Friday, January 30, 2009

Guitar Fridays: the Gibson Les Paul















by M A N

Image: The Holy Grail of Les Pauls, the '57 Goldtop.



From the iconic opening riff of "Sweet Child o' Mine" and the driving staccato rhythm of Led Zepplin's "Immigrant Song," to the weeping wail of Gary Moore's "Still Got the Blues," this behemoth is one of the most coveted instruments on the planet. If the Fender Stratocaster is the precision sniper rifle of the guitar world, then the Les Paul is a veritable Howitzer of sound. It's meaty tone can go from raunchy clack to the smooth and buttery lament of angels with just the flick of a switch.

The guitar was designed in the early 50s with the help of jazz guitarist Les Paul to compete with the Fender Telecaster (Les Paul is also the man responsible for multi-track recording). In everything from Jazz to Speed Metal, it has been a staple of the music industry ever since.

The Les Paul is made from the heavier maple and mahogany woods (heavier woods give a the guitar a brighter sound) with a maple neck and a choice of either maple, ebony, or rosewood for the fretboard. It has a set neck, PAF humbuckers (although custom pickups are always available--Seymor Duncan P 90 Soapbars are my personal favorite) and comes in a variety of flavors (Standard, Custom, Studio, etc.). And it's heavy. I mean heavy. If you're going on a lengthy tour and planning to use a Les Paul on stage, make sure you have a masseuse on call. But even with the weight, the Les Paul just feels right in your hands.

I had a '73 sunburst Les Paul for a few years and it was one of those instruments that just screamed tone. It weighed a metric ton and its finish was terribly worn from years of being played, but it was still simply gorgeous (Nothing frustrates me more than seeing people with amazing guitars who never play them for fear of devaluing the instrument. It's a guitar. It's meant to be played!). You could even feel the years of barroom smoke in the wood (which I am thouroughly convinced added to its tone).

Aside from its weight, there's another little downside to the Les Paul. Though Gibson has their economy line (Epiphone), a new Les Paul will set you back a hefty chunk of change (and a classic Les Paul will set you back your first born). It's not an entry level instrument. This is a machine for professionals. Its quality is a testament to that.

Gibson introduced a new Les Paul last year called the Dark Fire. I've never played one so I can't attest to its tone or playability, but on paper it appears to be an incredible machine. At it's core, it's a Les Paul with a computer inside that allows you to change the tone beyond the simple tone knob controls. And it's self tuning. Self tuning. Damn, I love the future.

Click links below to hear the Les Paul in action.

Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) -- solo live
Gary Moore -- "Still Got the Blues"
Zakk Wylde -- "Farewell Ballad"
Nigel Tufnel -- Sustain
Les Paul -- a nice mini-documentary with the man himself

20 comments:

John said...

Even to a terrible guitar player like me the Les Paul is a sublime instrument, but GOD DAMN it is fucking huge. The half a dozen times I've strapped one on, lordamighty, it's like playing a tank.

Holdover question for MAN from last week: why would you never buy a Telecaster? Is it something silly like "I already have 41 guitars and it won't fit in the garage?"

Michael Alan Nelson said...

John said: 'Holdover question for MAN from last week: why would you never buy a Telecaster? Is it something silly like "I already have 41 guitars and it won't fit in the garage?"'

MAN: I wish that was the reason, but the bottom line is that I just don't like them. I know they're great guitars and have been used by some of the best in the business (the solo to "Stairway to Heaven" was played on a Telecaster for crying out loud!), but they don't appeal to me.

When I worked at the music store in Buffalo, I tried to find the love for them, but I'd play them for about a minute before shrugging my shoulders and picking up something else.

Who knows, after I fill up my arsenal with all my dream guitars, I might think about. And I'll probably end up loving it. But for right now they don't fill me with the inspiration that so many other guitars do.

Andrew said...

I was gonna do chainsaw Tuesdays, but now you kinda ruined it for me. Thanks a lot, Mike.

For those of you who care, the Black and Decker CCS818 cordless is light, portable, easy to clean, and cuts effortlessly through bones and cartilage. Best of all, it's quiet... nice and quiet.

Michael Alan Nelson said...

Sorry about that. I'm a fan of the Stihl Farm Boss with a 20" blade myself. Hands down one of the best chainsaws on the market. I don't know how it works with fleshier bits, but when it comes to trees, it's amazing. You can fell, dismember, and haul away a 40' oak in just a few hours.

GinaFan said...

For a while there was a theme park in Myrtle Beach designed with a big Gibson in the hardscape.

http://www.landscapeonline.com/research/article/11350

GinaFan said...

The Gibson modelled was a "Vegas High Roller". The pickups on the bottom humbucker have pop-jet fountains in them.

The Minstrel Boy said...

i'm not a tele lover either mike. i have one. and even that is tricked out. i use it with a bastard stringing setup where the bottom four strings are each up an octave. it really compresses the chord. oh, yeah, at the neck it's got an old middle pickup from a dead strat, at the bridge it's got a humbucker from a paul which met an untimely end...

it's a great rhythm axe. screams rockabilly.

pauls are wonderful. i love them. my left shoulder's ruined. i have one paul that i still use, sitting down. i tried to get into SG's, especially for bottleneck work.

pauls are beautiful things. too rough for me though. couldn't hang.

Christina said...

I'll come back when you get to Gretsch hollow bodies.

Michael Alan Nelson said...

@ Minstrel Boy: Is that what's called Nashville tuning? Over the years I've come across music that calls for similar tunings but can't remember if that's the name for it or not.

I really like SGs for rhythm work. They just feel solid. As for slide work, I'm clueless. I have a handful of slides floating around that I try to use every once in a while but it always sounds like cats dying in a clothes drier. Not my forte.

Now that Gibson has their new Dark Fire and Robot line of Pauls, they should join forces with the Japanese company that makes the Robot Suit and save thousands of players from becoming hunchbacks.

@ Christine: Don't worry, the Gretsch is definitely on my list.

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Gibson Les Paul said...

The holy grail is an understatement, what a complete and utter piece of art with strings

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