Price paid: A$ 350
Purchased from: Guitar shop in Glebe (Sydney)
Features — 10
My main axe since 1985. It was on a stand behind the main door of this old guitar shop in Glebe, so it was mostly hidden from view when the door was open, which was often. When someone brought in an old Strat, they shut the door, and since I've never been a Strat person, I must have been the only customer to ever see it. Traded in other guitars and a small amp plus cash... This a mid-1963 Les Paul with original Vibrola and it had the original case. The case was in such horrible shape that I ended up tossing it in preference for stronger case when I had to travel. Still kicking myself for that...
Everybody knows the first SGs. This one was originally "normal," converted southpaw in the '70s, then reconverted 'normal' leaving visible repairs in front along with a second plastic cover over the decommissioned mahogany filled cavity. Still has the original truss rod cover with a faded "Les Paul" inscription. Embossed chrome covered Gibson T-tops, a usual '70s upgrade for what would have been a pair of PAFs, with original wiring, pots and (horrible, probably not original) tuners, though the original ABR1 had been changed to a Nashville bridge. The frets just might be original, though they're just about down to fret-less condition now. I soon changed the tuners to Schallers (great, but ugly) and put in a stop tail-piece in place of the Vibrola. 20 years and two minor restorations later, and for the tuners and bridge I went with TonePros, though I did end up putting the Vibrola back on. I tried other pickups on an SG Special, even Burstbuckers, 496R/500T, Mighty Mites, various DiMarzios and Duncans, but the T-Tops have always stayed where they are! Being my main guitar, and a big Bill Frisell fan, the neck was eventually about to fall off, so just over a year ago she went for a MAJOR restoration. Coccolin of Cervignano managed to strip her down to wood, and rebuild her with a little bit of extra neck support, then resprayed in exactly the same colour she'd faded to naturally. OK, so she looked new, but all the repairs have been left visible, and the varnished neck doesn't muck-up after hours of hot, steamy jamming in a hot, steamy practice room. The best bit: the 3-way selector switch can be made to jump from the neck to the bridge pickup with single, quick touch. The neck has never shown any sign of warping, even after two weeks in a corrugated roofed hut one summer in India, a couple of years of outdoor festivals, a about 50 years of regular use and abuse!
Sound — 10
I play some weird sort of proggy pseudo-jazz, and T-Tops can do anything from warm jazz tones to reasonably high gain thrash. I think they're unpotted since they squeal like little piggies on a spit with anything too high gain. Then again, it is so easy to get whatever type of squeal you want from them! Both pups are extremely low output. At full volume on the T-Tops, I get the same drive from my Les Paul Classic's 496R/500T ceramics at 3 and half or 4. I'm still trying out various caps, but any level of the tone pots sounds good for something or other. Only other pickups that sound as good are Gibbo's own original 1, 2, and 3 Burstbuckers. The 3 in the bridge position and a 2 at the neck gets a very similar sound with any other thin bodied guitar, even a Chinese-made near-new Vintage branded Graham Oliver Signature (OK, I did have to put in pots and cabling from a '90s SG, thank you eBay!). All in all, T-Tops in an old SG-shaped Les Paul can go from raucous nasal mayhem to smooth hot chocolatey with melted marshmallow mellowness at the flick of a switch!
Action, Fit & Finish — 10
As she left the factory 51 years ago, I can only rely on my own fantasy as to what it was like to hold new "Les Paul" in 1963. When I got her in 1985, the setup wasn't at all bad, and I didn't go for a pro setup until about 10 years later when I actually needed to go for a minor restoration to preserve the various exposed parts of the neck and body. The colour was beautifully faded in '85 and it would surely have been magnificent by now, though last year's full restoration came out exactly as I imagined it should be. The only nasty bits are Gibbo tuners and bridges… until TonePros came out I relied on the excellent, though rather ugly, Schaller hardware. I tried pre-TonePros Kluson tuners once, but they were useless. New TonePros Klusons, and I haven't had any tuning problems since! I wonder if they've any intention of making a more solid jack connector. Anyway, action is buttery with 10-48s.
Reliability & Durability — 10
This guitar has gigged regularly since it came out of the factory in 1963, probably without backup most of the time. Now that I have a barn-full of six strings, I'd still rather play my '63 than anything else. Never had a problem with cabling, though it gets checked regularly, nor with the buttons thanks to the good solid wood it's made from. The finish is made to age gracefully, though on newer Gibbos I've had I find the neck finish to muck-up a bit too much for my taste. The new finish my luthier used does not muck-up even after hours of practice in a hot sweaty room, so why does the finish on my '96 Les Paul feel pasty after playing for 20 minutes?
Overall Impression — 10
In case of fire, the order of rescue is: 1 - my '63 SG, 2 - everything else. An old SG is good for any kind of music, has ideal weight, balance and playability right up to the 22nd fret, or 24 if your version has them, and looks like it belongs on you when you're on stage. I've been playing for over 30 years, once through dodgy fuzzes and Hiwatts, then through dodgy '90s multifx racks and Hiwatts, and now that I can't lift my Hiwatts any more, through an excellent Adrenalinn III, a VG-99 and Gallien Kreuger mini amps.
I fell in lust with this guitar from the moment I saw her in the shop. I sold my nether parts in order to have her, and have never regretted it for one moment! When I leave her alone on a stand at concerts I always keep an eye on her, if I have to go out or something, I put her in a gig bag and keep her with me. My '63 never gets left alone in the car, or anywhere else. Now I have special locks and alarms for the nuke-proof case, so I sleep better at nights...
Years ago I used to keep her propped up against the wall in my unlocked rented room in a house with no locks in the Australian tropics. I miss those times... If somehow, someone managed to steal this instrument from me, I would hunt them down, and see just how much like an axe a guitar can be... I keep buying and selling other guitars but this one remains my main axe. I really like the Lo-Pro Edge trem on some Ibanez JEMs, and I am currently looking for an early '90s version... And then there's the amazing sustain on my '96 Les Paul Classic Plus... But when we finally finish polishing off our new music, it will be my '63 SG-shaped Les Paul that will get the call on stage, and so it ever shall be! SG without end!