The SG: Gibson’s Unsung Hero
Ask a group of guitar players* which is the most enduring guitar in Gibson’s long line of historic guitars. Most will probably say the Les Paul, or perhaps even the ES-335. Close, but Gibson’s longest standing model is actually the humble SG! The SG is the only model in Gibson’s illustrious history that hasn’t either been discontinued at one point or another, or been completely axed from the catalogue (it did receive a name change, but more about that later). It’s often confined to the shadows of it’s widely praised older brother, the Les Paul, and many guitarists are guilty of overlooking the SG’s significance in the electric guitar hall of fame. Let’s take a deeper look at this devil-horned rock machine, and one of my favourite guitars of all time!
The Origin Story
The story begins in the late ‘60s. Les Paul sales were dwindling and Fender was riding high on the success of their radical and futuristic Stratocaster. Gibson needed to do something to compete with their California-based rivals. Their answer? To completely redesign the Les Paul from the ground up. I suppose today this would be called a “re-boot”.
Out was the thick slab of mahogany topped with flamed maple that you would expect to find on a Les Paul; in was the unique body design, full of attractive bevels and unparalleled upper fret access.
Here is an extract from the original SG (Les Paul) advert:
“Here’s an established favourite, the Les Paul Standard model – now offered with completely new styling… thinner, lighter in weight and custom contoured. A wonderfully designed solid body, perfectly balanced for playing in a standing position. In fact, no matter how you hold your guitar, you’ll be comfortable playing the new Les Paul Standard. Beautiful cherry-red finish. Gibson Vibrola and an extra slim, fast, extremely low-action neck make this guitar a joy to play”.
The guitar formally known as Les Paul
After the initial success, the guitar would go on to be renamed the SG, which stands for “solid guitar” – they presumably didn’t spend too much time on the name. The exact reason for the rename remains a little murky. It’s hard to distinguish facts from hearsay, so take the next bit with a grain of salt.
It is well documented that Les himself didn’t like the new design, and vastly preferred his original Les Paul model. This alone tends to be cited as the reason for the name change, although as Ted McCarty (former Gibson president) would recall, at the time Les was going through a very public divorce from his wife and singing partner Mary Ford. It has been said that Les didn’t want to sign a new contract with Gibson, only to give half of the profits away in the divorce. Gibson agreed and the Les Paul name was taken off the guitar in 1963.
At its launch in 1961, Gibson offered four variants of the SG, as they did with most of their guitars.
This was a stripped-down version of the standard with a single now-iconic “dog-ear” P90 pick-up and wrap tail bridge. For more about P90 pick-ups check out our other article here!
This is very similar to the previous guitar, but with two pick-ups.
We have covered this one already but let’s go over it again. It featured two humbucker pick-ups, vibrola tremolo and trapezoid fretboard inlays.
This was the top of the line model featuring three humbucker pick-ups, ebony fretboard, block inlays and gold hardware.
In 1966 the guitar would be redesigned slightly to combat the problem of the weak joint where the body meets the neck. It would also drop the vibrola tremolo and go to the modern larger semi-symmetrical “batwing” pickguard.
Why I Favour The SG
I am in good company, with the likes of Angus Young, Frank Zappa, Robby Krieger, Derek Trucks and many more favouring this pointy-eared hitmaker. But why do I like it so much exactly, and why do I reach for it more often than my Les Paul?
The first reason has to be weight. It’s around half the weight of a typical Les Paul, and when you’re playing a three-hour set that’s a lifesaver! Secondly, I love the ability to reach the highest frets with no obstruction, meaning you don’t have to change the way you’re holding the guitar amidst a solo to reach the high note. Lastly, the tone! SGs have a sound to them like no other guitar, not as bass-heavy as a Les Paul, not as bright as a Telecaster. They are just full of mid-range grunt, and I love it!
Although it wasn’t favoured by the man whose name was on the truss-rod cover (for the first few years, anyway), it did eventually find its audience and has been the most enduring guitar in Gibson’s catalogue. If you have never played one, I strongly recommend trying one out and putting it through its paces! It’s the law when trying an SG in a store to play an AC/DC riff though, so you’d better learn a few before popping in.
*PS in case you were wondering the collective noun for a group of guitar players is – an arrogance of guitar players