REVIEW: Gibson Les Paul Traditional

The Les Paul has been through literally hundreds of iterations over the years. The current Les Paul Standard, for instance, is a very different instrument to the Standard of the 50s. It now features a chambered body and a compound radius fretboard. By contrast, the Gibson Les Paul Traditional is more akin to what we think of when we hear ‘Les Paul.’ It has a 12″ fretboard radius and a weight relieved (not chambered) body. It’s the Les Paul for those who want a more classic guitar, inspired by the iconic LPs of the 50s but also channeled through models like the 80s/90s Les Paul Classic. When I decided I needed a Les Paul, I tested out quite a few before settling on the one I ultimately called my own. This is a review of that guitar.

The Traditional model spec calls for a one or two piece Grade A mahogany body with a maple top (about 2cm thick, certainly more than thick enough to have an impact on the tone). Available colours are Heritage Cherry Sunburst, Desert Burst, Honey Burst, Iced Tea, Light Burst, Gold Top, Ebony, Chicago Blue and Wine Red. On this particular guitar the body is made of two pieces of mahogany, joined right down the middle. The Honey Burst top is flamed maple, and while there were many perfectly book matched and frankly breathtaking tops, this particular example has a bit more character. The bass half is heavily flamed and three-dimensional while the treble side is quite different. With the pick guard on you can barely discern any flame at all. Under certain lighting conditions it’s practically plain. Remove the pick guard and there’s a little more flame visible, balancing out the mismatched effect somewhat, but there’s still a big discrepancy between the two halves. This is something you’ll often see on original 1958-1960 Les Paul Standards, so I’m quite happy to see it on this guitar, although some might consider it an imperfection.

The neck is a chunky 50s-style profile. If you’re used to thin Ibanez necks and the like you might feel a little confronted by this. Me, I quite like it. It’s a nice contrast to my other guitars. The neck and body are bound in creme, and the binding has the appearance of covering the edges of the frets (as you’ll see in the pic to the right). This isn’t quite true: the frets actually stop where the binding begins, and the binding tapers off from the frets. Some players express concern that the high E string might get caught in the transition from fret to binding, but as long as your technique is in check, this isn’t really a problem. The frets and nut are fine-tuned under simulated string tension in Gibson’s plek machine for consistency and accuracy.

The headstock veers off at a 17 degree angle to the body and it features a fiber face with pearloid Gibson logo, silkscreened Les Paul logo and a truss rod cover which reads ‘Traditional.’ Tuners are a set of Klusons with cream pearloid buttons.

The pickups are a pair of Gibson humbuckers: a Classic ’57 in the neck position and a Classic ’57 Plus in the bridge. These covered pickups feature Alnico II magnets, and the Plus is overwound for extra output and better balance with the neck pickup. Controls include a volume and tone pot for each pickup and a three way pickup selector switch. Internal wiring is neatly executed and obviously done by hand. The pots are by CTS. The tone capacitors are small, generic-looking ceramic models.

Incidentally, Gibson offers bumblebee capacitors inspired by the caps used in original 50s Les Pauls as an aftermarket part. These look like Bumblebees from the outside, but the insides aren’t the same: if you pop one open you’ll find a different cap inside. This is a very clever project by Gibson: they painstakingly measured the components and performance of original Bumblebees, which have long been out of production, then created a cap which performs in the same way but with modern production techniques and manufacturing tolerances. The new cap is then placed in a case designed to mimic the general look of the Bumblebee. The result is similar performance and aesthetics to the real deal but with modern reliability.

Unplugged, the Traditional is loud and round-sounding, with a slightly tinny midrange character and smooth high end, both common traits of Les Pauls which generally translate into the amplified tone quite well. Plugged in, the Classic ’57 and Classic ’57 Plus reveal themselves to be very versatile pickups. The coils are closely matched to each other, resulting in smooth high end and less airy feel compared to vintage PAFs, which typically had mismatched coils. At cleaner gain settings these pickups are clear without being jangly. Despite the bridge pickup being overwound in relation to the neck, the neck is so much more powerful that it takes a bit of work to ultimately balance them, but once you’ve got it nailed, they should great.  But the real beauty is in crunch tones. Palm-muted notes are suitably percussive and the dynamic range is very impressive. Soft picking produces a very different tone to really laying in, and if you have an amp that’s responsive to that sort of thing, the Traditional is very rewarding. I found that I could get as close as I could ever hope to Jimmy Page’s Walking Into Clarksdale tones and especially his “Take Me For A Little While” sound, and “It sounds like Jimmy Page” is certainly a compliment for any guitar!

The real surprise though is how well the Traditional handles high gain sounds. Since these aren’t high output pickups, the note definition is sharper and clearer than high output pickups. With my Marshall set to ‘kill,’ the tones were chunky yet with just enough sizzle to add some teeth. It’s a very midrangey approach to metal tone and certainly not for everyone, but for the way I approach metal sounds it’s just perfect. I didn’t expect to play that stuff on this guitar but I’m glad it’s there when I want it.

Downsides? Well there are some aspects of the Les Paul design which take some getting used to if you’re more accustomed to Superstrats and the like. The neck pitch is a big one: the neck is angled slightly backwards against the body, which causes the strings to be higher off the body than you might be used to if you’ve never played a Paul before, so they’re traditionally awkward guitars to adapt to in some circumstances. That’s not a design flaw but it’s something which I find can put some players off and maybe stop them from giving the Les Paul a fair chance. More concerning though is the choice of strap button. The ones on the Traditional are authentic to classic Les Pauls, which means they’re quite small, and my strap slipped off the guitar on the very first day I got it home. I managed to catch the axe before it hit the floor, but I immediately swapped the strap buttons for larger ones which would hold the strap on more firmly. Given that the Les Paul is generally a heavier guitar than many, they can hit the ground quite hard, so you should definitely consider an appropriate strap or strap locks if you intend to rock out with your Les Paul.

There are plenty of options in the current Les Paul catalog, but the Traditional was my personal pick for its overall similarity to the Les Pauls I had posters of on my wall as a kid: mahogany body, maple top, rosewood fretboard, 12″ fretboard radius, vintage PAF-styled humbuckers. Unless you can afford a Gibson Custom 58, 59 or 60 reissue, it’s probably the closest you’ll get to a new version of those vintage classics which helped to forge rock.

I got my Les Paul from Sky Music – check out their Gibson range here.

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