Les Paul, a world-class musician and inventor of the solid body electric guitar, was born on June 9, 1915. Let’s all do a shredding air solo right now in honor of the great man’s centennial. Without Paul’s creation, of course, rock-and-roll would likely never have come to be —or, at the very least, it would sound a lot worse.
The Wisconsin-born country, jazz, blues, and (above all) rock icon also pioneered overdubbing, tape delay, multi-track recording and other essential components of all music that followed in his wake. Plus, beginning in 1952, Paul partnered with instrument-maker Gibson to bestow upon the universe the Gibson Les Paul guitar. Nothing on Earth would ever sound the same.
From rock-and-roll’s earliest eruptions onward, the Gibson Les Paul has led the charge. Among the wildly distinctive players who have rocked the guitar’s substantial mahogany and inimitable deep, rich sounds are Frank Zappa, George Harrison, Duane Allman, Joe Walsh, David Gilmour, Neil Young, Mick Taylor, Marc Bolan, Gary Moore, Peter Frampton, Joe Bonamassa, Buckethead, Don Felder, Peter Green, Billie Joe Armstrong, Jeff Lynne, and Mark Knopfler…to name a few. In addition, both Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck have wielded Gibson Les Pauls regularly and repeatedly throughout their legendary careers. And of course, first and foremost, there is Les Paul himself.
To celebrate Les Paul’s 100th birthday, though, we assembled a list of hard rock and heavy metal axe-men whose musical identity is utterly inseparable from their Gibson Les Paul guitars. Let’s count them down now and give thanks for the humble strummer and electronics tinkerer who forever unleashed molten guitar god powers unto humanity.
Play Along With Sex Pistol Steve Jones
The broad, fat, blazing assault of the Sex Pistols’ 1977 landmark Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols emanates up out of guitarist Steve Jones channeling Chuck Berry through the Stooges and pouring his own gasoline-like fury on that already raging fire. Had Jones opted for any guitar other than a Gibson Les Paul, Johnny Rotten’s howls would not have had the same rock-solid foundation to leap from and punk, as we know it, might not have fully crashed, burned, and kept on going so brilliantly.
Tribute to Les Paul
Zakk Wylde’s bullseye-emblazoned Gibson Les Paul is one of rock’s most instantly identifiable axes, a sight that’s almost as distinctive as the ace shredder’s sound. Wylde rose to stardom wailing alongside Ozzy Osbourne, then blazed his own path via Black Label Society, always growing, evolving, and expanding his superhuman playing abilities—and always with his Gibson Les Paul right out in front.
Alex Lifeson Debuts His Signature Gibson Les Paul
Prog metal guitar’s supreme cosmic explorer, Alex Lifeson of Rush has piloted his Gibson Les Paul to every expanse of the musical universe—and beyond. Lifeson utilizes the Les Paul’s incomparable fret action to fuel feats of imagination and tap into torrents of rocket power like no other player, further proving that the Gibson Les Paul is like no other guitar.
Billy Gibbons Guitar Tour
The heat, the dust, the wide sky, the desert lightning, the armadillo-skinned crunch, the Tequila-and-Tabasco-fueled boogie: these are the elements that erupt forth from Billy Gibbons’ fingers as he leads ZZ Top’s full Tex-Mex assault. The guitar he uses to howl and growl out that international language of sunbaked greatness? Gibson Les Paul, amigo.
Ace Frehley on His Signature “Budokan” Gibson Les Paul
Ace Frehley’s guitar smokes—literally. Kiss’s original axe-slinger famously rigged his Gibson Les Paul with smoke bombs to visually compliment his smoldering riffs and towering solos. A lesser guitar may well have not been able to handle spewing thick fog either physically or in a conceptual way. The fuming Les Paul, born of fire, was right at home in Ace’s hands.
How Joe Perry Got His ’59 Les Paul Back—From Slash
The guitar-maestro half of Aerosmith’s Toxic Twins, Joe Perry needed a rock-solid tank of a musical vehicle to keep pace with hyperactive word-sprayer and stage-slayer Steven Tyler on vocals. Naturally, Perry drove Aerosmith to their hard rock heights on the might of his Gibson Les Paul. So devoted to the guitar line is Perry, in fact, that he spent decades trying to recover his single favorite Les Paul ever that he had to sell during his struggling days. The guitar colorfully made its way back to Perry’s grateful mitts years later; check out the video of Joe telling how it happened.
“Baba O’Reilly” (1979)
Picture any particularly powerful moment Pete Townshend playing guitar. Immediately, your mind goes to his trademark arm-swinging “windmill” technique. Now focus in your mind on the guitar that Pete holds as his hand comes storming down on the strings. It’s a Gibson Les Paul. Although Townshend has experimented with numerous other makes, particularly in the Who’s early years, by the onset of the group’s 1970s heyday, Pete’s mastery reached a peak that required an instrument of strength and capability on par with where he had come to as a visionary player. That’s how he ultimately arrived at the Gibson Les Paul.
“Crazy Train” Live on After Hours TV Show
Randy Rhoads was poised to be the defining guitar guru of the decade ahead when he died too soon during a 1982 airplane misadventure. Fortunately, the demure axe-man’s gigantic talent will live forever on record, especially the two instant-classic albums he recorded with Ozzy Osbourne— Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman. Randy’s pure white Les Paul sang like an angel as he was unleashing pure brilliance alongside the Prince of Darkness.
Slash on His Signature “Appetite For Destruction” Les Paul
“Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” to name just two Guns N’ Roses masterworks, explode out from licks and riffs that could only have been dreamt up and made real by Slash. In turn, Slash could have only brought those sounds to life by using a Gibson Les Paul.
“The Guitar Show” with Jimmy Page and Les Paul (1985)
The most famous Gibson Les Paul player in the universe—aside from the immortal Les Paul himself—is Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. The light-and-dark contrasts that define Zeppelin’s sound, feel, and philosophy all emerge up through Page’s sworn-by series of Les Pauls. From his early session work to the Yardbirds and onward, Page conjured heavier-than-hell riffs and lighter-than-air licks, each one laying an infinite step up that famous stairway to you-know-where. Page and Paul were actually close friends from the 1960s onward, frequently jamming together both in public and private, each genius empowering the other to venture, both higher and deeper, into new realms of artistic adventuring and musical magnificence.