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The Power of the ’Burst: VOS Sunburst Les Paul Reissues

Dave Hunter

1958 Les Paul Standard VOS Washed CherryWhat’s the value of a coat of paint? Almost incalculably high, according to many of today’s players and collectors of vintage electric guitars. We have already examined the constructional fine points and accuracy of Gibson’s VOS Les Pauls  in another Gibson feature, but the iconic nature of these guitars’ finishes deserves a little more attention. The Les Paul Standard of 1958-’60 is acknowledged as being the most desirable electric guitar on the vintage market, and the only significant factor that distinguishes a ’58 Les Paul from the ’57 Les Paul that came before it is its translucent Cherry Sunburst finish. Sound a little crazy? The proof is in the pricing. Peruse the listings of vintage guitar dealers today and you’ll find that an original 1957 Les Paul Goldtop with PAF humbuckers sells for anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 whereas any 1958-’60 sunburst Les Paul in reasonably original condition will fetch $200,000 and beyond (often way beyond). There’s gold in those few ounces of cherry and amber nitrocellulose lacquer, no doubt.

Fortunately, as well as recreating the feel and tone of the great vintage Les Pauls in its VOS range, Gibson has also accurately recreated a range of finish appearances, which represent the different states of existing examples of semi-faded to seriously-faded sunburst Les Pauls. On the vintage market, the crucial determining factors in the value of a 1958-’60 Les Paul are the condition of its finish and the degree of figuring in the grain of its maple top, far more so than its sound or playability. Thanks to the consistency of the Gibson Custom Shop, players can be assured that every VOS Les Paul model not only looks superb, but plays and sounds at the top of its game, too. It’s the whole package—stunning looks, unparalleled playability and tone—and all in a guitar that has the appearance of a $250,000 vintage masterpiece, but one you can afford to take out and gig night after night.

Check out the 1958 Les Paul Standard VOS for example; while the constructional specs of the instrument are consistent, it is available in three different degrees of finish “fade:” Faded Tobacco, Washed Cherry, and Iced Tea. Each is a term that has evolved in the common parlance of aficionados of vintage Les Pauls, and describes the balance of red, brown, and amber hues present in the finish, all of which started life as vibrant cherry-red sunbursts at the Gibson factory in 1958-’60, but faded to a range of lush and varied patinas with exposure to light, the elements, and the inevitable ravages of time.

Class 5 Quilt Les PaulEach has its appeal, and the degree of desirability in the range really depends upon personal preference. The Faded Tobacco finish runs from a rich, almost chocolatey brown at the edges of the guitar’s top toward a deep goldenrod hue at its center, often via the faintest transitional halo of cherry. At its outer edges Washed Cherry remains distinctly red, although a red that has been softened and mellowed by the years, and transitions toward a medium yellow at the guitar’s center. Perhaps the most illusive of all, the Iced Tea sunburst rolls from a deep, multidimensional gold-hued brown cherry at the binding to a mellow amber at the center—as smooth and visually refreshing as a glass of sweet tea, as it happens.

Of course the Gibson Custom Shop’s finishing process mirrors that of the factory circa 1958-’60 as closely as possible too. All VOS Les Pauls receive a thinner finish—nitrocellulose lacquer, naturally—which is applied, sanded, and buffed much the way it was back in the day. The result is a guitar that not only looks like the original article, but which breathes and resonates more like a 50-year-old vintage instrument as well. Beneath it all, of course, will lie a varying degree of appealing flame, quilting, or tiger striping—figured maple made into works of art in a range of bookmatched tops, no two quite the same. Or, for the ultimate in rippling motion and three-D beauty, investigate the Custom Shop’s Class 5 Quilt Les Paul, an unrivaled celebration of the rarest stocks of figured maple.

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