Thanks to an innovative pickup wiring design, the Les Paul Standard offers 13 distinct, different pickup-based sounds without on-board electronics or modeling techniques. While far more versatile than the usual neck/both/bridge switching options, this many options may seem daunting: How can you remember all these combinations, and switch among them effortlessly onstage?

Actually, it’s much easier than I thought—as I found out while preparing a workshop about amp sims for Sweetwater’s annual GearFest. I wanted to use the Les Paul Standard to show how different pickup choices affect an amp sim’s tone, but audiences don’t like to see people fiddling with switches. What to do?

Well, I needn’t have been concerned. Here’s what works for me to dial in sounds quickly and easily.

THE “MAGIC” NECK + BRIDGE SWITCH POSITION

Fig. 1 shows the Les Paul Standard’s control configuration.

Fig. 1: The Les Paul Standard control configuration.
Fig. 1: The Les Paul Standard control configuration.

The middle pickup switch position is the quickest route to three highly useful sounds. Audio example 1 is the sound of both pickups together without any other changes. (Note: All examples were recorded in Cakewalk SONAR X3 using Overloud’s TH2 amp sim; the levels were “as recorded” so you can hear any level differences. I chose an amp sim because standard amps often have a “character” that obscures tonal differences. With TH2, I could create a more “neutral” amp sound since the point of this article is to hear the differences among the pickup options. Adding a little distortion also helps underscore these differences.)

Pulling up on the neck pickup’s tone control wires the neck pickup out of phase, giving a thinner tone with a bit less output (Example 2). This is great for rhythm guitar parts, because the thinner sound leaves more frequencies available for other instruments. If you’re feeding into distortion, the reduced output “cleans up” the sound a bit without your having to work the volume or tone control.

Pulling up on the bridge pickup’s tone knob puts the Les Paul Standard into Pure Bypass mode, which connects the bridge pickup directly to the output—so a scorching, full-output lead tone is just one knob pull away. Because of the direct connection, the other control settings don’t matter.

Of course with either option, one knob push gets you back to the standard neck + bridge sound.

VARIATIONS ON A THEME

The Les Paul Standard’s Tuned Coil Tap feature is unique to Gibson guitars, and is available on both the neck and bridge pickups by pulling up on their respective volume controls.

With the pickup selector still in the middle position, selecting the Tuned Coil Tap setting for one or both pickups provides variations that can add interest to a performance. With distortion, the Tuned Coil Taps help smooth out the sound. Pulling up on the bridge volume knob reduces the bridge pickup’s edge and emphasizes the midrange a bit (Example 3). Pulling up the neck volume knob also takes off some edge (Example 4), but slightly less than the bridge Tuned Coil Tap.

The difference between these two options is subtle, which can be helpful in the studio but the variation isn’t that significant for live performance. However, pulling up both knobs mellows out the tone considerably (Example 5), without the bassy character of rolling back a tone control.

With any of these options, pulling up the neck tone control to throw the neck pickup out of phase thins out the sound more, and again, is excellent for rhythm guitar parts. Example 6 has both pickups in Tuned Coil Tap mode, but with the pickups out of phase.

THE NECK AND BRIDGE PICKUPS

The above options are more than enough to get you through a gig. However, the individual pickup sounds add yet more character, and give a bit more output than both pickups together because there’s no interaction between pickups. Switching the pickup selector to the neck pickup position gives a strong neck timbre (Example 7); initiating Tuned Coil Tap (Example 8) reduces the highs somewhat, although there’s much more presence compared to turning down the tone control.

Interesting side note: although changing phase with only one pickup selected usually doesn’t make am audible difference, in this case there’s a subtle change (Example 9) because the phase switch determines whether you’re listening to the neck pickup’s inner or outer coil. However I find the difference negligible for the stage.

The bridge pickup by itself gives that glorious, strong humbucker bridge pickup sound (Example 10). As with the neck pickup, Tuned Coil Tap shaves a bit off the edge (Example 11). Of course, you can modify any of these sound further using the tone controls.

THE BOTTOM LINE

It quickly became second-nature to choose the sounds I wanted. Once I became familiar with the middle position options, adding the individual pickups to the sonic palette was easy. Now when I need a sound, I can grab it immediately—and so can you, after getting familiar with the guitar that reviewer Phil O’Keefe called “the new standard in tonal versatility.” It’s hard not to agree.

For further reading:

Gear 101: How to Warm up Guitar Tone

Achieving the Right Balance Between Volume and Tone