Three recent releases, one in book form, the other software, and the third an MP3 nicely sum up the past, present, and future of pop music. Let's review them by the chronology of their subject matter.
The Early Years Of Les Paul's Legacy
One of the benefits of AMC's Mad Men series is that it reminds viewers that however badly people may have behaved in the late 1950s, stylistically it was a surprisingly happening decade. A '57 Nomad in the garage, a sharkskin suit in the closet, and a chrome Martini shaker in the kitchen? Aesthetically, what's not to like?
The '50s was also a watershed decade for musical instruments. It would take another decade, and Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page to get the most out of them respectively, but the engineers at Fender and Gibson sure knew what they were doing in the mid-1950s when they drew up the Stratocaster and the Les Paul electric guitars.
The latter guitar, manufactured from 1952 to 1963, with a hiatus for various reasons until 1968, is the subject of Robb Lawrence's The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy: 1915-1963. As its title implies, the book focuses on the golden era of Les Paul's guitar; a second planned volume will bring the instrument's history up to the present.
As I've written before, the Les Paul was born out of the Fender Telecaster, which arrived on the scene first, became a hit, particularly with country music players, but whose aesthetics and details seemed more than a little... crude to Ted McCarty, Gibson's CEO. In 1951, McCarty ordered his engineers and craftsmen to design an instrument with the basic characteristics of the Telecaster — a solid body to substantially reduce feedback, with a single cutaway for access to the instrument's higher frets housing two pickups to amplify the strings. But in order to emphasize their decades of skill acquired building more traditional guitars, McCarty added a carved violin-like "belly" on the top of the instrument's body, along with a glued-in neck for better sustain and overall appearance.
Initially, McCarty left the instrument's color scheme to Les Paul, who suggested gold for the Standard instrument and black for the higher-end Custom model.
For reasons still debated to this day, by 1958, sales of the Les Paul guitar were lagging behind the Strat and other electric guitars, and Gibson returned their traditional sunburst finish, along with a new pickup design — a "humbucking" dual-coil design by Gibson engineer Seth Lover. While sales in the 1950s were slow, the British blues guitarists of the 1960s, including Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck discovered what a brilliant combination of sound, playability, and looks Gibson had created.