I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
The Gibson Les Paul is one of the most iconic guitars in the world, played by musicians in just about every genre. The list of famous, professional guitar players who rely on it for their sound is long, but amateur, intermediate and even beginning guitarists gravitate to the Les Paul.
This is partly due to its reputation and legacy. But remember, you don’t build such a legacy without being pretty amazing for a very long time.
The Les Paul model arrived in 1952, named after and developed in collaboration with a guy who happened to be a pretty famous and influential guitar player at the time. It’s gone through a few changes since then, but at its core has remained the same beautiful, carved-top, single-cutaway masterpiece.
In the early years, the Les Paul’s road to greatness wasn’t nearly so smooth. It was even tossed from Gibson’s lineup through much of the ‘60s, replaced by the then-new SG model. The SG was supposed to be a reworking of the Les Paul model, with a flat-top, double-cutaway design. But guitarists wanted the original back, and Gibson wisely decided there was room in the world for both instruments.
Personally, my two main guitars are a Gibson Les Paul and a Fender Stratocaster. Sometimes I reach for one, and sometimes the other, depending on my mood. When I am in an LP kind of mood there are good reasons, and in this article, you’ll read about ten of them!
I love mahogany. It’s a rich, resonant tonewood with lots of guts and character. Les Pauls feature mahogany bodies and necks, and this is a major driving force behind that legendary sound.
There is a never-ending debate about how much tonewoods matter for electric guitars. I won’t head down that road here, except to say there are some woods I love, and some I don’t, and mahogany is certainly in the “love” category.
It’s also worth noting that many Gibson guitars are made with mahogany bodies and necks, so they might just be onto something there.
2. Carved Maple Top
When you run your hand over the top of a Les Paul it just feels nice. The tops are carved from maple and have a wonderful slight arch to them. Remember that this guitar was born in the early ‘50s, when most electric guitars were arched-top, hollow-body instruments.
Many LPs have translucent finishes, such as their iconic sunburst design, where you can clearly see the grain of the maple through the paint. The result is a gorgeous look, especially in guitars with high-quality flame maple tops.
Aside from looks and feel, the maple adds some bite to all that resonant mahogany. It's a brighter tonewood and gives the LP a fuller tonal spectrum.
While the Les Paul originally featured P-90 single-coil pickups, within a few years Gibson began to incorporate their now-famous PAF humbucker. Today, lots of guitars have humbuckers, but back then it was a pretty clever thing.
The Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster were beginning their climbs to greatness when the PAF humbucker was introduced. But, their single-coil designs were plagued by the notorious and noisy 60-cycle hum. Humbuckers solved that problem (Fender did eventually as well).
Humbuckers also bring a thick, warm tone that has become the hallmark of the Les Paul sound. Gibson has come a long way since the original PAF, and today’s guitars feature an array of options.
LPs tend to be heavy guitars. While some weight-relief methods are employed in construction, all of that wood does add up. In the olden days, LPs were even heavier, sometimes tipping the scales at twelve pounds or more.
Where some players see this as a bad thing, I take the other view. I do appreciate a svelte Stratocaster and similar-sized guitars, but I also like a guitar that feels beefy and substantial.
A Les Paul just feels powerful when you hold it, but does weight mean better tone? Again, maybe that’s an argument not within the scope of this article. However, if you were of the mind that tonewoods matter when it comes to sound of your guitar, it would stand to reason and more weight means more wood, and that would impact the sound.
Food for thought.
5. Scale Length
The LP scale length is 24.75 inches, a touch shorter than Fender’s 25.5 inches for their Strats and Teles. Scale length is double the measurement from the nut to the 12th fret, and three-quarters of an inch does make a difference here.
A shorter scale length lends to warmer tones, and this is another hallmark of the Les Paul sound. By contrast, longer scale guitars tend to sound brighter.
Veteran guitarists out there can stop shouting at their computer screens now. Yes, there are many, many factors that go into whether a guitar has a warm, resonant tone or a bright, snappy sound. Some of those factors are discussed elsewhere in this article.
But scale surely does play into it. It’s a different feel and a different sound.
The Gibson Les Paul is known for amazing sustain. There are a few reasons for this, and it’s all about design.
These guitars have set necks, meaning they are set into a pocket in the guitar body and glued in place. That means rock-solid contact between the guitar neck and the body. This is in contrast to other guitar designs such as the Stratocaster, which use a bolt-on neck design.
The bridge assembly is another reason. The stop-bar tailpiece is in solid contact with the guitar body, and the Tune-o-Matic bridge provides a single, sharp-angle breakpoint.
The tilted headstock on the 'Paul is another place for a sharp-angled string break. Sharp angles mean less note-killing friction, especially with the addition of a quality nut.
When it comes to ‘Pauls there are a bunch of different models, and you have a lot of options. My dream LP is the Custom, which currently has a list price of nearly five grand. And that’s not the most expensive in their lineup either; not by a long shot.
But you don’t have to cash in your 401k to afford one of these guitars. Gibson themselves offer several options under the $1000 mark. I got my 2016 LP Studio Faded for a stupidly low price, and it’s a fantastic guitar.
Then there’s Epiphone, a company owned by Gibson and licensed to build real-deal LPs to their specs. The Epi Les Paul PlusTop PRO is a great choice for players who love the ‘Paul vibe but are working with a tight budget. There are even more affordable models, all the way down to the LP Special II, which is aimed at total beginners.
Les Pauls do it all. I can think of a few musical genres where they are not only acceptable but have made a huge impact. If you need a versatile guitar that can go from metal to jazz to country to rock to reggae (Bob Marley played a Les Paul!) this is the instrument for you.
A Standard LP covers a lot of tonal ground. A flip of the three-way switch will take you from rounded bell-like tones with the neck pickup engaged, to crunchy rock sounds with the bridge pickup, to a middle position with both pickups engaged that sounds great for blues and country. Many LPs now offer push-pull coil taps too.
If that’s not enough, you have options. Some metal players use active EMGs in the ‘Pauls to push their high-gain amps harder. Rock players have been known to take the pickup covers off for a more aggressive sound. Some players prefer the single-coil P-90 pickups and others like the mini-humbuckers. There are options with three pickups, and even those with Floyd Rose vibrato systems.
9. The Neck
I grew up during the Golden Age of Shred and came to believe than ultra-thin-necked guitars were the key to effortlessly getting around the fretboard. I played superstrats and other guitars that were built for speed. But as the years went on and I experimented with different types of guitars I discovered that thicker, heavier necks were actually more comfortable for me to play.
That’s my opinion, but I don’t think I’m alone here. I still own guitars with thin necks, but I no longer feel like they give me an advantage when it comes to left-hand technique. Les Paul necks are a bit thicker, a bit rounder and a bit beefier. To me, that’s better.
That’s a general statement of course. Gibson has several neck shapes that vary a bit in their thickness.
Reason #10 has to be sound, doesn’t it? That’s what all of this adds up. Sure, Les Pauls look gorgeous, whether you choose a sunburst Standard, ebony Custom or the bare-bones Studio. Even the Epiphones look amazing. But Gibson never would have gotten this far on looks alone.
For rock musicians, there is just something about that resonant Les Paul growl coming through an overdriven amp. Back off the gain and switch to the neck pickup, click on a chorus pedal and you’ve got a clean tone that’s tough to beat.
Would Slash, Jimmy Page or Zakk Wylde sound the same playing anything else? It’s hard to imagine. Would Jimi Hendrix, Angus Young or Eddie Van Halen sound the same if they played Les Pauls? Again, tough to fathom.
Or, maybe this is all hyperbole. If you play a Les Paul you probably don’t require anyone to explain why you love it so much. If you try to explain it yourself, you’ll probably end up writing an article something like this one.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. This is only why I think so highly the Gibson Les Paul. Play whatever inspires you.
Fpydfyof on November 10, 2019:
Michael James (author) on July 06, 2019:
@Ben - Sorry, I don't know a whole lot about pricing vintage guitars.If it is in good shape I suspect it is pretty valuable.
Ben on July 05, 2019:
I have a 1968 Fender mustang it has a warm tone. Two pickups.
My friend has a 1967 Stratocaster Any idea what these are worth today?
Ex-Gibson Lover on June 27, 2019:
I’m embarrassed and disgusted with big bad Gibson’s lawsuit against Dean. They may win in court but not the court of public opinion. And right after the bankruptcy too!! Bad Move
Philip James Elsom on June 15, 2019:
I too have a Gibson LP Studio it is a great guitar and with the weight relief body
Michael James (author) on February 19, 2019:
@Drasco - I agree!
Drasco Fazz on February 18, 2019:
Just bought my nephew a Les Paul...sounds like he made a good decision.
Michael James (author) on June 16, 2018:
Thanks for catching that error, Lemmy. That should have read double the measurement, which, according to stewmac and other sources, is the correct way to calculate scale length.
Lemmy on June 16, 2018:
"Scale length is the measurement from the nut to the 12th fret, and three quarters of an inch does make a difference here."
Scale length is the measurement from the nut to the BRIDGE!