Lester William Polsfuss, more famously known as Les Paul, is widely credited with inventing the solidbody electric guitar. Believing that a solidbody instrument would give him added sustain while eliminating unwanted resonances, Les commissioned two custom solidbody instruments to be built for him in 1937 by luthier August Larson.
In the early '40s he built his third solidbody himself using a 4” x 4” center block of pinewood attached to an Epiphone neck and fitted with a single pickup. Dubbed ‘The Log’, a pair of sides was cut from an old guitar and attached to the center block to make it look more like a guitar.
He approached Gibson’s parent company, CMI, in the late ‘40s to discuss marketing a solidbody instrument based on his design -- Gibson was producing predominantly hollowbody archtops and acoustic guitars at the time.
Les Paul had very definite ideas as to the design of the guitar that was to later become his namesake. Type of wood, choice of pickups and even the idea of finishing the guitar in gold paint were all in Les' design proposal to the corporate bigwigs at CMI.
Unfortunately, bringing ‘The Log’ to the meeting did not work in Les’ favor. The CMI boss dismissed his idea, calling him ‘the guy with the broomstick’.
But things were to change a couple of years later when Gibson began developing a solidbody guitar following in the wake of Fender's successful solidbody, the Telecaster.
Les Paul had become a huge music celebrity as one-half of the Les Paul and Mary Ford duo, and hoping to leverage on Les’ popularity, Gibson’s president Ted McCarty contacted him with the proposal of an endorsement deal. Signing a 5-year contract, Les was to play the guitar that bore his name exclusively, in return for a five per cent royalty on sales.
The first production models, sporting a gold finish, combination bridge/tailpiece and cream P90 non-humbucking pickups were delivered to Les in May 1952. He used them onstage the following month at the Paramount Theatre in New York.
In 1954, the high-end black Les Paul Custom was produced. Featuring the newly designed tune-o-matic bridge and stop bar tailpiece for more accurate intonation, the Custom was decked out with pearl inlay on the ebony fingerboard and headstock and multi-ply binding around the body and headstock.
Interestingly, Les Paul never kept any of his original endorsement guitars from the ‘50s – he had no idea at the time that the guitars that bore his name would become such collector’s items.