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The Lowdown on Les Pauls — Which Model is Right for You?

Ted Drozdowski
Gibson Les Paul Standard

You want to buy a Les Paul, but you’ve been to your favorite guitar shop and the Gibson Company’s website, and you’re still unsure which model you’d enjoy playing. After all, there’s the Standard, the Studio, the Custom, the Deluxe, the Special and the Supreme — and each model has an extremely versatile array of bold sounds and visual characteristics. Some even have coil splitting options and true bypass, or have super-wound pickups for hotter, more modern sounds.

We’re here to help.

Let’s examine each model in production to see which might suit your playing best.

• Les Paul Standard: Today’s Standard is the direct descendent of the original Les Paul that Lester himself invented and played to perfection. But the most current Les Paul Standard has contemporary turns. For one thing, it’s got hot-rod BurstBucker Pro 1 and 2 pickups phase reversal and Pure Bypass. That all happens via the push-pull functions built into the speed dials, so it’s easy to make adjustments on the fly. There’s also Gibson’s contemporary SlimTaper neck profile, which makes this critter easy to squeeze, too. The current Standard also has a chambered body for weight relief, making it a breeze to heft for those three- or four-set nights. This is an extremely versatile guitar, although it’s also hot, which means it has got a lot more bite than the traditional warmth and richness historically associated with the old-school Les Paul Standard.

  For players seeking a premium machine with a truly traditional sound, there’s the 1958 Les Paul Standard Reissue, a painstaking recreation of that year’s production models made by the masters at the Gibson Custom Shop. It comes equipped with Custom Bucker pickups, which are designed to reproduce the sound of classic 1958 PAFs, and features a chunkier neck than the current Gibson USA-made Standard discussed above. This is a truly classic sounding and feeling guitar.

If you’re a six-sting hero worshipper you may also be a fan of signature models. For heavy blues-rock, Gibson USA makes the Gary Moore Les Paul Standard, which has some features that reflect the Peter Green “Holy Grail” Les Paul that Moore played for many years. The model has BurstBucker Pro pickups, enhanced by the presence of Orange Drop tone capacitors. The neck has a rounded ’50s profile, so it can be hard on small hands despite its perfectly classic feel. Other “signature” Les Paul Standard models currently in production include the Custom Shop’s Paul Kossoff 1959 Les Paul Standard, the ultra-ergonomic Lee Roy Parnell Signature '57 Les Paul Goldtop, the Joe Bonamassa Les Paul Standard, the Michael Bloomfield 1959 Les Paul Standard, the Billy Gibbons Pearly Gates Les Paul Standard and Eric Clapton, Warren Haynes, Slash, Jeff Beck, Joe Perry, Alex Lifeson and Joe Walsh guitars. There are also several beautiful vintage Les Paul reproductions in the Custom Shop’s Collector’s Choice series — like Collectors Choice #4 1959 Les Paul "Sandy", a precise copy of a near-mint beauty from the Gibson Les Paul’s most hallowed year. In addition to 1960 and 1959 anniversary reissue Standards from the Custom Shop, there are also 10 variations on the Gold Top — which is essentially the same guitar as the Standard, but with the Gold finish that was the Les Paul’s only option during its first years — available from the Custom Shop and Gibson USA.

The signature and classic-styled guitars offer more iconic sounds and vintage-style options. Another more modern entry is the Les Paul Access Standard, which boasts a reduced heel for easier access to the high notes (a quality shared with the Lee Roy Parnell and Alex Lifeson models) plus a Floyd Rose whammy bar tailpiece, making it a perfect machine for anything from surf music to psychedelia to metal.

• Les Paul Studio: Original billed as a more affordable version of the classic Les Paul when it was first produced in 1983, the Les Paul Studio model has become a treasured member of the Les Paul family in its own right. It has a slightly thinner body than the Les Paul Standard and fewer frills: no binding, simple inlays. Current variations include the Les Paul Studio Satin, which comes in several satin finishes, and the high-gloss Nitrous Les Paul Studio. Another new-finish model within this family is the Les Paul Studio Swirl. All three come with pickups from Gibson’s “Modern Classics” series, with the neck humbucker wound to classic dimensions and a hotter bridge pickup.  They have the same weight-relief-cut body as the current Les Paul Standard, but with an early ’60s profile neck — thin, but a tad thicker than the current Standard’s.

The Les Paul Studio Limited is similar, but with Robot tuners and a humbucking/P-90 coil-splitting configuration, providing more tone options. There’s also the Les Paul Studio '60s Tribute, which comes with Burstbuckers and a thin profile neck, making it perfect for players who get more speed on a thinner neck or simply have small hands. The “Studio” name came from the notion that studio musicians needed a simpler workaday Les Paul, without the frills that make the Standard eye candy on stage. But all of today’s Studio models look more like thoroughbreds than plow horses.

• Les Paul Custom: The low-fretted Les Paul Custom has been a classic rock machine since its inception, appearing on historic recordings by a wide range of artists from the Rolling Stones to Peter Frampton to King Crimson.         Today the Gibson Custom Shop makes a gorgeous recreation of the ground-breaking two-humbucker Les Paul Custom, which first arrived on the market in 1955 exclusively in the much-hailed anthracite-hued “Black Beauty” configuration, in a variety of finishes. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Zakk Wylde Les Paul Custom Vertigo, with its black-on-white swirl finish and active pickups — a bad-to-the-bone metal machine. Another variation on this “fast-action” model is the Les Paul Custom Maple, which teams classic appointments with a nitrocellulose lacquer Alpine White or Ebony finish and a chambered body plus two-ply mahogany top. The bridge pickup has extra turns for hotter output, giving this beast a more modern roar.

Of course, Frampton made the three-pick up Custom famous, so the Gibson Custom Shop now produces the Peter Frampton Les Paul Custom, a “Black Beauty” with white binding and matching white pickup frames and toggle switch. This one’s got serious tone and sustain, and a much different blended sound than two pick-up models. For reference, hear 1976’s Frampton Comes Alive! KISS fans take note: there’s also a three-pickup Ace Frehley "Budokan" model, based on Frehley’s 1976 Custom. The Custom Shop also builds Randy Rhoads and Steve Jones signature models.

For purists, the Custom Shop has introduced a limited run 1955 Les Paul Custom, an exacting reproduction of the original two-pickup “Black Beauty.” There’s also the high gloss finish 1957 Chrome Custom and a three-pickup version of that called the 1957 Les Paul Custom 3 as well as a 1960 50th Anniversary reissue and the Gibson Custom Pro, which offers several contemporary options including coil splitting, a kill switch for Tom Morello-style stutter effects and hot BurstBucker pickups.

Finally, there’s the Les Paul Custom Lite, which pack the charm and sound of the historic “Black Beauty” into a lighter body that’s both chambered and thinner than the traditional Les Paul Custom reissues. This entry is especially appealing for all-night gigs and for smaller players, weighing in at roughly eight pounds verses the 10-to-12-pound mass of solid body Les Paul Customs.

• Les Paul Deluxe: The Les Paul Deluxe arrived in 1968, distinguished by its two mini-humbuckers. Later in the Deluxe’s original 15-year run, full-sized humbuckers and even P-90 versions were available. Today’s Les Paul Deluxe revisits the model’s original double-mini design for its vintage look and tone.

• Les Paul Supreme: This model is visually the Cadillac of contemporary Les Pauls. It pays tribute to the 1958 Les Pauls that marked the first appearance of the figured maple sunburst finish. And while the double-humbucker configuration of the Les Paul Supreme nods to the Standard’s sonic history, the bar is raised on looks thanks to the heavily figured maple top and back construction, which makes the Supreme a rarified beauty.

• Les Paul Special: The Les Paul Special was designed in 1955 as a thinner and less expensive version of the classically proportioned Gibson Les Paul — essentially as an intermediate step between the Standard and the Les Paul Junior. The classic version of this guitar is the so-called TV Yellow finished version often referred to as the “TV Special.” Today the Gibson Custom Shop builds this two-P-90 equipped instrument as the 1960 Les Paul Special VOS. This first-issue design had a single cutaway exclusively. Light, bright and with plenty of bite tempered by a mellow tonal complexity in the midrange, it’s the model that Robbie Krieger made famous on many of the Doors’ recordings. But some confusion has persisted since Gibson’s 1958 introduction of a double-cutaway version — created for easier access to the high frets. That guitar lives today as the 1960 Les Paul Special Double VOS. Essentially, the designs of the Special and the Junior these days are intertwined. Read on.

• Les Paul Junior: The smallest member of the Les Paul family, the Junior has come in single- and double-cutaway models since its introduction in 1954. The single-cutaway version looks a great deal like the Les Paul Special, with just one pickup. Gibson has several Les Paul Junior production models. The most popular single P-90 pickup model is the Billie Joe Armstrong Les Paul Junior Double Cut, patterned after the Green Day frontman’s double cutaway TV yellow guitar. It’s a definitive rock machine.

The wild card in the Junior family is the double P-90 Music City Jr. With B-bender, which looks like a Special with a variation on the Parsons-White B-bender that was once popular among country pickers built in. It’s built for twang… and speed.

A very slight difference in body size is all that defines the Les Paul Junior Special from the Les Paul Special. And the Junior Special comes in twin P-90 and dual humbucker configurations. Choosing between the two is a matter of deciding when you’re at tonally. In a departure from history, they also feature fast action baked maple fingerboards that have playability equal to rosewood and improved rigidity. And finally there’s the single cutaway, single pickup classic – the 1957 Les Paul Jr. Single VOS built by the Gibson Custom Shop.

• But wait, there’s more: Complicating matters is the great variety of these guitars made by Gibson’s lower-priced sister company Epiphone, which builds its own versions of Standards, Juniors, Specials, Deluxes, Customs, Supremes and Studios. You might need to check these dependable guitars out as well.

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