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.
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.
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!