There is no questioning the iconic status of the Gibson SG. It has been weaved into rock and roll history thanks to the capable hands of Angus Young, Tony Iommi, and Robby Krieger (just to name a few). In this article, we will explore the origins of the model and its colossal legacy.
The SG was designed after a couple years seeing Les Paul sales declining. The decline in Les Paul sales was thought to be due to the phasing out of the Goldtop and the introduction of the Sunburst in 1958. It’s odd to think of now in light of their iconic status, but at the time, they didn’t sell very well. Gibson needed something new. But contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t a drastic redesign from a Les Paul single cut into the SG we know today, there was an evolutionary link that we often forget about.
In 1958, the Les Paul TV and Junior models introduced a double cutaway version. In 1959, Gibson introduced a model called the Les Paul Special which, like the Les Paul Junior, featured a double cutaway and a flat top body, which looks much more similar to what the SG would look like. In fact, in 1960 Gibson changed the name from the Les Paul Special to the SG Special. Gibson recently did a reissue of the 1960 Les Paul Special.
Some believe that Les Paul’s decision to end his affiliation with Gibson was 100% due to the fact that he did not like the SG’s design. Although it’s been well documented that Les did not particularly care for the design, and even asked that his name be removed from the model, it’s not clear that it was a factor in his decision. The SG models were known as Les Paul SGs until the end of 1963 when the “Les Paul” name was dropped.
The SG Special underwent a redesign under Ted McCarty and in 1961, the SG design became available to the public. They made four variations in that first year – The Les Paul SG Custom, which featured 3 humbuckers and was available in white, and a Les Paul SG Standard which was available in a cherry finish and featured two humbuckers. The other two were the Les Paul SG Junior, which usually featured a P90 in the bridge position, and the Les Paul SG Special which featured two P90s. The SG Special was sold up until 1990 and then was brought back in 1995 as the SG Classic. Those models have remained pretty much unchanged through the years. Although Gibson did some experimenting with different tailpieces, heel shape and pickguards through the 60s and early 70’s. Today’s Standard SG models are very much the same as the models we saw in 1967-1969.
The original price was $395 for the SG Custom and $265 for the SG Standard. Gibson’s SG (which stood for “solid guitar”) was said to feature the “fastest neck in the world” because of its thinner profile and smaller heel. The neck is a prominent feature on the SG, joining the body at the 22nd fret, where the Les Paul joined the body around the 13th. This gave players better access to the higher frets but also contributed to some critiques of the guitar being “neck heavy” and having a weak neck joint. The critiques have been somewhat a matter of debate based on the tastes of each player.
Despite the critics, during the SG’s first decade, it garnered a lot of attention – In the US, Robby Krieger’s SG Standard became a staple of The Doors sound. Meanwhile overseas, Eric Clapton used a 1964 SG Standard during his time in Cream – this guitar was known as “The Fool”. Although Angus Young and Tony Iommi would come to be irrefutably linked to the Gibson SG, both of them often used custom SG-style guitars made by a luthier named John Diggins starting in the mid 70’s. Tony’s iconic sound on Black Sabbath’s self-titled album was a 1965 Gibson SG Special with a P-90 at the bridge that he nicknamed “Monkey”. Frank Zappa also had a couple iconic SGs. One was called “Baby Snakes” – this too was a custom build, not a Gibson. It actually features a 23rd fret and some other non-Gibson details. Zappa’s Roxy SG was a Gibson.
According to Gibson, the SG Standard is the company’s best-selling guitar of all time. It remains relevant in music today, particularly in the rock genre. Bands like Greta Van Fleet prove that the SG is still a staple of the rock sound and image. Over the years, there have been a lot of variations of the SG that have been tailored to various subgenres of rock music.