocaster and Telecaster were cheaper and beat the Les Paul to market.

The seminal year for the Gibson Les Paul — then and now — is the 1959 version.

Eric Clapton played his Les Paul in all of his early groups.  Today, he plays a Fender Stratocaster with his name on it, but he owes his early recording fame to Gibson and a Les Paul fingerboard.

Here’s Jeff Beck playing, in the early years, his famous “Oxblood” Les Paul.  Jeff is also owned by Fender today, with his own namesake guitar, but Jeff built his reputation on the back of Gibson mahogany.

Jeff has recently tried to recant his Les Paul years — by calling it a “sissy” guitar — but I think he was making a joke because a Les Paul is much easier, and much less complicated, to play than a Fender.  You have a whammy bar on a Stratocaster — which does make things more tonally tougher.

Here’s Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones wielding a Les Paul.

Do you recognize a young and vibrant Keith Richards playing his Les Paul during a Rolling Stones recording session?

Pete Townshend of “The Who” also picked up a Les Paul and made it sing for you.

Fender-fabulous Jimi Hendrix played a Gibson Les Paul in performance.

Let’s don’t forget the infamously talented Bob Dylan — and his on stage Les Paul inspiration.

Money makes the moment and cash carves the man — and if Gibson had a more aggressive PR department and larger promotional budget, the company might have its old adopters back in the fold — but Gibson would have to pay a lot to play, and in the Age of the Boutique Gibson Guitar that sells for $6,000.00USD, they don’t need no stinkin’ stars!

So, we’re left with Slash and Ace Frehley and Lenny Kravitz and Joe Bonamassa and Gary Moore as our current Les Paul luminaries — but we still can’t help wondering which guitar our old favorites would play if we removed money from the table and currency from the mindset — and our mind is met with the pinging strings of a resonating Les Paul as the passion and the purpose replace the momentary monument to mainstream ease of popularity.

23 Comments

  1. Great article! I didn’t realize this, really cool! I think that’s what J Bonamassa used in “Blue and Evil” I don’t think drummers have the same deal, probably because there are more drum companies and brands to choose from??

    Hmeh. Who knows.

    1. That’s a good point, Shane. There are really only two competing electric guitar companies: Gibson and Fender. I don’t think we consider keyboards with the same rapt attention, either. I guess the guitar is more mobile and photographic and easier to identify than the other hidden instruments in a band performance.

  2. This is one of those impossible debates. The Les Paul and the Clapton Strat could not be more different. Both are amazing. In the right hands, they will exceed expectations. It simply comes down to the voice (tone) you are chasing. Both are wonderfully playable. But, my subjective opinion is that I prefer the Clapton. I like the wider tonal range, longer scale, comfortable neck, small frets, and every single sound I get from it. All of my favorite blues songs sound better to me through the Clapton strat. Mellow to snarling. It’s perfection. Single coil pure tone w grit and overdrive on reserve. It sings. Period.

    1. You make excellent points, Tom. I’m moving into playing more Jazz now, and I installed Thomastik-Infeld Jazz Swing flatwounds on my Les Pauls, my new Ibanez archtop and, a few days ago, my Clapton Custom — just because I wanted to see how the Clapton would take to the new 13-53 strings.. They all sound great, but I was incredibly surprised by the creaminess of the “Jazz Sound” that flowed out of my Clapton Custom neck PU. It was so beautiful and round and absolutely “Jazzy.” The Clapton is at least 30% easier for me to play than a Gibson for all the reasons you mention, and I’m left to reconsider the definition of a “Jazz Guitar.”

      1. Your analysis of the EC and LP was spot on. Even though the Clapton is my favorite by far, I sample the Les Pauls every time I go to the local shop. If I ever pull the trigger and buy one, it will be the ’57 reissue goldtop (R7?) or the 60 reissue (might be called the 60 classic, recent reissue?). For my ear, I’d have to go with humbuckers over P90. Although I heard Pat Travers play blues on a 54 or 56 w soapbars and it blew me away.

      2. Any string recommendations for the EC? Blues, lots of bends and vibratos. I guess I prefer to warm up the EC v brightening it. I can’t handle 13’s. 10’s feel pretty good.

  3. Eric Clapton ‘s the best guitar player and it doesn’t matter which guitar he plays , Gibson or Fender ! he plays strats and Gibson hollow bodies , as he palyed LPs and SGs . there are some guitar players who can’t play different types of electrics , like BB King or Gary Moore or Hubert Sumlin or many others , but Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix are different . Clapton has played a song with classical , acoustic , hollow body , and solid body guitars , from Jose Ramirez to Gibson or Fender and they’re all beautiful ! some like his LP’s era tones and some prefer strat’s era , but all of them love his signature tones , which you can hear from Gibson humbuckers , as well as Fender single coils !