The mystery of the Gibson Les Paul Silverburst
The guitar industry is rife with intrigue, driven by artists whose style and technique bolsters the mythos of the equipment they use. The Gibson Les Paul Custom in its rare Silverburst finish has long been a source speculation, thanks to a player who helped elevate it to the upper echelons of the vintage guitar market, Tool’s Adam Jones.
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But between online rumours and Jones’s wild claims, it’s tough to discern what’s truth and what’s myth. With the help of Gibson’s director of brand experience Mark Agnesi, we tried to find out.
Image: Justin Beckner
The original run of Silverburst Les Paul Customs have a unique history. Some have claimed that the Silverburst design came about as a way to celebrate the 1979 25th (silver) anniversary of the Les Paul, which came out in 1954.
The timing certainly works out, with Silverburst Les Pauls produced from September 1978 until 1982. However, it’s rumoured that a prototype Silverburst was developed in 1977.
“Silverburst”, of course, refers to the guitars’ finish. Gibson estimates that between 150 and 200 Silverburst Les Pauls were made during the model’s original run. However, although Gibson kept track of its production numbers, it didn’t record the paint used to finish its guitars, so there’s no way to know for sure.
Progressive-metal pioneer Adam Jones currently owns several original-run Silverbursts, as well as a few recent Gibson recreations. His main squeeze is a 1979.
Jones has offered many reasons for why he’s so attached to the sound and aesthetic of the Silverburst. He’s said there’s a nail embedded in the wood, which lends the guitar a special tone. He’s claimed that the metal flakes in the paint oxidise, giving the guitars a haunting greenish hue. He’s insisted that the paint makes the Silverburst heavier than other Les Pauls…
Then again, Jones has also claimed to keep his amplifiers in the freezer, and is known for taking the piss out of journalists who try to uncover the safely guarded secrets of his tone.
Still, fervour and speculation around the nature of the Silverburst has festered in online forums for decades. Is there any truth to any of it?
Image: Justin Beckner
The weight of silver
We toured the Gibson factory with Mark Agnesi in the summer of 2021, at which time Gibson had recently dug into the Silverburst phenomenon when they produced Jones’s signature 1979 replicas. When asked about Jones’s claims about the Silverburst, Agnesi was clear.
“I don’t know what it is,” he said, “but they’re all about two pounds heavier than a standard Les Paul Custom.”
The average weight of a Les Paul is between nine and 12 pounds. The Silverbursts we’ve seen and analysed certainly sat on the heavier side of that spectrum – but that’s not a huge deviation from Les Paul Customs of the same era.
Even slight weight differences can have a demonstrable effect on a guitar’s tone. But what’s causing the weight difference on the Silverburst?
We can confirm that the original Silverbursts were made with the same wood as standard Les Paul Customs of the era. However, although most modern Silverbursts have mahogany necks, the original-run guitars featured maple necks.
Many have claimed that Silverbursts were built using inferior/heavy wood, or at least wood with less flattering grain patterns. There may be some truth to this. Solid-colour finishes can hide blemishes and unappealing grain patterns, with the prettiest pieces of wood generally reserved for finishes on which it will be visible. However, we’re not certain that the tone of the wood would be drastically different from the woods used on a Sunburst, for example.
Some have claimed that the paint used on Silverbursts was heavier because it was automotive paint, the silver having been lifted from the Buick catalogue. By the late 1970s, automotive paint had already been used on guitars for many years by Fender and Gibson, and there’s nothing particularly special about the paint, flake, or the clearcoat that was used on the Silverbursts.
When I have sprayed metal-flake paint on vehicles, I typically add an extra layer or two of clearcoat because it helps when buffing the finish down. You don’t want to wear through the clearcoat with a buffing wheel on a metal-flake job.
We watched the Gibson painters apply several burst and non-burst finishes, and saw no drastic difference in the amount of paint applied to a Silverburst compared to any other. So what’s causing this difference in weight?
Many myths surrounding the Silverburst centre around its metal-flake paint. Once upon a time, painters used fish scales to create the sparkling flake effect associated with Silverbursts. But in the days of the Silverburst’s original production, these flakes were typically made of chromed aluminium. (These days, we typically use chromed polyester.
Although aluminium isn’t magnetic, we can’t rule out these flakes having an effect on the tone. Theories abound about aluminium and its influence on magnetics, even if it’s not magnetic itself. Jones seems convinced by them.
In a 2019 interview with Guitar World, Jones said, “I believe that particular metallic paint does something to the tone or the resonance or the polarity somehow.
The effect that aluminium may have on magnetic fields has more to do with the reflecting and shielding of the fields than anything else. But the magnetic field is weak and what little amount of aluminium there is in the metal-flake paint of Jones’s 1979 Silverburst is highly unlikely to have an effect on the tone.
As for the guitar’s greenish hue, that is caused by nitrocellulose clearcoat ageing, not the silver or black paint beneath. It’s also common among other Customs of the era.
Image: Justin Beckner
Myths and legends
Realistically, there is much more to Jones’s tone than the paint job on his guitar. And while we can’t deny that the veil of myth that surrounds his gear makes it that much more enticing, the evidence doesn’t support any conclusion other than that Silverbursts were simply Les Paul Customs with a unique paint job and an intriguing history.
Gibson’s recent limited run of ’79 Silverbursts modelled after Jones’s main instrument were built using carefully selected woods, chosen to best replicate the weight and resonant properties of Jones’s own. The painting and finishing was done by the Murphy Lab and the results are incredibly accurate. Even Jones said he struggles to see the difference between them.
We know, then, that whatever magic surrounded the original Silverbursts can indeed be replicated today. Further proof, then, that the original run was simply a batch of high-quality instruments, and that their legendary status came about in part thanks to the myths spread by and surrounding Jones and Tool.
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