Edwards Replica of Bob Marley’s Gibson Les Paul Special

Around early May 1973, Bob Marley walked into Top Gear, a scruffy music store on Denmark Street, a small side street in central London filled with offices and music-biz shacks. Top Gear, known for its stock of good second-hand instrumentation, regularly welcomed famous and not-so-famous guitarists. Keith Richards, for example, used to go there from time to time.

Bob Marley immediately became interested in an unusual Gibson Les Paul Special single cut. Top Gear had purchased the guitar from Dan Armstrong, an American guitar luthier living in the United Kingdom at the time. Dan had added block fretboard markers in place of the original points, modified the finish, and bound the headstock. Marc Bolan had recently returned the guitar: he had changed his mind and exchanged it for a Les Paul with humbuckers.

Bob purchased the Special and began using it for Wailers dates in England until the rest of May ’73. He would continue to play it as his main guitar on stage and in the studio for the rest of his career, but not without some other modifications along the way.

Bob and the band had returned to Britain in late ’73 and his Les Paul suffered an accident. Sid Bishop was the Top Gear manager who originally sold the guitar to Bob. “He came back with the guitar and said, ‘Look what I did.'” The Les Paul had fallen forward off a guitar stand, and the impact had pushed back the pickup selector inside the body, along with a piece of wood. Sid looked at the guitar and said to him. “I said, ‘Oh, stupid boy, Bob.'”

Mark Moffatt also worked on Top Gear at the time and says Bob was lucky that the headstock didn’t break. “That’s usually the first thing that happens in a fall like this. He told us he couldn’t leave the guitar while they were doing shows,” Mark recalls, “so he asked if there was anything I could do to fix it right away?”

Bob was escorted to the back room of Top Gear, where Roger Giffin worked on repairs. Stan Smith was a sales assistant, but sometimes helped Roger. “Bob was standing at the door of the repair room,” Stan recalls. “He was quite distressed about the damage to his guitar, but Roger and I suggested putting a larger plate on the front of the guitar and a thinner washer on the inside, hoping to have enough room to reinstall the safety ring and everything else. it would stand a very good job.”

Bob liked the idea. “We cut a large circle from a spare piece of cream-colored plastic from a Les Paul Standard scratch plate and drilled a hole in it,” Stan says. “we then used a scrap piece to fix the interior. So, we reinstalled the switch and then tested the guitar to make sure everything was working. I realized briefly that I was sitting here playing Bob‘s guitar, with him standing next to me. But he was really a really nice man.”

Sid remembers returning the guitar to its famous owner. “I said, ‘Here you are and don’t do it again.’ Bob was over the moon.” This supposed temporary repair, visible as a distinctly larger-than-normal switch plate, remained in place for the next few years, and at some point a Tune-o-matic bridge and tailpiece were added in place of the guitar’s original one-piece bridge . Bob Marley and The Wailers moved on to greater success, and the Special continued to serve Bob well in his role as his main electric instrument.

In the spring of 1978, Roger Mayer flew from his home in England to Jamaica to meet Bob Marley. Roger is best known for his work with Jimi Hendrix, famous for making effects pedals such as the Octavia that Jimi used. Roger’s trip to meet Bob, around the time of the One Love concert in April 1978, came through a connection with The Wailers‘ new guitarist, Junior Marvin, with whom Roger had been working.

Roger asked Bob what he would like him to do. “He told me how much he liked Jimi Hendrix,” Roger recalls, “and then he said, ‘Can you help me look international?’ I said sure.” What did he mean by that? “Everyone could see the band’s potential. But they didn’t have an international sound, they weren’t going to travel. It was always going to sound like a good, uneven-ass Caribbean band, you know? I told them, basically , that their instruments were out of tune.”

Roger’s first job, then, was to go through all the guitars and provide them with the necessary revisions and proper settings. Storage in humid Jamaica and numerous concerts had certainly not improved the state of The Wailers‘ instruments. Roger says he first worked on Bob‘s Les Paul, revamping the tuners and some potentiometers, checking neck relief and bridge intonation, giving the guitar a complete refract and generally correcting and improving its playability.

“All this improved the sustain of Bob ‘s guitar and kept it perfectly in tune,” Roger recalls. “I did the same for the rest of their guitars and told them to use an electronic tuner. So for the first time, at One Love, the band sounded in tune. The guys told Bob afterwards saying they couldn’t believe the difference in the way the band sounded, that they had never heard him play so well.”

Later, in ’78, Bob asked Roger if he could do something for his Les Paul that no one else had, so that anyone looking at it would know that that was Bob Marley‘s guitar. Roger invented a new toggle switch plate to replace the “temporary” repair done by Top Gear some five years earlier. “I suggested a hard anodized aluminum elliptical plate under the switch, which would be like a third eye looking out from the guitar,” Roger says. It was certainly different.

Bob liked the idea. “So I kept the position but modified the plate,” Roger concludes, “which also made it much more robust. And it also improved the shielding slightly, having that extra touch of an ally around it.” Roger added a matching aluminum pickguard to replace the original, and the new look was in place, meeting the demand for an instantly identifiable guitar. The Les Paul Special would remain that way until Bob ‘s untimely death three years later.

When Gibson ‘s Custom Shop announced a limited edition Bob Marley Les Paul Special in 2002, the press release stated that it was created through “careful research and detailing using Bob‘s original Les Paul Special.” Pat Foley was Gibson ‘s director of entertainment relations at the time, and he went to Jamaica to try that original guitar. Pat was the right man for the job, a Marley fan who had first visited Jamaica as a curious teenager and later spent five years on the Caribbean island of Montserrat.

The trip started well.“Rita Marley asked her assistant to meet me at the airport,” Pat recalls, “and it was crazy, because when Rita Marley is waiting for you, they skip customs. ‘I’m here to see Rita.’ Ah, and you’re just walking there. We had a great week there. Rita took us to what is now the Bob Marley Museum, a big old house where Bob had lived, with the museum in the back. So I went to take a look.”

A close-up of Marley’s Les Paul Special. Photo by Pat Foley, 2002.

There in the center of the room was the “STAR” on display in what looked like a glass case. The Special was complete with its non-standard headstock binding, aluminum body plates, and block markers, and Pat prepared to take photos and make diagrams and models in all its peculiarities and signs of wear, ready to be returned to the Custom Shop in Gibson.

“Rita came back as I was looking at the guitar in its case,” Pat recalls. “I said, ‘Can I access it?’ He said of course yes and that he would have someone come and open it for me. So I’m thinking a guy will come out with a key and things like that. But the guy comes over and simply lifts this Plexiglas cover-he just lifts it up, puts it down, and hands me the guitar. I must have shown my bewilderment, Rita says, “Oh, I don’t think anyone would take it.” Well, you know, I don’t think people sometimes realize the value of these things. They just see it as a tool or something. But it is Bob Marley‘s Les Paul Special. That changes everything.”

Back at the Custom Shop, work began on the limited edition of 200 replicas, first sold in 2002 and featuring a Cherry Aged finish by Tom Murphy incorporating all modified and years of wear recorded by Pat. Each came with a shrine to hang on the wall that had a Gibson logo, Bob ‘s signature, and a drawing of the Lion of Judah, apparently indicating that this item was aimed at Marley fans rather than, say, reggae guitarists.