2018 was a huge year for Gibson. From having to declare chapter 11 bankruptcy to the release of many limited edition models (such as the Modern Flying V) The most memorable event has to be the replacing of their CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz. Thus, Birthing a New era. We’ve had the Golden McCarty era (1950-1966), the dark Norlin era (1969-1986), the fine Juszkiewicz era (1986-2018 and now… the Curliegh era. (2018-???)
Former Levi Strauss’ CEO, James Curleigh has assumed his position. I thought it would be appropriate to take a trip down memory lane and pick out the Top 5 most influential Juszkiewicz era guitars. These aren’t just models I like, but ones that I feel helped impact Gibson history.
#5 – Gibson Les Paul Florentine 1996-2001
Starting off the list is the little-known Les Paul Florentine. Besides the Les Paul Signature from the mid-70s, this was the first Les Paul to sport a semi-hollow body construction bridging the gap between LP and ES-335. This instrument was essentially a Les Paul Custom by all other attributes and came in plain and flamed tops.
These are important because they inspired the ES-LPs from 2014 which produced quite a booming market for Gibson Memphis. The ES-LPs are significantly different in construction compared to the original run of Florentines though. My Florentine played and felt just like a Les Paul Custom, but had some extra warmth to its tone, whereas my ES-LPs were very bright sounding and felt a bit like toys. Both were still nice instruments and compared favorably to my historics.
#4 – Les Paul Smartwood Series
The Smartwood series was an important stepping stone for Gibson. It illustrates Henry’s future game to creating good relationships with environmentally friendly, responsibly-sourced wood and it’s suppliers – in this case the Rainforest Alliance. This was also a great way to slowly introduce the public to rosewood/ebony fingerboard and maple top alternatives. This series of guitars had 3 lineups that ran from 1996-2006. The Exotic, Studio and Standard.
Now you might ask, “Why do we need alternatives? I’ll only accept rosewood and ebony on my Gibson fretboards.” OK – It’s fine to think traditionally, it is not alway possible for a company to operate like that. Over harvesting and depleting the natural resources of these “golden era” woods has lead to increased pricing and sourcing issues. New CITES Laws that were put in place during 2017 also makes it harder for the import and export of rosewood and many other wood species. Government regulations are also something for the company to fear. Cue the Government Series!
Smart Wood Standard (1996-2002)
The first version of the Smartwood, called the Smartwood Standard, experimented with the fretboard alternative “Chechen” instead of rosewood. Everything else about this one was the same as a regular standard except for the Smartwood Truss Rod Cover and the Gold Hardware. This means a carved maple top with a cream bound mahogany back and neck with cream hardware. These sported natural finishes to show off the wood grain.
Smart Wood Exotic (1998-2001)
The second iteration took things a whole lot further. The Smartwood Exotics are more akin to a Les Paul Special with a thinner body than a standard. They still retained the mahogany body and neck, but Gibson introduced 6 different options for the top and a Curupay fingerboard.
The wood options for the top were Curupay, Peroba, Banara, Ambay Guasu, Taperyva Guasu, and Chancharana.
Smart Wood Studio (2002-2006)
The final iteration was the Smart Wood Studio. These were offered in a few different wood options, but resembled Les Paul Studios in thickness, but featured mother of pearl Gibson logos. Most of these were Muiracatiara tops with mahogany backs paired with a preciosa fretboard. There is also a Swamp Ash body, mahogany neck version.
In the end, outside of the Smartwood series, you never saw these woods get used again. However, the smartwood line up helped clear the way for things such as Baked Maple, Granadillo, and Richlite to be introduced which definitely impacted Gibson’s history.
#3 – Les Paul Catalina / Elegant
The Les Paul Catalina (1996-1998) was the first model to sport a form of chambering weight relief in a Les Paul – which is a HUGE changing point in Gibson history. The Catalina was offered in Riverside Red, Canary Yellow, and Cascade Green with a later finish option Black Pearl. It featured an ebony fretboard with a maple top and a mahogany back. Besides the exotic solid-colored finishes, they sported pearloid pickguards and truss rod covers with a large custom shop inlay on their headstock.
The Les Paul Elegants (1997-2004) were built the same way as the Catalina, but featured unbelievably nice figured maple tops, abalone fretboard markers and transparent finishes. To name a few – natural, peacock, purple, crimson and honey burst with limited edition models in the Alloy and Silver Flow series, After 1998 though, the chambering was changed and the Custom Shop Edition inlay was dropped for a more traditional look.
In late 2006, Gibson switched all Les Paul Standards from 9 hole weight relief to chambering and that started the evolution of weight relief to make Les Pauls more comfortable to play and be easier on your back. Regardless of it’s effect on tone, it certainly changed history
#2 – Les Paul Snakepit (1996-1997)
When I started making this list, I thought about excluding artist signature models, but this one was far too important to leave out. The Gibson Les Paul Snakepit might just seem like a fancy looking LP with a cobra inlay on the fretboard and a snake relief-carving on the stunningly flamed maple top – but this just isn’t any fancy, over-the-top Les Paul. This was Slash’s first production run signature guitar – not to be confused with the 4 he custom ordered for himself in 1990. Around 100 snakepits were made in two separate runs and since then many fakes have been made thanks to their $20,000+ price tag.
Slash is often stated to be why someone decided to pick up a Les Paul. He is such an iconic paul player, Gibson named him the Global Brand Ambassador in 2017. To get a title like that, you know Gibson makes a lot of money off of his signature guitars! Due to the awesome sales of his Snakepit model, this broadened Gibson’s scope in trying out other signature guitars for famous users like Joe Perry, Garry Moore and Jimmy Page. Signature guitars are now common place with Gibson, but don’t forget that the Les Paul started off as a signature guitar itself!
The Snakepit sparked more than 10 additional Slash Signature Guitars.
#1 – Les Paul Classic
#1 was an easy choice for me. The Les Paul Classic would rank in the top 5 of the most influential Gibson guitars of all time because it is so historically important and here’s why.
The Les Paul Burst is the most collectible LP ever made. They were originally produced from 1958-1960 and then discontinued in favor of the SG body shape. These will cost you the price of a good house and since most musicians cannot afford that, people were looking for the next best thing.
That’s not to say the Les Paul Classic was the first “reissue.” The earliest ones are the Strings and Things Les Pauls from the late 70s. There were also other Gibson attempts like the KM, Heritage 80, Leo’s Les Paul and other prehistoric reissues. When Gibson changed hands in 1986 there were many attempts at getting a successful model out to turn their hardships around. Most of these attempts were super strats that failed terribly such as the Q Series, US-1, and WRC models. Standard ‘reissues’ were still being made at this time, but the Classic was the first take at revamping them and became that first Home Run Hit under new ownership. When introduced in late 1989, the Les Paul Classic was the highest end Les Paul you could buy and they sold well. When the Custom Shop opened in late 1993, they were downgraded in status and changed to make way for the Historic R8s and R9s that were being introduced.
The classic has now become an affordable model and has undergone many changes in its history, but that doesn’t change the impact it had on Gibson history. Reissues are the bread and butter – the money makers – for Gibson.
Runners Up – Robot Guitars + 2015 Line Up
I made the decision to stick with generally positive, forward thinking models, but I don’t feel this list would be complete without mentioning Henry’s fascination with Robot technology. This includes models like the Firebird X and Dark Fire models that offered self-tuning capabilities as well as built-in effects.
These instruments proved to be too technical and expensive for most guitarist so they did not sell well and left Gibson in a lot of trouble. However, if you actually sit down with these guitars, tackle the brief learning curve, they are amazing for recording purposes as well as inspiring you to play.
The 2015 line up is also an honorable mention. While the general public disliked the wider, classical guitar like neck with 0 fret nut, it did birth the High-Performance models that some people really enjoy.
Whether you like Henry or not, arguing that his team’s leadership did not save it from financial ruin in the late 80s and early 90s to make it what it is today would be futile. Many interesting and scary models came about under Henry’s ownership, but these are the top 5 most influential models in my eyes.
Do you agree with my list? Let me know in the comments section what your top 5 influential models would be from the Henry J era!