There was a time when hefting a 12 or 13-pound Les Paul seemed to be the mark of a real man. Players talked a lot about sustain as if it related directly to weight and how you needed all that weight and mass to achieve a desirable tone. The truth is, not everyone believes that “heavier” equates to “better” in sonic terms, nor do many players want to sling a 13-pound guitar over their shoulder for a 90-minute set. What’s the answer? For Gibson, for many years, it has been found in carefully, strategically weight-relieving guitars, and the procedure brings many benefits to the player.
“In my heart of hearts I really think that weight relieving is the right thing to do,” says Gibson Master Luthier Jim DeCola. “It’s just a good thing. It costs us extra time and effort to do it, so we’re not saving anything. It’s an expense on our part, but we feel good about doing it.”
DeCola explains that Gibson USA currently uses three different means of reducing weight and tuning a guitar body’s resonant response. The longest standing of these is what he refers to as “traditional weight relieving,” as used on the Les Paul Traditional. This process involves routing nine round holes in a Les Paul’s mahogany body before the maple top is attached. The holes are strategically placed in the lower bouts on the bass-side of the guitar. The result, DeCola says, “is a guitar that’s lighter than a non-weight-relieved guitar, but which still has some weight to it and feels solid.”
Going to the other extreme, Gibson has also used full-on “chambering” on some models, such as the 2008 Les Paul Standard. Achieved by routing large, oval chambers either side of the central core where the bridge and pickups are mounted, chambering has achieved the lightest Les Pauls made. “This is the most dramatic technique,” says DeCola, “and results in a guitar that almost has more of an acoustic resonance to it.”
The third, and newest, process involves what DeCola terms “modern weight relief,” as used on the 2012 Les Paul Standard, and which is a middle ground between traditional weight relief and chambering. “Some players playing fully chambered guitars at high volume and gain levels found the guitar was a little too resonant, and might feedback a little more as a result of that,” he tells us. To achieve a desirable weight relief while retaining an increased amount of tonewoods around the bridge and pickups, Gibson routs multiple smaller elliptical sound-chambers inside the mahogany body.
This new modern weight-relief technique results in a Les Paul that, all else being equal, has a weight somewhere between traditional weight relief and chambering, but what are the technique’s affects on a guitar’s tone?
“Both the traditional and new modern weight relief are pretty hard to discern,” says DeCola. “If you play a batch of weight-relieved Les Pauls [of both types] and a batch of non-weight-relieved Les Pauls they will all have slight variations in tone even between those of the same type, but you’re very unlikely to hear consistent differences between the weight-relieved and non-weight-relieve guitars.” And as for the weight-equals-sustain myth, “if anything,” says DeCola, “the weight relieving enhances the resonance, which I feel helps with the sustain.”
In the end, it all comes back to DeCola’s words at the start of his explanation of these weight-relieving techniques: “It’s just a good thing. It costs us extra time and effort to do it… but we feel good about doing it.”