Oh sweet, sweet Les Paul! I think most people feel butterflies in their stomach they hear a screaming Les Paul. Anyway, lets get straight to the article...
As always, I´ll begin the article by telling a bit about the guitar's origins. Back in 1954, what we now know as the Telecaster was the most popular guitar in the market. This proved that solid body guitars could provided sellers with a great way of increasing sales. Gibson began to pursue a design that could beat Fender´s Broadcaster, so that they could continue to compete in the market. But where was the guitar? They searched for designers the country over until someone recalled of a man named Les Paul, who had shown them a composition guitar a couple years ago. The people at Gibson turned down the initial model scrutinizing it as a broomstick with pickups. Ha Ha! Can you believe that? Well, soon after that they started building their first solid body guitar. History paints two versions of the story according to what you want to believe:
One of them says that Gibson hired Les Paul to help them with the concept design and when he had finished, he was later called to thank him for his work. The second story says that Gibson had already finished the guitar and had decided to call it the Les Paul to put a big name behind their new design. In 1954, Les Paul was a well known guitarist, similar to how Joe Satriani is known nowadays, so you can imagine that when the guitars came to stores, everyone would want one (Hey, right now I still want to buy Steve Vai´s guitar, so why wouldn't your grandfather want to buy a Les Paul?). Anyway, the Les Paul "Goldtop" was born, it had a sparkling gold top with P90 pickups. Well, if you want to read more in depth about it, I recommend this website. This is where I got the information for the History.
How am I suppose to describe one of the most beautiful guitars ever made? It's such a pretty looking guitar, I don't know... The Les Paul has the shape similar to a traditional acoustic guitar but it has a thick solid wood body with one cutaway, a quilted or flame top with bindings and a pickguard (it is close to an SG "Solid Guitar" style guitar). The neck has more or less the same feel as a SG, they're usually made from the same woods (Mahagony body and Maple necks) too, although its soundwell that's not as similar.
A difference between a Les Paul and SG, is the location of the pickup selector (I think over frets 17 or 19 on a LP). It may be harder to reach in the middle of a song but it provides much more security. On SGs, it's below the tone and volume controls. When I played an Sg, I used to switch pickups by mistake with my right hand. As well as in SGs, the Les Paul has two humbucking pickups, sometimes covered by a plate for a sound that is brighter.
The bridge is tune-o-matic (attached directly to the body), it is almost the same as the SGs. It has no whammy bar (which some argue can kill sustain), although some guitarist have added one such as Mark Tremonti.
The body may be made of many different woods but what makes Les Pauls bodies different from others guitars is that it is heavier (Les Pauls tend to be some of the heaviest guitars), which ads to sustain and a graver bass. Perfect for that fat sound.
Almost every Les Paul has the same hardware: 2 volume pots, 2 tone controls and 2 humbucking pickup and a switch providing 3 different combinations:
Position 1: Switch turned downwards (looking at the floor), the Bridge Pickup. This generates a crunchy sound, mostly used for leads, in Reggae and Ska they use this for cleans (it's used in Guns N Roses´s "Paradise City" intro).
Position 2: Middle Position (both pickups active), this position provides a sound not too bright nor too grave, perfect for balanced tone.
Position 3: Switch turned upwards (up towards you), here is, in my opinion, the magic of this guitar. It switches to the neck´s pickup so that the sound you get is really grave. Turn the tone control to 0, and ABRAKADABRA! You get the well known woman tone a favorite of Eric Clapton and Slash. When you do this, your sound becomes really fat so it´s perfect for the "sad" sounding solos, like the one in Don't Cry. You also get a lot of sustain too.
The neck is medium thickness but just remember that it´s not as thin as the ones in "Superstrats" and Stratocasters, so it may be more difficult to play "fast". I'm not saying it is impossible, just listen to Jimmy Page or Zack Wylde.
What more can I say? Er...umm, it's very expensive shit, no seriously, a good Les Paul (in my opinion Gibson's are the best) can cost $3000 (You can of course buy a used LP for much cheaper or a LP copy). So start saving money now if you want one of these! Alright, so you might be thinking Yeah, yeah it is a good-looking guitar but why is it soooo loved by the expert musicians? I´ll tell you why... First of all, it has a characteristic to its sound that can't really be found in any other guitar. Although you can get a really customized "Superstrat", which will achieve a similar tone.
Second, it is a really soft guitar. What do I mean by soft? When bending notes with a guitar that has any kind of mobile bridge (standard tremolo, floyd rose) you are fighting with both the strings tension and the bridge´s force to keep strings in the same place. Also when bending a note with a solid bridge, you only fight against the strings force to stay there, so you can get to higher notes with less effort in my opinion.
Third, despite having two humbucking pickups, it can get a wonderful clean tone (Bob Marley used an LP), and at the same time a really nice overdriven sound.
Fourth, a "tune-o-matic solid bridge" is almost synonymus with "always in tune". You won't have problems tuning in the middle of a gig, of course you´ll have to act as a gentleman to enjoy this advantage.
Fifth, it is a versatile guitar, you can play rock to heavy metal and reggae to pop etc.
As I said before, this is a guitar that sounds at least proper in most situations but there are a few situation which this guitar really upstands the other types in my opinion:
With lots of distortion/overdrive.
At the moment of playing slow and romantic solos.
At the moment of playing a middle/high speed solos.
When looking for a rather grave sound that won't make your windows shake.
As well as advantages, there are also disadvantages. For example; if you want to play as fast as Jason Becker or Michael Romeo, you may want to try a "Superstrat" or a Stratocaster for a faster neck. What I mean by this is, If you want to shred, buy a Superstrat. Someone wrote this in an article I published before.
Okay I think that's enough for now, thank you very much for reading the article and I hope it was useful. The next one (and last) will be about Superstrats so if you are an Ibanez, Jackson, BC Rich and Ernie Ball etc fan, stay tuned!