5 Best Non-Gibson Brands of Les Paul Guitar
In the early 1950s Lester William Polsfuss was one of the best guitarists in the United States. But he wasn't just a guitarist, he was also a bit of a craftsman, and he fancied making himself an all solid-body electric guitar. He did so, but it didn't turn out so well. The true professional guitar builders at Gibson got with Les, and the Gibson Les Paul was born.
Leo Fender was already making the first successful solid-body electric guitar. Gibson was a much more established manufacturer of guitars. Surely their all solid-body electric would be superior?
Well, it was and it wasn't. Depends on who you ask. There is no right answer. But economics and ergonomics are very real things. The two intersected with the Gibson Les Paul. The thing was too expensive and too heavy. Those two things were most apparent when one has compared the beast to a Telecaster.
The Original Gibson Les Paul Guitars Were Slightly Ahead of Their Time
Before the term rock and roll was used to describe a form of music, Les Paul was playing that music on a Gibson Les Paul. The less expensive and much lighter weight Telecaster was being used all over the nation for country and western music. But the Gibson Les Paul wasn't being purchased much at all.
Oh, some of the great African American blues men were using the Gibson Les Paul in their music, but white Americans weren't into their music. White boys in England were becoming completely transfixed by what white America ignored.
By 1960 the poor selling Gibson Les Paul was changed into a very different guitar, the Gibson SG. But they were still calling it a Les Paul, and continued to do so until they ran out of truss-rod covers with Les Paul's name on them.
Well, those white boys from England, the ones who were seriously into the African American bluesmen. Those boys started playing the original Gibson Les Paul guitars. It was around 1964 when Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones was playing one. Then some young hotshot named Eric Clapton got himself a 1959 Les Paul and blew people's minds with the thing.
By 1970 everyone in the world wanted a Gibson Les Paul. The original heavy and expensive ones. Gibson would start making them again, but so would a lot of other people. Where there is a market for a thing, the invisible hand will move the people towards filling that need, and everyone benefits.
An Orville Les Paul
So who makes the best non-Gibson Les Paul?
I'd venture to say Gibson makes the best Les Paul guitar. But who makes the best non Gibson Les Paul copy? Well, how long is a rope anyway? I suppose a rope is twice as long as half its length. Something like that.
The purpose of this page won't be to say this one is better than that one, but rather, my purpose here will be to provide some options. Perhaps someone has a legitimate problem with the business practices of Gibson or Epiphone, but still wants that Les Paul look and sound. Also, the question of what and who is good in copying the Gibson Les Paul is a very legitimate question for a guitarist to have an answer to.
You know how it goes. You pay several thousand dollars for a great Gibson Les Paul, and suddenly the idea of traveling and playing in rowdy bars with the thing is worrisome to you. A lot of guitarist love their best guitars like they are family members. So maybe you are in the market for something you can find used and less expensive which is also good enough to replicate your Gibson on a stage or over at a friend's house.
This article will cover more than five models of guitar. We'll cover five manufacturers who make Les Paul like guitars. The best of Epiphone is really very good, but we won't be talking about Epiphone here because they are, of course, a part of Gibson.
What about an Orville Les Paul? An Orville Les Paul is as much a Gibson as any guitar that says Gibson on it. Orville guitars are authorized by Gibson, built in Japan using all Gibson materials, and sold in Japan for the Japanese. An Orville is a Gibson. Anyone who says otherwise is confused about the matter. So to be clear, an Orville is a Gibson in every way, and if you find one for sale, you should probably get it, as it will sell for less but have the same quality. The name Gibson seems to have some sort of magic attached to it, but the magic is rather a thing in the mind, not the guitar.
A Les Paul guitar is like a recipe. It's no different than any cake or pie. If someone gathers the highest quality ingredients and follows the recipe as faithfully and exactly as its originator, then there is no reason their Les Paul will not be every bit as good as Gibson's.
The Norlin Era
One of many things which needs to be said here is the deal with Gibson having gone through some years when their product quality slipped below the previous standard. When Gibson was owned by 'Norlin' the quality of Gibson guitars, by almost all accounts, was less than before, and less than the quality of new Gibson guitars.
When and what exactly is the Gibson Norlin era? This is a very complicated question to answer. Ted McCarty left Gibson in 1966, and things started going downhill a bit with the loss of the master luthier Ted McCarty. But this was still before Gibson guitars was owned by 'Norlin.' We can tentatively here define the Norlin Era as the period from 1966-1986. During that time period some of the Gibson guitars produced were vastly inferior to previous and subsequent years. Most especially bad were the Gibson acoustic guitars in this era.
None of this is to say a Gibson built between 1966 and 1986 is a bad guitar. What is accepted as true here is that a lot of guitars left the Gibson factories during those years which should not have passed quality control standards. There were still some very fine guitars made during those years.
When the build quality of a legendary brand like Gibson slips, people take notice and fill the void. This is exactly how Tokai,Edwards, and the rest came to be so well known and venerated for making amazing replica Les Paul guitars.
A Tokai 'Love Rock' Les Paul copy
The people at Tokai in Japan are so damned good at making copies of American guitars there are literally fake Tokai guitars. Fakes of copies are out there. Tokai has long been revered for their amazing copies of Telecasters, Stratocasters, and Gibson Les Paul guitars.
The Tokai copies of a Gibson Les Paul come in different names. The original Tokai Les Paul copies were called 'Les Paul Reborn.' These were manufactured from 1978 to 1979. In 1980 Tokai changed the name to 'Reborn Old.' Somewhere down the line the name changed again to 'Love Rock.' All of these guitars are lumped into one specific title by many, 'lawsuit guitars.'
The changes in name had to do with threats of a lawsuit from Gibson. Whether there ever was a lawsuit is something I've not been able to determine. In any event, the Tokai Gakki folks literally went to work for Fender and built Fender guitars in Japan at one time. While those are thought to be good guitars, the ones with the Tokai name on them are often thought to be better still.
What you need to look for the most in any Tokai guitar, whether it be a Tele or Strat or Les Paul copy is where it was made. The ones made in Japan are always superior guitars to the ones made in Korea. Tokai did have guitars made in Korea, and then there are fake Tokai guitars which are made in Korea.
With Tokai guitars the model numbers tell you how fine a guitar you are looking at. The higher the number, the better the guitar. So a Tokai Love Rock LS60 is a slightly less quality instrument than is a Tokai Love Rock LS75.
You study up online about these made in Japan Tokai copies of Gibson and Fender guitars, and you will quickly see many many people say their Tokai copy is a better guitar than the Gibson or the Fenders. The cult of Tokai is growing, and these guitars are selling for ever the more money in shops and online.
So if these Tokai Love Rock Les Paul copies are so damned good, who's a famous player who plays one? Billy Gibbons, the big bearded Texas guitarist and singer for ZZ Top is famous for playing an actual Gibson Les Paul he refers to as his 'pearly gates' guitar; but he very frequently also plays a Tokai Les Paul copy. It can be incredibly hard to spot such a thing. The guitars are built to be exactly like the Gibson, and so you'd have to be able to read the head-stock of the thing or have Billy Gibbons actually mention it. That Billy often plays one can be verified all over.
What do these guitars cost? Well, there are loads of factors involved. The made in Korea ones sell for not a lot. You can get one used for around three hundred dollars. The older made in Japan ones sell for a lot more. Then as was already mentioned the higher the numbers in the model # the more quality went into the build of the guitar. I'm seeing some of the most decked out Tokai Les Paul copies used for over a thousand dollars.
Japanese Tokai Love rock LS-75 guitar review
Tokai LS95 Love Rock vs Gibson Les Paul
An Edwards Les Paul Custom
Edwards Les Paul guitars by ESP
ESP is one of the biggest manufacturers of guitars and basses on the planet. The company is bigger than some may realize, as it encompasses a lot of different brands. ESP is a Japanese company, but they have branches in California, and in places like Indonesia and China too.
It should go without saying, but products made in China and, or Indonesia tend to be lower quality and mass production stuff. The things made in the USA and, or Japan are much more hands on and the build quality and product materials will be much superior. These are generalizations, and are rather more true than not.
ESP's Edwards brand of instruments are all intermediate level to totally professional level guitars. These are all nice guitars when they say Edwards on them. But like Tokai, they come in varying levels of quality. I have not listed ESP Edwards underneath Tokai here to say they are less good than Tokai. I am not doing a better or worse page here in that way.
The Edwards 50s Tribute Les Paul guitars are well known to be exceptionally high quality Les Paul guitars.Another Edwards model of much esteem is the Edwards Les Paul Custom. For less than what a lot of Gibson Les Paul guitars cost, one can land an Edwards and possibly have a superior instrument.
These Edwards guitars should go for around a thousand dollars new, and one could land a great one used for between five and seven hundred dollars.
Edwards Les Paul vs Gibson Les Paul
A Greco Les Paul Custom
Greco is yet another Japanese manufacturer of Les Paul copies. And again, Greco like the others have made many many different Les Paul copies. Some better and some worse, and there are copies in between.
At one time Greco made Les Paul copies but did so using a Guild-like headstock. But when you're making a copy, you may as well go all the way, and so Greco went to using Gibson's trademark 'open book' head-stock. Greco Les Paul guitars come in flavors just so -EG, EGF, EGC, PC, RR, and JS. What does any of that mean. There is a nice Wikipedia page about Greco where you can get the lowdown on that.
The primary complaint by persons who've had a Greco Les Paul is the finish is too thick. Also, Greco makes some guitars in Korea, and those are always thought less good than ones made in Japan. The cheaper Greco Les Paul guitars come with a poly finish. The more expensive ones a nitro finish.
There are also a lot of variations on the necks. The Grecos are made to copy the Gibson Les Paul in particular years. Some years Gibson made thicker necks than other years, and the Greco mirrors correspond to that. The feel of the neck will have an incredible impact on how any particular person feels about a guitar.
Some of the Greco Les Paul guitars have set necks like Gibson guitars. Others have screwed in necks. Also, less expensive ones may have three piece necks.
With Tokai, Edwards, and Greco - these Les Paul guitars may be modeled after a 1950s year model, or they may be modeled after a much later date Les Paul. Some will have chambered bodies for weight relief. Others will weigh quite a lot for not being chambered. The big lesson here is there are so many of varieties with these brands, if you look hard enough you will find what you are looking for, and pay less for it than a comparable Gibson.
Greco vs Gibson Les Paul comparison
A Burny Les Paul Custom
Burny head-stock and logos
Burny guitars are another Japanese make. Burny and Fernandez are essentially the same company, but Burny makes the Gibson copies while Fernandez makes the Fender copies. There are quite a lot of rock, metal, and punk guitarist who use Burny guitars. We're talking about the kinds of persons who could afford any guitar on the planet, but they use a Burny. So there are some very qualified endorsements.
Again, as with all other makes previously discussed here, Burny makes less expensive copies of the Les Paul, and much more high end and high quality copies of the Les Paul. With the Burny Les Paul copies, should there be binding between the fretboard and the neck, the guitar is a higher end one.
One painful thing which must be said here is some of these Burny Les Paul guitars are really Tokai Les Paul guitars. What I mean by this is the Fernandez and or Burny guitar company has no factories of its own, but instead uses other OEM factories. Some Fernandez or Burny guitars were built by Tokai. As with all other makes of Les Paul copy listed on this page, the ones which say Made In Japan are going to be vastly superior guitars to ones made in either China or Korea.
The best of the Tokai guitars are being bought up every day. People have really caught on to the quality offered by Tokai. Some of the high end Grecos and Edwards guitars are also heating up on the market. Burny high end Les Paul guitars are not as sought after. So you could get a real deal on one, and especially should you happen to land one literally built in the Tokai factory. When were Burny Les Paul guitars built by Tokai? The information I've been able to locate indicates this happened in 1978-1979. But this is only some of the Burny guitars.
Another factoid which will be useful to know here is the earliest Burny Les Paul guitars were labeled as such. What I mean is they said 'Les Paul' on them. Clearly that was pushing the limits of integrity there, so they changed the title of the Les Paul to 'Super Grade' guitars.
Burny Les Paul Custom Lawsuit 1979-80
An Ibanez Les Paul copy
n the early 1970s, American guitar manufacturers (particularly Gibson, Fender, and Martin) were experiencing a steady decline in production quality while more Japanese- built guitars were showing up in the American market. By the mid-‘70s, these Japanese guitars consisted of mostly blatant copies of popular American designs and the quality was much better than people wanted to admit. In 1977, Gibson sued the Elger Company (the distributor of Ibanez instruments in the U.S. at the time) and demanded they stop producing copies of their instruments, specifically their headstocks.
An Ibanez Les Paul copy with bolt neck in excellent condition will run you about $500 these days (prices are up, as their reputation is growing). Set neck models run anywhere from $800 and up. These are great clone guitars, even the bolt-neck ones. The "Custom Agent" set-neck models are worth from $1,000-$1,500 (or more for rarer versions/colors) and a set-neck Professional with a vine neck (the "Randy Scruggs" model) will run you $1,500 to $2,500, or even more. There are a few even rarer models that can be worth more than $3,000.
Out of all these Japanese guitar manufacturers who were making absolutely blatant copies of the Gibson Les Paul, it was Ibanez who got sued. You should ask yourself why that would be. I would suggest it was because Ibanez was making a product that was a copy better than the original by Gibson. At least the Ibanez was better than what Gibson was making at the time of the lawsuit.
Ibanez was a guitar manufacturer in transition at the time. They eventually rose as a company to where they had no need for mimicry, and that is where they still are today. Ibanez makes outstanding guitars. But that isn't to say they haven't also been guilty of selling some guitars that weren't worth the asking price. I suppose it is a human condition. There have been some complaints concerning the quality of the pickups found in some of the Ibanez Les Paul copies. But pickups can always be upgraded.
Ibanez Les Paul Custom "THE lawsuit guitar"
© 2016 Wesman Todd Shaw