Hands-On Review:Gibson Les Paul Classic Custom and Les Paul Classic Antique
Time-honored elegance and tone
By Daniel Vincennes
Classic is one of those words most of us are comfortable using. We have an intuitive grasp of what classic means because we have so many examples around us: classic rock, classic Coke, the Classic Peanuts comic strip, to name three that quickly come to mind. One dictionary I consulted defines classic as: 1) judged over period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind, and 2) simple, elegant style, not greatly subject to changes in fashion. That brings us to the Gibson Les Paul Classic Custom and the Les Paul Classic Antique—even though, in a sense, they are new guitars, they are definitely worthy of the designation "classic."
Birth of a classic
Gibson first introduced the Les Paul Classic in 1990 to respond to customer demand for a Les Paul that had many classic (remember: test of time, quality, style) features, such as the 1960s slim-taper neck and a faded finish. The guitar also came with updated features such as its powerful new humbuckers. The Musician’s Friend Les Paul Buyer’s Guide calls the Les Paul Classic the "hot rod" of the Gibson Les Paul guitars. That’s because it sports the 496R and 500T ceramic ring magnet humbuckers from what Gibson calls its Modern line of pickups. With the increased output and more high frequencies, these babies do indeed make the Classic the hottest Les Paul going. Since 1990, a number of variations to the Les Paul Classic have been introduced such as the Classic Premium Plus, which sported an extremely figured top as opposed to the plain top of the Classic.
Three Black Beauties
With the addition of the Les Paul Classic Custom, Gibson offers Black Beauty lovers a selection of three beautiful, stunning and glamorous Customs (notice I didn’t say good, better, best). At the top of the line is the 1957 Custom Black Beauty. This VOS or Vintage Original Spec guitar faithfully reproduces the features and appointments of the 1957 original including the "Patent Applied For" sound of the Burstbucker pickups. In the middle of the lineup is the Les Paul Custom, also produced by the Gibson Custom Shop. Not as historically accurate as the ’57 Custom, the Custom still has the distinctive Black Beauty styling with ebony finish and gold hardware. The pickups are 490R with Alnico 2 magnets and the 498T with Alnico 5 magnets, which put out the traditional humbucker tone with some added highs. And that brings us to the new Les Paul Classic Custom. It has the gold hardware, ebony finish, and binding of the other two Customs, but here’s the real headline: it is a production guitar from Gibson USA which means it retains the look of a Black Beauty while being more affordable. For the Classic Custom, the pickup selection has been toned down only slightly from the very hot 496R/500T combo. The ’57 Classic pickup produces warm tones from the balanced winding of its coils, and the ’57 Classic Plus pickup, despite being toned down somewhat, is still hotter than the Burstbuckers in the ’57.
The Les Paul Classic Antique has the same 1960s slim-taper neck and ’57 Classic humbuckers as the Classic Custom but is styled differently. The AA figured maple top ensures that each guitar will have its own distinctive figure—no two will look exactly the same. No ebony here, but the Les Paul Classic Antique is available in a variety of popular and beautiful colors. The Classic Antique’s body and rosewood fingerboard have antique binding, which means it has the gently aged look of a fine antique.
Running neck and neck
Possibly a subject for friendly debate is whether the rounded ’50s neck of the original Les Paul guitars is a classic feature. For many players, the slim-taper neck from the 1960s is the true classic neck—mostly because they find it easier to play. As always, it’s a matter of preference, and it is good to have choices. My Les Paul Standard from 2003 features a rounded neck, and I’ve never found it to be a hindrance to my playing, but after getting hold of the neck of one of these new Classics, I’m pleased—no, make that thrilled—at just how smoothly my hand moves from the low end to the upper register when playing jazzy 9th and 7th chords for a Little Walter-style shuffle. And because of less strain on my wrist, I am playing extended slide guitar workouts with more power and accuracy.
Clap-tone, Greeny-tone, Taylor-tone
A highly sought-after feature from the Les Pauls of the late 1950s is the "Patent Applied For" pickup. No matter what amp I run the signal through—a Class A tube amp, an AB tube powerhouse, or a transistor/tube hybrid amp—the tones from both Classics are full and rounded with plenty of sweetness for a great clean jazzy tone. When cranked up with some hefty tube overdrive, the ’57 Classic coils unleash the fat tones and singing sustain that take you back to 1960s London when Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor took turns powering John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with that Les Paul "Patent Applied For" tone.
Les Paul Classic Custom