Keith Richards’ 1957 Gibson Les Paul Custom

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Keith first appeared with this guitar on The Ed Sullivan Show aired on September 11th, 1966. He probably bought the guitar some time prior, but due to the lack of any photos or videos from early to mid-1966, we haven’t been able to pinpoint the date exactly. If you happen to know the story behind the guitar, and when and where Keith originally acquired it, please be sure to say it in the comments.

Rolling Stones, the Ed Sullivan Show, 1966

The guitar was used extensively during the late 1966 British tour, which of course included the gig played at the Royal Albert Hall. It continued to be Keith’s main axe in early 1967 and can be seen on January 25th Top of the Pops gig and on various dates during the Rolling Stones 1967 European tour. This includes the last gig of the tour played on April 17th, 1967 in Athens, Greece.

January 25th,1967, Top of the Pops. Keith’s Les Paul seems to be missing the neck pickup at this stage, for an unknown reason.

In Michael Leonard’s feature Satisfaction Guaranteed: Keith Richards’ Favorite Gibsons on Gibson’s website, it is mentioned that Keith’s first Les Paul Custom was stolen during a tour in 1967 and that he bought a new one in London. However, the only tour that Stones did in 1967 was the March–April European tour, at the end of which the band played in Athens, Greece on April 17th. Based on the photos from that gig [The Rolling Stones Live, Panathinaikos Stadium], Keith had the Les Paul with him until the very end of the tour. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the theft didn’t occur, just that all the clues point otherwise. If you have any information that would help clear this up, post it in the comments.

The rest of 1967 was rather uneventful in regard to gigs and shows, which leaves somewhat of a gap in the number of photos and videos of Keith with the guitar.  The same couldn’t be said about Keith’s private affairs though.

Turbulences in Keith’s life in 1967

In February 1967, police busted Keith’s party at Redlands in West Wittering, West Sussex, and confiscated drugs. This prompted Keith to temporally flee the country and start driving south towards Morocco, accompanied by Brian Jones and Anita Pallenberg. Following the appearance in the court on June 29, 1967, in London, Keith Richards is found guilty and is sentenced to twelve months in prison and a fine.

That day I was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months in prison. Robert Fraser was given six months and Mick three months. Mick was in Brixton. Fraser and I went to the Scrubs that night.[…] I didn’t enjoy Wormwood Scrubs, even for twenty-four hours. The judge managed to turn me into some folk hero overnight. I’ve been playing up to it ever since. 

Keith Richards; Life (Kindle Locations 3326-3327)

The next day, Keith and Mick are granted bail and released from prison, while Robert Fraser pled guilty on charges of possession of heroin and was sentenced to six months hard labor. [Keith Richards; Life (Kindle Locations 3357-3358)]

From then on, Keith’s Les Paul Custom was seen on a couple of photos taken at the Olympic Studios in London, where the band was working on their album from February to October 1967 [Their Satanic Majesties Request album details]. In late 1967 Keith traveled to Morocco with his girlfriend, which is probably roughly the time period when the next chapter in the story of this guitar took place.

The Art

During the 1968 short film Sympathy for the Devil (originally titled One Plus One) Keith is seen playing the guitar, but it now features a unique hand-drawn design on the front of the body. This was allegedly done by Keith and his girlfriend Anita sometime in late 1967 or early 1968, although we haven’t really been able to find an official source on this. The design seems to feature the Moon and the Sun seen from the Earth perspective, with an erupting volcano in the background. The exact reason as to why Keith (or Anita) chose this exact motive is at this time unknown. 

Sympathy for the Devil documentary shows Keith using the Les Paul Custom extensively.

Keith continued using the Les Paul extensively throughout 1968 and 1969 as his main guitar, occasionally switching to a custom-made Dan Armstrong guitar that he’d acquired by then. It was likely his main guitar of choice on both Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed albums, although more research is needed until this can be concluded safely.

The guitar was last seen during the August–October 1970 European tour [The Rolling Stones in Rai-Halle, Amsterdam, October 9th, 1970], but during that same tour, Keith started using a different Les Paul Custom. This new guitar featured the exact same specs (black color, three pickups) but obviously didn’t feature the custom paint job that Keith had on his old Les Paul [The Rolling Stone Live 1970 tour].

The Guitar Today

Keith’s ’57 Les Paul Custom somehow ended up in the hands of a private collector who now owns the guitar, but the story about how it slipped from Keith’s hands is not exactly clear.

The guitar in its current state. Credit: www.metmuseum.org

Some people say that the guitar was stolen in 1971 from Villa Nellcôte nearby Nice when burglars walked out with nine of Richards’s guitars. Another version of the story is that Keith simply left the guitar in a repair shop in Canada, but forgot to pick it up for a couple of years. The third version that he gave the guitar to a friend. To our knowledge, none of these are confirmed by Keith, so that makes it one more Keith Richards guitar with a shady history behind it.

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