'83 LES PAUL SPOTLIGHT SPECIAL
SPOTLIGHT ON SPOTLIGHT
Unlocking the mystery of the 1983 Gibson Les Paul Spotlight Special
by Michael A. Slubowski
It was 1983, and Gibson was in the throes of its darkest days. Norlin Industries, which owned the Gibson division, had incurred excessive debt, and Gibson sales fell 30 percent the year before. Norlin had in fact put Gibson up for sale. By the summer of 1983, all of the large runs of Gibson models such as the Les Paul had been moved to the Nashville factory, and the plant manager in Kalamazoo was informed that the Kalamazoo plant would close. Amidst the chaos and uncertainty of the future of the company, the idea for a limited run of Les Pauls, dubbed the "Les Paul Spotlight Special," was born.
In my talks with many collectors of the Les Paul Spotlight Special around the country, their first interest in the Spotlight emanated from a photo and description of the model in The Gibson Les Paul Book, 1993, by Tony Bacon and Paul Day. My own purchase of several Spotlight Specials led to intrigue and an insatiable quest for facts about this little-known and unique model. I found that history of the Spotlight is limited and specifications in various publications are conflicting, some being outright wrong. Some of the people that are selling these guitars don't know what they have, because the available published specifications don't match or describe their guitars. Hence, I hope you find the results of my research to provide some more definitive answers.
history surrounding the Spotlight is sketchy. In The Gibson Les Paul
Book, Tony Bacon and Paul Day report that Nashville managers spotted
some leftover walnut and pieces of curly maple, and concocted the
Spotlight Special. In doing research for this column, some collectors
believed that their Spotlights were produced in the Kalamazoo plant, and
refuted the notion that the Spotlight was a concoction of leftover parts,
but rather a carefully planned model. Jeff Cease of Gibson, who helped me
with research for this article, spoke to an employee in the Nashville
plant who worked there at the time the Spotlight was produced, who
confirmed that they were indeed built in the Nashville plant, and, despite
their "Custom Shop Edition" decal, they were not affiliated with any kind
of Custom Shop, but instead were built on the regular production line.
This employee also said that there weren't very many of these guitars made,
and they were most likely a surplus of parts which the company had on hand.
Walter Carter, a prolific author and former historian for Gibson, notes
that Gibson's records indicate Spotlight Special serial numbers up to 211,
so it was indeed a limited edition.
information on the Spotlight Special is conflicting and inaccurate. The
Bacon/Day book describes the headstock veneer as rosewood, when in fact it
is walnut on one model of the Spotlight and ebony on the other. In its
reference listing, the Bacon/Day book describes only one generic model of
Spotlight, when there are actually two. The Fifth Edition of the Blue
Book of Electric Guitars, 1998, by Steven Cherne, incorrectly
describes the center strip as mahogany (it is walnut), raised cream
pickguard (the Gibson specifications do not call for a pickguard, although
some Spotlights have them and many don't), chrome hardware (all Spotlights
had gold plated hardware), natural finish (when in fact they were
available in two models, one with natural and one with dark finish), and
manufactured from 1980 to 1985 (the only serial numbers for this guitar
are from 1983). The only brief, accurate description of the Spotlight
models is found in Gruhn's Guide to Vintage Guitars, 2nd Edition,
1999, by George Gruhn and Walter Carter.
The ASB model (which I assume is an abbreviation for "antique sunburst") came with a "highly figured quilted maple top", solid cream colored binding, traditional ebony head veneer with Gibson pearl inlay, and traditional keystone shaped machine heads (the ones I have seen all have double ringed tuners). In reviewing the ASB models that are out in the marketplace, I have seen tremendous variability in color (many in dark tobacco color, some in lighter brown color, and one with three color sunburst), and wide variety in the grade/quality of the quilted tops. It also appears that, at the time, some Gibson workers were meticulous about bookmatching the tops, and others picked up whatever pieces of wood were available - maybe they thought no one would notice that the two sides didn't match because they were separated by a two- inch walnut strip?
The ANT model (which I assume is an abbreviation for "antique natural") came with a "highly figured curly maple top", brown binding with two cream pinstripes on the body and one cream pinstripe on the neck, a walnut head veneer in light stain with Gibson logo inlay, and individual pearloid kidney shaped machine heads. The ANT models are definitely the more exotic looking of the two Spotlight models because of the color, contrasting dark binding, and un-Les Paul-like tuner buttons. In reviewing the ANT models in the marketplace, there is less variability in color (all are antique natural, some more gracefully aged than others), but once again the grade/quality of the curly maple tops and the attention to bookmatching is highly variable.
1983 was the year that Gibson began to produce "reissue"-style Les Pauls, and I believe the Spotlight Specials exhibit some features of the reissue. The strip of binding on the cutaway is styled after the 1950's models (it is a consistent width and follows the contour of the body exposing some of the maple top below the binding, versus the deeper strip of binding with a straight edge following the maple/mahogany join on other models). Most Spotlights are in the 9 pound range, versus the other notoriously heavy Les Paul models of the late '70's and early '80's. Spotlights do not have the dreaded volute on the back of the neck. The Spotlights are basic Les Pauls in terms of electronics and hardware and do not include any fancy electronics (e.g., coil taps) or tailpieces (e.g., the TP-6) of the time.
With the exception of their looks (and the tuners on the ANT model), to me, the Spotlight Specials have the "feel" of a 1959 reissue, with excellent weight, tone, and vibe. The neck thickness is somewhere between a '59 and '60 feel. Despite the widely held belief of poor production quality during the '70's and '80's, I have found most Spotlights to be of excellent construction quality. Fits and finish are excellent. A metal shielding cover was used to shield the pots beneath the back access plate. My only criticisms are the poor top bookmatching on some and the stain or pore filler used on the light mahogany backs did not seem to color or shade evenly on the ANT models that I own or have seen.
It appears that interest in the Spotlight Special, due to its rarity and vibe, is growing among collectors as the guitar slowly approaches "vintage" status. The Official Vintage Guitar Magazine Price Guide, 6th Edition, 1998, by Alan Greenwood, suggests that a Spotlight Special in excellent condition is selling within a range of $1,800.-$2,300. However, based on recent sales that I have observed on E-Bay and through various guitar dealers and private sales, it would appear that few owners of Spotlights in excellent or better condition are willing to part with them for less than $2,300., and I have seen some sell for $3,000. or more. One ASB model in mint condition is listed on an Italian guitar dealer's web site for 15 million lira (that's $8,333 in U.S. dollars, folks!).
Many unanswered questions about the Spotlight still remain. Although the specifications do not call for a pickguard, I have seen enough with a cream colored pickguard with gold mounting bracket to believe that some must have been factory installed. Although the specifications call for a one- piece mahogany neck, I actually own one Spotlight (serial number 83-050) which curiously has a three-piece laminated mahogany neck which is fatter than other Spotlights I own or have played. From photos, it does not appear that most Spotlights came with knob pointers, yet I own one and have seen another which have knob pointers. The top hat knobs on the Spotlights are a different shape than the reissue knobs available today, yet one of my Spotlights has knobs shaped like modern reissue knobs. Was Gibson in fact using up available parts inventories at the time? In addition, I would really like to talk to someone who was in marketing or manufacturing in 1983 that could give some more details as to the origin of the Spotlight, including how the features and design for the Spotlight were decided (was it really just serendipity, i.e., "hey, we've got extra mahogany and thin strips of quilted and curly maple laying around, and there's a close-out on kidney shaped tuners, wouldn't it be cool if we did this?"....).
It was enjoyable for me to piece together a few parts of the puzzle on the 1983 Les Paul Spotlight Special. If any guitar collectors or Gibson workers have details on the history of this model, including contact persons, specification sheets, marketing materials, photos of your Spotlight and unique features, etc., please write to me at MikeSlub@aol.com and I will write a follow-up article to correct any misstatements or provide additional details and photos of the Les Paul Spotlight Special.
Special thanks to Ward Meeker of Vintage Guitar Magazine, Jeff Cease of Gibson and Walter Carter, along with several collectors and E-Mail pen pals who made this column possible.
Michael Slubowski is a healthcare executive by day and a guitar player and avid guitar collector by night, with a special passion for Gibson Les Pauls.