6 Legendary Guitars/RIP Les Paul

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[It is with sadness that we report Les Paul's death today, at the age of 94. I had the pleasure of meeting Les a couple times when I was playing guitar with Pat Martino. Pat and Les were good friends, and the three of us had drinks once when Les had his standing gig at a small, now defunct jazz club across the street from Lincoln Center. That night, I asked Les if he really loved the guitar named after him, and he said dryly, "It pays the rent."In honor of Les, I thought we'd rerun this post, which, curiously, went up earlier this week. Goodbye Les, we'll all miss your music making...]

Each guitar on this list helped define either a genre, a sound, or in some cases, a career. Think of it as an introduction to some of the most popular guitars in the world. For the companion post on 5 Legendary Keyboards, click here.

1. Gibson Les Paul

Design: In the early "˜50s, Gibson president Ted McCarty approached jazz phenomenon Les Paul and asked if the guitarist would lend his name to a new guitar, then in design stages. Paul agreed, and also lent some minor advice along the lines of color schemes. In 1952, one of the world's most famous guitars of all-time was unveiled. Except for a period of time in the mid "˜60s, it's been in production ever since.

[caption id="attachment_31639" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Les Paul with his LesPaul"][/caption]

Look/Feel/Sound: The signature sound of the Les Paul is warm and full, with lots of sustain. In fact, the instrument's sustain is so well known, it was used as a joke in This Is Spinal Tap. Nigel Tufnel is showing mockumentarian Marty DiBergi his guitar collection and holds up a Les Paul Standard, showing off the sustain without actually playing a note. While there are many different models and styles, with slightly different pickup configurations and cut-aways, all Les Paul's, like all Gibson's in general, feature top-mounted strings, rather than through the guitar body, as seen in competitor Fender's designs.

Guitarists who helped make it a legend: Les Paul, of course, but just about every important guitarist over the last half century has recorded with one. The most famous devotee is probably Jimmy Page, who, when he wasn't playing his trusty double neck, was generally armed with one. Coupled with his Marshall stack amplifiers and sometimes a cello bow, Page was able to pull even more sustain out of the instrument.

Hear it in action:

2. Gibson Flying V

Design: Orville Gibson, a mandolin maker from Kalamazoo, MI, founded Gibson way back in the late 1800s. But the Gibson Flying V didn't hit the market until three quarters of a century later, in 1958, and was a flying flop that Ted McCarty, Gibson's then-president, immediately discontinued.

[caption id="attachment_31154" align="alignleft" width="299" caption="Albert King"]Albert King[/caption]

Look/Feel/Sound: In 1955, Gibson introduced its classic double-coil "humbucking" pickup, which was incorporated onto this odd, V-shaped guitar, clearly ahead of its time. Between the mahogany body and the double-coil pickup, the Flying V quickly became known for its powerful sound.

Guitarists who helped make it a legend: Bluesman Albert King got a hold of the Flying V in '58 and never let go. But it wasn't until Dave Davies started using one in the "˜60s that Gibson decided to reissue the guitar in 1967. Other famous guitarists who helped popularize the instrument include Hendrix, Billy Gibbons, Rudolph and Michael Schenker, Kirk Hammett, and Eddie Van Halen.

3. Fender Telecaster

Design: Another Leo Fender creation, the Telecaster hit the market in 1949 and has been going strong ever since. It is considered the very first solid-body guitar to make a significant impact on the music scene. It was also the first solid-body guitar mass-produced on an assembly line.

[caption id="attachment_31159" align="alignleft" width="211" caption="Keith Richards"]KEITHR[/caption]

Look/Feel/Sound: Like the Fender Strat, the Telecaster (aka Tele), is known for it's bright, rich tone. It has two single-coil pickups, as opposed to the Strat's traditional three. One of the most famous solos ever recorded with the Tele is Jimmy Page's "Stairway to Heaven" solo.

Guitarists who helped make it a legend: The Father of Chicago Blues, Muddy Waters, was an early signature user, as were many other blues players such as Roy Buchanan and Albert Collins, who was sometimes called "The Master of the Telecaster." The Clash's Joe Strummer was rarely seen without one, and it was a favorite of Andy Summers, as well as Keith Richards.

Hear it in action:

4. Fender Stratocaster

Design: Fender first put out the "Strat," the brilliant work of Leo Fender, George Fullerton and Freddie Tavares, in 1954.

Look/Feel/Sound: The Strat features a double-cutaway, sleek, contoured body, often referred to by Fender as a "Comfort Contour Body." Those three single-coil pickups in the middle of the body further define not only the look of the Strat, but the famous sound, which is clean, crisp, and twangy.

[caption id="attachment_31145" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Buddy Holly"]BuddyHolly_EdSullivan_OhBoy[/caption]

Guitarists who helped make it a legend: While it's hard to find a well-known guitarist who hasn't recorded or owned a Strat, there are definitely certain musicians who relied heavily on the guitar during their careers. Early on in the guitar's history, Buddy Holly helped turn the instrument into a familiar icon, using it almost exclusively in the late "˜50s, and most notably on his Ed Sullivan performance in 1958.

In the "˜60s, it was Jimi Hendrix who really helped push the guitar to legendary status. Because Hendrix was left-handed, yet generally used a right-handed Stratocaster flipped upside-down and strung left-handed, he got a bit of a different tone out of the instrument because the pickups were reversed. This gave a brighter punch to the lower strings, and warmer tone to the higher strings. Since his death, Fender has released many Hendrix "tribute" Strats, both left-handed versions, and right-handed versions, in attempt to try and recreate the Hendrix Stratocaster sound.

Hear it in action:

5. Gibson SG

Design: In 1961, Gibson added some horns to the cutaways of the Les Paul and slimmed down the body. The result was a really cool looking solid body (or SG) that Les Paul didn't like at all. So he made Gibson take his name off the instrument, and like that the SG was born. It's been in production in one form or another ever since.

[caption id="attachment_31166" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Angus Young"]Angus Young[/caption]

Look/Feel/Sound: Gibson advertised the SG as having the "fastest neck in the world", because the neck profile was slender. This, combined with the thinner body, means less sustain than the Les Paul, but the SG still packs quite a punch. It's like Gibson's answer to the Fender Strat, only with a slightly warmer tone.

Guitarists who helped make it a legend: Another long list here, including George Harrison, Tony Iommi, Elliot Easton, The Edge, Dave Grohl, and Frank Zappa. But perhaps the most famous is Angus Young, of AC/DC fame, who was rarely seen with anything but the SG. Gibson even produced an Angus Young Signature SG model.

6. Gibson Explorer

Design: For one brief year, between 1958 and 1959, Gibson put out one of the most unusual looking guitars to leave a major imprint on the scene, ever. Thing is, at first it was an exploratory flop, way ahead of its time. When other guitar manufacturers brought out Explorer knock-offs in the "˜70s, Gibson re-issued the once-futuristic looking guitar, and it became an instant favorite of heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden, and glam metal rockers like Mötley Crüe.

[caption id="attachment_31165" align="alignleft" width="248" caption="James Hetfield"]James Hetfield[/caption]

Look/Feel/Sound: Obviously the look is unique. The same can't really be said about this guitar's sound, which is rather average. Although, in the early "˜80s, when metal bands were using them nearly to a fault, Gibson introduced an Explorer with high-output, "Dirty Fingers" humbucker pickups. This made an already "˜loud' design, a really loud instrument. So loud, you would expect a Spinal Tap joke about how the guitar went to 14, four louder than 10.

Guitarists who helped make it a legend: Again, we're talking loud bands here, so James Hetfield, Eddie Van Halen, and Dave Murray, for sure. But some others have helped bring the Explorer to center stage, including: The Edge, and bands like ZZ Top and Cheap Trick.

[If you're wondering why songs weren't used as examples in this post, mental_floss is no longer able to offer excerpts from copyrighted music. We apologize.]

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August 13, 2009 - 10:00am
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