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What Made Lester’s Guitar Design Such a Classic?

Rik Emmett

Why do I prefer a Gibson Les Paul?

I prefer the aesthetics of Gibson, and their ergonomics.

Aesthetics are found in things like the body shape and size and contours: the fretboard bindings, fretboard inlays, the tulip pegs. The Gibson vibe is classy, and elegant. I’ll come back to this later.

Mostly, it's a “feel” thing, and I love the way a Les Paul feels. When I get the strap length just right, I love how it hangs on my shoulder, and how it presents itself to my hands. I love how the string plane is up off the face of the guitar — makes it easier for me to dig in. And my right hand can rest on the perfect height of that tune-o-matic bridge, with the strings falling away towards the tailpiece, or curl my picking hand down around the bottom of the string plane, without a volume knob getting in the way. (Not great technique, I know, but I’m a leftie playing right-handed, so something had to give, and it’s my picking style, known as West Toronto Brutal Make-Do.) I always remove Gibson pickguards, and prefer having that open space below the first string, and I prefer that lovely gap between the neck and bridge pickups.

A Gibson Les Paul has the vibe of an old-fashioned arched top, 17-degree angled headstock, and four-degree neck-body angle. The guitar wraps around me: it's sexier, and a Les Paul is the right size for a 5’ 8” dude like me.

The 24 ¾” scale length makes bending easier, and also makes it easier for grabbing wider voicings/fingerings, plus things like thumb-wrapping-over-the-top voicings. (The slim taper ’60s neck helps with that, too.) Gibson frets, traditionally, were usually higher and wider. I also prefer having 22 frets instead of less. I do prefer the '60s slim-taper necks of Gibson. For my hands, that neck profile just feels soooo good: if the guitar is set up right, it plays like butter.

The chambered body of my Les Paul Classic reissue is a big plus for me: it’s not just a case of reduced weight (although that was a big concern for a middle-aged guy who spent too many years lugging doublenecks around on big stages and doing a lot of headbanging and mane-waving). Even the tone of the chambered body appeals to me: it starts to head towards a 335. The notes get a bit more “thunk” or “pop” to the front end of them, as opposed to the very even and smooth sustain from a full mahogany body.

Let’s not forget tone. While other designs and makes may have plenty of cut, I find that Gibson punches, and is fatter and creamier. The shorter scale length is more conducive to darker, creamier tones, too. To my tastes, a Gibson has a better “pure” tone, unadulterated through a clean amp — which is probably why jazz players usually tend towards a Gibson-style guitar. A Gibson Les Paul’s powerful humbucking double-coil pickups can give you that range of old jazz tones, but can also go all the way up through the warmth and brighter punch of Clapton “Bluesbreaker” Cream-era rock sound (well – chasin’ Freddy King tone, right?) — and how about Allman Brothers, early Santana, early Lukather Toto, Gary Moore, Jimmy Page, and even Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow tones? Robben Ford has been using one of Larry Carlton's old Goldtops for the last few years, and it sounds killer. Nowadays, Warren Haynes and Joe Bonamassa are doing great things with Pauls. That’s more than enough company to convince me.

But — having said all that — it's important to note that Les Paul invented the guitar because he wanted clean, bright, snappy, sustaining tone: the solid body guitar was designed originally to compete with the country snap and twang of Leo Fender’s bright ideas — and a Les Paul can give a satisfying amount of that clean country/jazz tone, too. But it becomes a game of what amp settings one employs, and what pedals and amounts of overdrive one uses. That game is infinite. So I prefer to try and get back to basics — what can my hands create on a straightforward amp setting? What guitar lends itself to that approach?

One of the huge reasons to love a Les Paul is sustain – no matter what, a Les Paul has what I would describe as an authoritative voice. Play it unplugged, and try notes all over the neck, playing it hard and soft, to see how it responds to dynamics, and you'll realize that a well set-up Les Paul has a kind of sustain and ring to it that other guitars just don't have. My Les Paul passes the blindfold touchy-feely-listening sessions. Check out guitars in this most basic way: play a note in first position, play it again up in the middle of the neck, play it again way up the neck — the guitar just has a good “voice” to it, no loss in output, or sustain, but with changes in color. Plugging it in will only enhance that, usually.

Finally — vibe. The intangible. This goes back to the aesthetics I mentioned earlier. I just feel right when I’m wearing my Les Paul, so it inspires cool things (the same thing I get from wearing a good suit and an expensive shirt — or a totally comfortable, relaxed ensemble — but mostly, the right shoes with the right outfit!).

Sometimes I can get that extraordinary feeling, playing a passage, and it just seems like it came from somewhere else ... like the notes are just channeling through me and the instrument. That's vibe ... it's that you have the right guitar in your hands at that moment. For me, the odds increase when I have a Les Paul in my hands. We are always in pursuit of an elusive quality: but I think we end up choosing a guitar because it suits our personality and character. I never got the chance to meet Lester, but like thousands of others, I think we share something special.

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