There’s something magical about a great Gibson Les Paul Standard. I remember when I was just starting to play; it seemed as if all the cool guitarists were using Les Pauls. So many of the greats I listened to and learned from back then relied on Les Pauls, and I was determined that one day I would own one. A few years later, when I was in college, I found a beautiful used tobacco sunburst model that had been traded in at the music store where I was employed part-time teaching guitar lessons; I couldn’t resist buying it. Fortunately, the store owner was willing to put it on layaway, because even a used one – and they weren’t nearly as valuable then as they are now – was too much for my meager student bank account.
I loved that guitar – I finally had my Les Paul! But even then, I could tell it just wasn’t quite as good as it could be. Over the years, I played it quite a bit, trying to bond with it. I never gave up on it, though it wasn’t the guitar I had hoped it would be. It played great, and it rang pretty well unplugged. But when plugged in, it was always sort of “dead” and lifeless. It hung on the wall for years. I used it for recording, when I needed that big chunky Les Paul bottom end. But, it was rarely the guitar I reached for first.
ONE LAST TRY
Recently, I decided I would give my old Les Paul one last try – it would either come to life or I would sell it. (Not an easy thing to contemplate, as I’ve owned it for many years!) I took it out and used it at an outdoor festival gig. I was very happy with how it played, and I was pleased with the tone; it seemed closer to what I want to hear these days - tastes change, and sometimes the guitars you prefer change along with them. The guitar deserved one last opportunity to be great. My plan was to strip off all the hardware and electronics, and rebuild it. Let’s take a look at the process. Hopefully, I’ll end up with a stellar Les Paul when I’m done!
To begin, we’ll look at the guitar itself. Our project guitar is a 1979 Gibson Les Paul Standard. I purchased it in the mid-1980s, and although the guitar was quite clean – there was little wear and tear – we’ll see that it wasn’t 100% original when I bought it. Before beginning this project, I hadn’t changed anything about the guitar; it was exactly as it was when I bought it.
Even though late-’70s Les Pauls now command quite a few dollars on the “vintage” market, mine has been well played, and as mentioned, it’s not completely factory original. Regardless, I’m interested in it as a “player” guitar, not as a wall hanging or a collectible, so I’m not freaked out about changing hardware or otherwise modifying the instrument. In fact, it will probably be closer, in some ways, to the way it was originally when I am finished with it.
THE NORLIN YEARS
In 1979, Gibson was owned by Norlin. The company had played around a bit with the classic Les Paul formula in the late ’70s. In some years, they used “pancake” bodies, which were laminates of maple and mahogany, and maple necks were used for several years instead of the traditional mahogany. Some players dislike these changes, while other players don’t have a problem with them. My particular Les Paul has a single-piece “slab” mahogany body with the traditional carved maple top, not a pancake laminate body. It has a 3-piece maple neck, which seems to add a bit of mid presence and some brightness. The pickups are the factory Gibson patent-number humbuckers.
The tailpiece, heavy and chrome plated, appears original, but the stock Tune-o-matic bridge has been replaced before I bought the guitar with a very heavy and chunky aftermarket unit with less-than-effective bridge pieces that were flat on top, and had numerous slots filed in them as if someone had randomly tried to find the correct string positions and spacing. The tuners were also replaced at some point with large, heavy aftermarket tuners.
Remember, this guitar was born and raised in the late ’70s and early ’80s; many guitarists of that time believed that heavier hardware was the key to sustain and tone - anyone remember brass nuts and bridges? For some guitars and guitarists, the heavier hardware worked fine. For other guitars, such as my Les Paul, I’m not so sure.
Fortunately, the parts on the guitar (the ones I’m not going to replace, anyway) are all in fine shape. The plastic parts have aged nicely, including the pickup mounting rings, the binding, and the pickup selector switch surround and knob. My goal was to preserve this darkened plastic to maintain the original, aged look of the instrument.
Prior to taking the photos for this article, I had a skilled luthier replace the old plastic nut with a real bone nut. He also replaced the well-worn – and very small – frets with much-more-comfortable medium-jumbos. Even without changing any other hardware, this made a difference in the instrument. The guitar sustained better and played like a dream, and the top end of the tone subtly opened up. It seemed I was on the right path! I also experimented with swapping in three or four different sets of pickups, but none of the sets I tried sounded spectacular, so I returned the factory pickups to the instrument.
The first step in the rebuild of the guitar was to remove all the hardware that would be replaced. This included the following:
- Volume and tone controls
I removed the pickguard years ago, as the raised pickguards on Les Pauls don’t work with the way I position my picking hand. The original pickguard and its mounting hardware are safely stored away, so they can be included with the guitar if I ever decide to sell it. The 3-way switch and the other hardware, such as the strap buttons were fine and did not need to be replaced.
Disassembling an electric guitar is a fairly easy matter that requires just a few simple hand tools. First, I removed the strings. I like to do this one at a time, working from the outside strings to the center strings, so that the tension on the neck is gradually reduced. I don’t cut the strings, I loosen them using the tuners then take them off.
On a Les Paul, the tailpiece will likely come loose when the strings are removed from the peghead, as it is held in place by string tension. The bridge may also come loose from its mounting studs. My tailpiece came loose, but the bridge stayed in place,quite tight on its mounting studs. But the bridge mounting studs - evidently replacements for the original - were actually wobbly and loose in the threaded body inserts. That can’t be great for sustain or tone! The replacement bridge will be installed with new studs that should fit much tighter.
Once the tailpiece and bridge were off, I unscrewed and removed the mounting studs for each. This left just the threaded inserts for the bridge and tailpiece studs in the body. There’s no need to remove them – a somewhat challenging job – as they will work fine with the replacement bridge and the tailpiece
The control knobs will be the next things to come off. The easiest way to remove the volume and tone knobs is to wrap a hand towel around the knob to provide extra leverage. Three of the knobs came right off using this technique. Unfortunately, the bridge pickup volume knob broke; part of it was tightly fused to the shaft of the potentiometer. I may be able to glue it back together, but my bet is that means I’ll have to replace at least the broken knob. And, since the colors on the remaining knobs may have faded, I may have to replace all four.
With the control knobs off, it’s time to flip the guitar over. We’ll need to remove the main control cavity cover as well as the cover over the pickup selector switch cavity.
There’s a surprise lurking in the control cavity: the entire control assembly is encased in a metal “can” (the idea being to provide a very solid grounding plane and total-coverage shielding). This is almost certainly overkill, and it adds quite a bit of weight to the guitar. Speaking of weight, the guitar comes in at just over 10.5 pounds – not super heavy, but not a featherweight, either. (I’ve heard of Les Pauls weighing up to 15 pounds.) I’m hoping the guitar will end up under 10 pounds when I’m finished.
The volume and tone pots have all gotten scratchy over the years, which is not unusual for a guitar of this vintage. So all the controls will be removed and replaced.
Even though I’m not replacing the pickup selector switch, I still removed its cavity cover plate so that I could thoroughly clean around it. Another surprise: not only is the back of the switch cover plate shielded, but the actual switch cavity is encased in a metal can!
Back at the main control cavity, when I pulled off the shielding “can” by removing two screws, I found that the electronics all mount to a heavy metal plate, which serves as a ground plane. I used a soldering iron and a wire cutters to disconnect the wires running from the pickups, the 3-way switch, and the output jack.
Once the wires were disconnected, I removed the nuts from the front of the volume and tone pots, which freed the entire control assembly. It dropped right out in one piece.
With the control plate out, it was revealed that the guitar body was made on June 20, 1979.
Ready for another “surprise”? I wasn’t planning on replacing the output jack, but when I removed the output-jack plate (so that I could clean around it later ), I was rewarded with still more metal! The output jack was also enclosed in a shielding “can.” Someone at the Gibson factory in the late ’70s was apparently quite paranoid about RF and hum pickup - in addition to the shielding “can,” the jack is connected using shielded wire!
Flipping the guitar over, I removed the nut and Rhythm/Treble plate from the 3-way switch. I also unscrewed the two strap buttons. These parts won’t be replaced, but I want to give the guitar a thorough cleaning and it will be easier if there isn’t any hardware in the way.
I next removed the pickups by unscrewing the four screws that hold each pickup mounting ring to the body of the guitar. Then, I unscrewed the pickups from the rings. The bottom of the bridge pickup is dated June 26, 1979, while the bottom of the neck pickup has a June 4, 1979 date.
With the bridge pickup out of the way, you can really see how thick the maple top of a LesPaul Standard is; the maple is the lighter colored wood on top of the darker mahogany.
Turning my attention to the other end of the guitar, the next step was to remove the tuning machines. This required taking out the small retaining screw on the back of the headstock, then removing the threaded bushing from the front of each tuner. After that, each tuner dropped right out.
These are replacement tuners, not the originals that came with the guitar. Unfortunately, whomever installed these had to drill an extra hole in the headstock. When I install my new tuners (which look much more like vintage units and are lighter than these behemoths), we’ll see if they cover the extra holes. If they don’t I may choose to fill the holes.
Finally, I removed the truss rod cover by taking out its two screws. This will make it easier to clean the face of the headstock.
There we have it: a stripped guitar (avert your eyes if you’re easily offended). The only hardware left onboard is the 3-way switch and the wire that runs from it to the main control cavity. These are pushed into the cavity of the guitar so they won’t be in the way when I’m cleaning up and preparing to install the replacement parts.
THE NEXT STEP
Since the guitar is now completely naked, this is a great time to give the instrument a thorough cleaning. My cleaner of choice is the Fender Instrument Care Kit, which includes three Meguiars’ products: Swirl and Haze Remover, Polish and Conditioner, and Mist and Wipe Finish Enhancer. This is a 30-year-old guitar, so the finish has definitely suffered wear, scratches, dings, and scrapes, and there is indeed a haze over the finish in many places. Since I play classical guitar and have long right-hand fingernails, there are numerous light scratches around the volume and tone controls. There’s also a gouge where my pick hand rests below the strings. My hope is that the Swirl and Haze remover will clean up some of this wear.
That’s it for this time around. Join me next time for Part II, when we’ll finish the clean up and start installing the replacement parts!