In 2012 I bought my fourth electric guitar, a Gibson SG Standard, and completed my collection of classic rock guitars. Since then, I’ve added a further three guitars to my line-up: a Taylor steel six-string, a 12-string and an Alhambra nylon-string. These seven axes along with my wife’s Jazz Bass give me basically any kind of tone I could conceivably need. This is the most logical stopping-point I have come across since I bought my Les Paul in 2001 and had two electrics for the first time in a decade. But it isn’t enough. It’s never enough. How many guitars does a guy need? Always one more. Therefore, after getting the nylon-string in January last year, I started thinking about the subject pretty seriously. What do I need? Irrelevant. What do I want? That’s the better question. The first thing that always seems to pop into my mind whenever I ask myself that question is a maple-neck Fender Stratocaster. The second thing seems to be a Les Paul Standard of some kind. That’s all and well. Except that it doesn’t really allow me to do something new. One train of thought led me to consider a seven-string guitar, or a six-string shred guitar with a Floyd Rose, or both. Another had me looking at more 60s-inspired designs, like a Rickenbacker 330 or an Epiphone Casino. Last weekend, I spent two hours at the music store, mostly trying out Stratocasters and Les Paul Standards. Towards the end, I was kind of in a bit of despair, since I just didn’t like any of the Gibsons I tried, and none of the Fenders were any good-looking. Then my eye fell upon a Les Paul Special in Heritage Cherry, and I thought, what the hell, and picked it up.
The Les Paul Special is basically a low-end Les Paul, with a flat-topped mahogany body (no arched maple top), simplified controls and usually single-coil P90 pickups. This particular model is part of the 2015 range, so it is a double-cutaway guitar with no pickguard. I have never played on P90 pickups in my entire life, the closest I ever came was a 1956 Les Paul reissue I picked up and played unplugged in another music store a few years ago. I’ve almost always been a humbucker guy, so I’ve never been very interested in P90:s. My loss, it turns out now. I played the guitar through the clean channel of a Blackstar HT Metal 5, and I have never heard a nicer clean tone. P90:s, it seems, have a bigger, fatter, brasher sound than the comparatively small Fender single-coils. It just sounds fuller, less toppy, less brittle. I almost didn’t want to put the guitar back, it was so fun to noodle around! The best bit is that Gibson have put a reverse polarity/reverse-wound neck pickup into the guitar, so whenever you select the middle position of the pickup switch, any buzz or noise just disappears.
I very much enjoyed the body shape, and the wraparound one-piece bridge and tailpiece actually felt more natural to my picking hand than the Tune-O-Matic bridge that I’m very much used to by now. The bridge compensates for intonation issues via staggered ridges, and even then, there are tiny set screws that allow you to fine-tune the thing even further. Honestly, I don’t worry about this issue at all, not since I tried Paul Reed Smiths with the same set-up. The absence of independent tone and volume controls for the two pickups (the Les Paul Special has master volume and master tone only) wasn’t much of an adjustment. I play both Fenders and Gibsons, so I am accustomed to the pros and cons with both systems. The master volume solution gives you control no matter what, and the dual-volume allows you to preset two different tones if you wish.
The only drawback that I could find (other than the G-Force robot tuners, that is!) was the very limited access to the upper frets. Anything above the 20th fret basically requires a new hand position to reach those high D:s, E:s and, conditionally, F:s. This is a bit of a conundrum, because I know I’ll be getting a guitar that has a well-known limitation like this. Then again, I am probably not going to use this guitar for the same sort of stuff for which I use my current Fenders and Gibsons. I’d probably reserve a Special for cleans or possibly regular crunch, anything but screaming leads. It is a blues, rock and possibly punk machine. Still, it’s something that I know is going to go on nagging in the back of my mind. Therefore, I didn’t put my credit card down on the counter. Instead, I’m going to wait and see what the 2016 Les Paul 60s Tribute sounds like. It’s a trade-off, I suppose: a familiar body shape with decent upper-fret access. But I liked the feel of the flat, single-cut body. A new body shape forces you to think and to play in new ways.