Working as both a session guitarist and music educator, I am often asked about whether I have a most‑used or go‑to guitar, and to be honest, the answer is no. Each guitar I have played on a session or a gig has served a different and context‑specific purpose. But if you were to ask me which electric guitar I most pick up when I play for pleasure, not work, I do have an answer, absolutely and definitively, for me, that guitar will always be my Gibson Les Paul Junior.
I still remember the first time I heard one; it was on a classic rock compilation album, and it was a track by the band Mountain, featuring the late, great Leslie West on guitar. I had never heard such a visceral and raw tone and was immediately obsessed with finding out what had been used to get that sound. By chance, shortly afterwards, a guitar magazine published an article on West that described his mastery of the Les Paul Junior guitar. That was it. I was sold; this was an instrument I needed to play. I must confess, it took a long while before I got my hands on one (a story for another day perhaps), but when I did, it certainly didn’t disappoint.
This guitar does me no favours and makes me work harder than any other I have ever played...
Is it the perfect guitar? No, not by any means, if there is such a thing anyway. The wraparound bridge is not known to be the best; some of the necks have been described as feeling like half of a baseball bat; and to top things off, it only has one pickup. But it is precisely this lack of features that I love; this guitar does me no favours and makes me work harder than any other I have ever played; it also doesn’t hide any of the nuances of my playing. I can absolutely see why Leslie West once described these simple, unadorned instruments as being like “a tree with a microphone”.
Admittedly, in some higher‑gain situations, I have had sound engineers and producers complain about the background (and, to be honest, sometimes foreground) hum that emanates from the guitar’s single P90, but this is part of its charm. Not for me, your noiseless pickups. I like the hum; it means the game is afoot; it is a promise of things to come.
I am certainly not alone in my enthusiasm for these guitars; do a quick web search and you’ll find amazing performances on the humble Junior from Steve Howe, Gary Moore, Keith Urban, Ritchie Sambora, Keith Richards, Phil X, and many more. There are even some photos of a young Eddie Van Halen playing one; apparently it was one of his guitars of choice back when a fledgling Van Halen were playing Californian house parties in the mid‑’70s.
I have played lots of guitars in my time, and they all do different things really well, but the one that I reach for when I feel tired or jaded and need to reignite my enthusiasm for all things guitar is my Les Paul Junior. In a world of numerous, perhaps more prestigious guitar choices, it might seem odd that I am so drawn to this scrappy little underdog of an instrument. Then again, perhaps that is precisely why I love it.