TV Yellow – The Faded Origin of a Classic Guitar Color

TV Yellow – The Faded Origin of a Classic Guitar Color

TV Yellow is a classic and much-loved color in the world of guitars. It is instantly recognizable, yet frustratingly difficult to reproduce. It is a moving target that can range from off-white or beige, to pale mustard yellow (with perhaps the slightest hint of green), to almost butterscotch. While at first glance it may appear opaque, it is actually slightly translucent, meaning its appearance will also depend, to some degree, on the color of the wood beneath it.

It is an interesting color, to say the least, and the stories of its origin are equally interesting. They begin in 1954, when Gibson released the Les Paul Jr.®. This model was marketed as a more affordable version of the Goldtop Les Paul®, and came in a two-color sunburst finish. Later that year Gibson also released the Les Paul TV® model – essentially the same guitar, finished in a peculiar yellow color. But where exactly did this peculiar color come from, and why the designation “TV”?

One story explains it this way: In the early days of television, TV sets in the home were regarded as furniture, and their decorative wooden cabinets were finished in the same colors as other furniture. One of the colors fashionable at the time was a yellowish color that catalogs referred to as “Limed Mahogany”. When introduced, the Les Paul TV® model was also described in Gibson’s catalogs as having a Limed Mahogany finish. It seems obvious it received the “TV” designation simply because it was finished in the same color as TV cabinets. In the guitar world “Limed Mahogany” eventually became referred to as “TV Yellow” simply because of its close association with the Les Paul TV® model.

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A Zenith television set in Limed Mahogany.

There is, however, another story – and it’s much more fun to tell.

If you have ever seen early black and white television footage from the 1940’s and 50’s, you have probably noticed that white objects often appear unnaturally bright, “blown out”, haloed, or blurry. These artifacts are the result of a combination of factors. To begin with, most early television shows were filmed live, and required very bright – almost daylight – levels of studio lighting. To exacerbate the situation, the early video cameras that shot live action used analog vacuum tubes, and those tubes didn’t have the dynamic range necessary to handle areas of high brightness. The resulting “blown out” bright spots in the video signal are analogous to the warmth or “sag” that tube audio amplifiers exhibit when pushed beyond their range.

We can still see recorded examples of this phenomenon, but it’s important to note that these artifacts are a result of the cameras, not the film. In the days before videotape, most live broadcasts were recorded via a process call “kinescope”, in which a film camera is aimed not at the live action, but at a video-display tube. For all these reasons, wearing pure white clothing or using pure white props on a live TV shoot was discouraged.

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Rusty Draper, in an early kinescope recording.

To mitigate this problem, legendary inventor, guitarist, and TV star Les Paul (for whom the Gibson Les Paul® line of guitars is named) suggested a wheat-colored guitar finish. The color would appear white in live television broadcasts , but because it wasn’t actually white it wouldn’t overwhelm the cameras under bright lights. The finish was adopted by Gibson, and is sometimes referred to as TV White. The guitars manufactured in this color are very rare. The color was later modified by adding yellow, and the Les Paul TV® model was released.

As you can see, determining TV Yellow’s origin is almost as hard as duplicating the color. Which of these stories is true? My head tells me the obvious answer is the correct one. Gibson probably just sourced paint that was already easily available and in wide use. Besides, it wouldn’t have made sense for them to develop a finish to aid professionals during live television shoots, only to release it on a stripped-down, student-level guitar. My heart, however, wants to believe that the TV camera story is at least a little true. Fortunately, the two stories aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe Gibson was looking for a solution to the live TV problem, and found it in a finish already being used to paint TV’s. To me, that would make the best story of all.

What do you think? Have any additional insight into wooden TV cabinets, TV broadcasting techniques of the 50’s, or TV Yellow finish in general? Let us hear about it!

26 thoughts on “TV Yellow – The Faded Origin of a Classic Guitar Color”

  1. In the 1950’s furniture makers like Heywood Wakefield used a finish called blonde that actually was a light yellow shellac/lacquer over oak, hickory, or birch. There was also a hybrid plastic called Bakelite which had a light yellowish tint to it. Companies like GE made radio bodies from it in the 1950’s. Pretty darn close to your TV yellow!

    • Bakelite was one of the earliest plastics. Because it could only be made black or brown, other plastics, usually Plaskon or sometimes Tenite were used. The only place where yellow Bakelite exists is on eBay.

  2. Here’s the real story: The guys in Gibson’s design department were notorious clowns, always telling booger jokes to try to get the secretaries to go “…eeewww!”, placing whoopee cushions on people’s chairs, setting buckets of water on partially opened doors…what a buncha kidders!

    One day, one of ’em—my sources claim his name was Fimpley Twangtone, but that’s hearsay—was trying to come up with a gag that people would be scratching their heads over for years into the future. He came up with this sick yellowish color, and said, “Let’s call it ‘TV yellow’. That’ll tie ’em up in knots…prolly into the next century.”

    Evidently, it worked.

  3. My understanding of the use of TV yellow relates to the limits of early television, coupled with the colour temperature of the lighting that was used. Daylight and tungsten light (the latter being the type of light source used in television studios back then) have very different apparent colours. Both types of lighting create a sense of “white” to the ever adapting human eye. Think about a house with its lights on at twilight. The sky is deep blue and the house lights (well, the old tungsten lit houses) looked to have an orange yellowish cast to them. My understanding was that the TV yellow made a better white under TV lighting, especially when the move was made to colour TV transmission. Truth or supposition, you gotta admit it’s not a bad theory….

  4. I always heard the TV broadcast version. This is the first time hearing of the TV furniture story. But it makes a lot of sense, although a little less sexy.

  5. The Les Paul TV Model was a student level guitar never expected to be used by anyone who would appear on television. That myth was propagated by Gibson itself when they were reluctant to reveal the true origin of the name. Several years ago, a former member of Gibson’s marketing team confirmed the TV stood for “Telecaster Version”. In the days before the internet, guitar magazines, etc., it was difficult for hopeful guitar players to find out what kind of guitars were being played by their favourite musicians. It was hoped by Gibson’s marketing department that a pale guitar with dark pickguard could be mistaken for a Telecaster by fans unschooled in various guitar models and result in extra sales at the expense of their competition (Fender). Originally the name was intended to be an internal-only inside joke, but the moniker was published in ads before upper management caught the slip up.

  6. Where ever TV yellow came from, it’s less of an mystery than some of the ridicules things Gibson has done over the years. Robot tuning, the Sonex 180, unaffordable Les Pauls, Norlin are just va few headscratchers… what’ll be next, consumer electronics? Oh, wait, Gibson bought (rented) Phillips Home Entertainment in 2014 for $135 million + a licensing fee. Unfortunately, it made more money than the guitar division last year. Maybe they should “rent” the Gibson division to Fender????

  7. Thanks for this. When I first heard the theory that it was not about broadcast it all came together for me. The point you made that I failed to see was why would the want a student model on TV? BOOM! Well put. I have some furniture from the late 50s with that finish. TV was new and exciting, we don’t have that context now. But to get an idea how popular the “new” Television was, one has to look at Fender who named their first guitar the Tele-Caster.

  8. Do we know for sure that tv yellow les paul jr.s were not played on television? Maybe putting an affordable, good looking guitar (as compred to other colors under studio loghting) in the hands of a well respected player and broadcasting it was a marketing scheme. You could recognize the guitar, it looked good, you could afford it and it was on t.v. So it had to great! I along with my brothers would have been begging for one at christmas.

  9. Since the first model was actually the broadcaster!!! (of course that only encourages the the analogy) Having been fortunate enough to meet Les Paul (a very nice man and a genius), and spend 4 or 5 hours discussing guitar electronics and playing “the log” and an original broadcaster (no. 6 – I think) at his house, several possibilities come to mind. Les Paul at different times had a tempestuous relationship with Gibson, so unless it was from a broadcast perspective, I doubt the color came from him. There would certainly have been a lot of that paint (or finish) in somebodies warehouse since a lot of furniture came in that color. Referred to unkindly by the teenagers of the day. We all know corporate thinking and the rivalry between the companies, although in those days Gibson was the “big dog” and should have been less touchy. Also with the new bands coming onto the music scene, someone in broadcasting may have noticed the color appearing better on TV. Never heard the “telecaster version” story, although that one is just “dumb” enough to ring true. (referring to the reasons, not the story-teller!!) Looking forward to other comments. Thanks, Eric Jensen

  10. The color is hypnotic to me. In my youth I was lucky enough to have a few, one of which was nearly green. Wish I had them all back, but will settle for the Epiphone RI that I have now. Great guitars.

  11. This is a chicken vs egg scenario – both arguments have merits. Whatever usage came first is of little consequence – the end result is the same.

    The earliest B&W broadcast video cameras had a very limited contrast range…. about a 3:1 ratio between bright white and solid black. Studio and location lighting was a very difficult and highly skilled profession, because lighting outside of that range would either render the subject matter black, or this this case, ALSO BLACK… because over- exposed white or chromed/reflective objects actually reversed to black on video!

    This accident can be seen in many archival videos from the 1950s. This “burning” was worse than simple transient “blooming” of white highlights and objects, because extreme over-exposure could permanently damage the video tube unless quickly remedied.

    To avoid this problem, TV production designers prohibited white surfaces on both sets and wardrobe. This meant that tuxedos, dress shirts, and women’s wear could not include any white fabrics. Additionally, white or highly-reflective set objects were either replaced with darker or matte finishes, or products such as artist’s “dulling spray” were applied to help kill the hot spots.

    When a guest on a late night talk show arrived wearing white clothing, wardrobe would quickly offer substitutes in darker fabrics. Since the camera was black & white, the actual color made very little difference – the reflectivity had to be reduced to fall within the camera’s overly-sensitive range.

    The video tubes were more sensitive to blue than red light; blue shirts did not solve the brightness problem as well as a yellow shirt, which offered less than half of the reflectivity of a white shirt, yet still appeared as pure white on the B&W television screen.

    Since there was no reason for wardrobe to purchase low-luminance gray, green, tan, or brown shirts for the same end results… cream-colored or yellow shirts & jackets became standardized on television stages as a replacement for white.

    In a similar manner, sets, furniture, walls and floor coverings were exclusively “non-white”. Conveniently, limed mahogany finishes were very popular in the 50’s and 60’s on all sorts of home furnishings… not just TV consoles… so a set designer could easily purchase or rent props which would appear white on video, thus meeting the requirements of the cameras. Problem solved!

    It’s unlikely that any production personnel officially referred to these off-white colors as “TV yellow”… they were simply part of the tools employed daily to produce the best results. Everyone knew that white did not work on video.

    As mentioned previously by a writer above, early 1950’s Gibson catalogs list “limed mahogany” as a color…. not “TV yellow”. Since this was a popular and attractive finish of the day, it makes sense that Gibson would offer it as an alternative to other transparent finishes, such as red lacquer.

    Again, it’s very unlikely that this option was initially offered at the request of 1950’s television producers seeking an instrument finish which would appear white on camera! But, it’s certainly plausible that “limed mahogany” was soon discovered as an technical advantage, along with similar furniture and wardrobe.

    So, using yellow to serve as white in early black & white TV production is a reality, not a myth.

    Did Gibson re-name their original “limed mahogany” models as “TV models” in order to capitalize on this likely usage in the late 50’s?

    What about the change to the saturated “banana yellow” finish at this same time? This banana color was unlikely to have been required for appearance as “white” on B&W video. B&W video tubes ranges were improving dramatically. Three-tube color broadcast cameras were developing rapidly, although color TV receivers remained costly and rare in the home until the mid sixties. That said, the earliest color tubes were likely to have suffered from similar lighting range limitations.

    Technically, the best method to show “white” on an early color camera & TV screen system would have been to use a neutral gray finish… but that would have made for a really ugly guitar at the music store! So, maybe a banana yellow guitar was the next-best choice…?

    To sum up, chronologically:

    “Limed Mahogany” was a stylish & popular wood and furniture finish in the 1950’s. The color could easily have been called “bedframe, bookshelf, cabinet, radio, stereo, or coffee table yellow”… it was that common! It was not exclusive to television consoles. The oft-repeated argument that the origin of the term was due to its appearance on 1950’s TV cabinetry is simply not valid.

    Long before the term was coined, “TV yellow” was a de facto 1950’s TV production tool for props, sets and wardrobe, employed for many years on B&W television production stages… and certainly preceding its listing as a Gibson guitar finish.

    That said… when using a vintage B&W television camera… a “TV yellow” guitar remains the optimal color to appear as white.

    What cannot be disputed? This is the greatest finish ever offered on any guitar!

    Best regards, D.Campbell, Stellartone USA.

  12. We may never know the real origin of the name. We see TV models today as a yellow finish but they were NEVER meant to be yellow. The original color was a sort of beige/white. The lacquer that was sprayed over the color VERY quickly turned yellow. This could happen in a matter of weeks depending on the guitars environment (such as a store window). Original TV or Special models with places where the lacquer has chipped off will display the original off white color. Or you can remove the pickguard or backplate and see the difference. Areas that are not exposed to light will turn yellow to a much smaller degree. Gibson changed the finish slightly as time went by but these changes were related to the grain appearance.

  13. You’ve talked about the name. Now let’s talk about the color itself.

    Most guitar finishers learned their trade either spraying cars or finishing furniture. Limed or pickled mahogany (and other woods) was a very common furniture finish by the 50’s. There were a number of ways to do it: thin raw umber glaze over a white background, semi-translucent white sprayed over filled pore wood, or the original limed finish in which white lead pigment was wiped onto and off of the raw wood. The term limed or pickled came from the slaked lime used in whitewash even though lime was not part of these more modern furniture finishes, though they did mimic the appearance of weathered whitewash.

    The yellow or amber came from another source. These finishes were always topped off with clear nitrocellulose lacquer, a coating that has a slight amber tint and turns even more amber with time and when exposed to light. Thus, the finish never was full white to begin with, and it became more yellowed over time. I’ve seen old Gibson and Fender guitars as well as old furniture in every state of yellowing.

    This characteristic of nitrocellulose, sometimes considered a drawback, wasn’t overcome until CAB (cellulose acetate butyrate) lacquers came on the scene. Called “water white” lacquer, they did not have an amber tint, but did turn yellow over time.Today we have clear acrylic lacquers that go on water clear and stay that way, even when exposed to sunshine.

    Lagniappe: CAB was not originally developed for finishing, but rather as a replacement for movie film. The original movie film was cellulose nitrate, a material so flammable that if a projector stalled, the light bulb in it could ignite the static film. Cellulose nitrate fires travel fast and are notoriously hard to put out, in part because one of the combustion byproducts is oxygen, so it’s tough to smother. You can actually get cellulose nitrate to burn under water. Movie theater fires became prevalent enough to almost destroy the budding industry, and serious enough to spawn the adage “Never cry fire in a crowded theater.” We can thank Mr. Eastman (of what became the Eastman Kodak company) for inventing a far less flammable replacement that may have saved the movie industry. Eventually CAB was formulated as a lacquer, and also used as the invisible flexible film between two layers of glass in “safety glass” windshields, which made them remain in one flexible piece when broken instead of shattering into dangerous shards.

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