The Gibson Company’s flagship guitar is the Les Paul. In all of its variations — Standard, Studio, Custom, etc. — the model is a venerable and versatile classic that evokes the past with its elegant lines and recording pedigree, while also packing the goods to lead the cutting edge of modern music.
All guitar models have particular qualities that should be factored intro performing with them, especially for hard-core, road dog three-, four- or five-sets-a-night touring. Typically a guitarist learns these considerations from experience. But here is a short-cut checklist of 10 things to consider when working with Les Pauls on the road, whether you’re playing rock, jazz, blues, country, folk, improvised music or polkas. Or anything else.
• Tone and volume pots: The Les Paul can produce a great variety of sounds just by flipping the pickup switch between rhythm, lead and middle positions, but some of the most complex and rich tones require subtle adjustments of the volume and tone pots. Think of those pots like the drawbars on a Hammond B-3 organ. They are where the magic lies. Keep your adjustments subtle when playing differently resonating rooms, because it’s easy to lose your core tone if you’re twisting pots on the fly, but definitely dig in and explore the bright, ringing tones of these pots turned full up and the warm, round, and ardently soulful, fat tones that emerge when they are rolled back — plus everywhere in between.
• Weight relief: This is an important factor for surviving long nights on stage. One of the reasons Les Pauls sound so good is because they are dense and heavy, which helps give them deep tones and excellent sustain. Today’s Les Pauls have less variation in their weight than vintage models, which can clock in at eight to 10 pounds or, occasionally, more. Wear that on your shoulder night after night for six months and you’ll likely develop some serious pain unless you take steps. One alternative is to play modern-era Les Pauls with weight relief chambered bodies, but what’s also helpful is choosing the right guitar strap. Wider straps dispense weight more effectively, so if you’re going to be playing vintage Les Pauls consistently, forget about looks when it comes to straps. Girth should be your first priority.
• Toggle switch: It’s a cheap stunt, but it kills every time: making the guitar stutter by rapidly flipping the toggle switch back and forth. Hot players from Roy Buchanan to the Pretenders’ James Honeyman Scott to Tom Morello have used this move to murderously delightful effect. And it’s easy after you develop a bit of coordination on the guitar — especially with a Les Paul, thanks to the freestanding placement and design of their toggles. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vj3GdGk2B7c) (<iframe width="420" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/vj3GdGk2B7c?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>)
• Nut issues: The corian nuts on Les Pauls require maintenance and the instrument’s beveled headstock makes that ultra-important since it can create wear on the grooves or transport dirt into the nut and gum up the slots the strings pass through simply as a result of normal playing. To be sure your tuning remains stable, clean the nut and, if necessary, file out the grooves on your Les Paul’s nut periodically. If anything interferes with the movement of the angled string through the nut’s grooves, that’s going to cause tuning problems.
• Bridge picking: Any guitar will sound bright or twangier if its strings are plucked by the bridge, but with a Les Paul dialed in for dark tones, in particular, picking by the bridge is a quick and easy way to create a marked contrast in tone that will make solos pop out without changing any settings.
• Pickup selection: Of course, the toggle switch lets you switch between single and combined pickups, but several of today’sLes Paul Standard and Les Paul Studio models offer more versatility with push-pull coil splitting, and the contemporary Standard adds phase reversal and true bypass to the game. Some new Les Pauls also have plug-and-play QuickConnect pickups, which easily allow a player to switch out pickups sans soldering or splicing.
• Sustain: The Les Paul was built to hold notes courtesy of its weight and the density of its neck and fretboard. Shaking the guitar’s neck can help do that even better, with the gently resulting vibrato helping the held notes to sound longer. Obviously this applies to all guitars, but it’s especially easy thanks to the Les Paul’s weight and construction, which keeps the guitar stably hanging in place exactly where one puts it on.
• Neck and headstock breakage: This is a big issue for any set-neck guitar — and especially those with heavy bodies that, should a guitar fall from its stand, can place greater stress at the point of impact. The good news is that most neck and headstock fractures can be repaired by a good luthier without impeding any of the sonic characteristics of the guitar. But the best rule is to be as careful as possible with the Les Paul’s neck and headstock during transport and on stage. When playing — especially playing hard — with a Les Paul, be aware of where the neck and headstock are headed at all times, and when the guitar is racked be sure the rack can lock so the instrument won’t tumble out.
• Straplocks: Invest in a pair of strap locks for each of your stage guitars. Between running around the stage, the stress that heavy guitars put on the slots in straps and surprise events like collisions with the bass player, wall or ceiling, it’s all too easy for your guitar to drop to the ground and chip, divot or fracture.
• Tuner care: Its easy to bend or jar a Les Paul’s tuning pegs when playing live. After all, they protrude on two sides. Colliding with bandmates, ceilings and other solid objects is a major cause. When this happens, replace the damaged tuning peg. Periodically tighten up the screws on tuners and check to be sure they are turning efficiently. Sharply beveled headstocks create an angle on the strings that will pull strings attached to loose or damaged tuners out of tune quickly.