In most every area of life, there’s a seeming perpetual second fiddle; someone or something that while garnering a certain amount of acclaim is always viewed as the poor man’s version of whoever, or whatever, is the high profile high roller. This happens a lot in music, where an artist in a given genre no matter their skill or accomplishments is usually written off with a “well, he/she/they is/are okay, but he/she/they will never be as good as so-and-so.” Some artists acknowledge this fate; veteran British mellow progressive rockers Barclay James Harvest self-depreciatingly titled one of their songs “Poor Man’s Moody Blues.”
Keeping with the music theme, various instruments also fall into this perpetual silver medalist category. There are many superb pianos out there, but none have the allure of a Steinway; there are many superb violins, but none have the cachet of a Stradivarius. In a more down to earth category, namely the electric guitar, while the Gibson Les Paul is revered and rocked by players great and small, the Gibson SG is usually relegated to the that’s-nice department, often with a “so you couldn’t afford the real thing, huh?” smirk aimed its owners way (a new standard SG costs $1,650 less than a new standard Les Paul).
The SG was born out of, hard though it may be to believe given the Les Paul’s omnipresence, necessity when in the early 1960s Gibson was faced with a dilemma: no one was buying Les Pauls. Some rethinking and reengineering was called for, with the SG being the result. The SG’s body was noticeably thinner than the Les Paul, with some strategically located beveling incorporated for greater player comfort. Away went the maple top on a mahogany body that was the Les Paul’s normal wood selection; instead, the body was all mahogany. The neck was moved further away from the body, allowing easier access to the upper frets although much to Gibson’s chagrin it became rapidly apparent they had gone overboard as the neck-to-body joint was notoriously weak (this was corrected in the mid 1960s). Electronics and hardware were essentially the same, but the SG’s substantially different construction resulted in a somewhat less bright, more rounded tone than the Les Paul along with less sustain. Gibson discontinued making the Les Paul after 1960, introducing the SG in 1961 initially under the Les Paul name. The real Les Paul — yes, Virginia, there was a man named Les Paul who was a monster guitar player and guitar building innovator — was decidedly nonplussed with the new guitar and requested his name be removed from it. Which happened, the guitar being renamed the SG for solid guitar. Apparently no one at Gibson had any naming ideas that week.
Should one be inclined to peruse music video and concert footage from the 1960s, a fair number of SGs will be spotted. Eric Clapton played one boasting, sort of, a psychedelic paint scheme durin his time with Cream. Pete Townshend of The Who routinely played (and demolished) SGs during the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, the Les Paul was rediscovered during the 1960s, leading Gibson to reintroduce it in 1969 at which point the SG was relegated to “and we still make these too” status.
While the Les Paul is synonymous with rock royalty — Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, Duane Allman, Slash from Guns ‘N Roses, etc etc etc etc etc and a few dozen more etc after that — given how the two guitarists most commonly identified with the SG are Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath and Angus Young of AC/DC, the SG is more commonly associated with underworld pretend deity. Its pointed body tips are oft referred to as “devil’s horns.” Given how the SG is nine times out of ten finished in a medium to dark cherry red, I prefer to think of them as the tips of angel’s wings dipped in the blood of the martyrs. A simultaneously more lofty and sobering identifier.
I own a SG. It’s my favorite guitar to play. With the proper technique you can make it sound good for multiple musical genres, including country, in addition to the blues and rock with which it is normally associated. Does it have the almost unlimited sustain of a Les Paul? No. But it has its own unique, warm sound and you can hold a note for a decent length of time. It’s a dream to play, with low string action and its light weight helping you focus on the music alone rather than wondering if there’s a chiropractor in the house slinging a Les Paul over your shoulder for any length of time suggests.
The SG will never have the panache of a Les Paul. It will never be a status symbol or trophy guitar. Rather, it modestly exists for the sole purpose of enabling music creation.
Which, after all, is the idea behind any musical instrument.