LES PAULS


 

Les Paul Classic Antique Mahogany 2007 GOTW #33 LES PAULS 04/29/11 - I'm more of a "Strat guy", but I like other guitars and appreciate the differences between them. Each have strengths and weaknesses, and that fact seems to be ignored by some keyboard warriors of Internet forums, where brand names inspire fanatical loyalty similar to that reserved for football teams and political persuasions. Although I've written an article about the Les Paul Personal, I hadn't done one about regular Les Pauls before, despite owning one for nearly 5 years. That's because there's not much that I can say about Les Pauls: They're pretty straight-forward and not very mod-able, compared to Strats. You can swap pickups and install coil tap switches, replace tuners, the bridge, etc. Those are pretty common mods and there's plenty of info about that on the Internet. I'm reluctant to take a Dremel or drill to the body or neck of a Les Paul for more radical mods because you can't easily replace parts like necks and bodies: You need good wood-working skills to attempt that kind of stuff with any degree of confidence (so I don't). Nevertheless, despite the lack of anything of significance to write about, I felt compelled to write this. Maybe it's just to show off some toys?

Generally, I'd say that Strats are a more practical player's guitar since they're more rugged, generally lighter, have an ergononmically-designed body, with replaceable and standardized parts that are easy to obtain. Controls are placed close to the picking hand, which is great for lead players. Access to the higher frets is a bit easier since the bolt-on neck gives a slimmer profile, and the body has double cutaways-- access is even better with a contoured pocket that's available on some Fender models and aftermarket bodies. The whammy bar adds another dimension of fun possibilities.

Les Pauls are the oranges to the Strat's apples. Greater emphasis is placed on the traditional appointments of the instrument, like a carved top, binding and fancy inlays. Although these don't contribute much to the sound or playability, they follow a long tradition in the history of stringed musical instruments, of making instruments that appeal to the musician's eye. Although "beauty" is a very subjective thing, there's ample evidence that it's a real and important issue to the buyer/player-- just look at the number of "NGD!!!" ("New Guitar Day") posts in the forums. Although the iconoclastic Strat was a major stylistic departure from the traditional guitar body shape and conceived of as a more utilitarian guitar, some Strat loyalists seem to greatly value appearance factors like color, wood grain and finish. The irony is, some Strat players dismiss the Les Paul's binding and inlays as being an unnecessary expense while eyeing utilitarian developments (like Floyd Rose tremolos and Steinberger guitars) with contempt, as straying too far from tradition. It's funny stuff. That said, I've always liked the look of the Les Paul and to satisfy the urge for a looker, I'd rather have one with fancy binding and an inlaid mother-of-pearl logo instead of a decal. That fancy stuff looks kind of out-of-place on a Strat, IMO.

The Les Paul has other features that I like, such as the shorter scale neck (24.75" versus 25.5"), and the flatter fretboard radius (12" versus 9.5" or 7.5"). I like the sound of the set-in neck (which is very noticeable when the guitar is played unplugged), although I like the practicality of a bolt-on neck. The difference in pickups (humbucker versus single coil) and their placement is a matter of preference, although I like them both since they're good for different sounds. With high-gain distortion and signal processing, the differences tend to disappear.

My Les Pauls have had excellent setups "out-of-the-box", with zero fret buzz and low action; in fact, I've had to raise the action on them to better suit my playing feel. Most of my Strats have needed some work (but that can be a good thing because it forces you to learn and get involved with your guitar).

GIBSON'S 2007 GUITARS OF THE WEEK In 2007 Gibson got the whacky idea of releasing a new guitar each week. The concept was to release popular models with new twists, and some totally new models with (unpopular) twists (like a reverse Flying V?). These were limited productions, with an issue size of 400 for each week. That's an awful lot of variety! Not surprisingly, they ended the GOTW program after 2007. (In 2008 they had a GOTM ("Guitar of the Month") program.

My first "regular" Les Paul (an Antique Goldtop Deluxe, GOTW #8) came from that program and I liked it so much that I used that as a buying template for my most recent Les Paul acquisition (a tobacco burst Antique Mahogany Classic, GOTW #33). Both guitars sport distinctive and cool headstock inlays that make them different from the standard issue Les Pauls. I liked the Goldtop's "1960s slim taper" neck, so I felt that was a safe bet. Although some Les Paul afficiandos seem to think that Gibson's recent practice of chambering is sacrilege, I like it, especially since it made the guitar's weight a reasonable 8 pounds (compared to my Les Paul Personal's 11 pounds). As far as I'm concerned, the chambered guitars sound fine. Finally, a big plus was that these were mid-priced Les Pauls; that price tier happens to coincide with my preferred level of the fancy stuff that I'm willing/not willing to pay for (i.e., no flame top).

2007 GOTW #33 Antique Mahogany Classic

The first pic shows off my most recent Les Paul acquisition. For me, this is the perfect guitar aesthetic; the dark burst, without much yellow, on a mahogany top with no foo-foo flame, and a satin finish that doesn't require constant polishing. The body and neck binding and the unique pre-war "Gibson" script inlay on the headstock are gravy. Obviously, this is a subjective, personal preference. Some (most?) people love elaborate flame wood tops (which adds to the cost), and some like transparent blue or purple finishes with lots of gloss. All this stuff has nothing to do with its playability or its sound, but looks are an important quality that plays into how you feel about your guitar. Fortunately, GOTW #33 plays extremely well too, with a perfect setup out of the box- low action, no buzzing.

GOTW #33 came stock with full-sized '57 Classic humbuckers (Classic Plus at the bridge), which produce a very full, typical humbucker sound. Naturally, the tone depends on the amp, its settings, and whatever else you run them through, but they're considerably louder, have more bass and less treble than single coil Strat pickups (duh). For a blues/rock sound, this is a great choice for plugging straight into a Fender tweed amp on the verge of natural overdive. Sustain for days. Plays like butter. And all the other usual guitarspeek bullshit. Not much to say about it, really. Did I mention that it's a purdy guitar?

11/24/16 Update- Added piezo pickups to GOTW #33 (article), which meant replacing the pickup rings to make it a reversible modification. The AllParts pickup rings are a truer "cream" color than the Gibson's pink/fleshtone version of cream (see below). The pinkish pickup rings, pickguard, and poker chip didn't bother me as much on this guitar as they did on the Goldtop.

Pickguard Swap Hell However, the Allparts pickup rings didn't match the pinkish pickguard, so I ordered Allparts' cream pickguard and discovered that it didn't fit! After some Internet research, I learned that pickguards aren't necessarily swappable between different Les Paul models and years. The differences are subtle: Pickup spacing varies (this one's ~60 mm) which puts the screw holes slightly off, enough that the forward screw hole would need to be redrilled.

This issue isn't well-documented: There are some forum "WTF" threads when folks discover this. Very few manufacturers/vendors list the models/years they fit or show diagrams with measurements, and Allparts doesn't make different versions to fit the variations. It explains why some custom pickguard vendors recommend sending a tracing of your pickguard for a replacement.

This doesn't affect every Les Paul-- obviously, or there'd be more grousing! But it's something to be aware of. Les Paul pickguards look pretty much the same, so it seems like it should be a no-brainer-- but it's not. Do your research before buying. (It reminds me of trying to do parts swaps with Ibanez guitars.)

Les Paul Deluxe Antique GOTW 8

2007 GOTW #8 Antique Goldtop Deluxe This was an easy choice for my first "normal" Les Paul because I love Goldtops. However, I didn't play this guitar very much simply because it was too pretty. I've played it more since getting GOTW #33, and haven't been scared to mod it -- For me, there's something about having a spare that makes it seem less like you need to coddle it-- kind of like getting the first ding.

Gibson went a little overboard with the antique binding on this one; the binding's yellowish-orangish lacquer antique job is exaggerated and much more pronounced than that on GOTW #33, and my circa 1970 Les Paul Personal, which has been exposed to genuine cigarette smoke. At least the color goes well with the gold finish.

The mini-humbuckers are noticeably more treble and lower output than the full-sized humbuckers, but in isolation the difference can be a subtle thing. Since the amp and signal chain settings can easily make up the difference, with the right settings, you can get a very full sound.

Kinman P-90s Nevertheless, a cool thing about the Les Paul Deluxe or any mini-humbucker routed guitar is that you can (fairly) easily replace the mini-humbuckers with P90s. P90s have an almost fanatical following, despite being very noisy (being large single-coil pickups). The most frequently-mentioned rave is about their bite and rawness, and Mountain's classic "Mississippi Queen" (1970) is often mentioned as a good example of the sound. I like raucous stuff (and Mountain) and was curious so I bought some Kinman noiseless P90s for the pickup swap. Although the Kinmans aren't as popular as some boutique P90s, I like my Strats' Kinmans and the Kinman P90s have received good reviews; their main downside seems to be their price.

The Kinman noiseless P90s are taller than traditional P90s, but the installation wasn't too difficult and didn't require any routing of the pickup cavities. That said, they're not very height adjustable and I did have to lower the neck pickup as far as it would go and screw its pole piecs low to keep the strings off of them. It's the primitive nature of P90s (being Gibson's predecessor to the humbucker)-- basically, they're screwed to the body with funky thin wood screws (warning: the metal is soft), without much thought given to height adjustment. You could put the included rubber tubing under the pickup to give some semblance of adjustability, but I needed every bit of the cavity's depth.

I realize the futility of writing about sound, but to fulfill my role as a geetar version of the comic book store guy: Tonally and output-wise, they fall between a humbucker and a Strat's single coil, with more midrange bite than the mini-humbuckers (particularly the bridge pickup). Although I can't do an A/B sound comparison with the mini-humbuckers (since they're in a baggie), I like the P90s more than the mini-humbuckers. It could be the mystique, the look, or the fact that I spent big money on them (so I'd better like them!), but I think it's the extra midrange bite.

Gibson's Fleshtone Plastic I've got nothing against fleshtone, but it's not my favorite color for the plastic on a guitar. For several years now, it seems to be the color that Gibson has selected to represent "cream" or "ivory" for things like the pickguard, the selector switch ring, pickup rings, and the jackplate. Both my GOTWs had it, and when everything's done in the same color, it's tolerable. However, when the actually cream-colored P90s were installed on my Deluxe, they made the fleshtone plastic look really funky. Fortunately, replacing them with aftermarket parts wasn't very expensive...just shouldn't have been unnecessary if Gibson hadn't decided to re-invent the color of cream.

Gibson flesh-colored plastic pickguard

It's hard to accurately portray the subjective, in-person perception with color computer photos, since the brain and camera do a lot of adjustments to compensate for lighting-- a lot depends on the monitor's calibration, too. These photos were contrast enhanced and desaturated slightly to help me reconcile the pic with what I perceive. In person, the Kinman pickups and AllParts pickguard colors look different, but much closer than the pic shows. This pic shows the pinkish fleshiness of the original Gibson pickguard that the outdoors pic (above) doesn't capture.

 

Gibson 1997 The Paul

1997 THE PAUL It's good to have a "beater" guitar I suppose. I came across this in a trade for a pedal, so it wasn't one that I specifically sought out. The frets needed leveling since one had a significant ding; fortunately, the ding was high up on the neck, but leveling the surrounding frets does shorten their lifespan. However, it plays well now, and sounds pretty good (came with Burstbucker replacement pickups). It also has a thin, contoured body so it's light and comfortable to play. I'm very tempted to scallop this one's neck, and maybe strip the body's finish.

Les Paul wiring 2007 GOTW REWIRING CONTROLS Since I come from a Strat background, I find the 2 volume and 2 tone controls of a Les Paul to be very peculiar.

The benefit of having two independently adjustable sets of controls is that you can preset volume and tone levels for each pickup and switch between them, even doing an approximation of a killswitch if you wanna Buckethead (sort of). For me, the baffling part is: What about the middle switch position, which is a blend of the two? Separate controls are great if you love to tweak for subtle, nuanced mixes, but not so great if you want to change the volume of the blend quickly-- that requires tweaking two volume controls.

I prefer a master volume control so I can quickly control the total output of the guitar from one control, regardless of where the pickup selector is positioned: I'm satisfied with using the pickups' height balance to determine the voice of the middle position.

The diagram on the right is a reference for quickly converting the 2007 GOTW Les Pauls to master volume control operation, based on color-coded wires in the gray multi-conductor selector switch cable as seen in the controls cavity. I left out details of the selector switch wiring simply because it's not necessary (and requires fewer brain cells, although it's relatively easy to infer). Note that this leaves the bottom volume pot as a non-functional, dummy pot (which may be useful if you install active electronics). The wires were left soldered to the pot because it was easier, but they probably shouldn't be there if you change the value of the master (neck) volume pot.

The diagram shows that I left the tone controls alone (even though shortly after, I modified GOTW #33 for a master tone). To wire a master tone control, the top capacitor should connect directly to the master control pot (as in the stock diagram), and the bottom one disconnected from the circuit. Frankly though, I don't use tone controls very often.

Booteek Capacitors Back in The Day, before the rise of the Internet forum, a cap was a cap and no one (that I knew) ever gave a shit about whether they were ceramic or paper-in-oil. Turn the knob and the treble goes away. Now we know better, and it's something that every guitarist should be concerned about if they want to achieve a 5-point increase (at least) in Tone Units. Naturally, to do that, you need to spend some bucks; for a mere $40+, you can (and should) install some Luxe Bumblebee repro paper-in-oil capacitors, like I did. Very fancy packaging. Turn the knob and the treble goes away. To get there, press the "Buy" button and your bucks will go away, too.


Les Paul Stetsbar THE STETSBAR 04/26/11 - I like tremolos... er... vibratos... er... whammy bars! Whatever. I've always thought Bigsby tremolos looked extremely cool (and I've wanted to install one on my Les Paul Personal), but the tech part of my brain doesn't accept the mechanical design aspects of the device: It's basically the same design as the tremolo I had on my very first guitar, a Teisco! I have great appreciation for design improvements to devices that provide mechanical functionality.

I first became aware of the Stetsbar tremolo after my Cylon (Aluminum) Strat project, only because I wanted to know more about aluminum guitars, which led me to Aluminsonic and their really cool shiny chrome Les Paul lookalike. They advertised one fitted with a Stetsbar tremolo, and I wanted it bad until I found a reference to the price in a forum. Okie dokie... With scaled-back ambition, I found the Stetsbar website and thought... hmmmmmm: It's expensive, but if I bought the Stetsbar tremolo, I could install it in one of my already-owned Les Pauls and save a little scratch which might make it more palatable if I later contemplated buying the Alumisonic without the Stetsbar. So the thinking went. So I ordered one.

If you haven't checked out the Stetsbar site, here's why you might want one: No irreversible modifications for installation on a Les Paul (and Epiphones). You just unscrew the stopbar and bridge anchor pins and screw the unit into the existing stopbar bushings. To improve tuning stability you can replace the nut with a graphite nut or douse it with nut lube and upgrade to locking tuning machines (things you may want to do anyway). Neither are absolutely necessary though.

The truly unique thing about the Stetsbar mechanism is that it moves the entire bridge forwards and backwards along the string path when you whammy up and down. This means that there's virtually no chance of the strings binding on the saddles, which would interfere with the strings returning to pitch. It's really an ingenious and elegant mechanism.

The tensioning springs are short and easy to access, so you can change the feel from loose (you can't get it to "flutter" though) to tight to make tuning easier and eliminate the detuning effect of double stopped notes (with light strings, at least).

Changing the tension/feel (and whammying) doesn't change the string height as it does with a floating fulcrum tremolo. Instead, adjusting the string/spring balance moves the bridge further forwards or backwards, which determines the limits for how far you can dive bomb or pull up. The fixed string height is ideal if you want to install Roland's divided pickup for use with a synthesizer or their virtual guitar system.

When the Stetsbar is adjusted for fairly stiff tension, the feel of the tremolo arm is much softer and more sensitive than a Strat balanced to a similar string/spring tension. Part of that might be due to the fact that the whammy bar screws into the center of the unit, instead of at the side. I think this improves leverage and puts less stress on the lever since it's manipulating the pivoting piece directly where the spring tension is evenly distributed. I was initially concerned because although the tremolo bar is thicker than most, it's very light (aluminum?) and has a fairly thin screw thread section. Although it has a bit of play, it's tightened in position by a small O-ring, and is up to the task of handling the very light, smooth feel of the tremolo action.

The unit also has limit screws that can set how much upwards pull you want to allow, from none (like decking a tremolo), to a specific interval. Without limits, the unit's range is pretty far-- farther than I'd ever feel comfortable pulling up on any guitar, and you can do Van Halen-ish divebombs.

Unfortunately... despite all the cool features, I encountered a troubling downside: Increased string-to-string coupling, or sympathetic notes. Plucking a note around the 14th fret on the high 'E' would cause other open strings to vibrate, and it was so bad that some notes in a fast run were drowned out by the sympathetic notes! This was most noticible when playing heavily distorted and high-gain stuff.

Yes, this is something that all guitars do, and something you have to deal with when you play loud, or with high gain: You dampen the open strings with your palm, thumb, or fingers. You can also use a dampener at the nut-end of your neck to kill open strings (a common studio trick). However, I've never had a guitar do it this badly, and it actually made it very hard to play some passages since I had to change my picking hand's position to constantly dampen strings. There was a clear and obvious difference between the guitar with the Stetsbar, and without it (which played the same stuff fine)-- I sacrificed two sets of strings to removing and reinstalling the unit to verify this. I really wanted to believe. I thought it might be a problem unique to my cheap "The Paul" and the resonance of its fretboard (I've read that fretboards have more localized resonant peaks and dips than bodies, and they're all different). I then installed it on GOTW #33, which was strung with heavier strings and had exactly the same problem. Major bummer.

Les Paul Stetsbar

If I were to venture a wild-assed guess, I'd attribute the difference to the tighter coupling between the bridge and the Stetsbar's "stopbar", which is an integral part of the Stetbar's design. With a stock Les Paul, both are sunk independently into the wood, whereas on the Stetsbar, they're coupled by a metal plate. Another thought was that the saddles were too tightly coupled to each other on the bridge. Unfortunately, the bridge or its saddles can't easily be swapped with stock versions since they have unique design differences tailored for use in the Stetsbar.

Your experience may be different. While researching this purchase, most reviews I came across were very positive, and the few negative ones used typical forum terms like "tone-sucking" and "sustain-killing". (I didn't notice the sustain-killing thing, and "tone-sucking" doesn't say anything meaningful to me.) Bear in mind that your experience depends to a great degree on how you use your guitar. The excessive ringing I experienced wasn't a problem for lower-gain playing styles. It works perfectly fine for clean stuff and overdriven blues. Once you get into the high-gain stuff, I think that playing speed and dampening technique (i.e., "skill") are major factors. The video at Alumisonic's site featuring Mark Mataban doesn't reveal this as a problem-- of course, he's a top-notch player!

I'm sorry to report this since by all accounts, its inventor and distributor is a nice guy with excellent customer support... but this was my experience.

Still... I ended up installing it on GOTW #8 because I really like the utility of a whammy bar, had spent the money, and thought it would be good training for string dampening techniques. It's not really as dire as I'd made it out to be since it mostly affects high gain styles with fast alternate picking on the first two strings. Worst case, I know that it's easy to remove if it starts to drive me crazy.

Floyd Rose FRX Whammy for Les Pauls 11/30/16 - Eventually, it did drive me crazy so I ended up removing the Stetsbar. Years later, I revisited the whammy bar thing and installed the Floyd Rose FRX on "The Paul".


THE NUT FROM HELL 05/16/11 - Replacing the nut, no big deal, right? I'd replaced nuts on Strats and it was no big deal. I'd watched a Youtube video for Les Paul nut swapping and it wasn't a big deal: Just score around the nut, give it some strategic taps and it pops right out. Usually. But sometimes it doesn't.

I'd decided to replace GOTW #8's nut with a TUSQ nut since I'd installed the Stetsbar tremolo and the Teflon-impregnated nut was a much more permanent solution for improving tuning stability than lubricating the nut with "Nut Sauce". In hindsight, if I'd been aware of the ordeal that awaited me, I probably would have been okay with the lubricant.

The problem was that the nut wouldn't dislodge, no matter what I used: Jewelers hammers, gunsmith hammers, steel punches, screwdriver wedge from the side... the sucker wouldn't budge. I tried a heat gun (but didn't dwell since I didn't want to screw up the surrounding finish). I tried to gently rock/pull the nut with cloth covered pliers (like pulling a tooth) but that chipped the top of the nut-- so the old nut was toast. No more Mr. Nice guy: Out came the Dremel. It took an emery cutting wheel and several other desperation bits to clear out most of the old nut; no large chunks of the old nut were removed intact, and there was a considerable amount of needle file cleanup.

After all that, the Tusq nut installed easily enough, but there were small gaps at the sides that I had to fill and try to make as unnoticeable as possible. Naturally, it's not as purdy as it originally was. For a while that was a source of some anxiety, but you eventually get used to/accept stuff like that. I'd like to believe that it was a functional improvement that made a difference...

--08/04/11

 

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