The Goldtop’s Little Brother

Billie Joe Armstrong
Les Paul Junior

Tough, snotty, and loud, the Les Paul Junior came out snarling in 1954 and has been living up to its name ever since. Designed by Gibson as a low-priced alternative to the Les Paul Goldtop, the Junior was a perfect marriage of big tone and bad attitude, and before long, the younger sibling elbowed its way into the spotlight to claim a sonic space all its own.

The Les Paul Junior was introduced two years after the Goldtop made its debut. With its slab mahogany body, unbound rosewood fretboard, dot position markers, wraparound tailpiece, Kluson strip tuners, dog-ear P-90 pickup, and single volume and tone controls, the sunburst Junior was an entry-level Gibson designed for those who wanted a Les Paul’s tone and quality, but were unable to swing the cost of the Goldtop’s uptown appointments. In 1954, the Junior and Goldtop listed for $99.50 and $225, respectively. The strategy worked: In 1955, the humble Junior became Gibson’s best-selling electric. That year, Junior players were given the option of a new, limed mahogany finish, dubbed “TV Yellow” for its ability to stand out on a black-and-white television screen. When the single-cutaway Junior was reborn with double cutaways and given a cherry finish in 1958, the guitar gained an even larger audience.

But it wasn’t until the ’60s—and the advent of 100-watt tube heads and 4x12 cabinets—that the Junior revealed its devastating potential. Rockers discovered that when the Junior was cranked, its mahogany body and hot single-coil P-90 produced powerful, throaty tones that were simply unavailable from any other 6-string, regardless of price. Guitarists were also amazed to find that even when they were blasting through a cranked tube amp, if they backed off the volume knob slightly, the Junior’s P-90 would shift from a raw howl to a bright, glassy shimmer. Combining bone-headed simplicity and surprising versatility, the Junior quickly became the instrument of choice for bluesy rockers and their punk offspring.

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