Was the First Les Paul Going to Be Made Out of Plastic?

Imagine how different the electric guitars of the early ’50s might have been had Gibson used the same materials for its new Les Paul Model as it had for a recent lap steel. As we all know, the Les Paul appeared in 1952 with a maple/mahogany body, mahogany neck, rosewood board, and with plastic limited to conventional points among the hardware. Before that guitar was introduced, however, there had been an enticing option right in front of Gibson’s managers.

As they sat around the boardroom table considering the possibilities for their forthcoming Spanish solidbody, they might have wondered about adopting the design vibe of the Gibson Ultratone. This was a lap steel that had been in production at Kalamazoo since 1946, and its use of gleaming, modern plastics made for a spectacular looking object, one that leapt out of the post-war murk. Surely such a look would have made a dramatic impression for the Les Paul, too?

The Ultratone on a Plastics magazine cover in 1946
The Ultratone on a Plastics magazine cover in 1946, from Tony Bacon's archive.

In 1948, a few years after the Ultratone’s introduction, Ted McCarty joined Gibson, and he was made the firm’s president in 1950. He was well aware of the Ultratone’s impact. "In ’48, the most popular guitars we made were the lap model steel guitars," Ted told me when I interviewed him decades later.

"The steels were our quantity units. We still made the L-5, the Super 400, but the big volume were these solidbodys. They had started to make some designs for those things before I got there—a design company known as Barnes & Reinecke (B&R), in Chicago. Chicago was home plate for everything in those days, and that company designed the guitars that we were making at that time, the solid lap models."

B&R was an industrial design firm, and David Painter, its vice president, led Gibson’s project for the Ultratone (at first known briefly as the BR-1). It certainly looked like a guitar designed as much for visual impact as musical performance.

Painter’s Ultratone design was a remarkable creation, its sleek lines and prominent use of plastics creating nothing less than a piece of contemporary musical art. Its body may have been solid maple—"enameled sparkling white" according to Gibson’s promo material—but beyond that, the use of materials was more interesting.

The fingerboard was made of transparent acrylic, lacquered silver from below, and it had machined fret markers and lacquered position dots in yellow and "coral" (a reddish color). At the headstock, an acrylic decorative cover, lacquered silver and white, boasted a stylish script Gibson logo in gold, and it was hinged to reveal the tuners, which had coral-color plastic buttons, injection-molded by Kluson.

There was another acrylic cover at the bridge, lacquered in coral and with a stylized motif on the front alongside the Ultratone name. This too was hinged, revealing the single pickup and combined bridge and tailpiece. Three clear acrylic knobs supplied by Colonial Kolonite controlled volume, bass, and treble, while the jack was housed in a clear plastic plate at the rear edge behind the bridge. It was a stunner, for sure, and it’s tempting to speculate what some of these touches might have looked like transposed to a Les Paul Model.

Mat Koehler is the Senior Director of Product Development at Gibson—and he also happens to be a big fan of 20th century industrial design, an interest that helped when he took some deep dives into the history of Gibson’s relationship with B&R. Back in 2017, he got the go-ahead to search properly in Gibson’s archives—located, he recalls, above the main floor of the Custom Shop in a very hot and messy fan room where all the wood dust was filtered.

"It was filled with brown recluse spiders and about two inches of dust blanketing everything," Mat says. "Strewn about the room were file cabinets, loose folders, open boxes of rolled prints, and a few Kalamazoo-era artifacts including tools, fixtures, and parts. It sounds silly, but I felt like Howard Carter must have felt when he got his first glimpse of King Tut’s tomb."

Mat made a deal with his boss to clean up the area after regular work hours, when he’d morph into archaeologist mode and don goggles, mask, and gloves in that baking hot room, methodically organizing and preserving most everything he found.

His zealous searches led, for example, to the recent introduction of Gibson’s Theodore model, the sketch for which he found folded up in an old design portfolio. And, fortunately for his health, some of his discoveries led to searches beyond the archive room—one of which involved a trip to the David Painter Papers collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.

He found some extraordinary items. "I’d had my first experiences at Gibson’s HQ vault, where they have all sorts of fun stuff, including a variety of old instruments," Mat remembers. "And I’d seen this totally crude-looking lap steel there, this big slab of wood with plastic elements on it, with a Gibson logo that didn’t look like any Gibson logo I’d ever seen before. I was like: ‘What the heck is this? What high school science project was this?’ Anyway, now there I am at the Institute with the David Painter archive, and one of the first photos I turn up is that exact lap steel, when it was brand new. So I immediately concluded that the steel in the Gibson vault must have been the prototype for the Ultratone project."

The Ultratone/Supreme clear-neck prototype
The Ultratone/Supreme clear-neck prototype, from Mat Koehler's stash at the Gibson archives.

Next, Mat found a photo of what was probably the second Ultratone proto (at that stage called the Supreme). The neck was completely clear plastic, probably Lucite or acrylic—and it’s an instrument that might still be out there somewhere.

"So here was the progression," he says. "The crude one; the second, clear one; and then the Ultratone. That second one seemed very polished, but it didn’t seem very player friendly— everything was balanced around a sort of steel beam to get that clear look to it. Also, I think it would have been way too hard to manufacture. The Ultratone that went into production seems like a nice compromise using wood with plastics mounted to it."

The Ultratone marked a dazzling addition to Gibson’s lines, in brilliant contrast to most of the comparatively gloomy looking wood-body steels and Spanish guitars of the era. Quite simply, it demanded attention. There were a few similarly striking concoctions at the time, not least Magnatone’s Jeweltone steel, made from layered Lucite, and National’s Dynamic and New Yorker steels, with Lucite and Plexiglas fingerboards. Meanwhile, the Ultratone and the similar Century steel stayed in Gibson’s lines until 1959.

B&R trumpeted its work on the Ultratone design for Gibson in a promo leaflet that included some typically over-the-top pronouncements, including one that may not have gone down too well at Gibson HQ. "The story of the Ultratone," ran B&R’s blurb, "is a shining example of how the foremost guitar manufacturer of yesterday combined with the top designers of today to produce an instrument—modern as tomorrow!"

ultratone view, frontal and profile
1952 Gibson Ultratone 6 Lap Steel. Photo by Sylvan Music.

David Painter moved from B&R around 1950 to set up his own design firm, Painter, Teague & Petertil (PTP), and continued to work with Gibson, though with little effect on the guitar lines. And sadly, the Les Paul did not appear in 1952 with all the razzmatazz of the Ultratone. It did have its own gleaming finish, the one one we know as the flashy Goldtop look, but it’s still tempting to wonder what might have been had Gibson gone further.

"One more point to make on the evolution of plastics during this period at Gibson is that they weren’t very durable," Mat concludes. "I have an Ultratone that is as mint as it possibly gets—except the hinge area is all cracked. Which is a shame, but I have to imagine that if that’s a mint example with a cracked hinge-plate, it’s probably a pretty common thing to see on them. So I think that may be part of the reason why Gibson went away from using plastics in that major way for guitars."

Gibson had called the Ultratone’s design "modernistic" in a late-’40s catalogue—a word it would use a little later for the Flying V and Explorer, two models that made a further mark with spectacular design. And Mat came across some evidence to suggest that the related Futura and Moderne designs were created by Painter. But that’s a story for another day.

About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include Million Dollar Les Paul and Electric Guitars: Design & Invention. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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