The stringed symphony of Gibson guitars has resonated through the pages of history, depicting a captivating journey intricately intertwined with some of the greatest music legends. Since Orville Gibson’s humble beginnings in Kalamazoo, Michigan, his creations have fueled the evolution of music itself and spearheaded an era that redefined acoustic and electric guitar craftsmanship.
Much of Gibson’s fame and influence in the music industry springs from its remarkable range of customization, which intrigued a legion of celebrated artists to create their own unique Gibson masterpieces. This deeper connection between musicians and their instruments has manifested into an unforgettable legacy of sound and style, shaping the face of music and culture. As exciting as it is, it’s important to understand the conversion of this iconic piece of wood, wire, and artistry into an extension of a musician’s personal creative journey.
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History of Gibson Guitars
Gibson Guitars: A Potted History
Gibson Guitar Corporation, founded in 1902, is among the world’s most reputable manufacturers of guitars, banjos, and other string instruments. Orville Gibson, a luthier and the company’s founder, began the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The company’s initial focus was mandolin production. However, due to the growing demand for guitars, Gibson shifted its focus, leading to the development of iconic Gibson guitar models such as the Les Paul and the SG.
Signature Features of Gibson Guitars
Gibson guitars gained popularity due to their unique characteristics and superior quality. These traits include the use of high-quality tonewoods, a “set neck” design (where the neck and body are joined with a dovetail or mortise-and-tenon joint, and glued rather than bolted-on), and the patented humbucker pickup design that substantially reduces the hum and unwanted noise that are typical of electric guitars.
Gibson’s Iconic Models
The Gibson Les Paul, SG, Flying V, and ES-335 are some of the most iconic guitar models in the industry, known for their robust sound. These models have been replicated countless times and remain popular among rock and blues musicians. The responsible individuals who created these guitars have left an indelible mark in the history of the music industry. have left an indelible mark in the history of the music industry.
The Gibson Les Paul, first sold in 1952, was a collaboration with the famous musician Les Paul. It’s known for its thick, heavy sound—often called the “Les Paul growl”. The SG, Gibson’s best-selling guitar of all time, is loved for its striking double-horned design and lighter build. The Flying V and ES-335 are popular for their innovative designs that departed from the more traditional guitar body shapes of the era.
Custom Gibson Guitars: Artists Making Their Mark
Custom Gibson guitars became highly sought after as artists began taking the beloved instrument and adding their own personal touches to it. Many rock ‘n’ roll stars, country heroes, and blues legends have had their custom Gibson guitars become almost as famous as they are.
The modifications artists made – from unique finishes to personalized inlays, alternative pick-ups, and hardware – allowed them to extract the sound and style they desired from their guitar of choice.
One of the most notable customizations was that of Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, who had his Gibson Les Paul painted with a psychedelic design in the late 1960s. In the world of blues, B.B. King’s Gibson Lucille – a modified ES-355 – became legendary. King removed the F-holes to reduce feedback, added a TP-6 fine tuning tailpiece, and made his Lucille’s fretboard ebony for a smoother feel.
Tracing Gibson’s Impact on Music History and Culture
Gibson guitars have played an undeniably pivotal role in the soundscape of popular music history. Over the years, their rich tones, innovative designs, and outstanding construction quality have won the hearts of musicians worldwide, ranging from seasoned professionals to passionate hobbyists. With an impressive enlisting of music legends endorsing the brand, Gibson has firmly planted its roots in the annals of guitar and music history.
The unique relationship Gibson shares with its musicians extends beyond just manufacturing their guitars. Always eager to satisfy the specific desires and needs of artists, Gibson has exhibited a continual commitment to customization that has further solidified their reputation. This symbiotic connection continues to fuel both the evolution of Gibson’s instruments and the artists who use them.
Famous Artists Who Customized Their Gibson Guitars
Signature Melodies: Artists’ Customizations on Gibson Guitars
One cannot miss mentioning explicit Gibson devotee, Jimmy Page, who is famously recognized as the dynamic lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin. Throughout his career, Gibson guitars have been his go-to choice and his instrument adjustments have notably defined his unique style. Gibson Les Paul is his famous associate which he fine-tuned with a three-way switch, enabling him to shift between different tonal options, from crystal clear to grungy overtones. A push-pull knob feature was introduced to coil-split his humbucker in the bridge position, adding to his tonal variety.
Emerging from the iconic band Kiss, Ace Frehley designed his Les Paul Custom with an extra humbucking pickup, contrary to the usual two. His signature move was adding a “lightning bolt” finish that became his stage symbol, with the added pickup aiding him in producing a distinctive tone that made his solos stand out.
Another artist who maintains a covetable relationship with Gibson is Slash, from Guns N’ Roses. He has artistically customized numerous Gibson guitars throughout his career, adding his personal touch to each one. He is known for replacing the standard Gibson pickups with Seymour Duncan Alnico II humbuckers in his Gibson Les Pauls. This change significantly enhances Slash’s renowned tone which propels many of his greatest hits.
Among the finest pairings, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood from Rolling Stones have both applied unique modifications to their respective Gibson guitars. Richards favors a five-stringed Gibson Hummingbird while Wood prefers a Gibson L6S uniquely modified to suit his style. Wood had the body contoured, the neck re-profiled, and standard pickups exchanged with custom P-90 pickups.
Punk-rocker Billy Joe Armstrong from Green Day has his junior model the famous Gibson Les Paul. His variant comes with a H-90 pickup, which is essentially a humbucker designed to fit into a P-90 pickup casing. This innovative modification allows Armstrong to maintain his signature punk tone, curbing the usual hum that accompanies a high-gain tone.
Noticing the unique Gibson Les Paul Standard of 1959 owned by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons wouldn’t be a challenge as it stands out with its rare sunburst finish and exclusive tone. He has dubbed the guitar “Pearly Gates,” and it was modified with a Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates pickup at the bridge position, bringing an iconic blues-rock tone to ZZ Top’s music for decades.
Neil Young’s “Old Black,” is a customized 1953 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop now donning a dark shade. It is modified with a Bigsby tremolo and replacement pickups: a Firebird mini-humbucker in the neck position, and P-90 at the bridge, accompanied by an additional toggle switch to diversify the tonal options.
Gibson guitars have always been favored by musicians and guitar enthusiasts alike. Their outstanding performance and limitless customization options allow artists to make the instrument reflect their distinctive sound and style. With the flexibility to replace pickups, tweak knobs, and switch operations, and add a personal touch of aesthetics, each Gibson guitar becomes a unique representation of its owner.
Spotlight on Noteworthy Gibson Guitar Customizations
“Lucy”: Eric Clapton’s Cherished Gibson Les Paul Custom
The distinctive “Lucy,” a cherry red Gibson Les Paul custom, gifted by legendary George Harrison, is the brainchild of Eric Clapton. This iconic guitar stands out for its special modifications, uniquely enabled by guitar tech Roger Giffin who fortified it with sped-up pick-ups. Clapton pursued a tone that was crisp yet rich, so he perfected a dual series-wired humbucker configuration which enhanced the mid-range tones. This personal touch eventually led to the unique sound heard on timeless hits like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Jimmy Page’s number two Gibson Les Paul
Jimmy Page’s number two Gibson Les Paul is a prime example of an artist using modification to define their sound. The guitar was spec’d by Page himself, with the neck based on measurements from his original 1959 Les Paul Standard. Its push-pull knobs on volume and tone pots were designed to split the humbuckers into single-coil pickups, giving Page a shimmery, thinner tone when necessary to cut through the heavy walls of sound.
Keith Richards’ 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard “Keith Burst”
Keith Richards’ 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard, often called the “Keith Burst,” is another iconic customized Gibson guitar. The original PAF (Patent Applied For) pickups were replaced with humbuckers to deliver a powerful kick needed for open-G tuning, a signature move in Richards’ playing. He also removed the 6th string, another modification made to accommodate his unique approach to playing.
Zakk Wylde’s Gibson Les Paul Custom “Bullseye”
Zakk Wylde, famous for his work with Ozzy Osbourne, has a highly unique Gibson, the Les Paul Custom “Bullseye.” Extended for endurance with EMG 81/85 active pickups and heavily modified with his stand-out black and white bullseye design, this guitar showcases the dual customization techniques of aesthetic changes and sound enhancement.
Slash’s Gibson Les Paul Standard
The Gibson Les Paul Standard is the guitar that Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash is known for playing. He made several modifications to it, including the use of Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pro humbucker pickups. These pickups helped Slash achieve a warm, sustained tone. He also made the guitar lighter in weight for easier handling on stage. Aesthetic modifications include a flamed maple top for an eye-catching appearance and a unique Snakepit logo on the headstock.
Billy Gibbons’ “Pearly Gates” Les Paul
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top is famous for playing his 1959 Gibson Les Paul Sunburst guitar, affectionately called “Pearly Gates.” To meet his specific needs, Gibbons had the guitar modified by fitting it with a PAF humbucker neck pickup to produce deep, muscular sounds and adding a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece. Later, Gibbons had the guitar fitted with custom-wound Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates pickups, which gave it a crisp, grinding tone that became his signature sound.
Musicians around the world have made their Gibson guitars unique by customizing them to suit their sound and style. These customizations can involve changes to the guitar’s construction, aesthetics, or other unique modifications that reflect the guitarist’s preferences, playing techniques, and distinctive sounds. This variety of innovations has attracted the attention of many enthusiasts, inspiring them to embark on similar paths of customization.
Impact on Music and Culture
A Glimpse into Jimi Hendrix’s Reverse-Strung Gibson ‘Flying V’
Among the many artists, there is one who stands out, the rock legend Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix made a unique modification to his Gibson ‘Flying V’ that not only fueled his fame but also impacted his playing style. As a left-handed player, Hendrix reversed the string order of his Gibson, allowing him to play it upside down. This modification gave his sound a special resonance and added a unique vibe to his chords and tunes. Hendrix’s approach to playing the guitar paved the way for a new generation of guitarists and continues to inspire musicians today.
Les Paul, The Man Who Changed It All
Les Paul, the namesake of Gibson’s iconic model, was not just an accomplished musician, but he was also an innovator. Paul was known for tinkering with his guitars, even going as far as to add extra frets. He also added heavier strings for more sustain and tinkered with his guitar’s electronics for better sound output. His changes to the Gibson Les Paul not only enhanced his performances but also revolutionized guitar design and influenced music history. Les Paul’s impact on the Gibson guitar design is a testament to his legendary status.
Slash and his Gibson Les Paul
Slash’s association with the Gibson Les Paul is unparalleled in the world of guitarists. As the lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses, he has made significant changes to his Gibson guitars over the years. Slash has primarily focused on modifying the pickups to achieve a fatter and more aggressive tone. His unique sound, which is partly due to his custom Gibson guitars, is critical to the band’s signature power and grit. Slash’s ‘Appetite for Destruction Les Paul’ is one of the most well-known guitars in the history of rock and roll.
ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons’ “Pearly Gates”
Billy Gibbons, the lead guitarist of ZZ Top, is widely recognized for his personalized Gibson Les Paul guitar, affectionately called “Pearly Gates”. This 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard has been modified and enhanced over the years, including special Texas-shaped mother-of-pearl inlays on the fretboard and custom-made Seymour Duncan pickups, providing it a distinct, growling tone. As a result, it produces a unique sound that has played a significant role in ZZ Top’s long-lasting popularity and influence on blues and rock music.
The Edge’s Gibson Explorer
U2’s The Edge is known for his innovative approach to guitar playing, and his primary instrument is a 1976 Gibson Explorer. While not immediately obvious, his Explorer has been customised with a Fernandes Sustainer system installed in the neck pickup. This modification allows for incredibly long-sustaining notes and feedback-controlled effects, central to creating U2’s atmospheric soundscapes. The Edge’s use of technology and guitar customisation continues to influence and inspire musicians worldwide.
Countless artists have put their personal touch on their Gibson guitars, customisations that have not only created signature sounds but also significantly impacted the landscape of music. Their deliberate tailoring of Gibson guitars to fit their unique musical and aesthetic preferences initiated waves of influence that have shaped popular culture and the way we engage with music.
Getting Started with Customizing Your Gibson
Delving into the Structure of a Gibson Guitar
Before you start customizing your Gibson guitar, it’s essential to understand its key components. Gibson guitars are well known for their attractive designs, superior sound quality, and functionality. The guitar’s craftsmanship is a combination of elements that are essential to its performance and tonal resonance. The main parts of a Gibson guitar include the body, neck, headstock, fretboard, bridge, and pickup assembly.
Emulating the Greats: Famous Artists and Their Gibson Customizations
To start your journey of customizing your guitar, you can take inspiration from famous guitarists who have added their personal touch to their Gibson guitars. One such notable guitarist is Slash from Guns N’ Roses, who uses a Les Paul Standard with his own custom Seymour Duncan pickups. Another example is Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, who incorporated an elaborate wiring scheme into his Gibson double-neck guitar EDS-1275, giving him the ability to create a variety of sonic profiles.
Additionally, don’t forget to review how some artists, like Keith Richards or Eric Clapton, opted for aesthetic modifications. From hand-painted unique designs, psychedelic patterns to personalized engravings, these artists pushed boundaries on guitar customization.
Options for Customizing Your Gibson Guitar
When embarking on your own customization journey, the options are nearly limitless. You can make changes to the hardware, internal electronics, or aesthetics.
For hardware, consider looking at the bridge, tailpiece, tuners, knobs, and nut material. Internal adjustments can be made to the guitar’s pickups, wiring, or tone capacitors – sometimes referred to as the ‘tone stack.’ Lastly, aesthetic changes can include new paint or other finishes, custom pickguard, or even your own unique fretboard inlays.
Patiently Plan Out Your Customization Journey
Your personalized Gibson guitar should represent a careful amalgamation of your music aspirations and creativity. Identify your specific needs, be it tonal changes or a visual appeal, and then plan your customization accordingly.
Always remember, that patience and planning prevent costly errors or modifications which can degrade the resale value of your Gibson.
Cost Estimates for Customizing Your Gibson Guitar
Costs can range substantially based on the type and scale of customization sought. Sharing an approximation is challenging, considering the variety in price for parts and services. A high-quality pickup set may range from $200-$300 while professional repainting could cross a grand. Additionally, a professional luthier service for internal modifications may run you several hundreds of dollars depending on complexity.
Don’t get discouraged. Many modifications, like adding decals or replacing knobs or pickup covers, can be done very cheaply while still making your Gibson feel refreshing and personalized.
Adopt Best Practices for Gibson Guitar Customization
If you’re planning to modify your Gibson, remember to adhere to best practices. Always retain the original parts removed from your Gibson. This precaution safeguards your guitar’s resale value if needed later. Meanwhile, note that moderate changes can be undone relatively easily while more invasive ones are not so forgiving.
Remember, always consult a professional for complex changes such as internal wiring, tonal adjustments, or refinishing. Do-it-yourself is enticing, but some procedures require technical expertise to assist with complex customizations.
Learning from the Legends
The Gibson guitars of renowned artists are often seen as extensions of the artists themselves- a testament to their guitar journey. Each artist mentioned has set trends and pushed traditional conceptions of how a guitar should look and sound. Unleash your creativity and individuality while knowing you’re joining a lineage of great entertainers who’ve made their mark one string at a time.
While the act of personalizing a Gibson might appear challenging and ambitious, it’s an exciting adventure that results in a uniquely tailored companion. You’re enhancing its functionality while etching your own story onto a powerful musical instrument. Keep in mind, that you’re not just modifying a guitar. You’re creating a personalized tool to voice your artistry and passion.
Customizing a Gibson guitar reflects an artist’s personal adventure and approach to tune creation, an intimate relationship between the musician and the instrument. Whether it’s B.B. King’s Lucille or Slash’s Les Paul Standard, these personalized guitars tell a distinct story, offering us a glimpse into the soul of the artist, while simultaneously painting a richer canvas of the music world. Wholly, customizing a guitar becomes an act of identity, of personality, and signature style. So, as you embark on this DIY journey, bear in mind the lessons of the past, the artists who have gone before you, sitting down with their own Gibson in their lap, dreaming of something new, something revolutionary, something that represents who they are as musicians. While it may seem daunting at first, the reward lies not only in the guitar you hold upon completion but also in the enriching process it took to create it. A custom Gibson not only enhances the characters of sound but also deepens the bond between an artist and their instrument.