REVIEW: Epiphone Les Paul Standard Ultra-II

Aah, the Les Paul. Is there anything cooler than slinging one down around your knees, slumping over like Slash and reeling off sleazy rock riff after sleazy rock riff? Well, yeah. Not having to put down your beloved axe to pick up a wimpy acoustic to play the ballad is cooler. Not being tied to one of those acoustic guitar stands for the songs when you need to play acoustic and electric parts is cooler. Now, Gibson and Epiphone are well aware of how to make a cool thing cooler – just witness the Gibson Tony Iommi SG or the Epiphone Goth 1958 Explorer for proof. So it should be no surprise that they’ve figured out the least obtrusive way yet to cram acoustic sounds (via a Shadow NanoMag pickup) into an otherwise all-electric Les Paul in the form of the Les Paul Standard Ultra-II.

On the surface, this looks like a pretty standard high-end Epiphone Les Paul. The mahogany body (chambered for resonance and lightness) supports a quilted maple cap, while a mahogany slim-taper glued-in neck sports a satin finish, a rosewood fretboard and 22 medium jumbo frets on a flattish 12” radius. The scale length is your classic 24.75”. Hardware includes a LockTone Tune-o-Matic bridge and LockTone Stopbar which, as the name might lead you to believe, locks the whole shebang in place. This has multiple benefits: increased transfer of energy between the strings and body; increased tuning stability, and if you’re changing strings the bridge and tailpiece won’t fall off and carve a ditch through your once-pristine finish, taking your resale and sentimental value with it.

Electronics consist of two Alnico Classic pickups with individual volume pots for each; a master tone where the neck pickup’s tone control would usually be; and a volume control for the NanoMag sitting where the bridge pickup tone control would be. There’s a 3-way pickup selector switch in the usual place and, ‘round back, treble, bass and gain controls for the NanoMag pickup. But wait, I don’t see any wires poking out of the bridge. So where is this mysterious NanoMag pickup? Oh wait, there it is, set into the neck between the 22nd fret and the rhythm position humbucker. Crafty! This little wonder seeks to do away with the quackiness inherent in conventional piezo pickup designs, and instead it uses good old fashioned magnetic means to capture the sound, strategically placed at a sweet spot where you’ll get the maximum fullness and tone. Nice. There are two output jacks: Magnetic/Mono to combine the acoustic and electric sounds into one output (for which you’ll need to judiciously balance the NanoMag’s volume with that of the bridge and neck pickups), and NanoMag/Stereo which, when used with the first, sends the acoustic and electric signals off to separate amplifiers for ultimate control without tonal compromise.

Now, the addition of the acoustic functionality, while impressive, isn’t yet enough to classify the guitar as ‘Ultra,’ so Epiphone has added deluxe gold hardware, just to push the Ultra-II’s ‘wow factor’ over the edge.

The Alnico humbuckers sound warm and open, and are especially effective at clean and medium-overdrive applications. Through my Marshall they sounded clear and punchy, and the added resonance of the chambered body seemed to add an almost Santana-esque colour to the tone. There seemed to be a sweet spot around the 7th to 12th frets where the frequencies really worked together to give each note a blooming vocal quality. This was especially evident when I dropped my pick and decided to go all Jeff Beck Fingerstyle for a while.

Down at the ‘cowboy chord’ end of the neck, the bridge pickup has great note separation, while the neck pickup seems to knit each note of a chord together. Great for traditional rhythm playing. Y’know, actual strummed chordal accompaniment rather than Hetfield-style rhythm.

The acoustic sound is full and warm, with a little more note separation than the neck humbucker and not quite as bright as the bridge unit. It’s also not particularly boomy, which is a great thing. You get ample amounts of string zing, adding to the acoustic feel and helping to make the Les Paul Standard Ultra-II sound just that little bit more authentic as an acoustic guitar substitute – after all, the sound of a real acoustic guitar is arrived at not just by the sound coming off the strings but also because of the sound bouncing around unfettered within the hollow body and reflecting this way and that. So while there are some characteristics of the acoustic tone that this guitar isn’t capable of nailing, there are other aspects that it does far better than conventional bridge-mounted piezo systems. You could even say that the NanoMag makes the Ultra-II sound more like an acoustic than the vast majority of piezo-only-loaded acoustics. Or in other words, to get this same kind of clarity and authenticity from a real acoustic guitar, you’d need to use a – you guessed it – magnetic pickup.

One of the best things about the Ultra-II though is the ability to have both sounds running at once. In my DAW I set up Amplitube Fender on two separate tracks. I turned off the amp model on the acoustic signal track and just used some light compression and reverb, while on the electric track I piled on some tremolo and tape echo with a high feedback level. The result was a shimmery, ambient indie texture (very ‘Clientele) that sounded so cool you could build a career on it. Next I tried some light overdrive on the Super Sonic model while selecting a higher compression setting for the acoustic. Great Rolling Stones tone. Pushing the compression all the way and reducing the NanoMag’s treble created a cool 60s Yardbirds sort of texture: mixing some bridge pickup in here reminded me of Frank Zappa’s ‘Peaches En Regalia.’ Awesome.

The possibilities of this guitar are quite inspiring, whether you play indie, rock, jazz, blues… heck I could even see metal dudes using this axe for the requisite dark ballad or pseudo-classical intro. And yet for all the usefulness of the acoustic mode, it wouldn’t work quite so well if the guitar itself was of lesser quality. Even if you don’t plan to use the acoustic sound much, the Les Paul Standard Ultra-II would be one of Epiphone’s nicer models in playability and sound.