1989 Gibson Les Paul Custom, as made famous by Les Paul
I know, I know. Any guitar with the Les Paul moniker was made famous by Les Paul. But this one more than most deserves that special mention. The executive-class, high-gloss, 24-carat gold, mother-of-pearl inlaid, split-diamond sparkler that is the Black Beauty. Guitar of dreams!
Gibson launched the first Les Paul, their first solid-body electric, in 1952 - available in any colour, as long as it was gold. It was the start of (formally) a 10-year endorsement and design relationship with the most famous guitarist of the early 50s, Les Paul. And (eternally) the birth of a guitar model that has been in the hands of so many of the guitar gods that followed in his footsteps. A proper icon.
That first one wasn't enough for Les Paul, though. He wanted something with a touch more class, something more luxurious, something that "looked like a tuxedo". So, late in 1953, Gibson launched the Les Paul Custom - also in any colour, as long as it was black. "The Black Beauty" ticked all the class and luxury boxes, with superior detailing and craftsmanship on top of the "basic" Les Paul - the gold hardware, the multi-layer binding to the headstock and body front & back, the bound ebony fretboard, the low frets, and that generous application of mother-of-pearl to the headstock and fretboard. Classy then, classic now. It may have launched with soapbar P90s, and evolved in 1957 to the added bling of a 3 humbuckers, but in most respects, the core design has set the the template for the single-cut Les Paul Custom ever since.
There's a great article in Music Radar from 2017, covering The History Of The Black Beauty. The recurring theme, as so many great guitarists talk of their love for the Custom, is their first sighting - in a shop window, on TV, at a gig, in the hands of another guitar god. It made me think of my first sighting of one in the 70s. It was in the hands of Peter Webb, guitarist with local band Hippo. Peter was an amazing player, such feel and tone in any style he chose to play. He became a bit of coach and mentor to me as I took my first steps with the guitar. I'm grateful to him to this day, for everything he taught me, and for a love of guitars that has never left me. The best of teachers, the best of guitarists. I remember seeing him at one of Hippo's gigs, up there on stage, with a two pick-up Black Beauty in his hands. I was utterly transfixed. Way before Wayne's World, but I must have said it: "It will be mine. Oh yes. It will be mine." OK, it took a little longer than I thought it would, but it was so worth the wait. Never give up on your dreams!
See & Hear It In Action
Greg's Guitars Puts A 1989 Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty Through Its Paces: An amazing player, with hundreds of demos of classic guitars on his channel, giving this 1989 Black Beauty a beautifully clean run-through.
MrSanSystem Demos a 1989 Les Paul Custom, With Stock "The Originals": Just for a bit of contrast, something with a bit more drive from MrSanSystem. Lovely playing and tone - and all that sustain!
Les Paul Custom
Number of Frets
Mahogany, Carved Maple Top
Gibson Schaller Tuners
Bare Knuckle Boot Camp Old Guard Humbuckers
Gibson Nashville Tune-O-Matic
Gibson Stop Tailpiece
It may have first launched late in 1953, but seems like 1954 is the defining year - and the year that Gibson has marked its 20th, 30th, 35th and 40th anniversary releases against. If you're lucky enough to own an original 1954 Les Paul Custom, you'll know that the first production models differ slightly - sometimes unnoticeably - from later evolutions. A solid mahogany body - no maple cap - to start with, which gives the Black Beauty a deeper and darker tone. And these were pre-humbucker days, so your first Les Paul Custom would have featured a P-90 at the bridge and Seth Lover Alnico 5 pick-up at the neck. If you've got a 57, you'll definitely have the humbuckers - and three of them, rather than two!
This one's most like the 68 Les Paul Custom, the two humbucker, maple-capped beauty that relaunched the model after it was discontinued in the early-60s. So much of the original design has lasted through the years, it's a perfect example of the old adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". The generous pearl inlays to the headstock and fretboard, the bound ebony fretboard, all that gold hardware, the 5 and 7 layer binding on the headstock and body. And those low frets that earned this guitar its second nickname, "The Fretless Wonder"
This one was fitted with the stock pickups of the time, the Bill Lawrence "The Original" HB-R & HB-L circuitboard pick-ups, a pairing you can find on contemporaries, this 1989 Gibson Les Paul Standard or 1989 Gibson 62 Reissue SG. Check the forums and there's a bit of a Marmite love 'em/hate 'em reaction to the Bill Lawrence circuitboard pick-ups. I've never had a problem with the circuitboard pick-ups - all the tone and cut you need. But the previous owner of this one was in the hate 'em camp, so has had them replaced with a pair of Bare Knuckle Boot Camp Old Guard Humbuckers - hand-wound, low-output Alnico 2 humbuckers that recreate the sound of those fabled vintage PAFs of the 50s and early 60s. Hats off, if you're going to change the pick-ups, you'd be hard pressed to find a better alternative than these Bare Knuckles!
And, yes, it sounds like a Les Paul Custom should sound. Even before plugging it in, the sustain, resonating through the neck and body, tells you this is going to pull no punches. Lashings of cream in the neck position, plenty of roar and bite at the bridge, and that fantastically low action up and down the board. You won't want to put it down!
Sources & Links
The Les Paul Custom Story, on Vintage Guitar And Bass: If ever you want to find out more about the history of an iconic guitar, Vintage Guitar And Bass is the place. A 1989 is too young to make it into these pages, but there's everything you need to know about the pedigree of this guitar from inception to the 70s.
The History Of The Black Beauty on Music Radar: A companion piece to the Vintage Guitar And Bass History, but with that little bit more about the guitar gods that have made this guitar their own over the decades..
The Original 1989 Gibson Catalogue: Thanks to Guitar Compare for digging this one out. Those R-4 and L-8 humbuckers - Gibson's rebrand for the Bill Lawrence "The Originals", standard across the range.
Bareknuckle Boot Camp Old Guard Humbuckers: Bareknuckle Pick-ups have quickly established themselves as one of the pre-eminent pick-up specialists in the world. Every pick-up hand-wound, an amazing range of creations and recreations - vintage, signature and contemporary. Check them out!