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