14 Aug My “Holy Grail”: 1953/1959 Les Paul Conversion
Did you know, the triad of years ranging from 1958 to 1960 are often referred to as the “Holy Grail Les Pauls” (i.e. the Holy Grail of electric guitars)?
This is probably the most expensive type of Les Paul – and therefore the most expensive electric guitar not owned by a rock star – in existence today.
Les Pauls produced during those three years are just a few thousand in number – I seem to recall in total there are only around 3000 guitars listed as being produced – and probably some of those have gone missing, been broken, or have been irreversibly modified and so on.
Sadly, not many survive in their original form today. Some of the best rock sounds of all time were recorded using these, I’m talking about the usual; early Clapton, Jimmy Page, Paul Kossoff (one of my two guitar heroes, the first being Angus Young) amongst others (you’ll surely be able to add several more).
Ever since I was old enough to appreciate good tone I’ve wanted one. I’ve owned many, many Les Pauls over the years, but now looking back at the ones I have owned (a couple I still own today but I’ve not revealed them yet), they played and sounded well too, but not quite like this one does.
This guitar was made for me circa 15 years ago (made in the sense of “converted”, please read on), in San Diego, CA, by a well known luthier called Scott Lentz.
Scott did two for me, this one being the second (and my favorite). The first was stolen a few years ago, together with a mint 1961 Gibson SG Standard. The Stealer’s name is Robert “Bob” Martancik, a guitar dealer of the whereabouts of New Jersey, I never heard from him again, he disappeared from the net (seemingly, from the planet). Gone…..
Anyway, I’d really wanted to have a “Holy Grail” burst (“burst”, is the nickname these are often given, coming from the type of color finish typical of the late ’50s that Les Paul Standards had: sunburst).
You have to consider that in the last 20 years real Bursts have been skyrocketing in price: today, a good Burst (it’s hard to define good: but let’s say, from the collector’s point of view – not the player’s! – good Bursts must have a great flame, be unmodified in any way, etc.) can fetch as much as 250k USD.
Not only did it have to sound good – no wait, terrific – I wanted it to really sound like a 1959 Les Paul and to look identical to one as close as is possible. Also, it didn’t have to cost as much as a flat in Manhattan!
Scott had told me about conversions. Conversions are basically early 1950s Les Pauls (from 1952 up to 1956) that are (or have been) modified to match the exact specifications of the 1958-1959 and 1960 Les Paul Standard “bursts” (note: as the original Bursts didn’t have identical specifications – they were hand built during those years! then “exact” specifications are somewhat “vague”. Discussions and studies on the subject are still of major interest to players, collectors and builders today). These modifications may include a neck reset (neck angles of the early models was slightly different), routing holes for humbucker pickups instead of P90’s and other delicate modifications (more about conversion guitars can be found in this related article).
Scott was, and still is, exceptional at this. One has to also keep in mind that conversions were not as widely known 15 years ago as they are today. Nowadays, they are definitely in fashion among mature players, and if you log into any Les Paul Forum, you will surely see some “conversion talk”. Back then, it was much more of an obscure thing.
So Mr. Lentz made these two guitars for me, one of which has stayed with me, but it has also changed and evolved a bit. Similarly, in terms of features (I’ve added more original components to the guitar over the years) and in terms of playability and tone (I’ve had it setup by a great German Luthier who’s also applied the technique of plek’ing this guitar. A type of setup that I strongly recommend to any serious player who wants their fretboard to be simply, perfect.
This guitar features a pair of original, unopened 1959 PAF’s ( I ‘stole’ them from a hollow body guitar that I used to own) that sound killer, an original 1950’s wiring harness (the whole circuitry, cables, potentiometers) and original 1950’s capacitors, the famous “bumblebees” (please see here a set of my 1950s paper in oil capacitors, aka “BumbleBees”) that are synonymous with shaping the sound of 1950s Les Paul Standards (and even prior models).
One interesting video to watch and listen to this guitar might be represented by this clip
Now, IF you’ve made it this far with the reading (congratulations!) you MUST watch these clips of Paul Kossoff with the great Free. Yes, you MUST.
Warning: reading, watching, listening to these things is known to cause a disease. This disease will never go away for the rest of your life. It will make you hunt for tone – recklessly – buy guitars, components, amplifiers, gear, etc. Some call it the GAS syndrome (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), I have been sick with this disease for the past (at least) 25 years, there is no cure………………. You have been warned 😀
Post to be edited/continued
Adaptation of this article by Robert Taylor
Note of the author for the more ‘particular’ reader: these articles on SoloDallas’ gear are not intended to be egotistical, neither am I intending to show off. They are for passion, documentation/information and sharing pleasure with those who have a similar interest. Thanks for your trust and understanding, SD