Yes, Gibson the company has a knack for bringing bad publicity on itself (to put it mildly). If you want to boycott them, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a Les Paul. There’s still plenty of great second hand Les Pauls out there to choose from.
Either way, there’s a lot more to buying a Les Paul than simply clicking ‘Buy Now’ on an online store, or buying one from your friendly local guitar store. And, in my experience, the same advice applies to Les Paul-like guitars made by other companies too.
How, Not Why
I don’t want to waste your time if this isn’t the blog post for you.
This isn’t a blog post to convince you to buy a Les Paul. If you want one of those, let me know in the comments section, and I’ll put something together on that.
This is a blog post about how to go about choosing a Les Paul. I’m assuming that you’ve already decided to buy one, but you’re not quite sure what all the different models are and which differences matter to you.
I was in your shoes once.
My Personal Experience
I’m very late to the Les Paul party. Absolutely hated them as a kid, and I’d been playing for 23 years before I finally tried them again. It was this Andertons video back in 2012 that convinced me to give one a go:
Since then, I’ve been in the very fortunate position to own and play some great Les Pauls – both USA-line and from the Custom Shop. I sometimes have to travel for my day job, and whenever I do, I do my best to visit guitar shops wherever I’m going, and to play as many different Les Pauls as I can.
Along the way, I’ve formed some strong opinions about Les Pauls in general, and what I like in particular. If you’re thinking of buying your first Les Paul, I hope you find this experience helpful.
What Les Pauls Do Gibson Make?
What Are The Main Product Lines?
The different Les Paul models fall into 4 main groups of products:
- Epiphone Les Pauls
- Gibson USA-line Les Pauls
- Gibson Custom Shop Historic Reissues
- Other Gibson Custom Shop Les Pauls
Epiphone is Gibson’s equivalent to Fender’s Squire range. They make their guitars out in the Far East, where labour costs are much less than in the States. As a result, Epiphones cost a lot less than USA-made Gibsons do.
The USA-line Les Pauls are (broadly speaking) the main mass-produced factory-line of Les Pauls. These are models like the Standard, Traditional, Classic and Deluxe. Gibson being Gibson, you just can’t go on the names alone to understand what you’re getting. Specs change from year to year, and there’s a lot of overlap between the different models.
Historic Reissues – known as RIs on forums – seek to accurately recreate the instruments from the 50s and 60s. The most common ones are 57, 58, 59 and 1960 reissues. Broadly speaking, 59 reissues have the most eye-catching maple tops, and are normally more expensive than the other reissues. 58 RIs have plainer tops – and are therefore cheaper – and often sound exactly like a 59 RI. Reissues are made by the Gibson Custom Shop, and confusingly new ones (at the time of writing) are longer called reissues.
The Custom Shop also makes a bunch of other Les Pauls – the Les Paul Custom, artist signature models, plus limited runs such as Collectors Choice. You also get instruments that have been painted or aged by Tom Murphy, the legendary Custom Shop employee who pioneered relicing Les Pauls in the factory.
(Some older Les Paul Customs were made by the USA-line factory, and some artist signature models are USA-line made as well. Gibson wouldn’t be Gibson without being a confusing and inconsistent mess!)
The Custom Shop also has a programme called ‘Made 2 Measure’, which will build you the Les Paul of your dreams (a bit like what the Fender Custom Shop does) for a price.
Finally, Gibson Memphis used to put out a Les Paul model or two every now and then, such as the Les Paul ES. (Gibson closed their Memphis division in 2019.) They’re quite rare instruments, and while the advice here does apply to them, I kinda feel that they really fall outside what I’m talking about today.
How do these different product groups compare to each other?
Epiphone vs Gibson USA
I’ve got very limited experience with Epiphone, and Gibson has completely overhauled their Epiphone range since I last owned an Epiphone.
If you do decide to go Epiphone, you can always change out the pickups and pots at a later date for the same types that go into Gibsons. The advantage of this approach is that you don’t have to find all the money in one go.
You’re not going to get the same result as buying a USA-line Les Paul or a Custom Shop model. But you’ll save a lot of money, and you might find that you prefer the Epiphone model more.
Gibson USA vs Custom Shop
Do your own research, and you’ll find that this is a debate that has no clear consensus.
In my opinion, Les Pauls made in the Custom Shop sound better than Les Pauls from the USA factory range. It isn’t always true: I’ve played Custom Shop Les Pauls that had no life in them whatsoever, and I’ve played USA-line Les Pauls that sound every bit as good as a Custom Shop model. But it’s a good rule of thumb.
There’s something more 3D to the sound. I’m sorry if that’s utterly unhelpful to you at first. It’s one of those things that doesn’t make any sense until you hear it. And I’m sorry again, but you might not hear it anyways. Human hearing varies quite a bit from person to person, and is easily damaged.
I’ve no idea what causes this sound difference. It’s not something you can upgrade a Les Paul to have. I’ve tried and failed. I’ve changed everything but the wood on a Les Paul, and still not achieved it. Go figure.
Is it important? Will you hear it in the room? (Perhaps. Even with a bad amp, your amp will sound better than it has any right to.). Will you hear it at a live gig? (Almost certainly not). Will you hear it on a recording? (Again, probably not). So is it worth the steep price difference? To some people: yes.
There’s other differences too between USA-line and Custom Shop models, but in my opinion, the difference in sound is the one that matters the most.
The hard part with Custom Shop Les Pauls is finding enough of them to audition. Over here in the UK, there’s only a handful of places that have a decent number of Custom Shop Les Pauls to go and try. It used to be easier, but that’s a story for down the pub!
Evaluating A Les Paul
My Evaluation Checklist
There’s 8 things about a Les Paul that help me decide whether not it’s the right one for me. This list works just as well for USA-line Les Pauls as it does for Custom Shop Les Pauls. It also works on Les Paul alternatives from PRS, Eastman, Maybach and the like.
- Vintage or modern?
- Fretboard wood
- Neck carve
- Acoustic liveliness
- Neck pickup clarity
- Bridge pickup nature
This list helps me pick Les Pauls that suit me. Use it as a starting point, and adjust it to suit your own needs.
The underlying premise is this: bad Les Pauls all sound the same. The good ones have unique voices. (I’ll expand on that towards the end of the blog post.) Those are the ones I’m looking for.
Vintage Or Modern?
When I’m talking about “vintage” or “modern”, I’m talking about the kind of tone that any particular Les Paul is trying to offer.
- Vintage tone is chasing the bright, low-output sounds associated with the Gibson PAF humbuckers of the late 50s.
- Modern tone is a hotter, more mid-scooped sound associated with hard rock and metal since the turn of the century.
Most Les Pauls offer some flavour of vintage tone.
Both Custom Shop and USA-line models will do the vintage thing, but depending on the model, you may need to change the pickups to get there. Some Gibson pickups – like the 490R/T set – are not low-output pickups.
If you like the guitar but don’t get on with how hot the pickups are, don’t be afraid of buying it. You’ll find that there’s a better guitar than you realise hidden behind those pickups.
My Les Paul Custom was like that: a vintage-inspired guitar that came stock with (for me) stupidly hot pickups. I bought it, swapped them out for a great set of aftermarket pickups, and it was my #1 Les Paul for many happy years.
On the flip side, vintage-voiced pickups are popular amongst rock and metal bands too. It’s not all EMG pickups all the time. Metallica’s Kirk Hammett regularly plays live with one of the most famous and storied vintage Les Pauls, and he sounds great.
The classic Les Paul tone comes from a guitar with a mahogany neck and back, maple cap, and a rosewood fretboard. That combination delivers that Les Paul mid-range honk that’s loved the world over.
Many USA-line instruments follow that formula. Many, but not all.
Some Les Pauls use ebony fretboards, or a fake-ebony composite material called Richlite. These are typically Les Paul Customs of one kind or another, but they can turn up on some USA-line Les Pauls from year to year.
I have a Les Paul Custom, and it doesn’t quite sound like a Les Paul Standard. In my experience, the ebony / richlite Les Pauls have more highs and lows, which means they don’t sound as honky as a Standard does. They’re much more versatile instruments.
Some folks are really down on Richlite. If you’re buying a guitar for historical accuracy, I can sympathise with wanting an ebony fretboard. But otherwise? I can’t tell the difference between the two, in looks or in tone. There’s no reason to pass on a Les Paul Custom just because it has a Richlite board.
Some Custom Shop Les Pauls have used Brazilian rosewood for the fretboards. They’re highly sought after, as some people believe that these guitars offer the best vintage tones of all. I haven’t played one, so I have no opinion either way.
Gibson has used other fretboard woods over the years, mostly when they’ve had trouble finding quality (or legal) rosewood. I’ve owned a Les Paul Classic Plus with a baked maple fretboard, and it sounded fantastic. I’ve also owned a Les Paul Signature T with a granadillo fretboard, and it also sounded great.
But if you want that Les Paul sound, you want a guitar with the traditional wood combinations. You can’t get it by changing out the pickups after you’ve bought the guitar.
Colour And Finish
I’m a visual person. How the guitar looks matters to me. Looks are entirely subjective. And they have nothing at all to do with how the instrument will sound.
Except for one aspect: the finish.
Most Les Pauls are sealed with a thick glossy coat of nitrocellulose. Some people (me included) believe that instruments with a thinner coat – known as the VOS finish – can sound better. The VOS finish is only available on Custom Shop Les Pauls.
Reliced instruments – guitars that have been artificially aged to look like they’re old guitars – also end up with a thinner coat of nitrocellulose. Relicing has become quite the thing in the Fender world, and there, we’re seeing a growing trend of people choosing reliced guitars because they sound better.
My mate Andrew, who owns my local guitar shop, once told me that the guitar neck is what sells an instrument. That makes sense: it’s the part of the guitar that we have the most tactile contact with. If you get a guitar with a neck that doesn’t suit your hand or your technique, you’re not going to play that guitar no matter how good it sounds.
Les Paul necks often look the same to the naked eye, but in the hand, there’s a world of difference in how they feel.
USA-line Les Pauls (broadly speaking) have three kinds of neck carve:
- 50s style
- 60s style
- asymmetric slim taper
The 50s style is a fatter neck, the 60s style is a slimmer neck, and the asymmetric slim taper feels just like the 60s style neck. They vary a bit from guitar to guitar, but not a huge amount. They also vary from year to year, and these can vary a bit more.
Custom Shop Les Paul neck carves, in my experience, are not as consistent.
By and large, the necks go from baseball bat to merely chunky as you go through the 54 to 59 RI models. It’s only a rule of thumb, and exceptions are common. There are 58 RIs out there with thinner necks than some 59 RIs, for example.
The fatness of the neck isn’t just down to the depth of the neck from fretboard to back. The curve on the back of the neck – commonly called the shoulders of the neck – varies a lot too. The shoulders play a big part in how comfortable a neck is to grip. This is another area where Custom Shop RIs will vary quite a bit from individual guitar to individual guitar.
Then we get to the 60 RI models, which are different again. They have much thinner necks than any of the preceding RI models – very similar in feel to the necks on USA-line Les Pauls. These necks are often known as the ‘V2’ or the ‘V3’ neck profile.
Finally, the Les Paul Custom has its own unique neck carve too. This is a fat neck like a 59 or a 58 RI, but very rounded. It’s commonly described as a ‘C’ profile. And, for me, it’s the most comfortable neck carve that Gibson does.
Comfort is a subjective thing, and your taste may change over time. Mine has.
Five years ago, there’s no way I would have gone for a Les Paul with a really fat neck. I just couldn’t play them. Trying to do so would quickly give me hand cramp. Today, it’s almost the opposite way round. I’m much more comfortable playing fatter necks than slimmer ones. I’ve no idea why my preference has changed like this.
Does the neck size affect tone? I don’t believe so, no. I’ve got a custom-built Les Paul Junior-type guitar with one of the skinniest necks around, and it’s an absolute tone monster.
At least there’s one thing we don’t have to worry about, and that’s how the back of the neck feels. I can’t play most PRS guitars, because my hand sticks to the neck. It’s a problem I just don’t get with Gibson Les Pauls.
USA-line Les Pauls normally have some form of weight relief. (For 2020, Gibson started making some USA-line Les Pauls without weight relief, due to popular demand.) Mahogany is a heavy wood (and the maple used for the cap is even heavier!) so Gibson routes out sections of the body to make sure that the guitar isn’t back-breakingly heavy.
Some people say it affects the tone. I think it can, but most of the time it doesn’t seem to.
I say ‘most’ because I have a Les Paul Classic where the weight relief has made a significant difference. Since I did a pickup upgrade on it, that particular guitar has an almost semi-hollow aspect to the overall tone. It’s hard to explain, because I don’t really understand what I’m hearing.
For most Les Pauls, the main thing about the weight isn’t the tone – it’s the comfort. A heavy Les Paul isn’t something you can play standing up if you have a bad back or are getting on a bit. Sat down, a heavy Les Paul constantly wants to fall off your lap, and you end up holding the neck tighter to stop that happening.
I’ve had a heavy Les Paul, and I wouldn’t buy another heavy one. I know from experience that I just wouldn’t play it enough to be worth it.
In my opinion, instruments that sound dead when played unplugged sound just as dead once they’re plugged in. I think it’s because I choose instruments with low output pickups, and I don’t use a lot of gain on the amp or pedals.
If you’re choosing hotter pickups, and you’re going to play with a lot more gain, then it’s not important. In my experience, dial up the pickups and the dirt, and you drown out the voice of the guitar.
When I’m auditioning instruments, I’ll play them side by side unplugged first. I’m not just listening, I’m paying attention to how it feels. I want it to ring, resonate, and feel alive in a musical way.
If the instrument sounds dead, I’ll sometimes ask for the strings to be changed, just to rule that out as a cause. If the strings are visibly in a poor state, no reasonable shop is going to object. Equally, if the strings look pretty new, I don’t like asking, because it’s probably not the strings.
All I’m doing here is trying to narrow down which Les Pauls I want to plug into an amp. You can’t tell a good Les Paul from a great one by listening to it unplugged in a noisy shop.
Neck Pickup Clarity
Gibson Les Paul neck pickups have a tendency to be muddy, to my ears at least. It’s a sound that many people adore. It’s just not for me.
Why do I check this? Can’t it be solved afterwards with a soldering iron?
I find it’s something that you can’t guarantee can be sorted out through pickup or electronics upgrades.
You can get aftermarket pickups with different EQ profiles. It is something that you can try. I’ve had very limited success with it. Maybe you’ll have more success than me.
What has worked reliably for me is reducing the value of the capacitor on the neck pickup circuit. These capacitors act as frequency filters – the higher the value of the capacitor, the more top-end gets filtered out of the final tone.
As far as I understand it, these capacitors don’t filter out low-end frequencies. You’re pretty much stuck with the amount of low-end that the guitar naturally has, if the pickup trick mentioned above doesn’t work for you.
As a result, if I don’t like what I’m hearing with the neck pickup, I prefer to pass on the guitar.
Bridge Pickup Nature
What do I mean by ‘bridge pickup nature’? It’s a bit of an odd term.
What I’m doing here is flipping back and forth between the middle position (both humbuckers) and the bridge position (just the bridge position). I’m using this to try and and work out what kind of Les Paul it might be.
I’ll start in the middle position, neck volume on 4, bridge volume on 8-9, and tone rolled back to suit the amp I’m auditioning through. I’ll switch between the middle and the bridge pickup without changing the other controls, and just see what the instrument can do.
What is it that I’m trying to understand?
- Some Les Pauls are rhythm guitars.
- Some Les Pauls are articulate musical scalpels.
- Some are ‘look at me’ attention-seeking rock monsters.
- The rest all sound the same, and aren’t interesting to me (they might be to you).
I’m a rhythm guitarist at heart. I have a soft spot for a guitar that’ll happily sit in the background and just blend in. The trick is finding one that still has a bit of character to it, still got an interesting voice. I’m listening for clarity in the top-end, and authority when playing on the lower strings. I’m listening for less-dominant mids.
What I call ‘articulate scalpels’ leap out at you from the very first note. The first clue is that the neck pickup doesn’t sound warm when played through a clean amp. Switch to the bridge, and they’ll often sound cutting – but without sounding harsh. They sound like an old recording. I haven’t come across many of these.
The attention-seeking rock monsters are the ones most people think of when they listen to the Les Paul sound in their head. There’s something about a rock monster Les Paul that’s special. They make any amp sound better. They draw an audience. They add a swagger to your playing.
That just leaves all the other Les Pauls, what I often call the “bad” ones. Maybe the “bland” ones would be a better description. These are the ones that all sound just like each other. They’re perfectly fine instruments, and honestly, many people are very happy with them.
I think they’re missing out.
Les Pauls Each Have A Unique Voice
There’s something about the design and/or manufacturing of a Les Paul that results in an important difference: they don’t all sound the same. At all.
In my experience, the magic of the Les Paul is in how they all have their own unique voice. Pick two off the wall, and they’re going to sound different. Or, as I like to say, only the “bad” ones sound the same.
If you’re used to the tonal consistency of Fender or PRS guitars, this might seem like it’s a problem of some kind. Indeed, it is something that people complain about online. Ignore those complaints. Search until you find one that speaks to you, and you’ll have a guitar that you’ll love for life.
(PS: play enough Fenders and PRS guitars, and you’ll find that some of them have unique voices too. It’s just a lot rarer than with Gibsons.)
Try In Person If You Can
If you can, go to a physical guitar shop or music store, and try their Les Pauls in person. It’s the best way to find one with a sound that suits you.
Ask them to setup an amp (and maybe some pedals) that you’re already familiar with. That way, you’ll have an easier time understanding what you’re hearing, and it’ll be easier to hear the differences between each Les Paul that you try.
Don’t be afraid to disagree with the people in the store, and don’t be afraid to walk away if none of the Les Pauls speak to you. Most folks in music stores have their favourite Les Pauls, and it’s perfectly natural that they’ll recommend those to you. Don’t feel like they must be right (and you must be wrong) because they’ve got more experience with Les Pauls than you have.
Remember the cardinal rule: if there’s doubt, there is no doubt. (Yes, that’s from Ronin. It’s still a good rule!) And it works both ways. If you find yourself bonding with a particular Les Paul, you’re better off buying it there and then. It might be a long time before you find another Les Paul that speaks to you in the same way.
Brand New vs Second Hand
You don’t have to buy a brand new Les Paul. There’s no shortage of second hand models on places like eBay or Reverb.
For me, the main problem with buying second hand is being able to try them first. I don’t live in (or near) a major city; the second hand Les Pauls that catch my eye always seem to be hundreds of miles away.
That said, it’s a lot harder to find new Les Pauls in stores than it used to be. Gibson’s dealer network over here has shrunk considerably, and I can only think of a couple of stores that still display a lot of Les Pauls to try. Even the big dealers and specialists often only have half a dozen or so Les Pauls on the wall these days – if that.
Be prepared to travel a fair bit to find the right Les Paul for you.
Good Years vs Bad Years
You might have noticed that “year of manufacture” was not on my evaluation checklist.
I don’t buy into the popular idea that there are “good wood years” and “bad wood years” for Gibson Les Pauls. If I’ve played one, I must have played a hundred Les Pauls by now, and in my experience, the year that it was made has no bearing at all on whether it’s going to sound good or not.
There’s one exception to this rule, but it’s got nothing to do with Gibson’s choice of wood.
The 2015 Les Paul Models
In 2015 – and thankfully, only for 2015 – Gibson changed the design of the Les Paul. They made the neck wider. They replaced the traditional nut with a “zero fret” made of metal. They replaced manual-wind tuners with a mechanical system.
And they were such a commercial disaster, Gibson dumped unsold stock direct to market via Amazon for rock-bottom prices. I bet that went down well with their dealer network!
I’ve never played one. I have no opinion on whether or not you should get one. Some people will find the wider neck more comfortable to play. If you play a lot of open chords or notes, you might prefer the sound of a zero fret. And you can replace the robo-tuners if you don’t like them.
If you go for a 2015 model (you’ll recognise them by the ‘Les Paul 100’ script logo on the front of the headstock), make sure you pay less than for similar models from any other year.
Other Points To Consider
I think I’ve covered the main points above. In no particular order, here’s a list of anything else I can think of.
Watch Out For Fakes
There are folks out there who sell fake Gibsons. They’re commonly called “Chibsons”, because many of them are made in factories out in China. Apart from being fraudulent, the consensus is that they’re often not viable musical instruments.
It’s not really a problem here in Britain, but it does seem to be a thing if you’re in the States.
The “PAF Sound”
Gibson’s humbuckers from the late 1950s are known as PAFs, because they had a little sticker on the back of them that said “Patent Applied For”. They’re considered the holy grail of low-output guitar pickups, and you’ll often see marketing bumph for Les Pauls talk about how they capture that “PAF sound”.
I’ve never played a vintage Les Paul. I’ve never heard one live. I couldn’t tell you what a real PAF pickup sounds like. And neither could most people who go absolutely nuts for the “PAF sound”. I guess that’s why they often disagree on what it means.
The general consensus is that Gibson’s own pickups fall short of this holy grail sound. Whether or not that’s true, I can tell you that most Gibson Les Pauls do sound better once the Gibson pickups have been replaced. Sometimes, much much better.
There’s a huge cottage industry of (mostly) small firms making boutique pickups that chase the “PAF sound”.
If you go down this rabbit hole, there’s something important that you need to know before you start. You can take any set of PAF-like pickups, put them in two different Les Pauls, and they’ll sound different. Despite what people insist about how the pickups / electronics are 100% of the sound, it’s simply not true in practice.
Just be prepared to try multiple sets of pickups before you find a set that works with your particular Les Paul. My record is 4 different sets before I found ones that suited my most troublesome Les Paul.
There are many other excellent pickup makers out there too.
This has been a bit of a long post. I’m sorry about that. And yet, I’m still only scratching the surface.
Choosing a Les Paul just isn’t like choosing a Fender guitar or a PRS guitar. I wish it was; it’d be a hell of a lot easier! The Les Paul really is something different. And I hope you find yours one day.
If there’s anything I haven’t covered, leave me a question down in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer it. You can also go and watch The Trogly’s Guitar Show over on YouTube. The guy who makes it knows so much more about Les Pauls than I ever will. It’s a great resource to learn from.