Buying Guide: Gibson Les Pauls

Buying Guide: Gibson Les Pauls

March 28, 2019

The Gibson Les Paul is considered to be one of the two most important electric guitar models of all time. First released in the early 1950s, the Les Paul has now been produced in thousands of variants over the years, the core design and spun off into a vast constellation of Les Paul sub-models and families. Gibson also has a tendency to switch up the specs of specific models year-to-year, resulting in a mind-bogglingly diverse pool of instruments to sift through if you're trying to buy a Les Paul.

Price Range

When making any guitar purchase, think of your price range first. It will be a good way to hone in on a smaller field of options. On the used market, Gibsons typically start in the $1K  range for basic models. If you're looking to stay below that, an Epiphone Les Paul may be a better option for you. You can get a good sense of which Gibsons fit into what price bracket by looking at the options we've highlighted below. 

Neck Profiles

One way in which different Les Paul models vary is in the shape of the neck and how it fits in your hand. Typically, Gibson necks fall into two broad categories: Those labeled as having a '50s-style neck tend to be a bit chunkier, rounder, and more C-shaped. Those with a '60s-style neck will be a bit thinner in what's sometimes called a D-shape profile.

Flame Tops and Finish

Most Les Pauls have a piece of carved maple on the top of their mahogany body, and Les Paul aficionados tend to value those with a high degree of flaming or figuring in the wood. If you see a Les Paul labeled as "Premium" or "Plus" or "AAA," that denotes a higher grade flame. Usually, these guitars carry high-quality, glossy finishes that really showcase the stripes. Lower-end options like the Les Paul Studio tend to use darker finishes, which do not reveal any flame on their tops. Other options, like the Les Paul Tribute line, use more economic "satin" finishes, which obscure the wood altogether.

Pickups

Standard Les Pauls are generally based on the template set in the late '50s and include humbucker pickups. These days, most models use humbuckers inspired by the original P.A.F. pickups of that vintage era, such as the '57 Classics or Burstbuckers. These sorts of pickups are known for their big, round tones and are a fundamental ingredient in the classic Les Paul recipe. That said, there are plenty of models that use different pickups such as the thinner mini-humbuckers found on the old Les Paul Deluxe and the older-school P90s found on a number of model spin-offs. Of course, once you buy a Les Paul, you can always swap in new pickups and explore other options—just make sure you keep the original to maintain resell value.

Model Family and Type

While the number of Les Paul variations out there is truly astounding, there remain some core groupings that have existed during the past few decades. While unsurprisingly, within each of these, there are plenty more variations and exceptions to every rule. Generally speaking, these groupings provide a good starting point for any Les Paul shopper. Keep scrolling for a high-level breakdown of what defines each of these Les Paul sub-species.

Gibson Les Paul Standard

The Les Paul Standard is, as the name implies, the mainstay of the lineup and fits into a legacy going back to the '50s. Modern Standards—typically ones from the '80s onward—can vary a lot as far as specific parts used, but almost categorically they'll include humbucker pickups and some degree of flame on the top. They also usually have thinner neck profiles than their vintage forebears and lighter bodies thanks to modern weight-relief practices. The most recent Standards also often include push/pull pots on the tone knobs, which can split the coils of the humbuckers, offering a more versatile tonal range.

 

Gibson Les Paul Studio 1998 - 2011

Going back to the '80s, the basic pitch of the Les Paul Studio is that it does away with some of the aesthetic flourish of the Les Paul Standard to offer a great guitar at a lower price. One that you could use in, say, a studio setting. Studios generally lack binding on the body and flame tops (though there are exceptions) and use 490 series pickups. You'll also often see Studio Tributes or Faded series guitars, which are even more of a bargain and generally rely on more economic "Satin" finishes.

Les Paul Traditionals

A heavy duty '50s-style model for that original LP experience

Gibson Les Paul Traditional 2008 - 2012

The Les Paul Traditional is similar to the Standard but generally features a heavier, older-school body and chunkier '50s-style neck (though there are some with thinner profiles floating out there). If you know you do well with this sort of setup that really lets you dig into your playing, the Traditional is the option for you. Like the Standard, Les Paul Traditionals typically have some degree of top figuring, and also like the Standard, there have been plenty of limited variations on the core Traditional layout.

Gibson Les Paul Classic

The Les Paul Classic is similar to the Traditional but generally includes a thinner '60s neck profile and different pickups. The Classic moniker has been applied to a few different spin-off models over time, with most using slighter brighter uncovered humbuckers. Some more recent models incorporate P90s instead. Generally, prices on the Classic are a bit lower than Standards.

Gibson Les Paul Custom Electric Guitar 2005 - 2016

The Les Paul Custom goes back to the mid-'50s and is, in a lot of ways, its own thing. It's defined by its dashing aesthetics with ebony fretboards, square inlays, fancy headstock design, and, conventionally, black-on-black styling. In the '50s, Customs were made with all-mahogany bodies, though more recent examples use the same maple-on-mahogany format as the rest of the bunch.

Les Paul Specials and Juniors

Vintage-style bare-bones model with general Les Paul vibes

While a fundamentally different design than the Les Pauls mentioned above, the Les Paul Special and Junior—both of which go back to the '50s—are solid options for people who just want an affordable Les Paul–esque guitar. These models do not have carved maple and instead are built around slab bodies, like a Fender Telecaster. They're also well-known as longtime punk favorites, having been used by players like Billie Joe Armstrong and Joan Jett, both of whom have had signature models.

Custom Shop Les Pauls

Custom Shop Les Pauls sit at the very top of the heap of modern Gibson guitars. While there are some mainstay models, like the '58 Les Paul Reissue, the guitars you'll find in the Custom Shop catalog will have a lot of variation guitar-to-guitar, with tons of artist signatures, special editions, and limited runs. Like the regular production models above, Custom Shop Les Pauls also have gone through spec changes through the years, and typically, buyers of these guitars focus on the particulars of individual listings much as they would a vintage

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