The Resurgence of the Sister Rosetta Tharpe SG Custom

Celisse Henderson (2020). Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Gibson.

When the double-horned Gibson Les Paul came out in 1961, Les Paul himself didn't like it. Not even the Tuxedo-like trappings of the Les Paul Custom, with its gold hardware and three-pickup design on a creamy white finish, did much to change his mind.

By 1963 all such models would lose his moniker and instead take up the SG name. One player though, no less than the godmother of rock 'n' roll, took to the new design well. Having been largely ignored for decades, a resurgent interest in her music and her contributions to rock has also led to a resurgent interest in her SG Custom.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe's SG Custom

Sister Rosetta Tharpe had been a famous singer and guitarist since 1938, when the hard-swinging gospel of "Rock Me" caused a stir. And throughout her career she was known to play many different guitars, including archtops, acoustics, and a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop with a Trapeze Tailpiece, among others. But a series of photographs and late-career videos from 1964 have made her closely associated with the original cream, three-pickup SG Custom.

There's no definitive source on the exact year of the guitar. The Sideways Vibrola appeared on the first double-horned Les Paul Custom built from 1961–1962 and again on the transition year models in 1963, which were called Les Pauls earlier in the year before switching to SG .

According to Gruhn's Guide to Vintage Guitars, the plastic "Les Paul Custom" nameplate was located between the neck pickup and the fretboard on each model, before disappearing in late 1963. Looking at the highest-resolution pictures available of Tharpe's guitar, there does appear to be a nameplate in that position.

Regardless, she was captured playing a Sideways Vibrola variant of the guitar, from one of these three years, that would become best-known as the SG Custom.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe performs with her Les Paul Custom in Manchester, 1964.

The video above comes from the Manchester, England show of 1964's Blues and Gospel Train Tour—a tour that included Tharpe, Muddy Waters, Reverend Gary Davis, and other artists popular with the burgeoning British blues and rock scene. It was broadcast on UK television, and, reportedly, impressed a fair number of young UK rockers. The producer of the Manchester broadcast told BBC in 2014 that Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, and others had told him they caught the show when it originally aired.

Despite the spark that the performance gave her career in the '60s, Tharpe was often forgotten in the following decades' retellings of rock 'n' roll's early days. Even a few years ago, it was still common to read articles calling Tharpe an overlooked pioneer of the genre, if she was mentioned at all. But a widespread re-examination of her work culminated in her induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020. Interest in that gorgeous SG Custom has followed, both from new artists and fans of vintage Gibsons.

New Artists Using 3-Pickup SG Customs

A new version of Tharpe's guitar—Gibson Custom Shop's 1963 Les Paul SG Custom Reissue w/ Maestro Vibrola—could be spotted on two recent Saturday Night Live performances.

In the first, Celisse Henderson paid direct homage to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, when the guitarist closed SNL's 2019 season with Lizzo while donning a classy robe, a "Sister"-emblazoned studded guitar strap, and the SG Custom. Henderson recalled the moment to Yahoo Music last week, saying, "It's really wild to think about what [Tharpe]'s done. That guitar she plays, the SG, has become such a big iconic rock ‘n’ roll guitar. She literally was the first person playing an SG on TV."

When SNL opened its 2020 season the following month, Halsey was the musical guest, and her guitarist, Arianna Powell, also rocked a Tharpe-style SG Custom. Powell, who has played with The Black-Eyed Peas, Nick Jonas, and others, has also shown the guitar off in recent videos on her Instagram page as well.

The Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard—who performed the Tharpe tribute at the Hall of Fame's 2018 induction ceremony—has long played a green, three-pickup SG. In 2019, she told Premier Guitar:

"I didn’t even know about Sister Rosetta when I chose that guitar, but I always wanted that guitar and I always thought it was the one for me. I don’t like Les Pauls, because they’re too heavy, and I was just never really around Fenders, so I didn’t really know much about them. What happened was that Heath [Fogg, guitarist of Alabama Shakes] let me borrow his SG because I didn’t have a guitar to play at the time and that’s where it all began. I kept playing his SG and then I saw the one with three pickups and was like 'whoa!' And then I saw the white one Sister Rosetta used. Now I’ve got like five of ’em!"

Appreciating Vintage Prices

On Reverb, there's been an uptick in prices for vintage and used models across the spectrum of white, three-pickup SG Custom guitars, from the original Gibson Les Paul (SG) Custom with Sideways Vibrola of 1961–1962 through the 1999 Gibson SG Les Paul '61 Custom Reissue in Classic White.

Gibson Les Paul (SG) Custom with Sideways Vibrola 1961–1962

The slump at January 20 in the chart for original 1961–62 Les Paul Customs above is attributable to one individual guitar that had been significantly modified and therefore couldn't command similar prices. Otherwise, you can see a clear bump in value around the time of Tharpe's induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

While other models from this original era—like the Gibson Les Paul (SG) Custom with Bigsby Vibrato from 1961–1962, Gibson Les Paul (SG) Custom with Sideways Vibrola 1963, and Gibson Les Paul (SG) Custom with Ebony Block Vibrola 1962–1963—don't have enough data points to create Reverb Price Guides, a look at current asking prices of any will show that sellers think there are some high-end buyers out there.

Gibson SG Custom with Maestro Vibrola 1963–1966

Vintage Gibson SG Customs with Maestro Vibrola 1963–1966, which Gibson is using as its model for its new Custom Shop SG Custom, have also appreciated in value within the last few years.

Gibson '61/'62 SG Custom Reissue 1987–1991

Even reissues have seemed to benefit from Tharpe's increased visibility as well. The late-'80s to early-'90s '61/'62 SG Custom Reissues came in two colors—TV Yellow and Antique Ivory—with the Ivory models rising in price in recent years.

Gibson SG Les Paul '61 Custom Reissue Classic White 1999

And, as you can see above, the Gibson SG Les Paul '61 Custom Reissue Classic White 1999 is another reissue with at least some upward movement on its Price Guide post-2018 as well.


Whether all of this interest can be attributed solely to the guitar-playing public's appreciation for Sister Rosetta Tharpe can't really be said. But with Tharpe's place in the rock pantheon finally here to stay—and the enduringly crisp looks of the SG Customs—interest in these guitars isn't likely to go away anytime soon.

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