The Gibson Les Paul Supreme:
Creative Origins of a New LP Model

By Mike Slubowski

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Those who write about the history of various guitar models are often handicapped by the lack of historic documentation in guitar company archives. Thus, one must do a lot of detective work, assembling of various documents, looking at guitar samples, and talking to many people, until a plausible theory of history emerges. After all, most guitar companies are all about designing and building great guitars, not about assembling documentation or creating historical records and artifacts for the history books. So when the opportunity to learn about the origins of a new Les Paul came along, I jumped at the opportunity to bring it to you.
The Les Paul Supreme was unveiled at the January 2003 NAMM show, and was an immediate hit with show participants. Orders for the guitar began to accumulate, and filling these orders was delayed somewhat as Gibson worked to obtain needed supplies and to refine its production techniques for the guitar. The pipeline of manufactured guitars began to hit stores this summer.

As a limited run of 2003 instruments, the Les Paul Supreme features a highly figured maple on the back as well as the top. The Supreme has a chambered mahogany body, and features a custom binding on top, back, fingerboard and headstock and split-block inlays on an ebony fingerboard. It has a unique headstock inlay, which is an abalone globe with pearloid “Supreme” banner.

The guitar has an ebony fretboard, gold frets, Grover keystone tuners, brass truss rod cover, and 490R/498T alnico humbucking pickups. One of the most unique features of the Supreme is that there is no control cavity cover or switchplate on the back of the guitar.
Jeff Allen, Gibson USA’s General Manager, recently wrote a bit of history of the Les Paul Supreme model, and was willing to give this detailed report to the Les Paul Forum:

“We started out with the intention of creating a truly new Les Paul. Most Les Pauls that have been introduced in the last 30 years have been color changes and minor cosmetic improvements, but no new designs.

Several times in the last two years we (Keith Medley-engineer, Tom Montgomery-plant manager, and myself, Jeff Allen-General manager) have discussed the desire to create a new Les Paul, but it had to be at the high end, not low end of the market spectrum. To really create a Les Paul that is a step above the crowd, we knew we had to pull out all the stops.

The idea for the carved back came about in a very informal general brainstorming session held in my office. We decided a carved flame back to match the top would be all we needed to achieve our objective. However, once we started kicking ideas around, several more improvements came to mind. I had given the challenge to eliminate all of the access pockets or routing of any kind on the back of the guitar. I wanted the beautiful flame to show without any of the plastic pocket covers showing. This was the most difficult part of the design for our engineer, Keith Medley. But, in a few weeks he found a way to assemble the guitar electronics without the pockets. He started to toy with the idea of the jack hole access as a means of entry into the CPA pocket. We tried to squeeze smaller pots in the existing jack hole space and assemble it like an ES style set up; but it was going to be too confined, even for the best final assembly veteran we've got.
We used the same size mahogany thickness that we use on our Standards and Customs, for the creamy center, with the intent of routing chambers and gluing a maple back on top of the chambers. This would make it thick enough on the inside to handle the height of our current brand of pots so we could keep sound continuity with our other models. To help balance the weight and adjust some sound qualities, we designed a series of large chambers throughout the body, leaving rim thickness reasonable but not too thick.
The 3-way switch needed access to the CPA pocket for wiring. We designed the internal cavity routings to provide wiring access to the pickups and pots. After the chamber was drawn in, it was time to tackle the wiring. By routing the 3-way switch channel a bit wider and going the full depth of the mahogany blank, it allowed us to run the wire through the rhythm pickup cavity.
From there, it traveled unhindered from the switch area, down past the pickup cavities, to the slightly over- sized rectangular jack hole. We knew we were going to have a hard time installing the pots without a back cavity. By cutting out a rectangular hole in place of the round 7/8" jack hole in the body, just big enough to slip one of our long pots in diagonally, we were able to make it work. Through trial and error it became evident that the only practical way to wire this up was to separate it into parts: (1) install the switch by running the wire through the rhythm pickup down to the jack hole; (2) with your fingers, use the room from the over sized wire slot to place the 3-way switch in the top bout chamber, over to the switch hole, where you can get a nut on it and secure it.
 The maple back and maple top are glued up and the chambers routed out, top carved, bound and shaped before the maple back is glued on.
I started tossing around names for this project and landed on LP Supreme, keeping with a “top of the line” name for a Les Paul. I also designed the banner/globe inlay for the head veneer, and passed this information to our engineer, Keith, who created a prototype of the headstock veneer by hand. We used this prototype as a template for our head veneer manufacturer to produce the production run.

Coincidentally, we had a meeting with our fret wire vendor when the salesman tosses out this sample of gold fret wire. It is nickle-free wire that maintains a gold color when the nickel element is removed. Also, through the extrusion process it ends up about 20% harder than regular fret wire. The gold fret wire really added to the “class” look we were going for and matched the hardware color.

The pickups have longer wires, allowing you to solder the pots outside of the body. Ground wires were also insulated and attached to the pots using a slightly heavier gauge wire to help stabilize the assembly while installing. These insulated grounds from each pickup/pot assembly, along with the bridge ground, were gathered outside the body and connected together to be soldered to the jack ground. Everything slides into body, with the jack plate mounted last.”

I hope that you enjoyed these details of the origin of the Les Paul Supreme as much as I did! We now have documentation of the history that led to the creation of this truly unique Les Paul model.

NOTE: As a member of the Les Paul Forum, I am always interested in learning new things about the details and history of Gibson Guitars. Thus, I appreciate any additional information or questions that readers may have about the history of Les Pauls or any other Gibson model. Please contact me at


Credit is given to Jeff Allen, Gibson USA’s General Manager, and Jason Davidson, Gibson Customer Service Manager, for the details that made this article possible.


Mike Slubowski is a Gibson enthusiast, collector, player, and author, with a special passion for Les Pauls.


This article and photos are property of Mike Slubowski. No part of this article may be reproduced without the expressed written permission of the author.

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