Gibson rediscovered its Les Paul Standard mojo with the Heritage 80 series, forerunners of the reissues you see today. Michael Stephens investigates the story of what some believe is a new vintage classic
Even a casual Gibson-watcher will know of key years in the history of the legendary Les Paul model. 1952 was the debut of the Les Paul Model (aka the Goldtop). 1958-’60 were the years of the fabled sunburst Standards, now widely considered the most valuable electric guitars ever made. Later, 1960 to ’68, was when the double-cut SG (Solid Guitar) replaced – inexplicably, looking back – the single-cut design. And 1968 was when single-cuts returned.
But what’s significant about 1980? Gibson Les Paul aficionados will understand. 1980 was the year Gibson’s Les Paul got its mojo back. Indeed, it’s arguable that 1980 is as significant to ‘ordinary’ Les Paul fans as those earlier years are to super-rich vintage collectors and drowning-in-dollars rockstars. And the rebirth of ‘proper’ Gibson Les Pauls started with the Heritage 80 Series.
Sucking in the ’70s?
In terms of hero-visibility, the 1970s was a huge decade for the Gibson Les Paul. The Who’s Pete Townshend, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, and the Stones’ Keith Richards were three iconic users. Mick Ronson (with David Bowie), Thin Lizzy (a classic dual-Les Paul band), Lynyrd Skynyrd, Genesis’s Steve Hackett, Kiss’s Ace Frehley, ZZ Top’s Billy F Gibbons and many more kept a Les Paul at the top of ‘want!’ lists. Gibson’s problem, if there was one, was that the Les Pauls used by these guitar heroes were not models you could buy off the shelf in the 1970s.
Gibson’s guitar makers had their own business dealings to confront. In 1969 – a year after the classic single-cut Les Paul was reintroduced – the company was bought by Norlin, a newly-named offshoot of Ecuadorian Company Ltd (ECL) who had bought a controlling interest in Chicago
Musical Instruments (CMI) who then-owned Gibson. The politics of Gibson business is a side-story, albeit a fascinating one. The main challenge was making new Les Pauls that appealed to the key fans.
The year 1968 had seen the re-introduction of the single-cut Les Paul design, as a Custom and a Goldtop (which Gibson called a Standard, but bore little resemblance to the ’bursts of the previous decade.) Guitar historian and Nashville dealer George Gruhn tells Guitar & Bass, ‘It was obvious that players wanted a good reissue of a 1959 Sunburst
Les Paul far sooner than Gibson reacted to the demand. R&B players wanted a guitar like Mike Bloomfield’s ’burst before Gibson reissued Les Pauls in 1968. But when the company introduced the Les Paul Standard Goldtop with P90 pickups and the Les Paul Custom with “Fretless Wonder” frets in 1968 they were working with Les Paul rather than R&B and rock players. It appears Gibson were simply oblivious to the majority of their customers’ desires.’
An outspoken opinion from the respected George Gruhn, but the ’68s were actually quite successful. Gibson were soon building 100 Les Pauls a day to meet demand. Les Paul expert and Guitar & Bass contributor Phil Harris says ’68 LPs are really good.
‘A ’68 Goldtop – even if refinished as a ’burst with PAFs added, like one of mine – was the best you could get,’ says Harris. ‘They’re fantastic guitars. The neck, the carved top: all are very close to a ’50s sunburst.’
In the ’70s, Gibson under Norlin pushed ahead Les Pauls with more dramatic changes. There was a new neck volute in 1970 (and confusing serial numbers, which annoyed collectors), a 1974 stab at reintroducing sunburst Les Paul Standards, and a so-called ‘pancake’ body of mahogany/maple/mahogany. There was ’75’s new factory in Nashville alongside Kalamazoo (this was actually good), but also the ’76 change to maple necks (not always so good) and so on. But the likes of Gibson’s new Les Paul-alike L-6S, S-1, Sonex and Marauder models didn’t sell in huge numbers…
Even Les Paul’s own Studio and Recording models couldn’t help. Les Paul’s own designs were focussed on moving recording capability forward. The legendary Les was a sonic genius, but he wasn’t a marketing man – as George Gruhn says. With some ’70s Les Pauls, it seems that Gibson were chasing down a blind alley.
All this time, classic ’58-’60 sunbursts were starting to trade for big money. Gibson’s strategists were probably right-thinking to replace single-cuts with the SG back in 1960, as sunbursts hadn’t sold well at all in their original run. But two decades on, it was clear that there was demand for a Les Paul more faithful to those Standards of the late ’50s.
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
By the end of the 1970s, Gibson recognised they should build Les Pauls ‘like they used to.’ Competition was increasingly coming from the East. In Japan, Tokai were making Les Paul copies of noted quality. There were fine Burny ‘Les Pauls’ too. Yamaha’s electric guitars were getting very good, while Ibanez were a growing force, albeit with guitars very unlike Gibson’s.
Gibson had dabbled with the Les Paul KM model in 1979, but dabbled is an apt word. Circa 1500 Les Paul KMs (Kalamazoo Models) were made, but it wasn’t quite a repro of a classic ’burst. The KM’s had exposed coil, double-cream coloured T-top humbuckers, speed knobs, large side dot markers on the neck, a Nashville bridge/stop tailpiece, Grover tuners, wide binding in the cutaway, brown backplates, and ‘Les Paul KM’ engraved on the truss rod cover. A good guitar, but history-minded Gibson buffs would sniff at the tiniest details. For example, KMs had no dot on the ‘i’ of the Gibson headstock inlay. So, KM’s were close, but no cigar.
Phil Harris says, ‘Being honest, I avoided every post-1960 “Standard” until the Heritage 80. They weren’t that good. I preferred my bodged and refinished ’68 Goldtops.
‘The 1970s Les Pauls? No-one liked the two-piece body. The tobacco sunburst, although purely cosmetic, wasn’t popular – it just wasn’t that nice. The necks were shaped like a Les Paul Deluxe, which wasn’t what Standard aficionados wanted. They just didn’t tick any of the boxes.’
Harris continues: ‘I was friends with Kirby [Graham ‘Kirby’ Gregory] from Curved Air, who bought one of Gibson’s ’74 so-called Standards. He thought he was buying something just like a ’burst. But he was so disgusted, he immediately put in a third humbucker – he didn’t care about keeping it an authentic ’74, no-one did.
I met him again in 1978 and he bought one of my refinished ’68 Goldtops, which was much better.
‘The photo of me in my Hooked On Classics columns (in G&B Magazine), that guitar I’m holding is not one of my ‘bursts, it’s actually one of my refinished ’68 Goldtops! But it’s one of my favourite guitars. Before the Heritage 80s – between 1974 and 1980 – don’t ask me. I don’t touch those Les Pauls with a bargepole, personally.’
At the same time, a few select USA dealers had requested special-order ‘upgraded’ Les Pauls from Gibson’s Nashville factory with a highly-figured maple top, just like those first Bursts. And those guitars flew out the stores.
George Gruhn: ‘Well before Gibson issued ‘reissues’ in their catalogue line they had already made custom runs of “reissue” models for Guitar
Trader in Red Bank, New Jersey; Strings & Things in Memphis; and Leo’s Music in California. The Heritage Series Les Paul models issued in 1980 were not truly faithful copies of a 1959 Les Paul Standard, but they were one of Gibson’s first catalogued reissue Les Paul models. They acknowledged a long-standing public demand.’
Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford – who knows his Les Pauls – was impressed enough to buy a Guitar Trader Gibson Les Paul to play in Aerosmith. But it would take the Heritage 80 Series to get closer to the source.
Gibson are now noted for their ability and fastidiousness in creating authentic reissues of yesteryear classics. But the Heritage Series 80 models weren’t 100 per cent accurate either. There were three types of Gibson Les Paul Heritage Series Standard 80 – the Standard, the Elite and the Award. The latter two names had no precedence in Les Paul nomenclature, so to some picky Les Paul players, they were akin to yet more ‘new’ guitars – not what they wanted. But the Heritage Series models were certainly closer to a ’59 Standard than Gibson had made in two decades.
Gibson were finally listening to their many fans. As Les Paul lover Slash later noted, ‘That ’59 vibe can’t be beat. Bottle it in a brand new guitar, and you’ll have lines around the block.’
The devil is in the details, as always. On the new Heritage 80 models, Gibson recreated the ’50s neck carve, the ‘dish’ carve on the maple top, the headstock shape, and a deep tenon at the neck/body join. And all the Heritage LPs were made without weight relief/tone chambers, a design technique Gibson had introduced in the ’70s. Les Paul Heritage 80s are totally solidbody guitars. Pick one up, and you’ll know.
Between 2000 and 3000 Heritage Les Paul models were made between 1980 and 1982. Although closer to a ’59 than before, they’re still quite easy to spot at some distance: the horn on the cutaway is notably sharper than a genuine ’58-’60 ’burst, for one thing. They came in an array of colours of cherry burst, honey burst, black, wine red and goldtop – though the first two are by some way the most commonly found. Goldtop Heritage LPs, for example, are rare. And a black Heritage? Some argue that was Gibson missing the point again: black Customs are highly treasured in their own right, but wasn’t the Heritage line supposed to capture that vibe of classic sunbursts?
The differences between the Standard, Elite and Award Heritage 80 Les Pauls are subtle but significant. The Standards had a one-piece mahogany body, a three-piece mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard (with a ‘medium-to-big’ profile) and Grover kidney tuners.
The Elite had a quilted maple top, a one-piece mahogany neck and an ebony fingerboard. Again, this wasn’t strictly accurate to original sunbursts, but they were arguably ‘posher’ than even the originals. The Award was the rarest of the three, with only around 50 made. This expanded on the Elite by adding gold hardware and a ‘Heritage Award’ neckplate.
But, as with the Elite, it’s something of a mongrel to some purists – a halfway point between an original Standard and Custom – even if it is undoubtedly a great Les Paul of any era. The reason for the ‘Award’ name was quite simple: Gibson made the limited run to ‘award’ guitar stores for selling Heritage models.
Although Gibson’s method of serial-numbering had caused some confusion amongst players in the 1970s, an original Heritage 80 model is easy to verify up-close. The back of the headstocks have regular Gibson-style serial numbers but an extra four digits underneath, and a ‘made in the USA’ stamp. All numbers and letters are stamped into the headstock. So far, so nerdy.
Chasing History And Chasing The Sound
The ‘vintage vibe’ of Heritage Les Pauls went further than flamed/quilted maple tops and subtle-carved looks. Part of Gibson’s programme was to get back to the fabled PAF (Patent Applied For) pickups. The history of Gibson humbuckers is itself a whole story, but the Heritage Series was significant.
Keen to recapture the sound of original PAFs, Gibson assigned their engineer Tim Shaw on some ‘PAF-ology’. Shaw was meticulous in diagnosing various ’50s PAFs: how the coils were spun, the magnets used, how many windings and so on. It was a wise but also necessary move. The likes of Seymour Duncan and DiMarzio were by then creating great humbuckers that were often re-fitted into Les Pauls by Gibson fans disappointed by the company’s own pickups. Gibson knew that their own ’buckers had to get better. And that meant going back, again.
Tim Shaw’s work was thorough and scientific. Analysing various ’50s PAFs, he recalled, ‘Most were Alnico 2s, but some were 5s. In the process of making an Alnico 5, they stick a magnet in a huge coil for orientation, but an unoriented 5 sounds a lot like a 2. They started with Alnico 2 and then switched to Alnico 5.’
Shaw discovered that original PAF magnets were also a little thicker than 1980 production magnets. ‘Magnetic strength is largely a function of the area of the polarised face; increasing the face size gives you more power,’ he explained. He also analysed the coating on internal wire and more. By using science, Tim Shaw managed to revive – as well as he could – a ’50s PAF pickup.
Shaw later met Seth Lover, who designed Gibson’s PAF humbucker in the ’50s, at a 1980s NAMM show. Lover apparently laughed when asked about a precise spec for windings. Lover told Shaw, ‘We wound them until they were full.’
Shaw’s hoodoo/voodoo work might seem frivolous from that anecdotal story, but no. ‘Shawbuckers’ or ‘TimBuckers’ are themselves now highly valued in the world of guitar collectors. Tim Shaw’s pickups were another piece of the jigsaw. Les Paul expert Phil Harris says of ‘Shawbuckers’, ‘they’re like a hot PAF. They’re maybe less tonally subtle than an original PAF, but the delivery is like a sledgehammer. And back off the tone, and they sound really sweet too. They’re fantastic pickups.’ The irony of it all? Tim Shaw now works for Fender.
Unlike many ‘70s-made Gibson Les Pauls, Heritage 80s quickly got into the hands of influential players. Dave Murray from Iron Maiden started playing a Heritage 80, which helped a lot. ‘They got credibility and acceptance,’ observes Harris. ‘To me, it was the first time since 1968 that Gibson had made a “proper” Les Paul in its own right.’
Status Of The Heritage 80
To some, a Gibson Les Paul Heritage 80 is hardly a pivotal guitar. Its name certainly doesn’t have the kudos of a 1959 ‘burst or a 1968 Custom – those were very special guitars of their own era. But others now think Heritage 80s are nearing that realm.
Heritage 80s were not historically accurate to original ’bursts, but they were close enough. They look and sound great, and have their own charms. On various fan websites you’ll see many Les Paul fanatics singing their praises: ‘Finding that 1959 ’burst tone on a budget’ is just one blog headline about Heritage 80s. In the end, they were pivotal. They were a benchmark for a new Les Paul.
Phil Harris doesn’t mind the differences in a between a ’59 Burst and the Heritage 80s and the more faithful Gibson reissues that followed. ‘I prefer to see the positive,’ he says. ‘You see that cutaway horn and you know: it’s a Heritage 80 Standard. But it’s a great guitar in its own right. I looked in the mirror this morning, and I’m not perfect, I’m no Robert Redford! But if it works, it’s great. Heritage 80s are really great guitars.
Image: Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty Images
‘Imperfection sometimes makes individuality. I like that it’s got the sharp cutaway, a heavy tailpiece, a German bridge, that the knobs sit too low than on an original ’burst. It’s funny. On later guitars, Gibson got some of the period detail more correct, but the Heritage 80 Standards are, in many ways, more individual… if that makes sense.’
Harris owns a Les Paul Heritage 80 built by Gibson for the Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward, later gifted to Status Quo’s Francis Rossi, and then bought by Phil. That’s good ‘provenance’ but Harris keeps the guitar because it’s a great player. ‘I will never sell it, believe me,’ he says. ‘And I think I know my Les Pauls.’
The Heritage 80 Les Pauls weren’t ‘true’ reissues of the famed ’58-’60 ’guitars, but their popularity pushed Gibson in the reissue direction. Any original ’burst is now so valuable, they are out of the price range of anyone but superstars or mega-minted collectors. Heritage 80s are an alternative. And to Phil Harris, they remain a good buy… that’s if you can find one.
‘I think a Heritage Standard 80 is probably a great investment,’ says Harris. ‘You can maybe get one for £3000. You can’t buy a 2014 Les Paul ’58 Standard reissue for that. And remember, all the guys playing real ’bursts in the ’60s and ’70s were playing 20-year-old guitars. A Heritage 80 is now 34 years old. Guitars mature, in my mind. It’s interesting; my son plays, and of all my guitars he chose to have in his house, he chose my Heritage 80. I keep taking it back, but for all the original ’bursts in our house, the Heritage 80 Series has a special place.’
As often with Gibson and other guitar makers, it’s a sometimes baffling tale. Only circa 1450 Standard Bursts were made between 1958 and 1960. They were discontinued because they were ‘unpopular’ (actually true), but they are now the most collectable Gibson Les Paul guitars in the world. Less than 3000 Heritage 80s were made (and that includes quilt-top Elites and Award models, not just the more Burst-alike Standards). And Gibson discontinued the Heritage 80 series because… well, who knows? Though their success eventually got Gibson back to making ‘proper’ reissues.
Not every expert is a total fan of the Heritage 80s. George Gruhn says, ‘I’d question whether the Heritage Series models are “underappreciated”. While they were some of the earliest reissues to have appeared in Gibson catalogues, they are not especially faithful copies of the old ones. In my opinion? They are not as good as many of Gibson’s new vintage reissues.’
But for fan Phil Harris, the lesson was at least clear. ‘The Heritage Series brought the idea of proper reissues to the fore. I’d even say the Heritage 80 Standard is probably the most financially-important guitar in Gibson’s Les Paul range. Why? It told Gibson that they should also look back, not just forward. And that’s what they’ve done since.
‘They say big oaks grow from little acorns, don’t they? In terms of Gibson Les Pauls today, the Heritage 80s were that little acorn.’
Guitar & Bass thanks Nashville’s George
Gruhn (Gruhn.com), London’s Phil Harris (Harris-Hire.co.uk) and Missouri’s Route 66 Classic Guitars (Route66classicguitars.com) for their expertise, help and photos.