Gibson Les Paul Buyers Guide

What is a Les Paul?

 

When you think of an electric guitar, the first model that comes to mind is very often the Gibson Les Paul. You've seen the Gibson Les Paul on stage in the hands of many of the world's most renowned guitarists. But what makes a Les Paul unique? Let's start with a little bit of history. The Gibson Guitar Company joined forces with guitar virtuoso and inventor Les Paul to design one of the industry's first solid-body electric guitars. Introduced in 1952, the Gibson Les Paul advanced the existing concept of the solid-body electric guitar with an innovative design and features that made it an instant classic. These included:

  • Gibson’s iconic single-cutaway design
  • A carved maple top, reminiscent of popular Gibson archtop models
  • A solid, lightweight mahogany body
  • A glued-in “thick” mahogany neck
  • A rosewood fingerboard with trapezoid inlays
  • Dual pickup configuration

 

Why a Les Paul?

You hear people speak highly of the Gibson Les Paul, but you're probably wondering, why does the Gibson Les Paul stand as one of the most popular guitars of all time?

  • The Les Paul is one of the most enduring solid body electric guitar models in the industry, and even over half a century later, it retains that distinctive styling, feel and tone that's truly unique to the Les Paul.
  • There's a Les Paul for everyone — Each and every Les Paul model offers unique features to meet the specific demands of today's players (and collectors). From beginners to seasoned professionals, and for a number of genres and styles, there's a Les Paul that's sure to satisfy.
  • The Les Paul is the choice instrument of countless guitar legends including Slash, Jimmy Page, Ace Frehley, Duane Allman, Pete Townshend, Joe Perry, Randy Rhoads, Zakk Wylde and many more.

 

Les Paul Features

Today, Gibson offers many variations of the Les Paul, but for now, let's just get started with some of the basic Les Paul features:

  • Classic Single Cutaway Design Crafted with a Carved Maple Top and a Solid Mahogany Back
  • Glued-In Mahogany Neck with a 22-fret rosewood Fingerboard
  • Dual humbucking pickups with Independent Volume and Tone Controls for each Pickup and a 3-Way Pickup Selector Switch
  • Tune-O-Matic Bridge and Stopbar Tailpiece

 

A Classic Pairing of Tonewoods: Maple and Mahogany

Since the very beginning, maple and mahogany have been the go-to tonewood combination used on the Gibson Les Paul models. A maple top offers enhanced definition, clarity and snap, while a mahogany back adds depth and richness These perfectly matched woods are also known to produce a tight low-end while providing a bit more cut in the higher frequencies.

 

Maple Tops

Originally, the Gibson Les Paul featured relatively plain maple tops that were hidden beneath a flashy Gold finish, often referred to as “Gold Top” Les Pauls. Then, in response to a decline in Les Paul sales, Gibson revamped the Les Paul line by introducing a sunburst finish that revealed the grain patterns of the maple top in 1958. And while the maple tops on those 1958 Les Pauls were also relatively plain, by 1959 Les Pauls began flaunting more visually appealing figured maple tops. Soon, figured maple tops become an important part of the Les Paul image.

 

Today, Gibson continues to offer a variety of grades and types of figured maple tops on their many Gibson Les Paul models. Here are some things you should know:

  • Maple tops are graded based on the amount of figuring the top displays, ranging anywhere from grade-A (lightest figuring) to premium grade-AAAA (and sometimes they can even grade beyond that). Which is better is a matter of personal preference.
  • Gibson primarily uses two types of figured tops on its Les Paul guitars: flame maple and quilt maple. Again, neither is objectively better than the other; this too is a matter of personal preference.

—Flame Maple Tops display more of a tiger-stripe grain pattern

—Quilt Maple Tops exhibit more of a wavy or curly grain

 

 

Flame Maple Top

 

Quilt Maple Top

 

 

Mahogany Body: Solid or Weight Relieved?

Of course, the mahogany body ranges from one Les Paul Model to the next just as the maple tops do, but not all those differences are visible from the outside. While some Les Paul models still hold true to the original design with a completely solid mahogany back, other Les Paul models feature a back that's undergone one of the weight relieving techniques used by Gibson USA, mainly as a way to reduce the weight of the guitar. Let's take you through the some of the differences between the three relief routs Gibson uses, and why someone might prefer one type over another:

 

Traditional Weight Relief is the oldest of the three techniques. In this technique, nine holes are strategically routed into the lower bout on the bass side of the Les Paul's mahogany body (before the maple top is attached). Traditional weight relieved Les Pauls will be lighter then true solid bodies, but still have enough weight for a solid feel, while also improving the guitar's resonance. A Les Paul with traditional weight relief would be good if you prefer a more solid feel at a weight that's not too overbearing.

 

Chamberd: On the other end of the spectrum, full-on chambering is a more extreme type of weight relieving technique. For this technique, large, oval chambers are routed into either side of the central core (where the pickups and bridge are mounted) of the mahogany body of the Les Paul. Naturally, since there is more room inside the body, there's more room for the sound to resonate. The Les Pauls that use the chambering technique tend to have more of an acoustic resonance and are much lighter in comparison to traditional and modern weight relieved Les Pauls. These Les Pauls are ideal if you prefer a lighter guitar with a more resonant tone.


Modern Weight Relief stands as a compromise between traditional weight relieving and chambering—employing several smaller elliptical sound chambers within the Les Paul body. The result of modern weight relief is a resonance and weight that falls somewhere in between traditional weight relief and chambering. A Les Paul with modern weight relief would be perfect if you want a guitar that's not overly resonant and isn't too heavy or too light.


Each Les Paul will have slight variances in both top figuring and weight—even between two Les Pauls of the same exact model. To see a wide variety of the some of the most stunning Gibson Custom Les Paul and Gibson Les Paul models in stock now at Sam Ash Direct, check out our Guitars of Distinction collection, where we have an extensive inventory of Les Paul guitars that are listed by individual serial number, photographed and weighed to capture each guitar’s subtle differences.

 

Les Paul Neck, Fingerboard and Inlays:

Neck

Gibson offers a variety of neck profiles for the Les Paul. When comparing the neck profiles of Gibson Les Pauls, thickness is a key factor. The shape of the neck is purely a matter of personal preference—and whether you prefer a thick neck or maybe one on the thinner side, there is a Gibson Les Paul with a neck that's sure to fit your fretting hand beautifully. Let's take a look at some of the different Les Paul neck profiles available:

 

Fingerboard and Inlays

Rosewood fingerboards are typically used for Gibson Les Pauls and depending on the model, the fingerboard may feature one of three common Gibson fretboard inlays: dot inlays (most common), trapezoid inlays and block inlays.

 


 

Common Gibson inlay patterns shown above: Dot, Trapezoid, Block, and Split-Block (featured on the Les Paul Supreme)


2014 Model Year

Guitars from the Gibson 2014 Model Year feature a special 120th Anniversary inlay at the twelfth fret (and a new Model Year serial numbering system which enhances collectability), and it appears on everything from the most stripped back SGJ to the flashiest 2014 Les Paul Standard Premium.

 

2014 Model Year 120th Anniversary inlay at 12th fret

 

Les Paul Pickups & Electronics: What's Under the Hood?

  • The P-90 Single-Coil Pickups were featured on the first Gibson Les Pauls from the early '50s. These legendary single-coil pickups will deliver that raw, powerful vintage tone reminiscent of the sound that helped define rock and blues as we know it. Just as they were over 50 years ago, today's P-90 pickups are ideal for genres ranging anywhere from mellow jazz to hotter blues and rock. Two updated P-90 pickups were introduced for 2014, including the dual-coil, hum-canceling Sidewinder P-90H pickup featured on the Gibson Les Paul Futura and the P-90SR/P-90ST neck and bridge pickups used on the Gibson Les Paul Melody Maker. Les Paul Models with P-90 pickups include the Gibson Custom 1954 Les Paul Goldtop Reissue, the Gibson Custom 1956 Les Paul Goldtop Reissue VOS, the Gibson Les Paul '50s Tribute, the Gibson Les Paul '50s Tribute with Min-ETune, and the Gibson Les Paul Tribute.
  • The Gibson 490R/490T “Modern Classic” Humbucking Neck/Bridge Pickups were inspired by the legendary tone produced by heavy blues-rockers of the late '60s—from Eric Clapton of Cream and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. The 490R (rhythm/neck Pickup) and 490T (treble/bridge pickup) are based on those coveted PAF (“Patent Applied For” ) humbuckers, both structurally and tonally. While retaining that classic tone, the 490R will also provide you with a much better response in the upper mid-range frequency. Sometimes, the 490R is paired up with a hotter version of the 490T—the 498T. These pickups dish out a hard rockin' tone that meets the needs of today's modern rockers. One of the best-selling Gibson USA Les Paul models, the Gibson Les Paul Studio, employ this killer pickup combo.
  • Gibson BurstBucker 1, 2 & 3 Humbucking Pickups were faithfully crafted in the image of those original Gibson PAF humbuckers. These first PAFs were wound by imprecise machines, leading to variations in both tone and output. Each pickup in the BurstBucker line captures such subtle nuance by using historically “unmatched” bobbin windings and Alnico II magnets. The result—three pickups that flawlessly recreate the coveted vintage tones of the original PAF pickups. The BurstBucker Type 1 is slightly underwound, and has the lowest output (6.5) of the three pickups, making the BurstBucker 1 the ideal pickup for the neck position. On the other end of the spectrum, the overwound BurstBucker Type 3 pickup has the highest output (8.4) of the three pickups, and it's hotter tone makes the BurstBucker 3 perfect for a scorching lead tone in the bridge position. A perfect fit in both the bridge and the neck positions is the medium output (7.4) BurstBucker Type 2. The BurstBucker Pro Humbucking Pickups can be considered the “turbo charged” version of the standard BurstBucker. The output levels of the BurstBucker Pro bridge (8.3) and neck (7.4) pickups are similar to that of the standard BurstBucker 2 and 3 pickups, but these pickups employ Alnico V rather than Alnico II magnets. The result is a beefier tone with more attack and drive. The tone of these pickups are well-suited for music genres ranging anywhere from blues to hard rock. Some models that feature BurstBucker Pro pickups include the Gibson Les Paul Studio Pro, which sports a BB Pro in the bridge position, and Gibson Les Paul Standard, which is the most widely known model to come stock with BurstBucker Pro humbucking pickups.
  • Just as with the BurstBuckers, the Gibson '57 Classic Humbucking Pickups are manufactured to accurately recreate the original PAF humbuckers, but without the inconsistencies in tone and output that resulted from the imprecise winding machinery used at the time. These pickups have an output of 7.5 and are crafted to the exact specifications of the originals to perfectly emulate that classic tone—using Alnico II magnets, nickel-plated pole pieces, nickel slugs and a maple spacer. The '57 Classic delivers a full palette of vintage tones with a nice warmth and balance across the entire tonal spectrum. Voiced specifically for the bridge position, the Gibson '57 Classic Plus is a bit hotter, with an increased output of 8.3, owing to its slightly overwound, unbalanced coils. The '57 Classic Plus will give you that extra spank needed for searing leads and solos. The Gibson 2014 Les Paul Classic and Les Paul Studio Pro both employ a '57 Classic humbucker in the neck position while the 2014 Gibson Les Paul Signature comes fully loaded with a pair of '57 Classic pickups in both positions.
  • Introduced for the 2014 model year, the 1959 Tribute Humbucking Pickups make use of Alnico II magnets and historically “unmatched” bobbin windings, much like the BurstBuckers, in order to produce the legendary tone of those first PAF humbuckers. These pickups offer that coveted vintage tone with an increased response in the trebles. And unlike the BurstBuckers, the '59 Tribute humbuckers use a reversed coil offset to provide balance between the coils. These pickups are featured in the Gibson 2014 Les Paul Traditional.
  • Also introduced in 2014, the 1961 Humbucking Pickups were also based upon the early PAF pickups. These '61 humbuckers make use of Alnico V magnets while the balance between the coils is maintained thanks to the reversed coil offset. These pickups produce that classic PAF tone while delivering enough power required for the contemporary styles of today. Some models that use the '61 Humbucking Pickup are the Gibson LPM and the Gibson LPJ (which features the Zebra-Coil version of the '61 Humbuckers for a fierce look), and the Gibson Les Paul Peace, which features the chrome-covered version of these pickups.

 

Coil-Tapping:

Many Les Paul models also come with coil-tapping capabilities, which allows for an expansive array of tonal possibilities. This feature enables you to quickly switch between humbucker and single-coil tone at the simple pull or push of a knob.

 

Les Paul Hardware:

Gibson Les Paul Bridge/Tailpiece

 

A majority of the Gibson Les Paul guitars employ a Tune-o-matic Bridge and Stop Bar Tailpiece. On certain specialty Les Paul models, Gibson makes use of other types of bridges and tailpieces such as a Wrap-Around Trapeze tailpiece as seen on the Gibson Les Paul Tribute, a Bigsby Vibrato tailpiece as seen on the Gibson Les Paul Recording Guitar, and a Floyd Rose tailpiece as seen on the Gibson Les Paul Axcess models.

 

Gibson Les Paul Tuners:

Gibson Les Paul guitars feature a variety of high-quality tuners, depending on the model, including Gibson tuners, Kluson tuners, Tone Pros tuners and Grover tuners.

 

Gibson Les Paul Control Knob Styles

The two main knob styles used for the Gibson Les Paul are the “top hat knobs” and “speed knobs.” Top hat knobs come in black gold, and vintage amber. Speed knobs come in black or gold.

 

Gibson Les Paul Hardware Finishes:

Depending on the model, the Gibson Les Paul may feature chrome, nickel or gold hardware.

 

Les Paul Min-ETune:

 

As a leading innovator in the musical instrument manufacturing industry for over a century, and with over 60 years of revolutionizing the solid body electric guitar, it's no surprise that Gibson would eventually offer a Les Paul that can tune itself. In December 2007, Gibson changed the world of guitars forever with the Gibson Robot Les Paul Studio, and more recently, Gibson took automated tuning to a whole new level with the Min-ETune Automated Tuning System. Mounted onto the back of the headstock, this compact, battery-powered Min-ETune will provide players with performance ready, on the fly tuning capabilities with your choice of twelve alternate tunings, including six tunings that you can program yourself.

 

How does the Min-ETune work?

Tuning your guitar to perfection is as simple as a press of a button and a strum of the strings. You can either manually adjust the tuning pegs, power up the Min-ETune and strum to automatically tune all six strings to perfect pitch or choose from any of the 12 preset tunings, strum and watch your guitar tune itself to any of those alternate tunings with unparalleled accuracy.

 

Why Min-ETune?

For one thing, the Min-ETune offers the quickest, most precise way to tune your guitar, plus the expansive palette of guitar tunings will enhance your creativity when writing, recording or performing. Unlike many other automated tuning systems, the Min-ETune physically tunes your guitar strings as opposed to digitally altering the sound that comes out of your amp to achieve your desired tuning.

 

Les Paul Min-ETune Models

Some Min-ETune equipped Les Paul Models include:

 

Gibson PLEK System:

Although most of the work on guitars at the Gibson factories is still done by hand, the Gibson PLEK system has changed guitar playability as we know it. The Gibson PLEK System is used on all Gibson Custom guitars, is even used on a many Gibson USA models as well. In a nutshell, this revolutionary system is a “robot” controlled by a computer that accurately reads a guitar's fret, then automatically files and finishes them until they've reached the desired action, which is determined by a Gibson technician—this precise setup results in a guitar with superb playability. The PLEK machine even knows exactly where to cut the nut for the optimum slot height and string spacing relative to the fret height and fingerboard edges.

 

Les Paul Families

The Les Paul electric guitar has come a long way since its introduction in 1952. In fact, today there are several “families” within the Les Paul line—the major differences between them are where they are built, the quality of the parts, tonewoods and components chosen for the Les Paul, and the quality of their fit and finish. These families (in order of increasing quality) include the Epiphone Les Paul, the Gibson USA Les Paul and the Gibson Custom Les Paul.

 

Epiphone Les Paul Electric Guitars

 

Epiphone offers entry-level to mid-level variations of the world's most popular guitar model, the Les Paul. Today, these Les Pauls are made in Epiphone's Gibson Qingdao (GQ) Factory in China under the management of two experienced Gibson veterans that have over 35 years of combined experience under their belts, Lloyd Williams and Scott Lewis. Although these Epiphone Les Pauls may not use the same premium electronics and pickups as the Gibson Les Pauls or Gibson Custom Les Pauls, the Epiphone Les Pauls still use high-quality components and materials (in comparison to many entry level instruments), and undergo extensive quality control. Some Epiphone Les Paul models include:

 

Epiphone also offers some custom signature models including:

 

Gibson USA Les Paul

Gibson USA Les Paul guitars are crafted in the Gibson USA Nashville, Tennessee, factory, which was originally built specifically for the production of Les Paul guitars back in 1974. Each Gibson USA Les Paul is treated with the utmost care—from maintaining 45 percent humidity level in the factory (to preserve the resonant qualities of the tonewoods) to undergoing extensive quality control several times throughout the entire guitar making process.

Although machines are used to perfect the Gibson USA Les Pauls, most of the work is performed by hand by the skilled luthiers and craftsmen at Gibson USA. Not only do these jobs require a steady hand, but they also require a keen eye for detail and plenty of patience, and the end result—a Les Paul that plays, feels, looks and sounds like a million bucks. These Gibson USA Les Pauls include:

 

What's New for the Gibson Les Paul in 2014?

The year 2014 marks an important part of Gibson history—the 120th Anniversary of Gibson. For over a century, Gibson has been known worldwide as the leading innovators in the musical instrument industry, and today Gibson continues to honor their roots by holding faithful to the tradition of innovation with several additions to the Les Paul line plus a slew of ground-breaking features for 2014. Some of these revolutionary 120th Anniversary Les Paul features include:

  • A variety of new finish options
  • Graph Tech nut and proprietary strings for ultimate playability
  • Precise setup by innovative PLEK technology
  • One-piece fingerboards provide enhanced sustain
  • Undercut frets over binding for fast playability and a smooth feel
  • Corrosion-resistant cryogenic treated frets for a longer lasting fret life
  • Next-Generation Min-ETune automated tuning system
  • Built-in 15dB boost on select models
  • Non-slip, easy to grip speed knobs
  • Enlarged, redesigned strap buttons for unparalleled security

 

Gibson 2014 Les Paul Futura


Gibson 120th Anniversary 2014 Les Paul models include:

 

Gibson Custom Les Paul Electric Guitars

Located in Nashville, Tennessee, the Gibson Custom Shop is the Gibson's most prominent link to their historic past—taking you back to the time of those finely crafted hand-made electric guitars. The Gibson Custom Shop employs some of the most talented masterbuilders, luthiers and craftsmen in the world, and aside from a few key processes that are streamlined by modern technology, a majority of the work they do on these guitars is implemented by hand, still utilizing many of the same hands-on procedures and techniques that trace back to the founder of Gibson himself, Orville Gibson.

Gibson Custom Shop Les Pauls are the holy grail of the entire Les Paul line. If you thought that Gibson USA was thorough and precise in their guitar craft, you'll surely be impressed by the amount of time and man-hours put into each and every Gibson Custom Les Paul—which becomes apparent the minute you lay your eyes on one, play one or hear one. Here is some background on the most prevalent series/Les Paul models offered by the Gibson Custom Shop:

 

Gibson Custom Historic Collection:

The Les Pauls in the Gibson Custom Historic Collection faithfully recapture some of the most iconic years of the Gibson Les Paul—from those early Gold Top Les Pauls to the coveted “Burst” Les Pauls of the late 1950s/early 1960s. These Gibson Custom Historic Reissue Les Pauls are all crafted in the image of the original—from the period-correct finishes and hardware down to the vintage-style custom wound pickups.

 

Gibson Custom Les Paul Goldtop Reissues

The Gibson Custom Goldtop Reissue Les Pauls pay homage to those early Les Paul models whose maple tops wore that distinctive gold finish. Depending on the model, Gibson Custom Les Paul Goldtop reissues come equipped with either a pair of soap-bar style P-90 pickups (pre-1957 Goldtop Reissues) or a set of humbuckers on the 1957 Les Paul Goldtop Reissue, marking Gibson’s shift from using single-coil P-90 pickups to PAF humbucking pickups.

 

Gibson Custom Les Paul Standard Reissues

In response to the declining sales in the higher priced Goldtop Les Pauls, Gibson sought to revamp this high-end line with a more traditional look by introducing the first Les Paul with a cherry sunburst finish. Unlike like the Goldtop, this new finish would allow the Les Paul to show off the beautifully grained maple and superb bookmatching of the two-piece top. Today, these Les Pauls from 1958-1960 consist of the most collectible, and some of the rarest Les Pauls of all time (especially those made between 1959 and 1960). These 1958-1960 Les Paul Standard Reissues are an honest reflection of the three-year evolution of the iconic burst Les Pauls—capturing every fine detail unique to the production year with impeccable accuracy that is sure to amaze both the discerning player and the avid collector. For a more authentic, lightly used vintage aesthetic, these Les Paul Standard Reissues feature a gently aged VOS (Vintage Original Spec) finish. Some 1958 and '59 Les Paul Standard Reissue models are also offered with a gloss finish.

 

Gibson Custom Collector's Choice Les Paul

The Gibson Custom Collector's Choice series offers both players and collectors alike an exacting replica of a specific existing vintage Les Paul. These Collector's Choice Les Pauls are based on the actual vintage instruments owned by a handful of collectors and legendary guitarists. Thanks to the full cooperation of the owners of these stunning instruments, the Gibson Custom Shop is able to flawlessly recreate these prized and historic Les Pauls through meticulous examination of every aspect of the original instrument. Each Collector's Choice Les Paul embodies the tone, feel, looks and character of a particular instrument—from employing precise measurements and accurate electronics and hardware, all the way down to the exact wearing, dinging and scratching of the original guitar's finish.

 

Gibson Custom Les Paul Artist Models

Gibson Custom Les Paul Artists Models are inspired by specific Gibson guitars played by and associated with legendary guitarists. These Gibson Custom Les Paul Artist Models are usually made to the desired specifications of the artist themselves, which is perfect if you're looking to obtain the artists distinct sound and tone. Some of these signature models include:

 

Gibson Custom Les Paul: Vintage Original Spec (VOS)

The VOS or Vintage Original Spec Les Pauls capture the unmistakable tone, feel and looks of a true vintage Gibson Les Paul, so the big question you're probably asking yourself is how do they do this so flawlessly? The VOS series is the product of many years of meticulous examination of vintage Gibson guitars at the Gibson Custom Shop.

  • Each Gibson Custom VOS undergoes a proprietary hand-finishing process that employs period-correct aniline dyes, wood-fillers and historically accurate nitrocellulose finishes. The nitro finish allows the wood to breathe (unlike modern polyurethane finishes) which allows for a more open sound and slightly aged appearance.
  • The VOS Les Pauls feature historically accurate neck profiles that are shaped skillfully by hand to reproduce the three main Gibson guitar necks. The neck binding is also extended out and hand-rolled to provide enhanced player comfort and to maximize the playing surface. For superb playability, these VOS Les Pauls are set up with the utmost precision thanks to the revolutionary Gibson PLEK system.
  • The most important aspect of any guitar is of course its tone. In order to faithfully recreate the renowned vintage tone of those classic Les Pauls, the VOS Les Pauls make use of the finest tonewoods and are paired with historically correct hand-crafted pickups wound to Gibson’s exclusive Original Specifications.

 

Some Vintage Original Specifications include:

  • Lightweight Solid Mahogany Back
  • Historically Accurate Long Tenon Neck Joint for Increased Strength and Sustain
  • Bumble Bee Tone Capacitors
  • Correct Body Routing
  • Holly Headstock Veneer (as opposed to plastic fiber)
  • Tortoise Dot Side Markers
  • ABR-1 Bridge and Lightweight Stopbar Tailpiece