Jeztone Guide: How to buy a Gibson Les Paul !

I often see people on web forums asking advice on buying a Gibson Les Paul. There are many opinions on this, but having gone through the experience several years ago and managing to find a guitar that was both well made, well finished and well priced. I’m as qualified as anyone to offer my two penneth worth.

  1. There are many myths surrounding modern Gibsons however it is worth noting that their quality control is and always has been a bit patchy. So its probably worth avoiding buying a ‘sight unseen’ guitar over the internet.  A quick survey of my friends and family highlighted how different LP’s can be. My brothers Standard is nicely finished, but has a really light fingerboard and one of the machineheads is not quite seated at the right angle, the singer in my bands LP Studio has really sharp fret ends, a mates Les Paul Standard has a build up of paint by the serial number. Another friends LP Custom has a glue splot under the tailpeice and is heavier than any guitar I’ve tried.
  2. Do your own research – Opinions are like arseholes, everyones got one. Go onto Gibson’s own website and look at the models and see what interests you, buy some magazines as the dealer adverts with give you a good idea on both prices and the range available.
  3. Choice is everything – Don’t go to a dealer with only 2 guitars to choose from, you need a dealer with a good amount of stock, some dealers like Peter Cooks or Coda’s don’t rely on finance deals to sell guitars, therefore they tend to pile them high and rely on a fast turnover. These places tend to be keener on price as they don’t want a pricey guitar hanging on a wall for months on end.
  4. Try everything – Even if the guitar is not in a colour or the exact model of Les Paul you want, remember modern Standards have a choice of 50′s rounded or 60′s slim taper necks, try both and see what you get on with
  5. Awww its heavy – As mahogany is the predominant material of an LP, they are usually heavy, but as wood has its own inconsistancies this can vary from 8.8 – 10lbs in weight. Don’t be a pussy this is part of the guitars charm, you can always buy a broad strap to distribute the weight.
  6. Go on a ‘weekday’ - Guitar shops are usually busy on a Saturday. If you show up on a Tuesday morning wanting to try a £1200 guitar, you will probably get a better standard of service and less pressure to buy.
  7. Make sure you get to play it through a ‘proper’ amp – I’m amazed that dealers are so thick as to make you try a grand plus guitar through a £100 amp. However this is common place (my brother has made 3 attempts to buy a PRS McCarty in recent years, everytime he gets to play through a Line 6 Spider or other such cheap amp, he feels underwhelmed by the guitars tone and always walks away this even happened at Music Live in 2005 on the PRS distributors own stand whewre he was forced to play a 2 grand guitar through a cheap Crate amp), don’t stand for it. You wouldn’t test drive an Aston Martin with 2 star petrol in the tank would you?
  8. Fit and Finish - look for build ups of paint around the headstock, neck body join. Also binding check for dings and finish on the binding, especially where the neck meets the body. Hold the guiter up to the light and look for any scratches in the finish.
  9. Does it play well? – Try the guitar un-amped, listen to the notes ring out, do they sound clean. Play Harmonics all over the neck, Play avariety of stuff on it, both clean and dirty use all the pickups, check the switch, volume & tone controls for any crackles.
  10. Rosewood Fingerboards – Apart from Customs and some limited editions, the fingerboard will be Indian Rosewood. This should be the same colour as fruitcake, a rich dark reddish brown. If it’s the colour of pine its been harvested young and is too dried out, walk away. Look at the fret ends, are they sharp? Are they sat in the binding properly?
  11. Don’t let the dealer sell you the guitar he wants – Avoid the assistants agenda, I’ve seen an assistant in a well known West End Guitar shop try and tell someone that the wiring in a Les Paul Classic had inferior quality cable to the Les Paul Standard. This is bullshit, there is no magical superior wiring on Gibsons production line guitars. However the dealers agenda was to push the customer into paying another £300 for a similar guitar. Don’t be conned.
  12. Try more than one dealer, also look at Loot/Admag adverts. Ebay can be useful, but I would always try the guitar before you commit to a purchase. Beware of people  trying to sell you an ex artist guitar, if it’s real they will have a letter of provenance and some history. Beware of fakes, rebadged Epiphones or Tokai’s etc.
  13. Take your time and try lots of guitars – I spent a week and looked at about 20 guitars in total. In the end I wanted a Wine Red LP Classic. After not being able to find a Standard with a decent finish and dark rosewood board. I had a choice of 2 ‘Classic’s', one in Copper and a common Honeyburst model. In the end the honeyburst won. I think the shop assistant was annoyed that I’d spent a working day choosing an instrument, including going for lunch halfway through. But remember its your money, not theirs. Take your time and if in doubt, walk away.

End of an Era

After the 1970′s dark ages of American Guitar Building we’ve seen a resurgence of build quality, fit & finish led by smaller scale manafacturers such as Hamer and then in more recent years PRS. 

These companies have arguably made the emergence of smaller high quality American luthiers possible.

Name’s like John Suhr, James Tyler, Gene Baker and Tom Anderson. These guitars are all small production runs and exceptionally made and have now become realistic quality alternatives to the big two. Although PRS’ market position now makes them as much a player as Fender or Gibson.

I’m shocked to discover that Tom Anderson has decided to close his small operation and scale back to him just being a custom builder. There have been many rumours on the internet concerning this, mainly speculating on his health, but in a statement on Anderson’s website, he has simply stated he doesn’t want to be a businessman anymore. He Just wants to build guitars.

Whatever his reasons its worth noting how globalised the guitar industry has become since Tom Anderson started winding pickups for Schecter back in the early 80′s, back then Fender & Gibson were on their knees, but now the resurgence of these two brands since 1990 means they have expanded and now own so many brands that were once competitors. While flicking through last months Guitar World, I saw adverts in the first few pages for Charvel, Jackson, Gretsch & Guild all companies the mighty Fender Musical Instruments Corporation has aqquired in recent years and all made in the same giant factory, or outsourced abroad.

When just one company is buying up all that advertising space, its going to have a lot of power. One has to wonder if theres any chance of objective reviews anymore? The continuing sycophantic ramblings of certain reviewers in some guitar magazines have seemed a light year away from my own experiences of either owning or playing certain guitars in shops (My Washburn Mercury folded up after 2 weeks of ownership and the bridge appeared to be made out of the metal used for pub ashtrays, but back in 1994 Guitarist said it was an ideal midrange rock axe – It wasn’t and since then I’ve treated glowing reviews with a healthy dose of scepticism)

Journalistic integrity aside, the real issue facing a small or medium guitar builder with a global reputation is now copyright.  After the Gibson Vs PRS Singlecut debacle in 2004 and with Fender now attempting to copyright the body shapes of the Strat,Tele, P & Jazz basses. It’s only a matter of time before either lawsuits start to fly, or licensing agreements have to be negotiated.

Anderson are famous for Strat & T type body shapes, but now have their own design in the Atom and have recently designed their own neck/body join.

But with PRS now firmly establishd as a ‘big’ guitar company with a cheaper offshore guitar range and ErnieBall/MusicMan are rumoured to be replacing the discontinued SUB range in favour of a Korean made midrange line to compliment the OLP range of budget instruments. It looks like the only way to carry on making guitars is to cater for a wider market.

Its interesting to think that Mr Anderson has looked at these bigger companies and seen what the future will bring, and he’s not happy about it. Grow into a global player and expand to the point that your slapping your brandname on a guitar made by people who make them for all the other ‘big’ brands….then theres marketing and focus groups, PRS’ marketing dept know how many artists on VH-1 use their guitars by percentage?….. Mr Anderson has decided that this is not for him and chosen to walk away.

Whatever happens next, his legacy is 12,000 instruments built in the last 20 years and a reputation second to none. It’s worth noting that Anderson’s total annual production is only 25% more guitars than Fenders ‘Custom Shop’ makes in a month!

Expect used Anderson secondhand values to go through the roof. But my final thought is this… one has to wonder if the continuing globalisation of the guitar industry continues at the current pace, how much choice in new instruments will we actually have?

Fender Esprit

I was wandering around Denmark Street the other week when I spotted this Guitar in the Window of Music Ground. Its a Fender Esprit, built in Japan by Fujigen Gakki (Builders of Ibanez guitars) & only made for around a year in 1983-4. It’s on offer for £1400

Back in 1983 and prior to Fender’s Management buyout. Fender’s Dan Smith who was also responsible for the Squier range and Fenders own US Vintage reissues had come up with the idea of a guitar with routed tonal chambers within the guitars body. At the same time Fender were looking to make a range of guitars that could compete with Gibson in terms of their contstruction. St necks, 24.75″ scale lengths etc.

The Fender Master series were the result of Smiths designs. The above guitar is a larger bodied Esprit, designed to compete with the Gibson ES-335, the other guitar known as the Flame had a smaller body, was an attempt to compete with the Les Paul & looks remarkably similar to an Ibanez Artist.

Both guitars have symetrically cutaway tonally carved alder bodies and maple tops, with 1 peice mahogany necks. The humbucking pickups were by Schaller.

The third guitar in the master series was an archtop Jazzer designed by James D’Aquisto.

The range was to come in 3 models, Standard, Elite & Ultra

At the time Fender was in the process of being sold by CBS and ultimately the line was dropped after only a year.

I remember these guitars being sold off on the cheap by music stores as a clearance item in 1987. My brother bought a Flame Standard for £250. Much later on I met an ex Aerosmith Roadie who had bought an Esprit Elite for £300 at around the same time. From all I can see the main differences in spec was pearl inlays and on the Elite, Pearloid buttoned tuning machines. The standard had chrome hardware & standard dot inlays.

The Esprit did resurface as the Robben Ford signature model in the 90′s and the guitars have had a cult following on Ebay since then.

I bought my brothers Flame in 1999 and sold it on for twice the price in 2003. While they are great guitars, the Flame is never likely to take on a Les Paul. Its alder body and bridge pickup sound thin in comparison to the mahogany thickness of a Les Paul’s tone. Although the neck pickup is great for blues. I can see why Robben Ford used them.

However the biggest suprise of the Flame/Esprit is it’s middle positions, by using the guitars retro fitted coil taps it was possible to coax a Rickenbacker style jangle that would make Peter Buck proud.

Flame/Esprit’s are still out there and prices are not too silly yet. If you want an interesting guitar thats a bit different and has a bit of a story behind it. You can’t go far wrong.

In addition Fender have redesigned the guitar and its now part of the Squier Master Series