By Bob Cianci with Greg Platzer
1954 was a banner year in the guitar business. Leo Fender introduced the classic Stratocaster. Gretsch debuted the White Falcon. Elvis Presley, with Scotty Moore on lead guitar, cut his first tracks at Sun Records Studios in Memphis, giving birth to rock ‘n roll. Over at Gibson, the boys from Kalamazoo introduced the Les Paul Custom and the Les Paul Junior to expand upon the success of the Les Paul model, nicknamed the Goldtop, which had been introduced in 1952. It’s entirely appropriate that the Junior was born the same year that rock ‘n roll reared it’s head.
The Junior was meant to be nothing more than a guitar for kids or players on a budget who couldn’t or wouldn’t shell out a couple hundred bucks for a Goldtop or Custom. At $49.50, the Junior, was a no-frills machine, with a Honduras mahogany slab body that mimic’d the shape of it’s more expensive LP brethren, a yellow to dark brown sunburst finish, a wraparound compensated tailpiece that almost ensured inaccurate intonation, one P-90 pickup, and single volume and tone controls. The Junior was an immediate success, but it wasn’t until years later that the it really reached it’s potential in the hands of guitarists like Leslie West, Keith Richards, Mick Ralphs, Steve Howe, Luther Grosvenor, aka Ariel Bender, Tony Clarke of The Hollies, Johnny Thunders of The New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers, John Mellencamp, and later on, Paul Westerberg of The Replacements, plus many, many others. And yours truly, along with Junior collector extraordinaire and owner of BCR Music, Greg Platzer.
In 1955, Les Paul himself suggested another color option for the Junior, a wheat-colored shade of beige that was meant to look presentable on black & white television. The aptly named TV finish was adopted by Gibson, but was never produced in large amounts.
The two Junior models got a facelift in 1959, when the body received a second cutaway, the sunburst finish was dropped, and a see through cherry finish was adopted in its place. The TV finish took on a more yellow hue and both models received a tortoiseshell pickguard.
In 1961, Les Paul’s contract was about to expire in the middle of his drawn out divorce from Mary Ford, so a mutual decision was made to take Les’s name off all Gibson guitars, abandon the single cutaway body shape on all Les Pauls, and adopt the now-familiar bat-like SG (solid guitar) shape, a body style Les frankly hated. Unable to use Les’s name, Juniors were respectively renamed the SG Junior and SG TV. The Junior retained the cherry finish, but the TV model received a new white coat of paint replacing the beige color. Vibrato units were optional on both models.
The Les Paul Junior went underground and out of fashion for several years, as Fender guitars became the weapon of choice for many early ‘60’s rock and surf bands. The British Invasion likewise did little to revive the Junior’s popularity. It wasn’t until Leslie West started using LP Juniors with Mountain, that the model began a renaissance that continues to this day.
“The Les Paul Junior is a tree with a pickup on it,” said West to this author. “I was in the studio with Felix Pappalardi and the guitar I had wouldn’t stay in tune. Felix handed me a Junior and said, ‘Play this. It’ll stay in tune.’ It did, and from then on, I was hooked on Juniors. I never understood why people complained that it had only one pickup. I could roll off the treble and get that nice “woman tone” out of it, or I could play it full on. It’s just a basic guitar that plays great. I still have two; a red SG Junior and sunburst single cut. I gave one to Pete Townshend and another to a friend of mine. I tried a double cutaway Junior once but it kept going flat and sharp on me because the neck moved around.”
Through the seventies and eighties, the Junior remained a sleeper. Gibson chose not to reissue the model during this time. While prices of vintage Les Pauls began to escalate as guitarists snatched up vintage guitars, the Junior remained a bargain. This writer remembers ogling vintage sunburst Juniors at Tom Barth’s Music Box, the first vintage guitar store in northern New Jersey. They were priced at $350, which was out of financial reach for me at the time. Even through the nineties and into the first part of the new millennium, Junior prices remained on the low side.
In the mid-nineties, Gibson finally reissued the Junior, but with changes to the original design. Gone was the wraparound tailpiece, and in its place were an ABR-1 style bridge and a stop tailpiece. Schaller style tuners were used in place of the original Klusons. Both single and double cut versions were produced, but the colors were often wrong or mismatched. Sunburst finishes appeared on double cut models and see through cherry finishes appeared on single cut Juniors. The TV finish was no longer a wheat color, but a “French’s mustard yellow” as I like to call it. The guitars were playable, but hardly exciting. They didn’t last long.
The Gibson Custom shop offered both single and double cut Juniors from the late nineties through 2005. In 2006, Gibson introduced the VOS series (Vintage Original Specs) that included both single and double cut Juniors with correct features, electronics and finishes. Finally, Gibson got it right, but as might be expected, it took them decades to do it.
Another relatively new Gibson Junior is the Nashville series, one of 2007’s Guitars of the Week. This double cut Junior was produced in a worn white finish with a questionable floral pickguard that sold for about $699, street price. The body isn’t as thick as a standard Junior, and in this author’s opinion, it’s not a particularly exciting guitar.
Gibson made a standard production line Junior until last year. It had an incorrect orange to brown sunburst finish that was apparently available only though Musician’s Friend or Guitar Center. Another production Junior is now available and is a more faithful reproduction with a correct sunburst finish. The neck is chunky and it’s a solid reinterpretation of the original.
In 2007, Gibson released the Billie Joe Les Paul Junior, a signature guitar for Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day. Armstrong is among the new legion of young musicians who are Junior players. Available in traditional sunburst, black and white, the guitar features a slimmer sixties type neck, and an H-90 pickup in place of the P-90. I own one of these guitars and can say with confidence that it’s the best playing, best sounding Junior I have ever owned. The sound of the Billie Joe is classic Junior; mid-range single coil nirvana and the harmonics are absolutely deadly. The guitar just plays and sounds great and stays in tune better than any other guitar I own. Thank you, Gibson, for getting this one right.
Greg Platzer, owner of BCR Music in Pennsylvania and no stranger to this forum, is a self-proclaimed “Les Paul Junior Whore” who has owned between 250-270 vintage Juniors. Here’s Greg’s take on the Junior: “The first time I saw a Les Paul Junior, it was bouncing off of Johnny Thunders. I was 10, the New York Dolls were happening, and Johnny personified ROCK STAR to me. His TV Junior was the most amazing guitar to my eyes. I had been playing for a year, but had never seen such a simple, straightforward and perfect guitar. The color KILLED me. Soon after, I saw the Stones, and Keef had a TV Junior. That was IT! Some guys crave Sunbursts, some black guard Teles, some Strats. I’ve had all of them, but Juniors are my favorites. No other guitar is such a simple, purposeful and pure instrument to me. A few years later, I was at an apartment of one of my older sister’s work friends. This girl’s new husband had a cherry Junior leaning against the couch. I asked to play it, and he handed it to me. FINALLY, I had a Junior in my hands! It felt amazing (especially compared to the crappy Univox Les Paul Standard copy that I was in the process of turning into toothpicks by banging away every day). I told him that I wanted a Junior of my own, and he laughed and wished me good luck.”
To make a long story short, Greg wound up buying that very guitar years later and still cherishes it. The esteemed Mr. Platzer continues……..“Juniors have everything you need to play; a body; neck; bridge; pickup; volume and tone controls and THAT’S IT. The only vanity is the pickguard, which serves more to cover the ugly neck tenon than to protect the guitar. Let’s take a look at a Junior and I’ll explain why they are almost perfect; the body is one solid piece of Honduras mahogany. Wonderful tone wood, typically very light (some of my Juniors are around 6 lbs, none are over 8!) The Honduras mahogany neck is big, filling the hand quite comfortably, and the Brazilian rosewood fingerboard is usually nicer than any premium ‘board on a modern guitar. The neck joint is the key; the neck enters the body full width, not cut down to some fractional bit. Since there is no neck pickup, there is no rout, so the joint is the most perfect and strongest neck joint in guitardom. SOLID, baby! This helps make Juniors incredibly resonant, and tough customers in the hands of a good player. The headstock joint is prone to breakage. The truss rod nut rout takes away critical amounts of wood and is a weak spot to begin with. Easily a third of the Juniors that I have owned (which is about 250 to 270 individual instruments down through the years) have had some sort of separation or crack. Ironically, my main TV, Ol’ Yeller, a battle scarred 1959, has had two headstock repairs, the second one by me. It’s so amazingly resonant that it rivals some acoustics in volume, and the repairs have contributed to that by solidifying the weak spot increasing harmonic transference. The big, fat P-90 has a ton of tones when the volume and tone controls are used. Those that claim that a single pickup guitar is limited tonally have yet to play a 50’s Junior. Unlike any other guitar that I have owned, Juniors offer an unparalleled combination of simplistic yet solid construction, tonal versatility and sheer rock and roll asthetics. Perfect, for me. The Junior Whore of the Century.”
This author prefers single cut Juniors for reasons not dissimilar to Greg’s and it proves the old assumption that most guitarists are influenced by the earliest heroes. I first saw Leslie West and Mountain at the Fillmore East in 1970, and I’ll never forget hearing and seeing that sunburst Junior. To me, it was the coolest guitar I had ever seen, and in Leslie’s hands, the nastiest sounding beast I had ever heard. It was so simple, so perfect. I played in a band in college with a guitarist who owned a mint ’56 TV Junior that I later bought and foolishly sold, and I have also owned several ’57 sunburst Juniors and a ’60 cherry red double cut. Like Greg, I was completely won over by the simplicity, sound and looks of the Junior, and it’s a love affair that continues to this day. Like Greg, I own other guitars, and still like my Strat, Tele, Gretsch Anniversary, Rickenbacker 12-string, my Danelectros and others…but for sheer rock ‘n roll raunch, nothing even comes close to Junior.
Today, the LP Junior is well regarded by players and collectors alike as a near-perfect rock ‘n roll machine, and a truly iconic guitar. And of course, the price of vintage Juniors has risen steadily over the last several years along with their popularity. All TV models are now well into five figures, but cherry red double cuts can be had for $6-9K, and single cut sunbursts generally go for about the same depending on condition. Any guitar with a neck repair goes for less, of course.
Most Les Paul lovers treasure their flamed Sunbursts, Goldtops and Customs, but for many of us, the Junior is the ultimate rock ‘n roll guitar.