Hillman Guitar No. 16
Gibson CF-100 Acoustic
4120 21

Gibson CF 100 . .

Sue-On has always allowed, and even encouraged, me to indulge in what often turn out to be expensive pursuits in the name of music. Despite my appreciation of guitars, I made it almost into the 21st century without ever owning, or even playing, a Gibson instrument. Strange, as so many of my favourite players and so much of the music I've listened to are associated with Gibson guitars.

So, when the opportunity came up to buy a Gibson acoustic from a one-time local jazz player who had retired from the music scene, my ever-supportive mate encouraged me to go through with the purchase. The guitar is in good shape, has good tone and is easy to play. I've never taken it on stage but I did use it in a TV documentary that the CBC did on us in 1996. They wanted to show us making music at home at Maple Grove before they taped one of our stage performances at Clear Lake resort. We sang a duet, while Sue-On played our Yamaha grand piano and I strummed on the Gibson.


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The guitar is the most influential instrument in popular music and no one has built them better than Gibson 

A hundred years ago Orville Gibson was a salesman and clerk -- by day. At night and on weekends he was a craftsman, building some of the most innovative and unusual stringed instruments the world had ever seen.  From his workshops in Kalamazoo, Michigan, he turned out gorgeous instruments, mostly constructed of old furniture woods--walnut, maple, spruce, and fir--that had been cut to size and finished. 

Gibson was a self-educated builder with bold ideas, the most notable of which was a one-piece-back and arched-top design that he used for mandolins, lutes, banjos, and guitars as early as 1895. His instruments from this era are known for their star-and-crescent logos, inlaid butterfly pickguards, beautiful
 filigree, and warm, full tone. 

Gibson sold his company in 1902 to a group of Kalamazoo businessmen, then sat back and  watched it grow into a pivotal element in the rebirth of American popular music--ragtime, jazz, big band, blues,  country and western, bluegrass and, of course, rock and roll. Today, Gibson guitars are as much cultural icons as the superstar musicians who play them. 

Though Gibson's current fame rests on the legendary status its electric guitars, much of the company's early success was due to its groundbreaking designs in acoustic stringed instruments, especially the archtop guitar. Of these, the Lloyd Loar-designed Style 5 Master Model guitar of 1923 is probably the most celebrated. Known as the L-5, this guitar pioneered the concept of building a specific pitch into the sound box by tuning the f-holes, air chambers, and other structural components. 

Gibson's reputation in the 1930's and '40's rested on another trailblazing guitar, the big 18"-wide Super 400 archtop. This guitar set new standards for size, quality of craftsmanship, and decoration. Fitted with optional pickups, it marked the transition into the age of electric guitars. A modified version of the Super 400 became Gibson's first successful electric model in 1951, and Bill Haley used a variation of it to Rock Around the Clock. Of all the dozens of guitar models bearing the Gibson name over the past century, however, the Les Paul solid-body electric stands out from the rest as the most important.

The company has dabbled with electric guitars since 1935, when it introduced the aluminum-bodied Electric Hawaiian Guitar. This model used crude magnetic pickups made with thousands of wire windings to literally "pick up" vibrations off the guitar strings and send them through a cable to an  amplifier / speaker. Vibrations from the strings disturbed the pickup's magnetic field and created small amounts of alternating current that could be reproduced by the amplifier as sound. Early pickups were typically placed in the air chambers of hollow-body guitars. 

One musician, however, reasoned that by using improved pickups, he could dispense with the air chamber to create a thin-bodied guitar far more comfortable to play than the big-bodied designs of the day. He decided to take the sound waves directly from the strings for a purer, cleaner, and brighter sound, without the overtones that hollow-body electric guitars typically produced. These factors were important to him because he was interested in using the guitar as a lead solo instrument, not simply as part of the rhythm section. 

To make his dream a reality, he made his first pickup from the tone arm of a phonograph and his first amplifier from components cannibalized from a Bell & Howell movie projector. His name was Lester William Polfuss, who had been playing professionally since the age of 15 under the stage name Rhubarb Red. In later years, he became known simply as Les Paul. The Grammy-award-winning entertainer is also the electronics wizard credited with the invention of sound-on-sound multiple recording, echo effects, layering, phasing, and eight-track recording. 

With his wife and partner, singer and guitarist Mary Ford, he had a long string of hits in the late 1940's and 1950's. 

In 1939, Les Paul had built a prototype he fondly dubbed "The Log." It consisted of a Gibson guitar neck attached to a 4"x4" block of pine and fitted with two pickups, one for treble and onefor rhythm. It could be played as it was, but to make it look more like a real guitar, he bisected the body of an Epiphone f-hole acoustic guitar and glued the two pieces around the central log. Two years later, he lugged his 20-pound prototype to the folks at Gibson, whose guitars he had been endorsing since 1928. They flatly rejected the idea. 

After World War II, however, Leo Fender, a radio repairman from Anaheim, California, introduced the
all-maple, solid-body electric guitar that came to be known as the Fender Telecaster. By the late 1940's, Fender solid-body electrics were so successful that Gibson made up his mind to to revisit the idea behind "The Log," resulting ultimately in the issue of the first Gibson Les Paul in 1952. 

The original Les Paul had a maple cap on top of a mahogany back and neck, a striking gold paint job, a cutaway in the lower half of the body so that players could easily reach the highest notes, and a sculptured, arched center section on the body. In contrast, the Fender Telecaster of that era was a flat slab of ash with a natural finish. The Les Paul used two adjustable pickups with separate volume and tone controls for each. It also had a 3-way tone toggle for switching between and combining the two pickups, cream-colored plastic pickguard, and pickup covers, and a long trapeze bridge piece at the bottom. A patent was filed on January 21, 1953. 

After introducing the first Les Paul model, Gibson never stopped refining the design, and Les Paul provided input on most of the changes. A "stop" tailpiece replaced the trapeze tailpiece in 1953. In 1954 the Les Paul Custom was introduced, painted in black and trimmed in white to resemble a tuxedo. It became an instant hit, and was later known as "Black Beauty"or "The Fretless Wonder" because of the ease with which it could be played. 

A new type of tailpiece that included a tuneable bridge design (the Tune-O-Matic) was introduced on the 1955 models. In 1957, Gibson introduced "humbucking" pickups. Whereas most pickups had one coil, humbuckers had two -- one with positive polarity and  the other with negative, set on opposite sides of a magnet. This arrangement cancelled, or "bucked," the annoying electrical hum that was produced when the instrument was placed too close to an amplifier or microphone. Between 1957 and 1961, the Custom came with three pickups. In 1958 there came a cherry-edged flamed-maple top. 

By 1961 rock and roll was sweeping the world and the Les Paul adopted a more modern, sharp-pointed, double-cutaway design. The best-sellers of this era were:

The Custom (three pickups and a tremolo attachment), 
The Standard (two pickups, with or without tremolo), 
The Special (two single-coil pickups), and 
The TV (single pickup).

Despite the success of these models, however, Les Paul's development contract with Gibson was not renewed after 1962 and the model name was changed to SG (for solid guitar). His departure raised howls from the Les Paul faithful all over the world. 

Les Paul re-signed with Gibson a few years later and the original single-cutaway designs were reissued. Ever since, there's been a steady stream of designs such as the Artisan, Artist, Classic, Deluxe, Heritage, Jumbo, Lite, Plus, Signature, and Studio, to name just a few of the nearly 50 models. Each has is own distinct shape, color, electronics, and fittings. 

Since they were first issued in 1952, nearly every great guitarist from Chet Atkins to Frank Zappa has played a Gibson Les Paul. Some have collected dozens and Gibson estimates that nearly 500,000 have been built and sold over a period of 43 years. 

Guitar authority and collector George Gruhn of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, Tennessee, reports that the most desirable model of all is the Les Paul Standard made between '58 and '60, in cherry-finish and flamed-maple models with humbucking pickups. Only about 170 were made and he figures they are worth between $25,000 and $70,000. He notes that the '57-'58 Gold-Top Les Paul Standard plays every bit as well, but isn't as desirable or collectible because of its conventional gold finish. Even this model, however, fetches about $20,000 today. 

So what is Les Paul's personal ax? When the 80-year-old pioneer (who will issue three more albums in 1996) heads out for a gig, he favors a 1980 Les Paul Heritage Elite that he personally modified. "Gibson just sends me the box and the neck and a box of parts." he said. "I build the electronics myself. I still wind the coils on the pickups and solder all the connections to get the tailored sound that I want for fine-fidelity speaker systems." He has hundreds of guitars in his Mahwah, New Jersey, laboratory, each numbered so that he can keep track of the electronic modifications. 

Perhaps the best news for guitarists is that Les Paul and Gibson are at work on a brand-new guitar design that will incorporate new solid-state electronics. One thing that won't be altered, however, is the legendary shape that began rocking the music world in 1952. 

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