Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Gibson SG - Happy 50th Birthday

The Gibson SG is one of the more unique electric guitar shapes to come down the pike. It was designed by Gibson guitars as early as 1959; however, it did not actually make its debut until 1961. That makes it 50 years old this year.

By 1958, Gibson’s sales of the various Les Paul models were slowing down. The following year was when Gibson, led by Ted McCarty, decided to produce some radically different guitars, in hopes of striking competing with Fender and Epiphone.  

The Flying Vee, the Explorer and the elusive Moderne were all offered in 1959.  But sales of these extreme instruments were dismal.  Gibson was looking to produce a twin cutaway, solid body instrument, to boost sales and cut costs. McCarty came up with the Les Paul SG.

Originally, it was labeled The Les Paul SG, SG standing for solid guitar. It was flat-topped, with neck access to the last fret.  The 24.75” scale neck joined the body at the 19th fret. The neck had a thinner profile than The Les Paul guitars. Likewise, the neck heel was very shallow. 

The mahogany body was beautifully finished in cherry, as was the neck.  The guitar came with a tune-o-matic bridge, a trapeze tailpiece or more commonly either a Bigsby vibrato or a Maestro side-to-side Lyre Vibrola.

This instrument was equipped with twin humbucking pickups, with volume and tone controls for each pickup and a Switchcraft 3-way selector switch.

The upper sides of the body were beveled to accentuate the symmetrical twin horns.  The bound rosewood fretboard had trapezoidal position markers. The headstock veneer was black with a Gibson flowerpot inlay and the truss rod cover was emblazoned with "Les Paul."

However, Mr. Paul was not at all happy with the changes to his model and asked that his name be removed.  This was done in 1963.  There are pictures of Les Paul and Mary Ford holding their Les Paul SG’s. By 1963 
the guitar was dubbed The SG Standard.

The Les Paul SG outsold the Les Paul guitar in its first 3 years of existence.

If you recall, Les Paul originally designed two colour schemes for his guitar. The more popular was the Gold top model, that was based on the ES-295 guitar. He also designed a solid black guitar, especially for players who wore tuxedos.

This was the close of the big band era.  Gibson decided on a similar strategy for the Les Paul SG and came up with a fancy model called the Les Paul SG Custom. It came with a Polaris white finish and gold hardware, including pickup covers, tuners, the Maestro Vibrola, and its cover. This guitar had 3 humbucking pickups and an ebony fretboard, which was dressed with very thin frets, similar to those on The Fretless Wonder (Gibson Les Paul Custom).  In fact, this guitar was dubbed by some, The Fretless Wonder. 

The bound fretboard came with block pearl position markers. The headstock was bound with a split trapezoidal inlay. It had the smaller 3-ply scratch plate that came on the cherry model, only it was white instead of black. This was a beautiful instrument; however most players are not fond of the thin fret wire that promised to make playing faster. 

Gibson called this model The Les Paul SG custom and after 1963 The SG Custom.

The small pickguard was offered through 1965. The neck joint was thickened in 1962 and in 1966, a redesigned neck joint was added, as was the enlarged pickguard, which aided in wiring the guitar. 

One of the flaws in this guitars design was the thin neck joint. If the guitar was dropped, the headstock joint generally cracked, rendering it unplayable to be sent back to the factory for warranty work.

1966 SG
Late in that year, a larger pickguard was also added to the model. This surrounded both pickups.

Other models came into being. They were all variations on the original design, but generally with less features. 

A Gibson Les Paul Jr.SG.  was available as early as 1961. It was a beautiful and simple guitar. There was one 90 pickup in the bridge position. The pickguard was enlarged to cover the body where the neck pickup might have been placed.  There were only two controls; for volume and tone, along with a jack. 

Most models came with a wrap-around tailpiece, which doubled as a bridge-saddle and bridge. There was a model that came with a tremolo unit which had a compensated non-adjustable metal bridge saddle. The vibrato are on the early guitars was a chromed metal bar although some model had a vibrato bar with a white handle. The strings on this guitar were anchored on a flat metal lip that allowed for movement. 

All of these models came with rosewood fretboards with white dot position markers. The headstock had a Gibson decal and the tuners came with white plastic buttons. 

The Gibson SG Special was a less stripped down version of the Standard. It featured one or two P-90 pickups with the usual controls. The neck was the same as the SG Jr. with white dot markers on a rosewood fretboard and a plain headstock. This model came with a tune-o-matic bridge and a stop bar tailpiece although it was made with an optional vibrato.

There have been numerous changes to the SG since the early 1970’s, which have included differing colour options, further changes to the fragile neck and changes to the pickguard and control placement. 

Around 1980, Gibson had Robert Moog design active electronics, similar to those in the Gibson RD Artist guitar. This became the Gibson SG-R1 and later the SG Artist.  

The mid 1970’s a version was offered with carving in the body.  The SG-100 was a budget version, in which the controls were mounted on the top under a metal cover. A limited run of The SG Standard3 was offered not too long ago. This guitar came with 3 single coil pickups, a single volume and tone control and a chicken head style knob as a pickup up selector switch.

Most recently, Gibson has experimented with the instrument as a limited edition robot guitar. Motorized tuners, which attached to a computerized tuner, automatically brought the instrument into perfect tune.

In 1965, the Gibson Melody Maker guitar was reinvented with the SG shape and was available with one, two or three pickups and with or without a vibrato.  Some people mistake the Melody Maker for an SG, however the pickups on this guitar are single coil with a plastic cover.

Gibson also produced a Kalamazoo line of electric guitars and basses. One of the models bore a resemblance to the Melody Maker SG, however this guitar was made out of MDF (medium density fiberboard).

Gibson’s short scale basses, including the EB-0 and EB-3 also received the SG shape.

The original price for a 1961 “Les Paul” SG standard was $310.  This was similar to the price one would pay for a Fender Stratocaster.


GuitarTrump said...

This is a wonderfully informative article! I LOVE the Gibson SG - I had no idea it was 50 years old! Thanks for sharing :)

I really like your blog - I'm trying to get mine off the ground and was wondering if you could come check it out (and maybe consider following?).


Hope you have an *amazing* day! :)


Marc said...

Thanks GuitarTrump.

I've added my name. Nice blog.

Anonymous said...

For years Ive had this guitar body with a possibly mis-matched neck and I really want to finish this. It's an SG body and you can tell from screw holes that it had a whammy bar like the firebird VII I think with the plate, the real stumper though is its got a cavity for pickups and the controls in the front like a strat with everything mounted to the pick guard. Ive made a pickguard but I really want to figure out what kind of guitar this is. It might even be a knockoff SG. Somewhat reminds me of a Kzoo melody maker as far as the pickguard.

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