Classic vintage marvels with the look and feel of years of loving care.
By Phil Montoya
With its Vintage Original Spec (VOS) series, the master luthiers in the Gibson Custom Shop have innovated manufacturing techniques to give these impeccably accurate instruments the look and feel of actual vintage pieces that have aged gracefully while being gently played and lovingly maintained. The treatment is so convincing only the most disciplined will be able to resist pretending they're the real thing.
A ghost in hand
My buddy Mike at Musician's Friend sandbagged me. He voice mailed me that he was sending over an LP he wanted me to have a look at. When I pulled the two-pickup 57 Les Paul Custom out of the case and into bright sunlight, I nearly choked. He'd sent me a real '57 Custom! Last I'd heard, these things were going for over a hundred grand. Other than a recent very well-done fret job, there was no sign that I was holding anything less than a genuine '57 Les Paul in a superbly preserved condition.
After a minute, reason sank in—the guitar had to have been aged. Not even Mike would accidentally send out a $100,000 guitar. But the aging job was fantastic. On skeptical scrutiny I realized the white layers in the pickguard and truss rod cover were a little bright for an aged Les Paul, but otherwise this gorgeous guitar was an eerily accurate re-creation of a genuine vintage instrument.
A unique finishing process involving 100% nitrocellulose lacquer specially formulated for Gibson creates an aged patina that is amazingly authentic. Gibson Custom's premier luthier Edwin Wilson explained that the lacquer has less plasticizers than modern lacquers and goes on much thinner, thus more closely emulating the lacquer used in the '50s. This lacquer, combined with special application and hand-rubbing methods, results in a finish with a warm, mellow glow that's inviting to the eye and the touch. The vintage effect is further enhanced by the use of period-correct grain filler and stain.
The gold-plating on this guitar is applied directly onto the buffed nickel (or aluminum) base, just as it was in the '50s. The plating is gently rubbed and subjected to a special oxidizing process that emulates the slow oxidation of a well-cared-for instrument without rust or pitting. This results in an aged look that's indistinguishable from babied original hardware. All the original metals are used so that, for example, the gold is more worn off the aluminum tailpiece than off the steel bridge. It was this astounding attention to detail that had me fooled at first.
The seven-ply body binding, five-ply head binding, and fretboard binding are all perfectly aged (and perfectly applied) to look like they've spent four decades being pampered. The corners and scroll on the headstock, in particular, are incredibly well crafted. Green tuning keys add to the vintage authenticity.
Guitar legend Duane Eddy offers an intimate view of the high-touch processes and historically accurate materials used to create VOS series instruments.
The sands of time
Aside from its visual impact, this guitar feels in every way like the vintage original. It's got that "played-in" vibe of an instrument that has grown comfortable with being handled. The velvety ebony fretboard has been hand-rolled on the edges for a smooth and comfy feel on the fingers. The corners on the headstock, nut, and neck heel have been slightly relieved—the way they'd be if they'd spent years in the loving hands of a true devotee.
This guitar is very easy to get comfortable with. While I love the visual dazzle of a brand-new Gibson, the reissues can be pretty intimidating to play. You're always worried about rubbing the nitro finish too hard or getting pick scratches and sweat blemishes on the hardware. The VOS treatment gets you over that fear. You know it's not going to look appreciably different after a hard night's play, so you can just focus on making beautiful music.
Private Reserve’s Brian Baggett takes a breathtaking ‘57 LP Goldtop VOS for a spin.
That's a surprisingly big advantage and it's part of the reason the VOS series was developed. Lots of touring pros have gotten too timid to drag their six-figure guitars out on the road, yet sparkling new instruments just look and feel wrong. Other manufacturers have taken the aging thing over the top (in my opinion) by making the guitar look trashed instead of broken in. Gibson avoids that pitfall by just softening the appearance and feel—like pre-washing your jeans so you don't have to endure that stiff canvas feel.
Where it counts
The resonance of the '57 Custom's lightweight single-piece mahogany back and mahogany top make it one of the liveliest guitars I've ever played, rich in sparkling harmonic overtones. That single-piece solid back is universal on the VOS reissues, as are a host of other features that make these guitars look and play exactly like the vaunted originals: longer neck tenons, bumblebee caps where appropriate, historically accurate re-creations of Gibson's original humbuckers, tortoise dot markers on the sides of the necks of some models, and holly headstock veneers. In addition, the neck dimensions on the new VOS reissues more precisely mimic the original mid-'50s, '59, and early '60s necks.
Gibson has really gone the extra mile to make the VOS series guitars as close as possible to actual vintage instruments. In my humble opinion, these guitars are every bit as good—in terms of tone, look, and feel—as the originals. Certainly the '57 Les Paul Custom reviewed here is among the top handful of electric guitars I've played in my life.
At the Musician’s Friend Private Reserve you’ll find a vast selection of Gibson Custom VOS series guitars. See something you like? Call one of our Guitar Advisors at 866-926-1923 for a personal in-hand tone report. They’ll also be glad to provide detailed photos or arrange a Skype audition session.