New Guitar Day: The ultimate Gibson Les Paul

You may remember this post from last week, where I pondered the need for a Les Paul for work-related purposes. I’ve always felt a little bit uncomfortable with not having a Les Paul when writing reviews: the LP is a standard (pardon the pun) and it just didn’t feel right reviewing amps without being able to explore what they sounded like with a chunk of mahogany, a slab of maple and a pair of humbuckers. And it would certainly help in pickup reviews, lesson articles for and my column in Mixdown to have a nice LP on hand. So yesterday I visited Sky Music here in Melbourne and tried out a whole bunch of Les Pauls to find The One.

I had a few Les Paul requirements: I needed a relatively standard-sounding one with mahogany body, maple top, a fixed bridge and a regular control layout of two volumes, two tones and a pickup selector. Henry from Sky explained that the best option for me was the Les Paul Traditional, because it’s what people think of when they think ‘Gibson Les Paul.’ The current Les Paul Standard is a very different guitar to its original 50s incarnation, especially with its 2012 overhaul: the compound radius fretboard and chambered body are modern features that aren’t associated with the old school Les Paul vibe (read more about the new Standard here). So with that in mind I tried pretty much every Traditional in the store, including some with utterly incredible figured maple tops. There was an Iced Tea which looked positively luminous, and a Honey Burst with a very tight, symmetrical flame. A Wine Red was rather pretty too. So I got to testing.

The luminous Iced Tea (that’s it above, although photos don’t do it justice) looked and sounded great, and the neck was very speedy. But the tone had a sort of compressed vibe which would make it a great rock or metal guitar, especially for playing lead. And that’s not what I was looking for in a Les Paul. I needed something with plenty of dynamic range. Something a little edgy. So as much as it hurt me, because it looked so good and sounded great in certain contexts, this was not the one.

Next up I tried the flamey Honey Burst (above). This was a nice guitar. A good amount of edge and separation between the notes, and some nice shifting harmonic overtones during two-string bends. I put it on the Maybe Pile. But I made sure it was close by just so I could gaze it it, because it looked so good.

For comparison I noticed another Honey Burst on the wall, this time with an asymmetrical flame. That’s it second from the back in the top row in the photo above. The bass side was far more flamey and consistent than the treble side. I gave it the open-position chord test, the muted chug test, the bluesy lead test, the complex jazz chord test, and it just sounded incredible. It wasn’t too full in the low end, it was clear in the highs, and the mids sounded like caramel. I put it on the Maybe Pile.

I tried a few others, including a Heritage Cherry Sunburst which sounded very scooped, and a Desert Burst that was nice, but none quite hit me the way that half-flamed Honey Burst did. One sounded great playing low chords but didn’t quite do it for me in the higher registers. One was a little too limited in the high end. Another Cherry Sunburst on the wall just gave me a bad vibe after one note – just too scoopy. The Wine Red sounded and felt great – definitely one of the best guitars in the store – but it didn’t quite top the Honey Burst with the funky half flame, half I-don’t-know-what finish. I went back and plugged the Honey Burst in again and played around some more. Hmm. Nice. Very nice. But then when I put it back, I noticed that hanging next to the Honey Burst was a Gold Top Traditional.

I plugged it in.


The Gold Top had a similar response in the treble and bass regions to the Honey Burst. It had good dynamic range, probably not as much as the Burst but still very decent. It sounded edgy and cutting, and held its tuning very well. But the midrange focus seemed a little more focused in the upper mids, which made it sound a little bit barky, rather than the chunk and crunch of the Honey Burst. It reminded me quite a lot of Paul Reed Smith’s own 1958 Les Paul Gold Top, which I got to check out in person at a NAMM party a few years ago. It sounded a little bit Mick Ronson too.

But then I looked over at the Honey Burst again. I could hear it asking me to give it another try. “C’mon, dude, you’ve already plugged me in twice,” it said. “You haven’t done that with any of the others. That’s gotta mean something, yeah?” “Shhhhut up,” I whispered out of the side of my mouth. “Guitars can’t talk. And you’re making me look bad. I mean, one side of your top is all flamey and the other is almost plain. And besides,” I mumbled, a little louder, “The dentist who eventually comes and buys that luminous Iced Tea one will laugh at me. And probably judge my teeth.” The guy at the counter looked up for a second. I think he heard me. “Yeah, but you can’t put me down,” the half-flame said, a little more emphatically and confidently than I expected. “And you know I’ve got more character than all those other axes. I have the kind of distinct look where, 30 years from now, Gibson will want to make copies of me and sell them to dentists.” “Well yeah,” I conceded. “And you do sound the most Les Paul-y out of all of the guitars I’ve tried today. I mean… really… you’re the …” I gasped. It was so obvious now. “You’re The One!”

Music swelled up, fireflies danced in the air, and we ran towards each other in slow motion, twirling, laughing, giggling, entwined in each other’s arms and necks and nuts. Wait, scratch that last part. I don’t mean scratch it, I just mean scratch it. Ah hell, you know what I mean.

So now I’m a proud Les Paul owner. Eternal thanks to Henry at Sky Music for helping me to find the right Les Paul for me, instead of just the prettiest of the bunch. I look forward to many years of churning out third rate Al DiMeola licks, second rate Led Zeppelin riffs, and first rate Peter Hodgson songs.

And here it is, kicking back at Casa Del Guitar: my 2011 Gibson Les Paul Traditional. You’ll be hearing a lot more from this one soon!