What’s the Origin of Gibson’s TV Yellow finish?

December 03, 2020 3 min read

What’s the Origin of Gibson’s TV Yellow finish?

To me, there’s something about a TV Yellow Gibson Les Paul that just oozes cool. It’s that no-nonsense retro futurist vibe that gets me; classic, yet modern at the same time. And, I love the way the finish takes on a different hue depending on the wood underneath it (many people don’t realize that it’s slightly translucent). 

I’ve often wondered where exactly TV Yellow came from; given how distinct it is from other famous Gibson finishes. The other day, curiosity finally got the better of me, and I took to the Internet to find some answers.

Unfortunately, a definitive account of TV Yellow’s origin was not forthcoming. Instead, I dug up a number of interesting theories about where TV Yellow came from. Today, I’m sharing you some of my favorites, as well as the one I think is probably true. If you’ve got any opinions or insights about TV Yellow’s genesis, then sound off in the comments!

TV Yellow: Telecaster Version?

So, theory numero uno suggests that the “TV” in TV Yellow actually stood for “Telecaster Version.” According to this one, Gibson execs went for a color that was similar to the Butterscotch finish used on Fender’s Telecaster models. Apparently, the hope was that the color - in combination with the Les Paul TV model’s black pickguard - would confuse unschooled guitarists who would buy it over a Tele. 

This one seems pretty farfetched to me, though. Sure, you can see the influence of guitars like the Tele on Gibson’s student model. But I just can’t see that consumers – even complete guitar buying newbies - would mistake one guitar for the other. 

The name’s on the headstock, after all. And the two instruments are contoured very differently. I think it’s safe to discount the “Telecaster Version” hypothesis. 

TV Yellow was White on TV?

Theory number two posits that TV Yellow was actually designed for television. Back in the days of Black and White TV, anything pure white appeared so bright that it washed out, often resulting in glare, haloing, and other image distortion problems.

According to the “White on TV” theory, Les Paul himself suggested producing wheat-colored guitar finish that would appear white on the box without distortion. As the development process went on, wheat became yellow and TV Yellow was born. 

This theory definitely seems more grounded than “Telecaster Version,” and indeed, it’s probably the most commonly repeated TV Yellow origin story. But, I’m not convinced by this one either. Yes, the problem of pure white on television was real, but I can’t see this being enough motivation for Gibson to develop a new color for their production line guitars. Also, why would they use TV Yellow on their student model and not the high-end instruments more likely to show up on American Bandstand etc.? Gibson’s 1961 Les Paul Standard (really the first SG) came in a striking White, after all, and that was still during the black and white era of television. 

TV Yellow was the color of TVs?

The final theory on this list posits that TV Yellow was so named because it was the paint used on television units at the time.

To understand this one, you’ve got to understand the status of the TV in homes of the late 1950s. Back in the day, the television wasn’t just an electronics device; it was a piece of furniture. Manufacturers housed televisions in solid wood cabinets, and they painted those cabinets to match popular furniture finishes. 

One such color was Limed Mahogany, a Yellowish shade that became known as TV Yellow in popular parlance because of its association with television cabinets. Looking for a contemporary finish for their latest instrument, Gibson simply adopted the already available shade. 

For my money, this is most likely the truth. For one, it makes economic sense for Gibson to use a readily available paint on their budget model, especially given the popularity of the shade and its modern associations. For another, early adverts for the Gibson Les Paul TV model explicitly mention the “beautiful limed-mahogany finish. As far as I’m concerned, this one is the true origin story for this unique guitar finish. 

What’s your favorite guitar finish? Do you own a TV Yellow guitar? Share your stories in the comments. 



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