Most of us know some guitar-based songs, but there’s only really one guitar that’s a household name – the Gibson Les Paul.
In recent years the iconic status of this hunk of mahogany, wielded by everyone from GnR’s Slash, to Bob Marley, to Alice In Chains’ Jerry Cantrell, to Elvis, hasn’t been enough to save Gibson from going bankrupt, crashing and burning in 2018.
But now, a slimmed down, revved up Gibson is back and has returned to its roots – but has the first run of Gibson Les Pauls to be made in its rebooted form, honoured its star-studded heritage. Are they, to coin a phrase, any good?
RSNG found out when I borrowed a Gibson Les Paul Standard ‘50s for review…
My God, That Tone!
The Gibson LP has a rep for tone, that elusive, legendary quality that guitar players quest for across a whole universe of music and gear. What’s surprising is the hype is, for once, justified.
There’s something about the classic LP design that combines with the Standard ‘50s humbucking Burstbucker Alnico II pickups that gives chords heft, authority and depth, while at the same time being very sonically present – you feel it in your gut, but it never seems in danger of drowning in woolly bass. The mahogany body and neck of the guitar resonates with real power and has rich, creamy sustain, helped along by the body’s maple top.
The tone is basically a massive, chunky force that hammers and slides out of my amp’s speakers in a way that makes other guitars seem weak, by comparison.
A Flawed Classic?
If a modern engineer lifted the lid on the Gibson Les Paul DNA he'd be forgiven for thinking there had been some kind of mistake.
For a start, both the body and neck are made out of pieces of mahogany, a notoriously dark-sounding wood. Then the shorter-than-most 24.75 scale length of the neck introduces even more warmth and thickness into the tone. By rights, the Les Paul should sound like an angry avalanche carrying half a mountain of rocks. In the dark.
The fact that the tone is actually very balanced, while still having that Les Paul heft and thump, is kind of miraculous, and down to a combination of expertly selected tonewoods, as well as the LP’s classic, unshifting, design…
The other thing that’s often talked about is the angle of the Gibson Les Paul’s headstock angle, which is rakish and is often blamed for bad tuning stability on the G and D strings (perhaps because acute angles make the strings ‘stick’ in the nut) as well as being vulnerable to snapping if you whack it.
Having given the Les Paul Standard 50s a couple of weeks to settle in, I did notice a slight tendency for the G string to wander, requiring occasional tuning while in use. This could well be a result of the neck angle, but it could also be a result of the energetic riffing that the tone of this guitar demands from you! It’s much like any other guitar in that you should re-tune it regularly – go to a live show and you’ll see this happen all the time...
As for whacking your guitar this is never a good idea, anyway. Fortunately, the plush, fits-like-a-glove hardcase that the Les Paul Standard 60 comes in goes a very long way to help avoid this, especially as most other guitar brands don’t throw a hardcase into the deal, making their guitars vulnerable while you wait for a case to arrive separately.
One design feature I did find restrictive was the chunky neck heel, which made shreddy upper-fret access more difficult than on other single-cut guitars. (It doesn’t seem to stop Slash, however.) As with most variations, it requires a different technique, lifting the neck, or moving your thumb – whether you want to learn it is down to how much you value the rest of the package…
Sum Of The Parts
Here’s the thing: the net effect of all of Les Paul’s original design decisions, flawed as some of them may have been, was to forge a monstrous, versatile and flat-out inspiring guitar tone. Playing the 2020 Les Paul Standard 50s, with its meaty, resonating neck and body, I was fully convinced of this.
No one really knows why, but the Les Paul unique tone is a real and tangible thing, which just wouldn’t be the same if the interplay between all of these design features was altered by removing or editing one or some of them. It’s a kind of musical alchemy, which is fitting, given the degree of self-expression it allows its players.
‘It never felt like I was fighting the guitar to play as I wanted to – slides, trills and bends flew from my fingers without me having to force it’
The same short neck scale length that gives the Les Paul such warmth in its tone is also responsible for slightly slackening standard strings. This allows you to more easily bend the strings and use vibrato to bring your music alive by applying your own style, just as Slash does with his outrageous Les Paul solos.
I found that this, combined with the rounded curve of the ‘50s ‘Vintage’ neck profile – which filled my palm just about perfectly – translated to a really solid platform for doing bends and using vibrato up and down the neck. It never felt like I was fighting the guitar to behave as I wanted – slides, trills and bends techniques flew from my fingers without me having to force it.
It’s worth noting that Slash has his own signature Les Paul range this year, which also features a vintage style, medium-to-fat C-shaped neck. I suspect that the extra wood in the neck of his guitars contributes to his ungodly live tone, too.
Quality Back In Control
There’s something about lifting a brand new Gibson Les Paul from its hardcase, as the vanilla smell of the nitrocellulose lacquer wafts off it, that never gets old. What did get old, and fast, were the quality control issues that Gibson seemed to be having on its guitars as it got distracted by corporate acquisitions, and then lurched towards filing for Chapter 11.
Thankfully, on the evidence of this 2020 Les Paul Standard ‘50s, I can say that the days of slipping quality control are long gone. Everything about the guitar demonstrates extreme attention to detail. The set up is good with no fret buzz, the frets themselves feel great and I couldn’t find a single fault with the sunburst finish.
The grain of the maple is beautifully brought out, with the fiery bands disappearing and then reappearing as they catch the light, which is down to Gibson’s old-school use of nitrocellulose lacquer.
In today’s age, we’re used to being disappointed by our icons, but in the case of this guitar, that’s not true anymore. It’s official: the Les Paul is back to glorious form...