Ah, the Gibson Les Paul!
The Gibson Les Paul is a legend, and rightly so. A very sought after legend. It’s played by countless guitar heroes, and has a long and noble history I won’t go into here.
The Gibson Les Paul is, beyond all doubt, a marvellous instrument. It sports a look that hints really close at perfection. From the body shape to the headstock shape, from the fretboard inlays to the controls arrangement, the Les Paul is a thing of beauty. Along with its distinctive, iconic tone (that practically defined the sound of classic rock), this makes it a very desirable guitar.
I’m by no means a Les Paul expert, but I am looking for a Les Paul style guitar, which shouldn’t be missing from any guitarist’s arsenal. The wood selection and the two humbuckers with the typical wiring (’50s or modern), along with the 24.5” scale impart a timbre that is hard (if not impossible) to achieve otherwise.
There is only a tiny issue standing between me and the gorgeous ’59 Les Paul Standard reissue above: the $6,400 price tag. I can’t accept that any mass-produced guitar deserves that kind of money, but that’s subjective, and I’ll admit it. This is the reason I had to research the alternatives, and this article summarizes my research. I’m setting a budget of $500-$1000 for a guitar with the following features:
- mahogany body with a maple top
- classic Les Paul body shape, with as little variation from the original as possible
- mahogany neck, set neck joint, 24.5” scale
- a decent headstock shape (this is quasi-impossible to find outside Gibson, and I think Gibson knows it very well and they’re grinning sadistically as they continue to keep their prices absurdly high)
- classic or “modernized” classic overall look (metal aesthetics out of the question)
- two passive humbuckers, preferably good ones to avoid after-market spend
- typical Les Paul controls (two independent volumes, two tones, 3-way switch) if possible
I’ve included only new guitars, readily available on the market. I haven’t played most of them, so I really can’t say which is “better”, assuming there is some common, objective “good” or “better” or “best” in guitar matters.
I might be accused of judging a guitar by its looks. Guilty!
Looks are next to impossible to mod, just as wood cannot be changed without getting another guitar, basically. Playability, which is next on my priorities list, can be improved with a good setup, but only so far. The rest? I can mod the hell out of it. I can swap pickups all day long, I can come up with crazy wiring options. I can solder well, and solder is cheap. There’s a great deal I can do to the way the instrument sounds (and plays, within certain bounds), but almost nothing to the way it looks.
My goal is to bookmark all my inquiries and to show you that Gibson isn’t the only company to use the Les Paul concept, if you’re stuck with the “Gibson Les Paul and nothing else” mentality, like I used to be.
Cheaper Gibson Les Pauls
Let’s face it. Gibson’s Les Paul is the best implementation of the concept, hands down. To me, every single curve and proportion on that guitar is just perfect. Its size its perfect, too. All the other Les Paul incarnations are one whole step (ha-ha) behind it – something is always slightly off. The size. The lower horn. The funny body shape. The headstock shape. The fretboard inlays. This is a sad fact, but it is a fact – Gibson makes the best looking Les Pauls, full stop. And I’m not even talking about figured maple tops and binding.
It is worth investigating some cheaper alternatives in Gibson’s catalogue. The Studio series is the cheapest you’ll get, unless you go further down into the Les Paul Junior territory.
At this price, gone are the figured maple top and the binding. This model looks like a lower end Epiphone Les Paul, except the headstock still keeps its ineffable elegance. However, it comes equipped with Gibson’s own Burstbucker Pro pickups.
Here’s a video of a 2011 LP Studio Satin model:
There are quite a few cheaper LPs on Gibson’s menu, and I can’t say I fully understand why, but it gives you a chance to nose around and find something else that might suit you better, at a similar price. I’m not sure if a high-end Epiphone wouldn’t be a better deal, though.
Epiphone Les Paul
Epiphone. Gibson’s own “cheap” brand. Well.
Let’s take a look at this beautiful Epiphone Les Paul Custom PRO in Midnight Sapphire (transparent blue, for the uninitiated).
At about the same price as the Gibson Studio Faded LP above, this baby has body and neck binding, a solid maple top, straplocks, Grover 18:1 locking tuners, and comes loaded with USA Gibson pickups (’57 Classics) instead of the usual cheap, unbranded Asian stuff. Oh, and it offers coil splits (for those of you who can’t solder).
The deal looks awesome indeed.
A shame about the headstock, though. That ugly, bulky excrescence that makes me so reluctant to buy an Epiphone.
Whether or not it’s a better guitar that the Studio Faded, at the same price, remains to be established by the customer who tries them both. Judging by looks and specs only, I’d probably go for the Epi. But that headstock, though…
Here’s a short review:
ESP/LTD EC Series
Behold the inaptly named LTD EC-1000T/CTM DMZ BLK:
More than an exquisitely elegant instrument, this black (BLK) beauty sports a Tonepros locking Tune-O-Matic bridge and tailpiece, and Dimarzio (DMZ) PAF 36th Anniversary pickups.
The controls depart from the classic Les Paul, there is only one tone pot.
Aside from a slight headstock problem (that everyone is plagued with, except for Gibson), this is another guitar I’d tend to prefer to the Gibson Studio above.
This baby is briefly showcased here:
PRS SE 245
Next we look at the PRS SE 245.
There are no highlights with this instrument, except its good looks. Pretty standard Asian import guitar, with PRS’s own SE hardware and electronics. PRS is right next to Gibson when it comes to overpricing things, but this guitar seems fairly priced, it looks very nice, it’s well proportioned, and the SE line pickups seem to sound quite good, I especially liked the punchy, clear clean middle position in this demo:
As an afterthought, this guitar seemed a little small bodied when I tried it.
We shall now turn our attention to this fancy instrument – the DBZ Bolero FM3, pictured here in a superb Tiger’s Eye transparent finish.
This is obviously the successor of the Dean Soltero model, a design that Dean Zelinsky continues to use at DBZ after having left Dean Guitars, a design that boasts a “3D” top.
This good looker has a massive maple top and faux-binding, i.e. the binding is not your usual plastic strip, but the very maple top edge left unstained (PRS-style). It’s fitted with Grover tuners and gold cover Seymour Duncan humbuckers – the classic JB/’59 combo.
The controls are reduced to one volume and one control.
Having owned a Dean Soltero, I can confidently say it was a small guitar. If you’re a bigger guy, it would look tiny on you. I hope the Bolero hasn’t got the same problem.
Here’s a short (and pretty bad) presentation of the many incarnations of the DBZ Bolero by none other than Virus (whoever he is):
Vintage Guitars operate out of UK and apparently involve Trevor Wilkinson in their builds. The V100 is their take on the Les Paul, and it comes in a few flavours. Above, their AFD model, hinting at a certain famous album from a certain famous band that incorporates a certain famous hatted guitarist (Appetite For Destruction, Guns’n’Roses, Slash, that is).
The Vintage V100 AFD looks great, has Wilkinson hardware and pickups, straplocks, and a headstock closer to decent than Epiphone’s.
Here’s a raving review of it (with video).
Schecter Solo-6 Custom
This is a seriously awesome instrument, featuring Seymour Duncan pickups (Custom Custom bridge, ’59 neck), coil splits, Tonepros locking TOM bridge, locking tuners (Schecter’s own), body and neck binding, a Graphtech XL nut, and an ebony fretboard. It’s like it comes factory-equipped with most of the after market mods you’d do to a cheaper guitar!
The neck has a thin “C” profile, and it’s joined to the body via Schecter’s “all access” joint. As a Schecter C-1 Classic owner, I can testify that this is an amazingly comfy neck, and the “all access joint” is no hype – playing above the 17th fret is very natural and easy. Even the headstock is not bad at all.
I think many players turn away from Schecter due to their overwhelming offer of metal axes and their obvious catering to the metal crowd, but Schecter also makes some great modern-classic instruments. If there was a dealer nearby for me to try this guitar, it would be a very serious contender as a Gibson Les Paul alternative.
See a short demo showcasing its versatility:
Made by the glorious people of Sweden, this Les Paul-type guitar is a bit of a freak.
It has a separate mahogany top, instead of maple, and the fretboard is made of a material they call Resinator (sort of an artificial ebony made of phenolic resins and paper/cellulose), which is apparently very durable (and, of course, does wonders to the harmonic content of your every note, because Hagstrom says so).
The freakishness continues: in addition to the normal 3-way pickup selector, the guitar comes with a “3-way Sound Filter Toggle Switch”, which basically seems to cut bass, mids, or treble, respectively. Very interesting, and could come in very handy, since it’s basically an on board 3-band subtractive equalizer.
Hagstrom also offers a Super Swede model that has a 25.5” scale and coil splits, which would make for a very versatile instrument indeed, but its tone would probably be further removed from a Les Paul.
Watch a video about it below:
Honorable mention: Chapman ML-2
This model, by Chapman Guitars (an enterprise of Rob Chapman, the chap who joins the Cap’n in those hilarious Anderton’s UK gear reviews), is getting all the rave today, in some online circles.
Most Chapmans are presumably built as ideal modding/customization platforms, therefore are great for tinkerers.
These are, so they say, solid, workhorse guitars, made in Asia, but the quality control is very good.
This gets put under “Honorable mentions” because its lack of a maple top, the maple neck, 25” scale, and its 24 frets remove it too much from traditional Les Paul specs. But it does look the part, and has a surprisingly decent (i.e. not asymmetrical, bulky, over the top, or otherwise pointy) headstock shape, and features solid hardware, such as the Tonepros bridge and Grover tuners, along with Chapman’s own Guitarnivore humbuckers. Oh, and coil splits, too.
Here’s a talented kid comparing it with the genuine article (i.e. a Gibson Les Paul), for your edification:
There you have it.
None of these are the elusive “[Gibson] Les Paul killer”, because none has the sheer beauty of the original design, and Gibson knows it and won’t give it up any time soon lest they won’t be able to hold on to their high prices.
But they all look like viable alternatives, for a fraction of the price.