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Book Review: Gibson Guitars: Ted McCarty’s Golden Era 1948-1966 Showcases Guitar’s History

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If you asked the average fan of rock and roll who the two most important pioneers in electric guitar design were, he'd probably tell you Leo Fender and Les Paul. And while those two men certainly deserve their legendary status, there's a third name that should be added to the list: Ted McCarty.

Ted McCarty (1909-2001) was a man who shunned the spotlight, letting his company's craftsmanship do the talking instead. McCarty was the CEO of Gibson, Inc. during its golden era, from 1948 to 1966, when McCarty left the company. As an executive McCarty was very much a hands-on engineer. However, unlike Leo and Les, he largely shied away from the limelight, which has resulted in his lower historical profile.

A new book published by Hal Leonard spotlights the great Gibson guitars of the 1950s, and aims to restore McCarty's name and reputation. Gibson Guitars: Ted McCarty's Golden Era 1948-1966 by author/collector Gil Hembree (with a foreword by pickup designer Seymour Duncan) sets out to change that, and through interviews Hembree conducted with former Gibson employees of the era, fellow collectors, and with McCarty himself before his death at age 91 in 2001, does a remarkable job.

Designing The Les Paul

Most musical historians who researched the origins of Gibson's first solidbody electric guitar have come to the conclusion that the bulk of the design work on the instrument was done by McCarty and his engineers before presenting the instrument to Les for an endorsement deal. (Note that Les Paul himself tells a slightly different version of this tale. In either case, such an instrument wouldn't exist without Les's own pioneering efforts in solidbody guitar designs in the mid-1930s.)

In Gibson Guitars, Hembree tells an amusing story of McCarty acquiring one of the first mass-produced Fender Telecaster solidbody electric guitars in 1951. After analyzing the instrument, McCarty said that he and his engineers thought that Fender's choice of a bolt-on neck was "infamy, as far as we were concerned" (and ironically, the core original members of the Les Paul Internet Forum frequently use similar language over half a century later). Nonetheless, McCarty recognized a musical revolution when he heard and saw one, and immediately decided "We weren't going to let him" — Leo Fender — "have the entire market".

McCarty then asked his engineers to design a competing instrument that would be the first solidbody electric guitar from Gibson. It would take the basic concepts of the Telecaster — two electric pickups, a thin solid body to cut down on feedback, with one cutaway for access to the higher frets on the neck, but with its binding, glued-in set neck, and especially its violin-like carved top, added to it the craftsmanship and refinement that Gibson was known for.

The two competing designs would also strongly reflect the musical tastes of their builders. Leo Fender was a country music fan who built instruments for the burgeoning West Coast country scene; his goal was to provide to guitarists some of the same trebly tones as pedal steel players. But Ted McCarty was in love with warm chordal jazz guitarists, and wanted a much mellower-toned instrument, but with longer sustain. It was he who suggested mahogany for the body for its warmth and only a thin maple cap to add some treble and high-end. (In the 1950s, the "Black Beauty" Les Paul Custom's body was all mahogany.)

The result was an instant classic; all it took was Les Paul and Mary Ford to play the instruments each week on their television series, for sales to take off. It was Les who suggested his namesake instrument's first color schemes — gold for what would eventually be dubbed the "Standard" Les Paul model, and tuxedo or piano-style black for the afore-mentioned Custom.

Eventually, another innovation was added to the guitar, the humbucking pickup, designed by Seth Lover, one of over 1000 employees McCarty would have on Gibson's payroll at the height of his period with the company. (Seth Lover's test bed Les Paul with his first humbuckers graces the cover of Gibson Guitars.)

Today, original "Patent Applied For" pickups, as Lover's invention would become universally known fetch well over a thousand dollars each. Lover and McCarty had no way of knowing it, but they had created what a decade or so later, would become the sound of hard rock. In the mid-1960s, Eric Clapton mated a PAF-equipped Les Paul with an early Marshall amplifier, and rock and roll would never be the same.

In the 1950s though, amplifier distortion was largely still a bug, not a feature. And Lover's PAF-pickup, played cleanly, provided the warm mellow tones that McCarty favored, but its dual-coil design cancelled virtually all of the hum an electric guitar's single-coil pickups could generate, particularly around fluorescent lights. Perhaps in an effort to both showcase this innovation, and keep pace with Fender's landmark Stratocaster design, beginning in 1957, the Les Paul Custom had three humbucking pickups, encased in gleaming gold-plated steel covers.

A year later, the "Standard" Les Paul (now also PAF-equipped) saw its gold body color retired and replaced with Gibson's traditional sunburst finish, and underneath, (usually) carefully bookmatched maple tops, often with dramatic "tiger-striped" grain patterns.

One reason why this change occurred was Gibson's effort to jumpstart what, oddly enough, had become a poor-selling model. There are numerous theories offered why, ranging from the undesirability of the darker-toned humbucking pickups amongst players who preferred the twangy Fender single-coil sounds, to declining ratings of Les and Mary's TV series, as rock and roll began its ascension.

For whatever reason though, from 1958 to 1960, sales of Les Pauls declined precipitously, to an average of about 600 per year. Eventually, its body style would be retired after the 1960 model year. It would take the rediscovery of the guitar as a blues and hard rock instrument by Eric Clapton in England, and Mike Bloomfield in the US, both in the mid-1960s, to revitalize interest, resulting in Gibson reintroducing the model in 1968, where its remained an iconic best-seller, since.

By then, McCarty had left Gibson, but his legacy remains secure: he not only spearheaded the design of the Les Paul, but also the ES-335 semi-sold body guitar. Hembree notes that the 335 was McCarty's personal favorite design, both because he virtually single-handedly spearheaded its design, and because its tone was mellower than the solidbody Les Pauls and (especially) Fender guitars.

McCarty's Unique, Diverse Product Line

But McCarty was far from only a designer. As a result of his business acumen, Gibson's ability to combine a diverse product line with extremely high quality craftsmanship was unique amongst guitar manufacturers. Fender made great electrics and amps, but mediocre acoustic guitars, and Martin was a manufacturer of magnificent acoustics, but not of solidbody electrics. As Hembree notes, Gibson produced not just landmark solidbody guitars, but beautiful acoustic instruments. And extremely serviceable amps. And banjos. And mandolins. That's a testament both the craftsmanship of his employees, but also their boss, who wouldn't allow poorly manufactured products to leave Gibson's Parsons Street Michigan assembly line.

Gil Hembree's Gibson Guitars: Ted McCarty's Golden Era is an extremely well-researched, heavily illustrated, and highly readable book, recommended to both musicians and fans, which goes far to restoring the name of a forgotten musical pioneer.

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