Another one of my favourite posts. I’ve never been a huge Les Paul fan in the past, too bulky, too loose. But I loved this bargain version and I loved writing this review.
When Gibson introduced the Les Paul LPJ in 2013 it won plaudits for its solid tones and build quality, the mock-EMG effect pickups were less lauded. In 2014 Gibson upped the spec with their new zebra ’61 pickups – has this turned a good-value LP into a Standard-beater? Lets have a look.
Body and Hardware
The shape of an old-school Les Paul always surprises me, after the lightness of the brilliant SGJ and the elegantly wasted slimness of the body of the lovely Melody Maker, a full-fat Les Paul body always seems a little bloated.
But the model I have in my hands is a handsome piece of Mahogany with, can it be? a proper maple cap. Like the Melody Maker and the SGJ, there is a very thin nitro coating that makes the body feel warm and inviting – it’s not the most aesthetic finish in the world, but these very thin coatings do make guitars just feel lovely to hold.
The well-laid maple cap covers up some weight relief in the body (or as we call it here, holes) and the simple-most-definitely-not-flamed top gives an impression of restrained, stripped down class. It really is very handsome in a 1954 Telecaster sort of way.
The neck is maple and has a mortise and tenon join to the body. It’s finished in the same cherry finish as the body and the nitro gives the neck a lovely satin feel. I’ve played a few otherwise lovely Fenders with thick urethane coated necks recently and they just felt sticky. The LPJ felt lovely, warm and smooth.
You get 22 cryogenically frozen frets (they did not feel any colder). Frets were well laid and nicely polished, (I chose this guitar at random so QA seems to be doing its work). The 2014 LPJ has a nice slab of rosewood with a 12” radius so tempered enough for chord work but speedy for soloing. Gibson seem to have abandoned their experiment with baked maple boards – I played a few and they seemed fine but the traditionalist in me always liked rosewood. There is also an inlaid 120th anniversary logo on the fingerboard that I found much less annoying than I thought I would
The neck shape is described as a 50s Rounded. What this meant to me was a nicely meaty neck that really filled the hand nicely. The satin finish worked really well with this neck and it was supremely comfortable. This is a really great neck to play and if you are intimidated by the idea of a big neck, give this one a go, it is an absolute peach. The extra neck mass will help the tone along as well.
You get a silk-screened Gibson logo on the headstock and lovely Pearloid tuning pegs (much, much nicer than the ones on the slightly-cheaper Melody Maker. There is a white tek-loid nut, which is pretty standard for Gibson.
Bridge is a classic tune-o-matic unit. There is a curious satin look to it that looked machine tooled – it gives this end of the guitar a very modern and attractive look.
New for 2014 are what Gibson call ’61 Zebra humbuckers. These are Alnico V units so should give you a vintage tone with a bit of bite. Visually, they are an improvements on the matt black units on the 2013 model. You’ve got 2 tone and 2 volume speed knobs (I’ve always wanted a speed knob). Not much more I can say about that – even I cannot get too excited about tone knobs. If I wanted to be really fussy, a coil tap would have been nice.
The thin finish means that every join is visible and what you see is solid, unpretentious craftsmanship. The whole thing feels very solid in the hands and has the pleasing sense of an object that will be happy to give 50 years of service. The LPJ, SGJ and the Melody Maker are the cheapest Gibsons I’ve ever played but there is an honesty in their construction that is really quite moving and makes these guitars intensely likable in a way that a £6,000 1959 reissue can never be.
Every joint was well cut, every piece of woodworking was well executed, there is no sense of penny-pinching in this key area. And it just looks great, to my eyes it makes all those AAAAAAAA grade maple tops seem a little….silly and unnecessary, bu then I am a puritan at heart.
I don’t need to tell you that this is not always the case with Gibsons, who can still be frustratingly inconsistent with quality control. But this LPJ is absolutely cracking – just like the Melody MakerLPJ14C2SC1-Side-Shot LPJ14C2SC1-Finish-Shot-Back LPJ14C2SC1-Finish-Shot and the SGJ.
Next….we play the darn thing….Like the other cheap Gibsons I’ve tried recently, the general construction and care in assembly is very impressive for a guitar of this price, especially for an American made guitar. The new 61 pickups also look much more attractive than the black pickups in the 2013 version.
So on picking up the guitar you get a mid-weight Les Paul, much heavier that an SG or the slimmed down Melody Maker. Like all Les Pauls of my acquaintance, it feels bulky and clumsy against the ribcage – I admit it, I’m a fan of the Strat body contour and I don’t care who knows it. What I do like is how that thin nitro finish makes the guitar feel, it’s satiny and warm and you feel that if you could , this guitar would give you a nice cuddle. That sensation extends to the neck as well. It’s the same handful that you get on the SGJ, and the many virtues of that neck extend to this one as well. It fills the hand without feeling clumsy and still feels super-quick thanks to that satin finish. My model had a smooth piece of rosewood as well that helped some of those big bends.
In terms of feel then, I like this guitar and I don’t often say that about a Les Paul.
(once again – if you are buying a Gibson, play the one you intend to buy. This one was really well put together, the one next to it may not be)
Acoustically, it sounds alive, with quite a pronounced mid and treble character to the unplugged tone – lets see what happens when I plugged it in. (I’m using the clean tones from Tonestack and the heavy amps from Bias for this.)
The 61 bridge pickup has a lively, snappy quality on clean – there is more mid response than on the SGJ but it’s a tough, chewy sound with no hint of flabbiness. The SGJ has a more transparent feel to it and is better for country or funk but the LPJ has an articulate nature to the clean tone that I’ve not often seen in a Les Paul.
Revved up though, the tone really opens up. The SGJ with the same pickup has a waspish, aggressive character, the LPJ really sounds like it’s big brother. The tone is darker, more authoritative. Like the SGJ, this 61 unit is also very responsive to playing dynamics and that becomes more apparent as you whack the gain up. Once we hit Rectifier territory it’s pinched harmonics ago-go with oceans of sustain.
These 61 pickups are obviously built to a price but I’ve played them in several guitars and they are astonishingly good. In this Les Paul, you get pretty much the gamut of classic LP tones but with a mid-range clarity and definition as well that many LPs, even Custom shop jobbies, have not always had.
The neck pickup retains this clarity as well – on clean there is a bite to the tone which gives you more clean options than the normally uninspiring jazz-lite bridge pickup LP tone and distorted, there is a transparency to it that adds rather more than your routine flutey humbucker neck sound.
Really, its this clarity that makes this LPJ very special. There is little of the mush that you might be used to in an LP, and this comes through with both pickups. Played clean, there is an irresistible quacky funk tone on there. Nile Rodgers on an LP? yes, it can be done.
When it comes to these super-cheap Gibsons, I am at risk of sounding like a broken record. Well-built, lovely to play and sounding fantastic. They also keep their value incredibly well and they are the only Gibsons where you would not have a heart attack if you chipped the finish.
.If I had to choose, I perhaps prefer the even cheaper SGJ but it is a very, very close thing. The LPJ is certainty the most likable Les Paul I’ve played.
This LPJ is £567 with a gig bag, perhaps 25% of the cost of a Standard. The Standard has the bookmatched maple, and the bindings and the case and the heritage, But does it really, objectively sound better? Try this LPJ and you may have doubts.