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Tricks of the Trade: Getting the Most Out of Your Les Paul

Peter Hodgson
Gibson Les Paul Standard

There are a lot of little things, fine details, which come together to make the Gibson Les Paul such a popular and influential guitar. Some of it’s down to style: whether in the hands of a tuxedoed Les Paul himself or a shirtless, slouched Slash, there’s an undeniable sense of cool that comes over a player when they strap a Les Paul on. More if it is down to the tone: the mixture of mahogany and maple which personifies the classic vintage Les Paul sound played a crucial role in defining the sound of rock, and more than 40 years later we still use that sound as a benchmark for what crunchy rock tone means.

But there’s something else that makes the Les Paul stand out, and it’s something that players as diverse as Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons and Tom Morello have explored and exploited to great effect: the Les Paul itself. In other words, the fine little details which can be manipulated, played, pinged, plucked or twiddled to achieve refined or unorthodox sonic results. Here are a few little tricks you can perform on your Les Paul, be it Gibson or Epiphone (these generally apply to other two-humbucker/two-volume/two-tone Gibsons and Epiphones as well, but they lend themselves particularly well to the Les Paul layout).

Toggle Switch Tricks

This is one of the first tricks most players discover when they first plug in a Les Paul: turn the rhythm pickup’s volume all the way down, leave the treble pickup at full volume, then rhythmically flip the pickup switch. You can hear this on Rage Against the Machine tracks like “Renegades of Funk,” and it’s a favorite trick of KISS legend Ace Frehley and the late, great Randy Rhoads. But that’s not all you can do with this trick. You can also create “almost wah wah” sounds. Try this: turn the treble pickup’s tone control all the way down, leave the rhythm pickup’s tone up and reduce its volume a little, then hold a note and move the switch. In this instance the combination of a trebly pickup with the highs rolled off creates a honky tone similar to the middle to lower range of a wah wah pedal, while the rhythm pickup provides more of a neutral ground. You can try it the other way, of course, with the rhythm pickup’s tone all the way down, but the effect is more subtle and less dramatic this way.

Behind the Bridge Strumming

The area between the bridge and the tailpiece – and similarly between the nut and tuning pegs – is ideal for bizarre, “ten-tonne harp” textures which are especially powerful when using overdrive, fuzz and/or reverb. In these areas the pitch of each note will depend on the tuning of the string as well as the gauge of each string and the distance between the bridge and tailpiece, or the nut and tuner. Sometimes the tones happen to fall upon traditional tempered notes. More often they’re just shy of property in tune, and sometimes they’re way off. Each has a place. A perfectly tuned behind-the-bridge note sounds like an especially full harmonic and can be incorporated within a riff, while slightly out or way out notes have their own ear-catching charm.

Behind the Bridge Bending

This one is a little harder to execute, and it helps if you use a very light string gauge and if your stop bar is either quite high or you’re using over-the-top stringing for a shallower break angle (like on Billy Gibbons’ Pearly Gates). If you’re willing to risk a broken string or two in honor of nailing a neat trick, strum a chord, take the edge of your pick and use it to push down on the string behind the bridge. Try it with a standard open D chord, shifting the high E string up by a semitone to hit Dsus4. You can also try pressing the string down behind the nut to achieve a similar smooth bend effect, but the range of motion isn’t quite as far as behind the bridge.

Control Tweaks

Some wonderfully complex tones can be achieved by carefully balancing the two volume pots while both pickups are selected. Of course Clapton’s “Woman Tone” involves clever use of both pickups, both tone controls and one pickup’s volume pot, but there’s another quite usable tone lurking a few clicks away from “10” in the Les Paul circuitry. When using a lightly overdriven amp setting, simply engage both pickups, then roll the rhythm pickup’s volume and tone controls back by about a third each (more or less depending on how your amp responds). You’ll get the clarity and attack of the treble pickup along with the body and resonance of the reigned-back rhythm pickup.

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