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THE GIBSON LES PAUL GUITAR TRADER
- THE FIRST "TRUE" REISSUE?
By Michael A. Slubowski

First published in Vintage Guitar Magazine's March 2002 Iissue

(ABOVE PHOTO) left to right:
A 1982 Leo's Les Paul, a 1990 Jimmy Wallace Les Paul, a 1982 Jimmy Wallace Les Paul,
a 1982 Guitar Trader, and a 1984 Guitar Trader "Special"
(a Les Paul replica actually built at Guitar Trader, as referenced in this article)

There have been several writings about the history of reissue Les Pauls from the 70's and 80's that attempted to emulate the features of the legendary 1959 Les Paul. The Strings and Things Reissue marked the beginning of the reissue craze, although only 28 were produced from 1975-78. In 1978, Jimmy Wallace began ordering Les Pauls with flame maple tops, mostly for Japanese customers. In 1979, possibly due to rivalry between the Kalamazoo plant and the Nashville plant, the Les Paul KM, or "Kalamazoo Model", was born. Although most of the 1,500 KMs issued had plain sunburst tops and other features that didn't mimic the originals, a limited number were produced with flame tops, most of which were reported to go to Japan. The Nashville plant released the Heritage 80 Les Paul in 1980, with three models (Standard, Elite, and Award). The Standard had a three piece neck, rosewood fingerboard, and flame top, the Elite with one piece neck, ebony fingerboard and quilt top, and the Award with flame top and gold hardware. The Heritage 80's, while fine guitars with pickups designed by Tim Shaw, did not closely emulate their 1959 cousins in cutaway shape, tuners, hardware, weight, and many other details and, in the case of the Standard, the three piece neck. In 1982, Leo's Music in Oakland, California, and Guitar Trader in Red Bank, New Jersey, began ordering reissues with more accurate specs for body shape, tuners, hardware, and neck shape to emulate the coveted 1959 Les Paul.

Among these special order guitars, none had more attention to detail behind it than the Guitar Trader Les Paul. It was dissatisfaction with Gibson's "near misses" on the Les Paul KM and the Heritage 80 Models that prompted Guitar Trader to pursue the development of a reissue Les Paul that more closely approximated 1959 Les Paul specifications. Although details of the history of the Guitar Trader are sketchy, collectors who are careful to search for information can piece together quite a bit about this magnificent 1959 reissue produced in 1982 and 1983.

Based on reprints from Guitar Trader's Vintage Guitar Bulletins from 1982-85, which were written and edited by Timm Kummer, along with details from other collectors, one can understand and appreciate some of the history and details of this model. The degree to which Guitar Trader representatives were obsessed with insuring that these guitars came as close to real 1959 LPs is fascinating, and is at least as interesting as the guitars themselves.

The May, 1982 issue of the Guitar Trader Bulletin includes an ad for "59 Flametop", and indicates that "Guitar Trader and Gibson Guitars announce the ultimate Les Paul reissue", with features such as "dimensions as per 1959 model", "painted on serial number", "original style bridge", and "two piece highly-figured tops personally selected by our luthiers." The pre-production introductory price for this guitar was $1,500, and quickly moved to $1,595 by summer of 1982, topping out at $2,000 in late 1984.


 

The special bonus for early orders was that the first 15-20 instruments would have original 1959 new-old-stock Patent Applied For (PAF) pickups installed from Guitar Trader's inventory of used parts (Kummer actually installed these once receiving the guitars from Gibson). Guitar Trader promised that this would not be a "mass market" item, but rather "an investment for the serious collector," and that no more than 200 of these guitars would be produced. In reality, no more than approximately 46-47 of these guitars were manufactured, including one left-handed model, due to production delays and the closure of the Gibson Kalamazoo plant in mid 1984.

The May, 1982 issue of the Guitar Trader Bulletin includes an ad for "59 Flametop", and indicates that "Guitar Trader and Gibson Guitars announce the ultimate Les Paul reissue", with features such as "dimensions as per 1959 model", "painted on serial number", "original style bridge", and "two piece highly-figured tops personally selected by our luthiers." The pre-production introductory price for this guitar was $1,500, and quickly moved to $1,595 by summer of 1982, topping out at $2,000 in late 1984.

The special bonus for early orders was that the first 15-20 instruments would have original 1959 new-old-stock Patent Applied For (PAF) pickups installed from Guitar Trader's inventory of used parts (Kummer actually installed these once receiving the guitars from Gibson). Guitar Trader promised that this would not be a "mass market" item, but rather "an investment for the serious collector," and that no more than 200 of these guitars would be produced. In reality, no more than approximately 46-47 of these guitars were manufactured, including one left-handed model, due to production delays and the closure of the Gibson Kalamazoo plant in mid 1984.

Dave DeForrest of Guitar Trader made his first trip to Kalamazoo on May 17, 1982 to pick the faces for the first 25 instruments. Dave was very picky about the maple used for the tops and claimed that out of a total of 200 sets of bookmatched maple they selected just 25 suitable pieces. Comments by Gibson officials from Kalamazoo at the time confirm Guitar Trader's fussyness about the flame maple used for the tops. From photos of several Guitar Traders, it appears that highly flamed quartersawn maple was the favored pick for their tops.

Much attention was given to the details of these guitars, as evidenced by Guitar Trader ads. Gibson reproduced several original parts, such as the "rhythm-treble" switch surround with correct gold printing size and width of letters, "Gibson" logos hand-cut on a jig saw with the open "b" and "o" inlayed into original spec white holly headstock veneers.

These guitars also had '59 style serial numbers, real silkscreened "Les Paul Model" logo which was placed very low on the headstock (almost touching the truss rod cover), correct rhythm pickup placement, "old style" electronics and wire, correct output jack position, proper truss rod cover, exact size pickup rings, the original neck angle, and square wiring channels. The peghead, neck and heel were made to templates and specifications of the era, and there was also a special shape and contour to the body. Dark amber pickup selector switch tips were specified, along with the large, dark red side dot markers (Nashville-made LPs of the time had very small black side dot markers). Lightweight mahogany was to be used, so that the average Guitar Trader LP would not weigh more than 8-9 lbs.

At some point in the production process it seems that Guitar Trader was getting a bit frustrated with Gibson on the manufacture of these guitars to their specifications. An article in a Guitar Trader Bulletin that responds to a customer letter regarding delay in delivery of his guitar says "although Gibson seems able to produce the guitar itself with some degree of accuracy, they have thus far been unable or unwilling to reproduce many of the fittings and parts to our high standard. Therefore, among other more minor items, we replace the tailpiece, tune-o-matic bridge, truss rod cover, tuners and bushings, and knobs with very accurate parts that we either have made for us or produce ourselves. In addition, we check out and set up each instrument to our playing standards." In discussion with Kummer, he remembers clipping off the second ring on the double ring Kluson tuner reproductions that were put on several of these Les Paul reissues in order to emulate the single ring Klusons on the original 1959 Les Paul.
In the August, 1982 Guitar Trader Bulletin, it was reported that the first batch of "fully assembled" Les Pauls was ready for finish. Guitar Trader's head repairman, Mike Dresdner, was dispatched to Kalamazoo with an original 1959 Les Paul in hand to check the proposed finish samples and work out the exact shading that Guitar Trader was specifying. The color was to be a match to the nicest LP Standard in their collection, with more ruddy, reddish brown in the three color sunburst than the typical cherry sunburst reissues of the time. The first 19-20 of these guitars were shipped to Guitar Trader in approximately September, 1982.
There were multiple delays in the production of these guitars, due to the shrinking workforce in Kalamazoo and Guitar Trader's frustration with Gibson's ability to obtain wood or other parts that met their specifications. Guitar Trader Bulletins in 1982 and 1983 include letters from customers who felt like they were waiting forever to receive their guitars (after all, they had placed a $750 deposit on them!) A Bulletin from September of 1983 advised customers that, due to there being only 25 employees in Kalamazoo and the amount of custom work involved in manufacture, that these hand-made Les Pauls "will be somewhat slow as a consequence."

 

 

A December 1983 Bulletin advised that they would deliver guitars immediately to everyone with an order date prior to July 1, 1983, with orders after that date anticipating delivery in February of 1984. Perhaps to ameliorate customers who had been waiting for their guitars for a long time, Jim Deurloo, then Plant Manager for Gibson's Kalamazoo factory, wrote a letter dated January 19, 1984 to Guitar Trader customers on Gibson letterhead that detailed the edition of the '59 and '60 Les Paul Standards "custom built to Guitar Trader specifications." This letter was reproduced in a Guitar Trader ad, along with the announcement that the Kalamazoo factory would close by June of 1984 (with the suggestion that customers get their orders in quickly). After the closure of the Kalamazoo plant, Guitar Trader began making their own Les Paul copies, with the headstock logo saying "Guitar Trader" instead of Gibson and the silkscreen as "59 Flametop" instead of Les Paul Model. According to Kummer, only 10-12 of these copies were made before Guitar Trader received a "cease and desist" notice from Gibson.

Unlike the Jimmy Wallace model with its "Jimmy Wallace model" truss rod cover, and Leo's reissues with their unique "L" as the first digit of the serial number, identification of a Guitar Trader Les Paul can be tricky, because without original authentication materials that were issued with the guitars from Guitar Trader, there is no one feature that gives a positive identification. Many collectors believe that a Guitar Trader model is identified by an eight digit serial number in the control cavity. While this is one piece of identifying information for the guitar, the Kalamazoo factory issued other Les Pauls in late 1982 and early 1983 with eight digit serial numbers in the control cavity, including a 1959 reissue run started in 1983 that was primarily exported to Japan and other limited runs with flamed tops. There are dealers with Kalamazoo and even Nashville-made LPs from 1982 and 1983 that are advertising instruments as "Guitar Trader" models simply because they have a serial number on the back of the headstock that begins with "9".

Key features of Guitar Trader Les Pauls that can help with positive identification include:

Small, inked-on serial number on the back of the headstock which is closer to the tuners than the top of the peghead, and is in the "9 09XX" format. As an exception to this, the prototype's serial number was B1 0001, and there were three Guitar Traders made with a "0" as the first digit (1960 reissues), according to Kummer. After the "9" or "0", the next four digits start with "09" and a sequence number after that (e.g., the 20th guitar would have the serial number "9 0920"). The serial number is hard to read since there is not much contrast between it and the dark red finish on the back of the headstock.
There is a serial number stamped on the ridge inside the control cavity in the familiar "YDDDYSSS" format, where "Y" is the year, "DDD" is the day of the year (001 through 365), and "SSS" is the sequence number for production of the day (e.g., the 12th guitar of the day would be "012"). Sequence numbers below "500" denote Kalamazoo production. All of the Guitar Traders that the author has seen were dated 1982 from the Kalamazoo plant. While the Guitar Trader bulletins indicate that production and shipment lingered through 1983 into mid 1984, it is not known at what point during production the serial numbers were placed in the control cavities, but according to Kummer all were likely dated in 1982. All available Guitar Traders that the author and colleagues have seen were stamped on days 172 and 225, suggesting that perhaps there may have been only two batches of these guitars made with approximately 20-25 guitars per batch.

The "Gibson" logo is very high on the headstock, with the open "b" and "o".

The "Les Paul Model" is silkscreened very low on the headstock, almost touching the truss rod cover, and the silkscreen is very pronounced.

The tops on the guitars have beautiful, full flamed maple that goes all the way to the ends (most are quartersawn), with a three color sunburst finish that is more brown in shade than red (an attempt to recreate the fading of red aniline to a ruddy, reddish brown color), except for the prototype, which had a quilt top and more red sunburst finish.

These guitars had Kluson-style single ring tuners, some without engraving and those with engraving say "Gibson Deluxe".

Dark red large side dot markers.

Many Guitar Traders were purchased by collectors, and hence are in excellent or mint condition. The first 15-20 are the most coveted because they have real 1959 PAFs in them, and have been reported to sell for $6,000-$8,000 or more. While there are no firm price guidelines because so few of these guitars have traded hands, even those without PAFs have been known to sell in the $5,000. and higher range because of their rarity. In the case of one Guitar Trader shown in the photos, the serial number is 9 0920, and it may have had real PAFs in it when new, because there were replacement pickups in the guitar when purchased from a dealer located in Japan.

Guitar Traders are light weight, well constructed guitars, with fine attention to detail. Fits and finish are superb. These guitars have a medium thickness neck, and sound and play great, as do most of the Kalamazoo-made Les Pauls of the late 70's and early 80's. In the July, 1998 VG Magazine Q & A with George Gruhn, he states that "these guitars were built to very high standards of quality and have come to be considered collector's items due to their quality as well as their historical appeal as one of the first true historical Les Pauls."

The author would appreciate any additional details or corrections to the information in this article from Guitar Trader owners MikeSlub@aol.com, and will write a follow up article about these fine instruments.

 

Special thanks go to Timm Kummer of MARS Music, Priit Pals, and Gaston Gagnon, who provided additional details for this article.

Mike Slubowski is a health care administrator by day and guitar player/collector by night, with a special passion for Gibson Les Pauls.

Written on: July 31, 2001/Updated August 9, 2001
Michael A. Slubowski
MikeSlub@aol.com

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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