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Guitarists debate: did Gibson steal the Les Paul design?

(Image credit: O.W. Appleton / Future)

As Gibson begins efforts to “protect its iconic legacy” with a lawsuit against Dean, there’s another electric guitar that has players’ tongues wagging: the Appleton App, a pre-Les Paul solidbody that bears a striking resemblance to Gibson’s design.

Highlighted by YouTube channel The Guitologist, the App was developed by an Iowa luthier named O W Appleton in 1941, who went on to show the design to Gibson in 1943.

The company’s response was allegedly that “they couldn’t imagine someone playing a solid-body electric guitar”.

Yet, in 1952, Appleton received a letter from a friend at Gibson, which stated, “Well, App, you see our competition [Fender] has finally forced us to come out with your solid guitar. Sure wish we had listened to you back in 1943.”

Included with that letter was a brochure for the Les Paul Model. Appleton reportedly threw the letter out in frustration.

The luthier struggled to get hold of a patent attorney, and with the advent of World War II - and the temporary ceasing of guitar production - Appleton gave up on patenting the design.

(Image credit: O.W. Appleton)

Certainly, the App’s single-cut outline is familiar, as are the scroll headstock, trapeze tailpiece and pickguard.

Lest we forget that Ted McCarty and his team at Gibson were the brains behind the Les Paul design; Les’s own input was primarily regarding the tailpiece and look of the guitar.

Popular history states that the roots of the solidbody electric guitar date back to Bigsby’s 1948 Merle Travis model, followed by Leo Fender’s Broadcaster (later renamed the Telecaster), which was introduced in 1950, before the Les Paul landed in ’52 - but Appleton’s build appears to predate all three.

A curio it may be, but the App guitar occupies an important place in solidbody history. You can read more about it at the comprehensive O.W. Appleton website.

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