Unraveling the mystery behind Gibson’s first solid body “student model”
The Les Paul Junior (Junior going forward) will soon be entering its 8th decade as a staple in the electric guitar player’s tools of choice. Not too shabby for an entry level guitar, designed with the budget oriented student in mind. Those of us that didn’t grow up during the Eisenhower administration don’t usually think of the “Junior” as less than a premium pro level guitar. The concept of a solid body “student model” was a very forward thinking gamble on Gibson’s part.
1954 marked the arrival of Gibson’s student solid body. The only other Solid body guitars on the market were the Pro-level Fender Tele, Gibson Les Paul (Standard) Gold top and premium “new for 1954” Les Paul Custom. What about the 1954 strat? The Fender Strat won’t be seen in stores until close to the year-end holidays of 1954. The solid body electric guitar is a still unproven market in 1954. Will it explode to untold popularity, or fall flat on its face? At the time, nobody could possibly be sure.
Fender was the driving force of the solid body electric, and did not attempt a student level guitar until 1956, with the introduction of the ¾ sized Musicmaster and Duotone. What was Gibson all in a hurry about? Gibson already had a line of lower priced student oriented guitars, like the traditional (and brisk selling) ES-100 and ES-125 hollow body.
Let’s start of by describing and defining the Les Paul Junior:
The body is just a solid slab of mahogany (some early exceptions are maple), with a single cutaway, and stop tail that doubles as a bridge. The neck is carved from mahogany, with a rosewood ‘board and dot inlays. A single P-90 pickup is located in the bridge position, with a volume and tone control. Typical of Gibson, the neck is set, not bolted on like a Fender. The only “adornment” is the single-ply pick guard that is screwed directly to the un-arched top. The Gibson logo is the typical lower priced model type: gold silk screened, rather than inlaid pearl. The Junior is a full sized guitar, retaining Gibson’s standard 24.75” scale length
The Junior is available in ¾ size, by special order only.
Fender vs Gibson: the one and two pickup entry level Guitar.
Fender’s concept of a student model was quite frankly better conceived than Gibson’s. Not arriving until 1956 the Fender Musicmaster and Fender Duotone are like the Junior and Special in that they are nearly identical twins of each other, apart from the number of pickups. Music-master featured one (neck position), and Duotone is equipped with two. Unlike the Junior, and Special, Fender’s student guitars are a dedicated ¾ scale size. The Musicmaster/Duotone is finished in beautiful translucent desert sand over an ash body, with an anodized pickguard at its time of introduction. They are easy to look at, and easy for young hands to play. Time and quality materials went into the two Fender beginner models, and ended up as many a young player’s first guitar.
In contrast, “the special order only” 3/4 single cut ‘54-‘57 Juniors were mostly just a smaller version of the full Gibson scale of 24.75”, made from maple instead of mahogany. The later 1958 ¾ size, double cut versions were ill-designed at best. The bridge is simply moved back, and the neck is buried into the body. It looks and plays a lot like a dumpster fire. Don’t bother looking for a reissue of the ‘58 ¾ JR/Special. Gibson may still have some vintage ones left unsold (I’m joking, please don’t call Gibson asking for one, and sorry Gibson, you know I love you).
All models of Les Paul Juniors, 1954 to 1969
I am well aware what I am about to say is nothing short of heresy, but for the sake of simplicity, I will include the Les Paul Special in the list of Les Paul Juniors, and throw myself on the mercy of the reader. The Les Paul Special is a slightly more “posh” version of the Junior; an added 2nd pickup (neck position) with independent controls for each and a bound neck separate the Junior and Special. The Les Paul TV has a separate model name on the headstock, but is an identical guitar apart from the beige finish color (brown mustard ‘54-‘57, and yellow mustard on double cutaway ‘58-‘60 models)
A total of 10 different models of Les Paul Juniors (or SG Juniors) exist from 1954 through 1969 (not counting the not very un-common ¾ models as a separate example, or color other than TV yellow)
Models, in their introduction year:
1954-1957 Single Cutaway Les Paul Junior
1954-1957 Single Cutaway Les Paul TV
1955-1957 Single Cutaway Les Paul Special
1955-1957 Single Cutaway TV Special
1958 Double Cutaway Les Paul Junior
1958 Double cutaway Les Paul Special
1958-1960 Double Cutaway TV Junior
1958-1960 Double Cutaway TV Special
1961-1971 SG body Les Paul Junior (note the Les Paul name dropped in ’63, called SG Junior by ’64)
1961-1971 SG body Les Paul Special
Note that exceptions apply: some new single cutaway models were sold as late as 1960, and some first version double cutaway models are seen as late as 1963) SG Juniors are sold in Cherry, Artic White, and rare Cardinal red)
Why did Gibson get so deep in a “student’s” instrument?
Gibson’s student model was probably more than just a gamble on the student market. While it was most assuredly appointed like a Gibson entry level guitar, it was probably designed for the budget minded guitar player with an interest in the newfangled solid body electric.
The Les Paul Goldtop and Les Paul Custom had a steep price point for a player with an interest, but not a serious financial commitment level in a new solid body electric. In 1954 the Les Paul Junior was the cheapest electric guitar in Gibson’s entire catalog; at $119.00 The Les Paul (standard) had a price tag of $250.00 plus $43.00 for the “Faultless” case*. The Custom model was a whopping 375.00 with case. Today the price sounds too good to be true. Add inflation and the cost of living and you get a better idea of the relative cost: The Gold top with case costs roughly $2800.00 and the Custom chimes in at about $4050.00 in 2019 dollars. Further analysis, to add perspective: A Les Paul Custom was 1/3 of the way to a brand new 1954 Ford Fairlane Crown Victoria. The value of a dollar, and the cost of living was vastly different.
The Les Paul JR was $25.00 cheaper than the next lowest electric, the ES-125. The Junior chimes in at less than half the price of the Les Paul Goldtop, even before you add the “Faultless” case.
By the end of 1960, the base model Junior (highlighted above) outsold the Les Paul Standard, Les Paul Custom, Les Paul Special, and Les Paul TV models combined.
The “Student” model Gibson, seems to have overshot its mark as a student’s guitar and done something it may have truly been designed to do: Put a solid body Gibson within reach of the everyday player. Why else would 10 independent versions be produced?
The rise from “Junior” to “Giant”
Sales of nearly 20,000 Les Paul Juniors are no accident, or just a perfect price point. Even $119.00 is a lot of 1950’s money (over $1,200 of 2019 dollars, with the chip case)
The facts are something about the Les Paul Junior was somehow just right.
Fender did make a more well thought out starter guitar, but it is not very attractive to an adult or already mature player. The single pickup Musicmaster was especially attractive to Mom and Dad with its pretty looks and cheap price, but no real player wanted a ¾ size solid body with a neck pickup only.
As the 1960s progressed, the solid body guitar became a serious choice rather than a dead fad. The tables were turning on the old fashioned hollowbody electric as the solid body began to win favor with rock, blues, surf and pop guitarists. The 50’s Les Paul Junior is plentiful on the 2nd hand market, and cheap to obtain. To say it’s “not a bad little guitar” is not only a mistake, but an understatement of mammoth proportions (wow, two puns in a row!) Not only is the “little” Junior a full scale instrument, it’s also got a great design, build quality, playability, and tone.
The 1960s and early 70s are a time before vintage Fender and Gibson electrics became the stuff of myth, legend, and magical powers. They were simply very good quality, affordable used guitars. Calling a 1958 Junior “vintage” in 1968, or any 50’s guitar would draw some odd looks, or questions about your choice of “tobacco”.
The simple Les Paul Junior was probably the most revered variation of the models. The Special has two pickups, but it’s a few rungs down the ladder on the coolness scale. Some say the Junior sounds better because the neck pickup of the special causes a magnetic draw, or because the neck joint is weaker. They are all right, to a degree. The lack of any “extras” gives the Junior the same bold simplicity of the Fender Esquire. Both are one pickup wonders with no frills: No bark, just bite. The single P-90 pickup is a powerhouse of tone. Capable of driving a tube amp into overdrive and can also produce sweet and well balanced tone when the guitar’s volume pot is turned down. Just because it’s simple, don’t mistake it for a one trick pony. Playability is outstanding, materials are top shelf, and the Junior is made by the same luthiers that built the centuries best loved electrics.
One of the very first “Guitar Heroes” to unlock the Junior’s potential for the world’s ears was Leslie West of Mountain. With some help from bass player and Cream producer Felix Pappalardi, a Sun PA amp, and a string of Sam Ash Fuzzz’s, Long Islands Leslie West blew the socks off guitar tone for the rest of time. “Mississippi Queen” is one of the most recognizable guitar riffs ever recorded. Classics like “Theme for an Imaginary Western” solidified Leslie West and his Junior as the genuine article. West inspired players like Jethro Tull’s axe man Martin Barre to lay down tracks like “Aqualung”, and “Locomotive Breath”, on his recently acquired Les Paul Junior. Guitar players have chased that tone ever since. The growing hard rock/glam sound out of NYC led by The New York Dolls, laid it down with a dual Les Paul Junior attack led by Syl Sylvain and Johnny Thunders. Thunders’ raunchy tone, and Chuck Berry inspired riffs and swagger became blueprints for not only glam, and punk, but even glam metal, and power pop. Hear Thunders at work on the Dolls “Personality Crisis”, and the Heartbreakers “Born to Lose”. Uptown and to the west, John Lennon (a man who could afford any guitar, he wanted, by the truckload) put his favorite Ricky 325, and Epiphone Casino down in favor of his customized Junior. Across the sea, anti-heroes the Clash rode a wave of ripping guitar tone, provided by Mick Jones on one of his treasured Juniors. Listen to Brand new Cadillac, for some menacing in your face Les Paul Junior bite. Is The Clash’s brand of raw punk not your cup of tea? How about some Reggae? Bob Marley came from humble roots to introduce the Jamaican born style to planet Earth, on his modified Les Paul Special. From Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes”, Pete Townshend’s sonic wall of thunder on The Who’s Live at Leeds album (SG Special) to Billy Joe Armstrong’s post punk mega hit making band “Green Day”. The list of players with a penchant for a Junior is endless.
The Junior continues to be anything but a “starter” guitar, or afterthought backup axe. The junior has rightfully worked its way from an entry level experiment, to a pro’s choice, in all kinds of styles, and genres. Simplicity, playability, versatility, style and tone are backed by 8 decades of players saying that the “Junior” is nothing shy of Gigantic.
*Gibson’s price list identifies the higher end “plush case” offered as an option for higher end guitars as “Faultless”, not Lifton, or their motto of “Built like a fortress”. Perhaps the Faultless/Fortress is a misprint?
**The chip board Alligator case we all love is called a “Challenge” case in Gibson’s ’54 catalog.