5 Best Non-Gibson Brands of Les Paul Guitar
In the 1970s, Gibson guitars relaxed their quality standards and sold some things they should not have. The Japanese took notice and started building Les Paul copies. Economics and ergonomics are very real things and both played a big role in the development of LP-like guitars. Many aspiring guitarists were looking for cheaper options and, lawsuits aside, several companies began to take advantage of Gibson's relaxed standards. This article will explore the best alternatives to Gibson LPs.
5 Best Non-Gibson LP Guitar Copies
- Tokai "Love Rock" LP Copy
- Edwards LP Guitars by ESP
- Greco LP Custom
- Burny LP
- Ibanez LP
For more information on each guitar, please read the reviews below. This article will also provide a brief discussion of the Norlin Era of Gibson Guitars and a brief history of how Gibson became such a popular brand. I have also provided a table with four more examples of LP-inspired guitars that didn't quite make the cut, but are still worth checking out.
Tokai "Love Rock" Les Paul Copy
Tokai has long been revered for their amazing copies of Telecasters, Stratocasters, and Gibson Les Paul guitars. The people at Tokai, in Japan, are so damned good at making copies of American guitars that there are literally fakes of Tokai guitars. Fakes of copies are out there.
The Tokai Gibson Les Paul copies come with 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." Many people refer to these guitars by one specific title, calling them "lawsuit guitars."
These name changes are the direct result of Gibson threatening lawsuits. Whether or not they ever actually filed 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 good guitars, the ones with the Tokai name on them are often thought to be superior.
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, but there are also fake Tokai guitars which are also made in Korea. If you're buying an LP copy, make sure it's not a copy of a copy.
The model numbers on Tokai guitars 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 lower quality instrument than a Tokai Love Rock LS75.
Do some online research about these made-in-Japan Tokai copies of Gibson and Fender guitars, and you will quickly see that 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 more and 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 also plays a Tokai Les Paul copy on a regular basis. 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 being said, it can be widely verified that Billy Gibbons plays this guitar.
What do these guitars cost? Well, there are loads of factors involved. The Korean-made guitars are fairly inexpensive. You can get one used for around $300. The older Japanese models sell for a lot more. Once again, the model # tells you a lot about the guitar's build. The higher the model #, the higher the quality. The Tokai copy has become so successful that I'm seeing some of the most decked out Tokai Les Paul copies selling for over a $1000.
Japanese Tokai Love Rock LS-75 Guitar Review
Tokai LS95 Love Rock vs Gibson Les Paul
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, Indonesia, and China as well.
It should go without saying that products made in China and/or Indonesia are mass produced and tend to be of lower quality. Guitars made in the USA and/or Japan are much more hands-on, so the build quality and product materials will be far superior. These are generalizations, but they are true more often than not.
ESP's Edwards brand of instruments are all intermediate level to totally professional level guitars. All guitars that say Edwards on them are nice guitars. 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 buy an Edwards and, possibly, have a superior instrument.
These Edwards guitars should go for around a $1000 new, but you might be able to buy a great one used for between $500-$700.
Edwards Les Paul vs Gibson Les Paul
Greco Les Paul Custom
Greco is yet another Japanese manufacturer of Les Paul copies. Greco, like the others, has made many many different Les Paul copies. Some better, some worse, and some in between.
At one time Greco made Les Paul copies but did so using a Guild-like headstock. When you're making a copy, you may as well go all the way, so Greco started using Gibson's trademark "open book" headstock. Greco Les Paul guitars come in flavors such as EG, EGF, EGC, PC, RR, and JS.
The primary complaint about the Greco Les Paul is that the finish is too thick. Also, Greco makes some guitars in Korea, and those are always thought of as being of lower quality than the ones made in Japan. The cheaper Greco Les Paul guitars come with a poly finish. The more expensive ones come with a nitro finish.
Their necks are also made in a variety of different ways. The Grecos are made to copy the Gibson Les Pauls from 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.
Tokai, Edwards, and Greco 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, while others will weigh quite a lot, for not being chambered. The big lesson here is there are so many varieties of these brands, if you look hard enough, you will find what you are looking for at a lower price than a comparable Gibson model.
Greco vs Gibson Les Paul comparison
Burny Les Paul
Burny guitars are another Japanese make. Burny and Fernandez are essentially the same company, but Burny makes 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, but they are still high-end and high-quality copies. If there is binding between the fretboard and the neck on a Burny Les Paul, then the guitar is higher quality.
One painful thing which must be said here is that some of these Burny Les Paul guitars are really Tokai Les Paul guitars. What I mean by this is that the Fernandez and/or Burny guitar company has no factories of its own. Instead, they use other OEM factories. Some Fernandez or Burny guitars were built by Tokai. As with all other makes of Les Paul copies 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 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, especially if you happen to land one that was actually 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 useful factoid is that the earliest Burny Les Paul guitars actually said "Les Paul" on the label. Clearly, that was pushing the limits of their integrity, so they changed the title of the Les Paul to "Super Grade" guitars.
Burny Les Paul Custom Lawsuit 1979-80
Ibanez Les Paul
In 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 the point at which 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
More LP-Inspired Guitars and Single Cutaway Alternatives
Epiphone Les Paul-100 Heritage
This guitar is similar to the LPs made in 1957, when PAF humbuckers were introduced to the design. This is a great guitar for the money.
Paul Reed Smith 245STVC SE 245
Are you a Les Paul traditionalist but can’t afford a vintage Gibson? This guitar is great price. The SE 245 from Paul Reed Smith guitars has a shorter scale length, at 24 ½” with a relatively wide neck, making it comfortable for traditional guitarists.
Korean-made LP-inspired guitar. These are great guitars for the price. Great looks, solidly built, and cheap!
If you're looking for a cheap guitar, then the Yamaha Weddington is probably not for you. Nevertherless, these are beautiful guitars. Designed by Rich Lasner of Ibanez RG fame, the Yamaha Weddington has traditional LP specs and Weddington flash.
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 wasn't to say "this one is better than that one," but rather, my purpose here was 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 guitarists 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 covered more than five models of guitar. We covered five manufacturers who make Les Paul like guitars. The best of Epiphone is really very good, but we didn't talk much 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 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
Gibson went 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 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 Brief History of How the Les Paul Became Popular
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.
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.
Questions & Answers
I think you missed Aria Pro II copies? The PE series built in Japan were superior to Gibsons with better tuners, bridges, and hardware in general. They switched a lot of production to Korea but I believe the PE Series is still Japanese made.
It's a "Five Best" article. This means five brands are discussed, the ones I felt were the best, and which I'd personally had experience with. It would take a very large book to discuss all the Les Paul copies. I continually even hear of brands I'd never before heard of. Then, there are copies of the best copies, which are counterfeits. Japan made instruments are typically top notch in their price brackets, that's for sure.Helpful 2
What about a "no brand" LP copy that a seller claims is made in Japan? Is it common for "no brand" to be visible or discernible?
There are so many copies of the Gibson Les Paul in existence, that there could be 100 different no brand makes of Les Paul copy. Also, something being made in Japan should proudly state such a thing. If it doesn't, it was probably made in Korea or China.Helpful 7
What's your opinion of Hagstrom? The Swede and 25.5" scale Super Swede look well built and I know are used by pro's. Do you have any experience?
I personally do not have experience with Hagstrom guitars. I have heard very positive things about them, however, from people that I trust a lot.Helpful 5
Is the Gibson Baldwin signature series a real Gibson?
No, not at all. Gibson Baldwin guitars are beginner's instruments at best. Those are the kinds of guitars you buy a kid so the kid can see if he or she is really going to be interested in guitar or not.Helpful 5
I have a Les Paul standard 1975 special order, do you think this is a good non-Gibson brand?
I couldn't imagine it NOT being good. I doubt there has ever been a Gibson Les Paul that wasn't good, and in fact, most of them are great to terrific.Helpful 4
© 2016 Wesman Todd Shaw