Al Di Meola: “Les Paul would get on his knees to get an up-close look at my hands and say, 'Do that again – I don’t understand how you just played that!'”

Al Di Meola playing a Gibson Les Paul
(Image credit: Roberta Parkin/Getty Images)

For many aspiring guitarists, Al Di Meola epitomizes the pinnacle of six-string ability, with a virtuosic style celebrated for – among other things – its complex chordal foundations, speed-infused guitar solos and fretboard intensity.

It comes as no surprise, then, that casual fans of Di Meola’s work aren’t the only group of people to put his approach to playing atop a pedestal of what many would consider to be peak fingerboard performance: Di Meola has also wowed countless pros.

One notable individual who was especially taken aback by the breathtaking prowess of Di Meola and his famed 1971 Gibson Les Paul Custom was, in fact, Les Paul himself – the man who pioneered the electric guitar that became synonymous with Di Meola, and who once made quite clear his thoughts on the fusion wizard’s abilities.

In a recent interview with Total Guitar, Di Meola traced his history with the storied Gibson single-cut, name dropping Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, John McLaughlin and, indeed, Les Paul himself as key figures who prompted him to initially pick one up.

According to Di Meola, he and Paul eventually grew close, and would often spend time together in each other’s houses and studios. It was during these meetings that Paul made his appreciation for Di Meola clear.

As he explained, “[Les Paul] became a friend of mine. I’d go round to his house and studio quite often, and he’d come to mine. He’d get on his knees to get a very up-close look at my hands and he’d keep saying, ‘Do that again, it’s mind-boggling, I don’t understand how you just played that!’ 

“I’d be sitting there playing and thinking, ‘This guy is the legend of all legends and he seems blown away by what I’m doing!’” Di Meola went on. “It was almost like a dream. I wish I had a picture of it.”

Di Meola’s relationship with the Les Paul guitar is up there with some of the most famous guitar/guitarist pairings. His main LP, a ‘71 Custom, served him well during his time with fusion outfit Return To Forever, and featured on a number of his solo records, including Land of the Midnight Sun and Elegant Gypsy.

“There’s a lot of history with that guitar and is probably the most historic guitar because of its connection with my early start in the business,” he once told Guitar World in a previous interview.

In his latest conversation with Total Guitar, Di Meola delved deeper into the Custom’s history, recounting, “I ordered it from Manny’s Music store in New York when I was in my last year of high school. That place was like a mecca for gear, it was the place to get your equipment. It’s where Hendrix got all his stuff, The Who... Everybody in the music business went there. Any day of the week you’d go in and see somebody famous.”

Though the Les Paul was ordered with a Bigsby, Di Meola later had it removed – and treated the guitar to a fresh refinish – resulting in the model as it is today. 

“The whole guitar looked cracked and had all these crazy marks over it,” the guitarist said. “Everyone thought it looked so cool. I ended up adding DiMarzio pickups and a coil tap. I used it on most of my early records. 

“On my biggest-selling album, Elegant Gypsy, that’s the guitar you’re hearing and the one you can see on the cover. I also used it on Land of the Midnight Sun, all the Return To Forever stuff and a few other things. The sound of that guitar going into my 50-watt Marshall is one of the punchiest tones I’ve ever heard.”

Head over to Magazines Direct to pick up the Les Paul Issue of Total Guitar – a dedicated celebration of Gibson's prized single-cut, which features Slash, Joe Bonamassa, Ally Venable and more.

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.

With contributions from