I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
The Gibson Les Paul and Heavy Metal
The Gibson Les Paul is a guitar that has excelled in every music genre you can imagine. Heavy metal is no exception. In fact, if you play anything from melodic hard rock to extreme, hardcore death metal you might find the Les Paul is your best choice. There are a lot of great metal guitars out there, but this classic Gibson design features everything you need to craft crushing rhythm tone and soaring leads.
In this article you’ll learn about some of the best Les Paul guitars for heavy metal, as well as some guitars from gear companies who have taken the Gibson dual-humbucker, single-cutaway template and built on it. There are good reasons this design has endured for so long, and very good reasons metal players around the world choose this guitar to help sculpt their sound.
Gibson is one of the top guitar brands on the planet, and its subsidiary Epiphone builds some of the best intermediate-level guitars you are going to find. But there are other contenders offering awesome Les Paul-style guitars, such as brands like ESP LTD, Ibanez, and Schecter.
So let’s look at some gear! Here are my picks for the best Les Paul for metal.
Gibson Les Paul Studio
The Gibson Les Paul Studio is my number one choice when it comes to guitars for heavy metal, but it wasn't always so. In my younger days, for whatever reason, I never considered Gibson a reasonable choice for extreme music. I stuck with superstrat-style guitars with hot pickups and fast necks, and thought I was doing just fine for myself when it came to tone.
Later, when I was a little older and wiser, I discovered just what the mighty Gibson LP could do for my sound. For many years afterward I played an Ebony Studio paired with a Peavey 6505 (then called the 5150) half-stack.
The LP design provided the low-end power I could never get out of a basswood-bodied, maple-necked superstrat, while still retaining the articulation and character for individual notes. In short, metal tonal heaven. In fact, I liked my Studio so much I went and got another one, this time in Alpine White.
The reason the Gibson Les Paul kicks so much metal butt has to do with the design of the guitar. These guitars feature necks and bodies made from mahogany. Mahogany is a deep, resonant, rich tonewood that gives the guitar its low-end thump. Gibson then adds a maple cap to the body to help add back some high-end response and articulation.
This combination of tonewoods is what gives this guitar its tonal character, and this is what other guitar companies attempt to built upon when they create competitors. The Les Paul also features a set neck and a Tune-o-Matic bridge, which are both fantastic for sustain.
My current Studio has BurstBuckers, but I do really like the 490R/498T pickup set that comes on the current year model. It is a little hotter and deeper sounding, in my opinion. Both are great pickups.
So, my advice is this: If you are into metal, consider the Gibson Les Paul Studio.
More on the Les Paul Studio
Gibson Les Paul Standard
So, if Gibson is such a great choice for heavy metal, shouldn’t you just drop the cash on a Les Paul Standard? It is, after all, the flagship of Gibson’s lineup.
If you have the cash to drop, that is certainly an option. However, what you really need to consider is whether the differences between the Les Paul Standard and Studio are worth the price difference.
I liked the Studio over the Standard not only because of price, but because I thought the Studio looked more metal. With its pared-down design (no binding, etc) and solid colors it just seemed more in line with what I expected from a metal guitar.
That’s my opinion. LP Standards are amazing guitars, and it is up to you to decide if it is the right choice for you and your style. And your image, for that matter. My point is, you shouldn’t look at the Studio as a lesser version of the Standard. They are different guitars, and each has their pros and cons.
Gibson Les Paul Custom
In the interest of full disclosure, neither the Studio nor the Standard would be my first choice for the best Les Paul for metal. That is if I were a person with some serious funds at my disposal. If I were such a person, the Gibson Les Paul Custom would be the guitar I’d first consider.
This is my dream guitar. It has all the attributes needed for monster metal tone, and somehow manages to look classy and hardcore at the same time.
Unfortunately, this guitar also comes in around three times the price of the Studio. Yikes! Thus, it will remain on my wish list for now, and frankly, I can’t really recommend it to any of my readers because of the high price tag.
On the other hand, if you do have the cash, go for it! I would.
But there is another option, one that will benefit your tone as well as your budget.
The Epiphone Les Paul Custom PRO
This is a great choice for metal players who are watching their pennies. For less than half the price of the Gibson LP Studio and a fraction of the cost of its namesake, you get an amazing instrument with many of the great qualities of a Gibson.
I’ve owned a few of these in the past too. Ten years ago, if you had asked my opinion of Epiphone, I probably would have said, “Meh,” or something else barely intelligible. I mean, they were good guitars for the price, but nothing exceptional.
But Epiphone did a major overhaul to many of their Les Paul guitars a couple of years back, and the results have been very impressive. When I had a chance to check one out, I was really impressed. I wrote a full review of the Les Paul Custom PRO.
The most notable difference is the pickups. Epi’s Alnico Classics were always okay, but the ProBuckers are a big step up when it comes to clarity and sound quality. The problem with the Alnico Classics, in my opinion and especially when it comes to metal, is that they lack the clarity to perform in high-gain situations with a lot of low-end in the mix.
I always thought they were great for rock and clean sounds, but for metal they get muddy and boomy. For some styles maybe that’s what you are looking for, but I didn’t like it. I did not experience the same problem with the ProBuckers.
Don’t get me wrong: Gibson pickups are still better, but, as I’ve said before, I think the gap between Epiphone and Gibson is now closer than ever. And, if you still don't like the Epi pickups, you can swap them out for something else without feeling bad about modding your guitar.
There are bunch of awesome Epiphone Les Pauls for metal out there. If your wallet dictates it, don't be afraid to check them out. They're solid guitars, built for players.
More on the Custom PRO
Best Les Paul Alternatives for Metal
Clearly the best choice for metal is the Gibson Les Paul itself, at least according to me and this article. So why would you consider anything else?
There are a couple of reasons. Gibsons have a certain amount of tradition behind them. While checking out Gibson’s website will reveal a wide range of variations to their guitars, really just about all of them have that Les Paul feel. Anything otherwise and it wouldn’t be a Gibson, and making sweeping changes to such an amazing and successful guitar isn’t really in their best interest.
However, some players really love the Les Paul sound and vibe, but they’d like a few customizations. Maybe that means a thinner, faster neck, or hotter, modern pickups, or even a Floyd Rose Tremolo System. Again, Gibson has a lot of choices in their lineup, but if they don’t make what you want your only option is to mod your guitar.
Do you want to take a wrench and soldering iron to a brand-new Gibson? Me neither.
So, many guitar companies make single-cutaway, dual-humbucker, mahogany-body guitars based around the legendary Gibson design. They are not Les Pauls, but if you like LPs you might like these guitars too.
Here is my top choice:
ESP LTD EC-1000
Aside from Epiphone, the ESP LTD EC-1000 is, in my opinion, the best alternative to the Gibson Les Paul. This is especially true when it comes to metal, and I’ll get into that more in a minute.
The EC-1000 features a mahogany body and set mahogany neck, so you will get that low-end tonal growl you are looking for when it comes to metal. But there are a bunch of guitars in ESP’s lineup called EC-1000, and they all have somewhat different specs.
The pickups are a big difference, and one thing I really like about the EC Series is how you can get the same guitar with a couple of different pickups options. For example, depending on the model, the EC-1000 is available with a Seymour Duncan JB/'59 pickups set or a set of active EMG 81/60 pickups.
That’s a nice range of options. Metal players may instinctively gravitate toward the EMGs, but I’d say not so fast. EMGs are certainly high-output pickups with lots of sizzle, and great for metal. However, if you’d like to back off on the gain (pickup-wise) and opt for something with a little more character, I think both the Duncans sound incredible.
There are a bunch of guitars in ESP’s EC-1000 lineup, so take a good look before making a choice. They are all more affordable than a Gibson Studio and offer a different vibe. My personal favorite is the EC-1000T/CTM. Nice!
It is also worth noting that there are even more affordable EC models, such as the EC-401, EC-331, and EC-256. These guitars round out the EC Series and make it available for players of different budgets.
Guitar World Checks out the ESP LTD EC-1000T/CTM (EMGs)
More Choices for Metal
Need more options? Here are few to consider:
- Ibanez Iron Label ARZIR20: The Ibanez Iron Label Series takes Ibanez instruments and pushes them over the top. Ibanez is already well-known for metal, but Iron Label guitars go even further. If you like Ibanez for their fast necks and metal reputation this is a guitar to consider.
- Schecter Hellraiser Solo II: Schecter is another brand well-known for metal, and the Hellraiser is a guitar that has gained a strong reputation over the past decade or so. The original Hellraiser is based on the Schecter C-1 body shape, but the Solo II version has a single-cut design.
- Kiesel California Single Carved Top: Kiesel guitars are custom made to order, so when you get one it is exactly what you want. At first glance, the California Single may look a little too refined for the average metalhead, but consider Kiesel's pickup options. They have an M22SD pickup that’s great for metal, and some active pickup choices too.
Which Will You Choose for Heavy Metal?
Obviously, my choice is the Gibson Les Paul Studio, especially now that they have brought back some of the things I loved about past models. I have owned many guitars, and many Les Pauls, but my Studios are among the instruments I most regret parting with.
If you have the cash, you might consider the Standard. If you really, really have the cash, the Custom is a sure winner for metal or just about anything else you want to do with it.
If you are looking for a great option a budget, look to the Epiphone Les Paul Custom. It is seriously improved in recent years, and connected to a high-gain amp it will certainly get the job done.
My top choice when it comes to Les Paul alternatives for metal is the ESP LTD EC-1000. It is affordable, and it comes in a huge array of different options.
If you are a metal player and you aren't convinced a Les Paul is right for you, maybe take a step back and consider how to choose a metal guitar that's perfect for your needs.
This article, like all of my articles, is based on my opinion. I feel confident in the recommendations I’ve made here, but don’t neglect to look around and form your own opinions. And make sure to check out the manufacturer's websites for the latest info on their gear.
There are a lot of great guitars out there. Good luck on your quest!
Your Opinion: Which is the Best Les Paul for Metal?
Michael James (author) on September 19, 2019:
@John - The Goth Studio is very similar to the Epiphone Les Paul Studio, and you'll get similar sounds out of each. The differences are mostly cosmetic. You'll be able to get '70s hard rock sounds out of the Goth Studio.
John Carini on September 18, 2019:
Would the Epiphone Les Paul Studio Goth be another good choice? Does the Goth limit obtaining classical 70’s hard rock tones?