The Gibson Les Paul is an iconic instrument, and in many ways they got it right back in the 1950s. There aren’t many other products that you can buy a newly-made version of which was built to the same specs as 60 years ago. But Les Paul himself was forever tinkering with his namesake guitar, and as great as those classic Les Pauls are, they aren’t for everyone. I get the feeling that’s why Gibson has created models like the Les Paul Futura, to capture the spirit of the Les Paul while also making something that non-traditionalists can call their own.
At its heart the Futura has a bunch of specs you would hope to find in a Les Paul: mahogany body with maple top, rosewood fingerboard, Tone-o-Matic bridge and Stop Bar tailpiece, two pickups each with individual tone and volume controls and 22 frets. But there are plenty of modern touches, most of them tucked away so you can’t see them. Sure, the available finish colours offer a hint that this is a Les Paul for 2014 (and the 2014 inlay at the 12th fret spells it out quite blatantly), but most of the more modern stuff might totally skip your attention at first. For starters, each pickup (a vintagey-but-hot Burstbucker 3 and a noise-cancelling P-90H Sidewinder) has a coil split on their respective volume controls to pop them into single coil mode – and these are push-push switches, rather than push-pull, so it’s much easier to engage the split while playing. The body is chambered for weight relief. The neck is maple rather than mahogany. And tucked away on the neck pickup’s tone pot is another push-push switch, this one engaging a 15dB clean boost.
Oh yeah and it tunes itself.
The Futura is equipped with the Min-E-Tune system developed by Tronical. And unlike Gibson’s Robot Guitar models of years past, this system is unobtrusive and intuitive. It doesn’t feel like the whole guitar was built around this feature. It’s just something really handy for when you want to use it. It gives you access to all sorts of pre-programmed and custom tunings, and it all happens much faster than the old system did. Plus the entire system is confined to a unit on the back of the headstock. It doesn’t require complicated controls on the guitar body, or wires running through the inside of the neck. It’s totally self-contained.
Not surprisingly, this is a crazy-flexible guitar. The self-tuning system alone makes it a great workhorse for all sorts of musical situations, but somewhat paradoxically this is a very interactive, hands-on guitar. It encourages you to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. If you plug it into a tube amp set for a crunch tone when your’e in humbucker mode you can clean it up to a nice clear punchy twang by engaging a coil split, or you can send it over the edge by hitting the boost. The Burstbucker 3 has some nice bite to it as well as a midrange thickness that makes it great for modern heavy sounds as well as classic rock, and the P-90H Sidewinder has plenty of sustain and juice, although it seems to lack a little bit of the dirt around the edges of a true single coil P-90 – until you switch it to single coil mode and engage the 15dB boost.
For some players the finish might well be a deciding factor. It’s definitely a lower-labour kind of finish which allows the guitar to come in at a much more affordable price point than if it had binding and a nice glossy clearcoat, and yet it strikes an interesting balance between modern and rustic. It also shows quite a lot of the natural pores of the wood, which helps to remind you that for all of the modern features of this guitar, it’s still a real guitar made of real wood.
Ultimately this isn’t a Les Paul for those who want a ’59 on a budget (the Traditional does a pretty good job of hitting some key ’59-style specs, though). Rather it’s a Les Paul for those who want a guitar for now, that allows them maximum sonic flexibility and modern playability. I’m sure some fans will see it and cry ‘Heathen!’ but if you pick it up with an open mind you’ll find a really toneful, flexible and ultimately fun guitar.