Fenders have always been the ultimate electric guitars for me, but at the same time, there’s always been that unattainable ideal just beyond them. That guitar is the Gibson Les Paul. I don’t know what originally drew me to the Les Paul: if it was the looks, the sound or the legend. All I know is that the minute I played one, I knew what I wanted. But at the same time, there was just no way that I could simply save up and then walk into the store and buy one. For some reason I had got the notion that you can’t just buy a Les Paul, you first have to deserve one. Probably I felt I deserved one well before I actually bought one, but at any rate, I didn’t get around to it until early 2001, when I was 24.
I sometimes think about which is the coolest electric guitar ever made: the Stratocaster or the Les Paul. You know, one of those silly little games you play with yourself or other guitar players. If you could play only one type of guitar for the rest of your life, which would you choose? Most of the time, it is really difficult to make up my mind. But looking back on the past 13 years, the answer couldn’t be clearer. Since I bought my Les Paul, it’s been my go-to guitar, my main girl, the one I turn to when everything else fails. I love my Fenders, but they’re only for when I’m in a Fender mood, and hindsight has proven that it seems like I am always in a Les Paul mood.
What strikes me most about the Les Paul is how incredibly suitable it is for heavy rock and metal, considering that it was designed almost two decades before those genres even existed. Indeed, it is an extremely versatile guitar and performs equally well with a clean sound, mild crunch or full-on distortion. The shorter scale makes for slinkier strings, and the flatter fretboard facilitates bending like nothing else. It is a shred machine, and at the same time, it can do cool jazz. To think that it is the only one of the four classic rock guitars to actually go out of production!
I might not be wild about the Les Paul ergonomics upon solemn reflection, but at least I’m used to them. My right hand is programmed to flick a pickup switch on the upper bass bout of a guitar. I have also got used to having the possibility to preset tones using the individual volume and tone controls for each pickup, even though it’s not possible to cradle the volume control in my right hand for quick adjustments.
My Les Paul is a black 1990 Studio model that I bought used. It has slowly but surely fallen to pieces over the years, but I’ve always been able to breathe new life into the old girl. The tuning keys fell apart a few months after I bought it, and following that I’ve replaced most of the plastic components and currently the pickup rings are cracked and need to be replaced shortly. The frets have been sanded once during my ownership, and, as noted in a previous review, I’ve outfitted it with DiMarzio PAF 36th Anniversary pickups with black covers. I prefer wrapping the strings around the tailpiece, not because I’ve had problems with strings breaking, but rather because they feel looser that way. Also, I don’t have to raise the tailpiece to keep the strings from snagging on the bridge.
Many review sites ask hypothetical questions of reviewers, and one classic example is: would you replace the item if it were stolen? In the case of my Les Paul, I would – if only I could! I don’t have a problem with modern Studios. They’re fine guitars in their own right. But it feels like something’s changed since 1990. My Les Paul Studio is heavier and sturdier, and I have yet to find a Studio that has such a beautiful fretboard. If it isn’t ebony, then it is the highest-grade (or at the very least the darkest) rosewood I’ve ever seen! It is a perfect match to the black finish and no black Studio I’ve seen in latter years comes close. So, if my Les Paul were stolen, I’d probably buy something white or sunburst, just so that the lighter rosewood fretboard doesn’t look so jarring in comparison. The new Studio Pro looks really nice, I must say!
My heart has always desired a Les Paul Standard, a Custom and a 1959 reissue. A recent picture that Gibson released showed a ’59 in the “Sunrise Teaburst” finish, and it is probably the most beautiful guitar I have ever seen. Not all Teabursts look alike, but this one had the perfect combination of wood grain and sunburst. I can’t say I think that a guitar will ever be worth all that money, but if we for argument’s sake assume it is, then it has to be perfect in every way imaginable. But somewhere in here also lies my problem with Les Pauls. I can justify spending the extra cash for an American-made instrument, but not long after that magic line (or border) is crossed, the cost-vs-reward curve starts turning asymptotic. You pay double, triple the amount – for what? Binding and nice wood grain, the knowledge that someone took extra care and showed your guitar extra love during the production process? That’s nice for those who can afford that luxury, but I’m not sure that I can. For me, the unadorned simplicity of the Studio is quite sufficient, thank you very much, and to these damaged rock and roll ears, an unbound guitar sounds just as good. Maybe I’m being hypocritical, and maybe it’s just that I have my limits.