GIBSON 1954 LES PAUL CUSTOM BLACK BEAUTY
Dec 24, 2005 (Updated Feb 3, 2008)
Review by Dr.P
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:It is the most unique sounding Les Paul ever made.
The Bottom Line: It is the most unique sounding Les Paul ever made.
Back in 1952, when Gibson launched the Les Paul line of electric guitars, you could have any color you wanted, as long as it was Gold. Because the front of the guitar was the color of Gold, the guitar quickly earned the nickname of Goldtop, and that name has stuck to this day. According to early interviews with Les Paul, and as can also be verified on the Gibson website, Les wanted the line of guitars that carried his name to come in two colors. One was gold, because it he felt that gold symbolized all that was fine in life. The other color he requested was black, because as a performer, he felt that a musicians hands and fingers would stick out more clearly against the black background of the guitar, at the time, Les Paul was at the height of his career, and no one had quicker fingers than that boy.
Recommend this product?
In a previous review on the 1952 Goldtop and the 1954 Goldtop, I discussed some of the history of the development of the Les Paul Guitar, and as such it does not bear repeating here. Those interested in finding out more about the history of this guitar, can go to the Gibson website for information, or to the many websites dedicated to Les Paul himself, or to the guitars that bear his name. You may even wish to check out my reviews of the 1952 Goldtop Reissue or the 1954 Goldtop Reissue guitars, if you are so inclined. Now on to my review of the 1954 Les Paul Custom Black Beauty Reissue.
This model of the Les Paul Custom had a very short run of only three years, from 1954 to 1957, but a faithful reproduction, of which I am writing about here, is still available as a reissue from Gibson. I must confess that I am very partial to this guitar. It was the first good electric guitar that I owned. I purchased an original 1956 model back in 1969 used for $100. It was in unplayable condition, and it took me 9 months of painstaking work to restore to its original glory. Alas, after falling in love with this guitar, it was stolen, but that is another story. I have never owned or played a guitar that was this magnificent again. However, the 1954 Gibson Les Paul Custom Reissue is remarkably true to the original, and if any one out there wishes to buy me one for a present to help me get over my grief, I would humbly accept such a gift.
The 1954 Les Paul Custom Reissue, like its original predecessor the original 1954 version, is made of solid mahogany. There are no weight relief holes drilled into the body of this guitar like there are on newer Les Paul models. Newer Les Pauls have up to 9 weight relief holes drilled into strategic parts of the body to reduce the weight, and they also use a lighter weight mahogany. Apparently the folks at Gibson turned into weight watchers, as they became conscious of the publics complaints that the early original Les Pauls were just too heavy to play long night gigs. Personally, I never found this to be the case, and I love the balance and weight (all 9 pounds and 12 ounces of it) of the 1954 Custom Reissue. For those who prefer a lighter guitar, such as a Gibson SG or a Fender Stratocaster, be warned, the 1954 Reissue is one heavy guitar, and the whole body is made of carved Mahogany. The Les Paul 1954 Custom does not have a maple top like most other Les Pauls do, and so it sounds different from its brothers. Part of this difference in sound can be attributed to the wood that is used in building this guitar, as well as to the type of pickups that were used. I shall focus first on the wood, and address the pickups later on in the review.
Typically most Les Paul models have a Mahogany body with a Maple top and a Rosewood fretboard. The use of a Maple top adds a different coloration to the sound of a guitar than does using Mahogany alone. Maple is a very hard wood that produces a sharp bite and a long sustain. Mahogany is a very stable and consistent wood, and it also produces a sharp bite, but it is also is known for its enhancement of the midrange and bass frequencies. It can produce a singingly sweet sustain, and a rich round fullness. Jazz players loved this guitar. The fretboard of the 1954 Les Paul Custom is made of solid Ebony, as compared to the traditional Rosewood fret board found on most Les Pauls. Ebony is a very finely grained, and very hard dense wood, and this adds extra snap, definition, and crispness to the sound.
While I am on the topic of the woods used in making the 1954 Les Paul Custom Reissue, it think it is also important to discuss the finish of the guitar. The color is a rich deep midnight black ebony that is absolutely gorgeous, especially when highlighted by the gold hardware and binding. The guitar is encased in a nitrocellulose lacquer, just like the originals were. Lacquer lets the guitar breath and does not stiffen or dampen the resonant qualities of the wood the way some other finishing products do. A number of signature series guitars from other major brands also have been turning to guitars made with nitrocellulose lacquer for these very same reasons, as opposed to the polyurethane finishes on their other mass produced nonsignature series of guitars.
The 1954 Les Paul Custom Reissue has pearl block inlayed position markers on the neck, and they look just like the originals, both in shape and color. There is a distinctive and attractive split diamond mother of pearl inlay on the headstock as well, which adds to the subtle elegance of this guitar. A single ply white binding adorns the neck. The neck has 22 frets and an Ebony fret board over a solid Mahogany neck, and there is even binding on the headstock. To add to the elegance, there is also multi-ply white/black binding on the sides of the front and back of the body of the guitar, as well as gold hardware that puts the icing on the cake.
The neck on the 1954 Les Paul Custom Reissue is an early 1950s style, which some people refer to as a baseball bat neck because of its thickness. Personally, I love the neck on this guitar because it gives you something to grab onto, and provides proper leverage for those slow soulfully mean blues oriented string bends, and it is just wide enough for precision finger placement when playing lightning fast jazz riffs. The original 1954 Custom was also nicknamed the Fretless Wonder by some. That is because the wire used in making the frets was broad and flat, and this permitted the action of the guitar to be lower than on other guitars made at the time. When used in combination with the firm Ebony fretboard, the guitar was so easy to play, that people likened it to a fretless instrument, and thus the guitar earned the nickname Fretless Wonder. A problem with this design was that because the frets were so low to the fret board it was more difficult for some players to bend the strings for blues riffs, and blues players preferred the Les Paul Goldtop, and later the Les Paul Standard for that reason. Gibson has thankfully made the frets on the 1954 Reissue version a bit higher and they are medium sized, and this has made the 1954 Reissue suitable to any style of playing. The tuning pegs are kidney bean style tuners, and as mentioned above, the color of the hardware is gold. The bridge is an ABR-1 bridge, and the tailpiece is a stopbar. The contrast of the white, black, and gold color combinations are reminiscent of a sharp dressed man in a Tuxedo.
There are a few differences between the 1954 Goldtop Reissue and the 1954 Les Paul Custom Reissue which reflect the evolution of the Les Paul guitar as a musical instrument, and which improved the guitar both cosmetically and functionally. The 1954 Goldtop had a one-piece wrap-a-round bridge/tailpiece, and the strings wrap over the bridge/tailpiece. The design of the bridge/tailpiece on the 1954 Goldtop has similar attributes to the bridge on a good acoustic guitar. The biggest drawback with this tailpiece is that one cannot adjust the intonation of the strings with the same precision that one can with a modern tune-o-matic bridge. In an effort to improve the playability and functionality of the Les Paul line, the 1954 Custom was the first guitar to be fitted with the newly designed tune-o-matic bridge and stopbar tailpiece. This bridge, sometimes referred to as the ABR-1, was an instant success, and from then on, became the standard bridge found on the newer versions of the Goldtop, Les Paul Standard, and of course the Custom.
As to the sound, there is simply no other Les Paul that sounds like this one, and it is a wondrous instrument to hear. This guitar comes with one single coil P-90 pickup in the bridge position, as well as the then newly designed 480 Alnico 5 single coil pickup in the neck position. Both of these pickups of course preceded the introduction of the humbucking pickups in 1957. The sound of the P-90 in the bridge position can produce a wide variety of sounds, and enable the player to reproduce classic blues, rock, jazz, country, and just about anything in between. However, one of the things that sets this guitar apart from all other Les Pauls is the 480 Alnico 5 pickup (sometimes incorrectly referred to as a P-90 Alnico 5 pickup).
Unlike the typical screw pole pieces in the P-90, the 480 has large rectangular pole pieces, which are both unique in shape and distinctive in sound. Most pickups made during this era had a long magnet with screw like pole pieces deriving their magnetic properties from proximity to the core magnet. The thing that sets the 480 apart from other pickups of this era was that the pole pieces themselves were actually individual magnets, and thus the 480 had six individual Alnico pole piece magnets. This pickup was designed by the legendary Seth Lover, who is best known as the inventor of the Humbucking pickup, which later revolutionized the sound of the Gibson guitar line. The 480 Alnico pickup found on the 1954 Gibson Les Paul Custom is nothing short of amazing. When it is cranked up to 10, it is more loud and powerful than a typical P-90, and produces a sound that can vary from warm creamy sound to a stingingly sweet bite. When the volume is turned down a bit, the 480 Alnico 5 produces a warm jazzy sound that just cannot be believed unless you hear it. Mr. Les Paul himself was noted to prefer the middle position on the toggle switch, thus engaging both pickups, and adjusting them to get the best of both worlds.
For the technically minded, there are 12 different types of Alnico magnets (Alnico 1 through 12), and Alnico 2 and Alnico 5 are the most commonly used in making guitar pickups, although Alnico 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8 have also been used at times. Each different Alnico Magnet has different magnetic properties, and each one has different sound characteristics. Alnico is a composite material that is made of a combination of Aluminum, Nickel, Cobalt, and Iron. Different types of Alnico magnets are used in different types of pickups, and each produces different sounds qualities. The original 1954 Les Paul Custom introduced the Alnico 5 pickup to the Les Paul, and these specially designed single coil pickups are also found on the 1954 Reissue. The Alnico 5 pickup employs a higher strength magnet with a very directional (Isotropic) pattern, and is noted for its distinctive tone. The pickups on this guitar produce a very classic and distinctive sound, and according to Gibson, every effort was made to be sure that these pickups were wound to the same specifications that were used in the 1950s. For those of you out there who want to have a sound that is like no other, you must consider the 1954 Les Paul Custom because the 480 Alnico 5 pickup sounds like no other, and the combination of the P-90 and 480 is distinctively unique. The 480 Alnico 5 is a very rarely seen pickup, and was only used on Gibsons top of the line jazz guitars and the Les Paul Custom, and they were only used for three years, beginning in 1954. Starting in 1957, when the Humbucking pickup was introduced, the production of the 480 was sadly discontinued.
The external controls are the same much what you would find on any modern Les Paul, namely two volume controls and two tone controls, one for each pickup. As with the 1952 and 1954 Goldtop Reissues, these controls are attached to Bumblebee Capacitors. I have discussed these in a previous review, and as such I do not want to take up the readers time by discussing them again here. For those interested in the specifics of the Bumblebee Capacitors, you may wish to read my review of the 1952 Goldtop Reissue.
The bottom line for me is this. This is my favorite Les Paul Guitar. It has amazing tonal variation, excellent control over intonation, and a sound like no other Les Paul ever made. This guitar was never as popular as other guitars in the Les Paul line of guitars, and its tonal qualities are not as well known because of this. For a musician who wants a distinctive sound, there is no other Les Paul that sounds like this one. For the collector, this is a must own guitar, and since so few of the originals were made, it may be the only way for a person to own a guitar that is this close to the original sound and feel of a 1954 Les Paul Custom Black Beauty Guitar. It is sure to keep its value, and may itself be a collectors item some day. With that being said, I need to get back to my practicing.
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