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Gibson Electric Guitars: History, Models and Overview

Updated on May 15, 2017
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Guitar Gopher is a guitarist and bassist with over 30 years of experience as a musician.

Gibson Les Paul Standard 2014 Electric Guitar
Gibson Les Paul Standard 2014 Electric Guitar | Source

Gibson Electric Guitars

Gibson electric guitars are some of the best instruments on the planet, but if you have been playing guitar for more than ten minutes you already know that. What you might not realize it just how integral Gibson has been to the development of the electric guitar.

Throughout their history Gibson's willingness to take chances in design and innovation has made them a leader in the guitar industry. Models like the Les Paul, SG, Flying V and Explorer broke new ground in the guitar universe at the time of their creation.

Though we take them for granted today, these Gibson guitar models have helped to shape rock, jazz, blues and country music over the past half century. They've become sought after, collected and revered, and even some people who don't play guitar often know a Gibson when they see it.

Today, Gibson's instruments are still the top choices of a diverse array of musicians worldwide. Should you be playing a Gibson guitar? Probably! The best musicians in the world can't be wrong!

Here's a look at how Gibson's legendary electric guitars helped make them one of the best guitar brands in the world.

The First Gibson Electric Guitar

The company that would eventually become Gibson Guitar Corporation started out as The Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Manufacturing Company. It seems strange today, but early Gibson mandolins are highly sought after and collectable. Of course, you're here about the electric guitars and probably don't care much for mandolins.

The first Gibson electric guitar was born in 1935. It was called the ES-150, and featured the first Gibson electric guitar pickup. ES stood for Electric Spanish, and this prefix is still used on Gibson hollow and semi-hollow electric guitars today such as the ES-175 and ES-335.

At the time, the idea of amplifying a guitar was a pretty innovative idea. Jazz and country musicians played large-bodied acoustic or arch-top guitars designed for maximum sound and projection. Guitars of the day were beautiful instruments, but they struggled to be heard through the cacophony of an orchestra or jazz group.

The ES-150 was an immediate hit, and musicians like Charlie Christian adopted it as their top guitar. The stage was set for Gibson's rise to greatness as one of the best electric guitar builders in the world.

The Gibson Les Paul

The Gibson Les Paul is among the most beloved guitars in music, and in just about every genre it has made its mark with its tone and style. The Les Paul tonewood combination of a mahogany body with a carved maple top and a mahogany neck has become the benchmark tone profile for countless guitar builders looking to create an instrument to compete with its deep, rich sound.

While today there are few electric guitars that rival the legendary Gibson Les Paul, the road hasn't always been so smooth. In fact, the Les Paul almost never happened.

Back in 1940, a guitarist named Les Paul has an idea for a new solid-body electric guitar, but Gibson wanted nothing to do with it. Undaunted, he built a prototype he'd call The Log at the Epiphone factory, then Gibson's competitor.

Only when the solid-bodied Fender Telecaster (then called the Broadcaster) became popular in 1950 did Gibson revisit their relationship with Les Paul, and the two would collaborate on a new design using many of the concepts Paul developed with the Log.

Of course, that new guitar was the Gibson Les Paul.

But the Gibson Les Paul wasn't out of the woods yet. Only a few years after its invention, it nearly met its demise.

Check out the Gibson Les Paul

The Gibson SG

By the late-1950s Gibson Les Paul sales were hurting, thanks to the arrival of the Fender Stratocaster in 1954. The Strat was lighter and had a double-cutaway design, not to mention what was, at the time, a very futuristic look. By comparison, the Les Paul was a dinosaur.

So, Gibson went about redesigning the Les Paul. They dropped the maple cap, instead opting for a thinner mahogany body and fast mahogany neck. They gave the face of the guitar a makeover, moving the neck joint and giving it a double-cutaway design for better access to the upper frets. But they kept the pickups, electronics and some of the general neck and headstock design.

As it turned out, Les Paul himself didn't like what they'd done to his baby so much, and by 1963 he'd had his name removed from the guitar. Gibson renamed their new design, and today we know it as the Gibson SG. (SG for Solid Guitar.)

The original Les Paul design eventually came back strong, thanks in part to some exposure from an up-and-coming Eric Clapton. But thanks to some stiff competition from Fender the Gibson Les Paul almost went the way for the Dodo.

Then again, if it wasn't for the Strat, today we wouldn't have the Gibson SG!

The Gibson SG Standard

The Gibson Flying V

The Gibson Flying V is probably the most recognizable guitar shape in the world. Thanks to its success, some really awesome Flying V-style guitars have popped up over the years. But, as usual, Gibson was the innovator that started it all.

The first Gibson Flying V hit the scene in 1958 as part of a series of guitars intended to convey a more futuristic, forward-thinking vibe. Unfortunately, the public wasn't ready for the future just yet and the Flying V bombed. Hard.

By 1959 the Flying V was gone from the Gibson electric guitars lineup, and many likely assumed best left forgotten. But a few blues players gravitated to the funky V design, prompting a re-release in 1967, just in time for a young guitar player named Jimi Hendrix.

Hendrix was a lefty who often played upside-down Strats, strung left-handed but still somewhat awkward. The symmetrical design of the Flying V allowed him to reach the upper frets with ease, and the all-mahogany construction offered a thicker, heavier sound than he could get with a Strat.

Today, the Flying V is synonymous with heavy metal music, but guitarists in many diverse genres have employed it to nail the hot tone and looks they need. Truthfully, there are few guitars sexier than the Gibson Flying V.

Metallica's Kirk Hammett Talks About the Gibson Flying V

The Gibson Explorer

Like the Flying V, the Gibson Explorer was released in 1958 to the sound of underwhelming applause. But at least it survived until 1963 before being discontinued.

Original 1958 Flying Vs and Explorers were made from Korina, not the mahogany we expect today. Korina is a rich, warm tonewood with a beautiful butterscotch coloring. Even though the initial run of Flying Vs and Explorers failed, today those Korina Explorers and Flying Vs are highly prized by guitar collectors.

After sitting in mothballs for over a decade, Gibson brought the Explorer back in 1976. The success of guitars like the Ibanez Destroyer, originally based largely on the Explorer design, proved there was a market for this formerly shunned guitar.

The rest is Gibson electric guitar history. Especially in the world of metal, the Gibson Explorer has made its mark with its thick tone and unique attitude. Like the Flying V, many guitar companies have pushed their own versions of the Explorer design over the years, but there is only one original.

Gibson Les Paul Electric Guitar - Heritage Cherry
Gibson Les Paul Electric Guitar - Heritage Cherry

Epiphone Guitars

If there is one negative about Gibson guitars (and not everyone agrees there is) it's their impact on your wallet. Don't get me wrong: The guitars in the Gibson lineup are worth every penny of their asking prices, and the best guitars in the world shouldn't come cheap.

However, it makes it tough for intermediate guitar players and guitarists on a budget to get into the Gibson thing. They're just too darned expensive for some players.

Thankfully, Gibson gives us options, namely in their Epiphone brand. Epiphone was once Gibson's biggest competitor. Now, Epiphone is owned by Gibson, and builds guitars to Gibson's specs and standards.

This means you can grab a real Les Paul, SG, Flying V or Explorer for the fraction of the price.

These aren't copies. Because Epiphone is sanctioned by Gibson, you know you're getting the guitar the way Gibson intended it. And, even though Epiphone guitars cost half or less of what a Gibson would run you, they're high-quality and some of the best instruments in their price range.

So, if you read through this article only to become depressed that you can't afford a real Gibson, take heart and check out the Epiphone lineup.

Epiphone Les Paul Standard Electric Guitar
Epiphone Les Paul Standard Electric Guitar

The Future of Gibson Guitars

You may have noticed a common theme in each of the Gibson guitar models mentioned in this article. Even though they each had their rough patches in their histories, each emerged as an innovation in the guitar world.

The bottom line is: Gibson doesn't follow, they lead.

You can see it in the lineups of other guitar builders. How many of their instruments are modeled after the Les Paul, Flying V, SG or Explorer? Yet Gibson just keeps doing what they do, and leading the pack.

I don't expect that to change anytime soon. I doubt we'll see a Strat-style Gibson, or a Gibson with a flat basswood body, fast 24-fret neck and a whammy bar.

I expect Gibson electric guitars will simply keep on being the best in the world at doing exactly what they do. And, Gibson will keep on coming up with ways to make their incredible guitars even better.

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