A while back I posed the question, what motorbike would you pair with what guitar? The look, the sound, the feel…the image. This story comes from my friend Bernie Ayling. A skilled roadracer, an amazingly talented guitar player and an all around good guy..considering he rides a 1972 BMW
The Matchless G50 and the Gibson Les Paul Model guitar. Perfect!
Fifty Seven years of roadracing motorcycles and playing electric guitar in various bands have been the only things (aside from the very obvious ones) that have made time stop still and make me absolutely live in the moment. So where do I put the two together?
The Matchless G50 is perhaps the most successful production singles racer of all time. Only 180 original examples were built between 1958 and 1962, when production ceased due to financial problems. Also called the ‘Golden Eagle’(perhaps due to the particular hue of some of the visible magnesium castings, but more likely due to the marque logo’s wings) it is an elegant motorcycle, perfectly proportioned as only a dedicated racing motorbike or a beautiful woman can be. The design is sparse and elegant, with every detail looking like it belongs and nothing extraneous to bother the eye. In stock trim the single cylinder motorcycle produced 51 horsepower and propelled the little 320 pound roadracer to a 135 MPH top speed. Today, they would have arguably become the holy grail of production singles racers. The great Mike Hailwood raced a G50.
So, if you rode a Matchless G50 and played guitar, what guitar would you play? A Gibson Les Paul.
The Les Paul was Gibson’s answer to Fender in 1952, a modern solidbody to counter the upstart from California. Named for the famous guitarist, it was a great success at the start, adapting Gibson’s reputation for old world craftsmanship and beautiful materials of the modern era. By mid 1958 though, the model was close to being discontinued due to lack of sales. In an effort to revive the Les Paul model, a three color ‘Sunburst’ finish was applied to show off the beautiful Maple top. Newly designed ‘humbucking’ pickups were added to the package as well. The enhancements failed to produce better sales results and production ceased in 1960.
During the three year production run approximately 1600 original Les Paul Sunburst models were produced. In the early 1960’s the heavy guitars languished in pawnshops around the nation, mostly unloved and unplayed. in 1965 a young Eric Clapton saw a picture of his guitar hero, Freddie King, playing an older gold topped Les Paul but the closest he would come was a used Sunburst model found in London. The combination produced the ferociously aggressive playing made famous on John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton that same year.
Today, original Sunburst’s are the Holy Grail of electric guitars. The perfectly balanced body with it’s arched carved top and sometimes wildly figured Maple has become another widely imitated iconic design.
You can’t pin down the success for either the G50 or the Les Paul Sunburst to any one thing as it’s the sum of the parts and the intangible qualities the comprise the mystique. Oh, and there is the spectacular performance of them both as well.