The Gibson Les Paul Guitar: Overpriced and Overrated?
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.
If you were stuck on the proverbial desert island (with unlimited electricity) and could only take one guitar, would it be a:
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!
© 2013 Robert Allen Johnson