Hands-On Review:Studio and Studio Plus, Gary Moore Signature and Custom electric guitars.
by Tom Beaujour
In the topsy-turvy world of rock and roll, it often seems as if rapid change is the only constant. Bands come, bands go; guitar heroes are born, guitar heroes are forgotten. And so it is with signature model guitars. Most are fleeting, fanciful designs that only survive as long as the careers of the players whose names they have adopted. (Anyone remember Peavey’s Adrian Vandenberg model?)
There is, however, one signature model that has outlived the popularity of its namesake to become a ubiquitous fixture in rock and roll: the Gibson Les Paul. At the time of its introduction in 1952, this instrument was designed to compete aggressively in the new electric solidbody market that the Fender Telecaster had established a few years earlier. The good people at Gibson felt that attaching the name of Les Paul—a hip, innovative axslinger who was riding the crest of hits like “Mockin’ Bird Hill” and “How High the Moon”—would help build product awareness. The rest is history. Les Paul, still alive and producing, no longer tops the charts, but the guitar that bears his name has been one of the main acts in rock or nearly four decades.
Disregarding a few ill-advised design changes in the Seventies, the core specifications of the Les Paul have remained remarkably constant since the guitar’s inception, even as Gibson creates new variations of the guitar to fit different tastes and budgets. The five Les Pauls featured here have much in common: mahogany bodies, mahogany 24-3/4–inch scale necks, rosewood fingerboards (except where indicated), Tune-O-Matic bridges with stop tail pieces, Gibson 490R and 498T humbucking pickups, two Volume and two Tone controls and a three-way pickup selector switch located on the top bout of the guitar. Despite these similarities, these five instruments have totally different auras and vibes. Perhaps one of them matches your own particular energy flow.
Les Paul Standard Plus
For players who simply can’t imagine playing a Les Paul without a striking flame top but can’t stomach the astronomical prices Gibson commands for its Custom Shop Historic vintage reissues, the new Les Paul Standard might be the instrument they’ve been waiting for. Featuring the same appointments as a run-of-the mill Les Paul Standard, the Plus ups the ante with a AA maple top that doesn’t boast the wild flame “action” of Gibson’s most prestigious models but which nonetheless adds a perfect touch of vintage vibe to the instrument. The review guitar Gibson sent us had a strong quilt top that left little to be desired, even if the instrument’s Tobacco Sunburst finish had a slightly indelicate mid-Seventies vibe that seems rather ill advised.
Unlike its attractive exterior—which features single-ply binding on the neck and top of the body, and chrome hardware—the Standard Plus is all business. The hot, Alnico magnet–equipped 490R neck pickup and 498T bridge pickup roar with authority, and the Grover tuners allow the guitar to withstand most vicious string-bending workouts without flinching. And while no one seems to be able to reach a consensus regarding the tonal differences between flamed and plain maple tops, this instrument exhibited a slightly more active and vibrant top end and more focussed midrange bite than the nonflamed mid-Nineties Les Paul Standard we compared it to.
Les Paul Studio & Les Paul Studio Plus
While some cynics write off the Les Paul Studio line as fit only for paupers and beginners, more enlightened players recognize that these are powerful, dependable workhorse guitars that capture the Les Paul look, sound and feel without breaking the bank. Players who feel uneasy playing a guitar with all of the refined accoutrements of a full-blown Les Paul may even feel more comfortable with the Studio’s no-frills design. After all, while it forgoes binding on the neck and body, the Studio retains virtually all of the vital characteristics of the classic Les Paul design, including the carved maple top, mahogany body and neck, rosewood fingerboard and trademark trapezoid inlays.
Gibson sent two Studios for review, and while both boasted the same brash grind that has made the Les Paul so indispensable to rock and rollers the world over, the guitars could not have had more wildly divergent vibes. The Studio was finished in Gibson’s new Blue Teal Flip Flop finish, which uses a paint formula developed in conjunction with BASF to create a madly morphing hue that shifts through the spectrum of blues and greens as light hits it. The effect, to Gibson’s credit, is relatively subtle, and as such promises not to lose its novel charm as quickly as many of the more outlandish and garish sparkling and holographic finishes that are currently available from other guitar manufacturers.
The second Les Paul Studio sent for our perusal was actually a Studio Plus. This more upscale model adds an AA flame maple top and gold hardware to the equation. The symmetrical flamed tiger striping of this instrument (finished in a woody Desert Burst) was superb, and one wouldn’t have been surprised to see this top on a guitar with a much steeper list price. With flame like that, who needs binding anyway?
Gary Moore Signature Les Paul
Gary Moore may not be a household name in America, but in his native England and Europe the former Thin Lizzy guitarist is worshipped for his masterful fusion of hard rock wizardry and down-on-the-plantation blues boogie. A lifelong Les Paul player like Moore is not an easy man to please, but it’s easy to see how a guitarist of his stature would be happy to put his moniker on such an instrument.
The Gary Moore Signature is essentially a supercharged Les Paul Studio with a perfectly bookmatched AA flamed maple top and a handsome Lemon Burst finish. This model features two new Gibson Burst-Bucker pickups, which replicate the irregular coil-wrapping of vintage PAF pickups to create an open sound that boasts more top end “air” and detail that the hotter units installed in today’s standard-production model Pauls. Clean tones have more spank and spunk, and distorted sounds have a gritty P-90 style growl and bite that will thrill classic rock and blues fans.
Les Paul Custom
The Cadillac of the Les Paul line, the Custom features a dark, rich ebony fingerboard with pearl block inlays, a five-piece diamond pearl inlay on the headstock, multi-ply binding on the headstock and body and single-ply binding around the fingerboard. In keeping with its opulent aesthetic, the Custom also boasts gold hardware and pickup covers.
Does all of this ornamentation affect the sound and playability of the guitar? Certainly. The high density of the ebony fingerboard creates a smoother, faster playing surface than the rosewood on the other Les Pauls reviewed here. And while guitar geeks debate this point endlessly, it is my humble opinion that the hardness of the fingerboard wood adds “zing” to chords and a more percussive attack to single-note lines. The binding on the back of the body, while attractive, creates a much sharper body contour. If you’ve got a big gut, watch out—the corners on this ax will poke and prod you mercilessly. If, however, you play this guitar down at your knees (as it should be played), it won’t be the guitar’s appointments that will drive you to distraction, it’ll be the horde of chicks chasing you after the show.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If it’s a Les Paul with a vintage vibe you’re after, the Les Paul Standard Plus delivers, with a classic sound and the good looks associated with a Gibson Custom Shop model. For players on a budget who want a solid workhorse, the Les Paul Studio and Studio Plus have the sound and feel of their high-priced brethren and the good looks that make these Studios fit for the stage. Players of classic rock and blues will appreciate the airy and detailed clean tones of the Gary Moore Signature Les Paul. Those for whom nothing but the best will suffice will want the Les Paul Custom, a beautifully appointed and fast-playing ax that represent the best that these new Pauls have to offer.