Birth of An Icon
When Leo Fender rocked the world in 1950 with the release of the Fender Broadcaster (later renamed Telecaster), most musicians knew the world had forever changed. It didn't take long for others to jump on the obvious bandwagon. Gibson Guitars, under the presidency of Ted McCarty, teamed up with innovator Les Paul to create one of the most storied, coveted and recognizable icons in music history: the Gibson Les Paul.
1952 marked the debut of the outrageously heavy solidbody guitar, sporting a goldtop finish, trapeze bridge and P-90 pickups. Over the course of the next few years, Gibson would release variants of the extremely popular guitar: the Custom (also known as the Black Beauty), Junior, Special and Standard. An eight year hiatus on the beloved design took place for most of the 1960s, followed by its reintroduction in 1968 where it has remained a favorite among guitar players worldwide.
While today the Les Paul is viewed as a great fit for rock music, the list of users crosses multiple genres. While images of Slash (Guns N' Roses, Velvet Revolver), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Joe Perry (Aerosmith), Pete Townshend (The Who), Peter Frampton, Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society) and Ace Frehley (KISS) automatically come to mind when thinking of the guitar, many would be surprised to learn of others who sported the guitar through the years: Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Jeff Beck and John Lennon were all users at one time or another. Bob Marley is buried with his prized Les Paul Special as well.
The Downhill Slide and Japanese Competition
The late 1960s brought about an ownership change and shortly thereafter the beginning of troubled years for the famous guitar company. Much like their competitors at Fender, business and design changes during this time period saw a decrease in quality across the board for all models in production. Aside from cheaper quality electronics and hardware, wood composition changed from what was primarily one piece mahogany bodies with maple tops to multiple slabs of mahogany topped with multiple pieces of maple. Neck wood was changed from mahogany to maple and adjustments were made to the shape of the neck as well. For a guitar noted for its physical and tonal heft, these changes didn't set too well with fans of the Les Paul.
Around this time, Japanese guitar makers were starting to export models to the shores of the U.S. Most of these models tended to be copied versions of famous guitars from Fender, Gibson and Rickenbacker, the three dominant guitar companies at the time. Leading the way unabashedly was Ibanez-Hoshino. While Ibanez ended up with a lawsuit on their hands, it sparked quite an interest in the Japanese guitar company due to the cheap knockoff instruments many guitarists claimed sounded better, played better and had higher quality construction- for less money- than their American counterparts. With a lawsuit requiring the company to cease and desist from manufacturing blatant copies of Les Pauls, Strats, Teles and other guitars, Ibanez set off in a different direction that is still going strong today.
The mid 1980s brought about another ownership change, albeit one that was considered good for the company and musicians themselves. Stripping away many of the production flaws and design changes, Gibson reintroduced a solid line of Les Pauls that kept the previously high standards in place, as well as broadening the selection to allow more guitarists into the fold of Les Paul owners.
Admission to the Club
While there are currently a wide variety of Les Paul models in production, most purists would consider only a portion as authentic Les Pauls. While the 2013 Les Paul Junior, Studio and Tribute models are made in the U.S., they are lacking significant features their higher-end brothers have. Technically speaking, you can get an American made Les Paul for under $700 but for the sake of the discussion, these lower end models will not be discussed further.
Authenticity, in the eyes and ears of purists, would normally start at the Les Paul Traditional. The Traditional sports a more 50s era feel to the neck which is fatter, '57 Classic Humbucking pickups and has no modern weight relief, putting a Les Paul Traditional in the neighborhood of 9-11 pounds. 2013 Traditionals cost $2249.
The Les Paul Standard currently features a thinner, asymmetrical 60s neck shape, BurstBucker pickups and chambered weight-reducing bodies. A weight reduced Standard will normally weigh between 8 1/2 to 9 pounds. New Standards typically cost between $2599-$3399, depending on wood quality.
The Les Paul Supreme hearkens back to the 50s era thicker neck shape with more modern amenities otherwise: 490R and 498T pickups with higher grain-quality top and back body woods, with a weight between 8 1/2 to 10 pounds. The Supreme runs $3599.
The Les Paul Custom is still a popular choice and into this category you could also include other models in Gibson's Custom Shop. Many of these would be reissues of specific years, such as a 1959 Les Paul Standard, or signature models with limited availability. Due to this reason, most of the features are different for each model. Prices tend to start at $3999 and can reach above $12,000 for a model like the Ultima.
For many buyers, $2200 and up can seem like a steep starting price for a guitar. American made Fender Strats and Telecasters, for example, start at just under $900, with their limited-run Select series starting under $2200. With the preponderance in the market of cheaper versions of the Les Paul, why would buyers be willing to pay so much for a guitar Epiphone makes for a quarter of the price?
Several factors need to be considered when discussing the cost of the true Les Paul:
- Nitrocellulose Finish- This is a major contributor to the cost of an actual Les Paul and one that sets it apart from other lower priced Gibson Les Pauls such as the Studio. Nitro finishes- being more porous and lighter- age over time and allow the woods to breathe, thus resonate more than other guitars with a polyurethane finish. Poly finishes, as are common with most other guitars, permanently encase the guitar in a restrictive shell. With a nitro-finished guitar, such as a Les Paul, you will have a guitar whose worst sounding day will most likely be the first day you take it from the case.
- Handmade- Here is another biggie. Higher end Gibson guitars, such as the Les Pauls listed above, are all handmade. From the contour shaping, inlay insertion, binding attachment and the application of the finish, every step is done by hand. This, in turn, slows down the production time and adds to the hours invested in each individual guitar.
- Wood Quality- Higher end guitars get the lion's share of higher quality woods. The inclusion of nitro and more translucent finishes means wood grain is easier to view in Les Pauls, thus requiring more eye pleasing wood grains.
- Hardware- From the wiring, pickups, knobs and tuners, extra steps are taken to ensure these pieces are sturdier and are able to take more road abuse than those on cheaper models available.
- American Made- Let's face it: American's demand more money for the work they do than workers in a Chinese, Mexican or Indonesian factory.
Aside from some arguably justifiable reasons for their high starting price, objections always seem to surface in regards to the price versus the value of a Les Paul. There are some rather impressive guitars that can be bought for similar amounts with, many would say, more features. As is the case with other products in the consumer realm, buyers have a tendency to pay for the name as much as the item itself, as can be seen with Kanye West's recently sold out t-shirts.
Common Issues With Les Pauls
However, for a guitar that costs at least a couple thousand dollars, Gibson Les Pauls are somewhat notorious for issues that range from slightly annoying to downright disastrous:
- Weight- Many modern Les Pauls now come with chambered bodies to ease off on the heavy weight of the guitar, although they'd still be considered heavy for many players. Many early models far exceeded ten pounds in weight, causing many players to have long term back issues with extended use.
- Weight Distribution- Another weight oddity with the Les Paul is its tendency to be neck-heavy. If you take your hands off the guitar, the neck can drop towards the floor instead of staying in place. When sitting and holding a Les Paul in your lap, the shape and weight can make it awkward or difficult to play.
- Badly Cut Nut- For a piece of the guitar that is as cheap as it is, it's a surprise that Gibson has not taken measures to improve or replace the nut that normally comes standard on a Les Paul. Breakage and cracking tends to occur prematurely in the nut of a Les Paul, requiring luthier skills to fix the guitar.
- Tuning Instability- Les Pauls are rather difficult to keep in tune, an issue that has partial roots in the nut issue mentioned previously.
- Grounding Issues- Improper installation of the grounding wire is a recurring trend with Les Pauls, which causes humming issues you thought only Strat players dealt with.
- Headstock Breakage- Headstocks popping off of necks are a rare occurrence in just about every other guitar except the Gibson Les Paul. Due to the thinness of the neck at the point where the headstock angles backwards, along with the direction the grain flows, the Les Paul is at risk of literally losing its head if the guitar is accidentally dropped, knocked over or occasionally left within its case.
Whichever way the wind blows, the Les Paul will always remain a favorite among guitar players worldwide. Despite the almost annual rising cost, recurring issues that plague the guitar itself and the recent lack of authentic wood choices as a result of a now settled governmental lawsuit, buyers are willing to spend the cash to sling a tried and true Gibson Les Paul over their shoulder.
In closing, I would be remiss to not include two brief suggestions for prospective buyers: 1) make sure you buy a nice, soft strap with that guitar, and 2) a decent set of strap locks!
Questions & Answers
Question: is the 2018 gold top tribute any good?
Answer: Personally, I haven't played one of the 2018's yet, so I wouldn't be the best unbiased voice to listen to in this case. Gibsons are handmade, thus the quality and feel could vary from one guitar to the next. You could pick up three Gold Top Tributes and not be happy with any of them, or find one you adore. If you can't play one in person, I'd recommend you call a place like Sweetwater and have your sales engineer play a few and choose for you.
© 2013 Robert Allen Johnson
firstname.lastname@example.org on August 14, 2019:
There is no such thing as getting a sound like a 59 because those woods are extinct or gibson doesnt ma them with peices of woood that are arent laminated t. They skimp every where they can ... I feel sad but thats how u learn ... I prefer my jap tele to any gibson ive ever played although my strat with a custom body that i built from an old piano is my fave .. strats are pure genious and give me wood for real
Robert Allen Johnson (author) from Fort Wayne, IN on September 19, 2018:
P90s have been my favorite pickups for almost a couple of decades now. I bought a Japanese Tele with TV Jones style pickups and was kind of disappointed as well. Live and learn!
Todd on September 19, 2018:
I had wanted a true Gibson les Paul for a long time . Several years ago now the other half told me I could splurge on a new guitar. I found a les Paul 50s tribute on clearance for an affordable price. I love the way it sounds but the neck heavy issue and tuning stability issues have been a problem. Prior to that I had a Samick made Korean Epiphone Les Paul which in all honesty kind of ekes out the Gibby. I’m glad I got a new guitar but I wish I had gone with the other guitar I was looking at a Gretsch semihollow with TV JONES pups and vintage swagger to die for . I etfulhave since had a little buyers remorse for my Gibson I love the p90 pups on it but the tuning and neck heavy make me kind of regretful . Live and learn . Like a lot of things you lust after for years and then question why after acquiring said item there was a pretty big letdown. If I absolutely had to have another les Paul type guitar it would be a PRS semi hollow McCarty model or similar
Hector on August 20, 2018:
Gibson should reconsidering their hig pricing and self competition with cheap made in China.or your best or cheapest Epiphone
Gibson should be made solely in USA
Plus.cuality and pricing will bring Gibson back in dominance of market
In USA and company safe of bankruptcy.
The world knows this instrument
But could be sad if Gibson will get out of the market one day
Or ..only you get to buy and play a real Gibson if you rich.
some one wants a especial made guitar then you charge whatever you want for the making of it!
But for the musicians an...overpriced instrument is bad because we cannot afford it.
We will buy another brand besides Gibson
So what's the interest on play a Gibson if is overpriced or both overpriced and bad made.
Hope for the best!
And listen to the people and the musician they know wath they want!
Give to the customers what they want!
MarshallGibsons on July 19, 2018:
A high end Epiphone is the same as a Gibson?
Said no one, ever. LMAO
Ff on November 17, 2017:
Gibson is a crap brand. Fender is way better
Pg on October 29, 2017:
Gibson and fender have all gone bad now Gibson with bad nuts quality control is out the window fender with there cheap routing of the body's I want the wood around my single coil pickups not humbucker size routs unless you have the money to go custom shop avoid at all costs there's much better guitars out there for the money
Dave on July 11, 2017:
I've owned several les pauls and only 1 good one, an old 1968 triburst custom and it was stolen. Aside from it the rest were absolute garbage. Now I own several nice american fenders but even those are average at best. My best guitar in an 88 Japan made telecaster that just blows away any other guitar I can find. Guitars are just like women there's no two that are exactly alike and if you find a good one it's worth its weight in gold.
Screwlp on June 30, 2017:
$200 LTD + $200 in pickups and hardware upgrades + $70 setup from a Luthier = better than any LP in every way except the resale value. Who sells a guitar though? It'd be like selling your toothbrush.
Brad on May 31, 2017:
If I hear about nitro breathing again I'm gonna lose it. it's a sealer, it was designed to keep car body's from rusting, you do that by sealing out moisture and air! Thickness has more effect than the type of material. The wood is dead and if dried properly (like PRS does) you don't want any "breathing".
Armando on May 20, 2017:
I personally think a Gibson guitar is not worth the money. I believe the Gibson standard (factory made) is priced at 1400 dollars and has all the issues listed above such as weight, unbalanced, only 22 frets, etc. And to get a hand made Gibson (superior craftsmanship) could cost 2800-3000 and still have the issues described above. The Ibanez prestige is a handmade Japanese guitar that is extremely comfortable starting at about 1200 dollars and even less if you don't want a floyd. These guitars are the definition of quality and are way less expensive than fender, gibson, prs, and Parker fly. I feel like a hardtail Ibanez prestige is the best value for a handmade guitar that plays like a dream.
Keenan on September 14, 2016:
Yeah i must say Les pauls are really fun to play. They sound amazing, feel amazing, and look amazing. I just hate how much they cost, how fragile the headstock is, and how theres usually 1 string out of tune after like 2 songs being played
Eduard on August 24, 2016:
I now own my first Gibson Traditional and I have to say, it's a dream come true. The immense sound possibilities, the powerful sound and the character of this guitar just makes me very happy! I own a high end Ibanez as well and that just plays and sounds great but... it lacks character. The Gibson kicks it's ass everywhere except at playability. But I love the feel of the Gibson...
In short: I would not trade in my Les Paul for any other guitar.
Chris on October 02, 2015:
Gibson is not the quality it was in the past and is riding on their brand name while grossly over charging their customers who have basically been duped. Their "American Made" guitars are actually made in China and then poorly assembled in by Luthiers in the US. As a luthier I can say over last five years or so, some of the Gibsons that have been brought to me have been of shockingly poor quality. Really shameful!
M2 on July 25, 2015:
A high end Epiphone Les Paul is just as good as a Gibson. It will have solid mahogany body, rosewood fret and AAA maple top just like its Gibson counterpart (except most Gibsons have AA grade top). The Epi has Grover tuners, which are better than standard Gibson tuners and it will have Locktone bridge. It's Producer pickups are every bit as good as Gibsons. So where is the Gibson better? It's not playability or tone as the Epi is just as good. The only piece of hardware that's better on the Gibson is the three way switch - it's a lot heavier duty. But guess what? If you have trouble with the Epiphone switch you can easily replace it with the same Switcraft used in Gibsons for 18 bucks. So that's it - there's about $18 of real difference between a high end Epiphone and a Gibson Les Paul.
A.L. on June 14, 2015:
Gibson guitars are not worth the price. I recommend anyone who's looking into a Les Paul to look for a Japanese copy first. Not only you will receive a quality built, vintage-correct guitar that plays better, you only pay half the price of what Gibson asks. Use the savings to upgrade the wiring and pickups, and you'll end up with an absolute beast in your hands!
Thomas Schwartz on June 09, 2015:
I've played a Les Paul '79 Custom Black Beauty for for 36 years and wouldn't trade it for the world.....easily my most valued material possession. You can keep your twangy Fenders, I still don't like the sound of them. The Les Paul has a rich, sweet tone and delicate, sensitive neck that Fenders can only dream of. The Gibson is clearly worth the extra money, but only if you get a classic one. On Fenders you can play rock and country, but on a Les Paul you can add Jazz to the mix. A Fender is just a guitar, a Les Paul is a musical instrument!
Rick Littleton on May 24, 2015:
Gibson is over rated. I've played them against top line Epi's, and Gibson has quality control issues that are not even addressed! The Epi's were just as good as the snobby Gibby!
harley j banks on May 07, 2015:
Les pauls are absolute shit. poor luthiers, lunatic ceo, etc etc etc. use cheap rosewood fingerboards Instead of ebony. Cheap plastic inlay instead of MOP or abalogne. Tuning problems, quality control, grossly overpriced Pieces of shit. The only ppl who buy les pauls are ppl who have too much money, old like my father in law and ppl who have not taken the time to educate themselves. once your enlighted of tonal density, have a firm understanding of wood and materials and you establish yourself as an educated consumer.....you would never, ever, ever purchase any gibson. When i go to my father in laws house....i hand him my jackson soloist sl2 and say....play this....he just marvels at the sustain and beauty....what is this fretboard sonny, it plays like butter? And wow i really think i could learn to like this tremolo..... O the sustain goes for days and its perfectly weighted. perfect craftsmanship... hes just amazed i only paid 2500 as he paid 7500 for his piece of shit. I say pop....ive spent more hours reading about guitars than you have been playing....we fly the jacjson flag in this house!!!! And for very good reason!
theHammer on January 20, 2015:
The majority of Les Paul's are obscenely over priced.
When Yamaha recently reissued the famous SG2000,
a supreme guitar whose quality and features beats a Les Paul into the ground, it was built in their custom shop in
Japan. Top notch materials such as real ebony soundboard,
and real hand inlayed MOP markers were all present.
It sold for around $2100, $2400 in a genuine leather bound,
custom fitted hardshell case. Gibson charged that much at the time for a typical Standard model. There is NO justification for boutique hand made prices on what is essentially a decent production guitar.
The snobbery surrounding these instruments is highlighted
by the idea that only expensive ones matter to "purists"?
The early Les Paul Studio "vintage mahogany" had a 50's neck, nitro finnish, Burstbucker pickups, and many were not weight relieved. And it sold for under $1000.
There were some quality issues, but a good one is a great looking, nice playing, womderful sounding guitar more in line with the original concept. It proves even Gibson can
do what competitors have been doing for years. Make
a Les Paul that is a value for the money.
If they would concentrate on doing that, they might be more than a joke again amongst everyone but players that can afford to/don't mind paying more for their guitar than their car.
Robert Allen Johnson (author) from Fort Wayne, IN on December 25, 2014:
Although I've only owned one Les Paul in my lifetime (and kept it for less than 6 months on top of that), I've played a countless number of them. I've never been a fan and probably never will. Having said that, people will always buy them based on their legacy and popularity, Gibson price increase notwithstanding.
JCM on December 25, 2014:
Les Pauls are great, IF you are stuck in the 50's still. Weight distribution is pathetic, Standing or sitting, and for the price you pay the quality is disgusting. Real top quality woods are only selected and used on guitars over $3000. And even then, how can you guarantee that is happening? I have purchased much better sounding and quality Guitars from Asian companies which are truly flawless for an absolute tiny fraction of the cost of a Gibson. Yes, you are paying for a name only.
Dan on July 16, 2014:
I think the Les Paul is completely overrated. I played a Les Paul Traditional and it felt like a piece of junk to me - an Ibanez player
JC on October 02, 2013:
The Les Paul - underbuilt, overweight, overpriced, and overrated.
johnnycook from United Kingdom on July 25, 2013:
Thanks. Very informative.