120: Gibson Tobacco Sunburst Their First EVER Sunburst
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Auction ended on April 28th, 2009 UTC
120: Gibson Tobacco Sunburst Their First EVER Sunburst
Some people think a guitar’s value is determined by the make, model, color, condition, rarity, desirability and era. Others assign value based solely on how the guitar sounds, and still others purely on price. Regardless of philosophy, everyone agrees that when it comes to vintage guitars, details do matter when determining the value. So when vintage dealer and guitar show producer Dave Crocker came across what appeared to be a 1956 Gibson Les Paul Standard in a sunburst finish – two years before Gibson began offering that guitar in sunburst – he went on a hunt to determine what exactly he had. Why was the guitar sunburst when Gibson only produced Standards in goldtop in 1956? Was the sunburst finish original or was the guitar originally a goldtop refinished in sunburst? If the latter, was it re-finished by Gibson or by someone else? Could it be a one-off prototype? Is it even really a 1956 model? Although the guitar raises all of these questions, some things about it are indisputable, according to Crocker and other experts who examined it. These experts included the guru of guitar aging and ex-Gibson Custom Shop finisher Tom Murphy; Dave Hinson of Killer Vintage, who writes for the Vintage Guitar Price Guide and the Blue Book of Guitars; and noted vintage guitar restoration pro Terry Mueller. Follow along with the experts as they embark on what Hinson calls “guit-archaeology,” digging through layers of sediment and factoring in Gibson guitar history to come up with a plausible theory for the creation of what could be the first burst – i.e. the first Les Paul ever produced in a sunburst finish. Is it a 1956 model? Every expert who has seen the guitar agrees it is definitely a 1956. As Crocker says, “Everything about this guitar, like the wiring harness and the pickups, says 1956, and the solder points have never been broken so the parts are original.” Murphy notes that the P90 pickups were the ones used by Gibson until 1957 when they switched to Humbuckers, and the Tune-O-Matic bridge is consistent with a 1956 vintage (Gibson started putting Tune-O-Matics on Les Pauls in late 1955). Murphy says 1956 also fits based on the tobacco color of the burst. Gibson didn’t officially offer Les Pauls in sunburst until 1958, and that was a cherry sunburst. “Since this burst was brown not red like the later Les Pauls, and because brown sunburst was the reference they had at that time, it’s a simple deduction that this finish was applied earlier than 1958.” Hinson affirms that the patina and checking look original. Murphy, perhaps the world’s foremost authority on Gibson finishes, agrees the finish is consistent with factory quality. A case in point: “I’m always drawn to the binding. Gibson didn’t mask off the binding. They cleaned the paint off the binding later with a burnished edge blade, which makes a very clean edge around the top and side. The binding on this guitar was cleaned that way,” he says. “Even though this guitar is extremely weathered – it’s the poster child of old guitars – I can still tell that the quality of the finish is impeccable – unmistakably Gibson.” In 1956, Gibson was making Standards only with maple goldtops and either maple backs finished in natural, or mahogany backs finished in walnut (called “dark backs”). Murphy and Hinson believe this ‘56 sunburst, which has the dark back, may have been a goldtop first. The guitar has a little gold paint in the bottom of the pickup rout, a typical side effect of the messy goldtop spraying process. “That guitar may not have left the factory gold, but it was painted gold at some point,” Murphy maintains. “But I like that the gold is in there. It shows that no one went to the trouble to cover it up or try to deceive anyone.” Murphy has a possible explanation for the changeover from goldtop to sunburst: the factory messed up the gold spray job. If the mahogany back was already done in the walnut finish, and there was a problem with the gold application – this would be in the second or third stage of production – the guys in the shop weren’t going to re-spray the top and risk getting gold flakes all over the finished sides. They would just wipe off the gold and paint the top with the more economical and more forgiving sunburst to cover up the mistake. Mistakes did happen, according to Hinson’s version of the conventional wisdom of the day: “You didn’t want a Monday guitar or a Friday guitar, because the factory workers were hungover on Mondays and in a hurry to leave on Fridays.” Crocker prefers the theory that the guitar started production as a goldtop – which would explain the gold in the pickup rout -- but was pulled off the assembly line and shot as a sunburst, its maiden finish. “I had the guitar X-rayed and we looked at it under every color of light in the world, and there are no sanding or scraping marks. The way it’s shot on the shoulders and lower belts, it couldn’t be a refin, it had to have left the factory that way,” he says. Furthermore, because the soldered joints are unbroken, the electronics clearly were never removed for refinishing; they had to have been put in after the finish was on. Supporting Crocker’s theory, the ‘56 Les Paul top has the off-center seam used for goldtops (because the paint covered up the seam) as opposed to the center seam found on sunburst guitars (because the seam showed through the burst). Regardless of whether or not the guitar was originally goldtop or sunburst, the guit-archaeologists wanted to know: Why would someone want a Les Paul Standard in tobacco sunburst, the finish found on the Les Paul Junior, a cheaper, student guitar? Crocker – who sold the guitar to a collector in 2007 -- believes he has the answer to that. “The guy I bought it from said the original owner had an L5 in tobacco sunburst, and he wanted a Les Paul to match. The only sunburst Gibson was doing then was the tobacco, so that’s what he got.” Although Murphy prefers his theory that the sunburst was applied to cover up a bad gold spraying job, he doesn’t deny that some guitarists probably hated the metallic goldtop and might have placed special orders for something else. Gibson historians say that factory employees were allowed to make their own guitars, and the company itself obviously made prototypes and samples as they experimented with new model/color combinations. So add to the theories that the ’56 sunburst might be an employee guitar or the result of experimentation. Is it realistic that Gibson would fulfill a special order that was inconsistent with its standard model/color combination? This question gets a laugh from the experts. History shows that Gibson, like Fender and sometimes Martin, would produce whatever the customer wanted. Murphy recounts seeing a 1930s double-neck acoustic guitar with its headstock joined at the top, and a custom 1940s L5 with a neck rounded on the front as well as the back, giving it the look and feel of a baseball bat. Just recently, a 1955 black ES-175 came to light, apparently the earliest known example in that color. “In this context, painting a Les Paul brown is not a big deal,” Murphy concludes. Suffice to say, the uniqueness of the guitar matters a lot more to collectors today than it did to players, or Gibson, in the 1950s. By now you might be wondering: Why can’t the serial number lay this mystery to rest? Because no one can read it. What remains of the serial number – three digits on a good day – is so faded as to be unreadable. Murphy is confident that the numbers weren’t stripped off, but merely faded along with the guitar’s rich finish over time. What about Gibson’s own records? Surely there must be a record of the guitar somewhere. First off, guitar-makers in the 1950s weren’t thinking about vintage guitar buffs trying to discern a particular guitar’s history more than 50 years into the future. Second, Gibson’s record-keeping was notoriously shaky in that era, described by the experts with terms like imprecise, or hit and miss. Given the frustrating inability to pinpoint if this is the first sunburst Les Paul, and whether or not it is a one-off, we are left to draw our own conclusions based on the evidence. Some, like Crocker, firmly believe that this is the earliest factory finished sunburst Les Paul ever made. Others hedge and say it is certainly the first known factory finished sunburst Les Paul, and will be until an earlier one is unearthed. Perhaps Murphy sums up the controversy best: “We don’t need to solve the mystery. It’s just a really, really cool guitar.” Just when it seemed we would also have to settle for never knowing how or why the guitar became a sunburst, the man who sold the guitar to Crocker was located. Frank Ray was a guitar dealer in Missouri years ago, and he bought the guitar from the brother of the man who ordered it from Gibson more than 50 years ago. The original owner had long since died when Frank entered the picture, but the brother confirms what Dave Crocker had heard to be true. The man had an L5 in tobacco sunburst and went into a guitar shop in West Virginia looking for a Les Paul to match. He was told that Gibson was coming out soon with Les Pauls in a sunburst finish, but they weren’t available yet. The man said he didn’t want to wait for the new sunburst finish and he didn’t want a goldtop. He wanted tobacco sunburst like his L5. And that’s what Gibson made for him. So that part of the mystery is solved, and the digging expedition has uncovered as much as possible. The first known Les Paul in sunburst was a special order from the factory, designed to satisfy one individual’s taste. Today, the reach of that potentially one-of-a-kind guitar goes a lot further, satisfying the history-loving curiosity of a lot of vintage guitar buffs.
- 15% up to £2,000,000.00
- 15% above £2,000,000.00
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