Touched by the hand of “God”…

Eric Clapton’s “Beano” Album Gibson Les Paul Standard

AS claims to legendary status go, the story of Clapton’s “Beano Burst” Les Paul puts it right up there with the best of them. Right up there…
The instrument Clapton played on “John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton” (aka “the Beano album”) is credited with setting a benchmark for guitar tone for years afterwards. It helped to cement Clapton’s status as an almost literal deity among guitarists – around the time of the album’s release in 1966 the phrase “Clapton is God” was definitely to be found spray-painted on walls across London.
Then, in 1966, even as the sound of this beautiful instrument was still making major waves across the world, the guitar itself disappeared, never to be seen again* –  stolen from a rehearsal room as Clapton,  Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce worked to put together the nascent Cream.
An instrument that changed the music world, made its owner’s reputation, then vanished into thin air – truly the stuff upon which legends are built!

Clapton on the cover of the Mayall album famous for his playing, his sound…and his reading matter!

The first thing to know about this guitar is that although it is often referred to as a 1960 Les Paul, speculation remains as to whether it was really a 1959 or 1960 model. It’s impossible to know for sure from the available photos. Clapton never bothered to make a note of the serial number, but he talked about it having a very slim neck, making it more likely to have been made in 1960, when slimmer necks were the norm.  Either way, it was definitely built during what is now regarded as the supreme “golden age” of classic, collectible (and insanely valuable) Les Pauls – the last two years of production before Gibson stopped making them.

Clapton in the studio during the album sessions – the exposed white and black bobbins on the pickups are clearly visible.

One identifier is that at some stage, Clapton removed the chromed metal covers from the pickups, leaving the coils exposed. On the “Beano” guitar, the exposed plastic bobbins on the bridge pickup are black, while the neck pickup’s bobbins are white.  It’s the stuff of nightmares for the purist vintage guitar collector – but a sensible and practical move for an innovative working guitarist in search of better tone.
Ironically, though, by the time these classic “golden era” Les Paul Standards rolled out of the old Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, hardly anyone was buying them. The original single-cutaway Les Paul, a thick slab of mahogany, capped with a carved maple top, had remained broadly unchanged since the first models left of the factory in 1952. Cosmetics, hardware and electronics had slowly evolved, but by 1960, the Les Paul was considered heavy, old-fashioned and un-hip in a world where Fender increasingly  ruled the roost.

Innovator – Les Paul

In an effort to win back market share, Gibson ordered a complete redesign and came up with a lighter, more streamlined “Les Paul model”. The resulting guitar proved popular with thousands of players down the years, but failed to impress the man whose name it bore.  Jazz guitarist and innovator Les Paul (born Lester Polsfuss – that’s why Les Pauls are sometimes referred to as “Lesters”) had been key in the design, development and promotion of  the original Les Paul in the early 1950s. But he wasn’t even consulted about the new design. He seems to have taken a strong dislike to it, criticising its construction as unsound and its pointy horns for making it uncomfortable to play. So he refused to lend it his name – even foregoing the $5-a-guitar royalty Gibson was contracted to pay him for life!
That’s one story, anyway. Another is that at the time, Paul was in the midst of a divorce from wife and erstwhile musical partner, Mary Ford, and asked for his name to be removed, so his royalty wouldn’t be counted as an asset in the divorce settlement
The truth is anyone’s guess, but he was clearly sticking to the first version in this interview…–WfCGMg

Early (and now very rare and valuable) examples of the new guitar were sold with Paul’s name engraved on the truss rod cover before Gibson re-tooled and remarketed the guitar as the more prosaic SG (Solid Guitar) – a grossly unimaginative name for what was, by any measure, a fine instrument.
Personally, I’ve never got on with SGs. That small, light body never looked or felt right hanging on a strap on my body – which unfortunately, is neither small, nor light! However, SG players have made some truly great music down the years – from Matt Murphy and Pete Townsend, to Tony Iommi and Angus Young, to Paul Weller – not forgetting, of course, Mr Clapton himself!

Pioneer – Mike Bloomfield with his Les Paul Standard

Returning to the original Les Paul design, though, it took barely five years for the fashion pendulum to swing back again. By the mid-60s, “classic” Les Pauls were at the cutting edge, in the hands of players such as Chicago-based Butterfield Blues Band guitarist Mike Bloomfield and our Eric.
It took two or three years, but eventually, in 1968, Gibson cottoned on and started making Lesters again. Since then, the classic Les Paul has never been out of production…and Les Paul’s royalties resumed, albeit at a renegotiated rate.
The mid-60s… what a time to be alive and to be a musician in swinging London!
Andy Summers, who finally made it big in the 70s with The Police, was a jobbing guitarist on the London circuit in 1965-6 and sometimes gigged alongside Clapton. In his rather good memoir, “One Train Later”, Summers recalls Clapton paying £80 for the “Beano” Les Paul in 1965. It was one of two Les Paul Standards in Lew Davis’s guitar shop on Charing Cross Road – a central London thoroughfare where at one time, a dozen or more music shops could be found. Summers, a long-standing Telecaster player, bought  the other Les Paul and used it for a while. After the “Beano” guitar was stolen, he ended up lending it to Clapton, who played it in the early days of Cream, including on “Spoonful” and “I Feel Free” on the “Fresh Cream” album. After a period stashed under his bed, Summers eventually sold the guitar to Clapton.

Doppelganger – Clapton with the Les Paul he borrowed from Andy Summers

Listening now to the dozen tracks which make up the “Beano” album (I’m doing so as I write), it’s hard to fully appreciate the full impact Clapton’s playing – and the sound of that Les Paul – had on the mid-60s listener. The power, passion and originality of his playing remains little short of outstanding, but since it has had such a strong influence what came after it, it’s easy now to hear it as rather less remarkable.
But imagine hearing it for the first time without the filter of 50 years’ worth of imitators. Clapton’s “Beano” chops are immaculate. His vibrato is strong and controlled, his string-bending accurate and his note choice tasteful and hard to fault, blending the styles of heroes as diverse as all three Kings (Freddie, Albert and BB), Otis Rush. Hubert Sumlin and Buddy Guy. There are many of fans who think Clapton’s playing – certainly his blues playing – was never as good as this.

Classic – the back cover of “John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton”

The sound of that old Les Paul, plugged straight into one of the early Marshall amplifiers, a 35-watt JTM-45 combo with a pair of KT66 power valves driving two 12-inch Celestion speakers, is unmistakable. The humbucking pickups on that Les Paul Standard were powerful – less so than many modern pickups, but still with enough clout to force the amp to overdrive in a very musical way when it was turned up loud.
All through the 1950s and early 1960s, amp designers had striven to design amplifiers that were loud, but didn’t distort – think Hank Marvin’s famous Vox AC30 Shadows tone. But the young 60s blues guys wanted dirt! The Chicago blues records they listened to featured guitarists plugged into small amps turned right up. Whether the Chicago guys did it deliberately to get a particular sound, or simply because small amps were all they had and they had to turn up to be heard is debatable. 
Equally debatable is whether Clapton used a Dallas Arbiter Rangemaster treble boost pedal on the “Beano” album to push the amp even harder. To my ears, the sound you hear on that album is a guitar, a cable and amp being run hard, nothing more, nothing less…Clapton’s guitar parts were clearly recorded LOUD!
Being a Fender amp nut, I’ve never been much of a one for Marshall amps, but there is definitely something special about plugging a Gibson guitar with humbuckers into a good Marshall amp and winding up the wick – whether your neighbours agree is a different matter!

Winning combination – a modern Les Paul Standard reissue with a classic JTM45 Marshall combo

Another factor in the sound on the record is Clapton’s judicious use of the guitar’s tone controls. A Les Paul Standard has two pickups, each with a volume and a tone control. The tone control works by progressively short-circuiting part of the signal from the pickups to ground via a small electronic component called a capacitor, which only allows certain, lower frequencies to pass through. Clapton’s famous “woman” tone comes from selecting the neck pickup and winding off about three-quarters of the tone. Those who know about vintage guitars say this only works properly with guitars wired the way late 50s Gibsons were. They used a particular type of capacitor, known (because of its stripes) as a “bumblebee” and not found on most modern Gibsons. So if you want your Les Paul to sound truly authentic, you need to reach for the soldering iron!
*Quite a few reports of the stolen “Beano” Les Paul’s  whereabouts have surfaced over the years, further  adding to the guitar’s mythical status. None, however, has ever been authenticated.
The fact Clapton borrowed and later bought Andy Summers’s very similar Standard after his was stolen has led to some confusion and misidentification of that particular instrument, which also seems to have been lost some time in the late 1960s after suffering a headstock break.

Close, but no cigar – Bernie Marsden with his original 1959 Les Paul Standard 9-1914 ‘The Beast’ and the 2013 Gibson Custom Collector’s Choice Number 8 ‘The Beast’ Replica

Another instrument sometimes claimed to be the missing “Beano” Les Paul is the Standard owned by former Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden and known as “the Beast”. It’s a very similar instrument. In a magazine interview a couple of years ago, Marsden said: “I was told, back in 1974, that there was a Clapton connection with my guitar, but I knew it couldn’t be the one.
“The Beano Les Paul was stolen, and was a ’60, according to Eric. The Beast is a ’59, and had never had the pickup covers removed. It’s got a fatter neck, so wouldn’t  be a ’60. So it wasn’t  the ‘Beano’ Les Paul, but it did have that Clapton connection. But it’s always been a strange rumor. Whenever I play something off the ‘Bluesbreakers’ album, people always say that sounds like Eric Clapton’s guitar.”

Joe Bonamassa reading Beano comic in tribute to Clapton

More intriguing still are the reports from 2017 that American blues-rocker and uber-gearhead Joe Bonamassa was claiming he knew who had the “Beano” Les Paul. Bonamassa has refused to disclose who has the guitar, beyond saying he knows it’s with a private collector.
He told Guitarist magazine: “It’s a ’59, not a ’60. It’s got double-white [humbucker] in the front and it’s got a double-black [in the bridge].
“It has a pretty plain top and it is in a collection on the East Coast of America. That’s all I can tell you -and that’s all I will say. It still exists and I haven’t seen it, but I have it on good authority from people who have. And it’s got the little ‘fingerprint’ by the pots and they can trace it back.”
“I don’t know if Clapton would even want it back at this point. Truth be told, would he even recognize it 50 years on? I guess so. Maybe it’d be different if he’d scratched his name on the back of the headstock or had recorded the serial number.”
Bonamassa’s an incredibly able and dexterous player, but remains a controversial figure, especially in the blues world whose rockier fringes he inhabits. Many find his playing overblown and note-heavy, and the hype surrounding his promotional bandwagon vulgar and rather distasteful. Having said that, there’s no doubt he knows a great deal about old guitars. He has a vast collection of vintage guitars, including any number of old Les Pauls. He also has the contacts and the money to delve into such mysteries as the riddle of the missing “Beano” guitar.  What would he have to gain by lying about something as fundamental as this? It’s certainly an appealing thought that this important instrument might show up one day…

Recreation – a modern Gibson Custom Shop “Beano” Les Paul” reissue. Clapton paid £80 for his guitar. One of these will set you back about £6,000!

In common with most mere mortals, I’ve never played a real “golden age” Les Paul – Clapton’s or otherwise. Aside from a brief dalliance with a rather tasty Les Paul Special in the late 1990s, I’ve never actually owned a real Gibson Les Paul of any vintage – though I have had custody of a couple of nice Goldtops, a 69 and a 72, belonging to a dear friend. By all accounts, the highly-sought-after Japanese “lawsuit” Greco Les Paul copy I bought in California last year is pretty close to the real thing. It’s certainly a damned good guitar – the equal of any Les Paul I’ve played and I’m happy to settle for that.
If, however. the “Beano” Les Paul were suddenly to show up on my doorstep, it would be a hell of a find at all sorts of levels. Never mind the intimidating notion of laying hands on an instrument  worth the equivalent of a large house in the country, imagine having the chance to plug it into an old Marshall, turn up the volume and rattle through “Hideaway” (or my indifferent version of it, anyway) or hit those ringing minor notes at the start of the solo in the middle of “All Your Love”

Yep. I think that’d do me! 🙂

Good enough for me – my Greco Les Paul Standard

Published by 43guitarsandcounting

I'm a musician, studio owner, writer and former specialist broadcaster of far too many years experience. I started writing and posting this daily blog on Facebook at the beginning of the Lockdown for something to do and it took me something like 19 days to run out of guitars to talk about!

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