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Greg Rutkowski

Dr. Froelich

English 30

October 5, 2009

                                      Cultural Artifact

       When the senses are flooded with a perfect hour glass shape, long lean

composition and warmth that emanates like the glow of a flame, most think of a woman.

The companionship of the female is one of the most desired and welcomed feelings for

most people. However some would associate these traits with another kind of beauty, one

that is not even human. These characteristics are also shared by a certain electric guitar.

This feminine doppelganger is called the “Les Paul”. Although the figurative allure of the

guitar is similar to that of a “woman”, the guitar itself really has nothing feminine at all in

its long legacy in the world of music. In fact, the Gibson Les Paul has been slung at the

sides of many great musicians that have shaped every facet and axiom of what we call

music today. The instrument has had prominence throughout many genres and musical

trends and time periods of the twentieth century. Like many fine wines, there are just

certain years where the drink has surpassed the expectations of the connoisseur and the

quality is that not originally conceived. In the case of the Les Paul, the year 1959 is one

of the best years for the guitar with respect to a gamut of characteristics. Again, like wine,

despite there being many bottles in the cellar, there will always be the year that is most

appreciated and pursued by those connoisseurs. If one considers the musician to be the

equivalent to a fan of wine, it is apparent that the 1959 Les Paul has been the choice of

many musical greats. Not only is the guitar popular, but original. While others have
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attempted to recreate the magic of the Les Paul, only the original Gibson Les Paul has

been able to satisfy the intricate tastes of some of the greatest guitarists of all time. While

other guitars succumbed to an untimely industrial demise, the Gibson Les Paul has

persevered through the tribulations of time, and established itself as one of the greatest

cultural artifacts of all time

          The purpose of the musical instrument is the creation of a frequency by the

manipulation of the musician. This frequency translates to a specific pitch that becomes a

common note on a musical staff. These notes are played in succession by a perfect

melding of the musician and the instrument and music is in turn created. What makes the

Gibson Les Paul so special is that even though it sufficed in creating this sound, the

guitar produced these sounds better than any other model at the time (Bishop). There has

been only one manufacturer that has been the sole source of such a great “sound”. While

there have been several knockoffs of the Les Paul, only the guitar maker Gibson is truly

responsible for the quality of the Les Paul for all these years (“Gibson”).

          Many factors are responsible for the perpetual celebration of the Les Paul. The

constant praise the guitar receives is most often contributed by not just one quality, but all

the qualities the guitar possesses (Duchossoir 53-83). Others say that because the Les

Paul is the oldest solid body electric guitar, Gibson has had decade after decade to perfect

the process of creating the Les Paul and its signature sound. Although the guitar has been

around since the early fifties, Gibson itself feels that the best models are indeed from the

1958-1960 era (“Gibson”). They feel so strongly about the 1959 model, that upon its

fiftieth anniversary, they have almost “cloned” the model and have re-released it to the

public.
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       To fully familiarize ones self with the Les Paul and why it has such an extensive

legacy, it is crucial to also grasp its original conceptualization and commercial roots. The

Les Paul is the guitar that blazed a trail for every other guitar maker in the future. Before

the Les Paul, guitars were predominantly hollow, like an acoustic guitar but still had the

capability of being amplified (“Kelly Industries”). These semi-hollow guitars had the

problem of producing too much “feedback” when amplified at a generous decibel level.

For groups or arrangements that required a guitar in the rhythm section, this was bad

news due to that incessant feedback. There was just too much resonance within the empty

body of the guitar (“Kelly Industries”). Many inventors and enthusiasts of the guitar were

tinkering with the idea of reducing this level of feedback but none were hosting the idea

of actually ridding the instrument of that problem. The man responsible for this historic

invention which became the “Les Paul” was Lester W. Polfus, or Les Paul (Duchossoir

55). Les Paul was a proficient guitar player but some consider him to be a greater

innovator. Paul theorized that by completely eliminating the hollow space in the body of

the guitar, the tone that would be produced could be sustained longer and could rest

without emitting feedback. This theory would eventually become the solid-body guitar.

After a few prototypes and legal sit downs, Gibson had penned a deal with Paul, that they

would produce the solid body guitar under the name “Les Paul” and give Paul five

percent royalties of the profits for five years (“Kelly Industries”). The guitar was

introduced to the public in the year 1952 and became a sensation. Les Paul had become a

radio sensation as a recording artist with his wife, which greatly aided the popularity of

the Les Paul because he always played it and was always pictured with it (Bishop 3).
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       When the guitar was introduced in 1952, it was a music technology and

engineering breakthrough. But it wasn‟t until the year 1959, that many consider, the

zenith of the product to occur. In the seven years that the product had been on the market,

other breakthroughs in the individual parts that the guitar utilized in its build had allowed

Gibson the thread in these upgrades and create the ultimate guitar (Duchossoir 73). The

guitar now contained new pickups and tuning systems. Even though, technical elements

like the new “humbucking” pickup played an essential role in creating the iconic sound of

the Les Paul, most people associate the guitar with the famous finish that solidified its

legend. This “burst” finish was only applied to the guitar for a certain number of years;

1959 being one of them (“Gibson”). The Les Paul was associated with the same price tag

for almost the entire course of its early days throughout the entire fifties era. The Les

Paul was pegged at a constant average retail of 225 dollars (Bacon 19). 225 dollars does

not seem like a monumental amount but during the 1950‟s this translates to be around a

1000 dollars in current times. This figure makes sense because the Gibson Les Paul is

marketed at about that range today (“Gibson”).

       Even though the price tag of the guitar is steep for some, if considered nothing in

the music industry is. Everything from classical instruments to effects pedals seem

grossly overpriced to the non-musician. What is understandable is the fact that such a

good guitar may not be available most people. If one is just a child with no means of

acquiring a thousand dollars or even if there is a family to support, that grand may be the

hardest to earn. However, when the Les Paul was at its zenith, the man behind it all saw

that many people were unable to attain the guitar. Les Paul fought and pleaded Gibson to

manufacture models of the guitar that were cheaper. While the iconic “1959 Les Paul
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Standard” was still at a steep price, those who wanted to create music through the special

guitar could now afford it through other cheaper models produced by Gibson (Bacon 19).

        Now that the Les Paul had fit into many niches of many types of guitar players,

the guitar was sitting on the foundation of what was becoming its legacy. The guitar was

marketed as future. It was an instrument of change and everyone who used it would be

part of that future. The tone of the Les Paul was that of the future. Anyone who heard it

was instantly hypnotized by its sweet, warm tone. It poured into the ears like honey. That

tone was a hypnotic drone that was a call for many. That call was one that would bring

musicians together to serve music for the rest of their lives. The Gibson Les Paul has

been present throughout every musical revelation of the twentieth century. One of the

most influential guitar players to wield the instrument is its creator, Les Paul (“Rock and

Roll Hall of Fame”). Les Paul has won several Grammy‟s for his showcase of a country

style with fellow country guitarist Chet Atkins. At the age of 90 in 2005, Les Paul

released a “rock” album which featured guest rock musicians. The album him won him a

pair of Grammy‟s. Les Paul also performed weekly at the Iridium Jazz club in New York

City up until his death on August 12, 2009 (“Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”). Les Paul was

a guitarist that invented one of the greatest musical instruments of all time. What is even

more important is that he performed with it and swore by the guitar until the day he died.

He produced sounds that fit into every kind of genre imaginable. Whether that genre is

jazz, rock, country, or pop, Les Paul and the guitar which bears his name proved why the

Gibson Les Paul is a cultural artifact. Because the guitar is so articulate, it fits into every

genre of music that ultimately defines American music. Music is the entity that perfectly
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gives definition to what the United States is as a nation. It is a collective effort of

musicians to literally create culture for future generations to celebrate.

        Although Les Paul is one of the pivotal icons that vouch for the Gibson Les Paul,

there are a plethora of other musicians that define it through a more mainstream outlet.

One of the most famous and praised guitarists is a one by the name of Jimmy Page. Most

notably, he‟s the guitarist for the band Led Zeppelin (Case). If one is familiar with the

music of Page and his band, there is no introduction required. What is produced by Page

through his music is just magic. There has been no other guitarist to play guitar like Page.

The reason for this is speculated to be Page is self taught. Unlike members of an

orchestra, there was no set curriculum in learning the instrument (Case). Page sat for

hours in front of a record player and reproduced the sounds of old time rock „n rollers

like Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets, etc. This gave him a style unlike any other

guitarist. For a while it was believed that only African Americans possessed the ability to

play the blues, but this was proved wrong by the stuttering machine gun chops of Jimmy

Pages guitar sorcery (Case). But to further solidify his virtuosity is the addition of a

signature tone. That tone was produced by none other than the Gibson Les Paul. Page

furthered the legacy of the Les Paul through his musical talent. For that Gibson rewarded

him by producing many signature models of the Les Paul. One was a replica of his 1959

Les Paul Standard (“Gibson”).

        The Gibson Les Paul was the guitar of choice for musicians of the classic rock

genre for when it was occurring from the early sixties to the late seventies, due to hit

making machines and their guitarists like the band Led Zeppelin. Due to the fact that the

Les Paul was the guitar of choice, it naturally dominated the market with most sales
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between the years of 1952 and 1964 (Paul). This dominance is another factor that

contributes to the legacy of the guitar and gives it a greater reason to be a great cultural

artifact. Jimmy Page was not the only guitarist most easily associated with the Les Paul.

Other virtuosos that equally contributed to its legacy were musicians like Eric Clapton,

Jeff Beck, Mike Bloomfield, Eddie Van Halen, Duane Allman and Slash (“Rock and Roll

of Fame”). This listing is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact the full list of famous

guitarists that play the Gibson Les Paul is almost unlimited. Thanks to the gargantuan

amount of people that prefer Les Paul‟s, the demand is so high, that Gibson must use

seventy percent of their production power to constantly provide Les Paul‟s to the market

(Paul).

          Even though the potency of the Les Paul is that great, there was a decline in the

presence of the Les Paul during the 1980‟s. One of the aforementioned guitarists, Eddie

Van Halen, was an innovator in his own right. While classic rock slipped away as the

choice music of youth, the heavy metal movement of the 1980‟s took momentum and

became that choice of music (“Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”). This heavy metal

movement gaining popularity was partly thanks to the virtuosity of Eddie Van Halen.

They way he played the guitar was something never seen before and that style became

the blueprint of how everybody else would play guitar for the next decade and partly into

this modern age (“Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”). Van Halen‟s style would also

complement his radical new custom guitar. That guitar would also shape the standard for

how the instrument would look during the decade. Even though the Les Paul wasn‟t

present in the heavy metal movement, Van Halen himself would go on to say that if it
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wasn‟t for Les Paul and his innovations he would not be able to play the way he does

(“Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”).

       Amidst the imitators and doppelgangers that were so predominant during the

1980‟s, there would eventually come another aforementioned guitarist that would breathe

new life into the Gibson Les Paul. That guitarist went by the moniker of “Slash”. With

his band Guns n‟ Roses, classic rock would again be lifted from the grave and reinstated

as one of the main sources of music for the youthful generation (Slash). It is no

coincidence either that the choice of guitar of Slash is indeed the Les Paul. Slash is also

responsible for bringing back the Les Paul to its status to one of the best guitars around

but also adding to its undying legacy (Slash). What is also interesting about Slash is that

he also shares the same interpretation of the Les Paul and its comparison to the female

stature. Most devotees and disciples of the Les Paul share the same feelings about the

comparison. Jimmy Page, Slash and Eddie Van Halen and many others are all intoxicated

by the Les Paul (Slash).

       The Gibson Les Paul will forever live on as a cultural artifact of almost every

niche of music since its introduction in the year 1952. The Les Paul represents an intense

fusion between an already mature market and other disruptive technologies (Rayna). It is

one of the most original solid body guitars that provides every kind of musician with the

ability to produce high quality sound in every kind of genre of music. Despite being

original, there have been knock-offs and copies just like many of the musicians of the

1980‟s that have stirred much controversy. Companies like “PRS” and “ESP”, although

they make quality guitars; both have produced guitars with uncanny similarities to the

Gibson Les Paul. In fact, PRS at one point made a guitar that resembled the Les Paul so
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much, that Gibson was forced to take legal action (Marchisotto). In a way though, one

can view infringement of the Les Paul as a compliment of sorts. Thanks to this

everlasting legacy of greatness, other companies feel that they need a similar product to

even compete with the likes of the Gibson Les Paul. This can be considered a quasi-

compliment (Paul). The electric guitar has been the object of a constant struggle between

conservatism and innovation. Its evolution also reflects the opposition between traditional

labor-intensive craftsmanship, seen as a proof of quality, and the industrialized processes

required by mass production (Rayna). The Les Paul has been the perfect specimen of a

perfect fusion of the entire spectrum. America has been the perfect zone for debate

between conservatives and liberals. The Les Paul does not step out of any boundary for

consideration for either side. Whether it is the warm sustain or the beefy ability to kick

any amplifier to the edge of its overdrive the Les Paul carries that option. The burst finish

of the iconic and memorable 1959 Les Paul also demonstrates a pure perfection that

simply cannot be found on any other instrument. Therefore, the qualities of the Gibson

Les Paul and all of the outlets in which the instrument is present in, all provide a solid

foundation for the establishment of its iconic status in all forms of history throughout its

existence.
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                                       Works Cited

"50th Anniversary 1959 Les Paul Standard." Gibson. Web. 6 Oct 2009.
       <http://www2.gibson.com/Products/Electric-Guitars/Les-Paul/Gibson-
       Custom/50th-Anniversary-1959-Les-Paul-Standard.aspx>.

Bacon, Tony. 50 Years of the Gibson Les Paul. 1st. London: Backbeat Books, 2002. Print.

Bishop, Ian. The Gibson Guitar. London: Musical New Services Ltd, 1977. Print.

Case, George. Jimmy Page: Magus, Musician, Man. New York City: Hal Leonard Books,
       2007. Print.

Duchossoir, A.R. Gibson Electrics. Print.

"Info on the Gibson Les Paul." Kelly Industries. Kelly Industries, Web. 6 Oct 2009.
       <http://www.kellyindustries.com/guitars/gibson_les_paul.html>.

"Les Paul." Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1988): n. pag. Web. 6 Oct 2009.
       <http://www.rockhall.com/inductee/les-paul>.

Marchisotto, Paul. "Gibson v. PRS." Web. 6 Oct 2009.
      <http://www.cardozoaelj.net/issues/07/Marchisotto.pdf>.

Paul, Les. www.classicbands.com. Interview by Gary James. Print.

Rayna, Thierry and Striukova, Ludmila, Engineering vs. Craftsmanship: Innovation in the
       Electric Guitar Industry (1945-1984) (May 1, 2008). DIME Working Paper on
       Intellectual Property Rights No. 68. Available at SSRN:
       http://ssrn.com/abstract=1353905

Slash, . Slash. 1st. New York City: Harper Collins, 2007. Print.

"Van Halen." Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2007): n. pag. Web. 6 Oct 2009.
      <http://www.rockhall.com/inductee/van-halen/>.
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