Guitar Workshop: Gibson Les Paul Standard 1959 Tom Murphy
Even the most fabulous and expensive guitar can use the touch of a skilled tech to get it set up and purring like it should. Steve Clarke takes a look at a used high-end Les Paul reissue to see how it stacks up
Over the years there has been a huge variety of Gibson Les Paul reissues aiming to recreate those golden years between 1958 and 1960, and each one has gone a little further than the last by reproducing pickup accuracy, period-correct electrics and colour-correct binding – so when this guitar arrived for a general set up, my expectations were high.
The owner reveals that the guitar was purchased in 2000 and is from a limited run of 100, with a certificate of authenticity. Upon opening the case you can’t help but immediately notice the truly vibrant sunburst colour that shows off this guitar beautifully. It has a detailed flame top that when viewed from different angles appear almost 3D. The quality of the bookmatching is faultless.
The back of the guitar looks to be Brazilian mahogany, and when compared to the Gibson Custom ’59 Standard reissue, which had very small flecks in the pattern, I think this one looks more authentic. It’s said that some time ago both body and neck had to be re-engineered, and some materials for this guitar and its parts were made to a standard of detail never seen before… and it shows. For instance, the headstock thickness tapers slightly more noticeably than on the ’59 Gibson Custom Standard, although that was still a killer guitar. The maple top is deep-dished on the Murphy and it’s good to see that the crown inlays have not been aged, because Gibson have a horrible knack of making the plastic bindings and switch caps a little too orange – but the rest of the guitar has been aged beautifully. The weight is a comfortable 8.6lb and the body is not chambered.
The nut measures 43mm and is made from bone and cut almost perfectly – except for the bottom E string slot which is a bit too high and has thus been taken down a touch. This guitar cost £5000 in 2000, but if the nut has not been accurately cut it will never be in tune. I’ve had three Gibson Les Pauls in the last two weeks, one Custom and two Standards, and they all needed the nut re-cutting. The depth of the neck is 25mm at the first fret and 28mm at the octave.
Les Paul necks from ’59 tend to be clubby. This one is no exception, and it’s topped with a beautiful dark rosewood fingerboard. Surprisingly it’s very comfortable to play, with frets that are high-medium oval; the frets are not too high, though, to minimise intonation problems when fretting notes. The nibs on the binding are very cleanly finished with no file or sanding marks: perfect. The bridge is an ABR-1 and the tailpiece is nickel-plated.
Recently I took the thick polyester finish off an Epiphone LP Standard down to within a whisker of breaking through the thin veneer, and I can honestly say that it made a big improvement to the acoustic sound and the dynamics of the guitar. The lacquer on the Murphy – as with the Kossoff Les Paul which we reviewed in August 2012 – is not too thick, which many feel helps with the tone of this guitar no end. The tuners are Klusons and don’t feel sloppy.
Having removed the neck pickup, the all-important long tenon was visible. I did a test on two comparable Epi Standards and although they sounded the same to my ears, when I put a piece of rosewood in the slot at the end of the fingerboard on one of them and played it, there was a noticeable difference to the sound. So the Murphy with the long tenon is perfectly set to deliver extra harmonic quality.
The aging of this guitar has been done sympathetically. It has some small dings and the top of the guitar has a checked look, but it isn’t overdone. It’s as if the guitar has been played a lot, but cared for very well.
The pickups on the Tom Murphy are Classic ’57 humbuckers that are nickel plated and slightly aged. The 7.75 Ohms bridge pickup is chimey and rich in harmonics when put through a clean amp, while through a Marshall it delivers every sound a classic Les Paul should. A hot pickup, on the other hand, can deliver distortion at low settings but can also colour the tone a bit at the expense of harmonics, but his bridge pickup has that ‘honk’ – very nice for that classic ’70s rock sound.
The middle position has a lovely ES-335 semi-solid sounding quality to it and is wonderful for rhythm or can be heavenly with a chorus pedal without losing character. The neck pickup is beautifully rich with just the right amount of bass – something other Les Pauls can fail to offer, sounding too fat unless you turn the volume down a bit. This could be why it comes in at 7.73 Ohms to tame it just a little. The guitar’s sustain is incredible, largely due to the choice of wood.
Looking inside we find bumble bee caps, 500k pots and incredibly clean routing. The soldering is generous yet precise, with tidy wiring. As well as the five-digit number on the back of the headstock that begins with 9, the cavity is also branded with R9 where the wiring comes from the pickups and the Switchcraft toggle switch, possibly to indicate that this is not a genuine ’59 Les Paul – but having played it after a set up, I could be possibly persuaded otherwise.
There has been a lot said about what makes a Les Paul sound great and it is definitely a combination of a large number of factors, and not just down to the pickup. Having played, repaired and serviced Les Pauls over many years and heard some great early ’70s and not so great heavy late ’70s, the quality can vary considerably in every decade of construction. In my opinion the finest details can make a difference, and that includes the subtle changes in sound when you take Kluson machineheads off and fit Grovers instead. But the thin lacquer found on the original ones goes a long way indeed to giving that magic combination to make a great Les Paul… and this is one of them.
Tags: DIY, Gibson, Home, Workshops