The Les Paul's First Comeback: When Gibson Re-Launched the Line

In 1968, Gibson announced a reissue of two obsolete Les Paul models of a type it had not made since the start of the decade. Earlier that year, Stan Rendell was promoted to president of Gibson. He replaced Albert Stanley, who in turn had replaced Ted McCarty in 1966. He'd worked for Gibson's parent company, CMI, since 1963 and by '68 was in charge of all CMI's manufacturing.

Press ad for the revived Les Paul line in 1968.

Stan had become tired of constant traveling between CMI's factories, and his boss at CMI, Maurice Berlin, suggested the top job at Gibson. Stan agreed, but he'd taken on quite a challenge. Maurice told Stan that Gibson was suffering, that it had lost a million dollars at the factory for two years running. Stan's brief was the daunting one handed to most incoming presidents: "Make sure you improve the company's fortunes."

At the Gibson plant in Kalamazoo, Stan soon found out what he and his team were up against. "We had all kinds of quality problems. We had production problems. We had personnel problems," he told me. "We had union problems. We had problems that wouldn't end." Stan set to work. He developed a structure for supervision in the factory, he brought in manufacturing schedules, improved inspection routines, installed a separate stock room, and held regular meetings.

"We bought a ton of new equipment, too, all sorts of stuff," Stan recalled. "Mr. Berlin said that in the first five years I was there, there were more new ideas, new machinery, and new products than in the entire history of the Gibson company prior to that. We just had a ball. And if we didn't know how to do something, we found out."

In 1968, the year Stan arrived, Gibson was still touting the relatively new SG as its prime solidbody electric. As far as the company was concerned, this modern design with its sculpted double-cutaway body had replaced the old-style single-cut Les Pauls. Some notable guitarists were by now arguing otherwise. Jeff Beck, Michael Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Peter Green, and Keith Richards, to name a few, had discovered the charm and power of the old Les Pauls.

Another recent arrival at Gibson was guitarist Bruce Bolen, who joined in 1967 to organize and perform promotional shows as a roving player for the company. Over the coming years he would take on more responsibility in guitar design and marketing. Back in '67 when he joined Gibson, Bruce too recognized a company in relatively poor condition.

1968 Les Paul Standard

"One of the reasons I was hired was because Gibson's electric sales were floundering," he told me. "All we had in solidbody electrics were SGs, plus the archtop and thinline instruments, and they weren't selling all that well. The mainstay of the company at the time was the flattop acoustics. So I was hired, basically, to go out and sell electric guitars."

Bruce found the managers at Gibson and CMI unaware of the growing respect among rock guitarists for the original Les Pauls. "I was just a punk kid, and most of the people there were in their fifties or older," he recalled. "I don't think they had a great grasp on how important that guitar was becoming once again. Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, guys like that—they'd found it to be something really precious that offered a sound that was very conducive to their form of music."

Jeff Hasselberger, who joined the new Ibanez company in the States in the early '70s, took a professional interest in the culture at the big brands of the day. "This new accent on old models became obvious to us at Ibanez," Jeff said. "We knew, from the music, if we saw Jimmy Page walk on stage with a Telecaster, or maybe Jeff Beck, we knew that's what we had to do at Ibanez, or if they came out with a Les Paul, then Les Pauls would be hot. I don't think Gibson and Fender were following those things closely or even knew who those people were in a lot of cases. You'd go to the Gibson party at the trade shows and it would be all their jazzer pals—Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, those kind of guys."

Soon after Bruce Bolen started at Gibson, vice president Marc Carlucci one day asked if he'd mind staying late that evening at the CMI headquarters in Chicago. "Marc told me they had someone coming in and wanted my opinion on what he had to show us," Bruce recalled. "I asked who it was, and he told me it was Les Paul. Now, when I was a kid, six years old, Les Paul was my first guitar hero, so I was thrilled to have the chance to meet him. Gibson still wasn't too sure they wanted to reintroduce the Les Paul guitar. I was going: Please!"

Les Paul had been quiet musically since the mid '60s, but in '67 he released Les Paul Now, his first album for some time. This meeting that same year marked the start of a new association with Gibson and the beginning of the reissue program for Les Paul models. Les' recollection of the circumstances was typically imaginative.

"I called Gibson," Les told me, "and said, 'Hey, Fender's here bugging me and they want to make a deal, and my divorce is over.' I asked if Gibson wanted to make a deal. And Mr. Berlin said it was odd that I should call, because they were striking all electrical instruments from the Gibson line. He told me the electric guitar was extinct. So I asked if he could meet me that Friday in Chicago. I said I wanted to buy him a cup of coffee. We stayed up for 24 hours, and I convinced him to go back and make the electric guitar."

Maybe the CMI boss really was thinking about "striking all electrical instruments from the Gibson line," but there's little evidence the company contemplated such a drastic move. Gibson certainly negotiated a new contract with Les. They agreed a royalty of five percent of the "standard cost" of each of the proposed Les Paul models, the internal price at which Gibson sold the guitar to CMI, around a third of retail. It meant that for a guitar listing at $395, he would receive about $6.50.

'68 Gibson Gazette promoting the newly reissued Les Pauls. Photos by The Real Deal Guitar Shop.

Bruce Bolen, meanwhile, had a showstopper for his Gibson promo concerts. He took out on the road a prototype of the forthcoming reissue Les Paul Custom, probably by very late 1967. "People were just falling apart about it," he says with a grin. "They couldn't wait to get one."

At last, Gibson had woken up to the interest and decided to reintroduce two models: the relatively rare two-humbucker Les Paul Custom, and the Les Paul Goldtop in '55–'57 style with P-90 pickups and Tune-o-matic bridge. They were formally launched at the June '68 NAMM trade show in Chicago, and Gibson's new pricelist showed the Custom at $545 and the Goldtop (they called it the Standard) at $395. Les Paul was at the show to promote the new guitars for Gibson by doing what he'd always done best—playing the things. Bruce Bolen remembered providing the rhythm section for Les' performances. "It was the first time in years that he'd got on a stage. We had a lot of fun."

The press ad for the revived guitars, headlined "Daddy Of 'Em All," admitted Gibson had little choice in the matter. "The demand for them just won't quit," ran the blurb. "And the pressure to make more has never let up. OK, you win. We are pleased to announce that more of the original Les Paul Gibsons are available. Line forms at your Gibson dealer."

Around the time of that NAMM show, production of the new Customs and Goldtops began at Kalamazoo. Gibson's Jim Tite announced that production was expected to start in June. "The revival of these instruments answers a pressing need," he said. "It will soon be no longer necessary to search for used models that sell in auction for $700 to $1,000 in the United States."

Stan Rendell told me that the first run of the reissues in '68, which took 90 days to get from wood shop to stock room, was for 500 guitars: 400 Goldtops and 100 Customs. "By the time we had that started, CMI wanted 100 a month of the Goldtop and 25 a month of the Custom, and before we were finished with that we were making a hundred Les Pauls a day," he said. "That's out of a total of 250, 300 instruments a day."

Gibson clearly had a success in the making. The only mystery as far as many guitarists were concerned was why the company had waited so long—and why they reintroduced these particular models. Where was the reissue sunburst Les Paul with humbuckers? That took a good few years—and it's a story for another day.


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include Million Dollar Les Paul, The Steve Howe Guitar Collection, and Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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