An ongoing mini-series from Gibson.com, Legends of the Les Paul looks at rock icons who not only played Les Pauls, but who were inextricably linked—in image and sound—to the particular Les Pauls they loved. As such, while the guitars helped to make them stars, they clearly made these specific Les Pauls into legends in their own right.
While most artists who qualify as Legends of the Les Paul exemplify the virtuoso-level proficiency and searing tone expected of any world-class guitar hero, the subject of this installment achieved his status by attacking music from the other end of the spectrum. As one of the founding fathers of punk, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols was also the ultimate anti-hero of guitar, so much so that he declared it right from the stage by stenciling the ironic declaration “Guitar Hero” on his amplifier’s grille cloth just months after he’d begun learning to play the instrument.
That instrument was, however, a far cry from the usual “budget” and “student” models that other punks were wielding in anger on both sides of the Atlantic. No, his weapon was a blinged-out, high-end guitar worthy of the most commercially ascendant rock stars treading arena stages in the late ’70s: a Gibson Les Paul Custom. But how do you square ownership of an upmarket instrument with the swagger and rebellion of the punk ethos et alwithout losing your street cred? Simple: tell everyone you stole it.
The history of Steve Jones’s playing career is interlaced with tales of how he allegedly stole his Les Paul Custom from, 1) Mick Ronson, backstage at a David Bowie concert; or 2) Paul McCartney; and pilfered his Twin Reverb amp from either, 1) the back of Bob Marley’s tour van; or 2) …backstage at a David Bowie concert (again). Meanwhile, his bandmate, the outrageous Sex Pistols lead singer Johnny “Rotten” Lydon, peppered interviews with tales of having stolen PA equipment from Keith Richards’s house. Take that, music-establishment icons!
As it happens, though—and this comes straight from the mouth of the sober, latter-day Jones himself—that this Les Paul Custom landed in his hands via an entirely legitimate route. After admitting that, yes, he did swipe other guitars in his youth, before he could even play the instrument, Jones told Jerry McCully for Gibson.com: “The one that I started playing was the one that [Sex Pistols’ manager] Malcolm McLaren actually brought back from New York that he got off Sylvain, which was the white Gibson Les Paul. A ’74, I think it was, a white Custom.”
Sylvain, a punk icon in his own right as guitarist with the New York Dolls and better known for playing Les Paul Juniors, purportedly added the two pinup stickers to the guitar that were famously seen throughout Jones’s tenure with the Sex Pistols, as well as removing the guitar’s pickguard and pickup covers before sending it across the Atlantic with McClaren. Jones himself, however, helped to expose it to the nicotine haze that would further yellow its original Arctic White finish.
Learning at the Speed of Sound
Jones had originally been recruited by McClaren to sing lead vocals in the seminal punk band, but was moved over to guitar when Rotten joined the band… despite the fact that he couldn’t really play the thing yet. Taking the ’74 Les Paul Custom in hand, he worked out the basics in the three months before the Sex Pistols started gigging, and had only been playing a year before carrying the Gibson into the studio to record the legendary Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.
Despite his beginner status, Jones’s tone throughout the Pistols’ studio recordings is big, fat, gnarly, and downright infectious. In other words, it’s totally Les Paul—used in anger—and also a lot sweeter and juicier than what was heard from many punk guitarists of the day.
Post-Sex Pistols, Jones undertook a plethora of collaborations and solo projects. Among others, he played with Billy Idol, Joan Jett, Adam Ant, Thin Lizzy, Iggy Pop, Megadeth, David Byrne and Brian Eno. A song from his 1987 solo album Mercy featured in an episode of Miami Vice, and he has made several on-screen appearances himself, taking bit parts and walk-ons in Roseanne, Californication, and Portlandia, among other movies and TV shows—the white Les Paul Custom, sadly, in evidence on none of these.