1956 Gibson Les Paul Junior 3/4, as made famous by Billie Joe Armstrong
Billie Joe's 1956 Les Paul Junior is the normal scale version, this one the student model. But in every other respect, the perfect match for the guitar behind so many of Green Day's classics - and that P-90 just screams!
You see him so often with a Les Paul Junior, you might think it was the only guitar Billie Joe Armstrong plays. And the release in 2006 of the Billie Joe Armstrong signature model in 2008 might close the case. Nothing to do with the Les Paul Junior, but it's a story worth telling. His first guitar was bought by his mum for his 11th birthday - a Fernandes Stratocaster, nicknamed "Blue". I'd find it hard to name any famous players who are still playing the guitar that they first learnt to play on. But it makes all the sense in the world - you learn on it, you get used to it, you build your style around it, you fit together - and you form a modern punk rock band, with a beaten-up guitar to match. He still plays it live.
Over the years, of course, he's extended the collection. Go on Equipboard and you'll see more than 170 different guitars he's been spotted with! Never going to get to that number here, but check out this 1964 Harmony Rocket H59 for another of the vintage models he's played live, not to mention one right at the other end of the scale when it comes to features compared to a Les Paul Junior. He's got about 20 Les Paul Juniors in his collection nowadays, but his favourite remains the sunburst 56 Junior, with its own nickname, "Floyd". Just like this one, with the only difference being the shorter scale that the 3/4 models came with.
And this one is an absolute beauty. For a guitar that's been around for nearly 70 years, it's in jaw-droppingly good condition. Yes, some nicks and dents, but nothing that would make you think it first came to life in the 1950s. Even the lacquer cracking you'd expect with a guitar this old is as light as it is beautiful. Someone's really looked after it over the years. And it plays and sounds fantastic. There's a benefit to simplicity. You don't have to spend time switching between pick-ups, fiddling around with controls. Just tune up, plug in, crank up, and play. The P-90 absolutely sings, with no loss of output over all these years. An absolute gem of a guitar, just waiting to be discovered.
See & Hear It In Action
American Idiot, Reading Festival (2004): The chances are you'll find any number of Billie Joe's Juniors in his hands live. The favourite's got to be the sunburst 56 Junior. And no better way to celebrate that than American Idiot at the peak of their success in 2004.
Emerald City Guitars Demo A 1956 Les Paul Junior 3/4: Great run-down of the key features of the 3/4 version of the Les Paul Junior. The one in the video has had a lot more mods than the one we have here, but that punch from the P-90 just blows you away!
Line up your 21 Guns. Unleash your American Idiot!
Les Paul Junior 3/4
Two-Tone Sunburst, aka "Golden Sunburst"
Number of Frets
Kluson Deluxe 3-on-a-plate
Gibson Wraparound "Uncompensated" Smooth Stud Bridge/Tailpiece,
The 3/4 Les Paul Junior was first released in 1956, making this one of the first to be built. It came out only 2 years after the launch of the standard scale Les Paul Junior, and 4 years after the launch in 1952 of the first ever Les Paul. Just think about that. Four years that set the future for solid-body guitars - not a little spurred on by the competitive environment unleashed by Leo Fender and his team in Fullerton California. No surprises that Fender also introduced their own even shorter scale model, the Duo-Sonic, in 1956. Innovate (or at least imitate), or die.
Designed and marketed to a spec of "high quality, but affordable", the Les Paul Junior stripped down the more ornate Les Paul to the basics: no binding, inlays limited to fingerboard dot markers, uncarved single-piece mahogany body, one pick-up, one volume knob, one tone knob, simple colour options. By 1958, the strategy had paid off, and Gibson declared it their best-selling solid-body guitar, retailing then for $120, for both the standard scale and 3/4 models. Not bad, when a Les Paul Standard would cost you more than double that.
The Junior started as a single-cutaway model in 1954, and evolved to a double-cutaway design in 1958. That design set the stage for the launch of the SG in 1961, in all its forms, including another evolution for the Junior. The 3/4 version didn't make it past 1961. Nor did all those 50s Les Pauls that the SG replaced. Yes, those ones. The ones that now command eye-watering prices in today's market.
The 3/4 model was targeted at the beginner market - the basics to get you going. You probably wouldn't get away with the marketing today: "for youngsters, or adults with small hands and fingers". Pushing the boundaries of ageism or sizeism. Back then though, the design got a lot of love, particularly with its narrow and slim neck, a variation to the chunkier necks that abounded at the time, and a feature that all manufacturers have experimented with ever since. Suffice to say, this is no baseball bat - it's a joy to play.
This guitar's in amazing condition for its age. I've seen guitars from the noughties with more damage. The only thing that's changed about it is the tuners, replaced by period- and model-correct Kluson Deluxe 3-on-a-plate tuners. The originals are pretty special in their own right, from stock produced between 1947 and 1952. But the buttons have shrunk and distorted beyond usability over time. So, it's a mod made with sense.
Sound-wise, it's everything you'd expect and more. That P-90 has crunch galore - and screams as you bring in the overdrive. Roll back the tone to get that lovely P-90 quack. The only risk you have with the shorter scale is overbending the strings, but it's just minutes before you adjust. Such a lovely player.
Some might think the one-pick-up design's a limitation. But that's really not the point. For Gibson, back in 1954, it might have been about tapping into the entry-level (or small-fingered) market, and hooking them into moving up the range. But what they actually did was produce a guitar with such simplicity, it put the focus on playing it, no messing around. From the earliest days. Made to be played. And still played today. Just as it should be.
Sources & Links
Vintage Guitar And Bass: Once again, Vintage Guitar And Bass excel with the lowdown on the Les Paul Junior - and the 1958 Catalogue that marketed the guitar to "youngsters, or adults with smaller hands and fingers."
Billie Joe Armstrong Les Paul Junior Review: Back in 2008. Music Radar thought the £1615 price tag for the signature Junior was on the high side. Time has told, and you'll be lucky to pick one up for less than £2000. Price aside, the reviewer can't help himself: "for tone, build and comfort, you'd have to be a basket case not to appreciate it."
More Than You'll Ever Need To Know About P-90s: Thanks again to Music Radar, fantastic piece from Guitarist Magazine about the design and evolution of the fabled P-90 pick-up.