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6 Legendary Guitars/RIP Les Paul

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Getty Images

[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"][/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"][/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"][/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"][/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"][/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.]

Check out past On Music posts here >>

Ralph Gatti, AFP/Getty Images
The 'David Bowie Is' Exhibition Is Coming to Your Smartphone
 Ralph Gatti, AFP/Getty Images
Ralph Gatti, AFP/Getty Images

"David Bowie is," an exhibition dedicated to the life, work, and legacy of the pop icon, concluded its six-year world tour on July 15. If you didn't get a chance to see it in person at its final stop at New York City's Brooklyn Museum, you can still experience the exhibit at home. As engadget reports, the artifacts displayed in the collection will be recreated in virtual and augmented reality.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, the curator of the exhibit, and the David Bowie Archive are collaborating with Sony Music Entertainment and the sound and media studio Planeta on the new project, "David Bowie is Virtual." Like the physical exhibition, the digital experience will integrate visual scenes with the music of David Bowie: 3D scans will bring the musician's costumes and personal items into the virtual sphere, allowing viewers to examine them up close, and possibly in the case of the outfits, try them on.

"These new digital versions of ‘David Bowie is’ will add unprecedented depth and intimacy to the exhibition experience, allowing the viewer to engage with the work of one of the world’s most popular and influential artists as never before," the announcement of the project reads. "Both the visual richness of this show and the visionary nature of Bowie and his art makes this a particularly ideal candidate for a VR/AR adaptation."

"David Bowie is Virtual" will be released for smartphones and all major VR and AR platforms sometimes this fall. Like the museum exhibition, it will come with an admission price, with a portion of the proceeds going toward the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Brooklyn Museum.

[h/t engadget]

Why Do Orchestras Tune to an A Note?

When orchestra members tune their instruments before a performance, it almost always sounds the same. That’s because across the world, most orchestras tune to the same A note, using a standard pitch of 440 hertz.

This is the result of international standards that have been in place since the 19th century, according to WQXR, a classical music radio station in New York City. Currently, standard tuning frequency is set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), an international group that makes recommendations on everything from what safety labels should look like to how big the hole in a pen cap should be. A standard called ISO 16, first recommended in 1955 and confirmed in 1975, “specifies the frequency for the note A in the treble stave and shall be 440 hertz.”

The ISO didn’t pull that frequency out of thin air. During the Industrial Revolution, a rush toward standardization and universality led to multiple international meetings that aimed to bring orchestras all over the world to the same pitch. Standardizing pitch had important ramifications for the international music scene.

Historically, the pitch that orchestras tuned to could differ wildly depending on where the musicians were playing. “In the course of the last 400 years in Europe, the point that has been considered ideal for a reference pitch has fluctuated by some 5 or 6 semitones,” musicologist Bruce Haynes explained in his book, A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of ‘A.’ In the 17th century, a French performer might tune his or her instrument a whole tone lower than their German colleagues. The standards could even change from one town to the next, affecting how music written in one location might sound when played in another.

As a writer for London's The Spectator observed in 1859, “It is well known that when we are performing Handel's music (for example) from the very notes in which he wrote it, we are really performing it nearly a whole tone higher than he intended;—the sound associated in his ear with the note A, being nearly the same sound which, in our ear, is associated with the note G.”

In the 19th century, a commission established by the French government tried to analyze pitch across Europe by looking at the frequencies of the tuning forks musicians used as their reference while tuning their instruments. The commission gathered tuning forks from different cities, finding that most were pitched somewhere around 445 hertz. Over the years, due to bigger concert halls and more advanced instruments, pitch was rising across most orchestras, and instruments and voices were being strained as a result. So the commission recommended lowering the standard to what was known as “the compromise pitch.”

In 1859, the French commission legally established diapason normal, the standard pitch for the A above middle C, at 435 hertz. (The music world would still be debating whether or not pitch had risen too much more than a century later.) Later, 435 hertz became enshrined as a standard elsewhere, too. In 1885, government representatives from Italy, Austria, Hungary, Prussia, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Württemberg met to establish their own international standard, agreeing on 435 hertz. The agreement was eventually written into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

But not everyone was on board with 435 hertz. The Royal Philharmonic Society in London believed the French pitch standard was pegged to a specific temperature—59°F—and decided to adjust their pitch upward to compensate for their concert halls being warmer than that, settling on 439 hertz. Meanwhile, in 1917, the American Federation of Musicians declared 440 hertz to be the standard pitch in the U.S.

In 1939, the International Standardizing Organization met in London to agree on a standard for concert pitch to be used across the world. A Dutch study of European pitch that year had found that while pitch varied across orchestras and countries, the average of those varied pitches was around 440 hertz. So it made sense for the ISO to choose A 440. Furthermore, radio broadcasters and technicians like the BBC preferred A 440 to the English A 439 because 439 was a prime number and thus harder to reproduce in a laboratory.

World War II delayed the official launch of the 1939 ISO agreement, but the organization issued its A 440 decision in 1955, then again two decades later. A 440 was here to stay. That said, even now, pitch does vary a little depending on the musicians in question. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra notably tunes to 443 hertz rather than the standard 440 hertz, for instance. While A 440 may be the official “concert pitch” across the world, in practice, there is still a little wiggle room.

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