Gibson continually revisited and reworked its Les Paul range in the 1950s. Gibson modernised its single-cutaway Les Paul Junior, TV, and Special versions with double-cutaway body designs in response to customer requests in 1958, which was one of the most notable changes.
The revamped Junior and TV guitars, with rounded horns, started shipping that year, followed by the Special in early 1959. The Les Paul Special and Les Paul TV were renamed the SG Special and SG TV respectively in late 1959, signalling the end of Gibson’s original Les Paul solidbody electric guitar line, which started in 1952 with the Les Paul Model (Goldtop).
By 1961, these rounded double-cutaway guitars, as well as the Les Paul Standard/’Burst and Les Paul Custom’s classic single-cutaway shape, had been superseded by a radical new design with a thin bevelled body and pointed double cutaways.
Although this distinctive profile is widely referred to as a ‘SG,’ the Junior, Standard, and Custom did not receive their official SG model designation until 1963, following the expiration of Les Paul’s endorsement contract in 1962.
Despite their enduring popularity, many of these seminal instruments were not deemed commercially viable by Gibson at the time, and as a result were subject to continuing modifications and/or discontinuation.
“If you look at Gibson’s past and their electric guitars, they seldom get it right the first time,” says David Davidson of Well Strung Guitars. David answered our call to his shop in Farmingdale, New York, to help us collect some pearls of SG wisdom. David is a vintage guitar dealer with over 40 years of experience and the current COO and curator of the Songsbirds vintage guitar museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“Gibson was still catching up to their competitors,” David continues. “Every guitar Fender produced was an instant success that didn’t need any modifications. It was fantastic when they created the Stratocaster; it was fantastic when they created the Esquire; and it was fantastic when they created the Broadcaster. Right out of the packaging, they were fantastic. Gibson, on the other hand, took years.
“If you look at the Les Paul, you can see that they were always trying to improve it since they had struggled the first time.” They had the silly trapeze [tailpiece] when they made the Les Paul Model [in 1952]. After that, there was the stud tailpiece. They didn’t get it right until they had the ABR-1 [Tune-o-matic bridge] and PAFs [by 1957]. Then they come back and remodel the guitar once more!
“They wanted to make the [SG-style] Les Paul Standard and Custom fancy in order to compete with Fender, so they added a sideways Vibrola, but they over-engineered the whole thing. They tried a variety of tailpieces after that, but I believe the only one that ever really performed well for Gibson was a Bigsby.
“Most people removed their Vibrolas and replaced them with a stop tailpiece. That’s why there have been so many guitar conversions over the years. If they had done it that way from the start, it would have been a fantastic guitar. Those early years are crucial because the model’s credibility is quickly established. People want to move on to what plays well if a guitar comes out and isn’t a fantastic player right out of the box.”
A feature with two cuts
The core ideas of the SG were most likely first introduced by the Gibson sales team, who kept a close eye on the market when soliciting input from dealers and musicians. They were persuaded that double-cutaway electrics were the way to go by 1960.
“The Les Paul Special and Junior had already been changed into a [rounded] double-cutaway style, and they realised they wanted to do the same thing with the Standard and Custom,” Mat explains. “All the old-timers from the factory point to a guy named Larry Allers when it comes to the nature of the SG itself.
“Larry was a carpenter. He worked as a foreman in the woodworking department before being promoted to ‘engineer.’ Gibson’s way of encouraging you was to refer to you as an engineer. Larry rose to the position of project manager, and if any highly specialised custom orders came up, he was often assigned to them. I believe they simply gathered all of the sales team’s notes, gave them to Larry, and he came up with the SG [design].”