Gibson Custom Wood Becomes Magic

Gibson Custom: Vintage Mojo, Modern Playability

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Proven methods and materials yield some of today’s most sought-after new guitars.

By Brad Porter
Musician’s Friend Managing Editor

Those who know vintage Gibson guitars will tell you there’s a magic about them that simply can’t be found in a production guitar. While the cutting-edge technology and airtight tolerances of Gibson USA’s production factory are comforting enough for many guitarists, diehard Gibson players sometimes demand “what was.” With that in mind, we visited our friends at Gibson Custom, not too far from the Gibson USA factory in Nashville, to learn more about the new line of Gibson guitars that has everyone talking.

“We understand that not everyone can own a $300,000 Les Paul, so we worked for two decades, examining the best examples of classic Gibson guitars, and refining our process of building guitars to perfectly replicate the feel, tone and vibe of the originals,” said the Gibson Custom team. “These Custom Shop and True Historic Les Paul guitars are the result of that effort.”

As it turns out, one component of today’s refined Gibson Custom shop process is the equipment they use. “The machines that carve our L5, Super 400 and the others are the same machines that carved the originals,” said Gibson Custom. “Every Byrdland that Ted Nugent ever played, and L5 that Wes Montgomery played, was carved on the same machine that carves them today. That particular carver goes back to 1928 in Kalamazoo.”


The True Historic 1959 Les Paul Reissue reflects obsessive attention to detail in re-creating every aspect of the original.

The carving process is arguably the most important and delicate step in the guitar-building process, placing precious, irreplaceable wood quite literally in harm’s way. While you might expect this process to begin and end with the most advanced computerized system, it turns out to be the exact opposite. “When players talk about the mojo in those guitars, that’s it right there,” Gibson Custom said. “Those machines are irreplaceable.”

And that’s just the beginning of Gibson Custom’s fanatical effort to recreate the magic of the original guitars. The plastics, glues, dyes and lacquers used to create True Historic guitars underwent extensive review, for decades in some cases, looking for formulae and application processes that most closely mimic those used on the original guitars.

“We’re the only custom shop doing the original materials produced like they were back in the ’50s,” said Gibson Custom. “The pickguard is six layers, as are the input and the toggle-switch washer. The pickup rings are reproduced from the original material with all of the original staffing marks and specs.”

In addition to pickup covers you’d swear were pulled through a time machine, you might even notice the knobs, with a slight dimple at the top of each. “The dimple on the knobs is a flaw from where they pull it out of the mold in the original process,” Gibson Custom said, “and yes, we’ve even reproduced that.”

True Historic guitars are crafted using hide glue, as used by guitar builders in the ’50s. You might be surprised how much impact the type of glue has on the instrument’s tone.“ Hide glue dries more brittle than resin glue does. Like the difference between glass and metal, both are hard substances, but have very different sonic properties,” Gibson Custom said. “String vibrations simply transfer better with hide glue.” Finally, we looked at Gibson Custom’s finishing process, and at this point it was no surprise to see how far they’d gone to capture the exact look of the dyes and lacquers, as well as the thickness with which they’re applied—another key to capturing the sound of the original guitars.

“We use aniline dye on the backs and nitrocellulose lacquers, all very similar to what they used in the ’50s. It took a lot of hard work to get the painting process just right. Players are often surprised to hear that we have one main painter who has shot every sunburst that’s left the Gibson Custom factory in the last 20 years. The lacquer is applied thinly, and it’s breathable, not like a poly where it’s locked in. The finish on these guitars fades just the way they did in the ’50s,” said Gibson Custom.

“It’s amazing seeing the great players who come through the Gibson Custom factory who want to see, touch, feel, smell and compare today’s reissue models, as well as compare them to the original vintage Gibson Les Paul guitars from the 1950s,” said Gibson Custom. “We tell them, ‘OK, here you go. You play them. You tell us which one’s the original.’ Nobody ever can.”

While Gibson USA builds top-quality guitars, using the Plek system that carves the nut and shapes the frets to .001'' tolerances, Gibson Custom combines that technology with unmatched attention to detail. From handcrafted instruments to the True Historic series, which offers vintage Les Paul looks, feel, tone and vibe at a fraction of the vintage price, Gibson Custom guitars are built to exceed the expectations of even the most discerning players.

For a personalized introduction to guitars from Gibson Custom, the awesome acoustic guitars coming out of Gibson’s Bozeman, Montana factory, or the stunning archtops being crafted in Memphis, Tenn., call our expert Guitar Advisors from Private Reserve Guitars at at 866-926-1923.

Tags: Electric Guitars Private Reserve Guitars


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