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The Allure of a Gibson: Famous Musicians and Their Guitars

Ricky Skaggs with the Gibson F-5 mandolin  / Photo courtesy of Skaggs Family Records


B.B. King with his Gibson guitar, “Lucille”  / Photo courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons

B.B. King with his Gibson guitar, “Lucille”  / Photo courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons

Orville Gibson began to sell his instruments in 1894 out of a one-room workshop in Kalamazoo, Mich. He did so until 1902, when the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company was incorporated to market his instruments. Since that time, Gibson has evolved into one of the world’s most renowned guitar companies. Many Gibson instruments are among the most collectible and can sell for thousands of dollars. Whether it is the Gibson Les Paul, Fire-bird VII or their mandolins, these instruments seem to be preferred in every type of music. So what makes Gibson Brands stand out over all those other guitar companies?

Perhaps it’s because many celebrity guitarists prefer using them over other guitars. For example, look at what happened in the mid ‘60s. Eric Clapton used a Les Paul plugged into a Marshall Blues-breaker amplifier on the “Beano” album in 1966. This brought a resurgence of interest in the Gibson Les Paul, which the company had stopped making in 1961 because it was considered too heavy and old-fashioned. Clapton was credited for setting the standard for tone for a new generation of guitar players in blues and rock’ n roll. This prompted Gibson to reissue the Les Paul, which sparked record sales of the instrument.

Billy Gibbons with his Gibson Les Paul guitar “Pearly Gates” / Photo courtesy of Billy Gibbons’ Facebook

Billy Gibbons with his Gibson Les Paul guitar “Pearly Gates” / Photo courtesy of Billy Gibbons’ Facebook

Gibson’s guitars are considered some of the best guitars in the world – not because celebrities use them, but because they’re made well enough that celebrities want to use them, claims Craig Anderton, executive vice president of Gibson. Take a look at the Gibson SG, which was preferred by legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix. The Gibson SG was introduced in 1961 when the Gibson Les Paul sales were significantly low and the company was looking for a new niche in the market. The SG had a slender neck and was advertised as having the “fastest neck in the world.” Jimi Hendrix is not the only great guitarist that used the SG – it was also used by Angus Young of the band AC/DC and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who is one of the few female guitar icons. There are really too many to mention, but the SG has definitely carved its place in guitar history.

According to Anderton, celebrities who play a Gibson can develop a strong bond with their instrument. For instance, take BB King and his guitar, “Lucille.” The story goes that BB King ran through a burning building to save his Gibson Guitar in the winter of 1949. Two men fighting over a woman named Lucille knocked over the burn barrel, sending burning fuel across the floor. The hall burst into flames, which triggered an evacuation. Once outside, King realized that he had left his guitar inside the burning building. He entered the blaze to retrieve his beloved $30 Gibson guitar. From that point on, he named all his guitars “Lucille,” after the woman who had inspired the ruckus.

BB King is not the only legendary guitarist to give his Gibson a name.

Jamie Laritz with his Gibson Les Paul, “Lester.” / Photo courtesy of Jamie Laritz

Jamie Laritz with his Gibson Les Paul, “Lester.” / Photo courtesy of Jamie Laritz

Billy Gibbons’ favorite axe has always been his beloved “Pearly Gates,” a rare 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard that has appeared on every track of every ZZ Top album. The story goes that ZZ Top gave their old 1930s Packard to a friend, Renee Thomas, to drive to L.A. for a movie audition. After landing the role, Renee and the band jokingly called the Packard “Pearly Gates” because they figured it must have had divine powers. Renee ended up selling the car and wiring the money to Gibbons on the very day he received a call about a ’59 Sunburst Les Paul that was found under the bed of a man who had recently passed away. The guitarist ended up loving the Gibson so much that he purchased it that day and dubbed it “Miss Pearly Gates.”

Jamie Laritz was the guitarist for the Freedom of Sound tour in 2005 with Bret Michaels, lead singer of the rock band Poison. In an interview with Laritz, he claims that one of the reasons Les Pauls sound so good is because they are dense and heavy, which helps give them deep tones and excellent sustain. Vintage models can weigh in at eight to ten pounds or occasionally more, but that’s where the magic lies. Laritz says he also uses his Gibson a lot in his Dog Ear Studio, located close to Music Row.

Joe Perry with his Gibson Les Paul  (Steven Tyler also pictured)  / Photo courtesy of seymourduncan.com/forum

Joe Perry with his Gibson Les Paul  (Steven Tyler also pictured)  / Photo courtesy of seymourduncan.com/forum

Another Les Paul enthusiast is Joe Perry from the band Aerosmith. He has played nearly every variation of the axe for the past 30 years and also has his own custom model.

There is no doubt that Gibson holds a great place in the electric guitar world, but they also make great mandolins. Gibson’s mandolin line holds an important role in the history of bluegrass music, from the Gibson F-5 to the Gibson original F-10 mandolin. Bill Monroe, universally considered the “father of bluegrass,” played the Gibson F-5. To this day, it is still one of the best-selling mandolins on the market. Chris Thile of the group Nickel Creek also plays a Gibson F-5 mandolin, signed in 1924 by Lloyd Loar, Gibson’s engineer who developed the F-5 in the early 1920s. Another great mandolin player, Adam Steffey of Alison Krauss and Union Station, also plays a Gibson mandolin.

Ricky Skaggs with the Gibson F-5 mandolin  / Photo courtesy of Skaggs Family Records


Ricky Skaggs with the Gibson F-5 mandolin  / Photo courtesy of Skaggs Family Records

He is perhaps the most famous bluegrass musician and mandolin player of our time. I am talking about Ricky Skaggs, who also just happens to play a 1923 Gibson Loar F-5, which is the exact instrument his mentor Bill Monroe played. Skaggs has marveled us for decades with his performance on his Gibson F-5. From all the research I have done, it seems to me that the Gibson F-5 is the most popular mandolin played since the early 1920’s. This instrument is as bluegrass as the music itself, and it has earned a reputation as one of the finest instruments of its kind.

According to Anderton, production of Gibson guitars shifted from Kalamazoo to Nashville, Tenn. between 1974 and 1984. The Kalamazoo plant kept going for a few years as a custom instrument shop, but it was closed in 1984. The company was within three months of going out of business before Henry E. Juszkiewicz, David H. Berryman, and Gary A. Zebrowski purchased it in January 1986. New production plants were opened in Memphis, Tenn., as well as Bozeman, Mont. The Memphis facility is used for semi-hollow and custom shop instruments, while the Bozeman facility is dedicated to acoustic instruments. Nashville became the headquarters for Gibson Guitar, and “the rest is history,” as they say. Gibson Guitar has had its ups and downs, but it has come out shining with an entire family of world-renowned musical instruments. So the next time you pick up one of these instruments, think of the rich history it has played in America’s music.

Chris Thile with his Gibson F-5 mandolin  / Publicity photo

Chris Thile with his Gibson F-5 mandolin  / Publicity photo

This story is available thanks to the sponsorship of Gibson Guitar