While most artists in this series are known for their canonization of one specific Les Paul, this legendary “guitarists’ guitarist” made three Les Pauls iconic through the most formative part of his career. A true virtuoso, Jeff Beck is one of the most creative and original players ever to have strapped on an electric guitar—but he has never sounded more powerful than when he evolved through this trio of vintage Gibson Les Pauls in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Beck’s First ’Burst
After Eric Clapton did his thing on a sunburst Les Paul with the Blues Breakers in early ’66, every guitarist in Britain wanted a ’Burst of their own, and Jeff Beck was apparently no different. Later that same year he acquired his first Les Paul—a ’58 with a deep sunburst finish—at Selmer’s in London, the same music shop where Keith Richards had acquired his own famous ’59 Les Paul a few years before, and a popular haunt of notable musicians. In addition to using it prominently with the Yardbirds before departing that outfit, Beck played the guitar on much of the Jeff Beck Group’s 1968 debut, Truth, featuring it on songs like “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” “Beck’s Bolero,” and “Over, Under, Sideways, Down,” all of which display that thick, singing tone that only a Les Paul can achieve.
During Beck’s ownership, this Les Paul’s looks gradually evolved to fit the fads of the day: it lost its pickup covers to reveal two double-cream PAFs (a mod thought to induce improved high-end response), then was stripped of its characteristics sunburst top finish (a bid to enhance the wood’s resonance). A little later, during an American tour, this first Beck ’Burst was damaged and was replaced by another ’58 Les Paul with a dramatically figured flame-maple top, which stood in for the laid-up stripped “un-’Burst” until the Jeff Beck Group’s demise in 1969.
Crazy Conversion: the “Oxblood”
These two original late-’50s ’Bursts should have been the guitars to get collectors all hot and bothered today, if Jeff Beck hadn’t later taken on a very different Gibson to call his own, and with which he is now most closely associated: a heavily modified ’54 Les Paul that might have appeared a down-and-out working dog to some players of the day, but which spoke to the artist deeply.
While recording in Memphis, Tennessee, in the early ’70s, Beck paid a visit to the popular Strings and Things guitar store to see what was hanging on the walls, and was captivated by a ’54 Les Paul that a customer had dropped in for some very specific modifications. One request was that its original gold top be refinished to a deep chocolate-brown, a color that turned out to exhibit some oxblood tints in certain light. Others included the installation of full-size humbucking pickups in place of the P-90s, altering the full and rounded early ’50s neck shape to a slightly thinner profile, and changing the original tuners for modern replacements. After all these changes, the original “wraptail” bridge remained just about the only evidence of the guitar’s origins.
Legend has it that the customer didn’t like the results of all these modifications… but Jeff Beck did. He bought the adulterated Goldtop, played it extensively on tour and in the studio, and even gave it pride of place on the cover shot of his milestone 1975 album, Blow By Blow, securing its position as a legendary Les Paul.
Plenty of Beck’s playing in the 1970s does exhibit the incendiary tone that was common to Les Pauldom that decade, but much of it is also snappy, round and lithe, more akin to the semi-clean blues-rock tones prominent in the previous decade. Ultimately, all three of these Les Pauls have contributed to the work of an artist whom many fans still regard as one of the most skilled guitarists in the broad genre of rock-fusion. In 2009, the Gibson Custom Shop released its own Limited Edition tribute to the modified ’54 goldtop as the Jeff Beck Oxblood Les Paul, a guitar now highly prized by collectors and players alike.
Dave Hunter for Gibson