The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Best Budget Les Pauls
The Gibson Les Paul Standard is a legendary guitar with a storied legacy. It has shaped the sound of music for decades and touched almost every genre. Many a guitarist has dreamed of owning this amazing instrument, and many a guitarist has ended up disappointed.
That’s because the Gibson Les Paul Standard is a really, really expensive guitar, coming in at over $2,500 as I write this. Like many of the finer things in life, it is simply out of reach for many of us.
So, if we want to capture that iconic sound and vibe but don’t have the coins for a Standard, we are left with three choices:
- Find a more affordable Gibson: Yes, Gibson makes a few relatively budget-friendly guitars with their name on the headstock, and they're pretty good.
- Go with a Les Paul copy: There are some great guitars out there that look an awful lot like a Gibson, but they're made by some other company.
- Choose a non-Gibson alternative: Many guitar companies build styles of guitars that have a similar vibe as an LP but their own unique characteristics.
This article is intended to help you choose between an affordable Gibson Les Paul, a copy or some other alternative. I’m going to assume you are beyond the beginner stages, so the idea isn’t to recommend inexpensive, beginner-level Les Pauls, although there are some good ones out there. The instruments you’ll read about here are intermediate-to-pro-level guitars you can use for gigging, recording or playing in a band.
Gibson Les Paul Tribute
The Les Paul Tribute is a budget-friendly way to get everything you love about the LP for much less cash. In fact, the Tribute comes in at about a third the cost of the Standard but has many similar appointments.
That includes the mahogany body with a maple top, a maple neck and rosewood fingerboard with trapezoid inlays. These are the key specs we want to see, but from there Gibson cuts a few corners. There’s no pretty binding, high-gloss finish or richly figured top. The tuners are vintage-style keystone tuners, and the finish is a satin nitro.
This is a very good-looking guitar, but if you compare it to the Standard and it’s easy to see where you are saving the money. That’s okay. The important thing is how the guitar sounds and feels, and it comes through big-time on those fronts.
The Tribute has Gibson’s 490R/T pickups set, where the Standard has BurstBuckers. I have the BurstBucker Pros on my current Gibson and I love them, but I’ve owned Gibsons with the 490R/498T set and I liked them quite a bit too, though they were maybe a little hotter. In my opinion, I don’t think this is a major ding against the Tribute. Both pickups are great.
Here are a few more Gibsons you might consider:
- Gibson Les Paul Studio: This is one of my all-time favorite guitars, and was once one of the best bangs for the buck. But, with a price tag of over $1,600 these days, it’s tough to call the Studio affordable. Still, that’s only around half of what a Standard costs.
- Gibson Les Paul Junior: The Junior isn’t really my cup of tea, but some players love the single P-90, flat-body thing. Price-wise, it comes in between the Tribute and the Studio, so it’s not a cheap guitar.
- Gibson Les Paul Tribute Special: This is a bare-bone Les Paul and a great choice in electric guitars under $1000.
Best Les Paul Copy
I always try to be careful with the term Les Paul copy, as I feel like it can be used in misleading ways. The LP is a Gibson guitar, and unless it is made to Gibson specs with Gibson’s approval it’s not really a 'Paul or a true copy. It might be something similar, but it’s not an LP.
A few companies, such as Agile, do a good job of making budget guitars that are obviously inspired by this Gibson classic. Then there are the legendary companies that made them in the past, such as Edwards, Tokai, and Greco. You can still find their instruments floating around in good condition, and some of them are highly.
There are also small-scale luthiers who make amazing clones, and some of these are copies in a truer sense. However, the good ones can cost as much or more than a Gibson.
These days, the only company authorized to make a real Les Paul copy is Epiphone. Epiphone is owned by Gibson, and they make many budget versions of Gibson gear based on Gibson's specs.
Epiphone Les Paul Standard PlusTop PRO
In my opinion, the Epiphone LP Standard PlusTop PRO is one of the best values out there today. If you want the sound and feel of a real 'Paul without the burdensome price tag, this is the way to go.
I’m not the only one who thinks so. I can’t tell you how many comments I get from readers telling me they prefer their Epi over a Gibson, or that they played both in a guitar shop and left with the Epiphone. Yes, they are made overseas and they lack some of the pretty, shiny things you’ll find on a Gibson, but they are darned good guitars.
I would not have sung Epiphone's praises so highly a few years ago. The Epi LP has always been a solid wallet-friendly option, but when their ProBucker pickups came out they moved up a notch in my opinion. The ProBuckers have a clarity I always felt the Alnico Classics lacked, and since then I’ve been impressed with every Epiphone LP PRO I’ve played.
They are also really nice-looking guitars, and almost identical to a Gibson in appearance, aside from the headstock shape. Non-guitar people won’t know or care about the difference. As far as they are concerned, you’re playing the same kind of guitar they’ve seen in the hands of countless famous musicians. You don’t have to tell them you got it for about one-fifth of the cost.
A few more Epiphones to consider:
- Epiphone Les Paul Tribute Plus: The addition of Gibson ’57 Classic pickups, premium components and carved maple top mean this is a little different from your average Epi, but it’s also a little more expensive.
- Epiphone Les Paul Standard: This is a step below the PlusTop PRO but in my opinion one of the best electric guitars under $500.
- Epiphone Les Paul Ultra III: You’ll spend a little more, but if the idea of a USB-out, acoustic pickup and built-in tuner sounds interesting to you, consider the Ultra.
Best Non-Gibson Alternative
While making a Les Paul copy may land a company in hot water, there is nothing wrong with building on ideas and making something of your own. Many of the top guitars companies have done exactly that with the mahogany-body, single-cutaway design.
Here are a few of the instruments I’ve been most impressed with:
ESP LTD EC-1000
The ESP-LTD EC-1000 gets my top spot here. This is a great guitar, and I always recommend it as the best alternative to the Gibson Les Paul. While the EC-1000 looks a lot like a ‘Paul, to me it has a very different feel. It’s got the same 24.75-inch scale length as a Gibson but feels slicker, lighter and more modern, with a faster neck.
There are many variations of this guitar, with a huge array of options. Some come with active EMG pickups, for a hotter, higher-output sound, while others have a warmer, somewhat more articulate Seymour Duncan JB/’59 pickup combination.
Most versions of the EC-1000 have the requisite Tune-o-Matic-style bridge with stopbar tailpiece in typical LP style, but some have Floyd Rose tremolos.
Some have gorgeous flame or quilt tops, where others have Spartan flat-black satin paint schemes.
While there are versions of this guitar with a more traditional style, most of the ESP LTD lineup is geared toward the metal crowd and the EC-1000 is no exception. It’s one of the top Les Paul-style guitars for metal, and if that’s what you’re into you’d be wise to give it serious consideration.
Whichever version you choose, be sure to do your research beforehand. As for me, I’ve always loved the Snow White CTM version – is just looks super classy!
More LP-style guitars:
- ESP LTD EC 401: This is a more affordable version of the EC-1000. Like it’s big brother it is a great guitar, with a lot of options to choose from.
- PRS SE 245: In my opinion, this is one of the best electric guitars under $750. PRS has their own thing going on, and they certainly aren’t trying to copy Gibson. However, the SE 245 is a single-cutaway electric guitar you might consider as an alternative to the LP.
- Jackson Pro Series Monarkh: Equipped with Seymour Duncan Blackout pickups, the Monarkh has caught my attention lately. Jackson is one of the top guitar brands for metal, so you know what this guitar is built for.
How to Choose an Affordable Les Paul
This article covered what I think are the best options for a guitar player who wants something with the sound and vibe of a Gibson LP, but for a budget price. Remember, this is all based on my own opinions and experiences. I encourage you to do your own research and draw your own conclusions. You’ll also want to visit the manufacturer’s websites for the latest info on their guitars, as specs and prices can change over time.
It’s common for guitar players to feel peer pressure when it comes to choosing gear, and think that if they don’t play the right guitar they will be missing out. The thing is, “the right guitar” is different for each person. Every musician must make the choice that’s best for them.
A few years ago, when I was interested in getting a new Les Paul, I chose the Les Paul Studio Faded. That guitar is now out of production, and I’m glad I grabbed one when I did. The closest thing these days is probably the Tribute - even today's Faded doesn't have similar specs. If I were looking for an LP today, I’d choose between the Tribute and the Epiphone LP PlusTop PRO, depending on how much I felt like spending.
But that’s what I’d do. You have to weigh your needs and budget and choose the Les Paul that’s best for you. Hopefully, this article helped. Good luck!
Which Les Paul?
Chuck McGuire on June 17, 2019:
Have you ever reviewed the Epiphone Les Paul Florentine Pro? I love it. It's semi -hollow body is lighter, the probucker humbucker pickups sound great and it comes in a couple of attractive colors. It's also quite affordable.
Mike Rice on October 13, 2018:
Westone Thunder I Bass, damn good for the money. Put ESP, s in mine. One of my favourite basses. Good balance medium weight. Good axe!.