Hands-On Review:Obsessive accuracy, brilliant detail, stunning beauty
By Phil Montoya
Gibson's 2003 Custom Shop Les Paul reissues reach new levels of compulsive attention to historical detail and striving for utmost quality. True aficionados will fall in love when they dig deeper and deeper, scrutinize with larger and larger magnifiers and still discover no discrepancies on the '57 Goldtop, '58 Plain Top, and '59 Figured Top Reissued Les Pauls as compared to the vaunted originals.
Ultimate guitar nerd in charge
To your average vintage Gibson fanatic in the street, Edwin Wilson is something of a demigod. He's been with Gibson 17 years and has been in charge of the Gibson Historic Collection for 8 years. Arguably, this man knows more about vintage Les Pauls than any other human.
This year Wilson has pulled out all the stops and plunged deeper than ever into the magic years of the late '50s. Under his relentless driving, Gibson has forked out over a million bucks to go the last mile and reestablish whole manufacturing techniques that have been dead since the '70s. The end result is a crop of reissues that are identical to the originals in every tiny detail.
Long neck tenon
The first Les Pauls featured a neck tenon that extended beyond the fretboard all the way into the cavity of the front pickup. This put a whole lot more of the neck in contact with the body, which of course produced much of the phenomenal resonance of the late '50s guitars. I could feel that resonance distinctly in the '57, '58, and '59 Reissues I played.
Bumble bee capacitors
An electric guitar's tone knob bleeds signal through the capacitor (cap), which sucks out higher frequencies. So the nature of the cap is critical to the final tone. In later, cheaper capacitors, paper is used, which can dry out and become less effective and inconsistent. Gibson painstakingly re-created the original manufacturing setup to reproduce the original foil-in-Bakelite caps used in the late '50s LPs. They produce the precise tonality and response of the original Les Pauls. And they even have the original bands around them, hence the name "bumble bee."
Gibson's been remanufacturing the original '57 Classic humbuckers for the past few years using the exact same equipment, magnets, and techniques developed for the original PAF (Patent Applied For) pickups. The one thing they had added was a more-accurate digital winding counter, which produced an exact number of windings on each coil. But the actual late '50s PAFs had inexact matches between the number windings on each coil. Those with golden ears could hear the difference between the perfect copies and the imperfect originals. So this year Gibson deliberately put fewer windings on one coil, resulting in the precise transparent, vibrant character of the first PAFs.
Though it's been around for a couple of years, this is one of the best advances in the Custom Shop's reissues. The strings between the bridge and tailpiece reverberate with all kinds of cool harmonics, but your typical modern Z-Mack tailpiece absorbs those high-frequency vibrations. The aluminum version-2-1/2 oz. lighter-rings with them. It transfers these overtones to the wood and back through the strings to the pickups. It may seem like a small point, but I can definitely hear the difference.
Thanks to the global and unrelenting push for cheapness, pots in recent years have all relied on a thin foil layer on fiberboard for conductance. After considerable negotiation and much ado, Gibson's original pot makers, CTS (ne' CentraLab), tooled up to produce the much higher-quality pots they were building in the early '60s. Rather than foil, these pots feature a solid carbon disk for conductance and much more aggressive contacts. Hence, they are far smoother, more consistent, and longer-lasting than their latter-day counterparts. This change was immediately apparent on the guitars I played, especially on the tone pots, which had a continuous curve and no shelving.
True vintage guitar fanatics have noticed that the jack plates and toggle switch washers on Gibson's later guitars are not the same thin plastic as the late '50s models. Gibson has addressed that oversight with precision-machined, petroleum-based flexible plastic that fits the curve of the instrument better and looks great. As on the originals, the "Treble" and "Rhythm" on the toggle switch washer are silkscreened on rather than heat stamped in, as in later models. The hole positions for the tuning pegs have been returned to their original "V" formation. Even the tuning peg bushings have been changed to feature the little knurl on top as on the original Kluson machine heads. For the 2003 reissues, Gibson has even dropped the AAA flamed top in favor of a AA top, which is visually closer to the wood used on the originals. The coolest thing about that is it actually helps keep the price down.
A perfect package
The overall effect of all these subtle changes is unbelievable accuracy, in appearance and especially tone. I'd put any of these guitars up against the originals any day for playability, sound quality, and general feel.
The finishes were all gorgeous, the fretboards sweet and silky, and the setups superb. The balance was excellent on each of these guitars, and I found no manufacturing flaws whatsoever. Gibson has really outdone themselves this time around. If there's any way to make these guitars closer to the originals, I can't imagine what it might be.
|1957 Les Paul Goldtop||1958 Les Paul Standard Plain Top|
1959 Les Paul Standard Figured Top